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Silvan Imhof
How to get lost in context: Searle on context,
content and literal meaning
Abstract: Despite being a pragmatic theory of language, Searle’s theory of
speech acts is methodologically based on semantic analysis. The properties of
speech acts are supposed to be examined by analysing sentences whose literal
utterance is sufficient to constitute a specific speech act by virtue of their
semantic meaning. Searle’s method thus presupposes the concept of fixable,
constant semantic content. Searle also advocates a very radical hypothesis
about the dependence of the meaning of a speech act on the mental context of a
speaker. The aim of the paper is to show that there is a serious clash between
the methodological presupposition of constant semantic content and the thesis
of the pervading influence of context on speech act meaning. In fact, if one takes
up a contextualist stance as radical as Searle’s, semantic content cannot be taken
as fixable and constant. Therefore, the preferred method of semantic analysis is
by no means available.
1 Introduction
My aim in this paper is to analyse a methodological problem of Searle’s theory
of speech acts. The problem originates from a conflict between certain methodological assumptions and some fundamental theses of the theory. On the one
hand, Searle assumes that the meaning of any speech act can be sufficiently
determined by the meaning of a sentence whose literal utterance would constitute a speech act of the type in question. On this assumption, it is possible
to characterise speech acts by a semantic analysis of suitable sentences. This
methodological assumption is obviously based on the crucial presupposition
that sentences have a constant semantic content in every literal utterance. On
the other hand, the theory of speech acts contains some basic theses about
how speech act meaning is constituted as well as about how the meaning of
speech acts depends on the intentions of speakers, and about how context
influences the meaning of speech acts. The problematic point is that the influence of context on the meaning of speech acts and the dependence of speech
act meaning on the intentions of speakers undermine the aforementioned presupposition that sentences have a constant semantic content in every literal
utterance. If, though, as a consequence of the theses of the theory of speech
DOI 10.1515/9781501504327-004
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52 Silvan Imhof
acts, no constant semantic content is available, there is no object available for
a semantic analysis too.
The opening sections 2 and 3 first specify the above-mentioned methodological assumptions and then expound on the three fundamental theses of the theory
of speech acts. In sections 4 and 5, I shall explore some conceptual consequences
of the fundamental theses concerning the notion of semantic content and semantic concepts in general. An examination of how content and context interact in
section 6 will show that Searle’s notion of content is misguided. In section 7,
I shall argue that against the theoretical background of the theory of speech acts
no feasible concept of semantic content can be defended. The methodological
consequences of my argument will finally be summed up in section 8: with no
feasible concept of semantic content available, the theory of speech acts cannot
proceed by semantic analysis.
I should mention that my analysis of the problem refers exclusively to the
theory of speech acts as it was put forward by John Searle. All the same, any
theory of meaning that holds similar methodological assumptions and theoretical theses will presumably be affected by a similar problem.
2 The methodological primacy of semantic
analysis in the theory of speech acts
Searle’s theory of speech acts is a pragmatic theory of language. Language is conceived as consisting of rules that guide the use of linguistic items like words and
sentences. Using such linguistic items according to these rules is to perform a
kind of action called a speech act. From a methodological point of view, however,
the theory of speech acts is a semantic project. The immediate objects of analysis
are not utterance acts, but sentences whose literal utterances constitute the performance of certain speech acts in virtue of their meanings. Hence, although the
theory of speech acts is a pragmatic theory of language, it is, from a methodological point of view, the result of a semantic analysis of sentences (see Searle 1969:
18; Vanderveken 1981, 1992; Vanderveken and Searle 1985: 7).
This methodological view is grounded in two assumptions:
First, if a sentence is uttered literally, “utterance meaning coincides with sentence meaning” (Searle 1979, 134); and if the sentence is sufficiently explicit, the
meaning of the sentence is sufficient to determine the speech act performed in
uttering the sentence.
Therefore, the question as to what constitutes a speech act of a certain type
can be answered by analysing the meaning of a sentence whose literal utterance
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How to get lost in context: Searle on context, content and literal meaning 53
is the performance of a speech act of exactly that type.1 Accordingly, speech acts
can be adequately characterised by analysing sentences whose literal utterance
is sufficient to determine a speech act of a specific type.
Second, semantic analysis can only lead to a full determination of the meaning
of a speech act on the condition that, at least in principle, it is possible to find a
sentence whose meaning is sufficient to determine exactly this particular speech
act, if it is uttered literally. That is, it must, at least in principle, be possible to
incorporate everything in a sentence that constitutes the meaning of the speech
act. To this purpose, Searle argues for the Principle of Expressibility, according
to which “whatever can be meant can be said” (Searle 1969: 19).2 It is this second
assumption that allows Searle to state that “the study of the meaning of sentences
is not in principle distinct from a study of speech acts” (Searle 1969: 18).
The aforementioned assumptions about literal utterances of sentences
and about the expressibility of what can be meant rest in turn on two crucial
­presuppositions:
First, a sharp conceptual distinction needs to be drawn between sentences
and utterances, and, correspondingly, between linguistic or word meaning and
utterance meaning. As we have seen, if a sentence is uttered literally, linguistic
meaning and utterance meaning coincide. But there are also non-literal uses of
sentences like indirect speech acts, metaphors, etc. (see Searle 1979). In these
cases, linguistic meaning and utterance meaning do not coincide, and therefore
they are conceptually different.
Second, while a speaker’s intentions determine whether an utterance of a
certain sentence is to be taken literally or not, it only depends on the linguistic
meaning of the sentence what kind of speech act is performed by its literal utterance. This means that linguistic expressions fulfil their function irrespective of
what a speaker intends to express on a certain occasion. The semantic properties
of linguistic expressions are therefore autonomous from the pragmatic properties of speech acts. It is this very autonomy that allows Searle methodologically
to base the theory of speech acts on the analysis of the meanings of sentences in
order to determine the rules governing the performance of speech acts.
