What is a communicative act? According to mainstream speech act theory, people communicate by executing illocutionary acts, which are regarded as institutional actions performed pursuant to certain conventional procedures (Austin 1962) or constitutive rules (Searle 1969). While we agree that a theory of communication calls for some kind of social ontology, we believe that the received view of speech act theory is fundamentally flawed. Indeed, the idea that all illocutionary acts are conventional actions has been challenged by several authors. Strawson (1964), in particular, does not deny that the successful performance of certain types of illocutionary acts, which we may call “institutional,” requires the execution of a conventional procedure: think for example of sentencing someone to prison or appointing a new professor of philosophy; he argues, however, that there are other types of illocutionary acts, which may be called “communicative acts,” whose successful performance only requires that the addressee recognises the speaker’s communicative intention (i.e., a complex intention of the sort first introduced by Grice 1957). Consider for example an act of requesting: it seems fair to say that, by doing action x, Angelina performs a successful request that Brad buys a bottle of wine as soon as Brad recognises that Angelina intends her performance of x to produce a specific effect in him, namely that he buys a bottle of wine, at least in part by means of his recognition of this intention.
Appealing as it may be, Strawson’s proposal faces two types of difficulties: firstly, it seems that not all types of communicative acts can be reduced to the production of a characteristic effect in an addressee; and secondly, it is not clear how the recognition of a communicative intention may bring about normative effects, which appear to be involved in many types of illocutionary acts. Promises exemplify both problems, because: (i), no characteristic effect in an addressee seems to fully account for promising; and (ii), a promise involves the undertaking of an obligation by the speaker, and it is by no means obvious that this result can be achieved through the addressee’s recognition of the speaker’s communicative intention. We believe, however, that Strawson’s suggestion was right-headed and can be turned into a powerful theory of communicative acts if the concept of “producing an effect in an addressee” is suitably understood.
Let us illustrate our proposal with an analysis of promising. An action, x, can be regarded as a promise by A to B to do P when: (i), in doing x, A is trying to undertake an obligation to B to do P; and (ii), certain auxiliary conditions hold (i.e., A is able to do P, B prefers A’s doing P to her not doing P, A intends to do P, and it is not obvious that A will do P anyway). Our goal is to show that an act of this type admits of a Gricean definition. Now, the key to the development of a Gricean definition for a type of communicative acts is: (i), to specify what effect a speaker characteristically intends to achieve by performing an act of that type; and (ii), to show that the addressee’s recognition of the speaker’s intention can play an effective role in achieving the effect. But what is the intended effect of a promise? It seems, the creation of an obligation of A to B, to the effect that A will do P.
We regard an obligation of this kind as a special case of a more general type of normative relationships, which we call interpersonal responsibilities. It is essential to our theory, partially inspired by the works of Gilbert (1989) and Darwall (2006), that an interpersonal responsibility can be collectively brought about by two or more agents without relying on predefined conventions or constitutive rules: what is required is that the relevant agents communicate to each other (in a Gricean sense of the term) their respective intentions to create the normative relationship. In the particular case of a promise, A communicates to B her intention that the two of them collectively set up an interpersonal obligation, that is, a normative relationship to the effect that A is responsible to B to do P. In communicating such an intention to B, A creates sufficient conditions for B to finalise the normative relationship, by simply communicating his acceptance. This implies that B’s recognition of A’s communicative intention plays an effective role in achieving the intended effect: it does so by providing B with an affordance (i.e., both a possibility and an invitation) to bring the interpersonal obligation into actual existence. This view is further supported by an analysis of the auxiliary conditions of promising, which make sense in view of the addressee’s acceptance of the normative relationship proposed by the speaker. Indeed, there would be no point for B to collaborate to the creation of the interpersonal obligation if B thought that A is unable to do X, or does not intend to do X, or would do X anyway independently of the obligation; moreover, that B prefers A’s doing P to her not doing P constitutes B’s motivation to accept A’s promise.
The view of communication that stems from our analysis (which in the full paper we shall extend to all types of communicative acts) is that the logical structure of communicative acts (as distinct from institutional illocutionary acts) is determined by: (i), the capacity of humans to collectively build normative relationships by communicating their respective intentions to do so; and (ii), the conditions under which creating such relationships is significant in the context of specific human interactions.
- Austin, J. L. (1962). How to do things with words (the William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955, edited by J. O. Urmson). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Darwall, S. (2006). The second-person standpoint: Morality, respect, and accountability. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Gilbert, M. P. (1989). On social facts. New York: Rutledge.
- Grice, H. P. (1957). Meaning. The Philosophical Review, 66 (3), 377–388.
- Searle, J. R. (1969). Speech acts: An essay in the philosophy of language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Strawson, P. F. (1964). Intention and convention in speech acts. Review, 73 (4), 439–460.