Levels of speech acts

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Speech acts are a staple of everyday communicative life, but only became a topic of sustained investigation, at least in the English-speaking world, in the middle of the Twentieth Century. Since that time “speech act theory” has been influential not only within philosophy, but also in linguistics, psychology, legal theory, artificial intelligence, literary theory and many other scholarly disciplines. Recognition of the importance of speech acts has illuminated the ability of language to do other things than describe reality. In the process the boundaries among the philosophy of language, the philosophy of action, the philosophy of mind and even ethics have become less sharp


1. Levels of speech acts
1.1 Locutionary, Illocutionary, and Perlocutionary acts
1.2 Direct, indirect and nonliteral speech acts
1.2.1 John Searle's theory of "indirect speech acts"
Chapter two:
2. Force, Norms, and Conversation
2.1 Speech Acts and Conversation Analysis
2.2 Speech Acts and Scorekeeping
Chapter three:
3. Force-Indicators and the Logically Perfect Language
4. Do Speech Acts Have a Logic?

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Step 3: The literal meaning of (2) is not relevant to the conversation.

Step 4: Since X assumes that Y is cooperating; there must be another meaning to (2).

Step 5: Based on mutually shared background information, X knows that they cannot leave until Y is ready. Therefore, Y has rejected X's proposition.

Step 6: X knows that Y has said something in something other than the literal meaning, and the primary illocutionary act must have been the rejection of X's proposal.

Searle argues that a similar process can be applied to any indirect speech act as a model to find the primary illocutionary act (178). His proof for this argument is made by means of a series of supposed "observations".





Chapter two:


  1. Force, Norms, and Conversation

In elucidating this normative dimension of force, we have brought speech acts into their conversational context. That is not to say that speech acts can only be performed in the setting of a conversation: someone can approach you, point out that your vehicle is blocking his, and storm off. Here someone has made an assertion but has not engaged in a conversation. Perhaps someone can ask himself a question in the privacy of his study and leave it at that–not continuing into a conversation with himself. However, it might reasonably be held that a speech act's ecological niche is nevertheless the conversation. In that spirit, while we may be able to remove it from its environment and scrutinize it in isolated captivity, doing so may leave us blind to some of its distinctive features.

3.1 Speech Acts and Conversation Analysis

This ecological analogy sheds light on a dispute over the question whether speech acts can profitably be studied in isolation from the conversations in which they occur. An empiricist framework, exemplified in John Stuart Mill's, A System of Logic, suggests attempting to discern the meaning of a word, for instance a proper name, in isolation. By contrast, Gottlob Frege (1884) enjoins us to understand a word's meaning in terms of the contribution it makes to an entire sentence. Such a method is indispensable for a proper treatment of such expressions as quantifiers, and represents a major advance over empiricist approaches. Yet students of speech acts have espoused going even further, insisting that the unit of significance is not the proposition but the speech act. Vanderveken writes,

Illocutionary acts are important for the purpose of philosophical semantics because they are the primary units of meaning in the use and comprehension of natural language. (Vanderveken, 1990, p. 1.)

Why not go even further, since speech acts characteristically occur in conversations? Is the unit of significance really the debate, the colloquy, the interrogation?

Students of so-called conversation analysis have contended precisely this, remarking that many speech acts fall naturally into pairs. For instance, questions pair naturally with assertions when the latter purport to be answers. Likewise, offers pair naturally with acceptances or rejections, and it is easy to multiply examples. Searle, who favors studying speech acts in isolation, has replied to these considerations (Searle 1992). There he issues a challenge to students of conversation to provide an account of conversations parallel to that of speech acts, arguing as well that the prospects for such an account are dim. One of his reasons is that unlike speech acts conversations do not as such have a point or purpose. More recently, Asher and Lascardes 2003 have defended a more systematic treatment of speech acts in their conversational setting that responds to Searle's challenge.