1 “So what I shall do in my analysis of illocutionary acts is unpack what constitutes the understanding of a literal utterance in terms of (some of) the rules concerning the elements of the
­uttered sentence and in terms of the hearer’s recognition of the sentence as subject to those
rules” (Searle 1969: 47–48; see also Searle 1969: 17–21, 45, 57, 94, 126).
2 A more explicit version of the Principle of Expressibility can be found in Searle (1969: 20).
I shall not examine the validity of the principle here, but see Binkley (1979), Kannetzky (2002),
and especially Recanati (2003), who argues that the principle is not compatible with Searle’s
context hypothesis.
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54 Silvan Imhof
In what follows, I shall try to show that these two presuppositions inherent
in Searle’s underlying methodological assumptions are not compatible with the
general framework of his theory of speech acts. Neither the conceptual difference between sentence meaning and utterance meaning nor the autonomy of linguistic meaning from speech acts and speakers can be maintained, if one holds,
like Searle, both an intentionalist account of speech acts and a strong hypothesis
about the influence of context.
3 The theoretical framework: three theses
The methodological problem of the theory of speech acts arises when the methodological presuppositions presented in the preceding section are combined
with some of the theses that characterise Searle’s broader theoretical framework.
Thus, in this section I shall expound the three relevant theses: the thesis about
speech act meaning (section 3.1), the thesis about the reduction of speech act
meaning to a speaker’s intentions (section 3.2), and the hypothesis about the
context dependence of speech act meaning (section 3.3).
3.1 Speech Act Meaning
On the one hand, the thesis of Speech Act Meaning reflects the fact that speech
acts are, in general, performed by using language, and that the meaning of a
speech act depends, at least in part, on the meanings of the expressions used to
perform the speech act.3 On the other hand, language does no work on its own.
Language is essentially a means of performing speech acts, and it is operative
only when speakers use it to perform speech acts. Hence, the meaning of speech
acts depends, at least in part, on the intentional use of language by speakers.
Speech Act Meaning thus amounts to the thesis that the meaning of a speech act
generally depends in part on the speaker who uses language, and in part on the
meanings of the linguistic expressions used by the speaker.
Accepting Speech Act Meaning is to consider language and language users as
two factors that each independently contribute to the determination of speech act
meaning (Searle 1969: 17–19, 44–45, 48–49). In particular, language is supposed
3 Henceforth, I shall use Speech Act Meaning (capitalised) as a label for Searle’s thesis about
how the meaning of speech acts is constituted, while speech act meaning (uncapitalised) is supposed to mean the meaning of a speech act.
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How to get lost in context: Searle on context, content and literal meaning 55
to make an autonomous contribution to speech act meaning. As we have seen in
section 2, the basic methodological assumption of speech act theory requires the
autonomy of language from a speaker’s intentions. It has now become clear that this
requirement is also incorporated in Speech Act Meaning. It is for this reason that it
is crucial to the theory of speech acts from a methodological as well as from a theoretical point of view that the autonomy of language can be ensured. I shall show,
however, that this is not possible, if one accepts the other two theses of the theory.
3.2 Intentionalistic reduction
According to the thesis of Intentionalistic Reduction, the theory of speech acts
is a branch of the philosophy of mind (Searle 1983: 160). It is the thesis that
“­speaker’s meaning should be entirely definable in terms of more primitive forms
of Intentionality” (Searle 1983: 160). The thesis is based on a paradigmatic feature
of speech acts: they are about something or, in other words, they are directed at
something. Due to this feature speech acts can be said to represent something,
i.e. to be intentional. However, intentionality is not primarily a feature of speech
acts. In fact, their intentionality is only derived from the intentionality of mental
states. Intentionality is thus imposed on speech acts by speakers using language
in order to express their mental states.
It is part of Intentionalistic Reduction that intentional or representational
content can be shared by speech acts and intentional, mental states. The notion
of content covers in both cases those aspects of intentionality that determine
what things or state of affairs a speech act or a mental state is about or directed
at.4 In the case of speech acts, intentional content is a part of speech act meaning.
According to the thesis of Speech Act Meaning, the intentional content generally
depends on the linguistic meaning of the sentences used to perform a speech act.
In the case of a literal utterance of a sentence, the content of the sentence, i.e. the
semantic content, is the same as the content of the intentional state the speaker
intends to express by uttering the sentence.
It is important to notice that Intentionalistic Reduction contradicts neither
Speech Act Meaning nor the requirement of the autonomy of language from
a speaker’s intentions. Although the reductionist thesis assumes that the
4 Thus, it covers the descriptive meaning or descriptive content. In the case of speech acts, the
other aspect of intentionality is the illocutionary force; in the case of intentional, mental states
it is the propositional attitude. I will confine the discussion to intentional content. See Searle
(1983: 4–13, 26–29, 160–179).
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56 Silvan Imhof
i­ ntentionality of speech acts or speaker’s meaning can be reduced to a speaker’s
mental intentionality, it does not assume that linguistic meaning is reducible
to a speaker’s mental intentionality. On the contrary: as Searle puts it, it is only
possible that speakers impose intentionality on linguistic items by performing
speech acts, if there are linguistic expressions that have meanings independent
of a speaker’s intentions (Searle 1983: 167, 176).
