Author: Stephen C. Levinson
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
It might be held that a careful definition of the term speech act would virtually equate pragmatics with speech act theory. Some complication might arise at sub-speech act level – and indeed do, consider the tense of a sentence – but the point to be made is this: if one manages to understand the basics of speech act theory, then he is halfway through understanding at least the scope of pragmatics as a domain.
There are some interesting similarities between the birth of speech-act theory and the birth of argumentation theory. First, both were “unearthed” in response to the same philosophical excesses preached by logical positivism, namely the ‘unverifiability = meaningless’ doctrine. This happened in one unusually prosper period at end of the fifties: Perelman’s & Olbrechts-Tyteca’s Treatise (1958), Toulmin’s The Uses of Argument (1958), Austin’s How To Do Things With Words (delivered in 1955), and Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (published in 1958). But a third interesting similarity is that there was little, if any, intellectual influence between these authors. Just as Toulmin had no idea of Perelman’s & Olbrechts-Tyteca’s work at that time – although in spirit the two works are very much alike, Austin had no idea of Wittgenstein’s work at that time – although, again, the two works are driven by the same philosophical conceptions. As Levinson notes, with a touch of wit, “Austin set about demolishing, in his mild and urbane way, the view of language that would place truth conditions as central to language understanding” (228), which, we recall, is exactly what Wittgenstein was doing against… his previous self.
I believe we pretty much covered the basics of speech act theory here on this blog. Obviously, reading our coverage does not amount to reading the sources themselves, but should rather be seen as a way to ease along with their main views. So here’s a list:
Austin’s How To Do Things With Words (1962)
Searle’s What is a speech act? (1965)
Searle’s Speech acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (1969)
Searle’s A Taxonomy of Illocutionary Acts (1975)
Searle’s Indirect speech acts (1979)
These posts wrap up the theoretical input from Levinson’s pp. 226-243 (give or take). I will therefore not go into details any further. However, Levinson re-organizes things so as to make clear some complications which speech act theory gives rise to; he, as it were, “abstracts” the common principles from the Austin & Searle approach to form what he names “irreducibility thesis” (Thesis, for short) and then he compares it to the “reducibility thesis” (Antithesis, for short). Solely by reading the title of the textbook, one can predict that the Antithesis, the attempt to reduce acts to semantics and syntax, must have failed. Let us then see why.
The Thesis could be pinned down by listing its main postulates: (1) uttering is not only expressing propositions but also performing actions, (2) among the actions performed the one called illocutionary act is being given as a privileged one for pragmatic inquiry, (3) the action in question is associated with the form by convention, (4) each type has its identifiable “classic” form, (5) a set of felicity conditions jointly define and constitute the nature of any identifiable act. Now, if we join all these, like Searle did, it’s almost impossible not to end up trampling on the domain of semantics, for what the Thesis ultimately amounts to is saying: “illocutionary force is an aspect of meaning, broadly construed, that is quite irreducible to matters of truth and falsity” (246). Acts are felicitous vs. infelicitous and this cannot be reduced to true vs. false. In other words, illocutionary force is an aspect of meaning which, since it belongs to the realm of actions, has as its “semantic value” the value of appropriateness.
The Anthithesis, as you might expect, states just the opposite: “there is no need for a special theory of illocutionary force because the phenomena that taxed Austin are assimilable to standard theories of syntax and truth-conditional semantics. The “dissenters,” as Levinson calls them, rejected Austin’s idea that a promise or a bet is assessable solely in terms of felicity and proposed the exact opposite conception: by uttering them, the speaker makes them true or false. So, when you say I hereby warn you not to behave improperly, what you have said is true. To be more precise, a certain combination of clauses (syntax) and a certain semantic value (truth-conditions) might be and have been designed to treat utterances as events. Events, we know, are either true or false. Levinson discusses in some detail the difficulties of such an approach. It must be frankly said that, although such theories may sound absurd, especially to those accustomed to the type of reasoning usually going on within pragmatics, such semantic theories are endowed with certain elegance. Nonetheless, they might miss the entire point of the notion of speech act: “the action-like properties of utterances” (259) Also, there is no way to relate (1) with (2) below:
|(1) Why don’t you become an astronaut? |
(2) I ask you why don’t you become an astronaut, and if you can think of no good reasons why not, I suggest that you do
Levinson characterizes indirectness (see Searle’s Indirect Speech Acts above) as “a major problem for both Thesis and Antithesis” (p. 263) That is because both Thesis and Antithesis theorists are inevitably committed to the Literal Force Hypothesis (LFH) which could be summarized rather bluntly as: illocutionary force is built into sentence form. According to this hypothesis, the explicit performative, which could be boiled down to a form of the type I (hereby) Vp you (that) S, is either conventionally or truth-conditionally tied to a certain illocutionary force by virtue of the way the speaker “assigns” values to the “variables” Vp and S.
