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Meaning as Understanding: On the Use of Language

In this paper I argue that we know the meanings of words and utterances based on
our understanding on how exactly they are used. These uses fall into a few
categories of speech acts: locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary. The
manner of how they are used is determined by the context surrounding the
employment of a particular speech act. This context is provided by both the
speaker and the listener having an intention of communicating something that
they know. Put another way, they individually desire to partake in the
experience of the speech act: the speaker intends to convey something, and the
listener intends to receive something, and the things that have been conveyed
and received up to this point build into what is being said and how it is being
said. That is to say, the context contributes to the type of speech act, and
thus influences the understanding of the words being uttered. This thesis can
best be summarized by the following phrase: I know what you mean by
understanding your use of the language. 

First I will discuss what these speech acts are. Historically, philosophers of
language have broken speech acts down into a variety of different types. The
types that I am most interested in and the kind that I think are the most common
ways that we perform these are the following: locutionary, illocutionary, and
perlocutionary. I will start with locutionary speech acts. These are, simply
put, the ways in which speakers say things. Locutionary speech acts can be
analyzed in terms of characteristics of the words that make them up and their
structure, such as phonetics, syntax, grammar, etc. A speaker who utters a
sentence and intends nothing more by it than to simply state what the utterance
is is said to be performing a locutionary act. We can say that locutionary
speech acts are people simply stating what it is that they mean. 

The second type of act is that of the illocutionary type. Illocutionary acts are
what J. L. Austin calls 'performative utterances' in his posthumously published
paper 'Philosophical Papers'. These types of speech acts are characterized as
things such as promising or bequeathing. Austin claims that these statements are
neither true nor false, but instead are statements of action: a speaker who
performs an illocutionary speech act is said to be doing something as opposed to
saying something. Take, for example, the statement 'I leave to my best friend my
collection of philosophical books'. This is not something that I am simply
saying - clearly I intend some sort of effect from my statement.  It is, in
effect, me doing the leaving by declaring to have done so. In this way,
illocutionary acts are distinct instances of a speech act and are different in
kind from locutionary acts. But how is this difference manifested? Searle points
out in 'Speech Acts' what this characteristic may be. Searle calls it an
'illocutionary force indicating device'. He supplies the following rules for the
force indicating device in the case of promising [1]:

Propositional Content: Pr (the illocutionary force indicating device for
promising) is to be uttered only in the context of a sentence T, the utterance
of which predicates some future act A of the speaker S.  

Preparatory I: Pr is to be uttered only if the hearer H would prefer S's doing A
to his not doing A, and S believes H would prefer S's doing A to his not doing

Preparatory II: Pr is to be uttered only if it is not obvious to both S and H
that S will do A in the normal course of events.
Sincerity: Pr is to be uttered only if S intends to do A.  

Essential: The utterance of Pr counts as the undertaking of an obligation to do

He then goes on to demonstrate that these rules are not specific to the
promising illocutionary case, but also to other cases of illocutionary acts such
as ordering or greeting (with their own illocutionary force indicating devices).
It is important to note the use of context, belief, and intention in the
explication of these rules. 

The final speech act is the perlocutionary speech act. The main point to be
drawn from this case is that it is an extension of the illocutionary speech act.
It covers things above and beyond the force indicating device. Whilst the
illocutionary speech acts are meant to take the form of an action of a sort like
those considered by Austin or Searle that the speaker intends, perlocutionary
speech acts are about the unintended things that utterances cause. We will come
back to the importance of speech acts later. 

