The semantics of symbolic speech

Law and Philosophy 16 (2):145-176 (1997)
Abstract
More than half a century ago, the Supreme Court held that the free speech protection of the First Amendment is not limited to verbal communication, but also applies to such expressive conduct as saluting a flag or burning a flag. Even though the Supreme Court has decided a number of important cases involving expressive conduct, the Court has never announced any standards for distinguishing such conduct from conduct without communicative value. The aim of this paper is to examine which conceptions of nonverbal expression underlie judicial decisions on expressive conduct, and to offer an account of expressive conduct grounded in contemporary semantic theory. The central hypothesis of this paper is that significance of expressive conduct can be explained by principles that explain important features of linguistic meaning. I propose an analysis of expressive conduct that takes the meaningfulness of conduct as a function of the action and its consequences in context. I develop a theory of expressive conduct whose underlying conception of expression is based on a number of ideas from speech act theory. These are Grice's account of nonnatural meaning, Austin's theory of illocutionary force, and Grice's work on conversational implicature. My analysis understands the meaningfulness of conduct in terms of its relational properties and relevant features of the context upon which illocutionary force, perlocutionary properties and implicature are predicated. The natural and conventional properties of types of conduct, features of the context, and underlying social and cultural presumptions and expectations about human conduct thus play a role in the constitution of symbolic speech.
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