What’s the Linguistic Meaning of Delusional Utterances? Speech Act Theory as a Tool for Understanding Delusions

Philosophical Psychology 36 (7):1–21 (2023)
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Delusions have traditionally been considered the hallmark of mental illness, and their conception, diagnosis and treatment raise many of the fundamental conceptual and practical questions of psychopathology. One of these fundamental questions is whether delusions are understandable. In this paper, we propose to consider the question of understandability of delusions from a philosophy of language perspective. For this purpose, we frame the question of how delusions can be understood as a question about the meaning of delusional utterances. Accordingly, we ask: “what meaning(s) can delusional utterances possibly have?”. We argue that in the current literature, there is a standard approach to the meaning of delusional utterances, namely the descriptive account which assumes that a delusional utterance “p” means that p is the case. Drawing on Speech Act Theory, we argue that solely relying on the descriptive account disregards essential ways of how linguistic meaning is constituted. Further, we show that Speech Act Theory can prove a helpful addition to the theoretical and clinical “toolbox” used for attempting to understand delusional utterances. This, we believe, may address some of the theoretical and clinical shortcomings of using only the currently predominant descriptive account.

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