Politics and Philosophy

speech act

I have been struggling for the last few months to assess the possibilities for flourishing. Since I believe its possibility started dropping centuries ago when the key ideas about the way the world works burst forth, a few years wouldn’t seem to make much difference. I think it does, however. I have to focus on the United States for my lack of context about the rest of the world.

The biggest event to examine is the election of Donald Trump. I will start my analysis by looking at what he represents as a potential window into the current cultural beliefs and values. He moves us quite a long way from thinking in terms of complexity. We are to get our facts, a form of belief, about the state of the world largely from tweets, 140 characters in total. We are told that The President has a monopoly on truth. The facts we hold to describe or explain what is happening before out eyes are simply alternate facts.

I have to remind you that there are two distinctive kinds of facts: brute facts and institutional facts. Brute facts are descriptions of the perceptible world, for example, I live in Lexington, Massachusetts. If someone offers up an alternate fact about where I live, they must be living in some alternate universe. Institutional facts are not quite so simple. They are facts that have been created entirely through language. Both kinds are critical to the creation and maintenance of an orderly society and the ability to assess the possibilities for moving in the direction of our visions of how life should be.

Institutional facts are created through a particular kind of speech act, a Declaration to use, the philosopher, John Searle’s term. It is one of five commonly used speech acts. Even if you are not familiar with this nomenclature, you have been using speech acts all of your life. Searle has written extensively on this topic. As introduction, here is a quote from his book, Expression and Meaning:

We tell people how things are (Assertives), we try to get them to do things (Directives), we commit ourselves to doing things (Commissives), we express our feelings and attitudes (Expressives), and we bring about changes in the world through our utterances (Declarations).

One very common form of speech act is the class of assertives. They are statements claiming that something is so. “I live in Lexington,” or “I am the smartest person in the room,” or “My car is black,” and so on. I am choosing the words I speak to fit a real worldly situation. An assertive is valid if the words actually do fit the world. Just saying them does not make them true. They must ultimately be backed up with satisfactory grounds, if challenged.

The next familiar class is directives. These are statements like “Please shut the door”; “Do not drive over 60 mph”; or “The Secretary of State shall suspend the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days.” The speaker wants something to happen. If the action is then performed, the world will now fit the words. The act is satisfied in such cases where the world has changed to fit the directive. The next speech act, commissives, is the obverse of the last. It is an utterance that commits the speaker to some future action. Statements like, “I promise to send the check,” or “I will attend the party,” or “I will build a wall” are forms of commissives. Commissives, like assertives, have the same fit of the words to the world. They lead to actions such that the new state of the world matches the words. The changed world appears sometime after the request or promise to satisfy the utterance, but sometimes it never does.

The last class I will mention in the body of this post is declaratives. These are very important because the words in the utterance create a new world instantly. “I name you Tom,” or “You are guilty,” or “A chess game is over when one player (the loser) is unable to move the King without losing it by capture,” or “I hereby proclaim that the entry of nationals of Syria as refugees is detrimental to the interests of the United States” are all forms of declarations.

They are immediately satisfied, unless the authority of the declaration is challenged, because 1) the declarer has been authorized to speak in this way, or 2) everyone involved has agreed to the declaration. The first pertains to a president, judge or referee; the second to a game, like chess or baseball. Declarations create or invent new facts. They convey new obligatory powers to common objects and situations. A home run is simply a baseball (object) that has left the ballpark between two poles that have been declared to delineate what is fair game. A Judge is a person who has been given certain powers. So is the President of the United States. Declarations are a kind of magic. I speak and, presto, the world has something new about it. Our country is based on two such speech acts, The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Declaration contains a Preamble asserting the facts that ground the argument for the accompanying declarations. The Constitution is a pure declaration.

Declarations create all sorts of subsequent rules and obligations. If one wants to play chess, there is an obligation to follow the rules; otherwise what is going on is not chess. If one wants to take part in any institution from small ones like families to larger ones like companies to even larger ones like a nation, then he or she has an obligation to play by the rules that accompany the fact that such an institution exists. Institutions are as real as brute facts in terms of guiding human action, but lack materiality. They can be changed by new declarations, but brute facts can be changed only if the material situation has changed, say, if I move to Cambridge.

Why all this philosophical stuff? These definitions and concepts have been created by philosophers. They are important because these speech acts keep societies and institutions together and allow them to function without the exercise of force. John Searle has written that institutional facts are “the glue that holds civilization together.” Importantly, scientific facts are not brute facts; they are a special kind of institutional fact. They are statements coming from the institution of science that pertain to a “truth’ about the way the material world works. Their validity is established by the agreement of other scientists (peer review) and is always contingent upon new evidence that replaces the old declaration with a new one. Since the Enlightenment, the scientific laity has had a tacit agreement with the scientific institution to accept these scientific facts as truths. For much of the world, they have come to be conflated with brute facts.

Similarly, in civil society and all other institutions, smooth functioning depends on the legitimacy of the speech acts that create the rules (declarations); and the validity of those that provide 1) the context or grounds for reasonable actions (assertions), 2) assumptions about the purpose or end condition of the stated motivations of requests (directives), and 3) assessments about the trustworthiness behind promises (commissives). For those that want to dig deeper, I recommend the work of Jurgen Habermas on Communicative Action. He places the speech act theory of John Searle and others in a social context. I find Habermas provides answers to the question about why people act in social situations without being coerced to. Basically, he argues that rational people will act consensually if the validity of the all the speech acts involved in the context of any particular action can be established; if so, actors will go ahead without being forced.

It should be obvious that such consensual action is the engine that makes the world work satisfactorily. If we were forced to act all the time against our interests and values, no institution would last long. Our nation is predicated on the idea of government by the consent of the governed. I will continue this discussion in the next post, but this is a lot to digest. I do think a little reflection of these speech acts can help sort out all the dysfunction in the news these days.

ps. Searle adds a fifth class of speech acts, expressives. They lack any connection to establishing new institutions and associated institutional facts or to a future world. Expressives express a psychological state referring to some past or existing situation. A few examples include, “Thank you for your gift,” or “I apologize for lying to you,” or “I deplore your being so selfish.” Expressives are important acts to maintain civility when the intentions of other speech acts have been bent or breached, as in “You broke the rules, lied to me about cutting the grass, or never did send me roses.” One of the most powerful forms of expressives is “I forgive you for…” It permits a renewed willingness to freely assess the validity of clams involved in future speech acts and may re-establishes a lost context for acting consensually. Apologies often act as precursors to acts of forgiveness. Also relevant?

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