The methodological choices made by philosophers of language John R Searle and Willard van Orman Quine greatly affect their capacity to shed light on the problematic relationship between conventions and communication. Much of the debate between Searle and Quine is not explicitly directed at this relationship; however, when one trawls their works for a solution, problem in mind, their views become conspicuous, like colours in a picture that stand out when viewed through a coloured filter. When the task is solving the problematic relationship between conventions and communication, Searle’s approach prevails over Quine’s. Quine’s methodology presupposes that communication is always underdetermined and that the only means by which to gain knowledge of conventions is to search out behavioural regularities. Contrariwise, Searle’s methodology presupposes that any competent language user already possesses all they need to communicate. From there he looks to study the rule-based conventions of communication. This Lydian Mode entry analyses Quine’s and Searle’s methodologies to find if they possess the capacity to solve the problematic relationship between conventions and communication. It concludes that Searle’s theory of speech acts creates the possibility for bridging the gap in our understanding of conventions and their role in communication. Whether it then solves the problematic relationship, however, is yet to be determined.
In a conversation with Bryan Magee, John Searle describes the two main branches of the philosophy of language. One branch holds Frege, Russell, the logical positivists, the early Wittgenstein and Quine; the other holds the later Wittgenstein, Austin, Grice, Strawson and Searle himself (Magee 2001, ch. 10; see also Searle 1969, pp. 18-19). The former, broadly defined as semantics, is concerned with the relationship between meaning and truth whereas the latter, defined elsewhere by Searle as pragmatics (1999, p. 2071), is concerned with the relationship between meaning and use (1969, pp. 18-19). The driving question in pragmatics, and particularly in Searle’s work, is: What kind of speech act is the language user performing in making an utterance? Answering this question requires a study of language conventions rather than, as with semantics, accounting for the way that language relates to the world and the rest of language. By focusing on language use Searle believes he can ‘give philosophically illuminating descriptions of certain general features of language, such as reference, truth, meaning, and necessity’ (Searle 1969, p. 4).
Immediate problems arise for comparing Searle and Quine. Quine also labels his philosophical endeavour ‘pragmatic’ (1951, p. 20). Semantics aside (pardon the pun), Quine’s project differs from Searle’s in important ways. In his famous essay ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’, Quine denies that descriptions of meaning and necessity could ever be illuminating, arguing that concepts such as meaning and necessity are almost circularly defined (1951, p. 29). Any illuminating definition will not rely on equally ambiguous concepts such as analyticity, synonymy, meaning or necessity; but looking behind such concepts, Quine finds that is exactly what they do (1951, p. 31). It appears, therefore, that a comparison of Searle and Quine is not possible because they are pursuing incompatible tasks: Searle aims to describe aspects of language such as meaning; Quine aims to avoid such circular concepts.
Quine’s attack on concepts
Rather than searching for a criterion by which to distinguish a concept, Quine argues that one should review the effectiveness of the concept itself. All concepts, he contends, are ‘cultural posits’, from Greek gods to the physical entities we posit as the objects of sense experience; all are epistemological myths designed by humans to help make sense of the world (Quine 1951, pp. 41-42). He adds:
The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from the most casual matters of geography and history to the profoundest laws of atomic physics or even pure mathematics and logic, is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges.
(Quine 1951, p. 39)
Accordingly, the only difference between black swans and the laws of logic are their proximity to the edge of experience. Black swans, the laws of logic and Greek gods do not differ in kind; all are merely conventions that humans use to make sense of the world they butt up against.
All such conventions are open to revision, Quine argues (1951, p. 40). A law of logic is simply less likely to be revised than the concept of black swans. In this case the proper standard by which to test such concepts is their effectiveness for making sense of the world. However, some concepts are not so effective or helpful, particularly those that are themselves founded on dubious or unhelpful concepts (Quine 1970a, p. 394). Analyticity is a case in point, argues Quine. Analyticity serves as a basis for a false understanding of the world — an understanding based in the distinction between metaphysics and science. It is only when one understands language as separated into statements about the world (synthetic) and statements that are true in all possible worlds (analytic) that one can recognise a distinction between metaphysics and science. The truth of the latter distinction therefore rests on the truth of the former; and analyticity, like meaning, is ambiguously defined at best (Quine 1951, p. 43).
