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.”

pink glassesThe Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe argued, essentially, that the human capacities for reason and self-awareness break with nature, giving us more than we, as a part of nature, can carry. So as not to go mad, ‘most people learn to save themselves by artificially limiting the content of consciousness.’

People not only limit the content of consciousness, but also fill it with less than the truth. In particular, most people think more highly of themselves than is warranted: they have an inflated sense of their qualities and abilities, an illusion of control over things that are mostly beyond them, and a misplaced optimism about their outcomes and prospects.

For example, most people claim to compare favourably to the average road user, citizen, parent… which is, of course, mathematically impossible, since not everyone can be above average. A couple on the verge of tying the knot is likely to overestimate the odds of having a carefree honeymoon or a gifted child, while underestimating the odds of having a miscarriage, falling ill, or getting divorced.

The concept of positive illusions first appeared in 1988, in a paper by Shelley Taylor and Jonathon Brown entitled, Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health. Still today, it is commonly believed that mental health corresponds to accurate perceptions of the self, the other, and the world, but in their paper Taylor and Brown argued that the evidence suggests otherwise, and that positive illusions are characteristic of normal human thought.

Positive illusions are helpful in so far as they enable us to take risks, invest in the future, and fend off despair and depression. After all, how many people would get married if they had any real sense of what awaited them? But in the longer term, the poor perspective and judgement that come from undue self-regard and false hope are likely to lead to disappointment and failure, to say nothing of the inhibitions and emotional disturbances (such as anger, anxiety, and so on) that can derive or descend from a defended position.

Positive illusions tend to be more common, and more marked, in the West. In East Asian cultures, for example, people are less vested in themselves and more vested in their community and society, and tend, if anything, to self-effacement rather than self-enhancement.

Positive illusions are also more prevalent in unskilled people, possibly because highly skilled people tend to assume, albeit falsely, that those around them enjoy similar levels of insight and competence. This Dunning-Kruger effect, as it has been called, is neatly encapsulated in a short fragment from the introduction to Darwin’s Descent of Man: ‘…ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge…’ And, of course, it may also be that, compared to highly skilled people, unskilled people are more reliant on positive illusions for their self-esteem and broader mental health.

Depressive realism

Just as it is commonly believed that mental health corresponds to accurate perceptions of the self, the other, and the world, so it is commonly believed that depression results in, or results from, distorted thinking.

‘Cognitive distortion’ is a concept from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), developed by psychiatrist Aaron Beck in the 1960s and routinely used in the treatment of depression and other mental disorders. Cognitive distortion involves interpreting events and situations so that they conform to and reinforce our outlook or frame of mind, typically on the basis of very scant or partial evidence, or even no evidence at all.

Common cognitive distortions in depression include selective abstraction, personalization, and catastrophic thinking:

  • Selective abstraction is to focus on a single negative event or condition to the exclusion of other, more positive ones, for example, ‘My partner didn’t call me yesterday. He must hate me.’
  • Personalization is to relate independent events to oneself, for example, ‘The nurse is leaving her job because she’s fed up with me…’
  • Catastrophic thinking is to exaggerate the negative consequences of an event or situation, for example: ‘The pain in my knee is only going to get worse. When I’m reduced to a wheelchair, I won’t be able to go to work and pay the mortgage. So I’ll end up losing my house and dying in the street.’

However, the scientific literature suggests that, despite their propensity for such cognitive distortions, many people with depressed mood can also have more accurate judgement about the outcome of so-called contingent events (events that may or may not occur) and a more realistic perception of their role, abilities, and limitations—a phenomenon that is sometimes, and controversially, referred to as ‘depressive realism’.

The concept of depressive realism originated in 1979, in a paper entitled Judgment of contingency in depressed and nondepressed students: sadder but wiser? On the basis of their findings, the authors, Lauren Alloy and Lyn Abramson, argued that people with depression make more realistic inferences than ‘normal’ people, who are handicapped by their positive illusions. On the face of it, this suggests that people with depression are able to see the world more clearly for what it is, while normal people are only normal in so far as they are deceiving or deluding themselves.

This is a seductive proposition for someone like me, who has long been arguing that depression can be good for us—for example, in my book, The Meaning of Madness. But here’s the rub: people with depression are pessimistic even in situations in which pessimism is unwarranted, suggesting that, rather than being more realistic, their thinking is merely ‘differently biased’, and just as rigid and distorted as that of normal people with their positive illusions.

Wisdom, it seems, consists in being able to shed our positive illusions without also succumbing to depression, although, for many, depression may be a necessary step along the way.