Perfecting Language


Perfecting Language in "How To Do Things With Words"

In his book, How To Do Things With Words, J. L. Austin advocates a very simple approach to the philosophy of language: get straight on what words mean before we try to use them in, mostly, official situations. Whereas Wittgenstein and Russell attacked this problem by abstracting over what constitutes language and knowledge, Austin merely "diagrams" his sentences, so to speak. He takes a hard look at the grammatical function of statements and sees that, in many cases, they are misconstrued and misunderstood, particularly by legal professionals. Since this has become my primary area of interest—the law— in the philosophy of language, I shall, with great delight, compare Austin's analysis to sundry current court cases.

Austin says up front, "What I shall have to say here is neither difficult nor contentious." Indeed, it appears the problem of language and meaning is simpler than it first appeared if, as Wittgenstein later learned, we discard the notion of reconstructing a perfect language and instead perfect our ordinary language through simple understanding. Russell discarded the notion of a logically perfect language as possible but ambiguous and therefore undesirable. He might not agree with Austin's theory that what we say is often misconstrued because it is incorrectly grammatically interpreted, but Wittgenstein might like this approach.

Philosophers, Austin says, have traditionally held that statements, or propositions, can only be used to describe some state of affairs or to state some fact which they must do wither truly or falsely. But grammarians have regularly pointed out that not all sentences are used in making statements, or propositions. Besides statements there are also questions and exclamations, commands and wishes. What were once accepted as statements without question by philosophers are now looked at in a new way. Many statements are not verifiable because some of the words embedded in supposed propositions do not serve to represent reality; instead they seem to stand only for circumstances, i.e., how a statement is to be interpreted in the context in which it is spoken or indicated.

Central to Austin's analysis of language is what he calls the performative utterance, one of the notorious masqueraders. The performative utterance often poses as a statement of fact, when in fact there are so many conditions which underlie its acceptance as a proposition that they all must be fulfilled before such can be the case. Rarely are they all fulfilled and this is what Austin sets out to show us. Examples of the performative utterance are the following: 'I do' (take this man to be my husband); 'I christen you Mary Jones' (uttered when dropping water on the head); 'I bequeath my Rolex to my husband Ed' (occurring in a will); 'I put $100 thousand on the bet' (sealing a bet before the dice are rolled). Since the issuing of such an utterance is the performing of an action, it is not always thought of as just saying something. To say it implies (necessitates) action and action is expected. The performative utterance may also be a performative document, as in the document I signed today to seal a deal with an investment firm: "The Master Purchase Agreement is hereby ratified and confirmed. Nothing herein shall serve as a waiver of any provisions of the Master Purchase Agreement exactly as specifically set forth herein. In witness whereof, the parties have executed this Agreement as of the date first above written." By signing, as Austin explains it, I am not reporting on the contents of the document, I am indulging in them. Now certain things are expected of me—I have to hand over my stock in the company I created but which the purchaser now owns. Certain actions are expected of the purchaser—she has to exchange a certain amount of money with men in exchange for the stock. Notice that certain words are capitalized in the agreement: Master Purchase Agreement is not just some 'particular,' it's more like an entity as Russell might describe it, or a name (all proper names are entities). Indeed, corporations are considered 'entities' in most states. The problem which Russell examines in relation to performative utterances, documents, and actions is, can saying make it so?

He asks the question, "Is marrying simply to say a few words?" It is not just to say a few words, as in the example of the document, or in the example of William Hurt's "common law" wife attempting to sue him on grounds that they cohabited for a few months in the state of Florida which accepts official marriage by cohabitation. The utterance and the signature or the act are never the only things required if the act is to be called performative. The circumstances must be appropriate (a marriage has to be performed in front of a justice or in a church with witnesses). A witness in a courtroom may testify against someone and have this evidence admitted because the utterance is regarded not so much as a report of what was said, but as something that was done. Hence, Leona Helmsley was convicted as much for tax evasion as she was for naked greed, as her servants testified.

