Quentin Skinner's theory of speech acts

An attentive reader may have noticed that the idea of argumentative context and argumentative intervention in that context has some affinities with Quentin Skinner's theory of speech acts in intellectual history. It is useful to have a brief look at Skinner's theorizing.

Skinner has famously suggested that the author is doing something when the author is speaking or writing; there is some point or intended force behind saying and writing something. A text for Skinner is a linguistic act. And more generally, any writer, according to Skinner, is engaged in an 'intended act of communication' (Skinner 1988, 63). An example could be Machiavelli's statement that 'Princes must learn when not to be virtuous'. Skinner thinks that the point or force behind this particular claim is to 'challenge and repudiate an accepted moral commonplace' (Skinner 1988, 86).

Skinner follows J. L. Austin's speech act theory and calls the intended force behind a text 'illocutionary force', in distinction from its 'locutionary' or propositional meaning. One might summarize the central methodological problem as follows: 'The essential question which we therefore confront, in studying any given text, is what its author, in writing at the time he did write for the audience he intended to address, could in practice have been intending to communicate by the utterance of this given utterance' (Skinner 1988, 63).

I accept Skinner's idea that texts may be seen as speech acts with which authors intended to do something and, if successful, effect some change in their context.6 This appears to be very fruitful in the context of historiography and I have already characterized historical texts as argumentative speech acts or argumentative interventions for a specific point. Next I am going to explore Skinner's 'theory' of illocutionary force and his methodological advice on how to identify 'force' in text.

On some occasions, Skinner writes about 'illocutionary force' as external to the actual 'meaning' of an utterance. For example, in reference to Austin, he writes that 'what a given agent may be doing in uttering his utterance is not a question about meaning at all, but about a force co-ordinate with the meaning of the utterance' (1988, 61). However, on other occasions, he states that 'illocutionary force' is part of the meaning of an utterance. In other words, without understanding 'illocutionary force' one would not be able to understand (the meaning of) the utterance or the text in question. Consider the following the statement: 'The concept of illocutionary force simply describes an aspect of the meaning of utterances' (Skinner 1988, 274). Skinner is thus saying that 'meaning' has several aspects, although he is not quite consistent on what these components are. Sometimes 'meaning' is split into three different components (e.g. Skinner 1988, 70), sometimes only two (e.g. Skinner 1996, 7-8).7 In both cases, illocutionary force would in any case be a component of the whole meaning of an utterance or a text. Interestingly, Skinner has recently returned to the view that the meaning of a text is separate from the speech act of that text (Skinner 2007). For my purpose, it is not crucial to determine what Skinner's actual view is, however. In accordance with what I already argued in Chapter 5, I assume that historiographical text contains a thesis with a specific identifiable meaning but also that a text (in separation from this meaning) functions as reasoning and an argument for a specific point of view in a given argumentative context. In my view, the argumentative intervention by a text is not part of its meaning.

Skinner offers some further advice on how to identify the illocutionary force of an utterance. First, one needs to elucidate the meaning of the utterance. 'Meaning' refers here to the conventional non-contextual understanding of meaning, as in the study of sense and reference. Secondly, it is necessary to determine what other utterances it relates to in the context. It is Skinner's belief that, if one characterizes the context in sufficient detail, one can eventually 'read off what the speaker or writer in whom we are interested was doing in saying what he or she said' (1988, 275). This approach can be illustrated with Machiavelli's claim that 'mercenary armies always undermined liberty'. Provided that the reader understands the 'conventional' meaning of this sentence, the reader should consider why Machiavelli said this, which requires studying the context of this statement. Depending on the conventions of the time, the intended illocutionary force can be judged to be different. If this belief or statement was frequently expressed, Machiavelli was merely repeating, upholding and agreeing with a generally shared opinion. If the belief was no longer generally accepted, but had been at some earlier time, he could be seen as restating, reaffirming or recalling that statement. If the sentiment in the statement was not typically accepted at all, then perhaps Machiavelli's point was to correct and revise some generally accepted belief. And so on. If the second step maps the terrain of possible communicative performances, decoding the actual illocutionary intention requires yet an additional step that traces the relations between the utterance and the linguistic context (Skinner 1988, 64-64; 275).

Occasionally Skinner characterizes context-related illocutionary force in a way that resembles the approach I have outlined in this book, or vice versa. I quote Skinner here at length:

The types of utterance I am considering can never be viewed simply as strings of propositions; they must always be viewed at the same time as arguments. Now to argue is always to argue for or against a certain assumption or point of view or course of action. It follows that, if we wish to understand such utterances, we shall have to identify the precise nature of the intervention constituted by the act of uttering them ... We need to see it not simply as a proposition, but also as a move in argument. So we need to grasp why it seemed worth making that precise move; to recapture the presupposition and purposes that went into the making of it. (Skinner 1988, 274)

Furthermore, Skinner's idea that 'any act of communication always constitutes the taking up of some determinate position in relation to some pre-existing conversation or argument' corresponds with my suggestion for understanding historical works as argumentative interventions in an argumentative context. This requires that one identify the exact position that has been taken up, as Skinner says.

It should be made clear that my interest in illocutionary intentions and forces is more limited than Skinner's. I am interested specifically in what might be called disciplinary illocutionary intention and force. Briefly put, the illocutionary intention of historiography, and thereby of practicing scholarly historians, is to persuade their peers and the wider audience to accept their historiographical theses. And the successful implementation of this intention, the disciplinary illocutionary force of historiographical argumentation, means that the audience accepts the theses advanced and modifies their existing knowledge accordingly. This means that the immediate intellectual context, argumentative context, is composed of existing historiographical conceptions and knowledge. In historiography, the point is more rarely to agree with existing historiographies than it is to disagree with and correct them.

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