Coordinating Meaning: Contractual Promises, Common Knowledge, and Coordination in Speaker Meaning

24 Pages Posted: 15 Mar 2017

Date Written: March 13, 2017


I begin with Contract Law’s objective intent test for interpretation: a person’s words and actions constitute a promise do to something if a reasonable person in the circumstances would interpret them as a promise to do that thing. The test finds promises where, outside the legal context, we would not. What justifies proceeding this way? The answer I offer combines three ideas. The first is a Gricean analysis of speaker meaning. For simplicity, I focus entirely on meaning, not on promising (or other types of speech act), so I fall short of explaining the Objective Intent Test’s attribution of promises, but it is easy to extend the analysis to do so. The second idea concerns coordination. Suppose a speaker S means that p for an audience A. S and A typically seek to coordinate their actions so that A realizes that that S means that p, as I will argue below. I will model this coordination using a well-known game from game theory, the assurance game. The third idea is that common knowledge plays a key role in facilitating coordination. Common knowledge is “the recursive belief state in which A knows X, B knows X, A knows that B knows X, B knows that A knows X, ad infinitum. As Thomas Kyle et al. observe in their seminal study, “The Psychology of Common Knowledge,” “[a]ctors coordinate when they have evidence for common knowledge, and refrain from coordinating when they do not.” In the case of speaker meaning, the relevant, coordination-facilitating common knowledge is the common knowledge between S and A that S means that P.

This approach provides a satisfying perspective on the Objective Intent Test. It does by developing a general model of speaking meaning. That model illuminates pragmatics both inside and outside legal contexts. Pragmatics is a diverse and complex field offering a variety of proposals and approaches, but they exhibit common, recurring themes — among them: coordination, common knowledge, and speaker meaning. I offer the assurance game model as a potentially useful perspective that can reveal commonalities in otherwise diverse research programs and suggest new and fruitful lines of inquiry.

Keywords: Grice, Paul Grice, H. P. Grice, Meaning, Speaker Meaning, Communication, Coordination, Assurance Games, Common Knowledge

JEL Classification: C71, D70, D86, K12

Suggested Citation

Warner, Richard, Coordinating Meaning: Contractual Promises, Common Knowledge, and Coordination in Speaker Meaning (March 13, 2017). Available at SSRN:

Richard Warner (Contact Author)

Chicago-Kent College of Law ( email )

565 West Adams St.
Chicago, IL 60661
United States

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