Many of our utterances carry much more than their literal meaning.

Suppose I am hosting a dinner party at 7pm. At 4pm, one of my guests texts me, “I’m free from 6pm”. From that, I will understand, “I’m free from 6pm and I’d like to arrive early if that’s OK?”

As the evening progresses, another of the guests says something horribly rude. I respond with, “So, what did you think about the fish?” From this, my guest ought to understand that he has overstepped the mark.

As a writer, I am acutely aware that I am conveying much more than the words on the page. As a psychiatrist, I am acutely aware that my patients are disclosing much more than the face value of their words.

So, how do our words and sentences work so hard?

The British philosopher Paul Grice (d. 1988) attempted to answer this question by his theory of implicature.

Grice distinguished conventional implicatures, inherent in certain words such as “but”, “therefore”, and “indeed”, from conversational implicatures, which arise from a sort of game-playing, and rule-observing, between speakers.

Let me give you an example of each.

If I say, “She was poor but honest”, I am, by the simple use of the word “but”, also conveying or betraying a certain prejudice that poor people are generally dishonest.

A few hours before my dinner party, I bump into a friend while stepping out of a bakery with three loaves under my arm. My friend asks, “How are you?” To which I respond, “My first dinner party tonight!” By which she understands, “I’m excited because tonight I’m throwing a dinner party for the first time since the U.K. coronavirus lockdown.”

With conversational implicatures, our utterances can take on added meanings, or different meanings, according to the situation or context in which they are uttered.

When we speak to our partner in a crowded place, they are able to derive much more meaning from what we have said than the strangers who are also in earshot, in part because they are leaning upon background information that is privy only to the both of us. Our partner is capturing not only our words, but also how they fit in, and work with, push against, or wrap around, the world that we share.

More interesting, I think, is that non-literal meaning can also be created by pushing against certain general and deeply ingrained principles of communication and co-operation. In particular, meaningful conversation can only take place on the assumption that the speakers are, at least on an epistemic level, cooperating with one another.

Grice divided this so-called cooperative principle into four maxims of conversation:

  1. Maxim of quality: That utterances ought to be sincere, justified, and truthful.
  2. Maxim of quantity: That the right amount of information ought to be provided.
  3. Maxim of relevance: That the information provided is in some way pertinent.
  4. Maxim of manner: That the information provided is as clear and unambiguous as possible.

Whenever one or more of these maxims appears to have been flouted, we reflexively assume that the speaker must somehow have observed the maxims and start searching for a likely non-literal meaning.

In other words, implicature arises when the Gricean maxims are flouted, or would have been flouted had it not been for the implicature. Category examples of floutings that, by implicature, are not true floutings include irony (maxim of quality), metaphor (maxim of relevance), and euphemism (maxim of manner).

But, of course, the maxims are not invariably observed. Politicians in particular often flout the maxims, for instance, by answering a different question to the one asked, or providing a much longer answer when a simple “yes” or “no” would have sufficed, or been preferable. In such cases, most of the interviewer’s interjections are, in effect, attempts to return the politician to the maxims.

Conversational implicatures serve a number of important functions such as: increasing the efficiency of communication; making communication more lively, varied, and humorous; and introducing ambiguity or restraint to avoid being ostracized or otherwise penalized for speaking hard truths.

But this slipperiness, this malleability, also gives rise to a number of ethical and legal problems—which is why legal contracts, witness statements, and the like are expected or even required to be as concrete and literal as possible.

More fundamentally, while we can be held responsible for what we say, to what extent can we be held responsible for what we implicate?

Today, many politicians resort to implicature, on Twitter and elsewhere, to get away with saying the unsayable.

In the words of the Persian poet Hafiz, “The words you speak become the house you live in.”

Ataraxia series

In my work as a psychiatrist, I help to treat mental disorder—and, I’m delighted to say, most of the people I see do get better.

But why stop here?

I believe that there is much more to mental health than the mere absence of mental disorder.

Mental health is not just about surviving, but about thriving, about developing and expressing our highest, fullest potential as human beings.

Before Christianity, there were, of course, the pagan gods, Zeus and Jupiter and their ilk. But, especially for the high-minded, there were also a number of philosophical schools, the major ones being cynicism, stoicism, skepticism, and epicureanism. Although each with its own outlook and method, all four schools aimed at the attainment of mental tranquillity and mastery, or ataraxia—making them, in my view, much more similar than different.

Ataraxia [Greek, ‘lack of disturbance or trouble’] is also the guiding principle of this series, with each book, like each philosophy, adopting a distinct but complementary approach to peace of mind: exploring the deep origins of our distress in The Meaning of Madness; guarding against the demons of self-deception in Hide and Seek; refining our emotions in Heaven and Hell; regulating our relations with others in For Better For Worse; and, finally, honing our thinking skills in Hypersanity.

To recap, the five books in the series are:

  1. The Meaning of Madness
  2. Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception
  3. Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions
  4. For Better For Worse: Essays on Sex, Love, Marriage, and More
  5. Hypersanity: Thinking Beyond Thinking

Although the series is numbered, each book can happily stand on its own—meaning that you can read just one or all five, and in whichever order you like.

Ataraxia is closely linked with eudaimonia, which is often translated as ‘happiness’ but which is, in fact, a much deeper, fuller, and richer concept, sometimes articulated in terms of flourishing, or living a life that is worthwhile and fulfilling.

The stakes could not be higher.

[The first book in the series is currently free to download from Amazon.]