Searle raises a methodological objection at this point, arguing that Quine has put the cart before the horse (so to speak). Searle states of Quine’s search for a non-circular criterion for analyticity:
Far from showing that we do not understand the concept of analyticity, our failure to find criteria of the proposed kind presupposes precisely that we do understand analyticity. We could not embark on our investigation if we did not understand the concept, for it is only in virtue of that understanding that we could assess the adequacy of proposed criteria.
(Searle 1969, p. 7)
Accordingly, Quine already possesses adequate criteria for defining such concepts precisely because he can recognise when those criteria fail. Searle hastens to add that this does not imply that such criteria cannot be defective or that studies like Quine’s have no value. He simply argues that how one determines the adequacy of criteria must be appropriate: ‘where certain preferred models of explication fail to account for certain concepts it is the models which must go, not the concepts’ (Searle 1969, p. 12). Searle uses a similar reductio ad absurdum to refute Quine’s indeterminacy thesis (Searle 1987, p. 126).
The indeterminacy of translation
Quine’s indeterminacy thesis holds that the relationship between conventions and communication is always problematic. In Word and Object he argues that an exact translation of the meaning of a statement from one language into another is impossible. The difficulty lies in the fact that the only evidence of what someone speaking a foreign language means by a certain statement is the correlation one can make between the presence of that statement, a stimulus and the foreigner’s response. Quine’s famous example is of a linguist observing a foreign tribe (1960, § 7). If tribe members utter ‘Gavagai’ in the presence of a rabbit, the linguist may infer that ‘Gavagai’ means ‘Rabbit’. She would test this hypothesis by repeating ‘Gavagai?’ in the presence of rabbits and look for a response that affirms the hypothesis, i.e. not a look of bewilderment (Quine 1987, pp. 6-8). The problem, however, is that there is no way to know for certain what the tribe members mean by ‘Gavagai’. They may mean ‘Rabbit’, but they may also mean ‘Sacred rabbit!’, ‘Baby rabbit’ or ‘Undetached rabbit parts’. The indeterminacy of translation lies in the fact that the linguist can never establish the exact meaning that the tribes-people invoke by uttering ‘Gavagai’. Thus, Quine states, ‘There is nothing in linguistic meaning … beyond what is to be gleaned from overt behaviour in observable circumstances’ (1987, p. 5).
For Quine, questions of linguistic meaning are reducible to questions of observable behaviour. Furthermore, the ‘meaning’ of this observable behaviour is itself underdetermined. What the foreign-language speaker means by an utterance is only reducible to the correlation between stimulus (‘Gavagai?’), object (a rabbit) and response (look of approval) (Quine 1987, p. 6). But any two linguists could observe the same tribe, create logically coherent hypotheses about the source language but hold the referent to be different. Based on the same empirical evidence one linguist may coherently argue that the referent is a rabbit while another coherently argues that the object is a particular part of the rabbit (Quine 1970b, p. 179; Baggini & Fosl 2003, p. 212). Consequently, communication between any two languages is always underdetermined, even when one bases any inferred meaning on the behaviourist method.
