Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: Linguistics

Transforming Communication

I’ve cut and pasted the ASCP conference paper on Habermas and Brandom below the fold, for those interested. The process of preparing for this paper has been interesting, among other things, in shaking out certain “what the hell is going on there?” questions that L Magee and I both share in relation to Brandom’s work – while these questions, and our debates around them prior to the presentation, led us to recast slightly what we said at this event, the material posted below the fold doesn’t clearly indicate those areas where we have open and active questions about Brandom’s project: when both of us are back in Melbourne, we’ll hopefully have time to put a few of those issues up on the blog, through some follow-up posts on Making It Explicit.

This particular talk hugged very close to the terms of a debate between Habermas and Brandom, and also provided a lot of background information that might not be as useful to folks who regularly read things here. Some of this background material – particularly on Brandom – suffers from code switching problems: those are my fault, as I wrote those sections of the piece, and so I’ll apologise for trampling all over Brandom’s vocabulary (and, likely, his framework as well).

We are actually intending to develop a more polished and rigorous article out of this, so critical comments and questions would be extremely helpful, for those who have an interest in this sort of material. (Note that, as we had a generous 40 minute allocation for speaking, the piece is somewhat long!) Read more of this post

Habermas and Brandom, Facts and Norms

Update: This piece has subsequently been revised into a conference paper. The revised version is available online, and the comments section there includes a very good discussion and debate about the conference paper. We recommend that readers interested in this piece, consult the revised version and the subsequent discussion to see the further development of the thoughts originally outlined here.

Habermas and Brandom, Facts and Norms

In spite of the obvious difficulties of joint-authoring a paper with a fictional collaborator, NP and I have decided to submit a presentation for the upcoming Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy conference entitled Dialogues in Place. This comes on the back of a welcome return to the Reading Group, which has been in temporary hiatus. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a position to blog or comment here, but notwithstanding… NP has exhorted invited me to initiate a discussion around some aspects of our proposed presentation. The conference itself

will focus on the conception of dialogue
in philosophy, but with particular emphasis on the opening
up of philosophical dialogue between traditions and cultures
especially between east and west and on the way the happening
of dialogue in place sheds light on both the nature of dialogue
as well as on the place in which such dialogic engagement
takes place.

Our own presentation is somewhat tangential to these concerns, but closely enough related: it aims to examine the work of Habermas and Brandom in relation to the question of normative ideals. The purpose of the following discussion is to outline, in suitably rough and tentative fashion, some thoughts in relation to a recent interchange between Habermas and Brandom, following on from the publication of Brandom’s Making It Explicit. Signficant caveat lector: both NP and I are still slowly progressing through the substantive portions of Making It Explicit, and the following remarks should be interpreted in the light of an as-yet incomplete reading of Brandom’s work. I’ll start with an overview of the exchange, and an all-too-brief synopsis of Brandom’s account, followed by a break-down of Habermas’ objections and Brandom’s replies.

Read more of this post

Re-irritating the Differences: Missives from the Misreading Group (II)

A belated post for the new year, this post covers the second part of our Derrida-Searle reading. To recapitulate, we had worked through:

J K Austin, “How to do Things with Words”, 1962

Followed by:

J Derrida, “Signature Event Context”, 1971
J Searle, “Reiterating the Differences”, 1977

And now follow on with:

J Derrida, “Limited a b c”, 1977
J Derrida, “Afterword”, 1987

Unlike the previous post, which (somewhat tediously) laboured through the arguments presented by Derrida and Searle respectively, I will be taking a more cursory look at the argument in total. An aspect of this which interested our group was the structure of the argument, which I will abbreviate as:

a. Austin makes a case, albeit with some caution and reluctance, for a theory of speech acts.
b. Derrida performs a deconstructive reading of Austin, via Corneille and Husserl, highlighting the exclusion of particular speech acts on the basis of a characteristic (paracitism, citationality) which turns out to exemplify communication in general (iterability).
c. Searle replies briefly and dismissively, seeking to rebut a number of Derrida’s criticisms, and demonstrate Derrida’s own argument is incoherent under its own terms.
d. Derrida replies in turn with a long, point-by-point and equally dismissive repudiation of all of Searle’s rebuttals.
e. A decade on, Derrida, through a series of responses to readers’ questions, clarifies and reinforces aspects of his reply, places this in the broader context of the history of deconstructive writings, and further discusses, among other things, the question of an ethics of discussion.

