Speech Acts: how to apologize and invite

John Searle’s Model of Speech Acts: Apologizing and Inviting

f51a6f4c-a5c3-42e2-9bc3-d95eb33fd3fb-originalJohn Searle, a philosopher of language, has proposed a theory of meaning which attempts to account for the context of utterances. This theory goes by the name: “Speech Act Theory” (Searle, 2012). Unlike many philosophers before, Searle’s theory calls upon our minds to conceive of sentence tokens rather than types as the bearers of meaning (Stainton, 2000). This theory entails that we formulate associations, which he calls conditions, with sentence types, and that these sentence types contribute either nothing or a fractional amount to semantics.

To understand how Searle determines meaning, it is important to consider three categorical distinctions for speech acts: locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary. The locutionary act is nothing special, it simply means the actual utterance. For example, “do not steal my coffee” is a locutionary act because it has meaning, syntax, phonetic properties, and so on. The illocutionary act, in contrast, is the intended meaning of the utterance. For example, “do not drink that coffee, it is quite hot,” is intended to warn someone that the coffee will cause them harm if they drink it while it is at its current temperature. Lastly, the perlocutionary act is the actual effect of the utterance; that is, “do not drink that coffee, it is quite hot” will have the illocution of warning and a perlocutionary effect of stopping someone from drinking the coffee. So, these three categorical distinctions are analogous to what was said, what was intended, and what had happened as a result of what was said. These basic categories are all we require to analyze speech acts.

Analysis of Apologizing

l-8689When we apologize, we do so to another intentional agent. The act of apologizing requires that an initial agent has done onto another agent some wrong, regardless of whether the initial agent realizes this or not. Consider these two examples, when I throw a ball off a wall, I have seemingly done no wrong to anyone. This is because the wall is not an intentional agent. However, if it later turns out that the wall had recently been painted, and my ball throwing behavior had done some damage to the paint, without me realizing, then an apology is owed to the painter. Comparatively, if I throw a ball and hit someone in the head, I will have deliberately done something wrong, which also requires an apology. This understanding of environmental conditions satisfies the conditions of intelligibility; meaning, both parties can refer to an event that calls for an apology, which will then inform the semantic properties of the conversation: they will understand what the conversation is about. With that said, there are other conditions that can fall under the notion of intelligibility, but the number of such conditions is too high for this essay.

Now, for the apology to take place, there are more conditions which must be satisfied. For starters, there must be a proposition of apology; that is, S must express P in the utterance of T. Where S stands for the person who has done the wrong, P stands for a valid illocutionary expression, and T stands for the locutionary form which the illocutionary expression takes. We already know the conditions in which a wrong has been done to someone, so let us consider some possible combinations for illocution and locution within the grammatical structure “S expresses P in the utterance T”.

When S utters, “I did not mean that,” the illocution can be an apology, even if their behavior was deliberate. For example, suppose a person was standing on top of a stick that wobbled, engaged in a feat of balance; then, suppose their friend jokingly made gestures to make the person lose focus and fall, which resulted in the balancer genuinely falling off. If that happened, the friend would say, “I did not mean that”. Here, there is a distinction between the behavior and intention. The speaker had no intention to make the person fall off the stick, for the gesture was only a joke; so, their intention was to joke, but their behavior brought about unintended consequences. This can, rightly so, be called an accident. The illocution of the utterance, “I did not mean that,” when done in the above-mentioned context is ‘I’m sorry”; and in some cases, if the illocutionary apology does not work, a direct conveyance of the intention is made: “I did not think that would actually work, I was only joking”. Moreover, any number of illocutions and locutions will suffice here, so long as they have the relationship of the wrong-doer expressing an apology with a certain utterance to the wrongly-done.

There are other conditions of satisfaction for the apology to work, and these conditions require a further break-down. Further conditions are the sincerity condition and the obligation condition.

