critical psychology Culture Descriptive Psychology Discourse General Psychology

Conversations & Positions

We shouldn’t think about conversations only as exchanges of information. Nor should we think about our positions in conversations only as givers and receivers of information. Too much emphasis on information overshadows the fact that our position in conversations are also tied with power, rights, and duties. For example, in a father-son conversation, we could recognize the father’s duty to tell the truth, just as we could recognize the son’s trust as part of his position. Moreover, the positions aren’t fixed and change depending on how we proceed in an exchange. The son could gain a deeper sense of trust in his father. Or he could gain a sense of power as a result of how seriously his father takes him. If the son finds himself able to change his father’s beliefs and actions, he is empowered. He learns that his speech signifies more than just elements of language. He learns, for example, that he can make promises and commitments (on which others rely) and he can refuse offers and invitations (and have his refusal honored). In short, we learn that our linguistic expressions can affect the world beyond language. 

In his essay, The Ethics of Speech Acts, Guy Longworth points out how communication could involve subtle negotiations about where we stand in relation to others. A simple remark about your colleague’s use of words might be intended (or have the consequence of) insulting his linguistic ability. He draws on J. L. Austin’s distinction between three aspects of speech acts. We can think about an expression as an isolated series of linguistic elements (i.e., as a locutionary act). We can think about an expression in terms of what it means and what it does in its context (i.e., as an illocutionary act). And, finally, we can think about it in terms of what it means and what it does for the participants involved and the conversation (i.e., as a perlocutionary act). Correcting your colleague’s grammar might be taken as an insult (its illocutionary charge), and it might transform your relationship with him into something more distant or hostile (its perlocutionary charge).

Freedom of Speech

After outlining Austin’s distinctions, Longworth connects them to the topics of freedom of speech and pornography. When we think about freedom of speech, we often tend to think in literal terms of whether or not someone is permitted to make certain utterances. This neglects another essential condition for utterances to be meaningful (as they are intended) and to do what they aim to accomplish. Our ability to perform illocutionary and perlocutionary acts isn’t only dependent on the freedom to utter meaningful words (locutionary acts). It is also dependent on other people, with whom we are talking, to take our statements in the intended way. This requires taking both us and our expressions correctly. Understanding illocutionary acts requires us to see the speaker under the appropriate light, recognizing their position in the discourse, including their rights and duties, and recognizing what they are able to do, e.g., understand the state of affairs correctly and decide for themselves. 

Longworth points out that there are at least two different ways of silencing someone. You can silence them by “brute force” (locutionary silencing) or you can take away the meaning of what they say, undermining their position (i.e., their rights, duties, and abilities) in the conversation. This might involve undermining someone’s credibility, which results in others ceasing to interpret their speech with trust. Longworth calls this illocutionary silencing


Against this background, Longworth considers the claim that pornography trains us to lose grasp of women’s expressions of refusal. In other words, watching pornography trains people to take acts of refusal as merely pretending-to-refuse. This is similar to losing trust in someone, or learning that a sign that used to indicate fire no longer means fire. In such cases, the person in a position loses the ability to perform illocutionary acts. Assuming that illocutionary acts depend on the listener’s recognition, the logic that is at play in pornographic conversations, might deprive us of the ability to recognize illocutionary acts outside of the context of pornography. 

Possible Objection

There are two potential objections here. First, we should also consider the intention and purpose behind acts of dismissal. When someone fails to recognize (or pretends to fail to recognize) a woman’s rejection, we shouldn’t take the failure as a simple matter of information exchange. We shouldn’t fall back into seeing conversation as giving and taking information. If someone aims to take advantage of you, and if they benefit from “misunderstanding” you in a particular way, then we shouldn’t rush to attribute their misunderstanding only to their past environment and learning history. It’s possible for a sexual predator to recognize an illocutionary act while still refusing to ascribe it with perlocutionary meaning. In such a case, the act of refusal is being recognized, as an illocution. On the other hand, it is possible to respond ethically without understanding someone’s meaning at first. 

I think Longworth has already considered these possible objections, especially because he includes a brief discussion of communicative intentions. It is, in many cases, sufficient for conversation partners to remain open to the possibility of misunderstanding, remaining responsive to ambiguity and willing to participate in further clarification. When we remain open in such a way, we are admitting the possibility that the person is saying more than what we have already understood, or saying something other than what we take them to be saying. Such an openness means that we are cooperating with our conversation partners in order to bring about their illocutionary act and to help find their place in the on-going conversation.

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