3.2 Speech Acts and Scorekeeping

Much literature concerned with speech acts is curiously disconnected from certain traditions flowing from work in the semantics of natural language emphasizing pragmatic factors. For instance, Stalnaker (1972, 1973, 1974) Lewis (1979, 1980), Thomason (1990) and others have developed models of the evolution of conversations aimed at understanding the role of quantification, presupposition (both semantic and pragmatic), anaphora, deixis, and vagueness in discourse. Such models typically construe conversations as involving an ever-developing set of propositions (construed as the conversational “common ground”) that can be presupposed by interlocutors. (Such propositions may, but need not be, understood as sets of possible worlds.) Other parameters characterizing a conversation at a given point include the domain of discourse, a set of salient perceptible objects, standards of precision, time, world or situation, speaker, addressee, and so forth. The set of all values for these items at a given conversational moment is often referred to as “conversational score”.

“Scorekeeping” approaches to language use typically construe a contribution to a conversation as a proposition: If that “assertion” is accepted, then the score is updated accordingly. Little attention is paid to the question whether that proposition is put forth as a conjecture, guess, assertion, or supposition for the sake of argument. An enrichment of the scorekeeping model would do just this. Accordingly Green 1999 attempts a synthesis of some aspects of this scorekeeping model, Gricean pragmatics, and concepts pertaining to speech acts.

















Chapter three:


  1. Force-Indicators and the Logically Perfect Language

Frege's Begriffschrift constitutes history's first thoroughgoing attempt to formulate a rigorous formal system. However, Frege did not see his Begriffschrift as merely a tool for assessing the validity of arguments. Rather, he appears to have seen it as an organon for the acquisition of knowledge from unquestionable first principles; in addition he wanted to use it in order to help make clear the epistemic foundations on which our knowledge rests. To this end his formal system contains not only symbols indicating the content of propositions (including logical constants), but also symbols indicating the force with which they are put forth. In particular, Frege insists that when using his formal system to acquire new knowledge from proposition already known, we use an assertion sign to indicate our acknowledgment of the truth of the proposition used as axioms or inferred therefrom. Frege thus employs what would now be called a force indicator: an expression whose use indicates the force with which an associated proposition is being put forth. (Green 2002).

Reichenbach expands upon Frege's idea in his 1947. In addition to using an assertion sign, Reichenbach also uses indicators of interrogative and imperatival force. Hare similarly introduces force indicators to lay bare the way in which ethical and cognate utterances are made (Hare 1970). Davidson, however, challenges the value of this entire enterprise, arguing that since natural language already contains many devices for indicating the force of one's speech act, the only interest in a force indicator would be if it could guarantee the force of one's speech act. But nothing could: Any device purporting to be, say, an infallible indicator of assertoric force is liable to being used by a joker or actor to heighten the realism of her performance:

It is easy to see that merely speaking the sentence in the strengthened mood cannot be counted on to result in an assertion; every joker, storyteller, and actor will immediately take advantage of the strengthened mood to simulate assertion. There is no point, then, in the strengthened mood; the available indicative does as well as language can do in the service of assertion (Davidson 1979, p. 311).

Dummett 1993 and Hare 1989 reply to Davidson. Hare in particular remarks that there could be a society with a convention that utterance of a certain expression constituted performance of a certain illocutionary act. Green 1997 questions the relevance of this observation to the issue of illocutionary acts, which, as we have seen, seem to require intentions for their performance. Just as no convention could make it the case that I believe that P (though perhaps a convention could make it the case that people say I believe that P), so too no convention could make it the case that I intend to put forth a certain sentence as an assertion.