The sincerity condition requires that the wrong-doer has a sincere intention; otherwise, the apology fails to be a genuine apology and is labeled as an act of deceit rather than an apology. That is, if the wrong-doer uttered, “I’m sorry,” with no intention of being sorry, then it is deceitful. Or, if the wrong-doer had uttered “I’m sorry,” and told everyone that it was insincere, then the hearer would not accept it; and so, the apology becomes void. Even if the receiver of the apology had accepted an insincere apology, it would, nevertheless, be an incomplete apology since it lacks the sincerity condition. All apologies require that the apologizer have a genuine intention to apologize for their actions or utterances. This sincerity condition is the necessary pre-requisite for the obligation condition.

The condition of obligation refers to an illocutionary promise to not perform the wrongful act again. So, upon the utterance of an apology, one places themselves under the obligation to refrain from a specific behavior. When this illocutionary content is ignored, the act is meaningless. Apologies offered by repeat offenders are less valuable and demand greater skepticism than apologies offered by people that never repeat the wrongful action after their initial apology. If someone continues to repeat the wrongful action after an apology, the second apology will no longer work; and this is because the illocutionary obligation associated with the apology has become void.

So, an apology requires at least four conditions of satisfaction; intelligibility, sincerity, obligation, and propositional, and some of these conditions have embedded within their names even more conditions. It is these four primary conditions which determine whether a specific locution has the illocutionary content of an apology.

Analysis of Inviting

red-and-blue-2-wallpaperTo invite someone requires at least 5 conditions of satisfaction. There is the normal input-output condition, the propositional content condition, two preparatory conditions, and a sincerity condition. Each one of these conditions is important for the illocution of inviting.

Normal input and output conditions are quite encompassing; they may range from a mutually spoken language to knowing what an invitation is. In general, normal input and output conditions refer to background assumptions and knowledge that are shared by the speaker; such common knowledge would be the bridge for communication between the inviting party and the receiving party. Without this knowledge, important components that contribute to the semantic aspects of the interaction would be missing: coherent illocution would be nearly impossible.

The second condition pertains to the propositional content for inviting. Although there may be numerous locutions to convey the illocution of an invitation, they all follow a particular pattern: X grants some type of permission to Z. For example, when a visitor knocks on the door, and a voice from behind the door utters, “it’s open,” the visitor knows that he or she has permission to enter. This is more readily shown when someone shows up to an event without an invitation: unwelcomed guests. This granting of permission leads us to our third condition.

The third condition for an invitation is that the person does not already have permission; that is, one cannot invite the host of the party to their own party. This is because they are the ones that grant permission to everyone else. By a similar form of reasoning, there would be no sense to inviting others that are implicitly assumed to be welcomed; for example, student’s do not need invitations to attend class, it is simply assumed that they already have permission to attend the lectures after they enroll into the course. So, when a professor utters, “I’ll see you in class,“ to a student, it is a normal conversation; however, when a professor utters, “I’ll see you in class,” to a non-student, it becomes an invitation to attend the lecture.

The fourth condition for an invitation is that the inviter believes that the recipient is able to accept the invitation. When individuals cannot receive an invitation, and the inviter knows that the person cannot accept the invitation, it becomes a form of provocation to invite someone. For example, when a VIP member of a club invites someone to a VIP area, knowing that the non-VIP person cannot go into the VIP area, it is an illocutionary act of provocation. In addition to that, there are more innocuous instances where the inviter was simply mistaken in their beliefs about the recipient’s ability to accept the invitation, and this would fail to be a provocation.

The last condition is the sincerity condition. The sincerity condition requires that the inviter have the genuine intention; that is, the inviter genuinely wants the recipient to have permission to something which they did not previously have access to. To invite someone while lacking a genuine intention results in something radically different. For instance, if someone, who was eating in a sky-scraper restaurant with a group of people, uttered, “you are more than welcome to join us,” to a person that they know is afraid of heights, it would be a provocation. Similarly, if someone from the table uttered, ‘you are more than welcome to join us,” to another person at the table, then it would be closer to a joke rather than a genuine invitation. So, a genuine intention is necessary for an invitation to occur.

So, to invite someone requires at least five conditions of satisfaction; only because those five conditions of satisfaction will determine the illocutionary content of a locution. In a sense, these conditions are the if-then clauses that inform the implications of utterances.

