Speech Acts: The Contemporary Theoretical Landscape

In Daniel Fogal, Daniel W. Harris & Matt Moss (eds.), New Work on Speech Acts. Oxford University Press (2018)
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What makes it the case that an utterance constitutes an illocutionary act of a given kind? This is the central question of speech-act theory. Answers to it—i.e., theories of speech acts—have proliferated. Our main goal in this chapter is to clarify the logical space into which these different theories fit. We begin, in Section 1, by dividing theories of speech acts into five families, each distinguished from the others by its account of the key ingredients in illocutionary acts. Are speech acts fundamentally a matter of convention or intention? Or should we instead think of them in terms of the psychological states they express, in terms of the effects that it is their function to produce, or in terms of the norms that govern them? In Section 2, we take up the highly influential idea that speech acts can be understood in terms of their effects on a conversation’s context or “score”. Part of why this idea has been so useful is that it allows speech-act theorists from the five families to engage at a level of abstraction that elides their foundational disagreements. In Section 3, we investigate some of the motivations for the traditional distinction between propositional content and illocutionary force, and some of the ways in which this distinction has been undermined by recent work. In Section 4, we survey some of the ways in which speech-act theory has been applied to issues outside semantics and pragmatics, narrowly construed.

Author Profiles

Daniel Fogal
New York University
Daniel W. Harris
Hunter College (CUNY)


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