Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Outline of Davidson's "A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs"

A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs

Donald Davidson

  1. The phenomenon of the malapropism.

"A malapropism is an incorrect usage of a word by substituting a similar-sounding word with different meaning, usually with comic effect."

Pasted from <>

A. "What is interesting is the fact that in all these cases the hearer has no trouble understanding the speaker in the way the speaker intends" (p. 473).

B. "The hearer realizes that the 'standard' interpretation cannot be the intended interpretation; through ignorance, inadvertance, or design the speaker has used a word similar in sound to the word that would have 'correctly' expressed his [sic] meaning" (p. 473).

C. Why malapropisms are philosophically important.

"We want a deeper notion of what words, when spoken in context, mean; and like the shallow notion of correct usage, we want the deep concept to distinguish between what a speaker, on a given occasion, means, and what his [sic] words mean. The widespread existence of malapropisms and their kin threatens the distinction, since here the intended meaning seems to take over from the standard meaning" (p. 474).

  1. Popular theory: distinction between speaker's meaning and first meaning.

Davidson refers to first meaning instead of literal meaning, because literal meaning "is too encrusted with philosophical and other extras to do much work" (p. 474).

-First meaning "applies to words and sentences as uttered by a particular speaker on a particular occasion" (p. 474).

-If the first meaning is sufficiently normal or standard, then the first meaning can be found in a dictionary, but "first meaning comes first in the order of interpretation" (p. 474). This means that sometimes it is necessary to investigate the original context to ascertain the first meaning.

Investigating the context also requires an investigation of an understanding hearer.

-In order to narrow first meaning to languages, first meaning requires that hearer(s) share a "complex system or theory with the speaker, a system which makes possible the articulation of logical relations between utterances, and explains the ability to interpret novel utterances in an organized way" (p. 475).

Three principles of first meaning:

1. First meaning is systematic.

2. First meanings are shared.

3. First meanings are governed by learned conventions or regularities.

Problems with the principles:

1. Ambiguity

"Though the verbal and other features of the context of utterance often determine a correct interpretation, it is not easy or perhaps even possible to specify clear rules for disambiguation" (p. 475).

Disambiguation cannot easily be codified into a system or theory.

2. Order of words.

-"The difference between 'They got married and had a child' and 'They had a child and got married' (pp. 475-476).

-Discerning the significance of the order of words cannot easily be codified into a system or theory.

"-No amount of common sense unaccompanied by linguistic lore would enable an interpreter to figure it out" (p. 476).

3. Malapropisms: they "introduce expressions not covered by prior learning, or familiar expressions which cannot be interpreted by any of the abilities so far discussed" (p. 476).


1. A language user has a recursive theory of understanding. The interpreter does not need to be aware that he/she is actually employing any specific theory.

2. "What must be shared is the interpreter's and the speaker's understanding of the speaker's words" (p. 477).

3. An interpreter reflexively revises his/her theory of interpretation if it is inadequate.

This gives up principle #3 because learned conventions or regularities do not account for this response.

Response #3 indicates either:

a. The analysis of first meaning needs a stronger account of the malapropism phenomenon, or

b. We should abandon the distinction between first meaning and speaker's meaning and try something else.

Davidson's problem remains:

-"I want to know how people who already have a language (whatever exactly that means) manage to apply their skill or knowledge to actual cases of interpretation. All the things I assume an interpreter knows or can do depend on his [sic] having a mature set of concepts, and being at home with the business of linguistic communication. My problem is to describe what is involved in the idea of 'having a language' or of being at home with the business of linguistic communication" (p. 479).

  1. Davidson's Proposal

Interpreter's Point of View

1. At any time during a speech transaction, an interpreter has a prior theory of interpretation.

2. The interpreter automatically modifies his/her prior theory in response to empirical evidence as it becomes available.

E.g., "Knowledge of the character, dress, role, sex of the speaker, and whatever else has been gained by observing the speaker's behavior, linguistic or otherwise" (p. 479).

"As the speaker speaks his [sic] piece the interpreter alters his [sic] theory" (p. 479).

3. The theory that an interpreter uses for an occasion is "geared to the occasion" (p. 479).

-This particular theory may or may not be suitable for another occasion. An interpreter will decide whether to abandon or retain a modified theory.

Speaker's Point of View

1. A speaker wants to be understood, so he/she will choose a method of communication that will be interpreted in a predictable way (p. 479).

2. In order to accomplish this predictability, the speaker "forms, or uses, a picture of the interpreter's readiness to interpret along certain lines" (p. 479).

3. 'Certain lines' may include predicting that the interpreter will revise his/her theory of interpretation (p. 479).

Key Terms:

Prior Theory:

"For the hearer, the prior theory expresses how he [sic] is prepared in advance to interpret an utterance of the speaker" (p. 480).

"For the speaker, the prior theory is what he [sic] believes the interpreter's prior theory to be" (p. 480).

Passing Theory:

For the hearer, the passing theory is how the interpreter actually interprets an utterance (p. 480).

