February 25, 2004

Technical Truth

Chris Bertram says that speech act theory is unsexy nowadays. As Alicia Silverstone says in Clueless, "Project!" (For my career that is, I don't think that this post in itself will make speech act theory sexy, even if it does contain a gratuitous reference to the Sex Pistols, and several to doody.)

Chris's point is, in very brief, that literal truth is not always a defense. People may say something literally true that is intended to get you to think something that is wildly false, and you can be judged on the intention as well as on the literal truth.

Chris frames this in terms of the Austinian locutionary/illocutionary/perlocutionary act. The locutionary content is the literal meaning of what is said; the illocutionary content is the intention embodied in the performance; the perlocutionary content is the effect that is achieved. The smear Chris is discussing is too depressing/political to quote in a purely philosophical post*, so let us suppose that I say to Alfred "You are a doody-head." I have performed the locutionary act of saying that Alfred is a doody-head, and so performed the illocutionary act of insulting Alfred and perhaps the perlocutionary act of offending him. (The insult/offend distinction is standard in the literature; "doody-head" is my own contribution.)
*And the point I want to make is independent of my opinion of the merits of this case; substitute your own favorite technically true smear if you like. I'm sure you can think of one.

Chris points out that we can judge people by their illocutionary acts as well as their locutionary acts--so that if someone attempts to do something dishonorable by uttering true sentences, the truth is no excuse. If you perform a true locutionary act with the intention of damaging someone's reputation, that intention is part of the illocutionary act, and it's likely a bad one.

On my view, that doesn't go quite far enough. First of all, it seems to me that the distinction isn't between a true locutionary act and a false illocutionary act. The act of outright stating that Alfred is a doody-head is a different illocutionary act from the acts of conjecturing that Alfred is a doody-head and of suggesting that Alfred is a doody-head, yet all can be performed by performing the same locutionary act.

So, in the smear case, asserting (as opposed to conjecturing) the technical truth is an illocutionary act. I'm not sure how useful it is to pack the intentions behind the assertion into the illocutionary act. If part of my intention in writing this post were to ingratiate myself with Chris, is the attempted ingratiation part of an illocutionary act? "I tried to ingratiate myself with Chris" seems to be a different animal from "I argued that the illocutionary/locutionary distinction wasn't doing the right work."

I've argued, or maybe asserted, that to perform a speech act--and I mean an illocutionary act--is generally to do something with certain normative consequences. (This is the post on my Sex Pistols paper, which I'd love it if you read.) In particular, I think that to tell someone something is to offer them a reason for believing it that is based on your credibility, and to stake that credibility on whether it turns out to be true. (The paper in which I argue this isn't on the web, but Chapter IV of my dissertation outlines the view.)

Which means that what you tell someone isn't restricted to the literal meaning of your words. If you ask me "Where can I get gas?" and I reply "There is a gas station around the corner," I am implicating that you can get gas at that gas station. If the gas station is closed, you will have reason not to ask me directions in the future. Even though I (locutionarily) uttered a true sentence, my credibility is knocked as hard as if I had said the false "You can get gas at the gas station around the corner."

The newspaper columns that Chris is discussing are meant to inform as well as opine. The sentences in them may have been literally true, but the impression that they were deliberately designed to yield was not. As Chris observes, their effect was to lower the reputations of their authors--in part, add I, because informed readers now know that the authors attempted to deceive them. Even if this deception was carried about by means of technical truth, I just don't see why that should make any moral, epistemological, or pragmatic difference. (There is good reason for it to make a legal difference.)

(Chris's thread includes some interesting philosophical comments by Jeremy Osner, Lizardbreath, and CJS, if you're willing to wade through a lot of flung mud.)

(Sidebar: Chris refers to "some daft attempts to deploy [speech act theory] in defence of the idea that pornography silences women." Something like this argument is bruited in Jennifer Hornsby's paper "Illocution and Its Significance" in Tsohatzidis's Foundations of Speech Act Theory. IIRC I largely agreed with Hornsby's account of illocution, and I think it's important to note that there are circumstances in which it is conceptually impossible for a speaker to perform a certain act. I don't think it's possible for me to assert that 2 + 2 = 5, because no one could reasonably take my statement that 2 + 2 = 5 seriously. Whether this account applies to pornography is another question--it seems to me that a silencing effect would have to come from a pervasive atmosphere of garden-variety sexism, and we can't legislate that. Googling reveals a page with contrasting viewpoints on silencing by Ronald Dworkin and Rae Langton--I haven't read it, though, so I can't offer an opinion on it's merits.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at February 25, 2004 09:26 AM

2 questions to refine my understanding:

1. If the phrase "As Alicia Silverstone says in "Clueless", can be viewed as locutionary, would the phrase "As the character played by Alicia Silverstone says" be illocutionary or perlocutionary?

2. Can the concepts of locut\ill\perl be brought to bear on the difference between these two statements:
a.) if you look at it this way...
b.) if you see it this way...

It seems that "looking at it" implies total agency, and "seeing it" implies less, if any. I'm not sure how that works with the idea of intention. Or does loc\ill\perl have no relevancy outside of the rhetoric of persuasion?

Posted by: Cara Gillotti at February 26, 2004 10:27 AM