Non-literal Lies


Many recent definitions of lying are based on the notion of what is said. This paper argues that says-based definitions of lying cannot account for lies involving non-literal speech, such as metaphor, hyperbole, loose use or irony. It proposes that lies should instead be defined in terms of assertion, where what is asserted need not coincide with what is said. And it points to possible implications this outcome might have for the ethics of lying.

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  1. 1.

    This example is discussed by Saul (2012: 16), who attributes it to an anonymous referee. See Adler (1997: 444, fn. 27) for a further example of a lie involving metaphor.

  2. 2.

    See Keiser (2016: 469, fn. 17) for a further example of a lie involving hyperbole.

  3. 3.

    See Lasersohn (1999) for further examples of utterances involving loose use. Lasersohn does not provide examples of lies involving loose use, but each of his examples could be a lie, given a suitable background story.

  4. 4.

    See Simpson (1992: 630) and Mahon (2015: Sect. 1.5.1) for further examples of lies involving irony.

  5. 5.

    See e.g. Grice (1975: 53–54) on metaphor, hyperbole and irony, Searle (1979) and Camp (2006) on metaphor, Davis (2007) on hyperbole and loose use and Lasersohn (1999) on loose use. Not all theorists agree with these accounts (see e.g. Stern 2000; Bezuidenhout 2001 on metaphor), but the group of dissenters is fairly small. The term substitutional implicature has only entered the debate fairly recently, but helpfully marks a difference between the cases discussed and those involving additive implicatures. If a speaker uses an additive implicature, she intends to communicate what is said as well as something else in addition. See Meibauer (2009: 374) and Dinges (2015: 56) for discussion of the difference between substitutional and additive implicatures. The implicatures in (1)–(4) appear to be cancellable, which suggests that they are conversational implicatures (rather than conventional implicatures); see Grice (1975) for discussion of this latter distinction.

  6. 6.

    Two comments are in order here. Firstly, Grice (1975) holds that speakers in these cases merely make as if to say, but most contemporary theorists disagree with this aspect of Grice’s theory (see e.g. Bach 2012). Secondly, I wish to stay neutral with respect to the question of whether speaker intentions have an influence on what is said. Although I take it to be plausible that speaker intentions do determine what is said on at least some occasion (e.g. if speakers use demonstratives), the following will not rely on this position. A speaker may intend to communicate something distinct from what is said even if what is said is not determined by speaker intentions. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for highlighting this second issue.

  7. 7.

    I have informally confirmed this verdict with about 100 people, including philosophers and non-philosophers.

  8. 8.

    In the fourth example, Greta does arguably say something she believes to be true by uttering (4), but because she rolls her eyes it is obvious that this is not what she intends to communicate.

  9. 9.

    See Carson (2010: 37). I have slightly modified Carson’s definition in order to ease discussion, but the modifications should be harmless in the current context. Carson’s version uses ‘makes a false statement’ in clause (1), where I simply use ‘says’. I have replaced ‘makes a statement’ with ‘says’ because Carson uses ‘saying’ and ‘stating’ interchangeably (as is apparent from his discussion immediately following the definition and as is noted by Saul (2012: 3)). And I have removed the requirement that what is said must be false because most theorists working on definitions of lying disagree with this requirement and leaving it out will make no difference to the discussion in this paper. Saul (2012: 12) proposes a similar definition of lying, but in the end she defends a slightly different definition, which I will discuss below.

  10. 10.

    Below, I will also consider an intermediate notion of what is said that includes substitutional but not additive implicatures. See Saul (2012: Chapters 2 and 3) for a thorough discussion of which conceptions of what is said are suited for says-based definitions of lying. What I am calling constrained conceptions of what is said also include what Saul calls austere conceptions.

  11. 11.

    Cappelen and Lepore (2005) offer one of the few explicit endorsements of an unconstrained conception of what is said. One might also note that the unconstrained conception of what is said goes against the pre-theoretical understanding of this notion, according to which there can be a difference between what speakers say and what they intend to communicate.

  12. 12.

    Recall that, according to Carson, these are the only circumstances under which the speakers do not warrant the truth of what they say.

  13. 13.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for pointing out this possibility.

