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How to do things with (recorded) words


The aim of this paper is to evaluate which context determines the illocutionary force of written or recorded utterances—those involved in written texts, films and images, conceived as recordings that can be seen or heard in different occasions. More precisely, my paper deals with the “metaphysical” or constitutive role of context—as opposed to its epistemic or evidential role: my goal is to determine which context is semantically relevant in order to fix the illocutionary force of a speech act, as distinct from the information the addressee uses to ascertain the semantically relevant context. In particular I will try to assess two different perspectives on this problem, a Conventionalist Perspective and an Intentionalist Perspective. Drawing on the literature on indexicals in written texts and recorded messages, I will argue in favor of the Intentionalist Perspective: the relevant context is the one intended by the speaker. Bringing intentions into the picture, however, requires qualification; in particular, I will distinguish my Weak Intentionalist proposal from a Strong Intentionalist one. I will show that the Weak Intentionalist Perspective is flexible enough to deal with cases of delayed communication, but not so unrestricted as to yield counter-intuitive consequences.

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  1. Cf. Austin (1962), Strawson (1964, p. 444).

  2. Corazza (2004), Corazza et al. (2002), Gorvett (2005), Predelli (1998a, 1998b, 2002, 2011), Romdenh-Romluc (2002, 2006), Sidelle (1991), Smith (1989), Stokke (2010).

  3. For the notion of “social or conventional setting” see Corazza et al. (2002, p. 11): “Our proposal is that, for any use of the personal indexical, the contextual parameter of the agent [location or time] is conventionally given—given by the social or conventional setting in which the utterance takes place”. In cases of deferred utterances, Corazza acknowledges that the time and location of the utterance may not be the time and location of production of the token. But again, the social setting conventionally provides the relevant parameters, with different conventional rules regulating different settings: answering machines (“In the case of an answering machine, the time of the utterance corresponds with the time the recorded message is played back and the location corresponds to the location it is played”), post-cards (“In a post-card… the time picked out by the indexical is likely to be the time of the production of the message”), and post-it notes (“in the case of post-it notes the location/time of utterance corresponds to the location/time the note is read”): Corazza (2004, p. 312) (my emphasis).

  4. This is the opinion of, for example, Saul (2006) or Mikkola (2008).

  5. See Saul (2006, p. 238): “viewings of a work… are the times that matter for determining its illocutionary force. At each of these times, we have different audiences, who may interpret the… work in different ways; and different felicity conditions may be fulfilled or unfulfilled”; Mikkola (2008, p. 319): “the context that fixes [the illocutionary force of recordings] on my example is that of actual decoding” (my emphasis).

  6. Cf. Bianchi (2008) for arguments against Saul’s claim that the force-fixing context of a recorded speech act is the decoding context and in favour of an intentionalist perspective.

  7. Predelli (2002, p. 314).

  8. For a different opinion, see Gorvett (2005, p. 307): “anyone reading the two notes on the door would interpret them both as saying something about the day on which they read the note; unfortunately the second note [(3)] would be saying something false”.

  9. I make reference to Austin’s classification: see Austin (1962, p. 162).

  10. I borrow this example from Romdenh-Romluc (2006, p. 268). Romdenh-Romluc examines a case involving indexical reference at a time when conventional ways of using answering machines are not yet established; I claim that a similar point can be made about illocutionary force.

  11. Corazza argues a similar point against Predelli in a discussion about indexicals; cf. Corazza et al. (2002, pp. 8–9): “If we allow Predelli’s appeal to an intentional agent, we must accept that ‘I’ refers to Joe solely on the grounds that Ben intends it so to refer. However, if we accept that Ben, purely in virtue of his having the intention to do so, can use ‘I’ to refer to Joe, why can he not use ‘I’ to refer to pretty much anybody?”. Cf. Donnellann (1968, p. 212): “if intentions were sufficient, then a speaker could mean anything by any word at any time or refer to anything using any definite description at any time”.

  12. Or any note, for that matter.

  13. This objection is raised by Mikkola (2008).

  14. Cf. Bach (1994, p. 314).

  15. Such as that allegedly endorsed by Predelli (2002, p. 314). Actually, Predelli (2011) seems to commit himself strongly only to the view he calls the “impropriety thesis”: “a variety of views regarding written notes, recorded messages… yield a satisfactory explanation of the problem under discussion only to the extent to which they accept improper contexts” (Predelli 2011, p. 302). I owe the distinction between Weak and Strong Intentionalism to Stokke (2010): Stokke, though, draws the distinction concerning the semantic interpretation of indexicals.

  16. Predelli (2002, p. 315).

  17. I follow Donnellann (1968) on this point; cf. Bianchi (2006), Neale (2005), and Stokke (2010). See infra, § 6.

  18. Cf. Bianchi (2006, p. 389), where I develop this point as far as domains of quantification are concerned. Stokke (2010, p. 388) introduces a similar “Uptake Constraint” on referring: “It requires that, in order for a speaker to refer, her audience must be ‘in a position to’ recognize her intention”.

  19. Donnellann (1968, p. 212).

  20. Donnellann (1968, p. 212).

  21. Cf. Donnellann (1968, p. 215).

  22. Contrary to Garcia Carpintero’s opinion; cf. Garcia-Carpintero (1998, p. 537): “I will take demonstrations to be sets of deictical intentions manifested in features of the context of utterance available as such to any competent user”. According to Romdenh-Romluc (2006) “indexical reference must be fixed by a competent and attentive audience” (p. 274).

  23. Cf. Bach (1994, p. 314), Romdenh-Romluc (2006), Stokke (2010, p. 390).

  24. Cf. Bianchi (2013), § 6.


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I wish to thank Emma Borg, Kepa Korta, Carlo Penco and especially Stefano Predelli for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. Thanks also to an anonymous referee for useful suggestions.

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Correspondence to Claudia Bianchi.

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Bianchi, C. How to do things with (recorded) words. Philos Stud 167, 485–495 (2014).

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  • Speech acts
  • Indexicals
  • Illocutionary force
  • Context
  • Recordings
  • Intentionalism