Philosophical Speech Acts

Philosophical Speech Acts

What is characteristic of the philosophical speech act? Here again I will divide the question into three parts corresponding to the locutionary, the illocutionary, and the perlocutionary.[1] First, what is the locutionary meaning of the philosophical speech act—what kind of proposition does it express? Is it a report of fact, a presentation of evidence, a formulation of an empirical theory? It is none of these; rather, it is a proposition about logical relations. I mean this in a broad sense: relations of compatibility, consequence, argumentative support. The characteristic philosophical proposition, as expressed in the typical philosophical speech act, has the form “This follows from that” or “That does not follow from this”; not the sole type of philosophical proposition but the characteristic type. We are much concerned with logical relations because we are much concerned with argument—with what establishes what. Our propositions are also often concerned with language, i.e., meanings and concepts; more so than in the sciences (not counting linguistics). So, we are often talking about logical relations between meanings, the chief of these being definitional relations: can this be defined as that? Thus, we say things like “A is not a sufficient condition for B” or “B is not a necessary condition for A”. These are the types of propositions whose truth-value most concerns us. We are logic choppers in our locutionary acts. We delight in the detection of non-sequiturs, logical fallacies, circular arguments, surprising deductions.

            With respect to illocutionary force, there is also a marked difference from scientific speech. Philosophers are much more prone to confident outright assertion, as opposed to tentative citation of evidence, or reports of falsification not confirmation. The assertion sign is ever-present in philosophical discourse: “I hereby assert that p!” Philosophers are typically very confident of their claims to refutation, and also of their positive arguments for (often outrageous) conclusions—as in, “Have you heard my proof of the existence of other minds?” We are like mathematicians but without the formal rigor. Indeed, we are often overconfident, even dogmatic and bombastic. Oh, we are sure of ourselves! The illocutionary force of our utterances is along the lines of “Dispute this if you can?” or “Any fool can see that p”. We are hyper-assertive. This can produce incomprehension or distaste from outsiders, who don’t see it as part of the language game: for logic is surely the domain of assertion par excellence. I once heard a philosopher assert in public that he had “ground to a fine powder” his opponent’s position. And this is not merely faux confidence designed to mask uncertainty; it is deeply felt, entirely genuine. Philosophy invites such confident assertion, however misguided it might be, because logical knowledge is of a type to lead to certainty, unlike scientific knowledge. To the scientist, philosophical speech looks like so much groundless hot air—“Where is your evidence for that claim?” Meanwhile the philosopher refuses to moderate his mania for assertion; it is his default illocutionary force.

            How about perlocutionary effects? The philosopher does not have the ethical responsibility of the scientist, since he has no results that can make atomic bombs or combat disease. So, what kinds of effect do philosophical speech acts have and are intended to have? I think the answer is simple: persuasion. The intended effect of a speech act of this kind is to change the outlook of the audience, to convince them of something contrary to what they already believe. It isn’t simply to inform, thereby installing a new belief: it is to undermine prior belief and supplant it with a new belief system—a new ideology, if you like. Thus, the philosopher might set out to persuade a dualist that dualism is false and materialism is true. This is an upheaval of thought not just a painless act of belief revision: think of logical positivism or ordinary language philosophy or phenomenology or existentialism or Wittgenstein’s move from the Tractatus to the Investigations. It is indeed like the inculcation of an ideology (not all ideologies are bad). This is why the philosopher’s speech behavior can lead to the formation of a cult (again, not all cults are bad). The philosopher often creates disciples, and that is one type of perlocutionary effect. Wittgenstein had a cult, Austin had a cult, Heidegger had a cult, Nietzsche has a cult, Quine had a cult, Davidson had one, David Lewis had one to some extent. It’s all a matter of persuasion, the commandeering of belief; and it results from speech acts (including writing). The habit of endowing every utterance with the illocutionary force of hyper-assertion no doubt contributes to this perlocutionary effect (people are suckers for overconfident assertion).[2]

            Then too, we have the obscure speech act, the pretentious speech act, the bullying speech act, and my favorite the faux modest speech act. The least said about the first three of these the better, but I cannot refrain from commenting on the fourth. This is the type of speaker who begins his paper by saying in a quiet voice, “I wish to offer a few remarks on the question of…” He is characteristically English, probably at Oxford, and deeply desirous of not being refuted. He might go on to make waspish “remarks” about colleagues and rivals, but he acts the part of the put-upon, decent, and very nice philosopher-next-door. He is, above all, cuddly. His speech acts are precisely acts—theatrical performances. At Oxford people would ask me whether I was “performing” in the seminar that day—not giving a paper or teaching a class but performing. Austin himself used to perform in this way (he had an abiding interest in the theatre)—hoping no doubt to enunciate a few performatives that achieve the result of gaining new converts. I used to bridle at this description and icily respond that I was indeed reading a paper. It is perhaps analytically true that speech acts must be “performed”, but must we also accept that they are a performance? Yet this is what the perlocutionary effects of philosophical speech often depend on, deplore it as one might. The ethics of the philosophical speech act could bear examination.[3]

[1] It’s a good idea to be self-consciously aware of one’s habits of philosophical speech, since they are apt to be absorbed by verbal osmosis at an early stage (mainly in graduate school). You might be horrified by the way you talk in philosophical contexts once you gain some distance from it. I often shudder at the way my fellow philosophers talk (perhaps they shudder at how I talk).

[2] I haven’t discussed the role of intonation and word emphasis in philosophical speech, or the place of wit in philosophical discourse, but they too play their part in the creation of perlocutionary effects. Bernard Williams was adept at both these things, as was Austin.

[3] Nowadays the form of at least written philosophical speech mimics the style of the social sciences, probably because this is thought to raise the status of philosophy. This is disingenuous and should be discouraged. Of course, verbal style in philosophy has changed over the years; some philosophers made a point of it beginning around 1950. To my ear, though, it has remained pretty constant since the seventeenth century.

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