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Abstract

The question which this paper examines is that of the correct scope of the claim that extra-linguistic factors (such as gender and social status) can block the proper workings of natural language. The claim that this is possible has been put forward under the apt label of silencing in the context of Austinian speech act theory. The ‘silencing’ label is apt insofar as when one's ability to exploit the inherent dynamic of language is ‘blocked’ by one's gender or social status then one might justly be said to be silenced. The notion that factors independent of any person's linguistic competence might block her ability to exploit the inherent dynamic of language is of considerable social as well as theoretical significance. I shall defend the claim that factors independent of a person's linguistic competence can indeed block her ability to do things with words but I will show that the cases that have been previously considered to be cases of illocutionary failure are instances of rhetic or locutionary act failure instead. I shall refine the silencing claim as previously advanced in the debate in at least one fundamental respect. I also show that considering the metaphysics of speech acts clarifies many of the issues previously appearing as thorny bones of contention between those who hold that the only notion of silencing that is coherent is that of physically preventing someone from speaking or writing and those who hold the opposite sort of claim sketched above.