The latter two texts are long, and by turns, amusing, defensive, elliptical, pointed, aggressive and tedious. It is hard not to agree that in large part Searle has misread Derrida – a point in which the reading group, following Derrida, were unanimously agreed upon – and Derrida employs considerable rhetorical force and legal defence in Limited Inc to demonstrate a) Searle frequently misphrases Derrida; b) rebuts by unwittingly using Derrida’s own arguments from “Signature Event Context”; and c) contradicts his own positions expressed in “Speech Acts” and other places. Whether a line-by-line reading would find points of difference to Derrida’s critique becomes progressively less relevant; the two questions that were raised by my reading were: “Why would Searle, elsewhere a more considered and polite interlocutor (though not always), not only misinterpret Derrida’s essay, not even doing an obligatory undergraduate level of research into Derrida’s ‘tradition’, and yet employ such dismissive and contemptuous language?”; and in turn, given this, “Why would Derrida expend so many words in a protracted self-defence?”. The strangeness of Derrida’s style merely serves to emphasize, at least to the casual reader, what great care is invested in defending and attacking argumentative positions, when there is no possibility of any dialectical resolution being realised. Strangely perhaps, given the extreme scepticism often imputed to Derrida, of the two his texts veer far closer close to desiring, if not resolution, then at least clarification, elucidation and insight.

I had thought to bemoan the fact that here was an opportunity for “two prominent philosophical traditions” to engage in fruitful debate, and quite clearly, the opportunity was lost. But with this loss (which assume that Searle and Derrida could speak for these traditions), possibly there is a gain of quite a different sort. Rather than seeing these texts expound various positions in relation to a given theme (for instance, the methodological correctness of excluding a given class of citational speech acts), or as contrastive styles of particular traditions, I found this instead to be an instance of a particular type of dialogue. No doubt skewed by the nature of the academic debates our reading group has been following (Chomsky/Whorf, Pinker/Lakoff, Searle/Chomsky, Pinker/Chomsky), which to greater or lesser degrees have involved significant theoreticians talking past each other, this debate exemplifies the kind of dialogue in which positions are taken, argued for, enforced and defended – but never vacated. What is common in the structure of these debates in general is that the possibility of dialectic is foreclosed by the very nature of the debates. This is not a matter of two thinkers failing to find agreement, but of failing to engage in the kind of dialogue – dialectic or otherwise – which might find agreement. What might motivate this kind of dialogue? Certainly it would be possible to impute all kinds of psychological motives (career advancement, jealousy, a phlegmatic temperament). But I think such imputation misses the point: that in certain kinds of positions, there is a necessary antipathy to other kinds of positions, brought about by both the context of the debate and the goals of the speaker. Having struck such a position – which I think Searle does, for example – it then becomes impossible to find conciliatory ‘moves’ in the course of the dialogue. This in turn ensures the kind of vituperative, perhaps justified, reaction Derrida supplies. Of course this is not to say that a speech act theorist must be antithetical to a deconstructionist (although there may be the sorts of obstacles Derrida finds to reconciling deconstruction with speech act theory). But it may be to say that when one founds, or continues the founding, of a particular theoretical movement; when one competes against other theories, not only for recognition, but prestige, funding, space in the academy; when one finds in other kinds of discourse the sort of criticism which seems ephemeral, beside the point and, most critically, failing to follow the rules one has assiduously applied oneself – then in these circumstances the tactically correct ‘move’ in a dialogue is not one of conciliation, but open and hostile attack. While a focus on context, rules and goals – in short, a focus on describing dialogue as a form of game – might seem to be reducible to psychologism of sorts, it is possible under this model for the same speaker to occupy different positions, no less determined, in other debates, with the same or other interlocutors.

