On Philosophy

July 25, 2007


Filed under: Language — Peter @ 12:00 am

Not every interaction between people constitutes language. For example, splashing water on someone is not in normal circumstances a linguistic act. Language (envisioned as communication) requires, at a minimum, a speaker who is intentionally directed at some state of affairs and an interaction between the speaker and listener that is designed to intentionally direct the listener to the same state of affairs. Being splashed with water isn’t linguistic then because while it does have the tendency to direct the person being splashed to the fact that they are being splashed it is not the case that the person doing the splashing was thinking about that fact before they splashed them with the idea of communicating it.

But while this is a reasonable description of most language (meaning the use of words) it seems to fail to properly capture imperatives (and hence questions as well, since every question can be seen as an impetrative of the form “tell me the answer to: …”). It’s not clear that when an imperative is uttered that there is a shared intention, at least in any straightforward manner. It is true that the speaker is probably intentionally directed at the idea of the listener doing something, but it is not their purpose to get the listener to entertain that idea at all, they just want them to do it. Imperatives then may seem better understood as a way for one person to be controlled by another, not as communication. We could think of imperatives like a kind of linguistic remote control we have for other people. We press buttons on the remote by uttering certain sentences, and by pressing those buttons we trigger certain behaviors in other people. And if this is how imperatives should be understood then clearly they aren’t communication, any more than operating your TV is communicating with it.

This model captures the overall structure of how imperatives operate, but it sweeps under the rug the ability of people to decide for themselves whether to obey that imperative or not. People then are more like broken TVs, which don’t always obey the remote. But unlike a broken TV the choice about whether to obey an imperative is not made randomly or unconsciously. In response to imperatives people think about the choice and then choose whether to do as asked or not. And that gives us a common pattern of intentional directedness on the part of the listeners, namely that they all become intentionally directed at the choice between whether to do as asked or not to do as asked. Of course for this to count as communication the speaker must also be intentionally directed at that choice, but it is reasonable to suppose that the speaker is in fact so directed. Since the speaker realizes that the listener is in fact an intelligent being and not a TV they must also realize that potentially the listener may not do as asked. And so they must devote at least some thought to the choice they are presenting to the listener, to predict whether they will obey or not.

And if this is true then imperatives are a form of language, properly speaking, and not some form of remote control. This may seem like the intuitive result, but actually it is quite unintuitive given some modern approaches to language. Language, as I have defined it here, is simply communication. And many recent thinkers hold that our use of words often performs other functions besides that of communication, and, more importantly, that it can have one of these functions while failing to serve as means of communication. Imperatives might be thought of as an example of this because, as I mentioned above, we could think of them as a form of control and not of communication. In any case, we can test this hypothesis by seeing if we can in fact replace imperative expressions by equivalents that have the same effect but are clearly examples of communication. Given the considerations here I think the proper replacement for “do X” is “you have a choice between doing X or doing ~X, and I the speaker want you to do X”. Obviously that is a bit long winded, but I think it could serve as a replacement, thus showing that we don’t need imperatives (showing that imperatives don’t do anything above and beyond normal communication). Now at this point some may wonder why I didn’t just shorten my replacement to “I the speaker want you to do X”. While that is something that is also communicated with each imperative I think that by itself does not capture the complete meaning of the imperative. The fact that someone wants us to do something by itself may not lead to us acting. It may be something that we cannot simply choose to do (such as “to be a better person”), or it may be the case that we are already satisfying that want and thus don’t need to take action. Communicating that the listener has a choice to make thus also communicates that the listener can and should choose a particular course of action in light of that want (and in fact has to choose once presented with the choice), one that they may not have come to contemplate just because they knew that want. In a sense then communicating that the speaker wants something is simply too general, our imperative “translations” are thus included in the set of sentences that express the desires of the speaker, but not every sentence that expresses the speaker’s desire corresponds to some imperative.

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