Literal meaning and fictional utterance

John McDowell

  • Expression and Meaning: Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts by John Searle
    Cambridge, 187 pp, £8.50, December 1979, ISBN 0 521 22901 4

John Searle’s subtitle alludes to the mode of reflection about language which he recommended, and showed in operation, in his earlier book Speech Acts. What the theory of speech acts offers is a view of language which is to allow us to take full account of the fact that linguistic behaviour is behaviour, without lapsing into a behaviouristic obliteration of the inner life.

Asked about an utterance, the question ‘What is that person doing?’ can be answered at different levels; and the questions about language, and more specifically about meaning, which have fascinated philosophers of language can be formulated in terms of relations between the levels. One might ask, for instance: when does an act describable from one point of view (say, that of an uncomprehending alien) only as the production of certain sounds constitute an intelligible communication, since it is correctly describable as such from another point of view, that of someone who understands its language? And how do the properties ascribable to the utterance at the lower level determine the properties ascribable to it at the higher?

Sharpening these and similar questions into tractability, so that they can usefully stand in for suggestive but unclear formulations such as ‘What are the relations between sound and meaning?’, requires a fairly systematic conception of the structure and content of the higher-level descriptions: those which bring the intuitive notion of meaning into play. Searle’s systematisation organises the descriptions into a specification of propositional content, on the one hand, and an identification of illocutionary force (e.g. a characterisation of the speech act undertaken as an assertion or a request), on the other. (The notion of illocutionary force, and the label, are due to J.L. Austin.)

The division marks out two fields for further investigation. First, there are questions about how, by uttering suitable strings of words, we contrive to express propositions: in Searle’s treatment, these are questions about such contributory speech acts as referring and predicating. (These ‘propositional acts’ cannot be performed except in the performance of particular illocutionary acts. Nevertheless, we can theorise about them in abstraction from particular illocutionary forces.) Second, there are questions about what it is to perform the various types of illocutionary act.

An overarching thesis is that all these speech acts are governed by, and make manifest, intentions of a special audience-directed kind: intentions whose content is in part that they themselves should be recognised by an audience. This is what ensures the non-obliteration of the inner life. (Here Searle’s position incorporates, in a modified version of his own, an insight of H.P. Grice.)

Speech Acts contains extended discussions of referring and predicating, and offers a detailed account of the rules which govern one type of illocutionary act – namely, promising – with suggestions as to how the analysis could be extended. There are also some philosophical applications. But the theory of speech acts is a research programme, not a completed product: part of its point is its fruitfulness in raising questions for investigation. Expression and Meaning collects some characteristically forthright and provocative essays on outstanding topics.

A recurring theme is the possibility of divergence between what one means by an utterance and what one would mean if one’s meaning were straightforwardly determined by the literal meaning of the words one utters. In what Searle calls ‘indirect speech acts’ (Chapter 2), one means what one literally says and more besides. (For instance, uttering the words ‘You are standing on my foot’ in suitable circumstances will constitute not only an assertion that the addressee is standing on one’s foot but also a request to him to get off.) In metaphorical utterances (Chapter 4), one means, not more than what one literally says, but something else instead. Fictional utterances (Chapter 3) differ in a different kind of way from straightforward non-fictional discourse. Chapter 6 uses the apparatus of Chapter 2 in a criticism of Keith Donnellan’s distinction between referential and attributive employments of definite descriptions. And half of Chapter 7 argues that the apparatus is superior to a competitor from the literature of linguistics.

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