With presumption typical of our reading group, though without the nuance typical of this blog – and blithely ignoring prior theories of the dialogic – I’d like to graduate this suggestion to that of a tentative theory of dialogic acts. Under such a theory, it would be possible to create a set of types which contrast, for instance, the ideal of the dialectic from the all-too-common polemic; and perhaps encompass a broad range of other possible conversational acts as well. Notwithstanding the attractiveness of elaborating such a theory in full here, it would only be polite for the moment – as a guest on this blog – that this elaboration be deferred…

…On a more sedate note, using a game metaphor to describe this and similar debates naturally brings its own assumptions – chiefly, that one or more of the dialogue ‘players’ has a hidden motive which is masked by a superficial failure to obey the laws of good academic, which is to say dialectic, discourse. Of course this is easily denied. That a particular thinker uses an aggressive, argumentative style, which does not meet some standard of politeness, tolerance, etc., need not entail the thinker has something to hide. Or if it does – could not every argument be analysed in terms of some sort of similar hidden motives? Using background knowledge, that one does this or that due to some external circumstance that we, qua interpreters, have contingent knowledge of, might be arguably be itself an invalidation of the rules of engagement. Here it might also elicit the response: if Searle attempts (poorly?) to response to the Derrida of “Signature Event Context”, and not the Derrida of such and such a tradition, such and such a body of writing (Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference and so on), is he not simply conforming to the rules which bind a different game (perhaps that of a strain of analytic philosophy, which treats an argument as a logical series of propositions, without requisite reference to a context)? Might the requirement to understand the context, tradition and so on be a requirement only of a particular kind of argument, which, for example, suits the style, aims and orientation of Derrida, deconstruction and so-called ‘continental philosophy’ in general, tipping the hand towards the player with the preferred game? Finally: is it therefore a question of preferring one game, with its set of rules – recourse to context, literary effect, the implied knowledge of a lifetime of reading of particular “philosophical tradition” – over another? Even assuming Searle critically misreads Derrida, as he himself suggests – not quite sincerely – that indeed he might, might not he just have got it wrong, even under the terms of his own tradition?

However speculative this analysis – and that of the reading group was no less so, though conducted with greater sobriety – the enjoyment of following the threads of the Searle-Derrida argument is precisely that it elicits such open-ended questions. Some commentarists have assumed the argument resolves in favour one way or another; despite Derrida’s laying waste to the Searle critique, in my view, the lingering atmosphere of the argument is not one of victorious elation – it is instead one of irritation. Irritation of Searle with Derrida; irritation of Derrida with Searle; the explicitly acknowledged irritation of Derrida’s readership with his patient, step-by-step refutation in Limited Inc; Derrida’s subsequent irritation with the broader misreadings of deconstruction voice in the Afterword; and the irritation, mingled with the enjoyment, of pursuing a polemic which, without a common set of rules, fails to get off the ground, much less supply the sort of ideal dialectic resolution that is promised by “confrontation between two prominent philosophical traditions”. The answers, really non-answers, to the questions I pose above, are that in the game-theoretic model I follow, positions need to be elaborated by players for goals which may well be “outside the text”, outside the specific purposes we assume exist in the normative, that is to say dialectical, “confrontation” between theories, thinkers and the like. Of course, having no more than partial access to this context we as readers may continue to interpret imperfectly, take our own imperfect positions, conduct our own imperfect polemics, and so on. The dialectic remains, as the author of this blog likes to say, a counterfactual ideal towards which, however illusory, our arguments would like to tend.

We Hold These Truths to Be Historical…

The always wonderful Language Log has a post up today that might be of interest to readers who have been tracking the reading group foray into the debate between Chomsky, Hauser & Fitch and Pinker & Jackendoff. Marc Hauser has written a recent work on the relationship between morality and the linguistic faculty, titled Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong. Language Log quotes Hauser from a recent interview:

I argue that we are endowed with a moral faculty that delivers judgments of right and wrong based on unconsciously operative and inaccessible principles of action. The theory posits a universal moral grammar, built into the brains of all humans. The grammar is a set of principles that operate on the basis of the causes and consequences of action. Thus, in the same way that we are endowed with a language faculty that consists of a universal toolkit for building possible languages, we are also endowed with a moral faculty that consists of a universal toolkit for building possible moral systems.

By grammar I simply mean a set of principles or computations for generating judgments of right and wrong. These principles are unconscious and inaccessible. What I mean by unconscious is different from the Freudian unconscious. It is not only that we make moral judgments intuitively, and without consciously reflecting upon the principles, but that even if we tried to uncover those principles we wouldn’t be able to, as they are tucked away in the mind’s library of knowledge. Access comes from deep, scholarly investigation.

The full Language Log post places Hauser’s work in a broader intellectual and historical context – well worth a read.

