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The Right to Sign a Petition

František Bublan

Seminární práce Františka Bublana „Právo podepsat petici“ psaná na Katolické univerzitě v Nijmegenu. Autor se zamýšlí nad tím, co znamená samotný akt podepsání petice a promýšlí toto jednání z pohledu jazykovědců, jakými byl např. Searle či Austin. Své závěry činí na základě toho, nakolik se mu daří určit akt podepsání petice jako lokucionární, ilokucionární nebo perlokucionární řečový projev. Psáno anglicky. Rozsah originálu je 12 stran formátu A4.

Bublan, František: The Right to Sign a Petition, Katholieke Univeriteit Nijmegen, Nijmegen 2003


A paper for the course of HERMENEUTICS OF RELIGIOUS COMMUNICATION by Johannes A. Van der Ven

František Bublan, student











I would like to treat about one token, which includes speaking and acting at the same time. I mean by this demonstration of human will “signing of the petitions” and I would like to deal about a task: what does it mean to sign the petition, what is the value of human signature? I will show that to sign a petition is more than to sign some public inquiry or receipt. It is more a presentation of the human identity, authenticity. My dream is to give to the signature of petition a big dignity and I would like to express, that the signature of the petition is presentation of human’s attitude framework on one hand and his practice on another hand.

In this paper I will try to answer these questions: if it is true, that the signature is some kind of presentation of human identity and authenticity, and in which cases signature has this role. At first I will try to determine, if the speaking through the petition is locutionary, illocutionary or perlocutionary speech act, and than I will try to verify it with regards to five aspects of identity (numerical, qualitative, continuous, character and ipse). My aim in this paper will be a view at the connection between speaking and acting, which constitute together attitude framework of the man.

Especially I would like to make a relationship between a human like a member of the Catholic Church and a human like a member of the society. I found out, that people are sometimes making a distinction between these approaches. In fact they have two types of behavior, two types of attitude framework – one for the church and one for the society. It is a problem of their identity. I will deal this task and I will take like a model situation a task of petition, which are fighting for a prohibition of abortions. I will consider the situation, that this petition is initiative of the Catholic Church, and the representatives of the Church are offering this petition to the people. In that case it is interesting to see the structure of the people, who sign this petition (see chapter “Structure of the signataries”). It is easy to sign this petition in the church and agree with its opinions, but it is hard to act according to the text of the petition in ordinary life. Actually I have on my mind another example of my friend: she agrees with the teaching of the church, that cohabitation of homosexual partners is bad, but on another hand she has two friends who are homosexuals and live together. And she hasn’t got a problem with it, she appreciates them very well and she can’t see on their relation anything bad. But I think, that she has three possibilities: either she can say, that cohabitation of homosexual partners is bad, or she can say, that she doesn’t agree with the church and she doesn’t want to be a member of this church anymore, or she can say: “I’m a member of the church, but I think, that attitude of the church is not right in this case – let’s to think about it more.”

Now I see, there are a lot of questions. I hope I will be able to answer a few of them.


At first let’s make a basic distinction between the petition and public inquiry. I will use the distinction between performative and constative speech acts by J. L. Austin.1 Austin says, that the constative utterance “has the property of being true or false”.2 It is clear example of public inquiry. Correspondent has to answer easy questions, and his aim is not to change situation, but only to inform about his opinion. By contrast to constative utterance Austin places performative utterance, he says that “it has own special job, it is used to perform an action.”3 Now, one can say, that petition is clear example of performative speech act. But is it correct?

Austin uses like an example of performative speech act this sentence: “I name this ship Liberté.” It means, that from this moment the name of the ship is Liberté. But how can it be with the petition? Problem is, that petition can only says: “We would like (we request) to name this ship Liberté“ or “we think, it will be better to name this ship Liberté”. From this point of view the petition speech seems to be something less, than the performative act (because it can’t change, perform situation immediately), but it isn’t only a constative act –

1 AUSTIN J.L., Performative – Constative, in: J.R. Searle (ed.), The Philosophy of Language, Oxford Unity Press, London: 1971, p. 13-22.

2 AUSTIN, Performative..., p. 31.

3 AUSTIN, Performative..., p. 31.

it doesn’t contain only a statement about truth or falsity, but it contains also a “will to perform” something.

