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Comments Regarding “A Plea for Excuses”

October 23rd, 2006 by David Kronemyer · 4 Comments

Our subject today is a paper by a philosopher named J. L. Austin. Austin was a professor at Oxford. He actually died comparatively recently, in 1960. He is not to be confused with another English philosopher named John Austin, who was a famous scholar of jurisprudence, or I suppose we could say a “jurisprude,” back in the early 1800s. Rather, our Austin’s main interest was in language and analysis.

Austin had several insights about subjects that, up to his time, pretty much had been taken for granted. Traditionally, philosophers and logicians were concerned to show that sentences are reducible to propositions with a definite “truth value,” such as, “The cat is on the mat.” You can tell if the sentence is true, simply by determining if the cat indeed is on the mat. Pre-Austin, many contended all sentences could be reduced to propositions of this sort, which either were true, or false.

Austin, however, observed this was not the case. Unlike sentences that are true or false, which Austin called “constative,” there are a large number of sentences that have no truth value whatsoever. These are sentences, the very utterance of which consists of performing an act. For example, when I say, “I promise to be there,” I am engaging in an elaborate social ritual called “promising,” with its own rules and criteria for what counts as a promise. The sentence isn’t a report. It isn’t true or false. That mode of evaluation simply doesn’t make sense. Rather, when I say those words, I actually am making a promise. I am performing the “speech act” of promising. Austin called these types of sentences, “performative.”

Austin later refined his theory and identified what he called “illocutionary forces.” These are the things one does when one says something. “Promise” is one example. There are a number of others, including exclaiming, naming, persuading, ordering, and judging. Much of Austin’s later work consisted of developing his theory of illocutionary forces, which is one of the critical starting points for current “research” in the philosophy of language.

Today, though, we will be taking a look at Austin’s paper, “A Plea for Excuses,” in Urmson, J. O. & Warnock, G. J. (eds.) Philosophical Papers (2d ed. 1970). Unlike what we have come to think of as traditional “philosophy” papers, this one is easy to read. Austin’s style isn’t hard to follow, because he stays away from complicated philosophical abstractions. Instead, he concentrates on specific cases, and specific examples, that are more-or-less easy to understand. Austin therefore reveals his theory, only by showing how it works, in practical application.

Prior to Austin, philosophers were not all that fond of examples. One of the paradigm examples of such a philosopher is Ludwig Wittgenstein, at least in what has come to be called his “early phase.” Wittgenstein wrote a book called Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1961 tr. by Pears, D. & McGuinness, B.), which is one of the densest and most opaque books ever published. The Tractatus comprises a series of propositions, each of which either is self-evident, or can be deduced from the others, or so Wittgenstein claims. Proposition 1 is “The world is all that is the case.” Proposition 1.1 is “The world is the totality of facts, not of things.” Proposition 2 is “What is the case – a fact – is the existence of states of affairs.” Proposition 2.01 is “A state of affairs (a state of things) is a combination of objects (things).” At the very end, Wittgenstein concluded by asserting as Proposition 7, “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”

Here, in the space of a few sentences, Wittgenstein has introduced a number of, what for him, are highly technical terms. Yet, nowhere do we find examples of “that which is the case,” “facts,” “things,” “states of affairs,” “states of things,” or “objects.” Rather, we are presumed to know just what these mean, when in fact we don’t have the slightest idea.

Primarily for this reason, the Tractatus is a difficult book to understand. Wittgenstein constructs an elaborate logical edifice, without any kind of reference to what you and I might refer to as the “real world” (and indeed, the possibility of doing this may be one of the book’s main points). But this makes it seem all the more empty, and artificial.

Interestingly, Wittgenstein later changed his mind about this way of looking at things. He developed an approach that relied primarily upon examples, and the ways in which they illustrate various kinds of language problems. In that respect, he and Austin both came to be engaged in the same general sort of activity, though it does not appear either of them was influenced by the other.

In “A Plea for Excuses,” Austin is not concerned with examples, simply for their own sake. Rather, there is something unusual about the specific types of examples he uses. They’re all about things going wrong. We’re not just looking at “ordinary” examples, but rather, situations that have been turned on their head, if you will. Something has happened, the ebb and flow of conversational discourse is interrupted, and an excuse, or explanation of extenuating circumstances, is required. In this way, the content of the paper – that is, the subject of “excuses” – is a unique approach. Rather than simply speculating about something, from the ground up, we learn more about it, in a context where it is, or has become, dysfunctional. That is, rather than studying its ordinary operation, or usage, or mode of existence, instead we should examine instances in which it becomes an exception to the norm, a variance from routine, or a deviation from what is expected.

We can see how this principle works in our own lives. Ordinarily, we just “do things,” we are in a mode of activity and orientation. We’re not consciously thinking about, or reflecting on, what’s happening. Martin Heidegger (who has nothing to do with either Austin or Wittgenstein) provides what I think is one of the best examples of this, which involves using a simple tool — a hammer. When a carpenter is hammering in a nail, he isn’t thinking about either the hammer, the nail, or the piece of wood. Rather, he simply is hammering in the nail. Heidegger called this mode the “ready-to-hand.” He developed a theory of existential modes in Being and Time (1962 tr. by Macquarrie, J. & Robinson, E.).

But then, something happens – the head flies off the hammer. “The tool turns out to be damaged, or the material unsuitable.” The first consequence of this is disruption, in that a result no longer flows naturally from the activity or task. It is tempting to call this an “intended” result, but that would be over-stating the case, particularly if one views “intention” as requiring some kind of consciousness. While the carpenter might “intend” to construct what is being built, in a broad sense, it is unlikely he (or she) “intends” to hammer in the nail. Rather, it simply is an activity, almost autonomic in its performance; it is ready-to-hand.