On a personal level, I’m always interested in how tempting it clearly is for people to try to ground specific political and ethical ideals this way. In this week’s reading group discussion, for those who were there, this is the kind of thing I was referring to when I mentioned “making the jump to nature” as a common strategy for trying to ground a standpoint of critique – arguing that your ideals derive from some ahistorical source like language, human physiology, experience of the natural environment, etc. This is a surprisingly common strategy – surprising in the sense that the object of analysis – the specific political/ethical ideals theorists claim to derive from this approach – are often demonstrably historically specific.

Critical theorists like Habermas (who also tries to ground democratic values in language – although via the speech act tradition, rather than the Chomskyan one) at least recognise that this poses a theoretical problem, and therefore explicitly try to address how ideals that derive from something historically invariant, should nevertheless come to be expressed explicitly only very recently in historical time. Many theorists, however, don’t seem to recognise that this kind of jump to nature implies the need for any kind of supplemental historical theory, and therefore leave hanging the question of why no one became aware of specific ideals at some earlier point in time. (Personally, I prefer to avoid the whole problem by providing an historically specific explanation for historically specific ideals, but that’s another matter…)

I haven’t read Hauser’s work, of course, and he may well focus only on ideals or values that have a more transhistorical resonance. On this blog, I concentrate on understanding the rise and perpetuation of historically-specific political and ethical ideals because I am specifically trying to understand what is distinctive about recent history. Occasionally – probably because I don’t always contextualise the motives for my work clearly enough – my project gets interpreted more broadly, as though I’m making a strong ontological claim about the relative importance of, say, socialisation versus natural endowment – as though I’m intervening in a direct way into a kind of nature-nurture debate. I should perhaps take this opportunity to clarify that I see nature-nurture style debates as beside the point for my work: I have no difficulty being open to the concept that our forms of perception and thought might also be determined – perhaps even predominantly determined – by factors that are not historically or socially specific.

My difficulty arises only when someone tries to explain phenomena that are demonstrably socially and historically specific, with reference to purported causal factors that themselves are not… I have no specific knowledge of whether Hauser does this – although, given that the Language Log describes his work as “a Chomskyean interpretation of (some aspects of) John Rawls’ 1971 A Theory of Justice“, I suspect there is at least a risk that he does… Perhaps the reading group will take a look at some future point…

Hegel on the Beach

Lovely reading group meeting today – except that I talked too much – enough that my throat is now actually sore… The discussion revolved mainly around the issue of standpoints of critique – why the notion of a standpoint is particularly important for secular critical theories, why certain theoretical approaches still rely on tacit concepts of nature or on metaphyical concepts to ground their critical standpoints, and how much, specifically, a critical standpoint should (or can) attempt to explain… We spilled well and truly beyond our brief (which was only to discuss the remainder of Derrida’s Limited Inc) – which is one of the reasons I talked so much, as I was the proxy voice in this discussion for a sweeping tradition of German critical theory (we’ll see whether this comes back to haunt me when the group actually reads some of this material themselves). LMagee will introduce the formal online discussion at some point in the near future.

For those wondering whether the reading group would now go into hiatus with the summer holidays approaching, the answer is no: we will be meeting next week for one final gesture at cognitive science before people scatter for the holidays. As mentioned previously, we’ll look at Lakoff’s Metaphors We Live By, and then at the recent debate between Pinker and Lakoff. LMagee intends to toss my gestural comments on Lakoff’s political writings into the mix, as well (perhaps to see how I presently compare with this past iteration of myself… ;-P).

LMagee and I will then be left to our own devices in Melbourne’s January heat, and have decided that a bit of Hegel on the beach might be nice. We’ll be working our way through Phenomenology of Spirit, on some random and eratic schedule to be determined, no doubt, by how successfully we resist a range of summer temptations…

Better Never Than Late

So it’s been a hot and smoky weekend in Melbourne. The cool change has just come through – not much help unfortunately, I think, for those on the massive firefront. But a signal for me to shake off my heat-induced sluggishness, and get a bit of thinking done.

