Normal Circumstances, Literal Language, Direct Speech Acts, the Ordinary, the Everyday, the Obvious, What Goes without Saying, and Other Special Cases

Critical Inquiry 4 (4):625-644 (1978)

A sentence is never not in a context. We are never not in a situation. A statute is never not read in the light on some purpose. A set of interpretative assumptions is always in force. A sentence that seems to need no interpretation is already the product of one...No sentence is ever apprehended independently of some or other illocutionary force. Illocutionary force is the key term in speech-act theory. It refers to the way an utterance is taken—as an order, a warning, a promise, a proposal, a request, etc.—and the theory's strongest assertion is that no utterance is ever taken purely, that is, without already having been understood as the performance of some illocutionary act. Consider, as an example, the sentence "I will go." Depending on the context in which it is uttered, "I will go" can be understood as a promise, a threat, a warning, a report, a prediction, etc., but it will always be understood as one of these, and it will never be an unsituated kernel of pure semantic value. In other words, "I will go" does not have a basic or primary meaning which is then put to various illocutionary uses; rather, "I will go" is known only in its illocutionary lives, and in each of them its meaning will be different. Moreover, if the meaning of a sentence is a function of its illocutionary force , and if illocutionary force varies with the circumstances, then illocutionary force is not a property of sentences, but of situations. That is, while a sentence will always have an illocutionary force , the illocutionary force it has will not always be the same. Stanley E. Fish is the author of, among many other works, Is There a Text in This Class? Interpretative Authority in the Classroom and in Literary Criticism, and The Living Temple: George Herbert and Catechizing. His contributions to Critical Inquiry include "Facts and Fictions: A Reply to Ralph Rader" , "Interpreting the Variorum" , "Interpreting 'Interpreting the Variorum'" , "A Reply to John Reichert; or, How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Interpretation" , and "One More Time"
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DOI 10.1086/447959
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