  14. 14.

    Stern (2000) defends a similar view.

  15. 15.

    See Stokke (2013: 49). This definition slightly and harmlessly differs from the definition Stokke offers: Stokke’s definition mentions an addressee (‘S lies to X’) that I have omitted for reasons of simplicity.

  16. 16.

    Stalnaker (1999: 87) discusses the view of assertion Stokke accepts, but emphasizes that he does not ‘propose [it] as a definition of assertion, but only as a claim about one effect which assertions have, and are intended to have’. Stokke (2013: 46) endorses the definition, but notes that his aim is not to provide a general account of assertion, but only to ‘capture the aspects of assertion that are relevant for defining lying’.

  17. 17.

    Stokke (2014: 508) mentions the possibility of felicitous presupposition as a test for whether a piece of information has been made common ground.

  18. 18.

    Stokke (2013: 58) distinguishes between official and unofficial common ground: whereas the former includes permanently accepted information, the latter includes information that is accepted only temporarily, e.g. for the use of an argument. But this distinction is of no help in dealing with the problem of non-literal lies, as Stokke requires speakers to propose to add what is said to the official common ground, and the speakers of (1)–(4) clearly do not propose to do this.

  19. 19.

    This is the reason why Stokke (2013: 50) opts for a constrained conception of what is said.

  20. 20.

    Again, I have very slightly and harmlessly modified the wording of Saul’s (2012: 18) definition to ease discussion. Saul does not discuss cases of loose use and thus her version does not mention it. But given her treatment of other forms of non-literal speech it is consistent to include loose use in the antecedent of the definition.

  21. 21.

    Amongst many others, Bok (1978), Faulkner (2007) and Sorensen (2007) adopt definitions similar to (L4) without mentioning that assertions need not be said. Chisholm and Feehan (1977), Fallis (2009) and Stokke (2013) defend assertion-based definitions of lying and explicitly require assertions to be said.

  22. 22.

    See e.g. Bach and Harnish (1979), Bergmann (1982), Williams (2002: 98–99), MacFarlane (2011) and Camp (2012).

  23. 23.

    This rules out the aforementioned accounts of Chisholm and Feehan (1977), Fallis (2009) and Stokke (2013), as well as that of Dummett (1981: 300).

  24. 24.

    This approach can also capture non-literal misleadings: a speaker non-literally misleads if she non-literally asserts (and thus commits herself to) something she believes to be true, and thereby implicates something she believes to be false (without committing herself to it). As an example of such non-literal misleading we can return to the case in which Ada is really happy about her meagre crop of tomatoes because she previously thought that all of her plants had died. Ada non-literally misleads if she uses hyperbole and utters ‘I’m ecstatic about my crop of tomatoes’, in order to thereby non-literally assert that she is really happy about her crop of tomatoes. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for drawing attention to this matter.

  25. 25.

    The account would also have to be shown to be compatible with so-called bald-faced lies: lies uttered without an intention to deceive. See Carson (2006) and Sorensen (2007) for examples of bald-faced lies and Leland (2015) and Keiser (2016) for arguments that these cases are not a problem for assertion-based definitions of lying.

  26. 26.

    I do not want to claim that hearers always rely to a greater extent on what is asserted than on what is suggested. If a hearer knows a speaker very well, the hearer might rely on at least some of the speaker’s suggestions to an equal extent as her assertions.

  27. 27.

    That is not to say that an assertion- and commitment-based definition of lying straightforwardly leads to (M–D) or a similar principle: it is possible to hold that there is a difference in commitment between lying and mere misleading, while also holding that this difference is not morally relevant.

  28. 28.

    For helpful discussion and comments I am indebted to Jonas Åkerman, Patrick Butlin, Alexander Dinges, Yuuki Ohta, Wulf Rehder, Felix Timmermann, Mai Viebahn, Pascale Willemsen, Derya Yürüyen, Julia Zakkou, two anonymous reviewers for this journal and the participants of several seminars and research colloquia at the Humboldt University of Berlin.


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Correspondence to Emanuel Viebahn.

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Viebahn, E. Non-literal Lies. Erkenn 82, 1367–1380 (2017).

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