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Bald-faced lies: how to make a move in a language game without making a move in a conversation

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According to the naïve, pre-theoretic conception, lying seems to be characterized by the intent to deceive. However, certain kinds of bald-faced lies appear to be counterexamples to this view, and many philosophers have abandoned it as a result. I argue that this criticism of the naïve view is misplaced; bald-faced lies are not genuine instances of lying because they are not genuine instances of assertion. I present an additional consideration in favor of the naïve view, which is that abandoning it comes at an extremely high price; alternative accounts which eschew the intent-to-deceive condition on lying have difficulty distinguishing lies from non-literal speech.

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  1. See, e.g., Carson (2006, pp. 284–306), Fallis (2009, pp. 29–56), Fallis (2012, pp. 563–581), Fallis (2014), Saul (2012), Sorensen (2007, pp. 251–264), Stokke (2013, pp. 33–60).

  2. Throughout the paper, I will assume that the content of what is said (or stated) is closely aligned with the literal meaning of the sentence uttered. I want to remain neutral on the details here, which I don’t anticipate will be relevant to the main arguments of the paper. The other philosophers I will be discussing have similar views, and any differences in detail will not matter for my purposes here. The reader, then, should assume that ‘what is said’ (and ‘what is stated’) is being used in the same way during my presentation of others’ views.

  3. See Lackey (2013, pp. 236–248).

  4. See Carson (2006), Fallis (2009), Fallis (2012, 2013, 2014), Saul (2012), Sorensen (2007), Stokke (2013).

  5. Jörg Meibauer also takes the strategy of denying the bald-faced lies are genuine lies; while my proposal is that they are instead moves in a non-conversational language game of some sort (which may vary case to case), his proposal is that they are in fact acts of verbal aggression (Meibauer 2014).

  6. I take it that to utter something with its conventional meaning involves uttering it with the knowledge of its conventional meaning, and with the expectation that one’s audience shares this knowledge. An example of failing to utter a sentence with its conventional meaning would be a group of monolingual English speakers reading aloud from a book of French poetry.

  7. See Austin (1975).

  8. Austin classifies performatives such as “I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth” as illocutionary acts. (Austin, 117). It follows from my own account that many instances of performatives do not qualify as illocutionary acts. Readers who are unhappy with this departure from Austin’s original characterization of the illocutionary act may think of my use of ‘illocutionary act’ as picking out a subset of Austinian illocutionary acts.

  9. Bach and Harnish (1979).

  10. See Grice (1989), Lewis (1975), Schiffer (1972).

  11. Furthermore, the actor may intend to produce other perlocutionary effects such as humoring or entertaining his audience, but these effects will be achieved merely by the success of the locutionary act; the illocution can be bypassed.

  12. One might worry that—given these definitions—people aren’t performing illocutionary acts in contexts in which they are joking around or telling stories. This is results from the fact that I am using ‘conversation’ and ‘illocutionary act’, etc. as technical terms; I’ve defined tem in the way that I’ve found to be the most theoretically useful, though this involves some departures from the way ordinary speakers and other philosophers may use them. This should not be material to the larger discussion here, because even if one wants to insist that people are performing illocutionary acts in telling jokes or stories, it is very unlikely that the candidate illocutionary act will be one that is needed for lying (such as assertion).

  13. There are some propositions which I’d want to say are directly meant by the speaker, but are such that the audience will need to use previous utterances made by the speaker (or other members of the conversation) in order to identify who or what the speaker refers to (for instance, utterances which involve pronouns or anaphora). I will ignore this complication here.

  14. Wittgenstein (2009).

  15. I am not using ‘game’ in any kind of technical sense, and I don’t intend to be taking on any kind of theoretical commitments with the use of this term. In particular, I do not make the assumption that language games must be conventional in nature.

  16. While other language games may (but need not) involve goals of producing perlocutionary effects, conversations are unique in that the production of the perlocutionary effect is intended to be achieved via the illocutionary effects—i.e., the audience’s recognition of the speaker’s illocutionary intentions. In contrast, participants in other language games may perform locutions with the intent to produce perlocutionary effects, but these effects are achieved without the use of illocutionary effects—rather, the locutionary act together with common knowledge about the context and the rules and conventions governing the language game is sufficient for the perlocutionary effect to be produced. The illocutionary effects are not needed in these games; perlocutionary effects are achieved even though the illocutionary act is bypassed. Though perhaps most language games may involve the intended production of perlocutionary effects, I mean to use ‘language game’ in a liberal way, to include activities which may not involve any such intention (for example, reading mindlessly aloud in a foreign language in order to practice one’s pronunciation).

