Saying as Ethical Doing

Saying is a distinctive kind of doing. This goes way beyond the physical uttering of words, and beyond the immediate social aspects of speech acts. It involves the much broader process of the ongoing constitution of shared meaning in which we talking animals participate.

Before we are empirical beings, we are ethical beings. Meaning is deeply, essentially involved with valuations. The constitution of values is also an ongoing, shared process that in principle involves all rational beings past, present, and future. Our sayings — both extraordinary and everyday — contribute to the ongoing constitution of the space of reasons of which all rational beings are co-stewards. We are constantly implicitly adjudicating what is a good reason for what.

If immediate speech acts have ethical significance, this is all the more true of our implicit contributions to these ongoing, interrelated processes of constitution of meanings, valuations, and reasons. Everything we say becomes a good or bad precedent for the future.

Aristotle consistently treated “said of” relations in a normative rather than a merely empirical, factual, representational or referential way. Brandom has developed a “normative pragmatics” to systematically address related concerns. Numerous analytic philosophers have recognized the key point that to say anything at all is implicitly to commit oneself to it. As Brandom has emphasized, this typically entails other commitments as well. I would add that every commitment has meaning not only in terms of the pragmatic “force” of what is said, but also as a commitment in the ethical sense.

It is through our practices of commitment and follow-through that our ethical character is also constituted. As Robert Pippin has pointed out that Hegel emphasized in a very Aristotelian way, what we really wanted is best understood starting from what we actually did. In contrasting all this with the much narrower concept of speech acts, I want to return to an emphasis on what is said, but at the same time to take the “said” in as expansive a sense as possible. This is deeply interwoven with all our practical doings, and to be considered from the point of view of its actualization into a kind of objectivity as shared meaning that is no longer just “my” intention.