3.3 The context hypothesis
The third relevant element of the theoretical framework is Searle’s Context
­Hypothesis. I shall not go into the details of Searle’s description of context here
nor shall I defend or criticise the Context Hypothesis.5 Rather, I shall take it as a
given assumption and only point to its main characteristics. The Context Hypothesis applies to speech acts as well as to intentional, mental states. I shall first consider it with respect to the primary form of intentionality, i.e. intentional, mental
states.
As regards intentional, mental states, the hypothesis can be put like this: intentional states are constituted by two factors, namely intentional content and psychological attitude (Searle 1983: 5–6). The former defines what a state represents or what
it is about. Basically, an intentional state represents its conditions of satisfaction; e.g.,
a belief represents what makes it true (Searle 1983: 10–13). However, the intentional
content is not sufficient to determine specific conditions of satisfaction by itself. As a
further determining factor, context needs to be taken into account as well.
As Searle understands it, context is neither the external, situational, environmental or social context, nor the context of the utterance or communication.
Rather, he takes it to be something mental. It is constituted (a) by the whole of an
individual’s intentional states, the network, and (b) by some basic mental, nonintentional capacities and practices, the background.6
(a) Although an individual intentional state has conditions of satisfaction, it
only has them within a network of other intentional states (Searle 1983: 19–21,
141–142). An intentional state presupposes further intentional states, and
5 For critical discussions see, e.g. Carston (1991), Recanati (1991), Stroud (1991), and Searle’s
defences in Searle (1980, 1991, 1992).
6 I will use context as comprising both, background and network. Initially, Searle did not
draw a distinction between network and background, and just spoke of contextual and background assumptions (see Searle 1979: 117–136). It was only in his later book Intentionality that he
distinguished between background and network (Searle 1983: 141–142). Since The rediscovery
of the mind, the network has been regarded as a part of the background (Searle 1992: 186–191).
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How to get lost in context: Searle on context, content and literal meaning 57
the conditions of satisfaction of the state in question depend on what these
further states are about. For example, my intention to become president of
Switzerland presupposes some beliefs about the Swiss political system and
involves further intentions like the intention to become a candidate for presidency or to overturn the government. Depending on what more I believe and
intend, my intention to become president will have different conditions of
satisfaction. So the general point is that the conditions of satisfaction of an
individual intentional state are determined in a holistic way.
(b) Intentionality or representation would not come about without a background
of non-intentional capacities and practices relating to “how things are” and
“how to do things” (Searle 1983: 143–144; see also Searle 1980: 227, 1995:
129, 1998: 109). In order to have the intention to drink a bottle of beer, for
example, one must be acquainted with the behaviour of solid objects and
liquids as well as with the handling of bottles. According to Searle, these
non-intentional, mental capacities and practices provide “a set of enabling
conditions that make it possible for particular forms of Intentionality to function” (Searle 1983: 157). Although background does not determine specific
intentional states and their conditions of satisfaction, any intentional state
is formed on the basis of a specific background and, therefore, has conditions of satisfaction only relative to this background. Thus, one can only have
intentional states relative to a specific background.
Because Intentionalistic Reduction holds, there is an important follow‐up: the
Context Hypothesis directly applies to speech acts, because the intentionality of
speech acts is derived from mental intentionality. Like mental states, speech acts
have an intentional content and they represent their conditions of s­ atisfaction
(Searle 1983: 10–11).
Furthermore, speech acts share their intentional content with the mental states
they are supposed to express. That means, however, that the content of a speech
act, like the content of an intentional state, determines conditions of satisfaction
only relative to a context. Thus, in order to determine the conditions of satisfaction
of a speech act, the mental context needs to be taken into account as well.
4 The context hypothesis applied to semantic
content
After having established the methodological and theoretical framework, I shall
now show step by step that within this framework it is not possible to uphold the
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58 Silvan Imhof
two basic assumptions in a consistent way: the conceptual difference between
sentence meaning and utterance meaning on the one hand, and the autonomy of
linguistic meaning on the other hand. At this point it will emerge that the notion
of semantic content is of special importance. For this reason I shall first sharpen
Searle’s conception of semantic content before I present my argument. The best way
to do so is to have a look at Searle’s initial application of the Context Hypothesis.
The Context Hypothesis was first intended to criticise the traditional view of
semantics holding that the meaning of a sentence is sufficient to determine the
truth conditions, or, more generally, the conditions of satisfaction for every literal
utterance of the sentence. According to the Determination View, the meaning of a
sentence is a function of the meanings of its component expressions and its compositional structure (Searle 1979: 117–119, 1980: 223).7 If these elements and thus
the semantic content of a sentence are known, also the meaning of any literal
utterance of this sentence, i.e. its literal meaning, is known. In other words,
the conditions of satisfaction the sentence has in every utterance in which it is
uttered literally are known.
Arguing against this view Searle claims that knowledge of the semantic
content of a sentence will never be sufficient to determine the conditions of satisfaction for any literal utterance of that same sentence. A sentence or its semantic
content determines the conditions of satisfaction only relative to a specific mental
context. Therefore, without knowledge of the speaker’s mental context, it is not
possible to know the conditions of satisfaction of a literal utterance of a sentence.
Of course, the Determination View could still be saved, if there was a way
of describing the relevant context, and, in doing so, making all the factors
explicit that determine the conditions of satisfaction. However, examples provided by Searle indicate that context can never be fully known for two reasons.
First, no exhaustive description of the relevant network and background of a
specific utterance can be given. Second, there is no exhaustive specification of
all the contexts in which a sentence can potentially determine different conditions of satisfaction, when it is uttered literally. As a consequence, no semantic
description can capture all the relevant factors that determine the conditions of
satisfaction, because one of these factors, i.e. context, is essentially pragmatic.
Therefore, the Determination View is misguided.
