Savas L. Tsohatzidis (Ed.). John Searle’s Philosophy of Language. Force, Meaning and Mind.

Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2007, 297pp.


One of the major contributions to the philosophy of language in the 20th century was John Searle’s book Speech Acts (1969). Searle clearly superseded Austin ’s earlier work and introduced a framework that defined the field, including its appropriation in linguistics. Later Searle shifted his area of research to the philosophy of mind, and one might ask oneself what the relation between the two fields is, in Searle’s view, and why the move to Intentionality (1983) was no break with issues raised in Speech Acts  and Expression and Meaning (1979). The anthology John Searle’s Philosophy of Language provides some insights into the development and connectedness of Searle’s work and collects eleven original essays concerned both with the relation of mind to meaning (Part I) and with the relation of meaning to force (Part II), a topic within speech act theory.

Prior to the two parts Searle himself (in about 35 pages) sets out his current view on the philosophy of language. Searle unites his work on language and the mind in a perspective which sees ‘language as a natural extension of non-linguistic biological capacities’ (15) and an according primacy of the mental/intentional over the linguistic. The subject-predicate structure we find in sentences is already ‘built into the very logical structures of biological intentionality’ (35). The intentional and the theory about ‘directions of fit’ between the mind and the world (beliefs as mind fitting the world, desires making the world fitting to the mind) found the corresponding classification of (some) illocutionary forces (like assertions and orders); some illocutionary forces (like declaratives) arise only within a community governed by social institutions. As language is ‘essentially social’ (17) a social ontology of norms and commitments (e.g. in making speech acts of some type) supplements the theory of the mind. Institutional reality (from money to government) ‘is essentially linguistic’ (40). The ‘first primary function’ (28) of language is, according to Searle, communication (i.e. not mental representation). Searle restates his thesis that the pragmatic rules are not components of individual languages but universal. What language provides beyond intentionality are ‘indefinitely manipulatable structures with semantic content’ (24). A speaker expresses her beliefs imposing some conditions of satisfaction on expressions and conventions ensue as this regularly succeeds. Nevertheless ‘speaker intentionality must be logically prior’ (32).

The papers in the first part take on Searle’s work in the philosophy of mind.

Francois Recanati and Kent Bach in their respective papers aim at Searle’s well-known analysis of perception, which claims that part of the content of a perception is a self-reflexive claim that the object perceived is (partially) causally responsible for the perceptual state. Recanati levels the criticism of misplaced information at Searle arguing that this self-reflexive claim is not part of the (narrow) propositional content of the perception, as Searle claims, but part of the content provided by the mode of the state (i.e. being a perception). In a way this is ironic, since in Speech Acts Searle accused ordinary language philosophy of confusing conditions of semantic content with conditions of illocutionary mode. Placing the reflexive content in the structure of the act fits better with ascribing perceptions to newborns and animals, which both lack concepts of causality. Bach also addresses the mode/content-distinction arguing that Searle’s causal self-reflexive condition in the (narrow) content does not account for reference to particular objects. Bach opts for considering the mode as carrying a token-reflexive condition of satisfaction to the confronted situation.

A much more radical criticism by Christopher Gauker denies the primacy of the intentional. He contends that natural language ‘is the medium of conceptual thought’ (125). Speech acts are not defined in terms of intentions, but in terms of the conventions of appraisal that constitute them. In the end this theory is not as radical as it sounds, since Gauker admits that much of our mental life does not consist in conceptual thought in his sense. Strangely enough conceptual thought consists in ‘imagining conversations’, but ‘is not to be identified with verbal imagery’ (141).

The papers in the second part focus mainly on speech act theory, especially on the relation between force and meaning.

Somewhat mediating between the first and the second part Mitchell Green asks how speech acts express psychological states. One expresses a state using some linguistic device by taking responsibility according to the constitutive commitments of language. Thus understanding expressing thought not in psychological but normative terms is close to Searle’s own perspective.

Other papers in the second part take up the discussion about content and mode in the form of the inner linguistic distinction between content/meaning and force. Savas Tsohatzidis attacks the content invariance thesis, which states that the (propositional) content stays the same when we switch from one illocutionary force to another. Searle claims this to be the case, inter alia, with respect to assertions and yes-no questions. Tsohatzidis shows that this will not work. The content of a yes-no questions remains the same whether we use a sentence or its negation (e.g. “Is Peter drunk?”/”Is Peter not drunk?”), which, of course, does not hold for assertions. Tsohatzidis proposes that yes-no questions have no propositional content at all, but  are ‘higher order illocutionary acts’ the content of which are ‘sets of possible first-order illocutionary acts’ (265), i.e. sets of possible answers. He also shows that Searle’s claim that questions are reducible to directives (i.e. ordering a statement by the addressee) is inconsistent with the content invariance thesis as the content of a directive concerns an act by the addressee (like speaking about Peter) and not the (supposed) content of the question (like Peter’s drunkenness). Kepa Korta and John Perry take up the idea of reflexive truth/satisfaction conditions. Perry himself has developed a theory of reflexive truth conditions of utterances. Relating this theory to the more traditional speech act framework they see referential content (in Perry’s theory) corresponding to the locutionary act (in speech act theory), and reflexive content to force.

With Searle’s essay the anthology provides an update of his view of the relation between the philosophy of language and the philosophy of mind. Not all essays discuss Searle’s work in detail: some rather explain their own alternatives views. There is also no reply by Searle to those essays that challenges his position. Some of the essays, nonetheless, put forth state of the art criticism of Searle’s position and develop refinements within speech act theory. Everyone interested in speech act theory – especially the relation between force and content – will benefit from reading John Searle’s Philosophy of Language.


Manuel Bremer, 2008.