What is a Speech Act? A brief introduction to Searle’s theory on speech acts

Term Paper, 2016

9 Pages, Grade: 1,5


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Influences on Searle’s “What is a speech act?”
2.1. Grice’s Meaning (1957)
2.2. Austin’s How to do things with Words

3. John R. Searle: What is a Speech Act?

4. Searle’s further linguistic examinations

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

John R. Searle was born in 1932 in Denver, Colorado. In his article What is a Speech Act? Searle develops a “theory in the philosophy of a language, according to which speaking in a language is a matter of performing illocutionary acts with certain intentions, according to constitutive rules (Grewendorf / Meggle 2002: 4 ). The following paper will deal with the ideas on speech acts developed in Searle’s article.

It will first be attempted to provide a fundamental understanding of the assumptions Searle’s theory is based on. Hence, there will be a brief introduction to the theories of J.L. Austin and H.P. Grice, whom Searle’s article was mostly influenced by. Grice’s Meaning and Austin’s How to do things with words will constitute the reading mostly consulted.

After providing a basis for Searle’s theory, his article What is a Speech Act? will be looked at in detail. The examinations will include Searle’s distinction between regulative rules and constitutive rules and his introduction of the notions ‘proposition-indicating element’ and ‘function-indicating device’, as derived from ‘illocutionary act’ and ‘propositional content of an illocutionary act’. The focus will then be on Searle’s conditions for the illocutionary act of promising, and the rules for the use of the function-indicating device for promising, which he derives from these conditions.

There will finally be a brief overview on revisions and amendments Searle developed on his theory after 1965. These include a more detailed classification of speech acts and a distinction between speaker meaning and sentence meaning.

2. Influences on Searle’s “What is a speech act?”

In his article speech acts, mind, and social reality, Searle mentions two names his work on speech acts is influenced by: J.L. Austin and H.P. Grice. He adopted Austin’s theory on speech acts and approved of Grice’s “theory of meaning based on the idea that, in the making of a meaningful utterance, the speaker means something if and only if he intends to produce a certain effect on the hearer by getting the hearer to recognize his intention to produce that effect” (Speech acts, mind, and social reality p.4).

There will now be a brief introduction on Austin and Grice and on their theories. Therefore, the contents of Grice’s article Meaning and Austin’s How to do things with words will be outlined.

2.1. Grice’s Meaning (1957)

Grice points out that there are roughly two uses of the notion “meaning”: in a natural sense and in a nonnatural one. To the natural sense belong all the ‘meanings’ that something has when there is a non-conventional sign for this meaning. As an example, Grice gives the sentence "Those spots mean (meant) measles." (1957: .377) To the nonnatural sense, on the other hand, belong all the ‘meanings’ something has, when there is a conventional sign for this meaning; for example the bell ringing in a bus ‘means’ that it is full (Grice 1957: 378). He then goes on by examining in more detail what a nonnatural meaning is (Grice 1957: 379). He therefore takes a look at C. L. Stevenson, who argued that for x to meanNN something, x must have (roughly) a tendency to produce in an audience some attitude (cognitive or otherwise) and a tendency, in the case of a speaker, to be produced by that attitude, these tendencies being dependent on "an elaborate process of conditioning attending the use of the sign in communication." (1957: 379).

However, Grice does not view this as satisfying, since it does not become clear how to apply Stevenson’s analysis to what is meant by an expression on a particular occasion of use. Grice therefore comes up with his own analysis, which he summons as follows: ”Shortly, perhaps, we may say that "A meantNN something by x" is roughly equivalent to "A uttered x with the intention of inducing a belief by means of the recognition of this intention." (1975: 384).

2.2. Austin’s How to do things with Words

In order to deal with Austin’s whole book How to do things with words it would require a far more detailed examination than possible here. This is why only the topics relevant to Searle’s article What is a Speech Act ? will be looked at in the following, especially Austin’s division of speech acts, i.e. Lecture VIII and IX.