  17. Most philosophers working on this topic would say simply that to lie is to assert something that one believes to be false; my account adds the condition that the assertion must be direct. This addition is innocuous and merely reflects that I will be working with a more liberal account of assertion according to which one can assert things indirectly. Since most philosophers operate under the assumption that all assertions must be direct, adding this condition does impose any restrictions on a definition of lying that they would not be willing to accept.

    On the other hand, there are some who think it possible to lie using indirect speech—for example, one may think that a hotel clerk lies if she tells a prospective guest that the internet service is “as fast as lightening” knowing that it takes about 5 min for a page to load. I am not particularly committed to the constraint that lies must be directly asserted; if there turn out to be theoretical reasons to favor the more liberal account, I can accommodate this by removing the directness constraint, giving the result that a lie is (any) assertion that the speaker believes to be false. In either case, philosophers opposed to the naïve account will still need to take on the non-trivial task of accounting for the distinction between lying and certain kinds non-literal speech, though the problematic subset of nonliteral speech will be smaller for one who rejects the directness constraint—it will include cases of non-literal speech according to which the speaker believes the content of her locution to be false and the content of her indirect assertion to be true.

  18. Of course, one could come up with a bizarre and gerrymandered epistemic account of assertion according to which asserting something one believes to be false will not entail an intent to deceive, and so the definition needs tightening up a bit; the intention must be to affect the epistemic state of the addressee with respect to the asserted proposition, and in a way that somehow makes the addressee positively rather than negatively epistemically disposed towards that proposition. The rough characterization of epistemic accounts of assertion should do for my purposes here, however, and so I will set this complication aside.

  19. An account according to which the speaker asserts something intending to get the audience to believe that she (the speaker) herself believes it also qualifies as a stronger epistemic account of assertion, since it involves the intention to induce a belief in someone. My comments about the strong epistemic account of assertion that I have characterized above will apply mutatis mutandis to this kind of account as well.

  20. Recanati also provides a weak epistemic account, appealing to the intention to provide reasons rather than to the intention to induce a belief (Recanati 1987, p. 183).

  21. See footnote 15.

  22. Quoted in Sorensen (2007, p. 251).

  23. See Carson (2006, pp. 284–306), Saul (2012).

  24. In Saul’s definition of lying, she explicitly excludes non-literal speech. However, this will not do as a solution for the problem I am posing for two reasons: first, it is an ad hoc fix, and second, it pushes the bump under the rug to a different location—one then incurs the onus of defining non-literal speech in such a way that distinguishes it from assertion.

  25. See Stokke (2013, pp. 33–60).

  26. Three accounts which I have not considered are Fallis (2009, 2013, 2014). I take Stokke’s (2013) criticisms of Fallis (2009) to be decisive. Each of Fallis’ subsequent definitions crucially involve undefined terms; once these are fleshed out I suspect that each account will face the dilemma I propose above. For instance, Fallis (2013) proposes that to lie is to intend to violate the norm against communicating something false by saying that thing. However, the notion of communication needs to be fleshed out; if the content of non-literal speech is communicated (which I think it is), then this definition will count certain cases of non-literal speech as lies. If we go with some stronger notion of communication that rules out non-literal speech, I suspect it will entail an intent-to-deceive condition on lying. Similarly, Fallis’ (2014) account relies on an undefined notion of representing oneself as believing what one says. I do not have a clear idea of what this amounts to, but again I suspect that it can either be analyzed in a weak sense which will include non-literal speech, or a strong sense which will entail an intent to deceive condition on lying.


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For helpful comments and discussion I thank Liz Camp, Rachel McKinney, Jason Stanley, Zoltán Szabó, Bruno Whittle, and an anonymous referee, as well as the participants in Yale’s Spring 2014 Works In Progress seminar and the students and mentors at the 2014 Networking and Mentoring Workshop for Graduate Student Women in Philosophy where earlier versions of this paper were presented.

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Correspondence to Jessica Keiser.

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Keiser, J. Bald-faced lies: how to make a move in a language game without making a move in a conversation. Philos Stud 173, 461–477 (2016).

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