Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Speech Act Theory and Political Discourse

One of the distinctions we make in our method for discourse analysis is distinguishing between what we call "representatives," and "expressives." A representative is the kind of speech act that has traditionally been the most salient concern of linguistic philosophers,* that is an assertion which can be assigned a truth value based on a method of verification available to a set of beings with requisite sensory apparatus, logical processing capability, and opportunity for observation -- normally meaning cognitively and sensorily normal humans. Formally, positivists say that the meaning of a statement is equivalent to the means by which it can be verified.

Most utterances in natural speech do not have a truth value, even in principle -- they are not subject to verification. These include commissives (promises, offers, commitments), directives (orders, recommendations, encouragement, convincing, etc.), questions (which are a special kind of directive), social ritual (please and thank you and so on), and jokes. (Is it true or false that the chicken crossed the road to get to the other side?)

RepresentativesExpressives (thanks Mike for noticing the brain fart) are somewhere in between. They are assertions about the state of the speaker's wetware -- what the speaker feels, wishes, believes. We can form an opinion about whether the speaker is being truthful, of course, and there may be strong grounds for deciding this. Most neuroscientists will tell you that such mental states correspond to physical processes in the brain and may even hope that one day, they will be able to measure them directly, in other words read minds.

Nevertheless, even if our individual mental states could one day be brought into the intersubjective realm in the sense that assertions about them are verifiable, they will still never be intersubjective in the same sense as "the earth goes around the sun." There are two main reasons for this. The first is the problem of consciousness. Our consciousness is inaccessible to others, even if the neurological processes that generate it are not. It is our own experience, and can never, so far as we know, be anyone else's.

More important, however, facts about mental states are not the same as facts about the world out there. It may be verifiably true that you believe that human life begins at the moment the gametes fuse to form a zygote, and that ergo abortion is murder, but it is nevertheless not verifiably true that abortion is murder. All I have to do is feel otherwise, and that's the end of it. The fact that you believe it has a truth value, but the assertion itself does not.

Unfortunately, many people can't tell the difference between these kinds of assertions. Is removing U.S. troops from Iraq "defeat"? If it is "defeat," is that unacceptable for some reason? Do people have a fundamental right to keep all of their property? Should we avoid causing pain to non-human species? Are there certain factual assertions that should be outlawed, such as "the Nazis did not try to exterminate the Jews of Europe"? There are verifiable matters of fact that enter into such arguments, but ultimately they cannot be decided without reference to expressive, rather than representative, utterances. In order to have a constructive discussion, it is essential to distinguish rigorously between the two kinds of assertions and their respective places in the structure of an argument. Unfortunately, people often fail to do this and wind up arguing in separate universes.

*Okay, that's a broad generality. I haven't done a formal survey, but this is my impression.