Saying and Showing



Saying and Showing


Wittgenstein famously introduced the distinction between saying and showing in the Tractatus. I won’t be concerned with his treatment of the distinction, either by way of interpretation or evaluation; but I will be using the terminology. I want to say that every speech act includes an act of showing, as well as an act of saying, and also that showing is not a type of saying. It is not (pace Wittgenstein) that what is shown cannot be said, but only that the showing that occurs in speech acts is not a type of saying in that very speech act. The kind of showing I have in mind is perfectly familiar and non-mystifying: it is the mere utterance of a sentence with its characteristic form. The speaker displays or exhibits or presents a sentence to the hearer’s senses (generally vision and hearing), thus showing him that sentence. The speaker doesn’t say he is showing the hearer a sentence; he simply does it—as he might show the audience a coin in his hand. But the hearer is then in a position to know what the speaker is saying: the speaker says something to the hearer by showing him a sentence. He might, for example, produce a written sentence from behind his back that the hearer is now in a position to interpret and make an ascription of saying. Showing in this sense is an act of proffering an item to the senses, and this is what enables the speaker to communicate by acts of speech. So two acts are performed in a given speech act: an act of showing and an act of saying, where the former enables the latter. In other words, the act of uttering (saying in the oratio recta sense) is an act of showing (displaying, exhibiting, etc.) in the performance of which something is said in the oratio obliquasense. Utterance is not merely sounds issuing from the speaker’s mouth—that might be just involuntary babble—but an intentional presentation to someone’s senses of a sentence (conceived as such) for a specific purpose, viz. to say something to that person. The speaker is showing something to the hearer in roughly the sense in which a tour guide might show you the way to a cathedral. The purpose of the showing is to perform an act of saying and it is a sine qua non of that.

            In fact there is a bit more complexity here. First, there is not just the speech act of saying but also of commanding and questioning (and any other type of speech act you may believe in). The speaker shows the sentence “Shut the door!” in order to command the addressee to shut the door, or shows the sentence “What time is it?” in order to ask what the time is. Notice that the variety of speech acts performed is accompanied by uniformity in the act of showing: all speech acts involve showing, though not all involve saying. So there is something in common to all speech acts—they all involve an act of showing. Moreover, they all involve something not specifically linguistic, because showing occurs in a wide range of activities: we show sentences to each other in much the way we show things in general to each other (maybe the one capacity derives from the other). Second, there are two parts to the kind of showing that occurs in acts of communication: one part is the act of the speaker in showing a sentence to the hearer; the other is the sentence itself showing its form to the hearer (this is closer to Wittgenstein’s use of the concept). I show you a sentence S and S shows you its grammatical and logical form—without saying anything about this form. A conjunctive sentence doesn’t say it is a conjunction—it just is one. So strictly there are two acts of showing in any speech act: speaker showing and sentence showing. The speaker shows you a sentence and the sentence shows you its form (as well as its vocabulary). The speaker doesn’t say, “I am showing you this sentence” but simply does it, and the sentence doesn’t say, “I am an existentially quantified sentence” though it manifestly is one. This double showing is integral to the success of the speech act and is not to be viewed as mere acoustic production: it is part of speech as a rational purposive activity.

            I am tempted to suggest that this way of talking comes naturally because we are a theatrical species. Our social interactions have a theatrical character (think Shakespeare and Erving Goffman). We are always “putting on a show”. Thus the idea that speech involves performance is a theatrical idea (we perform speech acts as actors perform their lines). Our speech comprises a display that is designed to be interpreted by an audience as an act of saying (etc.). If all the world’s a stage and we are merely players, then our speech will involve acts of theatrical showing—skilled presentations that reveal states of mind. We show other people things in order to get things across to them: we wave our hands, point our fingers, make urgent sounds when in extremis, and produce grammatical strings.  We proffer things to other people’s senses in the hope that we will be understood. This requires skills akin to those of an actor; and isn’t speech often a kind of acting? We have to put in a goodperformance, a convincing verbal display (e.g. Winston Churchill giving a mesmerizing speech). So we naturally think of our speech performances in theatrical terms—as a type of show we put on. The great speaker or writer is exceptionally good at showing people sentences that produce the best audience effect. In any case, speaking involves showing—displaying, exhibiting. In speaking I reveal my thoughts, parade my desires, and exhibit my intentions—I show you sentences from which you make suitable inferences. Sign language is exemplary in this respect: here the speaker uses her hands to show the audience signs that communicate states of mind—and it lookstheatrical. The poet, too, shows you words and sentences that convey ideas and emotions (the love letter is similar). The language teacher may proceed by exhibiting sentences for the student to learn—while simultaneously saying something.

            The point of my saying all this is to supplement the usual conceptual apparatus of speech act theory with another layer of concepts: it is not just about saying, commanding, etc. but also a sophisticated type of action aptly captured by the showing terminology. Nothing like this exists in the work of the later Wittgenstein or Austin or Searle or Strawson or Grice: we just have an etiolated notion of “utterance”. But the speech act as it exists in humans is a more complex and subtle phenomenon than this terminology suggests, possibly because of lingering behaviorist assumptions. The general form of a speech act consists of a double act of showing combined with an illocutionary act of saying (commanding, questioning, etc.). It isn’t just people making noises that other people interpret this way and that but an act of putting words on display with all that that implies.[1]   


Colin McGinn

[1] Showing is not opposed to saying but the two form an indissoluble whole: in saying we show and in showing we say. I will also note that showing is a type of externalization: an inner process is externalized as we show sentences to interlocutors—thought is revealed in spoken words.

1 reply
  1. Jeffrey Kessen
    Jeffrey Kessen says:

    Goffman had it mostly right, but even he didn’t go far enough. The things we sometimes tell ourselves are equally performative, the better to engage or distract from our all too busy minds. At least, that’s what I tell myself. Prediction—-Alcarez and Medvedev in the Final at Indian Wells.


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