I have been reading Searle's Speech Acts and he mentioned that in the four sentences mentioned below, while they share the same reference (Sam) and predication (smoking habitually), they are four instances of different illocutionary acts.

And then comes the passage which confuses me:

Thus we shall say that in the utterance of all four the reference and predication are the same, though in each case the same reference and predication occur as part of a complete speech act which is different from any of the other three.

We thus detach the notions of referring and predicating from the notions of such complete speech acts as asserting, questioning, commanding...etc, and the justification for this separation lies in the fact that the same reference and predication can occur in the performance of different complete speech acts.

I do not understand his justification for treating referring and predication as a separate category from illocutionary acts such as asserting and questioning (Searle calls them propositional acts instead).

Suppose we do assign referring and predicating to illocutionary act as well, in this case on top of the different illocutionary acts these four sentences are associated with, they also share the same illocutionary acts - referring and predicating. (I am hesitant to say the sentences perform the acts, because it only makes sense if the speakers are performing, not the sentences)

What harm does that do? It's not as if we would not be able to distinguish the illocutionary acts these sentences are associated with; afterall they still differ from each other in terms of other acts such as asserting and questioning. So why is Searle rejecting this?

  1. Sam smokes habitually.

  2. Does Sam smoke habitually?

  3. Sam, smoke habitually!

  4. Would that Sam smoked habitually.

  • 1
    The bit you quote from Searle doesn't treat the four different speech acts differently as to reference and predication. Each speech act involves reference and predication. The speech acts are different from each other but the way referring and predicating occur in them is of the same nature. There is not a specific nature of referring and predicating depending on the type of the illocutionary act. Thus, you can "detach", i.e. consider appart or independently, the problem of reference and predication from the problem of the differences between the four types. Oct 3, 2019 at 10:43

4 Answers 4


Searle is trying to piece out different aspects of a speech act, so that we can get at those aspects analytically instead of treating the speech act as an undifferentiated whole. So, when we make a speech act, there are several different kinds of things that we must do, e.g.:

  • We must engage certain muscular movements of the lips, tongue, larynx, chest, etc in order to produce sound.
  • We must produce words and phrases that signify specific referents and predicates: this is the general category of locution.
  • We must perform acts in the greater world with those words and phrases: this is illocution and perlocution.

For a physical analogy, we can exercise our arm muscles (1) and pick up a hammer (2), but what we do with that hammer isn't defined by the hammer itself. We might drive a nail, break a piggy bank, begin a juggling routine... The act (3) involves intentions that are not contained within the base movements or the mechanical production of the tool.

Part of Searle's point is that we cannot reduce a speech act to a simple proposition, as some might want to do in the context of logic, because the referent and predicate by themselves do not contain enough information to specify the nature of the speech act. This may be a little hard to see with illocutionary acts (e.g. "Sam smokes too much") because the referent and predicate are simple and direct by definition, but consider a perlocutionary act (e.g. "Sam's lungs must be black as coal") which is the same speech act carried out through indirection. It's impossible to see that these two speech acts are identical if we treat them as simple propositions (matters of reference and predication). We need to get at the intention of the speaker to make sense of it.

  • Sorry I don't quite follow; let's say there is a new employee to the company, and my boss says to me while pointing at the employee 'This is Sam.' In this case, there is clearly a reference to that person. Is this act of referring a propositional act, or an illocutionary act, or both? Oct 4, 2019 at 16:43
  • Because from what I can understand, Searle would charecterise this as a propositional act; but at the same time the only speech act the boss is performing seems to be referring to Sam - so it would seem that referring is also an illocutionary act as well? But Searle, in the passage above, seems to suggest that referring is strictly a propositional act, not an illocutionary act? Oct 4, 2019 at 16:47
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    The statement "This is Sam" is a proposition. but as you pointed out, the boss' intention is to introduce you to a new employee: that constitutes an illocutionary act. Note that if I merely write "This is Sam" on a piece of paper — the simple proposition — and hand it to you, you would have no idea what the terms 'this' and 'Sam' refer to (unless for some reason you think the piece of paper itself is called 'Sam'). The simple proposition in that sense doesn't carry the force of an act. Oct 4, 2019 at 18:06
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    Yes, that's it. Though of course the sentence you chose is a a bit odd ('this' is actually a placeholder for a non-verbal referent, and the entire proposition is an identity claim, rather than a more typical property assignment). Oct 5, 2019 at 20:18
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    Yes: "Sam is a smoker", "the sky is blue", squares are right-angled equilateral parallelograms"... anything that assigns a characteristic or relation rather than establishing an identity. Oct 5, 2019 at 22:46

In terms of traditional predicate logic, sentences 3 and 4 clearly involve me, the speaker, as the person being described and my preference as the only fact predicated. I wish for Sam to smoke habitually in both cases, and Sam may or may not ever do so. In the former case, I think I have influence over Sam, and in the latter, I do not.

The same is true of 2, only I want to know whether or not he does smoke habitually. Again, I, and not Sam, am the person about which something is actually being said.

In the traditional logical meaning of 'predicate', nothing is logically predicated of him at all in these three sentences. So this choice of vocabulary, by someone who knows what predicate logic has been for a while, is unfortunate.

Sam is only in some abstract, grammatical sense the subject of all of these sentences. Realistically, in all these cases, Sam's habitual smoking is the direct or secondary object of some wish of mine, making Sam's connection to the meaning very indirect.

So from that POV, each of these sentences involves a rearrangement of the grammar into the corresponding meaning. The type of illocution is then needed to 'do' the remapping, and so must be a separate thing in addition to the grammatical roles. The remapping is a general pattern, which is applied to the other two concepts, so it does not contain them.