On the other hand, Green 1997 and Green 2000 also observe that even if there can be no force indicator in the sense Davidson criticizes, nothing prevents natural language from containing devices that indicate force conditional upon one's performing a speech act: Such a force indicator would not show whether one is performing a speech act, but, given that one is doing so, which speech act one is performing. For instance, parenthetical expressions such as, ‘as is the case’ can occur in the antecedent of conditionals, as in: ‘If, as is the case, the globe is warming, then Greenland will melt.’ Use of the parenthetical cannot guarantee that the sentence or any part of it is being asserted, but if the entire sentence is being asserted, then, Green claims, use of the parenthetical guarantees that the speaker is committed to the content of the antecedent. If that claim is correct, natural language already contains force indicators in this qualified sense. Whether it is worth introducing such force indicators into a logical notation remains an open question.


  1. Do Speech Acts Have a Logic?

Students of speech acts contend, as we have seen, that the unit of communicative significance is the speech act rather than the proposition. This attitude prompts the question whether logic itself might be enriched by incorporating inferential relations among speech acts rather than just inferential relations among propositions. Since particulars cannot stand in inferential relations to one another, no such relations could obtain between individual speech acts. However, just as two events E1 and E2 (such as running quickly and running) could be logically related to one another in that it is not possible for one to occur without the other; so too speech act types S1 and S2 could be inferentially related to one another if it is not possible to perform one without performing the other. A warning that the bull is about to charge is also an assertion that the bull is about to charge but the converse is not true. This is in spite of the fact that these two speech acts have the same propositional content: That the bull is about to charge. If, therefore, warning implies asserting but not vice versa, then that inferential relation is not to be caught within the net of inferential relations among propositions.

In their Foundations of Illocutionary Logic (1985), Searle and Vanderveken attempt a general treatment of logical relations among speech acts. They describe their central question in terms of commitment:

A theory of illocutionary logic of the sort we are describing is essentially a theory of illocutionary commitment as determined by illocutionary force. The single most important question it must answer is this: Given that a speaker in a certain context of utterance performs a successful illocutionary act of a certain form, what other illocutions does the performance of that act commit him to? (1985, p. 6)

To explicate their notion of illocutionary commitment, these authors invoke their definition of illocutionary force in terms of the seven. The features are:

1. Illocutionary point: This is the characteristic aim of each type of speech act. For instance, the characteristic aim of an assertion is to describe how things are; the characteristic point of a promise is to commit oneself to a future course of action.

2. Degree of strength of the illocutionary point: Two illocutions can have the same point but differ along the dimension of strength. For instance, requesting and insisting that the addressee do something both have the point of attempting to get the addressee to do that thing; however, the latter is stronger than the former.

3. Mode of achievement: This is the special way, if any, in which the illocutionary point of a speech act must be achieved. Testifying and asserting both have the point of describing how things are; however, the former also involves invoking one's authority as a witness while the latter does not. To testify is to assert in one's capacity as a witness. Commanding and requesting both aim to get the addressee to do something; yet only someone issuing a command does so in her capacity as a person in a position of authority.

4. Propositional content conditions: Some illocutions can only be achieved with an appropriate propositional content. For instance, someone can only promise what is in the future and under his control. Someone can only apologize for what is in some sense under his control and already the case. For this reason, promising to make it the case that the sun did not rise yesterday is not possible; neither can someone apologize for the truth of Snell's Law.

5. Preparatory conditions: These are all other conditions that must be met for the speech act not to misfire. Such conditions often concern the social status of interlocutors. For instance, a person cannot bequeath an object unless she already owns it or has power of attorney; a person cannot marry a couple unless she is legally invested with the authority to do so.

6. Sincerity conditions: Many speech acts involve the expression of a psychological state. Assertion expresses belief; apology expresses regret, a promise expresses an intention, and so on. A speech act is sincere only if the speaker is in the psychological state that her speech act expresses.

7. Degree of strength of the sincerity conditions: Two speech acts might be the same along other dimensions, but express psychological states that differ from one another in the dimension of strength. Requesting and imploring both express desires, and are identical along the other six dimensions above; however, the latter expresses a stronger desire than the former.

On the basis of this definition, they define two notions pertinent to entailment relations among speech acts, namely strong illocutionary commitment and weak illocutionary commitment.