Often this sequence of events (and here, I am interpolating Austin), calls for an excuse. Often, even if an excuse is not called for, an event like this provokes an examination of the circumstances – not necessarily with a view to justification, but rather, to understand, and rationalize or explain, what happened.

Heidegger calls this attitude, this critical or reflective state, the “present-at-hand.” Again using the metaphor of the hammer, “We discover its unusability, however, not by looking at it and establishing its properties, but rather by the circumspection of the dealings in which we use it. When its unusability is thus discovered, equipment becomes conspicuous.”

There are less trivial examples than the one with the hammer. Most of us live our daily lives without much thought for our position, or circumstances. Then, something happens – for example, you are involved in a car crash. One of the possible consequences of this is a conceptual “explosion,” causing you to reflect not only on the circumstances of the collision, but also on what we might describe as “broader” issues. Some of these may be mundane, such as, “why did I take that particular route,” or, “why didn’t somebody else run that errand.” Others may have potentially wider applicability, such as “why am I always in such a hurry,” or “am I paying enough attention to what I’m doing.” All of them are triggered, or provoked, by the occurrence of the crash; it is unlikely they would have occurred, in the normal course.

I suppose that too much present-at-hand is bad, because then you would become enmeshed in a reflective stasis, like the mastodons at the La Brea tar pits. You worry so much about what’s going on, that you don’t get anything done. Heidegger isn’t concerned about this type of reflective thinking, though. Rather, the tension between ready-to-hand and present-at-hand illustrates the shift of focus that occurs after an event or incident in the world, the bringing-to-the-foreground of activity that otherwise would go unnoticed, or unremarked upon.

Austin picks up on all of this. He says we can examine the “normal” functioning of a situation, by seeing how it breaks down, where it goes wrong. We do this, however, after the fact. It would be conversationally inappropriate – “infelicitous,” as Austin later says – to start dissecting situations, at a time when they are functioning normally. To do so would suggest an excuse is required, when this isn’t the case – something like “crying wolf.”

For example, to paraphrase one of Austin’s examples, let’s consider the peculiarly British institution of tea-time. One typically would not comment on the qualities of the tea-tray, unless, say, it was particularly ornate or beautiful. “Ornateness” and “beauty” therefore might be considered as exceptions to, or deviations from, what counts as an ordinary, run-of-the-mill tea-tray.

It is likely, however, that one would comment on the qualities of even an ordinary tea tray if, say, it suddenly broke in half, and fell to the ground, thereby spilling the tea. The host thereupon probably would say something like, “what an awful tea-tray,” thereby commenting on its lack of functionality for its intended purpose, that is, carrying tea. There are any number of other utterances one might make, but all of them would tend to have similar propositional content. The rapid descent of the tea tray, and the subsequent dispersion of the tea, have created an exception to the ordinary, normal activity of tea-time, which, in principle, consists of bringing in the tea, pouring it into cups, etc.

This leads Austin to hypothesize a “general lesson” about excuses: they always are proffered in an environment of deviation from the norm, or what is expected. Austin’s phrase for this is, “no modification without aberration.” What he means by this is that it would be weird, or even peculiar, to offer an excuse for something, in a context where it isn’t called for. In fact, like the beating of Poe’s tell-tale heart, the inappropriate proffer of an excuse might lead one to wonder exactly what it is the speaker is attempting to conceal, or deflect, or divert attention from. That is, because there is no modification without aberration, if we are offered an excuse and there is no apparent aberration, it’s likely we’ll go looking for one. I’m not suggesting we all turn in to amateur Sherlock Holmeses, but this should be one of the first axioms of good detective work, if it isn’t already.

An extension of this idea is that we really never assert anything unless there is a reason for doing so. The only reason why we say something – bring it up – is because we want to express it. The expression of the idea, however, doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Rather, it’s intended to make a request, or illustrate a point, or comment on some form of activity that is “other than” the background matrix, or environment, against which the expression occurs.

For example, if you are watching a football game, and you conceive a desire to drink a refreshing beverage, you might say to your wife, “Darling, would you mind getting me a beer.” You say this because that particular item is not an element of the feature-set of your environment, as it then is constituted. It is not likely you would say this if you were surrounded, say, by cases of beer. To think geometrically, the desire to drink beer becomes a kind of mountain or promontory, if you will, on the otherwise flat plane of your conceptual scheme. One gravitates towards it, not so much for what it is per se, but rather, because it exists in such contrast with, or juxtaposition to, its surroundings. [The expression of the idea, of course, is different than the reasons why the idea forms in the first place, and how, but that’s a different topic.]

John Searle probably would disagree with this analysis. In his paper, “Assertions and Aberrations,” [reprinted in Fann, K. (ed.) Symposium on J. L. Austin (1969)], Searle states he is “puzzled” by Austin’s thesis. Among other things, it “runs counter to a whole tradition of discussing these concepts in philosophy.” Searle prefers an analysis based more on free will, or voluntary action.

I think Searle, however, is missing the force of what Austin is saying. To begin with, Searle would not have written his paper, unless he was concerned about some anomaly, or dissonance, in his conceptual scheme — that is, something that needed explication. Thus, ironically, his own paper provides a perfect illustration of Austin’s theorem, at work.

Second, Austin is not trying to debunk the concepts of free will, or voluntary action. Rather, he is describing the conversational (and, I believe, the psychological) context within which such activities take place. It would be difficult, or impossible, or boring, to analyze each of, say, a million different actions. Rather, the best way to discern their critical components is to look at them in the condition of dysfunctionality that Austin describes. This doesn’t mean the actions aren’t “voluntary.”