Forrest Cameranesi, Geek of All Trades

On Language and the Meaning of Words

My philosophy of language hinges heavily on the concept of "speech-acts", as introduced by philosophers such as J.L. Austin and John Searle. A speech-act is simply something that you do by saying something. (To clarify, when I say "speech", "say", etc, throughout this essay, I don't mean only the making of noises with the human mouth, but any kind of linguistic communication, including writing, signing, etc). The clearest examples to illustrate the concept are special cases, such as when spouses at a wedding say "I do" in response to the question of whether they take each other to be spouses: they are not merely giving a factual answer to a question of fact, they are performing the act of marrying each other, which is done by saying certain words in a certain context. Similarly, when a judge says that they sentence a defendant in court to some punishment, they are not just describing something about themselves, they are actively doing the thing by saying that they do it.

But beyond these special cases of ritual or ceremonial speech-acts, my philosophy of language hinges on how "merely" describing something is itself still doing something by speaking — describing is an action — and that speech can do many other things besides just describe, even outside of those iconic ritual or ceremonial cases that best demonstrate the concept of speech-acts. I hold that the meaning of all speech can be found by paying attention to what it is that someone is trying to do by uttering that speech.

I will break down several distinctions that I think are most important in categorizing what kinds of speech-acts different utterances are attempting to perform, completely leaving aside the iconic ritual or ceremonial speech-acts used to demonstrate the concept. All of these types are subcategories of the same broad category of speech-act: the communication of a mental state, what I broadly call an "opinion", from one person to another (or others).

On Statements and Questions

The first and perhaps most obvious of these distinctions is that of statements versus questions. This distinction is about the direction that opinions are being communicated between people. Roughly put, by statements I mean utterances that "push" an opinion from the speaker to the listener, whereas by questions I mean utterances that "pull" an opinion from the listener to the speaker. I feel like belaboring this distinction is probably unnecessary, as this is such a simple and fundamental concept that any native speaker simply must understand already: a statement communicates something from the speaker to someone else; a question requests that someone else communicate something to the speaker. Nevertheless, this is the broadest distinction between types of actions one might do by speaking, and although in philosophy of language we are usually most concerned with the meaning of statements, I think it is important to highlight that for every speech-act of stating something, there is a corresponding speech-act that is instead questioning that same thing; even at this basic level of abstraction there are already different kinds of speech-acts to consider.

On Impression and Expression

A much more subtle and more important dichotomy is that between what I call "expression" and "impression". I think the best way to illustrate this distinction is to consider a philosophical problem called "Moore's Paradox", put forth by G.E. Moore. The paradox is that while it is clearly possible for someone to disbelieve something that is nevertheless true — all sorts of people hold incorrect beliefs all the time — there seems to be something contradictory in that person themselves stating that fact: "X is true but I don't believe X". My resolution to this apparent paradox is to distinguish between the speech-acts of "expressing", which is a demonstration of one's own mental state, one's thoughts or feelings, and "impressing", which is attempting to affect a mental state in another person; and to highlight how, if we assume a speaker is being honest and not manipulative, we assume an impression from them upon our minds to imply also an expression of their own mind. That is to say, when they impress upon us that X is true, if we assume that they are honest, we take that to also express their own belief that X is true. If they then impress upon us that they don't believe X is true, that impression contradicts the preceding implied expression of their belief. It is akin to shouting in a rage "I'M NOT ANGRY!". There is nothing self-contradictory in the content impressed, in either case — it's possible for someone to be non-angry, and it's possible for someone to disbelieve a truth — but just as the raged shouting expresses anger in contradiction to the impressed claim of non-anger, the utterance "X is true" implicitly expresses belief in X, and so contradicts the attendant impression of disbelief.