For the speaker, the passing theory is the theory that he/she "intends the interpreter to use" (p. 480).

New problem with the principles of first meaning:

-"The distinction between the prior and the passing theory, if taken seriously, undermines this commonly accepted account of linguistic competence and communication" (p. 480).

-Neither the prior theory nor the passing theory satisfy the need for a convention of language.

1. Each communicator has a unique prior theory, and two communicators must possess the same passing theory in order to understand each other. The prior theories may be conventional, but they are never the theories used to achieve understanding in communication, and prior theories are never shared. In addition, the passing theory is not a language, since communicators only use it to understand a transient communication at a given moment.

2. "What interpreter and speaker share, to the extent that communication succeeds, is not learned and so is not a language governed by rules or conventions known to the speaker and interpreter in advance; but what the speaker and interpreter know in advance is not (necessarily) shared, and so is not a language governed by shared rules or conventions" (p. 482).

The missing link: the strategy of getting from a prior theory to a passing theory.

-"What I have been leaving out of account up to now is what Haber calls a 'strategy', which is a nice word for the mysterious process by which a speaker or hearer uses what he [sic] knows in advance plus present data to produce a passing theory. What two people need, if they are to understand one another through speech, is the ability to converge on passing theories from utterance to utterance. Their starting points, however far back we want to take them, will usually be very different--as different as the ways in which they acquired their linguistic skills. So also, then, will the strategies and strategems that bring about convergence differ" (p. 482).

< ? > Maybe 'language' is a 'strategy'?

Davidson says no. A strategy is very foreign from any standard way of characterizing a language.

-"We have discovered no learnable common core of consistent behavior, no shared grammar or rules, no portable interpreting machine set to grind out the meaning of an arbitrary utterance" (p. 482).

-"There are no rules for arriving at passing theories, no rules in any strict sense, as opposed to rough maxims and methodological generalities" (p. 482).

Best solution: give up the principles of first meaning.

-"We must give up the idea of a clearly defined shared structure which language-users acquire and then apply to cases" (p. 483).

-"We should give up the attempt to illuminate how we communicate by appeal to conventions" (p. 483).

Sunday, March 18, 2007

On Searle's Structure of Illocutionary Acts

Rhetorical Aspects of Illocutionary Acts

Illocutionary acts function in a parallel way to uttering propositions. Austin’s analysis of performative utterances provides a framework for discussing the content of utterances that do not only contain propositions. According to Austin, a performative utterance has a dimension of felicity that measures the extent to which a speaker’s veracity. However, performative utterances are not pure felicity claims. Performative utterances come in different species, and each functions differently. Searle’s further analysis of Austin allows us to view performative utterances with more analytical clarity. Searle recasts the performative utterance as an illocutionary act, perhaps because illocutionary acts are not necessarily oral utterances (they can be nonverbal or written). Because of added analysis, Searle defines a variety of requirements for each type of illocutionary act. In addition, Searle describes how illocutionary acts can succeed, fail, or be defective. This essay will begin by briefly describing the requirements that Searle defines for the archetype illocutionary act: promising. Then, we will explore how illocutionary acts can have a persuasive effect on its witnesses.

In Searle’s discussion, the archetype for an illocutionary act is a promise. Searle argues that a successful and non-defective promise must meet nine requirements. Here, I will briefly explore each.

(1) Normal input and output conditions obtain. (p. 141)

Normal conditions establish that the speakers and listeners are able to communicate with each other, which implies that they are able and willing to speak the same language. They understand the other when the other speaks, and there are no physical impediments preventing a meeting of the minds.

(2) The speaker expresses a promise as a proposition and that proposition can be extracted from the whole speech act. (p. 142)

Searle expresses that this condition is necessary in order for the philosopher of language to analyze the propositional content apart from the speech act as a whole. If this is not possible, then we would not be able to analyze the later conditions.

(3) In expressing a promise, the speaker predicates that he/she will do a specific future act. (p. 142)

This condition rules out promises that the speaker will have done something in the past, or that the speaker promises that someone else will do something (either in the future or in the past). According to Searle, conditions 1-3 are propositional content conditions.

(4) The hearer would prefer that the speaker do the act promised rather than the speaker not do the act promised. In addition, the speaker believes that the hearer actually has this preference. (p. 142)

This condition differentiates promises from threats. Condition 4 excludes threats. Searle differentiates between doing something to someone and doing something for someone. In the case of doing something that another person would rather not be done, Searle would define the accompanying speech act as certainly not a promise. If an act done to another person is an act that the person desired or wanted, then the accompanying speech act might be a promise (it still has to meet the other requirements). This condition does not evaluate the moral nature (good or bad) of the act in itself, so we can conceivably promise to do something wrong to someone else if that person wanted it done.

(5) It is not obvious to the speaker and it is not obvious to the hearer that the speaker will do the promised act in the normal course of events. (p. 143)

Searle says that this condition ensures that promises actually have a point. Searle calls conditions 4 and 5 preparatory conditions, but I think that an uncertainty condition is a better way to characterize condition 5, because it requires that the speaker can fail to fulfill the promise. Searle’s example is extremely important here: “A happily married man who promises his wife he will not desert her in the next week is likely to provide more anxiety than comfort” (p. 143).