But Austin is also trying to solve this kind of problems. He has on mind problem of the promising, which is on principle very similar to the difficulties with petitions. And that’s why he is avowing, that performative utterance is not exempt from all criticism, but he says, that “the performative must be issued in a situation appropriate in all respects for the act in question: if the speaker is not in the condition required for its performance (and there are many such conditions), then his utterance will be, as we call it in general, ‘unhappy’.”4 But, what is important, he calls this speaking act still performative. Francois Recanti mentions: “The serious utterance of performative sentence is (i) results in a statement and (ii) makes it true.”5

With regards to these facts we can say, that petition speech is, in basis, performative speech act, because, at least, it has the purpose to perform situation.


Now we made the basic distinction and we determined that petition speech act has the performative character (in spite of the fact, that at all points it can has only some kind of “quasi performative character”). For better penetration to essence of petition speech act and to its performative character, I will use the theory by J. R. Searle – his distinction between locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary speech act. Because Austin refined his theory by substituting conatives for locutionary acts and performatives for two categories: illocutionary and perlocutionary acts, and because we determined the petition act like the performative act, for us will be most important the distinction between illocutionary and perlocutionary speech act for better and more accurately determination of petition speech acts.

Illocutionary acts refer to doing something in saying. Searle presents some verbs denoting illocutionary acts, like state, describe, assert, warn, remark, comment, command,

4 AUSTIN, Performative..., p. 32.

5 RECANTI, F., Some Remarks on Explicit Performatives, Indirect Speech Acts, Locutionary Meaning and Truth-Value, in: Searle, J. R. (ed.), Speech Act Theory and Pragmatics, 1980, p. 205.

order, request, criticize, apologize, promise etc.6 Let’s place some examples of the sentences. Searle is using these two: “You will leave the room” and “Leave the room!”7 Now I want to try to compare these two examples of Searle with the idea of petition. Searle says, that these illocutionary acts consists of a propositional content P and an illocutionary force F. Searle’s examples of the sentences have in both cases the same propositional content – somebody will leave the room. The first sentence has the illocutionary force of a prediction and the second one has the illocutionary force of an order. How it works with regard to petition? The text of petition contains just for sure the propositional content P. There should be some description of situation, some requirements, some proposals or suggestions of the solution. In fact, there are two core questions with regards to the petition 1) how to express some opinions, requirements etc, and 2) how to give the significance to the petition. If we will answer only the first question without reflecting the second question, we will get not the petition, but only a proclamation. If we want to talk about the petition like about a real illocutionary speech act, we should make this conclusion: the subject (somebody, who compose or sign the petition) should have the illocutionary force F to fulfill the propositional content P. But this conclusion is still not complete. Something is missing.

With effort to find out what, I will go back to the example of promising, which I used before. For instance, about the sentence “I promise, that I will come tomorrow” Searle says: “In uttering a performative sentence a speaker performs the illocutionary act with the illocutionary force named by the performative verb by way of representing himself as performing that act.”8 It means, that if the petition will use this kind of illocutionary speech, it will looks like: “we proclaim, that…” and this proclamation will be fulfill by illocutionary force of the speakers, but it will be still only a proclamation. So, my final two remarks are: 1) Who sign a petition should has illocutionary force F to proclaim the contain of the petition, and 2) the text of the petition should contains “something more”, than only a propositional content (otherwise it will be only a proclamation), it should

6 SEARLE J.R., Speech Acts, An Essay in the Philosophy of Language, Cambridge University Press, London: 1969, p. 23.

7 SEARLE J.R., VANDERVEKEN D., Foundation of Illocutionary Logic, Cambridge Univeristy Press, Cambridge: 1985, p. 1.

8 SEARLE, Foundation..., p. 3.

contain something, what has the purpose to take effect on the readers, to whom petition is addressed to.

This “something more” is intention to make a perlocutionary act, which refers to doing something by saying (I am cautious to say, that this “something more” should be perlocutionary act, but I think, that we can talk at least about intention to make the perlocutionary act). What is the Searle’s idea of perlocutionary speech act: “Correlated with the notion of illocutionary acts is the notion of the consequences or effects such acts have on the actions, thoughts, or beliefs, etc. of hearers.”9 In the light of these facts it is hard to say, if the petition is perlocutionary act or not. On one hand it is clear, that the people, who sign the petition are not competent to change face of affairs and that is why they address the petition to somebody, who has this competence. From this point of view we can say, that the petition couldn’t be the perlocutionary act. But, on another hand, what does the act “to sign a petition” mean? I think when somebody is signing the petition, he is changing something else – he is giving to the petition something from his own identity, he is “adopting” the text and the meaning of the petition like his own. According to my opinion he is changing not the face of affairs, which petition wants to change, but he is changing the petition itself. But these facts depend on the meaning of the signature.


