Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Evening Note for Wednesday, March 27

Thought for the Evening: Illocutionary Points

A locutionary act is the saying or writing of a meaningful and relatively complete unit of thought; 'relatively complete unit of thought' is a little tricky to pin down, but relatively complete thoughts in this sense are things like sentences (relatively complete with subject and predicate), communicated arguments (relatively complete with premises and conclusions), or even larger units. More attention has usually been paid to the 'meaningful' part. There are two primary components of this. One of these, the perlocutionary act, is that which one does, or more broadly intends to do, through (per) the locutionary act -- for instance, someone's being persuaded or convinced or the like. The other, which is relevant here, is the illocutionary act, which is what one is doing in and with the locutionary act itself -- for instance, asserting, describing, promising, conjecturing, and the like.

The illocutionary act has several different aspects, but the key one is the central aim of the act, which is known as the illocutionary point. Searle famously argues that there are five and only five categories of illocutionary point:

(1) Assertive: The speaker is representing what is said as the way things are.

(2) Commissive: The speaker is committing himself to the course of action represented by what is said.

(3) Directive: The speaker is proposing to others the course of action represented by what is said.

(4) Declarative: The speaker is by what is said making the world to be the way it is represented by what is said.

(5) Expressive: The speaker is expressing an attitude or feeling about what is represented by what is said.

(A single illocutionary act could have more than one illocutionary point.) Searle's argument that these are the only five illocutionary points is based on the notion of 'direction of fit'. The essential idea (perhaps best discussed in Searle and Vanderveken's The Foundations of Illocutionary Logic) is that every illocutionary act relates a content of a proposition to the world in which the locution is given. This could be through a word-to-world direction of fit, a world-to-word direction of fit, a double or mutual direction of fit, and a null or neutral direction of fit.

(A) Word-to-World: Speech acts of this sort succeed by fitting what is said to the way things are. This gives us the assertive point.

(B) World-to-Word: Speech acts of this sort succeed by fitting the way things are to what is said. The responsibility for this success can be due either to the speaker (which gives us the commissive point) or the hearer (which gives us the directive point).

(C) Double: Speech acts of this sort succeed insofar as one can say either that the world is as things are said to be or are said to be as the way the world is. This gives us the declarative point; in a successful declaration, the world is the way one says because one says it is that way.

(D) Null: Speech acts of this sort relate what is said and the way the world is not by fitting one to the other but simply by relating them; this gives us the expressive point.

This is a nice argument in many ways. It does make sense of why the five illocutionary points identified by Searle are illocutionary points. But does it give us the 'only five' part? What always strikes me is that (B), and only (B) is associated with two points, and Searle's explanation of why there are two points associated with it is not the sort of explanation that would obviously be confined to (B) -- there are speakers and hearers for all four of these, and, failing an adequate argument for why this would only matter to (B), it seems that we could have up to eight illocutionary points. So let's consider what that might look like.

(B), of course, is taken care of for us. The world-word fit with respect to speaker gives us the commissive, while the same fit with respect to hearer gives us the directive. If we use this as a model for the others, we could get the following:

with respect to self/speakerwith respect to others/hearers
(A) Word-World  confessiveassertive
(B) World-Word  commissivedirective
(C) Doubleacceptivedeclarative
(D) Nullexpressiveimpressive

When one thinks these through, I think it's clear why the five are the more obvious, because for the other three the speaker/hearer distinction seems a bit more strained, which is why I've generalized it somewhat to speaker-self and others relative to the speaker. Nonetheless, there is something to be said for the eightfold taxonomy here.

