The poet affirmeth: on speech acts in fiction

April 7, 2022, 4:15pm - 6:15pm
University of Melbourne

Babel G03 (Lower Theatre)
University of Melbourne
Melbourne 3010

Topic areas


What kinds of speech acts do authors produce in writing works of fiction? For example, what kind of speech act did Tolkien perform in writing (1)?

(1)            In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

In the philosophical debate on this question, by far the two most popular answers are the pretence view and the make-believe view. According to the pretence view, Tolkien doesn’t in fact perform any speech act in writing (1). He merely pretends to assert that there lived a hobbit in a hole in the ground, and thus his action lacks illocutionary force altogether. On the make-believe view, Tolkien invites or prescribes the readers to make-believe that there lived a hobbit in a hole in the ground. His action is thus similar to everyday directive speech acts, such as invitations, suggestions and requests. My first aim in this talk is to point to problems for these two views and to argue in favour of the view that Tolkien’s speech act is an assertion. This view has been frequently dismissed, for instance by Sir Philip Sidney in his famous remark that “[t]he poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth”. I hope to show that the assertion view has been ruled out prematurely. My second aim is to indicate that a proper understanding of assertion in fiction allows for insights into the nature of assertion and insincere communication more generally.

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