Quine’s further point, however, and the reason for the philosophical thought experiment concerning radical translation between languages, is that the indeterminacy of translation extends to communication between speakers of the same language (1987, pp. 8-9; Searle 1987, p. 131). On Quine’s model, communication between two people within the same language is based on co-observation of responses. But any coherent ‘translation’ of those responses is always based on underdetermined evidence. The possibility always remains that what one interlocutor takes the other to ‘mean’, although plausible, could meet with an equally plausible alternative translation. The fact that these interlocutors communicate within the same conventional system of language does not preclude underdetermined meaning. Likewise, within any language two people could make an equally coherent translation of a third person’s utterances while holding that the third person refers to different things. One may think that she means ‘Rabbit’; the other may think that she means ‘Undetached rabbit tail’. Both translations correlate with the empirical evidence (an approving verbal response or look in the presence of both a rabbit and the interrogative ‘Rabbit?’), both translations are coherent, but the translators hold different hypotheses about the referent of the third’s common-sense utterance ‘Rabbit’ (Quine 1970b, p. 183).
As previously stated, however, Searle refutes Quine’s indeterminacy thesis via reductio ad absurdum. If Quine argues that meaning consists entirely of correlations between external stimuli and dispositions to verbal behaviour then he cannot also discriminate between the meaning of ‘Rabbit’ and ‘Undetached rabbit part’. The behaviourist thesis must hold for not only speakers of Gavagai-talk but also for all languages. A speaker of English knows from using their own language — the first-person case, for Searle — that by ‘Rabbit’ they mean something other than ‘Undetached rabbit part’. But the behaviourist thesis is incompatible with this distinction in meaning. Therefore, either English speakers must jettison the distinction, or meaning is not reducible to stimulus and response (Searle 1987, pp. 124-27). As was Searle’s response to Quine regarding adequate criteria for concepts, where the method fails to account for certain phenomena the method must go, not the phenomena (Searle 1969, p. 12).
Searle argues that Quine understands the relationship between conventions (i.e. language) and communication (i.e. translation) to be problematic because his view of the relationship between language and meaning is incorrect. Searle holds that meaning is only relative to any particular language. Therefore, for Quine to offer as a solution to the problem of translation a behaviourist view of meaning is an error because it presupposes that meaning can exist across languages — that is, as particular responses to particular stimuli, but independent of any particular language (Searle 1987, p. 135). Searle recognises that Quine’s behaviourist approach can reveal regularities in language use, but argues that to understand such behaviour one must understand the rules by which it is governed (1969, pp. 51-53). For this task, Searle turns to speech act theory. When one turns from Quine’s behaviourism to Searle’s speech act theory, understanding the problematic relationship between conventions and communication becomes possible.
Speech act theory
Most analytic philosophy since Frege has focused on sentences that make declarations about the world. Declarative statements such as ‘Sam smokes habitually’ are said to make truth claims about the world; they therefore appear to be prime candidates for semantic analysis. Searle’s philosophical forebear, JL Austin, took umbrage with this focus in the philosophy of language. Austin argued that statements are used for more than declarations or truth claims. In making a declaration, the speaker is trying to get something done, not simply declaring a state of affairs about the world. Her statements may declare something about the world but they are also a type of performance or act. Insofar as such statements are also performances the true test is not whether they truthfully correspond to a state of affairs in the world but whether they affect the intended response. Accordingly, Austin focused on the conventions of the language into which utterances are made and not simply the relationship between declarative statements and the natural world to which they refer (Morris 2007, pp. 231-33).
Austin aimed to replace the distinction between declarative and performative statements with a general theory of speech acts covering the gamut of natural language. His speech act theory recognised that by uttering any one statement a speaker could be performing up to three kinds of speech act: locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary. Consider the sentence ‘The window is open’. By uttering this sentence a speaker is stating the proposition ‘The window is open’. This is the locutionary act. They may also be expressing the belief that the window is open. This is the illocutionary act. Finally, they may be attempting to get the audience to believe that the window is open. This is the perlocutionary act (Searle 1994, pp. 645-46; Bach 1999, p. 869). Austin added that not only did his general theory of speech acts offer a better explanation of what speakers are doing when communicating, but his theory also proved that declarative statements are actually equivalent to a type of performative statement or speech act (Morris 2007, p. 237; Searle 1968, pp. 405-06).