The argument reveals two crucial points about Searle’s conception of content.
First, Searle attacks the Determination View because it does not acknowledge the
influence of context, but he does not criticise the underlying notion of semantic
7 I take this label from Recanati (2003: 189–190). It covers not only truth conditional semantics,
but also the extension of this account to conditions of satisfaction in general.
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How to get lost in context: Searle on context, content and literal meaning 59
content. In fact, Searle agrees with the Determination View that semantic content
is determined by the linguistic meanings of expressions and is thus independent
of the speaker (Searle 1979: 120, 132–133, 1992: 184). Furthermore, the semantic
content of a sentence is context-neutral, and it is constant and invariant in every
utterance. This means that the contribution of the semantic content to the determination of the conditions of satisfaction is the same in every literal utterance
(Searle 1979: 121, 125, 129, 1980: 224–227, 1983: 146, 1992: 178–179, 1995: 131–132).
Hence the point of disagreement between Searle and the proponents of the Determination View is not so much about what semantic content is, but rather about
whether it is sufficient to determine conditions of satisfaction or not.
Second, there is an important difference between intentional states and sentences. Intentional states are intrinsically situated in a mental context, because
not one single intentional state could exist without context. Sentences, by contrast, are not intrinsically connected to a context. Rather, they are supposed to be
context-neutral. It is only when they are used to perform speech acts that they are
related (or “applied”, as Searle says) to a context, namely the mental context of
the speaker. Thus, in the case of literal utterances of sentences there are always
two distinct factors involved: semantic content, which is determined by linguistic
meaning, and mental context, which depends on the speaker. No similar distinction can be drawn in the case of intentional states, because both content and
context belong to the same holistic mental intentionality of a speaker.
The purpose of this section was to show that Searle regards semantic content
not only as a factor that determines the conditions of satisfaction of a speech act,
but also as a factor completely separable from and independent of the context.
Obviously, this view is in perfect agreement with Searle’s presupposition of the
autonomy of language that is incorporated in both the basic methodological
assumption and the thesis of Speech Act Meaning. All the same, in the following
sections I shall show that this traditional view of semantic content cannot figure
in the theoretical framework of Searle’s theory of speech acts. If both Intentionalistic Reduction and the Context Hypothesis were true, then semantic content
would simply vanish into context. If this is correct, the autonomy of language can
no longer be upheld.
5 The roots of semantic concepts in mental
intentionality
My first point does not amount to an argument against Searle’s conception of
semantic content. It is more like a reminder that one has to be careful about
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60 Silvan Imhof
the conceptual dependencies of semantic concepts, if one adheres to Speech
Act Meaning as well as Intentionalistic Reduction. I have already mentioned
(see section 3.2) that Intentionalistic Reduction is compatible with Speech
Act Meaning: although speaker’s meaning is reducible to a speaker’s mental
­intentionality, linguistic meaning is not reducible to a speaker’s intentionality.
The autonomy of language is thus not directly threatened.
Still, the question arises whether there is a conceptual connection between
the semantic properties of sentences and mental intentionality for the following
reason: Searle assumes that in a literal utterance of a sentence the meaning of the
sentence determines the intentional content of the speech act, i.e. the content of
the mental state the speaker intends to express. It might be suspected, however,
that sentences can play this part only, because there is a close relation between
basic semantic properties and those properties of mental states that make them
intentional. Thus, if semantic properties actually do contribute to the determination of the intentional content of speech acts, they must in some sense be derived
from the primary form of intentionality (Searle 1979: 130, 1995: 61, 99, 1998: 93).
This means that semantic properties have to be understood in terms of mental
intentionality. If, though, semantic properties can really be traced back to mental
intentionality, the autonomy of language is no longer guaranteed. I shall now try
to corroborate these suspicions.
The semantic properties that contribute to content can be roughly reduced to
the referential and the predicative meaning of expressions. Within the theory of
speech acts, reference and predication are understood as the speech acts of reference and predication. They determine the content of the intentional state that
is expressed in the performance of a full-blown speech act (Searle 1969: 23–24,
121–123). While in intentional, mental states there are no analogues for referential
and predicative expressions or for referential and predicative speech acts, there
must at least be functional analogues for reference and predication. Without such
analogous functions, it would not be possible to say what it is for an intentional
state to be about or to be directed at something, i.e. what it is for an intentional
state to have intentional content. The functions of reference and predication are
thus essentially required to determine intentional content. And this is why there
is no fundamental difference between how the content of speech acts and the
content of mental states are constituted, apart from the fact that the constitutive
functions of reference and predication are performed in different ways.
In this sense, the semantic concepts of referential and predicative meaning
as well as the concept of semantic content can be reduced to the primary intentional concepts of reference, predication and intentional content. This conceptual
reduction is not yet devastating for the assumption of the autonomy of language,
but it shows that the autonomy of language cannot be taken for granted. This
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How to get lost in context: Searle on context, content and literal meaning 61
means that an account has to be given that explains how language can contribute autonomously to the determination of content, although the basic semantic
concepts are rooted in the primary concepts of mental intentionality. In order to
tackle this task, it is necessary to rule out the possibility that the intentional properties of any particular speech act completely and directly depend on the mental
intentionality of the performer of the speech act. If this possibility can be ruled
out, it is permissible to assume that there really is an autonomous contribution
of language to the intentionality of each particular speech act, although semantic
properties in general can be reduced to the mental intentionality of speakers.
