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Misleading Appearances: Searle on Assertion and Meaning


John Searle’s philosophy of language contains a notorious tension between a literalist view on the relationship between sentences and their meanings, and what—at the first glance—appears to be a virulent defence of contextualism. Appearances notwithstanding, Searle’s views on background and meaning are closer to literalism than to contextualism. Searle defines assertion in terms of the commitment to the truth of the propositional content. In absence of an independent criterion to delimit the asserted content, such a definition overgenerates—hence Searle’s commitment to literalism. His position is untenable—and this is the general lesson of the paper—, because sentence meaning cannot be used to determine the asserted content.

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  1. 1.

    Usual qualifications must be made for a restricted set of indexicals, whose linguistic meaning requires a contextual parameter for the assignation of semantic content.

  2. 2.

    I owe this example to an anonymous referee.

  3. 3.

    This problem is related to the old question of Quine’s ‘eternal’ sentences; for a discussion, see, for instance, Recanati (1994).

  4. 4.

    Searle is quite inconsistent on this topic. In Searle (1983, chapter 5), he distinguishes the background of implicit know-hows from the network of intentional states such as beliefs. In Searle (1992, Chap. 8) he includes the network of intentional states within the background. Yet, Searle (2001) gets back to affirming that the background is not propositional.

  5. 5.

    Restricting the discussion to declarative sentences and to assertions.

  6. 6.

    Searle and Vanderveken (1985) propose a slightly different description of the structure of speech acts. Every illocutionary act is defined (a) by its illocutionary point; (b) the mode of achievement of the illocutionary point; (c) the degree of strength of the illocutionary point; (d) propositional content conditions; (e) preparatory conditions; (f) sincerity conditions; (g) the degree of strength of the sincerity conditions. The illocutionary point is equivalent to Searle’s essential condition—it is “the purpose which is internal to [the utterance’s] being an act of that type” (Searle and Vanderveken 1985, p. 37). The illocutionary point of an assertion is to represent an actual state of the world. Since assertions have no specific mode of achievement, no specific conditions on propositional content conditions and that the degrees of strength of their illocutionary point and of their sincerity conditions are neuter (Searle and Vanderveken 1985, p. 183), we can safely use Searle’s (1969) more informal presentation.

  7. 7.

    A reviewer pointed out that Searle does not “accept abstract propositions that are expressed by some sentences, or some utterances […]. He thinks that propositional acts are abstract components of some illocutionary acts, or, perhaps, are some illocutionary acts abstractly considered.” This is correct; actually, it reinforces the point to be made below, i.e. that the Principle of Expressibility, under its strongest interpretation, applies to speech acts.

  8. 8.

    Or, in case of ellipsis, onto a constituent of the non-elliptical cognate of the uttered sentence. Note that if, as claimed by Stainton (1998, 2005), there are genuinely sub-sentential assertions—irreducible to syntactic ellipsis—Alston’s solution would face an important obstacle.

  9. 9.

    While Searle (1983) maintains that representing intentional states amounts to performing illocutionary acts, he also emphasises that the intention to represent an intentional state is conceptually distinct from communicating that representation.


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I’m extremely grateful to Marc Dominicy for his detailed remarks on a previous draft. Two anonymous referees for this journal provided insightful criticisms that helped me to improve this paper considerably. My research is supported by a post-doctoral researcher grant from the Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique de la Communauté Française de Belgique (F.R.S.-FNRS). The results presented here are also part of the research carried out within the scope of the ARC project 06/11-342 Culturally modified organisms: “What it means to be human” in the age of culture, funded by the Ministère de la Communauté française—Direction générale de l’Enseignement non obligatoire et de la Recherche scientifique.

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Correspondence to Mikhail Kissine.

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Kissine, M. Misleading Appearances: Searle on Assertion and Meaning. Erkenn 74, 115–129 (2011).

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  • Semantic Content
  • Propositional Content
  • Sentence Type
  • Literal Meaning
  • Sentence Meaning