Date of Award

May 2021

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts



First Advisor

Peter van Elswyk

Committee Members

Joshua Spencer, Blain Neufeld


Assertion, Instrumentalism, Normativity, Promising, Speech acts, Threats


In this paper I present a theory of speech acts with two parts: an account of the normativity of speech acts and a method for individuating them. The first part holds that instrumental rationality gives speech acts normative force. I have in mind a simple kind of means-end normativity—given that a speaker has a desire to φ, she has an instrumental reason to adopt the appropriate means to φ. When we perform speech acts, we take part in linguistic conventions. In doing so, our desires interact with those conventions in ways that generate speech-act-specific instrumental reasons for us. For example, when I make a promise, the act of promising generates a new instrumental reason for me to follow through on that promise. This is because if I don’t, I will be liable for sanctions like blame. Since I don’t want to be liable for blame, I have a reason to keep my promise. The second part of the theory holds that we should distinguish speech acts by their normative properties—the kinds of instrumental reasons they generate for the speaker. I argue that two speech acts token distinct act types just in case they differ in the kind of instrumental reasons they generate for the speaker. For example, I argue that promises, oaths, and vows are the same act type because they generate the same kind of reason to follow through. What results is a new way of taxonomizing speech acts. I call this the Instrumental theory of speech acts, or Instrumentalism.

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