I think you are right that an individual act owns both the predicate and the referent, to which it applies the type of act, as parameters. But Searle's point here is about the variation in the types of illocution, not the details of the individual act. The type of illocution is not related to the given predicate and referent and there is nothing gained by prioritizing them or layering them conceptually. They are independent contributors to the sentence.

(From the POV in which modality expresses suppressed premises, you should not assign reference and predication this way and then make such a remapping. You should take the sentence as expressing all of these facts, and this additional concept is misleading. Since I consider this the simplest version of modality, I think the notion of illocutionary acts is just an overblown way of discussing mood, metaphor, etc. which already historically have too many equivalent forms and approaches. Searle it trying to suggest simply abandoning this process as pointless, and replacing it with a less grammar-and-logic-based approach. But at this juncture, he is cheating. It is totally clear from a strictly logic-based approach how one should parse these sentences.)

  • "Sam is only in some abstract, grammatical sense the subject of all of these sentences." This could be a case where topic/focus terminology might be better than grammatical subject. Oct 3, 2019 at 1:08
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    @curiousdannii I have avoided using subject elsewhere. But it is worth pointing out the strange choice Searle makes here, given that he is writing as a philosopher. He is using the meaning of 'predicate' that traditionally goes with 'subject', and not the one that traditionally goes with 'reference' and therefore 'referent'.
    – user9166
    Oct 3, 2019 at 15:44


All four sentences are about Sam and his relationship to smoking. No one of the four sentences intends to achieve the same goal.


Deixis and predication are how meaning is conveyed through semantics and syntax by grammatical structure. They are locutions. Illocution is concerned about at what end each intends to arrive. Perlocution is the observable result from the conversation.

Hence, reference and predication about the meaning, content, or semantics of words, determines the proposition. Illocution describes intentionality through being imperative, interrogative, declarative, exclamation, etc., the statement. Perlocution is related to the behavior (observable or otherwise) that occurs as a result.

All four statements have the same reference and subject-object relation, but grammar and syntax determines different locutions through whether the statements are declarative, interrogative, imperative, and subjunctive.


I believe you've got the distinction between predicating and illocutionary act a little bit off.

Some historical background. In Aristotle's On Interpretation, he addresses the question of how complex meanings are built up out of simple, uncombined meanings. For example, 'human' is a simple meaning without combination, whereas 'humans have legs' is a combined complex expression. Not all combined expressions make a meaningful whole: 'green loudly', for example, fails to have any unified meaning. Not all apparently complex expressions are actually complex: 'pineapple' appears to be a combination of 'pine' and 'apple', but this is in fact a simple expression. Moreover, some simple expressions are meaningful by themselves ('human' refers to something int he world), while other simple expressions ('is' 'will be') are not meaningful apart from combination. Aristotle;'s theory of how to parse these distinctions and how complex meanings are built up out of simple meanings in a rule-governed way is his theory of Predication.

Ok, so predication is the combination of simple meanings into complex meanings. Now what about illocutionary acts? Aristotle had failed to distinguish between predicating and asserting. So predication comes for Aristotle to play two incompatible roles: the role of building up complex meanings out of simple ones, and the role of judgment: i.e., taking a position on the truth-value of the complex meaning.

However, notice that predication can occur without judgment: such as when I ask, "Does Sam smoke habitually?" This predication is the same predication as if I were to state to you: "Same smokes habitually." That is, it is the same complex meaning made up of the same simple parts. But it doesn't do the same thing in conversation. It has a different illocutionary force. We need to have two separate concepts here: predication, on the one hand, for putting meanings together into further meanings; and illocutionary acts, on the other hand, to capture the attitude we take toward the resulting complex meaning.

Searle's point, ultimately, is that the attitude you take (judging to be true, hoping to be true, fearing to be true, wondering whether true) is not part of the propositional meaning of the proposition, but part of the attitude you take toward it. The propositional meaning of This is Sam and Is this Sam? are the same; the illocutionary force (assertion in one case; questioning in the other) is what accounts for the difference. If you look at your list 1.-4., notice that there is both an element of sameness and one of difference in each of the sentences. The distinction between attitude and proposition is Searle's attempt to capture that element of sameness (sameness of proposition) and difference (difference of attitude).

A complete speech act, then, is a complex act that consists of two sub-acts: an act of putting-together of a propositional meaning (predication) plus an act taking an attitude toward that propositional meaning. Neither a proposition by itself nor an attitude by itself does a complete speech act make.

In one of your comments, you ask:

let's say there is a new employee to the company, and my boss says to me while pointing at the employee 'This is Sam.' In this case, there is clearly a reference to that person. Is this act of referring a propositional act, or an illocutionary act, or both?

This is a complete speech act, which means it has both a predication and an illucutionary act. Here your boss is doing a predication: he is putting together the meaing 'This is Sam' from the simple parts 'this' 'is' and 'Sam.' He is also doing a separate illocutionary act: he is asserting as true that 'This is Sam.' He could also perform the same predication with a different illocutionary act: "Is this Sam?" Same predication (he is yet again putting together 'this' 'is' and 'Sam'), but this time he is not asserting this as true. Rather, the illocutionary act he performs is one of questioning or wondering. In both cases, the boss puts together the same meaning (performs the same predication). But he floats that meaning over to you in conversation in a different way (performs a different illocutionary act). You can also take other attitudes to predications, resulting in different illocutionary acts: hoping, regretting, fearing, etc.

  • Thank you; your answer helped me a lot along with Ted's answer above. Oct 5, 2019 at 20:53

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