Propositional Content and Illocutionary Force

In Wittgenstein, we see that it is rather like language games float free of non-linguistic reality and that meaning is wholly constituted by the rules of a particular language game. For Habermas, it is the universals of communicative competence (as explicated by formal pragmatics) that constitute not reality as such, but the possibility of our experience of language. This deliberately Kantian formulation emphasises the transcendental role of communicative competence insofar as communicative competence structures the way in which human beings engage with reality. Habermas further distinguishes his project from truth semantics by introducing the concept of illocutionary force to his argument.

Speech Acts Utterances
Illocutionary content Propositional content
To do things with words To make statements about the world
Mention of propositional content Assertion of propositional content
Focus on intersubjective or performative aspects Establish truth or falsity


Truth semantics reduces the validity dimension of meaning solely according to representational formulations that admit of variation only as far as the direction of a ‘fit’ between language and the world is established. As such, truth semantics are too narrow for distinguishing the several illocutionary forms that express the authorised imperatives and commission speech acts with which a speaker sincerely binds his own will to a normative obligation. Nonetheless, the determination of truth does depend in part upon semantic analysis, since speech acts can have action-coordinating effects only if one understands the obligations implied in the acceptance of a claim. This is coupled with a further reflective process, which consists in analysing language use relative to its conditions of verification within the shared contexts of its actual use. Thus, successful speech acts can be said to have aspects of both competence and performance insofar as they must be both a well-formed proposition and competently used statement.

Mutual understanding is encapsulated in the illocutionary force, for far from being just a conversation between two speakers, a speech act can only be judged as successful if and only if it has the force to generate an interpersonal relationship between two or more subjects that is freely entered into by all parties. Speech acts generate the contexts within which questions, agreements, objections and so on may make sense. Within this horizon, we may come to understand another participant’s intention, which is crucial for opening up free and unforced communication. We aren’t thrown into language games, they are not thrust upon us, for we can be given good or bad reasons for selecting which ones we choose to play. Thus, Habermas renews the challenge to instrumental reason for in explicating the rationality of illocutionary forces, one moves towards a conception of communicative rationality as a viable alternative to instrumental reason.


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