I’m well and truly past my self-imposed deadline for writing something substantive on the reading group discussion of the debate between Pinker & Jackendoff and Chomksy, Hauser & Fitch, over the evolution of the language faculty – the trajectory of which is conveniently outlined at Language Log. I’ve hesitated to post in part because I was trying to work out a way to break through what seemed to be the main issue that arose in the reading group discussion: the perception that these articles were highly technical pieces, written by and for specialists, such that deciding between the various “they said-they said” arguments would be essentially impossible for a lay reader. I wanted to work out whether there were some way to approach these readings that could at least minimise this reaction – since the reaction, after all, tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What I do below is therefore not summarise the debate – as I suspect that even a summary of these already fairly condensed and economical texts would mire us in minutiae. Instead, I provide some suggestions that might help someone read the debate a bit more easily – mainly by locating the various empirical skirmishes in the context of what I take to be the overarching theoretical conflict that motivates the empirical battles. I’ll say at the outset that I very much doubt the reading framework I outline is the only – let alone the best – way of working your way into these texts. I offer it more as an example of how I personally went about trying to make sense of this discussion, without a specialised background in any of the scientific fields referenced in these texts: hopefully, your personal path through these texts will substantially improve on mine.

I want to start where Chomsky, Hauser & Fitch begin: by noting that the purpose of these articles – a point agreed by all sides in the debate – is to make a case for the value of interdisciplinary work when investigating the evolution of the language faculty. This point is more important than it may seem, particularly to non-specialist readers: it tells us that, in spite of first impressions, these articles will not assume that readers have any specific disciplinary background – they may assume a sound scientific knowledge of some sort, but they won’t be assuming a socialisation into any particular scientific discipline: the nature of interdisciplinary work is that you cannot assume such things. This therefore holds out hope that, in principle, a non-specialist reader ought to be able to make sense of these debates.

Where I’d like to go next is to make the suggestion that, in the beginning, readers bracket the empirical skirmishes. This may sound a bit perverse, as these empirical conflicts make up the overwhelming majority of the exchange – and, in fact, mark the least contested points of contact between the two sides: the existence or nature of any theoretical argument is disputed within these texts; there is more consensus over where the empirical fault lines lie. Nevertheless, I suspect we’ll find more light if we step back a bit from the empirical heat, and take a closer look at the strange, half-denied theoretical debate that runs through these articles.

I’ve characterised the theoretical debate as “half denied” for a specific reason: Chomsky, Hauser & Fitch don’t admit that their position is motivated by any specific theoretical perspective. Instead, their repeated claim is that they are posing the only possible scientific questions one could pose about the evolution of language at this moment in time – a point to which I’ll return in a moment. Pinker & Jackendoff then argue: no, these aren’t the only possible scientific questions that could be posed – and, in fact, you have only posed these questions because you are presupposing the validity of a particular linguistic theory: the Minimalist Program. Chomsky, Hauser & Fitch then say: we are doing no such thing, our questions have nothing to do with the Minimalist Program – they are instead the only possible questions a scientist could ask. Pinker & Jackendoff then come back and say: actually, a scientist could ask many other questions, if not already inclined to believe the Minimalist Program were true: here, look! – we’ll show you some…

Essentially, then, in venerable academic tradition, the debate boils down to a set of “did not!” – “did too!” exchanges over whether Chomsky, Hauser & Fitch are pushing the Minimalist Program on the sly. The empirical exchanges all fit within this context – which is why so many of the empirical debates are not primarily about what the facts are – not about who did what, when, where, why and how – but about which specific facts matter, and in what ways they matter, for understanding the evolution of human language. I am suggesting, in other words, that this is not an empirical quarrel, but a philosophical one.

Because what I’ve written is somewhat long, I’ll tuck the main body below the fold. I’ll have to apologise in advance for the length, and for what will almost certainly be inadequate copy editing – I’m writing this on borrowed time, so to speak, and I haven’t been able to give this piece the thorough proofing it undoubtedly desperately needs. Read more of this post

Reading Group Sing-Along:

Back in October, when I originally posted the forward projections on the reading group’s upcoming choices, I had left the exact selections for the coming week a bit on the vague side, just referring to the Language Log archives on the general theme we would be discussing, which relates to an ongoing debate between Pinker, Jackendoff and Chomsky. L. Magee did, though, piece together a specific list of recommendations for the group, which I thought I’d post in case anyone is curious exactly what we’ll be discussing next Monday.

L. Magee’s suggestions are:

Perhaps start here:

Mark Liberman’s outline of the Pinker, Jackendoff, Chomsky discussion at Language Log


Chomsky et al: The Faculty of Language

Pinker et al: The Faculty of Language: What’s Special About It?

