Reality and the uses of language

In my last post I talked about the distinction between "word to world" direction of fit and the "world to word" direction of fit. Word to world means that our words match the way the world is in reality. World to word means that the world changes to match our words. (Fig 1). This distinction seems necessary to understanding how language relates to reality.

Direction-of-fit

Direction-of-fit

I understood these concepts best when learning about the different ways that language can be used. This post will state and analyze the various uses of language. The philosopher John Searle argues that there are 5 and only 5 ways that language can be used. These uses of language are called speech acts. They include:

  • Assertives
  • Directives
  • Commissives
  • Expressives
  • Declarations

Assertives are utterances that are supposed to tell you how things are in the world. They are representations of reality. An assertive is a speech act that commits the speaker to the truth of a proposition. Assertives are either true or false. Assertives refer to statements, descriptions, classifications, explanations, and clarifications.

Examples: "Socrates is bald", "2+2=4", "All men are mortal", "Barack Obama is the president of the United States".

The direction of fit:

word-to-world

word-to-world

Directives 
are attempts by the speaker to try to get the hearer to do something. Correct uses of directives must always refer to future voluntary acts. It would be nonsense to tell someone to do something in the past or to do something that is impossible. Directives are not true or false like assertives, but they are obeyed or disobeyed. Directives include orders, commands, requests and refer to pleading, begging, praying, insisting, and suggesting. Examples: "Please bless my family", "Go to your room", "Pass the salt", "vote for me". The direction of fit:

Commissives commit a speaker to some future voluntary action. Commissives reveal the intention of the speaker. It would be nonsense to say I promise to come and see you but I don't intend to see you. Commissives refer to vows, threats, pledges, guarantees, contracts, promises, covenants, and oaths. An offer is also a commissive but it only commits the speaker to some action upon the condition of the offer being accepted. Examples: "I now covenant with thee" ," I promise to exercise every day", "I solemnly swear to tell the truth"," I'll be there at 10 o'clock", "I'll give you 5 dollars for the watch". Some commissives are not promises to an individual but just a commissives in general such as "I Pledge of Allegiance to flag" and "we pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor". The direction of fit:

dual-direction-of-fit

dual-direction-of-fit

Expressives reveal the speaker's attitudes and emotions towards a particular proposition. Expressives include thanking, apologizing, congratulating, and welcoming. Examples: "Thank you for giving me the money", "congratulations on marrying a libertarian", " I apologize for stepping on your face". Other types of expressives use the subjunctive or optative mood such as "would that the politicians were more righteous" or "if only it rained more often." Bearing religious testimony can be an expressive such as in the phrase, "I believe in God". In that case it isn't necessarily the purpose to assert that God exists or get the congregation to do something but to simply express one's own conviction or faith. The direction of fit doesn't apply to expressives because the direction is presupposed. In the case of "thank you for giving me the money" it is presupposed that the speaker did receive money from the hearer.

Declarations are the most interesting type of speech act. Declarations are utterances that change the world by representing it as being so changed. A rough test to see if something is a declaration is if you can add the word "hereby" in front of it as in "I hereby declare war on your country." Examples of declarations include "the meeting is adjourned", "I now pronounce you husband and wife","This note is legal tender for all debts public and private". Declarations have a double direction of fit.

More than one category can be applied to a single speech act. For example the utterance, "I promise to come and see you," is both a commissive and a declaration because it is committing the speaker to a future action and it is making the utterance a promise by declaring it to be a promise.Understanding these categories of speech acts will help us understand how language relates to reality. The most interesting category of speech acts are declarations. Declarations are the foundation of human civilization. I will write about this amazing fact in later posts.

world-to-word.png