speech acts

In this very uncertain time, when the future stability of our societal institutions is imperiled, it is very important to look at the power of speech. Speaking is an act, just like walking or any other movement of the body with some intended outcome. We usually are unaware that speech involves moving the lungs, vocal chords, tongue, and lips. The performative character of speech has been the focus of philosophers, sociologists, philosophers, and others for quite a while. For the readers who might want to go beyond what I note in this blog post, the writings of J. L. Austin and John Searle, both philosophers, lay much of the groundwork about speech acts. The German sociologist, Jurgen Habermas, also refers to them, especially in his important Theory of Communicative Action.

Speech acts perform an action beyond conveying the semantic content of the words being uttered. We use them all the time without being aware that we are performing as well as speaking. Two of these acts enable individuals to interact in meaningful ways. Directives carry a message from a speaker to other actors about doing what the message says. They convert the speaker’s word to a change in the world when enacted. Contra to directives are commissives, speech acts that convey the speaker’s agreement to perform whatever has been specified in the directive. “Go to bed,” is a very common directive; “Yes, Mother,” the corresponding commissive.

The philosopher, John Searle, has developed a taxonomy of speech acts that is useful in describing them (1979). In his way of describing them, directives can be defined by the following expression:

! ↑W (L does A)

where the exclamation point denotes that the act is a directive; the upward arrow denotes that the direction of fit is world to words; the W means that the speaker has a sincere want or desire for the directed action; and the parenthetical expression stands for the particular proposition being posed — that the listener (L) do what the speaker has uttered (A). Examples of directives are question, ask, order, command, request, beg, plead, pray, entreat, invite, permit, advise, dare, challenge, defy…

Similarly for commissives, the formula is

C ­↑ I (S does A)

where the C denotes the general form for commissives; the upward arrow indicates that the fit is the same as the directive — world to words. The I means the speaker has a sincere intent to perform the act being committed; and the parenthetical expression stands for the particular proposition being posed — that the speaker (S) will do A. Examples of directives are promise, reject (a promise not to do something), commit, intend…

Institutional voices, transmitted via written documents, can have the same performative power as speech, per se. The writings by which social behaviors are set are full of such directives. Moral laws and societal statutes of all sorts are telling us what we should and shouldn’t do. Human cultures from the earliest times on Earth coordinated their social activities via directives and commissives, most likely early on in the form of gestures which can be considered a form of speech in that they carried meaning.

A third form of speech acts is assertives: statements that carry some “truth,” or claim that the semantic meaning in the utterance corresponds to something out in world, for example, “It is two o’clock,” or “Stones are hard.” The standard form of an assertive is

⎬ ↓ B(p)

where the assertion sign ⎬ denotes that the act is an assertive; the downward arrow denotes that the direction of fit is words to world; the B means that the speaker has a sincere belief that the utterance is true; and the parenthetical expression stands for the particular proposition being posed — that (p) is true.  Examples of assertives are believe, assess, evaluate, predict, think, feel, conclude, state, deduce, boast… Assertive statements represent the speaker’s consciousness of the world and are a transformation of the speaker’s internalized codes of signification in the context of the immediate action.

Assertions fit words to the world. They are also critical in shaping social activities because they establish (or not) the context in which action takes place. “It’s raining” provides the context for a mother telling her child to “Put on your raincoat.” Scientific laws are assertions established by applying scientific principles, and are generally accepted as true due to the legitimacy normally given to the institution of science. Assertions made about the present world lack such an institutional foundation and their acceptance as true depends on the authority carried by the speaker.

Most people would accept my assertion that the sky is blue today if it were, indeed blue. That is important as the acceptance of such facts is necessary to enable some consequent consensual action that depends on whatever was being asserted. Truths about the real objective, world are normally taken as legitimate, that is true statements or facts. I qualify such assertions because we are living in a world where alternative facts and disinformation have taken on a sort of normality. Assertions about social or institutional worlds are particularly coming into questions. The political arena in the US has been dominated by the false assertion that Donald Trump won the last election. The lack of popular consensus about that has created an atmosphere of distrust and inaction in both the political system and the public at large.

One more speech act, declaration, is very important in its performative effects. The standard form of a declarative is

D ↕ ­∅(p)

where the D denotes that the act is a declarative; the up/down arrow denotes that the direction of fit is both words to world and world to words; the null symbol, ∅, indicates that the speaker needs no wish, intention, or belief to make a declaration; and (p) is the proposition being declared. Examples of declaratives are; declare, define, name, dub… In declaratives, ‘one brings a state of affairs into existence by declaring it to exist, cases where, so to speak, “saying makes it so”.’ (Searle, 1979:16). The double fit represents that declaratives do attempt to fit words to the world as in an assertion, but to a world that doesn’t exist until the very words have been uttered, thereby bringing the world into the words. Ddeclarations are effective when the speaker and audience are part of an extra-linguistic institution that lends sufficient authority to the relationship between speaker and audience to “make it so.”

Our primary foundational document is the Declaration of Independence. It is no accident that it is labeled a “declaration.” Declaratives change the world; they produce new meanings to old ones, instantly. For example, naming someone or thing is an act that immediately constitutes a part of the identity of that person or thing. Statements like “You are fired” alter the very world of the targeted listener.  Some declarations like a judge’s verdict, “You are guilty,” are both assertive in that they are authoritatively fact-finding (truth-making) and also declaratively authoritative in changing the world. Searle includes a downward-pointing arrowhead denoting the additional words-to-world fit of these so-called, assertive declarations. It is difficult sometimes in practice to distinguish a declaration from a commitment. Someone who says, “I quit,” may be making a promise or a declaration.

The importance of these speech acts shows up in the difference between a democratic and an authoritarian regime. Authoritarians govern by means of declarations—creating the social world by their commands and forcing the people to live accordingly. In theory, at least, democracies create their social worlds through agreements made through assertions, directives and commissives, only then followed by declarations that establish the norms governing routine life.

The Supreme Court is an exception. The Justice’s written opinions act exactly as an oral declaration in creating a new reality, particularly what is allowed and disallowed on that new reality. While the opinions may recount the facts that have, in theory, been used in the formation of the opinion (declaration), they have little or no probative impact. The final declarative sentence(s) essentially carry the full weight. It is interesting that the courts, in certain cases, may try to construe what the intent of the Congress was by examining all the assertions made in the course of passing some piece of legislation.

More about all this in the next blog post.

Searle, J. (1979). Expression and Meaning. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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