The easiest to defend, I think, is the acceptive. For instance, it sometimes happens that one declares something, but there is another step beyond the declaration, in which people apply the declaration to their own context, i.e., formally accept the declaration: This is our king; do you all accept him as king? Yes, he is our king. I'm pretty sure that Searle assumes that 'accepting' in these contexts is generally commissive, but I don't think this usually fits the linguistic profile -- a commissive illocutionary act has to describe a practical course of action, to which one is committing oneself. This is not true in the king example. You could argue that in this particular case, 'accepting' is just declaration, but it's unclear what would be happening in this case where we would then have a double declaration of the same thing. A declaration creates a status simply by declaring it; why one would then need to create it again by declaring it again is a mystery. But if we recognize that you can create a status that nobody actually makes any use of, we can recognize that there will be situations in which a status needs not only to be created but also accepted and formally recognized for oneself. An appropriate authority can declare that so-and-so has such-and-such right, thereby giving them that right, but it does not follow from this that what is declared is treated as the case by others, and to avoid this one may need a specific locutionary recognition from someone that they do, in fact, accept that this person has that right. The only other alternatives, then, to treating this as a distinct illocutionary point is to treat it as assertive or as expressive; but you aren't merely asserting it nor are you merely expressing an attitude toward it, you are making the status a part of the furniture of 'your world', the world as it is seen from your perspective. If there were only one person declaring things for only themselves, there would perhaps be no need to distinguish the declarative and the acceptive, but in social communication the two seem to come apart in important ways. I think, for instance, that complicated tangles in international law can often be described in terms of this distinction; a treaty may declare something, and successfully, but not in a way that everyone accepts what is declared, and international diplomacy is often a matter of formally and officially narrowing the gap between legal declaration and legal acceptance.

Assertion has more of a case for covering the whole of its direction of fit, I think, and arguably the way we usually use 'assertion' does make it this broad. But we do sometimes qualify what we say in such a way that we're not so much trying to say to someone the way things are, but trying to say the way things are to us. I think using Searle's taxonomy we get cases where it's unclear whether we're dealing with assertion or expression; it seems midway between both. These are confessions; we are asserting, if you will, the way things are in our perspective, or expressing, if you prefer, the way things seem to us. It's not actually expression, because we aren't necessarily communicating an attitude or feeling, but the appearance of a fact; but 'assertion' doesn't quite fit either, because we're not trying to represent a fact but an appearance of fact.

The hardest of the candidate illocutionary points to defend is what I have called the 'impressive', but a case can perhaps be made for it. There are situations in which we might say something like, "I get the sense that you are angry" or even "You seem angry?" One could perhaps take this to be an assertion, but really it is more like an expression; I am, so to speak, expressing an impression I have of your attitude. This differs from just expressing something, as when we congratulate someone or commiserate with someone; the direction is wrong. Congratulation goes from us and our attitude to those we are congratulating; but this goes inward, in which we are taking someone else's attitude and trying to 'express' what it seems to be. Given what expression means here, it would be odd to take this as literally expressive; we don't normally think of ourselves as expressing other people's attitudes to things, but we do have locutions where we are in fact trying to convey not our own attitude but someone else's.

Expanding from five illocutionary points to eight in one sense makes the taxonomy neater, as we no longer have (B) standing out as an oddball, and we can make some kind of argument for each of the extra three illocutionary points. It arguably does, however, make the underlying principle of the taxonomy murkier, and it can certainly be said that the three are less obvious than the five. Nonetheless, I think, the case for the expanded taxonomy is quite reasonable.

Various Links of Interest

* Tim Madigan, Thomas Duddy & Irish Philosophy, at "Philosophy Now"

* Gabriele Gava, Conceptual Analysis and the Analytic Method in Kant's Prize Essay (PDF)

* Iddo Landau, Should Marital Relations Be Non-Hierarchical? (PDF)

* Robert Blust, The Dragon and the Rainbow, is a currently open access book arguing that the rainbow is the original source of myths and legends about dragons.

* Christian Illies and Nicholas Ray, An Aesthetic Deontology: Accessible Beauty as a Fundamental Obligation of Architecture (PDF)

* Michael J. Kruger, The Dead Sea Scrolls, the Book of Esther, and the Argument from Silence, at "Canon Fodder"

* Richard Y Chappell, Hypothetical Imperatives and Normativity, at "Good Thoughts"

* Lorraine L. Besser, Virtue of Self-Regulation (PDF)

* David Francis Sherwood, The esse of the Eucharist (PDF)

Currently Reading

Marco Girolamo Vida, Christiad
C. S. Lewis, Studies in Words
Eusebius, The Church History
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Battle of Maldon together with The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth

In Audiobook

G. K. Chesterton, The Wisdom of Father Brown
Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out
Dorothy L. Sayers, Whose Body?
Hermann Simon, Confessions of the Pricing Man: How Price Affects Everything