Searle is making one distinction that has crucial significance for the question of the petition: it is related to the meaning of the speech act. He says that illocutionary acts are characteristically performed in the utterance of sounds or the making of marks. But further he is asking, what is the difference between just uttering sounds or making marks and performing an illocutionary act? And he says important thing: “One difference is, that the sounds or marks one makes in the performance of an illocutionary act are characteristically said to have meaning, and a second related difference is characteristically said to mean something by the utterance of those sounds or marks.”10

Now, why it is so important for the understanding to the petition. It is interesting to distinguish, if the signature under the text of the petition has “some meaning” or “means

9 SEARLE, Speech..., p.25.

10 SEARLE, Speech..., p.42.

something”. Somebody who signs the petition wants to say something. The ideal case is (and in fact it is the purpose of the petition), that in the petition is included some message, opinion and requirement, which have some reasons, logical grounds. Let us call it some “ideological framework” of the petition. And in such ideal case somebody, who signs the petition, agrees with this ideological framework of the petition and his signature guarantees, that his meaning corresponds with the meaning of the petition and he agrees with the requirements or the solutions which petition offers. This kind of signature has some meaning. It is clear example of illocutionary act and moreover, this act also contains some perlocutionary character – it changed the petition, the petition like a speech act obtained the illocutionary force F from the signatary.

But there are also another cases. I will use the example of the antiabortion petition. The first case, which I will consider, is, that somebody doesn’t agree with the implementation of the abortions. The problem is that he hasn’t got some his own framework of the opinions or attitudes to this question (for instance, how to solve this problem etc.). He only agrees with the main point of the petition – abortion is bad. His signature hasn’t got a meaning, but only means, that he doesn’t agree with the practice of abortion and he found out that it is a splendid idea to sign the petition. I affirm, that this kind of speech act has only locutionary character.

Second example is similar. Somebody agrees with the opinions and with the teaching of the church. The problem is, that he doesn’t agree with these opinions and teaching because of their content, but just because of the church like an institution. His main reason to sign the petition is, that he wants to support the church, to support the activity of the church (or maybe he is a member of the church and he feels some kind of duty or obligation to support this activity). His signature is under the text which affirms something, but this signature predicates something else. And I affirm again, that even this action is only locutionary act. In both cases the signature means something – in the first example it means, that somebody likes an idea of petition and in second example signatary likes the institution, which prepared the petition. But none of these cases can give the illocutionary force F to the petition.


I have just distinguished between the people, who are able to give to the text of the petition illocutionary force F and who cannot grand this force. Now I would like to deal with this question: have the people, who are not able to give the illocutionary force F to the petition, right to sign the petition?

I concluded before, that who sign the petition should has illocutionary force to proclaim the content of the petition. But the question is: can sign the petition also the people who are not able to give the illocutionary force into it? The petition become to be powerful in a case, when there are a lot of people, who have signed it. And because I made the distinction between petition and public inquiry, I must say now, that there should be some people, who can give the illocutionary force F to the petition. But I think, than not only them. With regards to the distinction between signatures, which has some meaning and signatures, which mean something, I can describe a structure of the people who sign a petition. I will make four groups of the signataries.

1) First group: the people, who have signed the petition because of theirs beliefs, convictions, etc; people, who endorse themselves with an ideological framework of the petition – the people, who are giving illocutionary force F into it.

2) Second group: the people, who agree with the main point of the petition, but they are not very interested in the problem, about which is petition talking.

3) Third group: the people, who have signed the petition because of some situation, their signature is based on fortuity, depends on circumstances (some euphoria connected with the petition, famous people or good friends also signed it, etc.).

4) Fourth group: the people, who have signed petition, because somebody asked them to do it (and it was also presented well to them), but they are not interested in this problem, they cannot understand to it and maybe they don’t know, what they have actually signed.

All these people probably can sign a petition. But the petition is more valid and has stronger illocutionary force when the 1st group is stronger. If 1st group disappear, disappear also illocutionary force F of the petition. Groups 2,3 and 4 are important for propositional content of the petition – it means that petition is able to address a big number of the people. Petition is as valid and has as big illocutionary force, as strong is 1st group (diagram 1 and 2), and 1st group distinguish petition from public inquiry (diagram 3). That is why the illocutionary force is of big importance for the petition.


