Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

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?


5 responses to “How to do Things with Words

  1. N Pepperell November 8, 2006 at 8:34 am

    Hey there you! Here I was thinking that laid-back California might have rubbed off on you, and you might have decided to take an actual, you know, break… Fantastic post – many thanks for this…

    I had a very similar reaction to the style of the work: if I’m understanding correctly, Austin has used a very elegant trojan horse structure. He begins with the sly, double-barbed observation:

    It was for too long the assumption of philosophers that the business of a ‘statement’ can only be to ‘describe’ some state of affairs, or to ‘state some fact’, which it must do either truly or falsely…

    But now in recent years, many things which would once have been accepted without question as ‘statements’ by both philosophers and grammarians have been scrutinized with new care. This scrutiny arose somewhat indirectly – at least in philosophy. First came the view, not always formulated without unfortunate dogmatism, that a statement (of fact) ought to be ‘verifiable’, and this led to the view that many ‘statements’ are only what may be called pseudo-statements, First and most obviously, many ‘statements’ were shown to be, as Kant perhaps first indicated systematically, strictly nonsense, despite an unexceptional grammatical form: and the continual discovery of fresh types of nonsense, unsystematic though their classification and mysterious though their explanation is too often allowed to remain, has done on the whole nothing but good. (pp. 1-2)

    “Nonsense” in this context, I take it, means statements about which it is not possible to determine a clear external referent that can then be used to judge the statement as either “true” or “false”. (I must apologise in advance for what will undoubtedly be my incorrect and clumsy application of terms from general speech, like “statement”, that have a distinct – precise, technical – meaning in this text: Austin even chides people for using these terms loosely. One consequence of reading too much across discipline is that it takes me a while to absorb the proper modes of expression within any particular tradition… That, and the fact that I’ve been too lazy to sit and map the text out in detail to make sure that I’m using the correct technical term for the concept I’m trying to communicate… ;-P This is why we have LM introducing the material: we need someone a bit more intellectually disciplined than I am, to get us under way… I can then pick up from there and see how far astray I can take us…)

    So, if I’m understanding correctly, Austin begins playfully, but with serious import, by warning us that traditional (analytical?) philosophical approaches to language have been progressively narrowing their scope, by defining a greater and greater array of speech as “nonsense” – and he flags that his lectures will further narrow the field. He then briefly tips his hand, indicating that the topics he intends to explore have revolutionary import:

    Whatever we may think of any particular one of these views and suggestions, and however much we may deplore the initial confusion into which philosophical doctrine and method have plunged, it cannot be doubted that they are producing a revolution in philosophy. If anyone wishes to call it the greatest and most salutary in its history, this is not, if you come to think of it, a large claim. It is not surprising that beginnings have been piecemeal, with parti pris, and for extraneous aims; this is common with revolutions. (pp. 3-4)

    Austin then plunges into apparent minutiae – highlighting what at first appears to be a rather minor and narrowly constrained form of “nonsense” – initially focussing on a very small, and apparently quite distinctive and circumscribed, selection of performative utterances – “I do”, etc. – which, said by the proper person and in the proper context, enact an action. Austin then asks how we should evaluate these sorts of statements. He notes various reasons that the concepts of “truth” or “falsehood” don’t appear productive, and then proceeds to outline various ways in which these sorts of speech acts can nevertheless fail: they can be said by the wrong person, on the wrong occasion, without the proper intention, etc. He then classifies these various forms of failure, ostensibly to clarify how we can properly assess the validity or nonvalidity of this peculiar category of statement.

    Having thus lured us into thinking of the validity of this class of statements in this way, Austin then begins to spring his trap. Progressively asking us “but if this reasoning applies to x, can we honestly say it does not apply to y?”, Austin eventually expands from his original, fairly bounded, collection of essentially ritualistic statements to encompass a wider and wider range of speech – until, by the end, we’ve completely inverted our starting perspective, arriving at the view that speech that does not conform to the “speech act” pattern is what is truly bounded and ritualistic…

    Austin’s bottom line argument, if I’m understanding him correctly, is that context – who says something, when they say it, how they say it, and what they mean when they say it – is, essentially, what determines whether most speech is – not “true”, because (if I’m understanding correctly) he continues to reserve that term for more “objective” judgments – but “happy”. The consequence is to open a new area to philosophical investigation – while at the same time transforming the nature of what this philosophical investigation would need to understand (cf. pp. 148-49).

    Like LM, I have questions about where things went from here: you could move from here, for example, into a historical or culturalist direction – but was this the direction things took? (Certainly Habermas’ appropriation of speech act theory via Searle, for example, both appeals to notions of history and culture, and yet, at a more fundamental level, rejects them…) What critiques were made of this approach?

