John Searle – Speech Acts meets Civilisation

John Searle – Speech Acts meets Civilisation

Earlier this week Magnus and I went to audit a guest lecture with the famous language philosopher John Searle at the University of Oslo.

John Searle, who is professor at University of California and who did an exchange semester to Oslo nearly forty years ago, is famous for his theories on speech acts. In these theories he presents a typology of actions a language can perform. This can be exemplified by assertive acts which tells us something about the world, and which criterion of truth is the correctness of the utterance, another example is the expressive acts, where truth is depending on the sincerity of the act. Searle deals originally with five speech acts: assertive/representatives, directives, commissives, expressives and declaration. Wikipedia gives us the following examples:


assertive : speech acts that commit a speaker to the truth of the expressed proposition, e.g. reciting a creed

directives : speech acts that are to cause the hearer to take a particular action, e.g. requests, commands and advice

commissives : speech acts that commit a speaker to some future action, e.g. promises and oaths

expressives : speech acts that express the speaker’s attitudes and emotions towards the proposition, e.g. congratulations, excuses and thanks

declarations : speech acts that change the reality in accord with the proposition of the declaration, e.g. baptisms, pronouncing someone guilty or pronouncing someone husband and wife


The lecture was about Searle’s latest book “Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization”. In this he has expanded the theory of the speech acts to have a broader scope. He connects the actions language perform to a model of the relationship between the world and word, and the word and the world, as well as an emphasis on the declarative acts. At least this played a key function in his presentation.

This is, he says, also a question about epistemology and ontology. He want to make a connection between the subjective ontology and the objective epistemology. As he exemplifies in money, nothing in this piece of paper has a real value in the ontological sense, just by general agreement and symbol value does money receive its value.

Two other good examples Searle mentioned are found in American history. While the American declaration of independence is existing today as a core text in contemporary American society, and as the forming declaration of the the United States of America is dependent on the acceptance among others. In 1776 the act created by American subjects under the British King in the former crown colony was not popular in the courts of London. A war was declared, and with help from the French the Americans won and the Empire accepted the declaration. Less than one hundred years later did the southern states perform a similar act by breaking loose from the United States into a Confederacy. This institution is not existing today as they lost the war and failed in imposing their declarative act on others. The important message is that validity of the declaration is depending on its acceptance.

I have not read the book, but the theory proposed in the lecture is easy enough. Language is important for the formation of human societies and civilisations. By declaring explicit or implicit how the world is changes the world. By taking the wow of marriage the status of two humans are changed socially, legally and also in other ways. By declaring a person a president or king of a nation we are reinforcing his or her possibilities to make decisions and to rule, this differs from the alpha male wolf that fights its way to its position.

This is an interesting theory, and for media enthusiasts can this perhaps be expanded to other forms of information. Our (as in humans) interaction with symbols, and the ability of letting abstract phenomena such as organisations, government, and corporation is of great importance and with new ways of communicating and representing the world perhaps we are creating new ontological subjectivities which will be important for humans in years to come.


The picture is showing a section of the famous paiting “The Arnolfini Wedding” by Jan van Eyck. This picture is used on the cover of the European version of Searle’s new book.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *