Word Games

Featured image is Lower-Austrian Peasant Wedding, by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller

J. L. Austin made a tremendous breakthrough in linguistics and the philosophy of language when he demonstrated the performative character of language—that is, by saying something we are always doing something. Extreme cases include “I now pronounce you man and wife,” which, when uttered in the right circumstances, changes the status of two people from being single to being married.

The problem with operationalizing this comes in with the notion of “in the right circumstances.” Can these be specified in advance? At what level of detail? How small do deviations need to be before the speech act is nullified (or “infelicitous” as Austin put it)? Are some infelicities more important or decisive than others, and does this vary for each sort of speech act?

Austin ultimately gave up on a completed system, though many speech act theorists since him have taken up the torch. Among these, his former student John Searle is the most notable.

But I stand with critics like Jacques Derrida and Stanley Fish in thinking that a high degree of uncertainty is required by the subject matter. Derrida has pointed out that if the successful performance of a speech act is determined by context, and context is boundless, then we can never know with the certainty of mathematical or logical necessity that we have avoided infelicity. There may be aspects of the speech situation that we did not notice at the time which invalidate it retroactively, and the uncertainty around this is ineradicable.

It is akin to digital security—we may use top of the line cryptography, we may use stricter than best practice implementations, but we cannot know about security holes that haven’t been discovered yet. If we could, then we would have discovered them already. There is no reducing, much less eradicating, uncertainty of this sort—in security or in speech acts.

The point is not that no speech act ever succeeds, but that it isn’t something we can really measure externally from the situation and the people involved. Moreover, even to participants it is not known with the certainty of the solution to mathematical problems.

Without pretending to such certainty, I’d like to build off of our previous discussion of Aristotle’s notions of actuality and potentiality, as well as efficient and finals causes, in order to continue the discussion of when speech acts go right or wrong. Continue reading “Word Games”

Direct and Mediated Speech and Reality

Featured Image is Painting of Russian writer Evgeny Chirikov, by Ivan Semenovich Kulikov

I’ve been drawn to the hostile exchange between Jacques Derrida and John Searle for some time. It seems to be such an interesting clash of perspectives, styles, and cultures, and on a subject I wanted to learn more about.

The discussion focuses most intensely on the status of speech acts—such as promises or wedding ceremonies—in fiction and representative art, compared to promises and wedding ceremonies in normal contexts.

Austin refers to the former as “parasitic” on the latter, or derivative. Searle puts it like this:

The sense in which, for example, fiction is parasitic on nonfiction is the sense in which the definition of the rational numbers in number theory might be said to be parasitic on the definition of natural numbers, or the notion of one logical constant in a logical system might be said to be parasitic on another, because the former is defined in terms of the latter.

Responding to a different, similar passage from Searle, Derrida is empatic: “I am not in agreement with any of these assertion.”

The determination of “positive” values (“standard”, serious, normal, literal, non-parasitic, etc.) is dogmatic. It does not even derive from common sense, but merely from a restrictive interpretation of common sense which is implicit and never submitted to discussion. More disturbingly: nothing allows one to say that the relation of the positive values to those which are opposed to them (“non-standard,” nonserious, abnormal, parasitical, etc.), or that of the “nonpretended forms” to the “pretended forms,” should be described as one of logical dependence. And even if this were the case, nothing proves that it would entail this relation of irreversible anteriority or of simple consequence. If a form of speech act that was “serious,” or in general “nonpretended,” did not, in its initial possibility and its very structure, include the power of giving rise to a “pretended form,” it would simply not arise itself, it would be impossible. It would either not be what it is, or not have the value of a speech act.

Here, Derrida makes the argument that a criteria for the existence of non-pretended speech acts is their ability to be imitated in the pretended forms; thus since the latter is a necessary condition of the former, you could reverse the relative status that Austin and Searle assign to each. Not that you should, but this shows the relative status to be arbitrary. It certainly doesn’t have the necessity that the relation of rational numbers has to natural numbers.