Searle and Vanderveken determined laws of identity for derived illocutionary forces.11 I will explore these laws in the context of the petitions with regards to Aristotelian distinction between numerical, qualitative, continuous, character and ipse identity.12

By first law Searle and Vanderveken say, that “Two illocutionary forces obtained by increasing (or decreasing) the degrees of strength of two other illocutionary forces are

11 SEARLE, Foundation..., p. 138-139.

12 VEN, J. Van der, Hermeneutics of Religion Communication (course design), 2002-2003, p. 39nn.

identical iff these two illocutionary forces are identical.”13 Searle and Vanderveken put it into a formula: [+1] F1 = [+1] F2 iff F1 = F2; [-1] F1 = [-1] F2 iff F1 = F2.

How can we deal it with the petition? Let us say that the petition has one illocutionary force F, which is composed of the particular illocutionary forces of the signataries f1, f2, f3, fn. So it means that petition has one numerical identity, which is composed of the particular personal identities. The problem is: can we say, from the qualitative point of view, that F = f1 + f2 + … + fn or is it more correct to say that F = f1 = f2 = … = fn? I think it is impossible to imagine, that all the people have the same illocutionary forces (in that case it is not important, how many people sign the petition, illocutionary force will be still the same). I mean, that illocutionary force F of the petition consists from summation of the particular illocutionary forces of the signataries. That is why I determine, that F = f1 + f2 + … + fn. But it is necessary to set one condition: f1 should not be in contrast with f2, it can be in some extent different, but not in contrast. So my formula can be: F = f1 + f2 + … + fn iff [+1] f1 ≠ [-1] f2.

Now it is clear, that illocutionary force F is changing during the “petition campaign”. If we want to save a continuous identity of the petition, we should say, that [+1] F1 ≠ [-1] F2. The condition to determine this fact is, that f1, f2, …, fn are still not in contradiction. So illocutionary force F1 on the beginning of the petition campaign should not be in the contradiction to illocutionary force F2 at the end of the campaign and this condition is fulfilled only in that case, when f1, f2, …, fn are not in contradiction to each other. Now I will try to adjust formula of Searle and Vanderveken:

[+1] F1 = [+1] F2 iff F1 = F2; [-1] F1 = [-1] F2 iff F1 = F2

to this formula: {[+1] F1 = f1 + f2 + … + fn} ≠ {[-1] F2 = f1 + f2 +… + fn+z}.

By following two laws Searle and Vanderveken determine, that “when propositional content condition θ is new with respect to F1 and F2, [θ] F1 = [θ] F2 iff F1 = F2. When a preparatory condition Σ is new with respect to F1 and F2, [Σ] F1 = [Σ] F2 iff F1 = F2.”14 It is closely connected with a character identity of the propositional content condition of illocutionary force F of the petition as well as with the propositional contents of particular illocutionary forces f1-n. If the petition have the ambitions to hold the same character

13 SEARLE, Foundation..., p. 138.

14 SEARLE, Foundation..., p. 138.

identity for all the time, we should determine, that [θ] F1 = [θ] F2. It supposes, that the propositional contents of particular illocutionary forces f1-n will be also identical. We can speak about real character identity of the petition only in that case, when this formula will be valid [θ] F1 = [θ] F2 iff [θ] f1 = [θ] f2 = … = [θ] fn and if [θ] fn* θ [-θ] fn** ([θ]fn* = the propositional contents of particular illocutionary force at the beginning (and [θ]fn** at the end) of the campaign). The same conclusion we can utter about preparatory condition Σ: [Σ] F1 = [Σ] F2 iff [Σ] f1 = [Σ] f2 = … = [Σ] fn and if [Σ] fn* Σ [-Σ] fn**.

Now I would like to add next type (or part) of identity – ipse or selfhood identity. With regard to the identity the word “ipse” means, “that the person as a subject, as a human agent himself is the only guarantee for realizing his identity in the future.”15 Now I will connect it with the next law of Searle and Vanderveken. This law is speaking about sincerity condition, which, as I think, should arise from selfhood identity. The content of this law is very similar to the laws which I used before: “When sincerity condition Ψ is new with respect to F1 or F2, [Ψ] F1 = [Ψ] F2 iff F1 = F2.” It means, that “two illocutionary forces obtained by adding respectively new sincerity conditions to two illocutionary forces F1, F2 are identical iff F1 = F2.”16 Illocutionary force F of the petition, which arise from sincerity condition Ψ, which arise from selfhood identity of the petition is composed from particular illocutionary forces f, which arise from particular sincerity conditions ψ, which arise from particular selfhood identities of the signataries. Maybe I can make this conclusion: [Ψ] F1 = [Ψ] F2 iff [ψ] f1 = [ψ] f2 = … = [ψ] fn and if [ψ] fn* ψ [-ψ] fn**.