Chomsky et al: The Evolution of the Language Faculty

and Pinker & Jackendoff’s Reply

Also of interest:

We workshopped a number of suggestions for where to go next – with the general idea of staying with the linguistics theme for a while longer. We’ll have an email round to solidify these suggestions, and then I’ll post another forecast list…


Too sick today to write anything substantive, so of course I’ve spent two-thirds of the day dozing, and the remainder digging around for articles on the poverty of the stimulus argument… For those who might have missed this particular obsession, the poverty of the stimulus argument is one of the claims discussed as part of our all-Chomsky-all-the-time reading group discussion. The basic claim is that children learn grammatical rules that are so massively underdetermined by their environments, that the pattern of early language acquisition provides strong evidence for the existence of an innate, specific faculty for language acquisition. Since I’m sure all my readers share my fascination with this argument, I thought I’d post the link to the best article I stumbled across in my admittedly somewhat fever-impaired reading today: Geoffrey Pullum and Barbara Scholz’s “Empirical Assessment of Stimulus Poverty Arguments” The Linguistic Review 19 (2002): 9-50.

The gist of Pullum and Scholz’s argument is that, in the cases most often cited in the nativist literature, the stimulus might, in fact, not be so impoverished after all. They challenge linguists to engage in more extensive empirical investigation before making strong claims about the rarity of children’s exposure to particular sentence structures – and they also point to the need to establish more explicit and well-reasoned statistical measures for how much environmental exposure would be “enough” to undermine the claim that children could not possibly deduce a grammatical principle from their environmental exposure.

The article, it should be noted, is not itself a critique of nativism – it remains agnostic on the issue. The authors’ intention is simply to point to the weak empirical base for existing claims, and to challenge the discipline to become more serious about empirical investigation – and also epistemological clarification – if it intends to persist in viewing the poverty of stimulus argument as pivotal for the cognitive science case for universal grammar.

Reading Group Lite

For anyone following the reading group at large, just an update that our next discussion will be a bit on the lighter side – with two of our members travelling, and with me preparing two dissertation-related presentations, this seemed a good time to relax a bit. Our next discussion, therefore, won’t take place until the end of the third week in November, when G. Gollings has offered to get the discussion started online. As mentioned previously, the work is Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct – a very light, fairly easy read that summarises Pinker’s specific take on the cognitive science of language acquisition. I’m personally midway through the book, and I can make two very general comments that will not, I think, pre-empt the “official” reading group discussion:

(1) Unlike our previous selection, this work passes the toddler test. (This may sound like a small matter, but you try reading Austin’s How to Do Things with Words while hiding the book under blankets and behind other books, because your son goes ballistic every time he so much as sees the spine…) My son warmed to this selection immediately, wandering over curious: “Whazzat?”

“That’s a book by Steven Pinker,” I explained, holding out the book for inspection and pointing to the picture of Pinker on the back cover.

“Ahhhhh,” my son said, nodding and giving me a knowing smile, “Tevin Pinkuh! Veeery gooood!”

The side effect of this, of course, is that I’ve now had to read large portions of this book out loud, pausing at regular intervals to share our mutual admiration for the various diagrams inside. “Tri Angles!” my son says helpfully. Triangles indeed.

(2) Much of the material in this book is actually very familiar to me – but this would be because I decided that cognitive science was essential reading while preparing for the birth of my son: after all, how could one possibly parent without knowing knowing this stuff? ;-P

How to do Things with Words

It is true that, as per NP’s suggestion, this post has been several times delayed by travel, tiredness and various other excuses. However it is not at all clear that in finally putting together a belated post, an “official” reading will be presented, nor that I will feel “comfortable providing a bit of context” – try though I might.

I echo the sentiment that it is a very enjoyable read, though its disarming style is also deceptive – it is in some ways reminiscent of Borges’ Labyrinths, in that it unfolds a certain argument only to fold it back up again and proceed down a different path. Like Wittgenstein, to a certain extent form mirrors content here – rather than proceeding from axioms to conclusions, the performative aspect of language is always central, even though the author proceeds in the ‘best’ analytical tradition, by way of re-slicing conventional categories of language into something else… Below is a tentative summary:

