Intention, Implicature, & Firing Squads: A Fable

Imagine the following scene:

In the early hours of the morning a colonel in an un-named–and ultimately unimportant–military organization stands near a line of soldiers with guns drawn and aimed at another group of soldiers who are blindfolded and standing in front of a bullet riddled wall.  To the right–or left–of the scene, barracks hold the rest of the sleeping regiment.  At just the moment when convention would dictate that the order should be given by the colonel for the firing squad to discharge their weapons into the bodies of their erstwhile compatriots, all of the assembled men–not wearing blindfolds–notice that the smoke is pouring from the barracks and flame can be seen licking the edges of a window.  The colonel yells at the top of his lungs: “Fire!”

Welcome to Maphmatically Yours, a place that frequently suffers from a short attention span.  Today’s post will be taking a break from the Thesis Adviser Selection Survival Guide to dig into some issues that form the intersection of two of my current projects: a class in logical semantics called Meaning and Reference and topic of my thesis.  The thought experiment above is an attempt to get at the question of how the interpretation of texts (typewritten, graphical, musical, etc.) is–or ought to be–different from the way that utterances are interpreted.  I hope to keep the tone of this post as accessible and jargon free as possible given the nature of the discussion, but also intend it to be another exemplar of the sort of work that MAPH student’s do during their time in the program. So, without further ado… “Fire!”

In the preceding thought experiment it is not implausible to imagine the next few seconds as being filled with a certain amount of anxiety both for the soldiers in the firing squad and for the colonel.  Confronted with the exclamation “Fire!” the men might equally fire their weapons into the condemned men standing by the wall or rush to gather buckets and water to save their imperiled brothers-in-arms.  That is to say, the statement is ambiguous–having two perfectly plausible meanings.

However, that there is also some ambiguity regarding the subject of the sentence: taken as an order to fire their weapons, the ejaculation only applies to the soldiers in the firing squad, but taken as an order to form a bucket brigade, the exclamation might apply to all the soldiers within earshot–including the condemned soldiers.  So, to keep things tidy, “Fire!” could plausibly mean:

Fire your weapons (soldiers in firing squad)

Form a bucket brigade (soldiers in firing squad)

Form a bucket brigade (all soldiers)

One might argue that the reason for this divergence of possible meanings rests largely with the fact that “Fire!” is not actually a sentence–a subject and something predicated of it–but is actually either an exclamation or a command.  However, even by allowing that the sentence might have an implied subject and so state a proposition like “[Soldiers] fire [do something]!”–or in the language of first order logic: Fire your weapons (soldiers) or Form a bucket brigade (soldiers)–there is still a problem of conversational implicature.

Conversational implicature is a theory that explains what is going on in the ordinary language conversation below:

Person A: “Did you get the job?”

Person B: “The recruiter believed that only men could be trusted with state secrets.”

From these two lines we can infer that the person did not get the job and that the person being asked about the job is a women.  How is this possible when the answer given by person B does no state any of this information?  Grice argued in his very influential paper “Logic and Conversation” that people in conversation act in accord with a set of conversational rules that ease linguistic communication as a “cooperative principle.”

Cooperative Principle.  Contribute what is required by the accepted purpose of the conversation.– Maxim of Quality. Make your contribution true; so do not convey what you believe false or unjustified.

– Maxim of Quantity. Be as informative as required.

– Maxim of Relation. Be relevant.

– Maxim of Manner. Be perspicuous; so avoid obscurity and ambiguity, and strive for brevity and order.

By reverse engineering the conversation above we can explain that the Maxim of Relation and Quantity argue that person B did intend to answer person A’s question with their response, so if their response was both related required, then the only way that it can be so is if person B’s answer conveys a justification or supplies information address the question of why they did or did not get the job.  If person B were a man then they would have received the job and so felt no need to supply non-relevant information.  Thus, it can be inferred–assuming that both participants followed the Cooperative Principle with all its maxims–then it can be inferred that person B did not get the job because she is a woman.

However, while we can infer much of the information we need to understand that everyday conversation from these maxims, doing so is an exercise in conversational implicature.  So, does Grice’s cooperative principle shed any light on the colonel’s exclamation?  Well, in the strictest sense, no.  While the Colonel’s further instructions or linguistic response might do much to allow us to grasp his meaning, we don’t have them in the story–yet, the Colonel fully intends his orders to be carried out–and there is no linguistic reason–beyond ambiguity–that would prevent the soldiers from doing so–although he obviously violated the maxim of manner in the heat of the moment.  If you or I were in this situation and desperately seeking a solution to the Colonel’s verbal ambiguity, we might well inquire as to what the Colonel intended to say–since what he actually did say is ambiguous.

However, there is a well-respected school of textual interpretation–indeed, the dominant school of textual interpretation–that argues–in parallel cases–that what the Colonel intended to say is irrelevant to the proper meaning or interpretation of his speech.  That is to say, many proponents of the death of the author or anti-intentionalist interpretations would argue that the intentions of the author with regard to a text are irrelevant to a text’s proper interpretation.  However, such an argument would never fly in the court-martial case of a soldier who acted against the orders of his colonel.  In actual, ordinary conversation the meaning of any particular utterance is nothing less than the intentions of its speaker–why do we demand less in the cause of the meaning of a text?

So, many more caveats, distinctions, and further clarifications could be made with regard to just what I intend this little thought experiment to communicate, but I’ll leave those to the side for now–unless they come up in response to comments.  What do you think?


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