The "Natural Language School" in Analytical Philosophy

The term "natural language school" refers to a particular tradition in analytical philosophy which is characterisised by a belief in the possibility to formulate the conditions for a logical, truth-yielding language on the basis of the study of meaning in natural  language (as opposed to, artificial or mathematical languages). Note that at that juncture in the history of Anglo-American philosophical writings, philosophy saw its raison d'être in the development of adequate instruments for scientific enquiry rather than in terms of tackling the great moral-ethical and social issues of the time. Somewhat ironically, it was precisely the search for the "true scientific utterance" which lay at the root of speech act theory, the theory which foregrounds the social actional aspects of all language use and, by doing so, has arguably rendered void all subsequent attempts to formulate the conditions for a type of speech which would be purely truth-oriented.

SPEECH ACT THEORY (Austin, Searle)

It was the particular search for the (purely) constative (utterances which describe something outside the text and can therefore be judged true or false)  which prompted John L. Austin  AUSTIN, John L., 1962. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press. to direct his attention to the distinction with so-called performatives, i.e. utterances which are neither true or false but which bring about a particular social effect by being uttered (e.g. "With this ring I thee wed" - by speaking  the utterance you perform the act). For a performative to have the desired effect, it has to meet certain social and cultural criteria, also called felicity conditions.

Further on in his essay, Austin abandons the distinction between constatives and performatives and replaced it by (i) a new distinction between three different "aspects" of an utterance against the background of (ii) a generalised claim that all utterances are really performatives. This generalised claim is the key assumption of speech act theory (the theory of "how to do things with words"), viz. by making an utterance, language users perform one or more social acts. These are called 'speech acts'.  The threefold distinction is that between different types of action. For instance, by speaking an utterance (locution), you may perform the social act of making a promise (illocution - what the speaker does by using the utterance) and, as a result, convince your audience of your commitment (perlocution - what the speaker's done, having made the utterance).

A number of further important elaborations of speech act theory lie in the work of John Searle. One is that he allocates a central place to communicative intentions (this is based on the assumption that a speaker has wants, beliefs and intentions which are indexed in the performance of utterances). At the same time, he develops a typology of speech acts, which for him, is rooted in the range of illocutionary verbs that occur in a given language (CLICK HERE for an overview of speech act categories in British English). A third contribution of Searle is the development of a theory of indirect speech acts. This concept is  based on the observation that by uttering, say, what appears to be a statement (e.g. "It's hot in here."), language users often indirectly perform another type of illocutionary act (in the case of the example: voice a request to open the window).

/ The undeniable merit of speech act theory lies in advancing a view of language use as action. In Searle's words (Searle 1969:17)

    SEARLE, John, 1969. Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    [A] theory of language is part of a theory of action, simply because speaking is a rule-governed form of behaviour. Now, being rule-governed, it has formal features which admit of independent study. But a study purely of those formal features, without a study of their role in speech acts, would be like a formal study of the currency and credit systems of economies without a study of the role of currency and credit in economic transactions. A great deal can be said in the study of language without studying speech acts, but any such purely formal theory is necessarily incomplete. It would be as if baseball were studied only as a formal system of rules and not as a game

Yet, already in Searle's elaboration of the theory, there is an asocial, mentalist turn in the characterisation of intentions as mental states stripped of all social content. At one point, Searle (1983 SEARLE John, 1983. Intentionality. An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ) even states that the state of intentionality is "a biological phenomenon and is part of the natural world like any other biological phenomenon"

Linguistic anthropologists have criticised the universalistic claims of Searlean versions of speech act theory, showing its limited applicability to non-Western modes of communication (e.g. by drawing attention to discourse types which exclude any kind of intention as in John Du Bois' studies (e.g. Du Bois 1993 DU BOIS John, 1993. 'Meaning without intention: lessons from divination'. In: J. Hill & J. Irvine (eds.), Responsibility and Evidence in Oral Discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 48-71. ) of oracles among the Azande (Sudan) and the Yoruba (Nigeria); see also Alessandro's Duranti's work (e.g. Duranti 1993 DURANTI, Alessandro, 1993. 'Intentions, self, and responsibility: an essay in Samoan ethnopragmatics'. In: J. Hill & J. Irvine (eds.), Responsibility and Evidence in Oral Discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 24-47.  ) on the Samoan conception of meaning which holds speakers responsible for the social consequences of their acts of speaking rather than for intentions ascribed to them). However, such a critique requires an elaboration in its own right to the extent that it is based on assumptions of cultural uniformity at the expense of variability and contradiction. Thus, as Verschueren (1985 VERSCHUEREN, Jef, 1985. What People Say They Do with Words. Prolegomena to a Empirical-Conceptual Approach to Linguistic Action. Norwood: Ablex. ) notes, depending on the data context examined, speakers of English can be seen to hold conceptualisations of speech actions rather similar to those which linguistic anthropologists invoke to bring out ethnocentric bias. Lack of situational diversification equally underlies critiques of speech act theory coming from conversation analysts: can speech acts be identified at all independently of the interactional sequences in which the utterances occur? One of the central problems which is indeed raised by an "antipersonalist" critique of speech act theory is whether the speaking subject can be seen as the origin of meaning. The latter is presupposed by the centrality of the concept of communicative intentions. It is in some respects a result of speech act theory's roots within analytical philosophy, esp. its reliance on a rational view of a "whole" subject which is seen as the source of social action (compare also with Michel Foucault's insistence on a reversal of the speaker-utterance relationship). Compare, finally, also with debates over whether illocutionary force is a matter of speaker intention (as in Searle's version of speech act theory) or of hearer interpretation (as is more or less presupposed in Austin's stress on hearer uptake - e.g. unless an utterance is recognised as a command, can it have that force?). Some researchers now tend to stress that speaker intention is really a matter of conventionalised interpretations associated with particular moves in specific situations of language use.

