Friday, October 02, 2009

Illocutions, Perlocutions and Metaphorical Content

In his talk last Wednesday at the LOGOS Seminar, "On Metaphorical Content", Gergö Somodi gave an argument that puts pressure on anti-Davidsonian theories of metaphorical content, and suggested a possible way out, to be further researched and elaborated. Here I will present my interpretation of the paper, and I will indicate that, if I understood it correctly, the research project is indeed worth pursuing.

Following more or less the Austinian terminology that Gergö was using, and more or less the interpretation of Davidsonian views he was assuming, on a Davidsonian view the only illocution made with an utterance of a metaphorical sentence such as 'Juliet is the Sun' is the one whose content is the literal necessary falsehood that Juliet is identical with our star. It is true that the utterance conveys to audiences other, more sensible ideas, such as the claim that Juliet gives warm and light to the speaker; but this is no illocution, it is only a causal effect of the literal illocution on which the latter has as little rational influence as if that idea had been produced in the audience by "a bump in the head" (Davidson, sic). On a Davidsonian account, then, grasping that Juliet gives warm and light to the speaker is merely a perlocutionary effect.

Anti-Davidsonians like Elizabeth Camp argue instead that the more sensible idea is also an illocution (in addition perhaps to the illocution of the literal meaning) of the utterance, perhaps conveyed in the indirect way that indirect speech acts or conversational implicatures are conveyed, or perhaps more in the way that context-dependent meanings are conveyed. Now, the problem that Gergö raised for these views (as Genoveva helped me to appreciate) goes as follows: writers like Camp accept that an essential part of the mechanism through which the alleged metaphorical illocution is conveyed to audiences has audiences "noticing resemblances, seeing things, entertaining pictures"; but all of these are perlocutionary effects; how can an illocution be conveyed by essential perlocutionary means?

My initial resistance to this way of setting the problem was as follows: if perlocutions are defined the way Gergö proposed (intention-irrelevant causal effects of utterances), then it is not clear that the categories illocution/perlocution are incompatible. For understanding the literal semantic content of a context-dependent utterance, such as Kaplan's 'That is a picture of the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century.', might well be an intention-irrelevant (in the sense indicated by Gergö) causal effect of an utterance. But then the anti-Davidsonian is safe, because "noticing resemblances, seeing things, entertaining pictures" might be perlocutions but also illocutions, and there is no problem with the view. This would be clearer if we used a less question-begging description of the way we interpret metaphors, such as, in our example, "thinking of the target-domain of persons in terms of the commonly believed properties of the source-domain of stars", instead of speaking of "noticing, seeing, picturing".

Alternatively, we can define "perlocution" in such a way that the categories of illocutions and perlocutions are really incompatible, as on the Strawsonian definition that what is distinctive of perlocutions is that they cannot be produced by Gricean communicative intentions. But then it is question-begging to say that the way we interpret metaphors, through "noticing resemblances, seeing things, entertaining pictures", is a perlocution. The anti-Davidsonian would say that this is no perlocution, in the Strawsonian sense, but rather something that can indeed be achieved by means of communicative intentions, what, again, would be clearer if we described it in less question-begging terms such as "thinking of the target-domain of persons in terms of the commonly believed properties of the source-domain of stars".

In the course of the discussion (particularly the exchange with Josep), I came to think that this is also what Gergö wants to suggest, and that his point was rather that defending it requires a better clarification of what is usually meant by perlocution, so that we can see that effects that in some sense can be called 'perlocutionary' can contribute to properly illocutionary effects. With this I agree, in fact Gergö's characterization of a perlocution as an intentionally-irrelevant causal effect of an utterance is what many writers on these topics seem to have in mind (see for instance chapter 2 of Alston's Illocutionary Acts and Sentence-Meaning).

1 comment:

Somodi said...

I think I did not get something, because I still do not see why would the Strawsonian formulation of the difference between illocutions and perlocutions make it question-begging to claim that making someone to see something in a new light, or to notice resemblances or to think about one thing in terms of some other thing, is a perlocutionary act, i.e., an act done with perlocutionary intention. Also, I don't see how could this possibly be illocutionary.

Here is how I understand the Strawsonian formulation of the relation of communicative intention, illocutionary intention and perlocutionary intention.

Illocutionary intentions are such that their “fulfillment consists in their recognition”. This is not true of perlocutionary intentions. Examples might be of help here.

1) You might recognize that what I am trying to do is to convince you that metaphors effect is perlocutionary even in Strawsonian terms, still, despite the recognition of my intention you might, and most probably, you will remain unconvinced. And if it is so, it is hard to say that I performed the act of convincing you.

2) On the other hand, if you recognize that what I am trying to do is to make or perform a request, then you cannot but take me to make or perform a request. Even if it is not possible for you to give me what I ask for, I still performed the request and you will take what I have done as a request. Searle, (Speech Acts, 1969) who, I think, adopts the Strawsonian view, put it this way:

"[i]n the case of illocutionary acts we succeed in doing what we are trying to do by getting our audience to recognize what we are trying to do. But the ‘effect’ on the hearer is not a belief or a response, it consist simply in the hearers understanding the utterance of the speaker. It is that effect that I have been calling the illocutionary effect." (47)

So much for the difference between illocutionary and perlocutionary intentions. Are they both communicative intentions? Well, what I've found in the literature is that people equate communicative intentions with illocutionary intentions as far as linguistic communication is concerned. I do not really understand this move, but, anyway, it is not important now. One might say that what we have here are two effects, both causal, but there is a difference in the way they are produced, and that is what is important.

The question is whether the intention to make someone to think about one thing in terms of something else is illocutionary and, thereby, communicative intention or not? I am sure its fulfillment does not consists in its recognition, as the Confession of C.S. Lewis illustrates

"I am so coarse, the things poets see
Are obstinately invisible to me,
For twenty years I’ve started my level best,
To see if evening—any evening—would suggest
A patient etherised upon a table;
In vain, I simply wasn’t able,"

Consequently, it cannot be illocutionary. But maybe I am wrong about the Strawsonian way of characterizing the difference between illocutions and perlocutions.

In my talk, I said that I do not really like this formulation; let me give my reason here. According to this characterization, understanding the utterances of others requires the ability of attributing and recognizing complex mental states (reflexive intentions) of others. Now, children under the age of three do not really have that ability, still they understand others' illocutionary acts and are able to produce utterances with various illocutionary forces (cf. Kissine 2009 Illocutionary forces and what is said, Mind and Language).

And again, as Manuel García-Carpintero pointed it out rightly, I agree that in the case of metaphors there is something illocutionary over and above the literal illocutionary act. It basically follows form the fact that we do make claims, as questions etc., by metaphors. My interest lies in answering the question: How can we make this compatible with the claim that metaphors' effect is perlocutionary (on every theory of perlocution formulated so far).