Nature – Armchair – Philosophical

Philosophers think about speech actions. What makes a compliment a compliment? Searle’s (1969: ch. 3) analysis of the structure of illocutionary acts is particularly helpful for a consideration of the nature of compliments. Let us consider the following invented example.

(1) You have put on weight.

In normal circumstances this is not a compliment because in our society it is more desirable to look healthy, fit and lean. It is normally undesirable to put on weight, and therefore an utterance like (1) does not sound like a positive statement on a characteristic feature of the addressee. However, it is easy to imagine circumstances in which (1) could indeed by seen as a compliment, and this tells us something about the felicity conditions of compliments. It seems to be essential that the attribution is seen as desirable for the addressee. If it is desirable for the addressee to put on weight because he or she has been underweight, because he or she has lost too much weight in an illness or something similar, then (1) can count as a compliment. This would lead to the following felicity conditions.

The method is much more important than it may appear to pragmaticists who prefer empirical research methods. An analysis of compliments always presumes that the researcher knows what a compliment is. Thus even a field linguist cannot set out on his or her investigation of compliments without precise reflections on what constitutes the nature of a compliment.

The only alternative would be to investigate only those entities that are named “compliment” by the members of a speech community (see, for instance, Watts 2003, who proposes such a method to investigate politeness). This opens up an interesting ethnographic line of research. But people may be very inconsistent when they use the term “compliment”. It is in the nature of lexical items that they have fuzzy denotations.

Thus the philosophical method, even if this is not explicitly acknowledged, is often used at the beginning of an empirical investigation in order to identify and define the object under investigation.