Conversational inference and human reasoning

Authored by: Denis J. Hilton , Bart Geurts , Peter Sedlmeier

The Routledge International Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning

Print publication date:  November  2017
Online publication date:  November  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138849303
eBook ISBN: 9781315725697
Adobe ISBN:


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Much of the information that we reason about reaches us through a social medium, whether it be a psychology experiment or an informal conversation, a newspaper article, a handbook chapter, or a do-it-yourself diagram about how to assemble furniture. We accordingly have to use our knowledge about the medium of a message in order to interpret what it contains. For example, if a recommendation letter for a candidate for a philosophy job reads: “Dear Sir, Mr. X’s command of English is excellent, and his attendance at tutorials has been regular, Yours, etc.” the recipient of the letter will have to engage in reasoning to understand the speaker’s intended meaning. This is because the literal content of the letter (“what is said”) is manifestly insufficient to understand what he is trying to say. As Grice (1975) suggests, the writer is presumably being co-operative (otherwise, why did he take the trouble to write?) but is flouting certain norms about what a letter of recommendation should contain. A plausible interpretation is that while this particular writer did not want to offend the candidate by refusing to write a letter about him, he did not want to communicate the impression to his colleagues that the candidate is any good at philosophy.

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