Things can go wrong with performative utterances; Austin calls these wrongs infelicities. Certain conditions of the performative act must be met or it cannot be considered performative or a proposition. These include: •a conventional procedure having a conventional effect, •the people must be appropriate to the circumstances (most states will not allow to homosexuals to marry, for example), •the procedure must be executed correctly and completely, •the people participating must have the expected thoughts and feeling which accompany the performance (they must be happy and in love if marrying or sad if giving last rites), and •they must then conduct themselves appropriately (adhere to the laws of marriage). Rarely do cases of, for example, marriage and investment buy-outs, work without infelicities. Of course the rules of the arrangements may be broken without canceling the seal, as in I may be dreadfully unhappy but still married or still working for an investor. Austin calls the homosexual marriage effect a mis-invocation because the procedure cannot be made to apply in the way attempted. He calls the unhappy effect a misapplication because the procedure exists but can't be applied as purported. In the second case the agreement wasn't sincere to begin with, in the first it wasn't appropriate, and in cases where the voiding effect hits after the ceremony, the procedure misfired.

Why it should be so important to establish the validity of a performative utterance as a proposition, rather than nonsense, is best illustrated in a court of law. Lawyers tend to believe that everything uttered in a court of law must be true or false, but they often fail to establish whether or not the performative utterance was indeed a proposition. They must examine the set of conditions surrounding the circumstances. People like Randall Adams of The Thin Blue Line fame are convicted because a lot of people didn't get the set of circumstances straight, or because they did but their intentions were criminal (biased). In his case the whole courtroom scene was an act of speech the consequences of which should have been void, but were not because they were interpreted as propositions, hence true of false. Even after all those years in prison, Adams' conviction was overturned on grounds that it was 'false.' Austin says that jurists are ready with a terminology to cope with these kinds of problems, but I don't believe they are. If they were, the justice system would be fairer to women, children, minorities, and to unique sets of circumstances. A performative utterance is rarely just true or false, it is more often void, as a marriage is annulled, or a contact may be void if signed without legal counsel.

When Leona Helmsley was sentenced to four years in prison she broke down and cried in front of the judge, apparently in remorse. This could be considered a performative utterance because she displayed the expected emotions along with her apology. This is different from just saying she apologizes as actually running is different from saying one is running. If you're not running but you say that you are that is clearly false, whereas if you apologize and show the emotions and feel remorse, it is the remorse which qualifies the performative utterance. People frequently mistake the show of emotions as the qualifying agent. Sometimes people laugh hysterically when they are expected to cry, but that doesn't mean they are not remorseful (sometimes it does). Austin may place too much emphasis on expectations and not enough on intention. He does, however, contend that in order to explain what can go wrong with statements we cannot just concentrate on the proposition involved, we must consider the total situation, the total speech act, and I contend, the person's psychology.

Austin says that if the performative utterance 'I apologize' is happy (or sad in Leona's case) then the statement that I am apologizing is true. Sometimes this event can take place without all of the conditions, as in Black Jack: a hit is indicated by tapping your middle finger on the table while you peak at a card. The gesture is ever so slight that an onlooker may wonder how the dealer knows to draw a card. This is what Wittgenstein referred to as knowing the language game. In Zsa Zsa Gabor's case it may have meant a little less gesture and a lot more words. In this way we may get truncated versions of the performative: instead of 'Bring me that slab,' I may say 'Slab!'  It involves both grammar and vocabulary.

Austin is looking for precision in language: he says that it is not precise or explicit but that precision will make it clearer what is being said, i.e., its meaning: explicitness in this sense makes clearer the force of utterances, how they are to be taken. Mood, then, has everything to do with the kind of utterance one is making. If I tell my two-year-old to sit down once, it's a request; if I tell him twice, it's a warning; if I tell him thrice, it's a protest. But Austin makes a clear distinction between force and meaning in the sense in which meaning is equivalent to sense and reference, just as sense and reference are different concepts. This is the difference between intended and unintended effects. When a speaker intends to produce an effect it may not occur and vice versa. Our linguistic device for remedying these situations is to use words such as 'unintentional,' 'mistake,' familiar words of criminals and others. Austin says that there is some connection between physical actions and acts of saying something, as in to 'congratulate' it is necessary to say certain words. But the uttering of words with a certain meaning is not a consequence of uttering the words. Finally, he says that the truth or falsity of a proposition depends not merely on the meanings of words but on what act one was to perform in a given set of circumstances. This philosophy is very much like Wittgenstein's, but simpler and immediately applicable to everyday use.

Copyright 2012, Kathryn Kurtz, ©. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be

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