Speech act theory and the analysis of conversations. Sequencing and interpretation in pragmatic theory
Jacques Moeschler Department of Linguistics University of Geneva
Conversation has recently become a focus of interest for speech act theory and several proposals have been formulated concerning the possible extension of speech act theory to the analysis of conversation. This debate (cf. Searle et al. 1992) has to be interpreted as a reactive move rather than as a natural extension of the domain of speech act theory. Nevertheless, this reaction, either sceptical (cf. Searle 1992) or optimistic (cf. Dascal 1992, Vanderveken 1992 and 1994), has brought interesting issues which contrast with the various attempts by linguists at extending speech act theory to the domain of discourse1 . The first purpose of this paper is to explicit the divergence between philosophers and linguists about the possible extension of speech act theory to discourse analysis. This paper has another purpose : it also deals with the possible domain of pragmatic theory with respect to discourse analysis. I shall argue that the main purpose of discourse analysis is the definition of necessary and sufficient
conditions for sequencing and interpretating utterances in discourse. I claim that these two aspects of discourse (sequencing and interpretation) are intrinsically related and cannot be accounted for independently from each other. I claim furthermore that speech act theory cannot give any insight into the sequencing and interpretation problems, because speech act theory is neither a theory of interpretation (it is a theory of meaning) nor a global theory of action. Finally I show how a radical pragmatic theory (in the Gricean sense) accounts for the sequencing and interpretation problems.2
2. Speech act theory and conversation There is a common sense argument shared by philosophers and linguists in favour of the possible extension of speech act theory to discourse analysis. This argument is the following : Speech acts are not isolated moves in communication : they appear in more global units of communication, defined as conversations or discourses. Vanderveken (1994, 53) gives an explicit version of this thesis when asserting that speakers perform their illocutionary acts within entire conversations where they are most often in verbal interaction with other speakers who reply to them and perform in turn their own speech acts with the same collective intention to pursue with success a certain type of discourse. Thus, above all, the use of language is a social form of linguistic behavior. It consists, in general, of ordered sequences of utterances made by several speakers who tend by their verbal interactions to achieve common discursive goals such as discussing a question, deciding together how to react to a certain situation, negociating, consulting or more simply to exchange greetings and talk for its own sake. For terminological convenience, I will call such ordered sequences of speech acts conversations.
SPEECH ACTS AND CONVERSATION
The basis of this argument is that conversation is made of sequences of speech acts. This certainly is a plausible theoretical claim3 , but gives rise to a certain number of objections, raised mainly by Searle (1992) in his skeptical argument. These objections concern essentially the possible relations between questions and answers in conversation, and can be stated as follows. First of all, questions are defined in speech acts theory as requests for information, and as such impose representative acts as replies. But this cannot be correct, since a reply may have another illocutionary point (as a promise) if the question is a request for a promise. Secondly, certain questions require a directive as a reply, and not a representative, when the question contains a modal auxiliary verb (cf. the exchange : “Shall I marry Sally ?” - “Yes, do”/ “No, don’t” /...
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