An appropriate definition of illocutions would enable us to explain, rather than merely describe, some features of speech acts. Vanderveken 1990 offers a set of tableaux depicting inferential relations among speech acts. For instance, the following is a fragment of his tableaux for assertives–speech acts whose illocutionary point is to describe how things are: castigate  reprimand  accuse  blame  criticize  assert  suggest where strong illocutionary validity moves from left to right. This is because all these speech acts have the illocutionary point of describing how things are, but the propositional content conditions and degree of strength of illocutionary point conditions become increasingly less stringent as we move from left to right. Accounts of this sort offer hope of our being able informatively answer such questions whether someone who castigates an addressee for some state of affairs is also assertorically committed to the obtaining of that state of affairs. Might we discover “illocutionary tautologies”, “illocutionary absurdities” and other phenomena that could shed light on such utterances as “This very utterance is an assertion”, “I doubt this very claim”? Affirmative answers to such questions will be needed if we are to justify our use of “speech act theory.



Pretheoretically, we think of an act of communication, linguistic or otherwise, as an act of expressing oneself. This rather vague idea can be made more precise if we get more specific about what is being expressed. Take the case of an apology. If you utter, '[I'm] sorry I didn't call back' and intend this as an apology, you are expressing regret for something, in this case for not returning a phone call. An apology just is the act of (verbally) expressing regret for, and thereby acknowledging, something one did that might have harmed or at least bothered the hearer. An apology is communicative because it is intended to be taken as expressing a certain attitude, in this case regret. It succeeds as such if it is so taken. In general, an act of communication succeeds if it is taken as intended. That is, it must be understood or, in Austin's words, 'produce uptake'. With an apology, this a matter of the addressee recognizing the speaker's intention to be expressing regret for some deed or omission. Using a special device such as the performative 'I apologize' may of course facilitate understanding (understanding is correlative with communicating), but in general this is unnecessary. Communicative success is achieved if the speaker chooses his words in such a way that the hearer will, under the circumstances of utterance, recognize his communicative intention. So, for example, if you spill some beer on someone and say 'Oops' in the right way, your utterance will be taken as an apology for what you did.

In saying something one generally intends more than just to communicate--getting oneself understood is intended to produce some effect on the listener. However, our speech act vocabulary can obscure this fact. When one apologizes, for example, one may intend not merely to express regret but also to seek forgiveness. Seeking forgiveness is, strictly speaking, distinct from apologizing, even though one utterance is the performance of an act of both types. As an apology, the utterance succeeds if it is taken as expressing regret for the deed in question; as an act of seeking forgiveness, it succeeds if forgiveness is thereby obtained. Speech acts, being perlocutionary as well as illocutionary, generally have some ulterior purpose, but they are distinguished primarily by their illocutionary type, such as asserting, requesting, promising and apologizing, which in turn are distinguished by the type of attitude expressed. The perlocutionary act is a matter of trying to get the hearer to form some correlative attitude and in some cases to act in a certain way. For example, a statement expresses a belief and normally has the further purpose of getting the addressee form the same belief. A request expresses a desire for the addressee to do a certain thing and normally aims for the addressee to intend to and, indeed, actually do that thing. A promise expresses the speaker's firm intention to do something, together with the belief that by his utterance he is obligated to do it, and normally aims further for the addressee to expect, and to feel entitled to expect, the speaker to do it.