Without a doubt, there are solutions for this task. In The construction of
social reality Searle treats language as a part of institutional reality and in
doing so takes collective intentionality to be a constitutive factor of language
(Searle 1995: 13, 72–76, 1998: 153). If the semantic features of language are to be
understood as the product of the collective intentions of a plurality of language
users, the semantic properties of language are obviously rooted in their mental
intentionality. Nevertheless, the contribution of language to the intentionality
of a particular speech act does not depend on the intentionality of a particular
speaker. Because the meaning of a sentence is based on collective intentionality, sentence meaning cannot be reduced to a particular speaker’s intentions.
In this sense, language is independent of particular speakers. If backed by a
solution like this, language could reasonably be said to be autonomous in the
sense required by the methodological assumptions of speech act analysis.8
It seems that in spite of Intentionalistic Reduction the autonomy of language
can be saved with reasonable theoretical effort. But what happens, if we take
the Context Hypothesis into account as well? It may turn out that some of the
relevant features of mental intentionality are essentially context-dependent. In
this case, because of the conceptual dependence of semantic concepts on concepts of mental intentionality, it will be hard to show that context dependence
can be excluded from the pertinent properties of language. If, however, these
properties depend on context and the relevant context is the mental context of
individual speakers, there will be an essential dependence of semantic properties on an individual speaker’s intentionality. In this case, the autonomy of
language and the conception of a constant, context‐independent content will
get into trouble.
8 Unfortunately, Searle does not really provide such an account. He rather relies on the concept
of convention when he explains the status of public symbols like linguistic expressions (Searle
1992: 60–61, 72–76, 1998: 141, 153), and it is far from clear how conventions are related to mental
intentionality.
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62 Silvan Imhof
6 The interaction of context, content and
conditions of satisfaction
Searle shares the assumption of the Determination View that a sentence has a specific semantic content that contributes to the conditions of satisfaction and remains
the same in every literal utterance of the sentence (section 4). This assumption
has not been seriously challenged by my examination of the consequences of the
thesis of Intentionalistic Reduction (section 5). What I shall show next is that, if
the Context Hypothesis is accepted too, not only conditions of satisfaction essentially depend on context, but also the intentional content. In fact, it is not possible
to separate the intentional content from context and to treat content and context
as two independent determining factors of conditions of satisfaction. Intentional
content in general and semantic content in particular depend on context and,
therefore, on mental intentionality. As a consequence, semantic content is not
autonomous from a speaker in the way that speech act analysis requires.
6.1 Searle’s view
In order to argue for the Context Hypothesis, Searle gives different examples of
the phenomenon that conditions of satisfaction vary between different literal
utterances of the same sentence. I shall use a similar example in order to challenge Searle’s explanation of the phenomenon.9
Fig. 1: Cats on mats.
9 The scenario is a variation of examples in Searle (1979: 122–123).
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How to get lost in context: Searle on context, content and literal meaning 63
Figure 1 illustrates the following situation: a person on earth who utters the sentence The cat is on the mat literally, says something true in the cat1-situation as
well as in the cat2-situation. He uses is on in The cat is on the mat contextually
relative to the direction of gravity on earth. In contrast, after a long intergalactic
voyage an astronaut inside the spaceship has become accustomed to use is on
contextually relative to the position of his spaceship, taking the tail fin for determining the up-direction. So the astronaut’s literal utterance of The cat is on the
mat is true of cat1, but not of cat2. In the latter case, cat2 would be under mat2 relative to the astronaut’s context, and hence the utterance would be false. Thus, the
respective truth values and truth conditions differ, although both speakers utter
the same sentence literally.10
According to Searle, the example has to be interpreted like this: obviously,
if the person on earth and the astronaut utter the sentence The cat is on the mat,
their respective utterances have something in common (Searle 1979: 125, 128,
1980: 222–227, 1983: 145, 1992: 177–178, 1995: 130–131). Both speakers use the
same sentence with the same expression meanings, and they both utter it literally. Accordingly, they both say the same about the same things (that, e.g., cat2
is on mat2), and thus utter the same sentence with the same semantic content.
It is also obvious that truth values and truth conditions differ, although both
speakers utter the same sentence with the same semantic content in the same
situation. If, though, the semantic content is constant in all utterances, the
difference between the truth values and truth conditions must be explained by
something else. So, another factor needs to be taken into account, namely the
speaker’s context. Searle’s interpretation thus leads to the following general
conclusion: when uttered literally, the same sentence with the same semantic
content can determine different conditions of satisfaction relative to different
contexts.
6.2 Searle’s presupposition: the independence
of content and context
Searle’s explanation of the phenomenon is based on a crucial presupposition.
He presupposes that it is possible to separate semantic content and speaker’s
context, that is, that content and context are conceptually independent. While the
10 Note that the coincidence of the truth values of the utterances of both speakers in the cat1situation is only accidental. Just imagine the spaceship performing a roll of 180 degrees along
its longitudinal axis.
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64 Silvan Imhof
determination of truth conditions or, generally speaking, conditions of satisfaction requires context, content is supposed to be fixed exclusively by the semantic
properties of the sentence, if the sentence is uttered literally. However, the possibility of the separation of content and context in turn implies the possibility
of a clear separation of content and conditions of satisfaction, and, in fact, the
conceptual independence of content from conditions of satisfaction.11 Only if the
separation of content and conditions of satisfaction is possible can the semantic
content of a sentence make the same contribution to speech act meaning in every
literal utterance of the sentence, even though the conditions of satisfaction may
vary. Finally, the conceptual independence of content from conditions of satisfaction in turn requires the possibility of the determination of content independently
of conditions of satisfaction. In other words, the identity of conditions of satisfaction cannot be a criterion for the identity of content. The question then is if there
is another criterion for the identity of content available?
