Research Group
in Analytic Philosophy

Commitment, deniability, and indirectness

    Neri Marsili (UNED)

19 June 2024  |  15:00  |  Seminari de Filosofia UB


In recent years, there has been an explosion of interest incommunicative deniability. According to a common characterisation, deniability pertains to indirect speech. On this view, you only undertake commitments to the propositions that you explicitly communicate. Indirect communication, by contrast, is non-committal: content that is communicated indirectly does not go on the public scoreboard, allowing communicators to retain plausible deniability.
I’ll argue that, albeit elegant, this view is incorrect. The reason is that indirectness is neither sufficient nor necessary for achieving deniability: some indirect statements are not deniable, and direct statements are often deniable. Additionally, there’s empirical evidence that speakers are often held accountable for what they indirectly communicate, and philosophical work showing that some literal assertions are non-committal.
After challenging the traditional view, I will present an alternative picture of how commitment, directness, and deniability relate to each other. I’ll suggest that deniability isgrounded in “ambiguity” (broadly conceived) instead of directness, and that it is best modelled as a conversationalstrategy to minimise the risks of incurring the reputational costs associated with one’s commitments, rather than as a sign that those commitments are absent.