(The more common term "assertion" can, I think, be taken to be equivalent to my term "impression" here, but I like how the linguistic symmetry of "im-" and "ex-" illustrates the distinction: to "express" is literally to "push out", and one may imagine an illustration of expression as little arrows pointing out of the speaker's mind; while to "impress" is literally to "push in", and one may imagine an illustration of impression as an arrow pointing into the listener. Though I've spoken of impressions and expressions thus far only as they apply to statements, pushing thoughts from speaker to listener, the distinction can also be applied equally to questions, where an impressed question is a direct question figuratively pulling something straight from a listener, while an expressed question is a more open-ended wondering, a demonstration of the speaker's own uncertainty and openness to input should anyone have any to offer. Sentences of the forms "I wonder if X." and "Is it true that X?" clearly illustrate the difference. Since questions "pull" rather than "push", we might continue the clear Latinate verbal illustration by terming the "is it true" type of question an "extraction", meaning literally "pulling-out" of the listener, and the "I wonder" type of question an "intraction" — not "inter-action", but "in-traction" — meaning literally "pulling-in" to the speaker. The difference intended here is like the difference between billing someone for a service, versus putting out a hat so passers-by can donate what they like. The difference between impression and expression is likewise comparable to the difference between sending a product to someone directly, versus setting it out with a "free" or "take one" sign.)

The difference between impression and expression is somewhat analogous to, but not literally the same as, the difference between the imperative and indicative linguistic moods, inasmuch as an impressive speech-act is effectively telling someone what to think (or in an impressive question, telling them to tell you something), while an expressive speech-act is effectively showing others what you think (or in an expressive question, showing your uncertainty). However it is important to stress that I am not saying impressions are literally imperative and expressions are literally indicative, because I hold that the ordinary indicative type of statement that's generally held to be the plainest, most default kind of statement is itself a kind of impressive speech-act: saying "Bob throws the ball" impresses a belief in Bob throwing the ball, implicitly tells the listener to believe that Bob throws the ball, and so is kind of imperative-like in that way, but is still distinct from the literal imperative "Bob, throw the ball!". Similarly, expressive speech-acts, while they are indicative-like in the manner that they communicate, can be more imperative-like in their contents, such as "I think Bob ought to throw the ball", without impressing that opinion on anyone, much less Bob himself. But, of course, we can also merely express indicative-like, descriptive opinions, ala "I think Bob throws the ball", and importantly, I hold that we can also impress imperative-like, prescriptive opinions, ala "Bob ought to throw the ball". Expression and impression are about how an opinion is delivered; it's a separate matter as to what the contents of that opinion are.

This distinction between impression and expression becomes particularly important when we come around to the meaning of moral statements, where it allows me to distinguish my own novel position from the more common one called expressivism. Before I can elaborate on that, though, a little bit of recent philosophical history is in order. One of the two main schools of contemporary western philosophy, the Analytic tradition, has its roots in a group of early 20th century philosophers called the Logical Positivists, whose work was largely focused around philosophy of language, and who generally found the function of philosophy itself to be all about clarifying language. (Hence the name of the Analytic tradition, being at least in its inception all about the analysis of language). They promulgated what was called the verificationist theory of meaning, which held that, aside from the tautologically true (true-by-definition) statements of logic and mathematics, the meaning of all statements was to be found in the sensations or perceptions that they told you to expect (and that the truth of those statements thus hinged on the actual sensations or perceptions that followed successfully fulfilling those expectations, verifying the statement, hence the name of the theory).

The specific formulations of verificationism as put forth by the Logical Positivists themselves were fraught with problems, and verificationism as such was considered a failed theory even by most of its former advocates in the end. I will address some of those problems myself in my later essay on belief. But that core idea of the meaning of a statement being found in the sensations or perceptions it told you to expect has survived in successor theories (such as falsificationism) that have since overcome those faults, and I myself agree with it within the limited domain of specifically descriptive statements: statements uttered so as to perform the act of describing reality. But, I hold, not all statements aim to perform that act: some statements instead aim not to describe, but to prescribe, and by being thusly different kinds of speech-acts, their meaning is different from descriptive speech-acts.