6.3 The notion of content
There is an obvious criterion for the identity of content: the same content is
expressed, if the same is said about the same things, that is, if reference and predication are the same. As we have seen in section 5, the functions of reference and
predication are constitutive of intentional content in general. In our example, the
expressions the cat and the mat are used by both speakers to refer to the same
cat (cat1 or cat2) and to the same mat (mat1 or mat2); and by means of is on the
same relation (to be on) is ascribed to the cats and the mats in the utterances of
both speakers, irrespective of their individual context. If both speakers use the
same expressions to refer to the same things and to ascribe the same relation to
these things, they both say the same about these things in virtue of the identical
referential and predicative meanings of the expressions they both use. They both
seem to perform the same acts of reference and predication, and thus to express
the same content (namely that the cat is on the mat). Everything else being equal,
only their different contexts can account for the difference in the conditions of
satisfaction.
Reference and predication are obviously suitable to identify content. Nevertheless, any specification of content by means of reference and predication is independent of context only if reference and predication themselves are independent
11 Note that the independence is not mutual, because conditions of satisfaction depend, among
other things, on content.
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How to get lost in context: Searle on context, content and literal meaning 65
of context. But they are not, as Searle explicitly remarks on reference: “Since
linguistic reference is always dependent on or is a form of mental reference
and since mental reference is always in virtue of Intentional content including
Background and Network, proper names must in some way depend on Intentional content” (Searle 1983: 232). This means that even referring to something
presupposes intentional states like beliefs about the intended object of reference (network) and basic abilities like the perception of objects (background).
Although Searle makes no analogous statement about predication, it is plausible
to assume that context is involved in predication too. Predicating something of
something involves further intentional states like knowing the possible bearers
of the property in question (network) and basic abilities like taking objects as
bearers of properties (background).
Since reference and predication are essentially contextual, there is no bare,
context-free reference and no bare, context‐free predication; and since reference and predication are those intentional functions that constitute intentional
content, there is no bare, context-free content too. The conclusion is that there is
simply no intentional content without context. Intentional content is intrinsically
related to a context, and it is constituted only relative to a context. Therefore,
content cannot be separated from context. Furthermore, content cannot be separated from conditions of satisfaction either. If content is intrinsically related to
a context, conditions of satisfaction are given as soon as some content is given.
This conclusion indicates that Searle’s notion of content and, consequently, his
interpretation of the context dependence of conditions of satisfaction need to be
revised.
6.4 A revised view
Starting off with the conclusion of the previous section, one gets a picture of the
interaction of content, context and conditions of satisfaction that is quite different from the one Searle presents.
(a) Different speakers have different intentional contents. In our example, both
persons apply the concept of being on relative to their respective individual
contexts, and, thereby, the content of their respective beliefs is fixed. If one
knows, among other things, how they each apply the concept of being on, one
also knows the content of their beliefs and how the content has to be taken in
each case, i.e. that the concept of being on is applied relative to the direction
of gravity on earth in one case, and relative to the position of the tail fin of the
spaceship in the other. If, furthermore, one knows how the content of each
utterance has to be taken as soon as reference and predication are established,
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66 Silvan Imhof
one also knows the different truth conditions of the two different beliefs. That
means, if one knows the content, one also knows the truth conditions, and
vice versa. And if truth conditions vary, content must vary too, and vice versa.
So the person on earth and the astronaut have different beliefs about the cats
and the mats.
(b) Different speakers express different contents. According to (a), it is not justifiable to assume that both speakers express the same content in their utterance
of The cat is on the mat, only with different truth conditions depending on
their respective contexts. Since the identity of content depends on the identity of reference and predication, and since both speakers perform at least
different acts of predication owing to their different contexts, it follows that
both speakers express different contents. The astronaut does not mean the
same as the person on earth, when he utters the sentence The cat is on the
mat, irrespective of the occasion he does so. But is the meaning of the sentence they use to express their beliefs still the same? Do both speakers say the
same about the cats and mats in question, because the sentence they use has
the same, constant semantic content?
(c) Different speakers say something different. If linguistic reference and ­predication
are derived from mental reference and predication as required by Intentionalistic Reduction, and if mental reference and predication essentially depend
on context, then linguistic reference and predication depend on context too
(Searle 1983: 232). And as the semantic content of a sentence is constituted
by the referential and the predicative meanings of its constituent expressions,
semantic content essentially depends on context as well. What has been said
about the context dependence of intentional content in general also applies
to semantic content. Most importantly, without context there cannot be any
semantic content at all. According to the revised interpretation of the context
phenomenon, the person on earth and the astronaut do not say the same,
when they utter the sentence The cat is on the mat, because the conditions of
satisfaction differ owing to their different contexts. The same sentence is used
differently by both speakers, that is, it has different meanings depending on
each speaker’s context. Therefore, the semantic content of the sentence cannot
be regarded as being constant and context‐independent in every literal utterance of the sentence in whatever context.
It might still be tenable to say that, in a certain sense, all utterances in our example
are cases of literal utterances of the same sentence, because in every case what
the speaker means corresponds to what the sentence means. This, however, is
a void sense of literal meaning, since in every case what the sentence means
does not only correspond to, but is completely determined by what the speaker
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How to get lost in context: Searle on context, content and literal meaning 67
means. According to the corrected interpretation, which is based on the theses
of Searle’s theoretical framework, sentences do not have a constant, contextindependent semantic content. Rather, there is an indefinite ambiguity resulting
from the influence of context. For Searle, this kind of ambiguity is an “absurd
result” (Searle 1983: 145).12 In this sense, which is the only sense available, the
concepts of semantic content and literal meaning are certainly not very useful for
semantic analysis.