Statements, requests, promises and apologies are examples of the four major categories of communicative illocutionary acts: constatives, directives, commissives and acknowledgments. This is the nomenclature used by Kent Bach and Michael Harnish, who develop a detailed taxonomy in which each type of illocutionary act is individuated by the type of attitude expressed (in some cases there are constraints on the content as well). There is no generally accepted terminology here, and Bach and Harnish borrow the terms 'constative' and 'commissive' from Austin and 'directive' from Searle. They adopt the term 'acknowledgment', over Austin's 'behabitive' and Searle's 'expressive', for apologies, greetings, congratulations etc., which express an attitude regarding the hearer that is occasioned by some event that is thereby being acknowledged, often in satisfaction of a social expectation. Here are assorted examples of each type:

Constatives: affirming, alleging, announcing, answering, attributing, claiming, classifying, concurring, confirming, conjecturing, denying, disagreeing, disclosing, disputing, identifying, informing, insisting, predicting, ranking, reporting, stating, stipulating

Directives: advising, admonishing, asking, begging, dismissing, excusing, forbidding, instructing, ordering, permitting, requesting, requiring, suggesting, urging, warning

Commissives: agreeing, guaranteeing, inviting, offering, promising, swearing, volunteering.

Acknowledgments: apologizing, condoling, congratulating, greeting, thanking, accepting (acknowledging an acknowledgment).

Bach and Harnish spell out the correlation between type of illocutionary act and type of expressed attitude. In many cases, such as answering, disputing, excusing and agreeing, as well as all types of acknowledgment, the act and the attitude it expresses presuppose a specific conversational or other social circumstance.

For types of acts that are distinguished by the type of attitude expressed, there is no need to invoke the notion of convention to explain how it can succeed. The act can succeed if the hearer recognizes the attitude being expressed, such as a belief in the case of a statement and a desire in the case of a request. Any further effect it has on the hearer, such as being believed or being complied with, or just being taken as sincere, is not essential to its being a statement or a request. Thus an utterance can succeed as an act of communication even if the speaker does not possess the attitude he is expressing: communication is one thing, sincerity another. Communicating is as it were just putting an attitude on the table; sincerity is actually possessing the attitude one is expressing. Correlatively, the hearer can understand the utterance without regarding it as sincere, e.g., take it as an apology, as expressing regret for something, without believing that the speaker regrets having done the deed in question. Getting one's audience to believe that one actually possesses the attitude one is expressing is not an illocutionary but a perlocutionary act.




1. Kent Bach, Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry ,"Speech Acts", ‘Types of Speech Acts’, 2007, web-page http://userwww.sfsu.edu/~kbach/spchacts.html


2. Austin L. (1962), "How to speak", Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press. (The theory of Speech Acts)


3. Searl J. (1969), "Speech Acts: the philosophy of the language", Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press


4. the Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Language, Michael Devitt and Richard Hanley, eds. Cambridge (2003)


5. Austin, J.L. (1962). How To Do Things With Words, 2nd Edition, ed. J.O. Urmson and M. Sbisá. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


6. Alston, W. (2000) Illocutionary Acts and Sentence Meaning. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.


7. Forguson, L.W. 1973. “Locutionary and illocutionary acts”. In G. Warnock (ed), Essays on J. L. Austin. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 160–185.

8. Lewis, D. (1979) ‘Scorekeeping in a Language Game’. Journal of Philosophical Logic 8, pp. 339-59. Reprinted in Lewis 1983.

9.Lewis, D. (1980) ‘Index, Context, and Content’. In Stig Kanger and Sven Ohman (Eds.), Philosophy and Grammar. Dordrecht: Reidel. Reprinted in David Lewis, 1998, Papers in Philosophical Logic, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

10.Lewis, D. (1983) Philosophical Papers Volume I. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

11.McDowell, J. (1980) ‘Meaning, communication, and knowledge.’ Reprinted in Meaning, Knowledge and Reality. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

12. Meggle, G. (1985) ‘To hell with speech act theory,’ in M. Dascal (ed.) Dialogue (Benjamins): 205-11.

13.Mulligan, K. (ed) (1987) Speech Act and Sachverhalt: Reinach and the Foundations of Realist Phenomenology. Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhof.

14.Parret, H. and J. Verschueren (eds.) (1991) (On) Searle on Conversation. Amsterdam: J. Benjamins.

15.Pendlebury, M. (1986) ‘Against the power of force: reflections on the meaning of mood,’ Mind: 361-372.





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