The Content of Force


After completing his PhD on the mind-body problem, Michael Schmitz has been a postdoc in Konstanz and an Assistant Professor at the University of Vienna, from which he is about to receive his habilitation. He has also been a visitor at UCL and UC Berkeley and has published several edited volumes and numerous articles in the philosophy of mind, language and society.


A dualism can be characterized as the exaggeration of a distinction, so that it is not intelligible anymore how the opposed entities can function together and play the roles they are naturally thought to have. Recently Peter Hanks and François Recanati have argued that the traditional construal of the force-content distinction makes it unintelligible how propositions can be truth-value bearers: only something that takes a position with regard to how things are and is in that sense forceful can also succeed or fail in representing the world and thus have a truth value. In parallel fashion, we can also say that only something that takes a position regarding what to do can bear a satisfaction value such as being executed.

In my paper I will propose to overcome the force-content dualism by reconceptualizing the distinction. The central claim is that force itself has content, by which I mean that force indicators have representational, or, more precisely, presentational content: they present the subject’s theoretical or practical position vis-à-vis a state of affairs (SOA). A subject may affirm the reality of such a SOA either as a fact from a theoretical, epistemic position in an assertoric act, or as a goal from a practical position in a directive act. It is aware of the position it takes and indicates it in its speech and thought. But this awareness is not introspective. The subject is not directed at its own position as a fact – as from yet another position behind it. It is rather directed at and aware of what is the case, or what to do. But an awareness of its theoretical or practical position is an integral part of such awareness. It is what makes awareness of the relevant SOA awareness of a fact or of a goal. In contrast, a mere representation of a SOA such as “that the door is closed” is not yet, as Wittgenstein put it, “a move in the language game” (PI, §22). “What do you mean?”, we might ask, “are you asserting this or telling me to bring it about?”.

Basic force indicators such as intonation contour, word order and grammatical mood do not express a concept of this position, but only a sense of it. Their content is thus non-conceptual rather than conceptual. I will argue that the position they present is one of theoretical or practical knowledge. By asserting or directing something a subject presents itself as knowing what is the case or what to do. I believe that this proposal is intuitively plausible and also theoretically advantageous in numerous respects. It harmonizes well with knowledge accounts of assertion and opens the door to a satifactory account of practical deductive inference. It allows for a straightforward response to Moore’s paradox and, most importantly in the present context, to the ‘Frege point’: if the bearers of truth and other satisfaction value bearers are essentially forceful, how can they occur as clauses of conditionals and in other non-committal contexts?

The argument so far has been that ordinary, genuine force indicators complete truth or other satisfaction value bearers by indicating the position from which the subject is directed at the relevant SOA. They are thus different from the Fregean assertion sign which is supposed to operate on a truth value bearer, conceived of as a forceless proposition. I will argue that the Fregean assertion sign and the ‘Frege point’ that motivates it are based on a conflation of illocutionary force proper with several other distinctions such as those between a free-standing occurrence and an occurrence in a logical context, and an occurrence in a serious vs. a non-serious context. Such contexts are created by what I propose to call “higher-level acts” such as conditionalizing, negating, playacting or joking, but also questioning. These acts operate on forceful acts such as assertions and directions themselves rather than on something forceless. They create higher-level unities such as conditionals, jokes or questions, which present assertions or directions, but may suspend commitment to them.

The representationalist account makes intelligible how this is possible: we can present a position we have not yet taken, but that we anticipate, or, as François Recanati puts it, simulate. For example, in a conditional we may simulate the eventuality that it is raining in order to decide what else will be the case then or what to do. But we still consider this SOA from a theoretical position. We simulate a possible fact. (Contrast this with a practical conditional such as “To make it rain, dump silver iodide into a cloud!”, where rain is considered as a goal!) We do not only simulate the SOA, but also the position we might take. We therefore still need to use a force indicator to represent it, and this is something we actually do and not merely simulate.

The higher-level act therefore does not cancel or remove the force of what it operates on, but rather shifts or transfers it into the new dimension it creates. It now indicates a position the subject has not yet taken, but anticipates or otherwise simulates. Another example of this are interrogative acts, which I will argue are higher-level illocutionary acts operating on either assertions or directions to yield theoretical questions such as “Is the door closed?” or practical questions such as “Close the door?”. The interrogative force indicator indicates a position of wondering, of seeking knowledge; the assertoric or directive force indicator indicates whether the knowledge sought is theoretical or practical.

We therefore neither need a Fregean assertion sign nor a cancellation sign, but only ordinary force indicators and the various markers of higher-level acts such as interrogative, logical and fictional markers. And we can turn the received view of propositions on its head: a proposition is not something forceless, but a forceful act in its role of being put forward for consideration by a higher-level act. By ascribing content to force indicators, we can leave behind the Frege point and the force-content dualism.