We now move on to intention. By intention I mean a sort of belief that an
individual has of a thing. This thing could be some abstract concept like a
mathematical object or a set, or perhaps it could be of the mailbox in front of
their childhood home. What is important about this belief is that there is some
kind of experience that the individual has of the thing they are believing. This
experience could be caused by other beliefs they may have, like in the case of
mathematical objects insofar as they are considered to be abstract, nonphysical
entities of some such kind, or it could be some experience in reality that they
actually have, like their experience of the aforementioned mailbox. What matters
for it to be an experience is that some form of a relation can be drawn between
the belief in question and the individual thing which the belief is about. This
relation could be that of thought or of sensory experience. All that matters is
that the speaker in some way forms and has this belief. Thus, speaker intention
would be an attempt on the part of the speaker to communicate to some listener
the belief that the speaker has of their particular object. Likewise, listener
intention would be an attempt on the part of the listener [2] to come to
understand this belief that the speaker has. We can say, then, that the speaker
intention is to convey, and listener intention is to receive.

So the question becomes: what exactly is the relationship between a speech act
and a speaker or listener intention. In the case of locutionary acts, it is
precisely the speaker intention. The speaker intends to convey some belief which
they have of the world or of some object, and they say exactly what this belief
is to be to the listener. For instance, the speaker might say 'the mailbox in
front of my childhood home was red'. There is no more left to this sentence, at
least in such a simple case (I am, of course, presuming nothing about the
context of the conversation other than the fact that there isn't one). The
speaker only intends to inform the listener about the color of their mailbox. In
the case of an illocutionary act, the speaker intention becomes something about
an intention to apologize or to bequeath. Perhaps the speaker believes that as
they were making their way through a crowded room, they realized that they had
stepped on the toes of some unfortunate fellow that they were passing. Feeling
terrible, they offer up their apology in the relevant sense outlined by Searle,
and have attempted to convey their belief that they had in fact stepped on these

So the question then might be, what does knowledge have to do with this? I will
take knowledge to be something like justified, true belief, although not in such
a strong case that it is universally justified or universally true. This belief
is said to be justified by the speech act that the speaker employs in conveying
this belief, and this speech act is said to be true given an intention to convey
this belief in the way that models what they believe to be true of it.

(this is separate from the paper itself)

I have run into a serious wall with this argument. I think that I have lost
myself within the folds. I hope, up until this point, the things which I am
saying have been clear. But I've fallen to deeply into the trenches, and I can't
find a way to get back outside of the argument to view the trajectory of this
paper before I run out of time on the deadline. There is much more work to be
done. Amongst other things (like overall fleshing out the points already made),
I need to adequately justify and demonstrate the relationship between speaker
knowledge and their intentions, listener knowledge and their intentions, and the
relationship between speech acts and the 'transferal' of this knowledge. The
understanding of knowledge hinges, I think, greatly on the value of context to a
particular conversation. Not necessarily on the speech acts employed - I think
that the choice of a speech act is precisely up to the intention of the speaker
- but on what is attempted to be conveyed.

Like I said, there is a lot left to be done. Let alone the fact that I have as
of now been unable to recover any kind of actual literature dealing with aspects
of this paper. I am mostly pulling from the books we used last year in PHL 360.
I'm going to try to spend the weekend fleshing out my ideas a little more,
develop a stronger outline to pull from, and come back to this. I would love to
share what I come up with with you once I get there, probably next week or the
following week. A lot of this relates to the topics we covered near the end of
last Spring, so I'll review a lot of that material as well.

Please give any criticisms you may have on this. I think that the presentation,
overall, needs a lot of buffing out. The point of this draft is essentially to
help me pick out overarching ideas that I appreciate in what I think a theory of
meaning should look like.  Criticisms and concerns/questions are immensely
appreciated, as well as suggestions on literature or where to look for it.

Martinich, Aloysius P., and David Sosa, eds. ''The Philosophy of Language''. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Print.

Austin, John L. 'Philosophical Papers.' Martinich and Sosa 291-300.

Searle, John R. 'Speech Acts.' Martinich and Sosa 301-311. 

[1] These rules are consolidations of 'propositional content conditions' which
he also develops in this paper, along with a more rigorous and in-depth analysis
of the reducibility and extension of these conditions that I will not consider
in this paper. (See: Searle, John R. 'Speech Acts.')

[2] I do not think that it is important the speaker and listener be different,
nor that the listener be a singular individual. 


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