    In terms of connecting this work back to our overarching discussion arc on Chomsky, there are a few specific points of contact: in several places, for example, Austin takes pains to demonstrate that grammatical analysis, per se, is quite insufficient to determine the “happiness” of a speech act. Chomsky, of course, acknowledges this explicitly to some degree – and, in any event, I don’t see Chomsky, for all his interest in the rationalist philosophical tradition, as primarily concerned with the philosophical discussion over whether the truth of a statement can be analysed with reference to its adequacy to some external referent – my guess would therefore be that Chomsky would not be troubled by an argument that most speech cannot be classified in terms of truth or falsehood, but instead requires assessment by more context-bound concepts. My sense would be that the two approaches operate at different levels of abstraction? But I’m happy to be corrected on this…

    There is also a minor point of conflict on notions of linguistic evolution, where Austin at one point (pp. 71-73) appeals to the notion of languages “evolving” from simpler to more complex sorts of speech – a notion that I know irritates Chomsky (and I’m with Chomsky on this one…). I think, though, that Austin’s passage is fairly gestural and doesn’t contribute anything essential to his argument (although it would be interesting to keep an eye on the issue – particularly if we trace this form of theory through someone like Habermas, who may actually use the evolutionary notions more seriously – if only to bolster his sweep-of-rationalisation view of human history…).

    Citations to: Austin, J.L. (1975) How to Do Things with Words: the William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955, 2nd ed, ed. J.O. Urmson and Marina Sbisa, Clarenden Press, Oxford.

  2. L Magee November 9, 2006 at 4:33 am

    Yes, I agree that this analysis is at a different level of ‘abstraction’ to Chomsky – although several of the actual examples Austin uses to show locution, illocution and perlocution could be shown to be distinguished on the grounds of syntax alone (the actual example escapes me at the moment). So there are perhaps grounds for showing that certain ‘transformations’ could be used to convert a locution to an illocution, and an illocution to a perlocution, and attempting to present a joint syntactic-pragmatic theory – perhaps out of scope for this comment…

    It struck me in trying to follow these plain language examples, much as with Chomsky and much philosophy of language in general, that although language users are frequently highly self-conconscious of their usage, it is nonetheless extremely difficult to conscious of such usage in this sort of a way. For example, I can be quite aware of how my sentence is composed, what point it is trying to make, what effect it might have – to perhaps a paralysing degree. But at the same time, it is nearly impossible to consider ‘is this a locutionary or illocutionary utterance? what sort of grammatical transformations might I be making? etc’ – assuming it is possible to conscious of it all. Aside from the obvious question of familiarity with a given linguistic theory which someone would need to have to ask such a question at all, language users seem to have certain coincidental insights into what they do, but not others.

  3. N Pepperell November 9, 2006 at 7:57 am

    Yes – I had actually meant to pick up on a related point in responding to your original post – but an undergraduate needed help creating a table of contents, and the point was lost… ;-P

    Your original post contrasted the anecdotal style of Austin’s analysis, with Chomsky’s more systematic and mathematical analysis – I was similarly struck by the premise that an individual person, reflecting “hard” enough on language, could reason their way through to useful distinctions, etc. Not that Austin necessarily believes linguistic analysis will begin and end with this – at the outset he provides a sort of apologetic explanation for why the issues he discusses have emerged from piecemeal anecdotal reflection, in order to justify why material arrived at in this way is still worthy of serious consideration. At the end, as well, he is proposing something like a research programme… So he’s aware that things can become more formalised.

    Still, there’s a significant difference between this sort of analysis – which remains to some degree more “penetratable” to neophyte dilettantes like ourselves 😉 – and the sorts of very abstract patterns Chomsky is seeking to uncover – which may be patterns so subtle and so, in a sense, integral to linguistic practice that they may only be detectable through a process of abstraction from a large sample of usage in practice…

    But the coffee shop in which I am writing this post has suddenly begun blasting “Play That Funky Music, White Boy”, and I find this makes becoming conscious of usage in any way impossible… Best stop here… ;-P

  4. K. Bez November 19, 2006 at 12:24 am

    I “have to” read this book for University and write a text of about 12 pages about it. The only problem is that I do not really understand the book since the language used is very difficult. Another problem is that the Assignment I have to write about it is in German language. I know there is a German reproduction of this book but I am not German myself either. Is there another book explaining this book from J.L.Austin, or somehow made simpler? Your help would be extremely helpful!!! Thanks a real lot!

  5. N Pepperell November 19, 2006 at 12:54 pm

    I’m tempted to prescribe reading two encyclopedia articles and calling your professor in the morning… But my conscience tends to nag me when I do things like this…

    I can’t tell whether you have an English version of the book? You can find one online here – it’s not the easiest reading format, though, so I’d suggest hunting around university libraries in your area to see if you can locate a hard copy.

    University libraries generally have some kind of shared library privilege arrangement – and you will probably find that you can ask a librarian at your university to help you find a local copy of the book. Ditto for finding a German translation – which can be handy, even if you read the work in English, as it can provide some tips on how key terms are typically translated, which might help you with your own writing.

    I’d still recommend speaking with your professor (or tutor, or whoever the appropriate contact would be) – teaching staff can occasionally be helpful… ;-P They may be able, for example, to let you know about tutorial or other support services available to you – and they may have their own preferred reference on the book that they would recommend you read. This can be far faster than searching randomly yourself (and a lot better targeted than asking for random advice on the net!!!)…

    On a more general level, when you suspect there might be a problem with an assignment, it’s often better to speak with the teaching staff earlier, rather than later – obviously, you know your instructor and I don’t, but most instructors have a far worse reaction to hearing about problems very late, than being approached for help early in the process.

    Hope this helps…

    (now I just need to stop shuddering at the image of what this experience might demonstrate about how my own students approach their essays…)

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