Friday, March 14, 2014

Illocutionary force and propositions

Suppose I say to Bill: "Make all of your papers be between two and four pages." Bill hands in an eight page paper for his first assignment. I rebuke him and he apologizes. He then hands in another eight page paper for his second. When I rebuke him, he says: "You told me to bring it about that all my papers be between two and four pages. With my first paper I ensured that the proposition that all my papers are between two and four pages is false. Sorry! By the time of my second paper, it was too late to undo this: no matter what length of paper I wrote, that proposition would still be false. So I might as well write the length that I like."

Bill's mistake was thinking that the content of my command was the proposition that all his papers be between two and four pages. I didn't command that proposition. Rather, I commanded distributively of each of his papers that it be between two and four pages.

This means that we should not analyze my speech act as having a propositional content plus an illocutionary force. The content of the speech act wasn't a proposition, but something else. Perhaps the content of the speech act was an ordered pair of properties, the property P of being one of Bill's papers, and the property L of being between two and four pages in length. And the illocutionary force was of something one might call distributive command. Successful distributive command in respect of a pair of properties P and L creates for each instance x of P a reason to make x have L.

There are, I think, assertion-like speech acts that also have such a non-propositional content. For instance, assertoric endorsement. A paradigm case: I endorse what you are about to assert. The content of assertoric endorsement is a property which is supposed to be had by one or more propositions—say, the property of being soon asserted by you—and when successful, the assertoric endorsement makes you stand behind each of these propositions as if you asserted it. This kind of assertoric endorsement is distributive.

I wish I knew what kinds of entities can be contents of speech acts. The above suggests that some speech acts have propositions as contents, some have pairs of properties, some have single properties. There must be many other options.


Heath White said...

Suppose I ask Bill, “How many pages did you write for your papers for Dr. Pruss?” The question is ambiguous. Understood collectively, the true answer is “16”. Understood distributively, it is “8 and 8”. Since in the latter case there are as many answers as papers, I am inclined to think there are multiple questions, or question-acts if you like, going on.

This suggests two options which may in fact be the same thing. The first is that when I give distributive commands, ask distributive questions, or make distributive assertions, I am not issuing just one speech act. I am properly understood as issuing multiple acts, e.g. commanding for each paper: Make it 2-4 pages. Then if Bill disobeys one command he can still obey the others.

The other, maybe weirder, option is to think that quantification applies (not to propositions per se? but) to speech acts. E.g. the logical form of what is going on is, For each paper P: Make it the case that: P is between 2-4 pages. As opposed to, Make it the case that: For each paper P: P is between 2-4 pages.

Alexander R Pruss said...

If speech acts are thus multiplied, then how many speech acts I made may depend on what you later do. For you might have a choice about how many papers to write. This isn't fatal, but surprising.

How about this? A command can still be analyzed as a proposition and an illocutionary force. But the proposition is a normative one. Basically, the proposition is one that describes the intended normative effect. The illocutionary force we might call: legislation.

Then there is a difference between legislating that for each paper you write you have reason to make it 2-4 pages long, and legislating that you have reason to make each paper you write 2-4 pages long.

A neat thing about this approach is that it lets us handle subtleties of conditional commands. There is a difference between commanding that the material conditional if p then q be true, and conditionally commanding q on p. Commanding the conditional directly gives you reason to bring about ~p or q. But the conditional command doesn't directly give you a reason to do anything if in fact p. (You do indirectly have reason to bring about ~p or q, since by so doing you ensure you don't disobey the command.)

In the normative framework, the difference is between legislating that you have reason to bring about ~p or q, and legislating that if p, you have reason to bring about q.

Of course, in a fuller story, the reasons in the proposition will be of some specific sort.

There are other subtle phenomena that can be nicely modeled here. Let's say I command you to do A or B, preferably A. Then I legislate that you have a fully authoritative reason for doing A or B, and a less fully authoritative reason for doing A.

Moreover, we get to unify commands and requests: both attempt to legislate a normative proposition, just ones with different kinds of reasons. And while only some have the authority to make the legislation of the command-reasons come off, we all have the authority to make the legislation of request-reasons come off. (The latter is a substantive claim about the human community. I suspect that some slave owners might say that slaves have no authority to create request-reasons for owners.)

This requires normative claims to be of a sort to have truth value, of course.