February 25, 2004

Illocution v. Intention v. Steyn and Coulter

I think I should be clearer about my proposal in the post about illocutionary acts and intentions. To do so, I'm going to use an example that's political--but if you can't attack Ann Coulter for belittling a triple-amputee Vietnam Vet, what can you do? (Background here and here.) So, here's my proposal:

There are four aspects to a speech act, in order:
(1) The words/sentence uttered
(2) The norms put into play by the speech act--which I take to be definitive of what acts are actually performed
(3) The effect it's intended to have
(4) The effect it does have.

The traditional category of illocution is spread across (2) and (3). For an assertion, (2) will include not only what is literally asserted but what is implicated (and similarly for other moods).

Two examples:

(5) You: What do you think of Mark Steyn? Me: He endorsed Anne Coulter's attack on Max Cleland.

(6) You: Is Mark Steyn trustworthy?
Me: He endorsed Anne Coulter's attack on Max Cleland.

In both dialogues, I am denigrating Mark Steyn--I am attempting to get you to think ill of him (which would traditionally count as an illocution, I'm pretty sure). But in (5) that is an effect in stage 3; in (6) the implicature that Steyn is untrustworthy is in stage 2.

First, note that in both (5) and (6) the sentence I utter is literally true. But in both cases an implicature is generated by the maxim of relevance--the sentence does not have a form of an answer to your question, but you are meant to interpret as relevant. In (5) [given assumptions about my opinion of Coulter] you can calculate that I think Steyn is a bad person. This is obviously meant to get you to think the same--but if Steyn were in fact a good person, I still wouldn't have maligned him. All I've done is present the facts and let you draw your conclusions.

(6) is quite different. The implicature is that Steyn is not trustworthy, and that Coulter's attack is inaccurate (even if technically true). If Coulter's attack were accurate, or if Steyn were trustworthy, I would have maligned Steyn (and her). In (6), I am putting my reputation behind the implicature that Steyn is untrustworthy. I am effectively telling you that Steyn is not trustworthy, if not in so many words.

I think this line might help Chris Bertram against some of the attacks he faces in that thread. Chris said that the illocutionary effect of Steyn and Coulter's insinuations was to demean and belittle Cleland and neutralize him as a Bush critic. He was then accused of judging speech by its political effectiveness rather than by its accuracy.

Well, in my framework those effects are in stage (3), and even if the intended effects are bad, that doesn't justify charges of inaccuracy. But Steyn and Coulter clearly implicated, among other things, that Cleland was not heroic (in fact, he had volunteered for a combat mission and had previously won a Silver Star). That's a stage (2) effect, and it's false. In my book that's enough to classify their writings as "inaccurate even if technically true."

Posted by Matt Weiner at February 25, 2004 07:05 PM

I've deleted a comment that accused me of smearing Coulter by falsely implicating that she was belittling Cleland's Vietnam service rather than his political behavior, along with an intemperate response from myself. Coulter said twice that Cleland dropped a grenade on himself; I think this is enough to verify my accusation that she was belittling Cleland's service, especially since Coulter was wrong. But I want to keep this sort of argument off this blog; there are other places to argue about whether Coulter's attack on Cleland's service was fair. As I said in the first post, the philosophical point holds no matter what you think of the merit of the example.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at March 2, 2004 05:22 PM