Is Speaking Acting?

Is Speaking Acting?

We have grown accustomed to the phrase “speech act”, so much so that we regard it as a truism: of coursespeech is a type of action! It is an action we perform with our mouth and larynx as opposed to our hands or feet. Assertion is something we do—it is an intentional action. Nor is it an action merely in the very broad sense the word “action” allows: as when a physicist speaks of action at a distance or action and reaction, or a physiologist speaks of the action of the digestive system, or a psychologist speaks of reflexes as actions. No, the word is meant to imply intentional goal-directed intelligent conscious action, like preparing for a party or an exam. It doesn’t just mean uttering words, making sounds come out of your mouth, flapping your lips about. Speech is not action merely in that trivial sense. The idea of the speech act, as it is commonly understood, is supposed to be opposed to the idea simply of picturing a fact or expressing a proposition or stating a truth or pronouncing a word; a speech act is held to be an action that does something with words—gets something done, like making the hearer bring you a glass of water. Speaking is a practical activity, according to this conception, like farming or building a house. And since speaking is the primary form of language, language itself is to be conceived as action-oriented: knowing a language is a species of knowing-how, an ability to act in the world—intentionally, consciously, purposively. So we have been schooled to believe. I will argue that this is all wrong, from top to bottom; it is simply not true that speaking is acting in this full-blooded sense. It is not an action at all, save in a very attenuated and trivial sense (not the sense intended by its proponents). The “pragmatic turn” is an error.

I begin with an easy point. If assertion is an intentional action, it must be accompanied by an intention, namely the intention to assert. But people who assert do not in general have such an intention, because they don’t have the concept of assertion. They are not linguists or philosophers of language (certainly not speech act theorists). People don’t classify their utterances as assertions, even when they are (or interrogatives, imperatives, optatives, performatives, or exhortatives). They just say things a theorist may classify in this way; such classification is generally alien to them. So, it is not true that whenever someone makes an assertion, he or she does so under the aegis of an intention to assert. The speaker may have other intentions, like intending to inform or embarrass or contradict the hearer, but she doesn’t typically have an intention to make an assertion (a speech act theorist might have such an intention). Moreover, it is hard to see how she could have such an intention, since there is no agreement on what an assertion is: is it an attempt to communicate knowledge to the hearer, or just belief, or mere consideration, or a mental act of imagining? Are we to suppose that the ordinary speaker has a view about which of these theories of assertion is correct? No, she just comes out with a sentence that we characterize as an assertion; no such notion need enter her head. So, the category of assertions cannot be defined as those speech acts that are performed with the backing of an intention to assert—for there is no such intention in the normal case. All we have, at most, is a variety of intentions that might accompany assertions, e.g., the intention to inform the hearer of something (which might be accomplished in many ways, not all them via assertoric speech). And there might be no intention at all, just a kind of reflex or habit of speech, like rolling the tongue around the mouth or smacking the lips or swallowing one’s saliva (what are called “sub-intentional actions”). Isn’t a lot of idle chatter like that, or mumbling to oneself, or speech produced by rote? Sometimes words just pop out without any guiding intention, automatically, reflexively.

What if all speech were thus reflexive? Would that stop it being speech? Would no language be spoken in such circumstances? What if we came across a speech community (possibly not human) that produced words and sentences without any conscious deliberation, without guiding intentions, even without much in the way of intelligence? It is all pretty pointless, just a way to pass the time, with no ulterior aim in mind. Would we describe this strange activity as not speech at all? No: we would say it is a kind of degraded or purposeless speech, but still speech. The sounds uttered would have the structure and semantics of a language but lack its normal human pragmatic dimension. It might strike us as silly, gratuitous, surplus to requirements, but it would still be speech—the utterance of linguistic expressions. The same is true of a speech community that eschews all outer speech and sticks to inner speech, which completely lacks the pragmatic properties that our speech often exemplifies. This would still be speech but not be an action at all, in the sense intended by speech act theorists. The property of serving inter-personal purposes of familiar kinds is contingent to speech as such, i.e., the production of words and sentences in a language. Speaking itself is not essentially tied to achieving extra-linguistic aims. It consists only of acts in the trivial sense, i.e., things people or objects do, as opposed to what happens to them (e.g., blink as opposed to having a speck enter the eye). In principle, linguistic use could be stripped down to the basics and still be a case of speech; it might serve no purpose at all, or a purely individual purpose (say, as an aid to thought), or be just a hobby people share. It is not even clear that it requires consciousness or means-end reasoning or practical rationality.

Speech certainly requires an ability to utter words (externally or internally), but that is a far cry from what the speech act theorists had in mind. Maybe it also requires the capacity to utter words freely, voluntarily, spontaneously; but again, that is not what the idea of speech acts is intended to suggest. The idea is to contrast actual language and speech with conceptions that operate with such thin notions as expressing a proposition or stating a fact or saying something; speech, it is thought, does much more than that (though also that). The contention is that speech involves doing things with words in a sense that goes beyond merely uttering them in such “acts” as saying, expressing, stating, and the like. The underlying thought is that language is not merely symbolic representation but goal-directed action performed in a social context. But this conflates competence and performance, and interprets performance in a much too inflated way. Linguistic competence is a cognitive capacity not a sensorimotor skill; and linguistic performance is not essentially a matter of social coercion or education or whatever other goals it may on occasion possess. Speaking is not in its essential nature an act of interpersonal manipulation (good or bad): it isn’t a social instrument, a tool for getting ahead, a means of achieving one’s goals. Speaking is uttering words you understand to form sentences; what you go on to use these words or sentences for is another matter. Understanding a language is not act at all; it is a cognitive state. Thus, language is not speech and speech is not action (in the intended non-trivial sense of “action”). Competence is not performance and performance is not goal-directed intentional behavior (except in certain cases). Knowledge of language is not practical knowledge in the sense intended by the “pragmatic turn”; it is not a disposition or capacity to perform acts that achieve chosen ends (it isn’t knowing how to do these things). Semantics (and syntax) is not pragmatics. Knowing a language is not like knowing how to build a nest or catch a fly with your tongue. It is more like knowing-that than knowing-how, as in “I know that ‘snow is white’ is true if and only if snow is white”. Speech act theory, as it has come down to us, is really an over-intellectualized form of behaviorism. Speech isn’t a deed. In speech sounds are produced, trivially so, which is an active faculty, but it is not constitutive of speech that it be a full-blooded intentional act in the style of speech act theorists.[1]

[1] The philosophers I have in mind as spearheading this movement are Wittgenstein and
Austin, though they had many followers. Obviously, I have Chomsky in mind as resisting this kind of neo-behaviorism.

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4 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    I know next to nothing about speech act theory (which I understand to be the target of your post). So please excuse my naive remarks. From a layperson’s perspective, one might think speech on occasion does count as action: to speak up can be an act of courage; to give someone “the bird”, spoken with hand or equivalently with mouth, can be an act of aggression; and composing a poem surely counts as a “thing done” as much as making a sculpture, But perhaps these forms of speech are exceptions. Does your book Prehension cast a specific light on the question?

    Reply
    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      You are quite right that these verbal productions count as actions backed by intentions, but it is not a necessary property of speech production that it should count as intentional action.

      Reply
      • Giulio Katis
        Giulio Katis says:

        Is it fair to make an analogy with a scream: though an expression of some internal state which may (or may not) trigger a response in a hearer, it is itself typically not an intentional act.

        Reply
        • Colin McGinn
          Colin McGinn says:

          It may be an involuntary response, but then it’s not like typical chatter. A better analogy would be humming without thinking, or muttering to oneself, or silent inner speech.

          Reply

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