The Logical Positivists themselves found their verificationism to raise the immediate question of what moral utterances mean. That question spawned a whole field of moral semantics, about the meaning of moral utterances, with many different positions on the question. But one of the more common and popular among the Logical Positivists and their philosophical descendents is called expressivism, which holds, as I do, that moral utterances are not attempts to describe reality at all. Expressivism instead holds that moral utterances are expressions of desires, akin to booing or cheering their nominally descriptive content; e.g. it takes an utterance like "killing is bad" to mean roughly "boo killing". I disagree with expressivism on that part, and the short form of how I disagree is that I hold moral utterances to not be expressing desires any more than descriptive utterances express perceptions. Rather, just as descriptive utterances impress beliefs, I would say that moral, prescriptive utterances impress intentions.

I've already elaborated on the difference between expression and impression above, but to elaborate on this difference between desires and intentions, and the analogous difference between perceptions and beliefs, a little bit more philosophical history is called for. In the field of moral psychology, there has been debate over the nature of what are called "moral beliefs", which we can say are more or less the mental states communicated, in one way or another, by moral utterances. The two main sides of that debate are the Humeans, after David Hume, and the Kantians, after Immanuel Kant. The Humeans hold that beliefs, properly speaking, that is to say cognitive states of mind that can possibly be true or false, are either about definitional relations of ideas to each other (as in logic and mathematics), or else about expectations of sensations or perceptions, and that everything else is mere sentiment or emotion. They say, in what is called the "argument from queerness", that a "moral belief" would be a very strange thing, asking exactly what difference we would be to expect in our perception of reality if we held some "moral belief" instead of another. Finding no answer to that question apparent, they conclude that there actually are no such things as moral beliefs, only sentiments, emotions, feelings, specifically desires for things to be one way and not another. Kantians, on the other hand, bite the bullet of the argument from queerness, and affirm that there are such things as moral beliefs, that are capable of being true or false. The analogous relation between this dichotomy and the dichotomy of expressivism versus more traditional views of moral semantics (called moral realism) should be obvious here, I hope.

I find this Humeanism vs Kantianism to be a false dichotomy, and moral expressivism vs moral realism to be a false dichotomy as well. I think, like the Humean, that there are no such things as "moral beliefs" per se, and that moral utterances do not have any meaning to be found in some description of reality; but I also think, like the Kantian, that moral utterances do much more than just express desires incapable of being correct or incorrect. My position is not even that moral utterances impress desires, because I hold that desires are not the only mental state besides beliefs, and that beliefs are not the only cognitive mental states either, capable of being correct or incorrect. I use the term "opinion" to name the overarching category of mental states I am going to subdivide here, and I analyze an opinion as something I term an "attitude" toward something I term an "idea". The idea component of an opinion can be thought of as a mental picture of some possible, imaginable state of affairs, though it doesn't have to be literally visual: it is just the state of affairs that the opinion is about. But one can have different positions on different kinds of opinions about the same thing, and those different kinds of opinions about the same thing are what I mean by attitudes.

On Direction of Fit

One important difference in attitude toward an idea is sometimes called "direction of fit", in reference to the terms "mind-to-world fit" and "world-to-mind fit". In a "mind-to-world fit", the mind (i.e. the idea) is meant to fit the world, in that if the two don't fit (if the idea in the mind differs from the world), then the mind is meant to be changed to fit the world better, because the idea is being employed as a representation of the world. In a "world-to-mind" fit, on the other hand, the world is meant to fit the mind (i.e. the idea), in that if the two don't fit (if the world differs from the idea in the mind), the world is meant to be changed to fit the mind better, because the idea is being employed as a guide for the world. (The ceremonial kind of speech acts described at the start of this essay are assertions with what is called a double direction of fit, where the uttering of the assertion representing the world to be some way itself changes the world to match that representation). It is the difference between a picture drawn as a representation of something that already exists, and a picture drawn as a blueprint of something that is to be brought into existence: it may be the same picture, but its intended purpose changes the criteria by which we judge it, and whether we judge the picture, or the thing it is a picture of, to be in error, should they not match. The clearest example of this difference in attitude that I can think of is that, given the idea of a world where some people kill other people, I expect most will agree that that idea is "right" in the sense that they agree with it as a description (most people, I expect, will agree that the world really is like that, and an idea of the world that doesn't feature such a thing is descriptively wrong), but simultaneously that it is "wrong" in the sense that they will disagree with it as a prescription (most people, I expect, will agree that the world morally oughtn't be like that — whatever "morally oughtn't" means to them, which we're getting to — and that a world that features such a thing is prescriptively wrong). Same idea, two different attitudes toward it: the world is that way, yes; but no, it oughtn't be that way. Two different opinions, but about the exact same thing, different not in the idea that they are about, but in the attitude toward that idea.