Although his speech act theory follows from Austin’s, John Searle rejects Austin’s claim that a statement’s truth claim about the world — the core of the declarative statement — should be subsumed by speech act theory. If some statements can be true or false but all statements are speech acts, then it appears that the only question applying to all statements is whether they are effective speech acts. However, Searle contends, this conclusion is based on fallacious reasoning. The fallacious conclusion is rooted in Austin’s failure to recognise the structural ambiguity of some verbs. For example, one may derive the nominalised verb ‘statement’ from the verb ‘state’, but ‘statement’ has two possible meanings: the act of stating and what is stated. Searle argues that the latter meaning is not a speech act. For any proposition, what is stated — the statement itself — is not a speech act, although the act of stating is. Accordingly, Searle concludes, ‘Austin’s discovery that statements are illocutionary acts holds for the act sense, but not for the object sense’ (1968, p. 422). Thus, not all statements are illocutionary acts or performatives as Austin falsely concluded. This led Searle to modify Austin’s distinction between locutionary and illocutionary acts. He instead adopts the distinction between propositional acts and illocutionary acts to account for the fact that although acts cannot be true or false, propositional content can (Searle 1968, p. 423; 1969, p. 29).
Rather than focus specifically on declarative statements and rather than completely subsume propositional content into speech acts, Searle seeks a more thorough understanding of how we do things with words. Searle offers as evidence for the value of the concept of illocutionary acts the fact that a number of statements used for different functions (illocutionary acts) can contain the same reference and predication (propositional content). For example, although the statements ‘Sam smokes habitually’ and ‘Does Sam smoke habitually?’ contain the same reference (‘Sam’) and predicate (‘habitual smoking’), they are used for distinct purposes. The first statement is an assertion; the latter is a question. This provides Searle with the basis for arguing that a philosophy of language that focuses only on the reference and predication of statements as a test of meaning (including meaning as truth-value) overlooks the various ways in which statements function when put to use by a speaker (Searle 1969, pp. 24, 30).
Speech act theory and the problematic relationship between conventions and communication
Just a few examples of illocutionary acts include: giving commands, giving apologies, asking questions and making promises (Searle 1969, p. 23). Searle argues that the illocutionary act is the minimum unit of linguistic communication (1971, p. 39; 1969, p. 16). Understanding the illocutionary act is therefore central to understanding linguistic communication. This entails understanding the conventions that govern such illocutionary acts rather than, as with Quine, the behavioural regularities inferable from the repeated correlation between a proposition and a confirming response. Such conventions take the form of rules. The rules governing speech acts, and thus governing linguistic communication, are not extraneous to the acts and imposed onto them ‘from above’. Rather, they constitute the acts themselves — that is, the presence of such rules makes the speech act possible (Searle 1971, p. 41). Just as a goal in Australian Rules football would not be possible in the absence of an essential condition, so too with promising. Kicking a goal would not be possible in the absence of the rule that kicking a goal means kicking the ball between the central posts. Promising would not be possible in the absence of the rule that promising means undertaking an obligation (Searle 1971, p. 50; 1969, p. 40). There would be no such thing as promises if no obligation arose from utterances of the form ‘I promise such and such’. Accordingly, Searle states that ‘it is a matter of convention — as opposed to strategy, technique, procedure, or natural fact — that the utterance of such and such expressions under certain conditions counts as the making of a promise’ (1969, p. 37). For Searle, studying the rules that lay behind speech acts holds the key to understanding the relationship between conventions and communication.
Searle’s study of speech acts led him to conclude that some rules are strict or deep conventions. A promise in French of the form ‘je promets…’ adheres to the conventions of French, just as ‘I promise…’ adheres to English language conventions. Communicating the speech act within any particular language is a matter of mastering that language. But the fact that both French and English share the capacity to make promises illustrates that communication itself is rule-governed or deep conventional behaviour. Hence, Searle states, ‘we can translate utterances of one language into another because they share the same underlying rules’ (1969, p. 40). Speech acts within various languages adhere to the linguistic conventions of those languages, but a cross-language institution such as promising illustrates that language itself is rule-governed behaviour. It is this insight that provides the greatest hope for understanding the relationship between conventions and communication.
