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Wedberg Lectures 2022: Rae Langton


Start date: Monday 30 May 2022

Time: 14.00

End date: Wednesday 1 June 2022

Time: 16.00

Location: Albano

The Quiet Engine: Speech, Silence and the Power of Accommodation

The wheels of injustice are turned by speakers doing things with words, and with each turn, there is a tendency for what is said and done to become acceptable, even if it was not so before. A quiet adjustment tends to make whatever happens become appropriate, when certain enabling conditions hold. This follows a ‘rule of accommodation’ identified by David Lewis, and familiar to philosophers of language. My interest is in the epistemic and political dimensions of accommodation: how it involves hearers as well as speakers, silence as well as speech, omissions as well as acts; and how it can be blocked, or steered in a better direction.

Lecture I. 'Presupposition and back-door testimony' May 30 h 2–4

Commentator: Alice Damirjian (SU)

Venue: ALBANO! Lärosal 16, hus 2, våning 2, i zon H Greta Arwidssons Väg 8

Accommodation applies to many phenomena, presupposition accommodation being a familiar form. ‘Even George could win’ presupposes George is an unpromising candidate.  The accommodation of presupposition tends to be achieved by default, through the silence of hearers who do not question or block the presupposition with e.g. ‘Wait a minute, what do you mean ‘even’?’ This has broader social and political implications. ‘That’s just locker-room talk’ presupposes and testifies that there is a social norm which excuses certain behaviour. Informative presupposition can be back-door testimony about facts, norms, and patterns of authority and credibility. A knowledge norm applies to back-door testimony, achieved via informative presupposition. This gives presupposition accommodation an important epistemic role, and also a potential constructive role, sustaining or altering norms and hierarchies by taking them for granted. 

Lecture II. 'Presupposition and norm enactment' May 31 h 2–4

Venue: ALBANO! Lärosal 16, hus 2, våning 2, i zon H Greta Arwidssons Väg 8

Commentator: Stina Björkholm (SU, IFFS)

Doing things with words can create an ought that was not there before: Jones makes a promise, a master orders a slave. With the first example, Searle ‘derived’ an ought from an is. With the second, Lewis showed that permissibility follows a rule of accommodation. The parallel suggests that norms, good and bad, can be got from speech acts by accommodation: what is said ‘requires and thereby creates’ what is required, given certain conditions. Authority is such a condition, whether of a master, a desert island leader, a doctor, a quack doctor, a father, or an ordinary speaker. Authority can be pre-established, or gained by accommodation; it can be practical, or epistemic; it can belong to a speaker, or be outsourced. Presupposition accommodation and illocutionary accommodation are distinct, but can work together. Hearers assist, when they accommodate presupposed authority. As hearers, we sometimes need to stop helping.

Lecture III. 'Blocking as counter-speech' June 1 h 2–4

Venue: ALBANO! Lärosal 22, hus 4 våning 2, i zon M Greta Arwidssons Väg 14

Commentator: Katharina Berndt Rasmussen (SU, IFFS)

Free speech theorists argue that ‘evil’ speech, such as hate speech, can be fought by counter-speech, but this depends on active hearers, and the enabling of counter-speech. Felicity conditions for speech acts can be supplied, in part, by hearers and bystanders, with implications for what counter-speech needs, and what it can achieve. Surprisingly, counter-speech can sometimes work by retroactively ‘undoing’, rather than refuting, harmful speech. A would-be counter-speaker faces serious handicaps, but a hearer can sometimes block the presuppositions of harmful speech, including presuppositions about authority. Blocking prevents accommodation, and also blocks the speech act’s felicity conditions, retroactively disabling its force. This highlights both limits and scope to counter-speech—and to the time-travelling powers of ordinary hearers and bystanders.

Map to Albano