Conclusion and Summary


With the categorical distinctions: locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary, it is easy to see how speech is more than tokens. With these variables, the same locution can be interpreted in such a way that the illocutionary content has a great degree of variance; and in some cases, the same locution has potential to convey completely polar illocutionary content: apology and insult. These variables also expand our analysis of meaning beyond language; that is, rather than analyzing the logic of language, one can analyze the speaker’s meaning and the conditions that surround an utterance as well: context.

From this type of approach to meaning, it becomes possible to pair specific conditions of satisfaction with various utterances to infer their meaning; that is, which conditions of satisfaction would make “it’s open,” an invitation to step inside a house or office. Since the locution, “it’s open,’ lacks the semantic property of being an invitation, extralinguistic conditions are remarkably important for determining whether it is an invitation or not.

As for the type of theory which speech acts fall under, it seems to favor a form of mentalism because Searle proposes no hypothesis for the neural basis of this theory, yet also calls for conditions regarding intentionality. Speaker’s meaning appeals to the content inside the head, but no mechanisms inside the speaker’s head are discussed. That said, there is also evidence that the Default Neural Network within our brains is the neural basis of Theory of Mind, a component of which is intentionality (Baron-Cohen et. al., 2016; Lieberman, 2015; Mars et. al., 2012); and so, Searle’s theory is fundamentally compatible with behaviourism as well, which refutes idealism and mentalism (Pavlov, 2015; Watson, 1989).

In addition, Searle did not formulate his theory off observation, which raises suspicion; it would be unwise to overestimate the human brain’s ability to conceptualize, without error, the objects of experience whilst having no direct access to the sensory data which it theorizes about; by which I mean, the brain can think more coherently about an object when it is perceiving that object, as opposed to discussing the object’s representational qualities without direct perception of them. To illustrate further, consider that my thoughts about the colors of a painting will never be as accurate as my observation of the painting when it is represented within the brain. This is to say, sensory information is more representative of the environment when in the visual cortex only[1] because there is less noise from the system contributing to the overall signal. As a signal passes through various areas within the brain, it becomes more distorted over time; and this distortion begins almost immediately (Neuman et. al., 2007). Therefore, our thoughts, which come after object recognition, pertain to a more distorted object than our initial sensory impressions. Thus, it follows that Searle’s theory has a potential to be wrong, and so necessarily warrants skepticism; for Searle’s theory is, so long as we root it into the brain, about how the brain processes environmental conditions to determine the meaning of language, yet he makes no observations of the brain performing such determinations.

Nevertheless, Searle’s theory is more coherent than those that attempt to analyze language only, and this is because language can only be understood in conjunction with extralinguistic means. The neural patterns that activate upon specific utterances, the perceptual conditions present upon specific utterances, and the social status of specific speakers are all important forms of context that influence the semantics of a symbol. Searle’s attempt to extend beyond language was a move into the right direction within the philosophy of language.


Lieberman, Matthew D. Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect., 2015. Print.

Mars, Rogier B. et al. “On the Relationship between the ‘default Mode Network’ and the ‘social Brain.’” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 6 (2012): 189. PMC. Web. 27 Nov. 2017.

Neumann, Odmar, and A F. Sanders. Handbook of Perception and Action: Vol. 3. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2007. Print.

Pavlov, Ivan P, and G V. Anrep. Conditioned Reflexes: An Investigation of the Physiological Activity of the Cerebral Cortex. Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing, 2015. Print.

Saxe, Rebecca, and Simon Baron-Cohen. Theory of Mind., 2016. Print.

Searle, John R. Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge [u.a.: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012. Internet resource.

Stainton, Robert. Perspectives in the Philosophy of Language: A Concise Anthology. Peterborough, Ont: Broadview, 2000. Print.

Watson, John B. Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviourist. New York: Classics of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences Library Library, 1989. Print.

[1] This could have just as easily applied to any other system that represents sensory data: I.e. cochlea, auditory cortex, etc.

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Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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