The analogy with math was poorly conceived, but Searle’s broad point still seems reasonable. The imitation of a promise in a play is predicated on the fact that the audience will recognize it as something that occurs in real life. Derrida’s argument here seems mostly like a parlor trick, once the analogy with math is dispatched. There’s no logical reason that we couldn’t have invented something like promises in fiction first (“life imitating art”) but in general that is not how it works. And it seems reasonable, when analyzing the nature of promises, to put fiction to the side for a moment.

But there is more to Derrida’s argument than this. Never mind his 80 page response to Searle’s 11 page critique; the original piece that started the discussion, “Signature Event Context”, is making a much larger point.

Rather than subjecting you to more Derrida-ese, I will turn now to Stanley Fish’s unpacking of the piece in question.

Continue reading “Direct and Mediated Speech and Reality”



In a secular age, we are often uncomfortable talking about faith outside of church or possibly among family. Many of us do not even go to a church, or have not ever. Especially among decisive, hard-headed people of business, faith can be an embarrassing subject. But it is an important subject, for Atheists and Christians, businessmen and teachers alike. And this isn’t a high-minded statement pronounced while looking down from above—faith is as crucial to the practicalities of daily life as the very ground under our feet.

For thousands of years there have been philosophers who made a name for themselves by attacking what was accepted on faith. The ancient skeptics believed all knowing and reasoning was impossible. The ancient cynics thought human society was inferior to nature. More recently, David Hume argued that the fact that something has happened repeatedly does not logically demonstrate that it will happen again—so there is no proof that the sun will come up tomorrow. Even more recently, Derrida emphasized that context determines the meaning of what we say and do, but we have an endless amount of context that we could focus on for any one action. So how can we ever be sure we understood it or have been understood?

In some sense, all of these skeptics were right. There are deep limitations to our knowledge and what we can work out with nothing but reasoning.

Faith fills in these gaps and makes it possible to live a full life without constantly being paralyzed by uncertainty. This is not a blind faith—treating faith and reason as opposites is a big mistake. It’s not just that you need faith and prudence together to be fully virtuous, the way you need to be courageous on behalf of justice rather than cruelty. It’s more than that. You need faith before prudence is even possible. Remember our discussion of the novel—how all other books and stories we had read or heard or watched helped form the perspective we bring as readers of a specific book. This is faith—the belief that everything we have experienced up until now in our lives is not for nothing, that it is salient as readers of the situation we are now confronted with and as authors of the rest of our lives.

Again, this is no blind faith! When we are confronted by circumstances that challenge our perspective as it stands, the prudent person will reexamine those aspects of their perspective that have been challenged. The just person knows that they owe it to the people in their lives to be open to the questions such circumstances pose to us, rather than stubbornly ignoring them and missing an opportunity to refine our judgment.

But stubbornly ignoring the questions posed by situations that do not fit your expectations is not what it means to be faithful. That is an unvirtuous faith, an imprudent faith, just as much a vice as an imprudent courage is mere recklessness. Moreover, unexpected circumstances only appear at all if we have expectations in the first place. It is the faith that we bring into the situation that identifies it as special to begin with. It is only because of the perspective we already have that we are capable of viewing our subverted expectations productively in the form of questions that such subversion raises.

Without faith, you are just a “bundle of experiences,” as Hume put it. With faith, you are a person, a character in an ongoing story of which you are both a reader and a co-author. Confidence, self-assurance, and trust—these qualities, which are so vital to our lives, are aspects of the virtue of faith.

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Interrogation, Dialectic, and Storytelling

The Boyhood of Raleigh by John Everett Millais

As far as I can tell, “deconstruction” is a word that simply means “academic trolling,” at least when it is performed by the man who coined it—Jacques Derrida.

This can clearly be seen in his deconstruction of speech act theorist J. L. Austin, which Jonathan Culler provides an account of in On Deconstruction.

Austin was arguing, against his predecessors, that language is not simply about making descriptive statements. He pointed out that fitting language into that straightjacket meant treating as exceptional what in fact was characteristic of huge amounts of discourse. As an alternative, he proposed the idea of language as including both constative statements, those which are true or false, and performative statements, those which have some consequence within the social reality in which they are stated. The canonical case of the latter would be the making of a promise.

Continue reading “Interrogation, Dialectic, and Storytelling”