Review: Speech Acts

Speech Acts
Speech Acts
John R. Searle
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964 (1999)

Review Copyright © 2004 Garret Wilson — 19 February 2004 1:45pm

J.L. Austin wrote a fun, thought-provoking little book called, How to Do Things with Words. In it, he noted that some words had the strange property of doing something simply by being uttered in the correct context: "I promise" creates a promise, and "I declare unto you this day" declares something unto you this day. After much contemplation and some analysis, Austin realized that every statement is an act of some sort—every statement has an illocutionary force. If I say, "Beware the lion," I am performing the speech act of "warning" you. So-called performatives, such as "to promise," are special cases in which the illocutionary force of the word is identical to its general meaning, or locutionary force.

John Searle has received the mantle of speech act evangelist. Unfortunately, his book, Speech Acts, seems unsure of where it wants to take the Austinian theory of speech acts; it is, overall, more an explanation of John Searle's take on the philosophy of language in general than a vehicle to take Austin's theory to its next manifestation. Searle describes how he believes meaning is associated with language. He discusses what it means to reference, and makes a fine argument for distinguishing reference and predication. He outlines his own thoughts on proper names and referencing. Throughout the book he references speech acts. But Speech Acts does not provide a cohesive, coherent theory of why speech acts should be a cornerstone of knowledge expression through language.

One of the major problems with speech act theory, I believe, is that it inappropriately conflates the social and semantic analyses of language. Certain things we say and do have meaning only in a social context constructed through the interaction of individuals. Humans make laws, make promises, pass judgment, attempt to convince others of ideas, and defraud business associates, just to name a few. These are all social actions that depend on a certain set of social rules; "to defraud", for instance, depends on preconstituted social rules of in whom one can place trust in what circumstances, whether an contract is effected when an acceptance is placed in the mailbox or when it is received by the offeror, etc.

Austin correctly noted that certain words, such as "promise," have the unique capability of reaching up beyond the semantics within the sentence and referring to some higher social framework. Mundane non-performative words such as "walk," for instance, describe actions that do not depend on social context. As an example, assume that I ask a girl, in whom I'm interested, on 15 February, "Did your boyfriend buy you flowers for Valentine's Day?" What I'm really asking is, "Do you have a boyfriend?" While it can be said that, in terms of speech acts, the latter question is the illlocutionary force of the former, the semantics of the individual words of the former question—indeed, the semantics of the entire sentence as a whole—do not, absent some social context, mean anything close to what the second question conveys.

Searle's rendition of speech act theory seem to imply that, by recognizing that some statements have an inherent illocutionary force from the social realm, representation and meaning cannot be understood apart from these higher-level social frameworks (such as promising and convincing—as opposed to the social rules for language itself). The most obvious consequence of this error is Searle's faltering attempts in Chapter Eight to derive "ought" from "is"—that is, to derive an evaluative statement (e.g. "John ought to pay his bills") solely from one or more descriptive statements (e.g. "John made an agreement"). Apparently Searle believes he can now do what many philosphers of language felt logically impossible because somehow a social concept of "good" or "bad" has somehow become infused into the semantics of the descriptive statement itself through the wonder of performative speech acts. He isn't clear whether one can extrapolate away the distinction of descriptive statements and evaluative statements altogether.

The following represents my first reactions to Searle's ideas in Speech Acts. In many cases, they are my first reactions to certain philosophy of language concepts in general; many of those, such as my opinion of Searle's "expressibility" argument (17), may be naive oppositions to ideas held widespread throughout the philosophy of language community. In which instances I am disagreeing with Searle, in which instances I am disagreeing with well-established notions, and in which instances I am attacking from a position of ignorance, I currently cannot say. My overall feeling is that I'm not sure I believe that Searle is taking the theory of speech acts in the appropriate direction; more worrisome, I'm not sure in Speech Acts if Searle takes speech acts anywhere significant at all.