(6) The speaker intends to do the act promised. (p. 143)

Searle specifies this condition to ensure that a successful promise must be sincere. In addition, Searle says, “The speaker believes it is possible for him [sic] to do the act (or to refrain from doing it)” (p. 143).

(7) The speaker intends that the utterance of the promise will place him or her under an obligation to do the promised act. (p. 143)

One of the hallmarks of a promise is that they have a mechanism that applies a certain amount of force on the speaker to do the promised act. Searle says, “If a speaker can demonstrate that he [sic] did not have this intention in a given utterance he [sic] can prove that the utterance was not a promise” (p. 143). Many people would say that this is a moral condition, but Searle goes a step further by calling it an essential condition. Unbinding promises are not merely immoral, they are not promises at all.

(8) The speaker intends to produce in the hearer the knowledge that the spoken promise places the speaker under an obligation to do the promised act. Also, the speaker intends to produce this knowledge by means of the recognition of the spoken promise, and the speaker intends the promise to be recognized in virtue of the hearer’s knowledge of the meaning of the spoken promise. (p. 144)

Searle paraphrases this requirement in a number of ways. Searle says:

The speaker intends to produce a certain illocutionary effect by means of getting the hearer to recognize his [sic] intention to produce the effect, and he [sic] also intends this recognition to be achieved in virtue of the fact that the meaning of the item he [sic] utters conventionally associates it with producing that effect. (p. 144)

As far as I can discern, this requirement says that the spoken promise will cause the hearer to understand that the spoken promise will put the speaker under an obligation. If the hearer believes that the speech act produces an obligation, but the justification for that belief does not come from the speech act, then that case would fail to meet condition 8.

(9) The semantical rules of the dialect spoken by the speaker and hearer are such that the spoken promise is correctly and sincerely uttered iff conditions 1-8 obtain.

Searle explains that condition 9 avoids “counter-examples like the captured soldier example” (p. 144). Therefore, Searle may be saying that condition 9 indicates that the grammatical and semantic rules of a particular language govern the meaning of a speech act. There might be cases where a listener interprets a speech act in a certain way because he/she does not understand the speaker’s language. In these cases, dubious guesses as to the meaning of a speech act do not provide a legitimate foundation for the previous conditions. Conditions 1-8 are collectively necessary and sufficient for a successful and sincere promise.

These conditions sound right, and it is important to understand that speech acts have dimensions of success and dimensions of sincerity that depend on more than the speaker’s beliefs. There are conditions that specify beliefs of the hearer, and the status of a speech act as a promise counts on certain beliefs of the hearer. If we use a promise as an archetype, there are hearer-conditions, and I will discuss two of them here. Condition 4 states that the hearer would prefer that the speaker do the act promised rather than the speaker not do the act promised (p. 142). Also, condition 5 states that it is not obvious to the speaker and it is not obvious to the hearer that the speaker will do the promised act in the normal course of events (p. 143). These conditions function in such a way that the speakers and hearers come to expect promises to meet the conditions.

In the case of successful and genuine promises, the speaker always gratifies the hearer’s expectations. However, this phenomenon begins to produce interesting effects on the speaker(s) and listener(s) when the promise is either unsuccessful or insincere. Consider what would happen if a speaker tried to utter a speech act that met all the criteria except for condition 4. In this case, the speech act would appear as a promise in all respects, except it is not the case that the hearer wants the speaker to do the intended act. There are two probable ways for a hearer to react to such a speech act. If we used Searle’s example and said “If you don’t hand in you paper on time I promise you I will give you a failing grade in the course” (p. 142), then the student would probably respond in one of two ways. On one hand, the student can react the way Searle characterizes that speech act: the teacher’s promise is not a promise, but a threat (p. 142). If the student reacts the same way that Searle responds, then the student interprets the speech act as a threat, not a promise. On the other hand, the student may be aware of condition 4 and the speech act may persuade the hearer to want the speaker to do the promised act. In that case, the teacher’s speech act has a rhetorical effect on hearer; the speech act becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Condition 5 may function in the same rhetorical way. Condition 5 states that it is not obvious to the speaker and it is not obvious to the hearer that the speaker will do the promised act in the normal course of events (p. 143). If a speaker utters a speech act that satisfies all the promise conditions except for condition 5, then the speech act may have a similar rhetorical impact on the hearer. In those cases, the speech act may persuade either the speaker or the listener (or both) that it is not obvious that the speaker will do the promised act in the normal course of events. If this phenomenon affects the speaker, then the speech act may cause a certain speaker to become uncertain. In addition, if this phenomenon affects the hearer, then the speech act may cause a certain hearer to become uncertain. This latter scenario coheres with Searle: “A happily married man who promises his wife he will not desert her in the next week is likely to provide more anxiety than comfort” (p. 143).