On Order of Opinion

But that difference in attitude alone isn't enough to account for what I mean by "intention" as distinct from "desire", which both have the same direction of fit, world-to-mind. To explain that, I need to first elaborate on differences in attitude between opinions with the same mind-to-world fit. More fundamental than opinions are experiences, and an experiences with mind-to-world fit are called "sensations". These are the raw input from our senses, free from any interpretation: the contents of a sensation are colors of light, pitches of sound, and so on, not yet shapes or words. In contrast, the simplest opinions with mind-to-world fit, first-order or irreflexive opinions of that type, are called "perceptions". These are interpretations of that raw sense-data into more abstract representations, but still of the same idea. (An analogy can be made here between raster and vector computer graphics formats, where a raster format stores an array of colored pixels and any shapes that appear in them are merely inferred by human viewers out of the patterns in those pixels; while a vector format stores abstract representations of exact shapes directly, which can then be rendered as arrays of pixels for display. The human viewer senses something like the array of pixels with their eyes, but then in perceiving shapes in the image, they are essentially "vectorizing" the image in their own mind). Further still, higher-order or reflexive opinions with mind-to-world fit are called "beliefs", and I hold that the distinguishing feature of beliefs is that they "objectify" what have thus far been completely subjective opinions, because they are reflexive in attitude, being capable of casting judgement on other opinions with the same content: one can disbelieve one's perceptions, or judge someone else's perception to be wrong as well. A belief is a perception that has been questioned (however thoroughly) and found (however correctly) to be the correct interpretation of sensations, the correct picture to use as a representation of the world, the correct opinion with mind-to-world fit.

I hold that there are analogues to all of those, but with world-to-mind fit instead. I call experiences with world-to-mind fit "appetites". These are composed of the raw inputs of things like pain, hunger, thirst, and so on. While sensations are the experiences that make us feel, on a raw unexamined level, like the world is some way, appetites are those experiences that make us feel, on a raw unexamined level, like the world ought to be some way. I visualize this as building two images, two ideas, in our minds: one of them a picture of the world as it is, meant to serve as a representation of the world, meant to fit the world; and the other of them a picture of the world as it ought to be, meant to serve as a guide for the world, meant for the world to fit. Sensations are those experiences that feed into that first picture, and appetites are those experiences that feed into that second picture. In contrast to those uninterpreted appetites, the simplest opinions with world-to-mind fit, first-order or irreflexive opinions of that type, are called "desires", like the expressivists and Humeans are all about, which I hold to differ from appetites in the same way that perceptions differ from sensations: desires are interpretations of appetites, and while an appetite may have as its content the feeling of, for example, hunger pains, the desire that is interpreted from that will have as its content instead, for example, to eat a burrito; just as sensations may contain patterns of light while perceptions instead contain shapes. And lastly, higher-order or reflexive opinions with world-to-mind fit I call "intentions", and I hold that the distinguishing feature of intentions is that they "objectify" what have thus far been completely subjective opinions, because they are reflexive in attitude, being capable of casting judgement on other opinions with the same content: one can intend other than what one desires, or judge someone else's desires to be wrong as well. An intention is a desire that has been questioned (however thoroughly) and found (however correctly) to be the correct interpretation of appetites, the correct picture to use as a guide for the world, the correct opinion with world-to-mind fit.