7 The dissolution of semantic content in context
7.1 A possible way out
Even if one accepts the theses of Searle’s theoretical framework and their consequences, one can still try to defend a conception of semantic content that is
constant and neutral with regard to context. It may be true, one could say, that
there is an ambiguity inherent in linguistic expressions. The sentence The cat is
on the mat may determine different contents and different conditions of satisfaction relative to different contexts, but these contents are not entirely different
and independent. Rather, they have something in common, since both speakers in our example, the person on earth and the astronaut, say something about
the same objects (the two cats and mats) and ascribe the same relation to these
objects (to be on). Hence, it should be possible to abstract the contextual features
of literal utterances of a sentence that are responsible for the ambiguity, and thus
to reach a core of meaning that is neutral with regard to context. This abstract
core of meaning can plausibly be considered to be the invariant semantic content
of the sentence.
12 Searle counters alternative interpretations of the phenomenon that ascribe the context sensitivity of conditions of satisfaction to semantic properties by making use of such notions as
semantic ambiguity, variable functions, vagueness, incompleteness or hidden indexicality
(Searle 1980: 224–225, 228–231, 1992: 182–186). It is worth mentioning that the alternative interpretation I suggest here does not rely on the notion of (semantic) ambiguity, but on the concepts
of content, reference, predication and conditions of satisfaction as they figure in Searle’s theoretical framework. Ambiguity is not part of the theoretical explanation of the phenomenon, but
rather an undesired result, similar to Kripke/Wittgenstein-style scepticism according to which
one “would then be able to say anything and mean anything”, and “where meaning is concerned, anything goes” (Searle 1992: 184).
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68 Silvan Imhof
Concerning this attempt to defend the concept of constant, context‐­independent
content I shall first give a general reply and then demonstrate what comes out, if
the suggested procedure of abstracting contextual factors is applied to the situation
illustrated in Fig. 1. Neither the general reply nor the demonstration based on the
example will probably be decisive, but they will suffice, first, to cast serious doubt
on the applicability of the procedure in general, and, second, to show that, even if
the procedure could be applied, the result would not support a notion of semantic
content that is useful from a methodological point of view.
7.2 A general reply
The general reply is based on Searle’s claims about the range of the influence
that context exerts. As long as one is confronted with only a few cases of literal
utterances of the same sentence with different conditions of satisfaction, it may
seem to be feasible to factor out the contextual differences in order to attain a
common content. In our example, there is only one relevant contextual factor,
namely the speakers’ different background regarding spatial orientation. If this
difference is factored out, everything else remains the same for both speakers. It
is, however, an important point of Searle’s argument in support of the Context
Hypothesis that examples of deviant cases can be multiplied ad libitum. There
is an indefinite number of possible contexts. This point is important, because
it supports the claim of a general, pervading influence of context on conditions
of satisfaction on the basis of a few arbitrary examples; and it also supports the
argument against the Determination View holding that it is impossible to give an
exhaustive description of all contextual factors that may be relevant to the determination of conditions of satisfaction (Searle 1979: 125–126, 128–130, 1980: 228,
1983: 148; 1995: 131).
As a consequence, by applying the suggested procedure of abstraction,
the contextual features that actually make a difference in a particular case can
perhaps be sorted out. Nevertheless, this does not lead to constant, context-­
independent content, because there still remains an indefinite number of
­possible contextual features that may exert an influence on the determination
of conditions of satisfaction, even though they make no difference in the case in
hand. Thus, there is a conflict between the view that contextual factors cannot
be s­pecified exhaustively, which is part of the Context Hypothesis, and the suggestion that the procedure of abstracting from contextual factors can lead to
constant, context-independent content. In the light of the argument presented
in section 6, holding that without context there can be no content at all, the
conflict appears to be even more striking. Therefore, the suggested procedure of
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How to get lost in context: Searle on context, content and literal meaning 69
abstraction is no useful strategy for defending the concept of constant, context‐
independent content within Searle’s theoretical framework. Searle’s Context
Hypothesis is radical and, therefore, undermines the concept of semantic
content in a radical way.13
Let us now see what happens if one tries to apply the suggested procedure to
the situation depicted in Fig. 1.
7.3 Applying the procedure
Step 1. The only relevant contextual difference in the example is the different
background regarding the spatial orientation of both speakers, which manifests
itself in their use of is on. With everything else being equal, this difference must
explain the different truth conditions. Thus, the determination of the spatial relation expressed by the literal use of is on relative to the centre of gravity of the earth
or relative to the position of the tail fin of the spaceship is not part of the meaning
of is on and has to be factored out. What remains as the semantic meaning of is
on may be roughly described like this: is on is a two-place predicate which is (in
a literal utterance) used to ascribe a certain spatial relation to physical objects.
This description is rather unspecific because it only refers to a certain spatial
relation without saying what kind of spatial relation it actually is. But if it only
refers to an unspecified spatial relation, the description of the meaning of is on
coincides with the descriptions of the meaning of any other expression the two
speakers use to ascribe a spatial relation to physical objects, for instance is under,
is beside of, etc. Strictly speaking, all these expressions have to be taken to be
synonymous. It must be admitted therefore that the sentence The cat is on the
mat has the same semantic content as The cat is under the mat, and that both
sentences make the same contribution to the determination of truth conditions.
Any use of is on counts as literal as long as it is used to ascribe whatever spatial
relation to physical bodies, because the semantic content does not fix the specific
differences in meaning between different expressions used for the ascription of
spatial relations. The differences only occur when a particular speaker applies
such expressions relative to his specific context.
13 Searle sometimes seems to acknowledge this point himself: “I wish to say that there is a radical underdetermination of what is said by the literal meaning of this sentence” (Searle 1995: 131;
see also 1992: 181).