Austin initially dwells on the distinction between constative and performative sentences – between those which express some state of affairs, and those which, in their uttering, perform an action (there may be other classes of sentences too). Overt examples of the latter are ‘I do’ (in a marriage ceremony) or ‘I name this ship…’ (in a naming ceremony). Whereas constative sentences are truth-functional – they are true or false – Austin claims performative sentences may be considered ‘happy’ or ‘unhappy’ (happy-functional?). He proceeds to give six conditions which need to be satisfied for sentences to be ‘happy’. Much scholastic-style discussion ensues over the course of several lectures, which cover: condtion-matching examples and counter-examples; the relations between ‘happy’ and ‘true’ sentences; and the gradual ‘realisation’ that the constative/performative distinction is perhaps is not even, itself, a particularly ‘happy’ one…

This makes way for the presentation of what, as I understand it, is the core thesis of ‘speech act theory’. Firstly, there is a presentation of what ‘issuing an utterance’ is: a) the act of uttering noises (the ‘phone’); b) the act of uttering words chosen from a given vocubulary (the ‘pheme’); and c) the act of using words to create both a sense and a reference – together, a ‘meaning’ (the ‘rheme’). ‘Issuing an utterance’ is for Austin a locutionary act. Together with illocutionary and perlocutionary acts, these form a tripartite structure in which each successive term contains the previous. In other words, perlocutionary acts are always illocutionary acts, which are also always locationary acts. Illocutions are distinguished in that they are “performance of an act in saying something as opposed to performance of an act of saying something” (p. 100). As such illocutions have a particular force, as well as a meaning (which all locutionary acts have). Perlocutions are further distinguished in that they refer to some effect on someone (the speaker, the audience, or someone else). As an example: “He said to me, ‘You can’t do that’” is a locution; “He protested against my doing it” is an illocution; “He pulled me up, check me” is a perlocution. Critically, Austin claims illocutions have been elided into one of the other two categories, to the great confusion of philosophy in general.

The following lectures unpack the implications of this theory for the traditional constative/performative distinction. Essentially this distinction is a specialisation of the general distinction between locationary and illocutionary acts. This has the implication that truth-functional statements are not so much distinct as simply kinds of speech acts, among others. Instead of this distinction then, Austin proposes five overlapping families of speech acts: verdictives, exercitives, commissives, behavitives and expositives (by his own admission, an awkward classification). His final remarks suggest a broader program of applying this theory to the general problems of philosophy (‘What is the Good?’ and so on).

This summary necessarily rushes over much of the detail and in particular, the style and the refinements, qualifications and doubts Austin describes, which makes for a refreshing change to more bombastic accounts of linguistic theory elsewhere. Like most philosophers inhabiting the ‘linguistic turn’ – and like Wittgenstein in particular – Austin is convinced that traditional philosophical problems are frequently just confusions about language. Just as formal logic allows us to disambiguate certain cases of argument, better categories allow us to see our way through certain cases of problem sentences. In particular, by focussing on ‘use’ over conventional accounts of sentences as either truth-functional or not, or alternately, as different grammatical arrangments (statements, interrogatives, imperatives and so on), we get more fruitful lines of inquiry into these traditional problems.

To respond to the hint about ‘context’ – apart from these general remarks, I’m not sure what more I can add. Who is he responding to? On the surface it seems one account for how ‘context’, ‘use’ and other para-sentential information relate to the understanding of particular sentences (although that this ‘problem’ requires an account seems self-evident to me). Possibly there is also a sense that the growing field of linguistics needed to be ‘connected’ in some way to philosophy – both to apply empirical evidence to philosophical problems, and to apply philosophical rigour to the empirical research. At the same time, there is little of Austin’s text that relies explicitly on anything more than the sort of anecdotal linguistic evidence available to anyone. Indeed, there is something similar to the method of grammarians in his analysis (‘where does this sort of sentence belong?’) – notwithstanding the different categories in use – compared with the more avowedly mathematical approach of, for instance, Chomsky. Intuitively, although the eventual categories are perhaps somewhat arbitrary, it seems sensible to me to augment the various kinds of technical analyses – phonetic, syntactic, etc – which the sort of basic questions Austin is asking (‘how are sentences used’?).

Finally, I am curious where this ‘goes’, in discplinary terms. How influential is ‘speech act theory’ in linguistics or philosophy? Have Austin’s categories been widely adopted, and if so, have they been refined in light of other languages, and other potential ‘uses’? If not, is there still a place in the increasingly ‘scientific’ social sciences for this sort of treatment of language (which seems to me more useful in its method than in its results)? Some of these answers might come from reading more into Searle, Chomsky, Derrida, Pinker etc, as the reading group moves forward. Any comments?


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