Derrida has criticized the strict separation between locution and illocution in Austin's work. This criticism has a bearing on important debates within linguistics. First, for the act of speaking (locution) to be valid as a locution, an utterance must be grammatical and draw on a recognisable lexical wordlist. In this reading, a locution has meaning independently of the context in which it is used. Using the utterance in context amounts to lending it a particular force (illocution). In contrast with this view, one can argue that utterances tend to pre-empt a particular context of use as well as stress the extent to which "constatives" exist by virtue of "performatives". As Defoort (1996: 61 and 75 - my translation) explains

     DEFOORT, Jos, 1996. Het woekerende schrift. Antwerp: Hadewych.
    Derrida calls Austin's claims original, but they cannot be called conclusive. According to Derrida, the force of an utterance is already there in the locution and we never succeed in strictly separating force from meaning: meanings have force and forces have meaning. Although this discussion is not developed explicitly in Signature Evénement Contexte, it is presupposed like a running thread through the text. It constitutes an irreversible turn in Derrida's thinking.


    Throughout history philosophers - Austin included - have searched for pure locution. They appear to show an unconditional, almost innate respect for the neutral representation of reality. They regret the existence of forces which can only distort this representation. Austin does criticise the preference which this tradition has always had for "assertions" which can be expected to be true or false in their reflection of reality, but even he could not distance himself from the concept of "pure locution" and its representational function. This explains why he felt it necessary to secure a separate place for the idea of "locution".

That this debate is not simply an academic exercise becomes clearer when one considers its consequences for the projection of the illocution/locution-distinction on a division of labour between "semantics" (focusing on the meaning of utterances - seen out-of-context) and pragmatics (the use to which utterances are put in context). Derrida's account begs the question whether there can still be room for a semantics which is not pragmatics?

Finally, as Jaworski and Coupland (1999:16 JAWORSKI Adam & COUPLAND Nikolas, 1999. The Discourse Reader. London: Routledge. ) point out, the aim of laying down the felicity conditions for all illocutionary verbs in English comes with a risk of arbitrary essentialism, if it means that the contextual variability which is inherent in the actual social conditions under which particular speech acts are performed is disregarded (cf. ethnography of speaking's warning against premature "closure" in the relationships between contextual and textual categories).



The work of the philosopher H.P. Grice (1975, 1978 GRICE, H. Paul, 1976. 'Logic and conversation'. In: P. Cole & J.L. Morgan (eds.), Syntax and Semantics: Volume 3. New York: Academic Press, 41-58. GRICE, H. Paul, 1978. 'Further Notes on Logic and Conversation'. In: P. Cole (ed.), Syntax and Semantics: Volume 9. New York: Academic Press, 113-128.  ) is mostly associated with the theory of the cooperative principle and its attendant maxims which together regulate the exchange of information between individuals involved in interaction. Grice's endeavour has been to establish a set of general principles, with the aim of explaining how language users communicate indirect meanings (so-called conversational implicatures, i.e. implicit meanings which have to be inferred from what is being said explicitly, on the basis of logical deduction). The cooperative principle is based on the assumption that language users tacitly agree to cooperate by making their contributions to the talk as is required by the current stage of the talk or the direction into which it develops. Adherence to this principle entails that talkers simultaneously observe 4 maxims:

  • quality, i.e. make your contribution truthful and sincere.
  • quantity, i.e. provide sufficient information.
  • manner, i.e. make your contribution brief, present it in an orderly fashion and avoid ambiguities.
  • relation, make your contribution a relevant one.

There are various conditions under which these maxims may be violated or infringed upon. One of these is instrumental to the explanation of how implicatures are being communicated. For instance, when a speaker blatantly and openly says something which appears to be irrelevant, it can be assumed that, if the talkers continue to observe the CP, s/he really intends to communicate something which is relevant, but does so implicitly. (  CLICK HERE for a few examples)

The major weakness in Grice's theory is probably that it paints a rather rosy picture of the social conditions of communication. Although he admits that there are many situations in which speakers do not cooperate, the theory nevertheless sees cooperation as the universal cement in social transcations. This way Grice also glosses over obvious and less obvious differences in power and status between interactants (See also Pierre Bourdieu).

A second weakness is undoubtedly that Grice's scheme requires a symmetry in background knowledge between the talkers for it to explain the successful transmission of implicatures. If the speaker's premises for logical deduction are different from the hearer's, the hearer may infer someting which was not intended by the speaker or only approximates it. Is it justified to assume the existence of such a high degree of symmetry? Probably, not. Hence, one may have to think of introducing a theoretical distinction between implicatures 'as intended' by the speaker' and implicatures 'as recognised by the hearer and attributed to the speaker'. Note that the concept of sequential implicativeness (see conversation analysis) offers an outcome here. Each turn in a conversation counts as a particular interpretation of the turn immediately before it. This gives the talkers the chance to update their knowledge of their co-interlocutor's background assumptions and thus 'restore' a certain degree of symmetry. Additionally, there is the routine aspect and repeatable nature of lots of exchanges. This makes the communication and interpretation of certain implicatures fairly conventional, and in many cases rather predicable. Nevertheless, it is instructive not to underestimate the impact of asymmetries on the exchange of information (both with respect to what is being talked about and with respect to what speaker and hearer assume about each other's orientations towards the exchange of information - e.g. goals of the interaction, what is crucially at stake within an interaction, degrees of expected cooperation, etc. Compare in detail with interactional sociolinguistics

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