Thursday, January 14, 2010

Sincerity conditions

The following seem plausible necessary conditions on sincerity:

  • Assertion: If I sincerely asserted that p, I intended (at least) that I not be asserting something not true.
  • Promise: If I sincerely promised you that p, I intended (at least) that I not be promising something I wouldn't do.
  • Command: If I sincerely commanded you that p, I intended (at least) that I not be commanding something you wouldn't do.
  • Performative declaration: If I sincerely performatively declared that p, I intended (at least) that I not be performatively declaring something that doesn't come off.
(I intend at least p iff I intend q where q is either p or a strengthening of p. Below I shall for simplicity just talk of "intending p" when I mean "intending at least p".)

These may not be the standard sincerity conditions for these illocutionary acts. More standard conditions would be something like this: if I sincerely commanded you that p, I intended that p or I desired that p, etc. However, these more standard sincerity conditions are incorrect. In earlier posts I've shown this for assertions and promises. The examples adapt to commands, questions and performative declarations. For instance, suppose I send you a command by mail. I may not care at all whether you get the command, but intend that if you get it, you fulfill it (imagine a case of an action which is only an exercise in obedience—it is pointless unless you actually get the command). Interestingly, the sincerity condition for commands rules out some interesting cases. It is, on this view, insincere to command something with the intention that the commandee should fail to fulfill the command and thus earn a punishment. (This rules out certain readings of Scripture, assuming that God is always sincere.) Likewise, if I name a ship "the Queen Mary", I am being insincere if the ship already has been named something else (what if it's already been named "the Queen Mary"?) and I have no authority to change the name. But I need not intend that the ship should have the name "the Queen Mary". I may have reluctantly agreed to try to name it thus, but hope that something will interrupt my naming.

What is striking about the above sincerity conditions is that they all involve truth. Granted, promises are restricted to what I will do and commands to what you will do, but all of these illocutionary acts involve a proposition, and in all of them sincerity requires that I intend not to make the illocutionary act with respect to a false proposition. Curiously, thus, in all these cases, sincerity involves an intention to avoid falsehood. There is thus a deep similarity between asserting, promising, commanding and performatively declaring.

Is this common necessary condition on sincerity also sufficient? No, for if it were, then if p reports a future action of one's own, one could sincerely promise that p under exactly the same conditions under which one could sincerely assert that p. And that isn't so. For instance, I can sincerely promise that I will quit smoking, even though I expect I won't, but I cannot sincerely assert that I will quit smoking when I expect I won't. So the sincerity conditions of some of the above four illocutionary acts must add something to the common condition. I do not know what the appropriate addenda are.

Is what I said above applicable to all illocutionary acts? Well, not directly. Certainly it is not the case that sincerely denying p requires that I intend not to deny something false! However, a surprisingly large number of illocutionary acts can be rephrased so that the above rule should apply. For instance:

  • "I deny that p" → "I assert that not p", and this is sincere only if I intend not to be asserting something that isn't true.
  • "I congratulate you that p" → "I congratulate you that the good G has befallen you", and this is sincere only if I intend not to be congratulating you on something that isn't true (i.e., in a case where G either isn't good or didn't befall you).
  • "I thank you that p" → "I thank you that you provided me with good G", and this is sincere only if I intend not to be thanking you for something that isn't true.
  • "I protest that p" → "I protest that you are doing the bad thing B", and this is sincere only if I intend not to be protesting something that isn't true.
In these cases, there is a deep propositional content that differs from the surface propositional content. "I thank you that you gave me a cookie" has a shallow content that you gave me a cookie but for purposes of analysis should be seen as having the deep content that you gave me a cookie which it was good for me to get. (That is why there is a pragmatic contradiction in saying "I thank you that you gave me a cookie that was bad for me to get." And of course "I thank you that 2+2=4" is malformed, unless addressed to Descartes' God.)

If the above moves work, then a large class of illocutionary acts have a common necessary sincerity condition that involves the truth of the proposition forming the deep propositional content of the act. Is this true of all illocutionary acts? I don't know. Is joking or asserting-on-stage an illocutionary act? If so, it would be hard to defend the generality of the claim (though maybe not impossible).

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