DS-2022-05: No means No! Speech Acts in Conflict

DS-2022-05: Bussière-Carae, Lwenn (2022) No means No! Speech Acts in Conflict. Doctoral thesis, University of Amsterdam.

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This dissertation gathers a series of studies on speech acts that appear in contexts of disagreement, and non-cooperative conversations. Seminal works in philosophy of language often take for granted idealised models of conversations to analyse speech acts. They focus on contexts where participants share common goals, and speech acts fulfil their effect according to plan. By contrast, this dissertation asks: what happens when things don’t go according to plan? In situations of disagreement, speakers use specific speech acts to prevent conversational moves from being made. Incurvati and Schlöder’s weak rejection (2017) and weak assertion (2019) are such speech acts. When they wish to renege on their commitments, speakers use 'retractions', that cancel the effect of a previous utterance. The study of speech acts that express disagreement can be applied to pragmatic inferences that some linguistic items trigger. It also leads naturally to studying speech acts in non-ideal contexts.

Chapter 2 delineates the norms and normative effects of rejection on conversations. I start with analysing rejection in Stalnakerian terms, as the speech act by which a speaker blocks an update to the conversation. Rejecting $P$ is not equivalent to asserting $\neg P$ , but it prevents the assertion of $P$. Analysing the effect of rejections on the informational structure of conversation in stalnakerian terms explains this essential effect of rejection. It also explains the ‘messiness’ of rejection, due to the similarity between rejection of utterances on semantic grounds, and rejection of utterances that violate other norms of conversation (relevance, politeness, etc). But treating assertion and rejection as activities on all fours with one another requires determining the norms for the rejection of a statement. What does a speaker need to block a potential assertion? For each possible norm of assertion, I build a complementary norm for rejection. I then evaluate these different norms, and argue for a Knowledge Norm of assertion and rejection.

Chapter 3 applies a speech acts analysis of assertion and rejection to a semantic problem: adversative markers. To find the relevant contrast that the adversative marker 'but' contributes to a sentence, speakers rely on pragmatic inferences. But pragmatic processing needs restrictions; or it would make any 'but'-sentence acceptable, by finding some tenuous contrast. I explain the pragmatic inferences speakers rely on in a principled manner. The yes-no polarity in 'but'-sentences can be understood as a contrast between speaker attitudes, and thus, indirect speech acts of assertion and denial. This foray into applying speech acts to a problem at the interface of pragmatics and semantics provides a method to analyse some parts of meaning as inferences from speakers' attitudes and commitments.

Chapter 4 focuses on the lexical items corresponding to the speech act of 'weak assertion': 'perhaps' and 'might'. Weak assertion is the speech act complementary to rejection. While a weak rejection blocks an assertion without proposing a contradictory update to the conversation, a weak assertion blocks a strong rejection without proposing a contradictory update to the conversation. In other words: a weak assertion leaves open a possibility in the conversation. By means of corpus examples, chapter 4 provides linguistic evidence for the speech act of weak assertion, triggered by the linguistic marker 'perhaps'. It also examines 'perhaps' embedding behaviour, and its articulation with the epistemic possibility modal 'might'.

The material in chapter 5 is based on joint work with Luca Incurvati, Giorgio Sbardolini and Julian Schlöder. In this work, we focus on the speech act of 'retraction'. When a speaker wishes to cancel certain commitments they made, they can attempt to take back their utterance. We provide an account of retractions as a proposal to update conversational information. This account is explained 'via' a Common Ground model of conversation. If the retraction proposal is accepted, the participants update the Common Ground by going back on the conversational record and cancelling the illocutionary effect of the target utterance. As such, retractions have a significant cost, and require investigating subsequent speech acts that relied on the retracted utterance. This chapter stresses the proposal aspect of retractions, that need to be accepted by participants to affect the Common Ground. In addition, it covers problematic cases of retractions, and links them to speakers commitments.

Chapter 6 applies the idea that contexts can be non-ideal, such that speaker and audience have different, or even opposing, conversational goals, to the picture of silence. A traditional picture of speech acts views silence as a default assent response, where the audience lets the speaker’s discourse moves go through. However, works on political philosophy of language show how silence can express dissent. I present a more nuanced picture, where silence expresses a default attitude – which can be, but is not limited to, assent – that the speaker attributes to the audience on the grounds of the perceived cooperation level of the conversation. For example, if the speaker deems the conversation non-cooperative, she will attribute to her audience a default attitude of dissent: unless the audience expresses assent, she will take her discourse moves to be rejected. This more fine-grained picture of conversation enables us to give a more precise picture of the effects of speech acts, that vary depending on whether the context is cooperative or not.

Chapter 7 sketches a broader notion of communication and applies it to the characterisation of Fregean colourings. In a speaker-oriented view of communication, the speaker communicates what they meant to communicate. That also means that, sometimes, the audience may make inferences, from the speaker’s utterances, that the speaker did not intend. These unintended consequences of one’s utterance only count as communicated content under a theory of communication that takes the audience’s interpretation of the speaker’s utterances into account. I sketch such an hearer-oriented theory of communication, and examine its consequences. When speakers use linguistic items that trigger specific inferences (conventional implicatures; Fregean colourings), the audience draws these inferences, but the speaker can be held responsible for them. As such, they are communicated under an hearer-oriented picture of conversation.

With these essays, I open some avenues to study dissent and disagreement within and beyond the field of speech acts theory. By showing both how speech acts behave in conflictual settings, and impact our pragmatic understanding of linguistic items, I integrate agonistic practices of discourse in our understanding of conversation.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Report Nr: DS-2022-05
Series Name: ILLC Dissertation (DS) Series
Year: 2022
Subjects: Language
Divisions: Faculteit der Geesteswetenschappen
Depositing User: Dr Marco Vervoort
Date Deposited: 06 Oct 2022 13:18
Last Modified: 27 Oct 2022 13:06
URI: https://eprints.illc.uva.nl/id/eprint/2223

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