June 13, 2004

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

Somewhere in Intention Anscombe says something along the lines of this: "Tremble!" is not a command that we can obey--even if we do tremble because the speaker has said it in a terrible voice. (Much of the Marx Brothers' humor rests on this kind of misunderstanding.)

[UPDATE: The actual quote is: "A voluntary action can be commanded. If someone says 'Tremble' and I tremble I am not obeying him--even if I tremble because he said it in a terrible voice. To play it as obedience would be a kind of sophisticated joke (characteristic of the Marx Brothers) which might be called 'playing language games wrong' (p. 33, section 20). I don't endorse any equation between 'voluntary' and 'commandable'--if you have a loony enough dictator "Grow taller!" can be a command or at least an exhortation, but growing taller isn't voluntary, even if it can be affected by voluntary actions.]

This [UPDATE: that 'Tremble!' is not a command] seems right, and probably is even righter the way Anscombe originally said it. But it leaves me with the question: What is the speech act performed when someone says "Tremble!" It doesn't seem to be advice, or request, or any of the other standard uses of the imperative either.

My stab at it:

What is being conveyed is

(1) It is appropriate for you to tremble.

And it's reasonable to use the imperative to do this because (1) is a kind of sentence that is intimately related to advice. Take the following advice (which might be felicitous under similar circumstances):

(2) Run away.

That seems to be felicitous pretty much whenever (3) is true:

(3) It is appropriate for you to run away.

If "Tremble!" were literally advice, it wouldn't make sense in most contexts, because there will rarely be any point in taking an action in order to bring it about that you tremble. (It would make sense if a director said it to an actor.) So that puts pressure on the addressee to find an alternate meaning. And (1), which is closely related to advice to tremble, may well be appropriate.

As ever, I'd appreciate hearing from anyone who knows about this, or who just has an uninformed opinion like me.

Posted by Matt Weiner at June 13, 2004 01:34 PM

You begin by saying that 'Tremble!' is not a command you can obey. I think I agree. It does not follow, however, that 'Tremble!' is not a command. I think it is a command, but a funny sort of one.

Consider 'Now hear this, ...!' You can't really obey, since you must have already heard it before you could choose to obey or disobey.

Or consider 'Be such that you were never born!' It is metaphysically impossible to obey, but the sentence still functions as a command.

The imperatives are funny because of the sort of activities that trembling, hearing, and never having been born are. I don't see how that precludes these sentences from being (at least putative) commands.

Posted by: P.D. at June 13, 2004 04:32 PM

I'm inclined to agree with PD, but I think he/she disposes of the issue a bit too quickly.

I take it that no one denies that the utterance "Trisect the angle!" has imperatival force. But that's something short of its being a command. I take it also that we're setting aside cases in which someone says "Phi!" in which the impossibility of phi'ing is (1) unknown to the speaker or (2) unknown to the hearer or (3) unknown to both. (1) and (3) obviously present no problems. In (2), I see no reason to deny that a command was given. It does seem that in order to rationalize the act of the speaker we might need to ascribe an intention to the speaker other than wanting to see to it that phi gets done. Thus, if I command A to trisect the angle, full rationalization of my action would require ascription to me of an intention to, say, cause A to waste their time, or to embarrass them, or something. But again, no problem seeing that as a command.

But in the case (4) where the impossibility of phi'ing is common knowledge between speaker and hearer, it's more problematic. Sure, when I say "Trisect the angle!" to a mathematically sophisticated hearer, my utterance is such that its conventional significance is a command. But I can't intelligibly have the sort of linguistic intention that normally is associated with making that command. (That is, seeing to it that my hearer trisects the angle or something similar.) And the linguistic intention is crucial to the identity of the speech act. It is, after all, an act. I doubt we would want to say that the conditions on psi'ing, where psi is a speech act, make no reference at all the intentions of the hearer. (That would incline in the directions of holding that someone can assert just by uttering a sentence of a certain type, which is obviously wrong.)

The crucial question, I think, is whether the linguistic intention accompanying a speech act needs to have a non-linguistic object. That is, can one assert that p only when one is trying to, e.g., communicate that p or the like? Or can one merely have an intention to assert that p, and count as asserting in virtue of that? If the latter, then someone can intentionally psi, where psi is a speech act, even if there is no way to construe their psi'ing as intelligibly related to other goals they might have. Returning to the issue at hand, if we take the latter course we could construe someone as commanding A to phi merely if they intend to do so, even if it's nonsensical for them to, e.g., try to get A to phi. If we take the former course, then we would have to find a further intention of the sort that Matt is casting about for in his post.

If we are going to look for that sort of further intention, don't forget the possibility that commadning someone to "Tremble!" could be a way of making a joke.

Posted by: bza at June 14, 2004 02:59 PM

Sorry for taking so long to respond here. I think you folks are both right to say that "Tremble!" could be a command. Anscombe, in the original quote (now supplied in the updated post), is certainly wrong to imply that anything that can be commanded is a voluntary action--"Be here at eight" is a sensible command, and there's Kim Jong Il's "Grow taller!"

My thought, though, is that it's possible to sensibly say "Tremble!" even when it's common knowledge that trembling is not under the hearer's voluntary control. I'm thinking of something like "I can crush you at any time--tremble at my power!" Maybe "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!" is like that (although it could also be one of those things that look like conjoined imperatives but turn out to be conditionals, which I blogged about here).

The relevant difference between "Tremble!" and "Trisect the angle!" and "Be such that you were never born!" is that trembling is an expression of a state of mind. One way to put it is that the target is imperatives whose contents are involuntary actions rather than voluntary ones.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at June 17, 2004 12:17 PM