A Review of John Searle’s ‘The Logical Status of Fictional Discourse’

In The Logical Status of Fictional Discourse, John Searle claims an assertion is “a type of illocutionary act that conforms to certain quite specific semantic and pragmatic rules” (Searle, 322). This means there are strict rules that must be abided by when the act of communication itself is the intended action – not just a means to an end. Furthermore, Searle states that the first rule an assertion must adhere to is “the maker of an assertion commits himself to the truth of the expressed proposition” (Searle, 322). This means whoever is asserting something fully supports the notion that what he or she is asserting is true. Searle states the second rule is “the speaker must be in a position to provide evidence or reasons for the truth of the expressed proposition” (Searle, 322). This means whoever is asserting something must be able to prove what he or she is asserting is true. If this cannot be done, then whatever is being asserted should not be taken seriously. Furthermore, Searle states that the third rule is “the expressed proposition must not be obviously true to both the speaker and the hearer in the context of utterance” (Searle, 322). This means that an assertion cannot be something that is common knowledge; it cannot be something that everyone already knows. Searle states that the fourth rule is “the speaker commits himself to a belief in the truth of the expressed proposition” (Searle, 322). This means that if the assertion is communicated via speech, the speaker must then believe that what he or she is saying is true. Searle holds the view that each and every one of these four rules must be met if an assertion is to be made and accepted. The necessary conditions for an assertion are not satisfied if at least one of these rules are not met.

In works of fiction, Searle holds the position that a novelist does not make assertions when writing the manuscript of a novel; rather, Searle argues that a novelist is “pretending” (324) to make assertions. Pretending, in this sense, means, “to engage in a performance which is as if one were doing or being the thing and is without any intent to deceive” (Searle, 324). Pretending, in this sense, is akin to acting. Searle holds the position that novelists are pretending because pretending is used in a way to convey true meaning; pretending is used to relay a message. Moreover, a novelist is not bound by the four strict rules that are required for assertions, because novelists are neither claiming nor are they committed to the position that what they are writing is true. Thus, novelists are not making assertions when creating the manuscript for a novel. Rather, Searle’s preferred description of novelists, in this sense, is that they are pretending to make assertions.

On Searle’s view, it is impossible for the author to remove him or herself from the world of the novel. This is because when a novelist writes a novel, he or she is always in the world contained in the fiction. Novels that contain first-person and third-person narratives are consistent with this view. In first-person narrative, “the author often pretends to be someone else making assertions” (Searle, 328). An example of this is Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. These stories are written in first-person by John Watson, which is whom Arthur Conan Doyle is pretending to be. In these stories, Arthur Conan Doyle is pretending to be John Watson telling the readers about his friend, Sherlock Holmes. Thus, the narrator/character is in the world of the fiction. Thus, Searle’s view is plausible for first-person narratives, because the writer is in the fictional world. In third-person narrative, “the author pretends to perform illocutionary acts” (Searle, 327). In third-person narrative, the author is in the fictional world even though he or she may not be described or talked about. The author is in the fictional world, nonetheless, because he or she is the one telling the story. As a result, Searle’s view is plausible for third-person narratives.

If one assumes that there is always a narrator in the fictional world telling the story, as Searle does, then the kinds of narratives that would not fit Searle’s view are stories without any characters and stories with an unreliable narrator. Logically speaking, if a story does not have any characters, then there cannot be a narrator of the story. Additionally, a narrator can be unreliable in many different ways. For instance, one way a narrator can be unreliable is if he or she is biased because he or she is not fully knowledgeable about the plot. A narrator can also be unreliable when the reader can question the known facts that are presented in the story. Unreliable narrators are the beginning of a series of difficulties for Searle’s view about the role of the author. Since Searle’s view is that there is always a narrator that is speaking knowledgeably, then stories that do not contain any characters present a major problem for Searle’s view about the role of the author. This is because, on Searle’s view, there cannot be any empty fictional worlds, because somebody has to be present to narrate the story. Thus, stories without any characters present a sort of paradox for Searle.

On page 324, Searle rejects the suggestion that authors perform sui generis illocutionary act when writing a novel. Searle rejects this suggestion, because if authors had their own unique illocutionary act of writing a novel, then words would have a separate, ad hoc meaning in works of fiction in addition to their common meanings. If this were to happen, Searle states, “a speaker of the language would have to learn the language all over again, since every sentence in the language would have both a fictional and a nonfictional meaning” (324). Searle believes that this shows it is impossible for authors to have their own unique illocutionary act of writing a novel.

However, in light of the difficulties raised regarding the author’s role in stories that do not contain characters or reliable narrator, one should not take this rejection by Searle seriously. One should not take this rejection by Searle seriously because authors do perform unique illocutionary acts. For instance, instead of saying authors make pretend assertions, which is a common illocutionary act, one could argue that authors are making a speech act, which is unrelated to actual assertions, and thus, is a unique illocutionary act. Granted, the speech act authors make is similar to an assertion in that the author is writing down declarative sentences, but in other respects, the speech act is not like assertions; it is its own activity. As a result, an author’s illocutionary acts should be described in its own terms and as telling its own stories as its own special kind of speech act. One should not try to categorize it with an assertion or a pretend assertion. One should think of it as its own independent sui generis illocutionary act.

Work Cited

Searle, John R. The Logical Status of Fictional Discourse. N.p.: n.p., 1979. Web. 14 Feb. 2017.

You can find Searle’s full article here.


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