Austin divides each speech act into three different smaller acts. These are the ‘locutionary act’, the ‘illocutionary act’ and the ‘perlocutionary act’. The ‘locutionary act’ is the act of performing an utterance (“The act of ‘saying something’” (Austin 1962: 94). The ‘perlocutionary act’ is the actual effect the utterance has on the audience (1962: 101). The ‘illocutionary act’ is the intended action of the speaker. In order to find out which illocutionary act is performed, one has to take a look at the way the locution is used. This might be answering or asking a question, giving information and others (Austin 1962: 98).

Searle “combined [the ideas of Austin and Grice] with a theory of constitutive rules and institutional facts” (Grewendorf / Meggle 2002: 4). His aim was to provide a “theory in the philosophy of a language, according to which, speaking in a language is a matter of performing illocutionary acts with certain intentions, according to constitutive rules (2002: 4 ). Searle developed the “framework for the complete structure” (2002: 4 ) in his article What is a Speech Act? in 1965. This article and the theory underlying shall be examined in the following.

3. John R. Searle: What is a Speech Act?

Searle begins by pointing out that he will focus his examinations on Speech Acts on what Austin called „Illocutionary Acts”. Searle then describes this Illocutionary Act as “the production of the sentence token under certain conditions” and as “the minimal unit of linguistic communication” (1996: 110). His final goal is to find rules for performing an illocutionary act. In order to do so, he first deals with the notions “rules, propositions and meaning” (1996: 111).

Searle starts by distinguishing between regulative rules and constitutive rules. The former “regulate antecedently existing forms of behavior” (1996: 111) while the latter refer to forms of behavior that only exist because of this particular rule. As an example for a regulative rule, Searle mentions the rules of etiquette: The relationship between two people does exist without these rules. According to Searle, regulative rules “can be paraphrased by imperatives” (1996: 111) with the form “If Y do X” (1996: 112). Constitutive rules, on the other hand, are nonimperative and we often don’t perceive them “as rules at all” (1996: 112). Searle gives the example of the rules of football: The game only exists because of the rules. Constitutive rules can have the same form as regulative rules (“if Y do X”), but they also have the form “X counts as Y” (1996: 112). The semantics of a language consists of “a series of systems of constitutive rules” (1996: 112). Illocutionary acts are “performed in accordance with these rules”. Searle wants to find the regulative rules for a certain speech act and expects these rules to be imperatives.

Searle distinguishes “between the illocutionary act and the propositional content of an illocutionary act” 1996: 113), a distinction likewise used by Frege, Sheffer, Lewis, Reichenbach and Hare (1996: 113). Searle translates these notions into semantics by using the notions of ‘propositional indicator’ and ‘the indicator of illocutionary force’, i.e. the ‘proposition-indicating element’ and the ‘function-indicating device’ (1996: 113). The function-indicating device shows “what illocutionary act the speaker is performing in the utterance of the sentence” (1996: 113). The speaker can indicate this by stress, word order, performative verbs and others (1996: 113). In his further examinations, Searle focuses on the function-indicating device and the rules for using certain kinds of it. (1996: 114).

Under point four (“Meaning”), Searle introduces Grice’s definition of the term ‘meaning’ the following way: “To say that A meant something by x is to say that A intended the utterance of x to produce some effect in an audience by means of the recognition of this intention” (1996: 114). However, Searle criticizes that this does not hold true for all examples, since “meaning is more than a matter of intention; it is also a matter of convention” (1996: 115). In his analysis he wants to include both of these aspects of an illocutionary act.

Searle finally focuses on the illocutionary act of promising and tries to point out the necessary and sufficient conditions for the performance of this act (1996: 116). From these conditions he wants to derive a set of rules for “the use of the function-indicating device” (1996: 116). He emphasizes that he did not satisfyingly succeed in doing so, due to the difficulties in defining the notion of a promise. A sincere promise and a “grammatically well-formed sentence” as a point of departure (1996: 117), Searle comes up with nine conditions. These conditions shall be presented in the following.


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What is a Speech Act? A brief introduction to Searle’s theory on speech acts
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Franziska Müller (Author), 2016, What is a Speech Act? A brief introduction to Searle’s theory on speech acts, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/345644


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