Silence and Speech

Is it possible to mean something (in the Gricean sense) by being silent? Surely yes: we have the pregnant pause, and silence can speak volumes. I could also make an arrangement with you whereby if I don’t speak at a certain time I am wishing to communicate to you that (say) I want to leave. But then meaning is possible without a speech act, without any kind of utterance. How then can speaker meaning be an action at all? Speech acts need not be acts! Could all communications be silent? If so, Gricean speaker meaning is not a type of action in its essence. Speaker meaning happens to consist of acts with us most of the time, but this is quite contingent. So-called speech act theory is not essentially about acts.

6 replies
  1. Ken
    Ken says:

    It’s true that silence is not always an act, even if it accidentally conveys a message or meaning. So I may be silent in response to an offensive remark because it renders me speechless. Observers would be correct to interpret my silence as conveying offense, but – given that my speechlessness is mostly or entirely involuntary – it doesn’t seem to be an act any more than temporary paralysis (e.g., “freezing” from terror).

    But not all silence is like this. I think that you are correctly treating silence as an omission (refraining from speaking) but incorrectly identifying omission with inaction (i.e., the absence of a voluntary bodily motion). While omissions and acts can be opposed (as in the example above), the former very arguably amount to the latter whenever they (a) derive from positive acts, (b) are deliberate, or (c) are in violation of an expectation or duty.

    (a). If we make an arrangement for silence to convey a certain meaning, then the subsequently agreed-to silence is a speech act in virtue of the arrangement.

    (b). My deliberate omission to rescue a child drowning in the kiddie pool is a morally reprehensible act. Likewise, then, with any deliberate omission to speak when speaking would likely help or hurt somebody. This silence is a (morally good or bad) speech act.

    (c). If I have a legal duty to take care of a child, and if the child drowns, then my omission (failing to fulfill my legal duty) can be said to have caused the child’s death, in which case the “actus reus” of murder or manslaughter (voluntarily causing death) is satisfied. Likewise, then, with any duty-violating silence – e.g., failing to respond to a police officer’s questions. This silence is a speech act, usually conveying either guilt or defiance.

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      Silent communication shows that it is possible to s-mean in the Gricean sense without making any utterance. That’s what I mean by saying that silent s-meaning is not an act. Nor is it an omission, since it is a kind of mental action, though not an overt action.

  2. ahmadi
    ahmadi says:

    you have said this point before this in review of searle’s “making social world” . this point is ,in my view , very important : priority of thought on language .mind on word . it is necessary that you write an independent paper about it ! isn’t it ?! this view that “language can to creates or shapes thoughts” is the very wrong view .


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