It is that reflexivity of attitude that I hold to make an opinion cognitive, apt for being found objectively correct or not, though as they differ in the purposes to which they put their ideas, they differ in the criteria by which they are to be judged correct or incorrect: beliefs are to be judged by appeal to the senses, everyone's senses in all circumstances if they are to be judged objectively, and intentions are to be judged by appeal to the appetites, everyone's appetites in all circumstances if they are to be judged objectively. Intentions are cognitive but non-descriptive opinions; in the same way that perceptions are descriptive but non-cognitive opinions. I like to term cognitive opinions like beliefs and intentions "thoughts", and non-cognitive ones like perceptions and desires "feelings". So when I say that I hold prescriptive statements, moral utterances, to impress intentions rather than to express desires, I mean that they are not simply demonstrating the speaker's present feelings about how things ought to be, any more than descriptive statements are simply demonstrating the speaker's present feelings about how things are. They are instead pushing a considered thought about how everyone should think things ought to be, in the same way that descriptive statements are pushing a considered thought about how everyone should think things are.

Another way to think of my concept of prescriptive statements impressing intentions is to consider the speech-act of uttering a command. There is a position on moral semantics called universal prescriptivism, advocated by R.M. Hare, that holds that moral utterances are actually imperatives, or commands, that are universalizable, which is to say that whoever utters that command is committed to doing the same in any relevantly similar circumstance. That is the closest well-known position on moral semantics to my own, but my position differs in that I do not say that prescriptive statements are a kind of imperative, but rather, that imperatives are a kind of prescriptive statement. The usual, broad kind of moral declarations are not imperatives in the usual sense, on my account, but narrow moral injunctions to specific people are equivalent to imperatives, and so broad moral declarations are a kind of abstraction from imperatives. "Bob, you ought to throw the ball" is equivalent, on my account, to "Bob, throw the ball!"; but "Bob ought to throw the ball", uttered to someone besides Bob, is not quite an imperative, though it has the same substantive content (that Bob ought to throw the ball); and "the ball ought to be thrown", in the passive voice, is clearly not an imperative because there is no subject of the action to be the recipient of the command. An exhortative statement of "(let) the ball be thrown!" is a better translation, ala the idiom "(let) the saints be praised!", which is not a command to the saints to get praised, but an exhortation for someone, anyone, everyone, to praise the saints. As "be" is the imperative form of the verb "is", I do think it is fitting, if a bit unnatural-sounding to the modern ear, to write prescriptive statements by substituting "be" for "is" in descriptive sentences, effectively forming an archaic-sounding exhortation, e.g. turning the descriptive sentence "Bob is throwing the ball" into "(let) Bob be throwing the ball", prescribing the described state of affairs; and when that utterance is directed at Bob himself, without the optional "let", it forms an oddly-phrased imperative, ordering Bob to "be throwing", i.e. to throw, the ball. In this way, imperatives can be seen as a narrower subtype of the broader kind of prescriptive speech-act that I hold moral statements to constitute.

Imperatives, of course, are not capable of being true or false in the same way that descriptive assertions are, but that does not make them incapable of being judged objectively right or wrong in their own different way. Imperatives, or commands, and by extension the broader prescriptive statements that are abstractions of them, are not aiming to represent the world, so truth or falsehood in the sense of accurate representation do not apply to them. Instead, they aim to guide the world, so what instead applies to them is goodness or badness. A moral utterance, communication of a so-called "moral belief", is on my account an impression of an intention, which is equivalent to a kind of command or an abstraction thereof, inasmuch as it is speech made for the purpose of getting someone to intend to do something, and its meaning is thus that that is something that ought to be done, something good; and a "true", correct, moral utterance is consequently equivalent, on my account, to a good command, or abstraction thereof. A "yes" response to an indicative statement affirms that the listener agrees with it, believes what is claimed; while a "yes" response to an imperative statement affirms that the listener agrees to it, intends what is commanded; and "no" responses inversely for each, signalling that the belief or intention meant to be impressed has been rejected rather than accepted. Just as a descriptive statement is true if the belief it impresses is the correct thing to believe, so too a prescriptive statement is true if the intention it impresses is the correct thing to intend. How exactly to judge what beliefs or intentions are correct will be explored further in my later essays on knowledge and on justice, respectively.

There is of course much more to be said about still further different aspects of speech-acts besides these distinctions laid out above. Over the next two essays I will go over many of those details in two different ways: one of them focusing further on the content and structure of the speech-acts, and another focusing on the style, presentation, and delivery of them.

Continue to the next essay, On Rhetoric and the Arts.