Now I have enough laws and I hope I will be able to make some practical conclusions from these theoretical sentences.


I will go back to the concrete example of the “antiabortion petition”. Let us image a situation (how it works sometimes in Czech Republic), when priest notices in his homily the antiabortion petition and he says, that the attitude of the Catholic church is a belief, that abortion is in fact a murder of the child. And then he says, that who wants to sign this

15 VEN, Hermeneutics..., p.42.

16 SEARLE, Foundation..., p. 138.

petition, he can do it after the mass somewhere in the church (I don’t want to criticize an approach of the priest now, I am using it only like a model situation). And it is not without interest, that a lot of people really wait till end of the mass and then they go (run) and sign this petition. But I affirm, that these signatures haven’t a full meaning. Maybe it has a meaning for the organizers of the petition (they need a signatures), but not for the intention of the petition. Because I see three main benefits, which can be derived from the petition: the first benefit is for the petition itself (signatures give to it a “power”). The second one is for the signataries – it is a possibility for them to consider their attitudes and derive some consequences for their behavior. And the last benefit refers to the problem, which is dealt by the petition. The third benefit is conditioned by fulfillment of first and second benefit. About first one I have been talking a lot, now I would like to deal with the second benefit – possibility to consider the attitudes and derive the consequences for the behavior.

So back to the example: what should people do before they sign a petition? I think, that they should read the text of the petition very carefully and then they should consider:

□ If they really want to be the members of the group of the people, who had signed a petition (numerical identity).

□ If their illocutionary force is not in contradiction with the illocutionary forces of the others signataries. It means that they should consider if they endeavour, by sign of the petition, to achieve the same aim like the other signataries and if it is in line with purpose of the petition. For instance, the illocutionary force of the petition can be aimed to the solving of some certain problem, but the illocutionary force of somebody can be aimed just for obtaining of some social position or something else (some sarcastic example: I sign the petition, which aim is not to build certain factory in some place in our village, because I want to build there my own factory). It refers to the qualitative identity.

□ If they are sure, that tomorrow they will not have completely another opinion to the problem, which could be in contrast with the aim of the petition (in fact it means, if they have enough information to be sure about their decision). It refers to the continuous identity.

□ If their prepositional content is same (or at least very similar) to the propositional content of the petition. It refers to the character identity, but if we connect it with what we have said about continuous identity, we can determine, that by signing of the petition is one saying: “I agree with the prepositional content of the petition and I will proclaim this content today and tomorrow (and forever – amen).” Just for sure it is an ideal situation, but I want to express the will and the purpose to hold this prepositional content. It should have a long-life character.

□ And finally, if they should be “guarantee for realizing of the identity of the petition in the future”. I think it is a most difficult requirement – to guarantee the opinion by ipse or selfhood identity. If somebody want to sign a petition against abortions, his/her life should be a testimony of the protecting of human dignity, human life. There is a requirement not to be indifferent to the destiny or fate of the others, but in contrary, to be helpful to everybody who needs help – because it is a service for the life.

It is a difficult goal – to guarantee this identity in front of the church and in front of the society. We should learn, how to fulfill this aim at first place in front of the God and then in front of the society and the church.


AUSTIN J.L., Performative – Constative, in: J.R. Searle (ed.), The Philosophy of Language, Oxford Unity Press, London: 1971.

RECANTI, F., Some Remarks on Explicit Performatives, Indirect Speech Acts, Locutionary Meaning and Truth-Value, in: Searle, J. R. (ed.), Speech Act Theory and Pragmatics, 1980.

SEARLE J.R., Speech Acts, An Essay in the Philosophy of Language, Cambridge University Press, London: 1969.

SEARLE J.R., VANDERVEKEN D., Foundation of Illocutionary Logic, Cambridge Univeristy Press, Cambridge: 1985.

VEN, J. Van der, Hermeneutics of Religion Communication (course design), 2002-2003.

Bublan, František: The Right to Sign a Petition, Katholieke Univeriteit Nijmegen, Nijmegen 2003

Všechna práva vyhrazena římskokatolické farnosti a autorům příspěvků.