To recapitulate, Quine argues that translation between languages and even within a language is always indeterminate because the empirical evidence upon which the translation is made is always based on underdetermined evidence of the speaker’s meaning. Searle, contrariwise, begins with the fact that successful rule-governed behaviour occurs within a language and is understandable across languages, and seeks to further understand that phenomenon. From the outset, therefore, Searle’s methodology provides the greater possibility of understanding the relationship between conventions and communication.
The possibilities created by Searle’s methodology go beyond understanding the problematic relationship between conventions and communication, however. Many philosophers of language focus their attention on descriptive statements and leave the study of evaluative statements to ethics and aesthetics [fn. believing their staple, analytic and synthetic statements, are a subspecies of descriptive statements]. For example, discussion of obligation was once thought to fall under the rubric of ethics or moral philosophy because philosophers believed that obligations contain evaluations that could not be directly inferred from analytic or synthetic statements. However, Searle’s speech act theory makes it possible to derive obligation from a descriptive analysis of the institution of promising. In summary, the argument is as follows.
- Jones uttered the words “I hereby promise to pay you, Smith, five dollars.”
- Jones promised to pay Smith five dollars.
- Jones placed himself under (undertook) an obligation to pay Smith five dollars.
- Jones is under an obligation to pay Smith five dollars.
- Jones ought to pay Smith five dollars.
Accordingly, it is possible to derive the traditionally evaluative ‘ought’ of obligation from the descriptive ‘is’ of the institution (Searle 1964, pp. 44-48).
Although Quine and Searle disagree on points of methodology, they do agree that some philosophical concepts such as the analytic and synthetic distinction are of little use. Searle argues that the analytic/synthetic distinction is based on the outmoded division between descriptive and evaluative statements, Quine that it is the source of the view — dominant amongst the logical positivists such as Rudolf Carnap and AJ Ayer during the last century — that metaphysics and science are incommensurable fields of endeavour (Searle 1999, pp. 2071-72; Quine 1951, p. 43). Quine’s and Searle’s rejections of philosophical concepts such as analyticity, although shared, are rooted in their different understandings about what constitutes the proper approach for a philosophy of language. Quine believes that our understanding of the world is a web of belief and that searching for formal criteria for our knowledge somehow aids that understanding. He thus limits knowledge of communication to recognising patterns of behaviour amongst language users. Searle, on the other hand, holds a contrary methodology. He assumes that language users already know how to use such concepts and then look for rule-based ‘behaviour’. The fact that Searle opens his Speech Acts with an attack on Quine’s solution to the two dogmas of empiricism is evidence that he aims to pit his method against Quine’s (1969, §§ 1.2, 1.3).
In concluding, Quine’s and Searle’s methodological choices greatly affect their ability to shed light on the problematic relationship between conventions and communication. Quine’s methodology presupposes that communication is always underdetermined, that the only means to gain knowledge of conventions is to look to behavioural regularities. Searle’s method presupposes that any competent language user already possesses all they need to communicate. By studying the rules or conventions of illocutionary acts Searle hopes to create a ‘serious taxonomy’ of speech acts, which will in turn deepen understanding of how conventions and communication are related (1971, p. 53). Therefore, when the question shifts from the usefulness of philosophical concepts to solving the problematic relationship between conventions and communication, Searle’s approach prevails over Quine’s. Searle’s study of illocutionary acts creates the possibility for using the philosophy of language to bridge the gap in our understanding of conventions and their role in communication. How far it will go in solving that problematic relationship, however, is yet to be determined.
Entry by Dylan Nickelson
Last updated on October 18, 2009
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