The next step is to view indirectness as a special case where the LFH is still standing and thus the LF must be, somehow, by some means, worked out. I’ll quote in full Levinson’s exposition of this conception:
Given the LFH, any sentence that fails to have the force associated with it […] is a problematic exception, and the standard line is to claim that, contrary to first intuitions, the sentence does in fact have the rule-associated force as its literal force, but simply has in addition an inferred indirect force. Thus, any usages other than those in accordance with [LFH] are indirect speech acts. (264)
But then (1) most usages are indirect, (2) what people do with sentences seems quite unrestricted by the surface form (i.e. sentence-type) of the sentences uttered and (3) some indirect speech acts have syntactic features of their own. How can the LFH still claim that force and form are strictly (and predictably!) associated? The two typical getaways are called idiom theory and inference theory. The former is the rather unsophisticated response of claiming that the primary (intended) act is achieved by an idiomatic expression (i.e. expressions which are not semantically equivalent to their parts). Thus, “Can you VP?” is an idiom for “I request you to VP”. Levinson notices that this explanation is not feasible (though it has been proposed by some theorists). First, both readings are simultaneously available and appropriate and responses to these utterances can be, within the same “speech event”, both available and appropriate. Moreover, consider this post. An idiomatic approach will eventually have to claim that all semantically non-equivalent instances of the e.g. indirect requests are idioms. Levinson scholarly loses his nerve and calls this an “embarrassment” (269)
Inference theory is what Searle illustrates in Indirect Speech Acts. In addition to the literal force in question, then, indirect speech acts manage to convey a second force which, by virtue of some Gricean-like inferences, is understood as primary. The entire procedure is explicated in the post on Searle’s famous article.
Both the idiom and the inference responses, however, fail to (1) explain why does one choose to perform acts indirectly instead of simply performing the needed one, (2) give no real theoretical (more the less empirical) evidence that Literal Forces are indeed conventional. If we are prepared to stand opposed to (2) then there’s no LF and there’s no indirect speech act. There’s only the context and the conversational goal(s) within that context, and we are only left with “a general problem of mapping speech act force onto sentences in context” (274). It is only in this sense that illocutionary force is “entirely pragmatic” (idem.) Are we then left with no theory? No, we can go back to the three, centuries-old sentence types: interrogative, declarative & imperative. Starting from there, we can adopt a Sperber & Wilson type of context-change theory (Levinson, obviously, does not cite from Relevance Theory since at that time it hadn’t been born yet). The basic assumption behind these theories is quite intuitive and could be expressed in the form: speech acts are operations on contexts; when a speech act is uttered, more has taken place than the (mere?) expression of “a” meaning. A context has been changed. The contribution that utterance makes to this change in the context is in fact the act (the “force of the act”, the “potential of the act” etc.) Levinson ends this section: “We await the full-scale theories that would provide answers […]”
In the remainder, Levinson expands on the notion of “speech event” and how a serious theoretical inquiry into this subject would “dethrone” the basic speech act theory. The whole idea behind speech-event approaches is quite unpretentions – and the attentive reader will recognize the radical loop back to Wittgenstein’s “meaning is use” and the closeness between “speech event” and “language game”. Utterances do not have previously mapped functions. They acquire these functions within contexts, i.e. within conversation. The examples Levinson gives in this section are instructive, but I think one of the examples from the next section illustrates better this language-game dependency. If we see the following exchange in isolation:
A1: I have a fourteen year old son
it will be perceived as at least hard to comprehend or even strange. What force do we assign to B1 and A2? Moreover, B2 is downright meaningless. However, if we embed the exchange in a context where A is trying to rent an apartment and raises a series of possible reasons for rejection (to B, which would be the landlord), everything starts to make sense. It is in this vein that “meaning is use”.
 Note firmly that this is not the same with the “meaning = truth-conditions” doctrine as it is (still) used in formal semantics. In a positive sense, the principle has no existential implications and works just fine as a ‘metaphysical’ hypothesis not about the world, but about/between two languages (an object and a meta- language).
 As far as I can tell, this “re-organization” belongs to him and is not a general view of speech act theory.
 This might need some elucidation. The point is that, when uttering something, we are performing a lot of acts, on different levels. For instance when saying “He is therefore not guilty”, a speaker (a) makes some noises out of his mouth, (b) produces some words with meaning, (c) produces a statement which is an assertion, and we could go on higher levels (d) defends his client, (e) making a living, (f) doing justice etc. Among these, within pragmatics, (b) is the one which renders itself neatly to the study of language from a, to put it rather bluntly, “speaker-context-speaker” point of view.
 Uttering an act and indicating its force (explicitly, as in I promise to come, or implicitly, as in I’ll come) is assimilated by Searle in the essential condition (“X counts as doing Y”) and this condition is conventional
 Levinson repeatedly uses this verb which, I believe, makes the whole enterprise something of a straw man. Of course they fail: they don’t even try. Searle – as well as Grice, implicitly – deal with institutionally unmarked, “normal”, co-operative situations. So, of course they fail. They don’t even have the theoretical apparatus to deal with such questions. It’s like saying to a mathematician that he will be stunned to find out that “x” in his theorem could be a monkey as well as a moped.