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70 Silvan Imhof
Although this first step merely consists in abstracting just one contextual
factor, the remaining content has already turned out to be quite unspecific and
abstract. Yet further steps follow.
Step 2. The defender of constant semantic content could remind us that the
linguistic meaning of is on should not be considered in isolation. The expression should rather be seen as placed in a semantic system of expressions used
to ascribe spatial relations. For example, if is on is used literally, it can only be
used to express the opposite direction of is under for semantic reasons. There
are semantic restrictions imposed on the use of is on which prevent its arbitrary
use and which are part of its meaning. Expressions do not have a meaning in
isolation, but only relative to whole systems of meaningful expressions like the
system of expressions used to ascribe spatial relations. In our example, when the
speakers use is on, they apply this whole semantic system. Although the system is
applied relative to different contexts by both speakers, they both apply the same
semantic system. The semantic system as a whole is invariant in the different
cases.
Still, what if the astronaut has completely adapted to relativistic space-time
instead of our everyday earthly idea of space? In this case, although the astronaut
still uses the same expressions for the ascription of spatial relations literally, he
does not apply the same system of such expressions as the person on earth. He
applies a different semantic system with different semantic restrictions on the
use of spatial expressions. Not only are there different semantic restrictions in
the different systems, but also the systems themselves are dependent on different
contexts. They can only be applied relative to different beliefs and background
assumptions concerning the properties of space. That means that a semantic
system as a whole only works relative to a context. What seemed to be the constant semantic core of meaning after the first step of abstraction has now turned
out to be context-dependent after all.
Step 3. The defender of constant semantic content could now argue that we just
have to dig deeper. Semantic content would then be even less substantial, but one
could not exclude the possibility that after further steps we were finally to reach the
semantic core that is invariant relative to all possible contexts. All the same, I shall
not give a further reply, and stop my demonstration at this point. For my purpose,
it suffices that I have raised the suspicion that the game could go on ad indefinitum.
It is possible that whatever appears to be constant, context-independent semantic
content at one point of the procedure can turn out to depend on context, because
certain contextual factors have not yet been accounted for. No matter how deep
one digs, one can never be sure of having reached semantic bedrock. And even
if one reaches semantic bedrock at a certain point, the deeper it lies, the more
abstract, unspecific and unsubstantial semantic content will be.
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How to get lost in context: Searle on context, content and literal meaning 71
8 Conclusions
Neither the general reply (section 7.2) nor the outcome of the attempt to apply the
procedure of abstracting contextual features (section 7.3) is decisive in arguing
against the assumption of constant, context-independent semantic content.
There is probably no strict proof of the Context Hypothesis, and the defender of
the concept of constant, context-independent content can still adhere to the suggested procedure of abstraction. All the same, my aim was to show that within
Searle’s theoretical framework, the concept of constant, context‐independent
semantic content as it is methodologically required for speech act analysis is
not available. Although what has been said so far is not sufficient to dismiss the
concept of constant, context-independent content altogether, it is sufficient to
show that the concept, should it be available, cannot fulfil the methodological
function it is intended to fulfil for the following reasons:
(1) The more general and pervasive the influence of context is supposed to be,
the less specific and substantial semantic content can be. Searle’s Context
Hypothesis states a very general and radical influence of context. Right from
the outset, it leaves not enough room for semantic content, if any, as my
general reply indicated.
(2) Even if the influence of context did not necessarily result in the complete
dissolution of semantic content, and if it was possible to apply the suggested
procedure of subtracting contextual factors from the total meaning, one
could not know when one has reached constant semantic content. Since it
is conceivable that there are indefinitely many possible contexts relative to
which the same sentence can be uttered literally, one can never be sure that
all possible contextual differences have actually been identified and factored
out. So one can never be sure then, whether the procedure provides a suitable analysandum for semantic analysis.
(3) All the same, it may be possible that, by applying the procedure, some
abstract level can finally be reached where all contextual factors are eliminated. Semantic content might be given in terms of mere logical or formal
or structural properties, and thus proper analysanda for speech act analysis
would have been found. However, semantic content at this level would be
very abstract and thin, and could therefore have almost no bearing on the
meaning of speech acts. It is hard to see, then, how the analysis of semantic
content of such an abstract kind could substantiate the claims of the theory
of speech acts, which are quite concrete and specific about the nature of
particular types of speech acts.
(4) There is no guarantee, however, that there really is a final level where all
contextual influence can be factored out. Even if one is left with nothing but
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72 Silvan Imhof
logical, formal or structural properties to account for semantic content, one
has still to expect the question whether the understanding of these properties does not presuppose some fundamental mental background abilities that
enable speakers to apply logical, formal or structural operations. If this is
the case, context is at work even at the most abstract levels. Lacking a criterion for deciding when content is free of context, there is no way of clearly
discriminating content from context. This leads to the conclusion that the
procedure of factoring out contextual differences in order to reach semantic
content is neither applicable in practice nor in theory. In practice, no point
can be determined where the procedure comes to a halt. In theory, it does not
provide an operable conceptual distinction between contextual factors and
neutral semantic content within the total meaning of a literal utterance of a
sentence.
(5) Finally, all this leads to the conclusion that, against the background of
­Searle’s theoretical framework, there are no proper analysanda for speech
act analysis. Constant, context-independent semantic content is either too
thin to fulfil the purposes of speech act analysis or it is not available at all.
Therefore, the semantic analysis of sentences whose literal utterance constitutes the performance of certain speech acts in virtue of their meanings is,
from a methodological point of view, a non-starter.
References
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Recanati, François. 1991. The pragmatics of what is said. In Steven Davis (ed.), Pragmatics.
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How to get lost in context: Searle on context, content and literal meaning 73
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