Word and Object

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Austin’s Self

March 22nd, 2008 by David Kronemyer · 4 Comments

J. L. Austin’s Theory of Performatives conceals a robust notion of “self.” A speaker uttering (an author writing) a performative intends to change (or describe a change to) a state of affairs in the world. Such modification might not happen, and probably wouldn’t, unless the speaker uses the performative. The speaker is an individual, performative-deploying self, in juxtaposition to the world the speaker wants to change. This remains so, no matter how we parse the performative utterance.

1. “Napoleon ordered his troops to advance” is a performative. “To order” entails there is somebody doing the ordering, that is, Napoleon. The syntax of this sentence is straightforward. There are two participants: Napoleon, and the troops. Napoleon is the subject, the originator of the action described by the verb (“ordering”). The troops are the object, the target of the action originated by the subject (Napoleon).

2. “The troops were ordered by Napoleon to advance” (or, “The troops were ordered to advance by Napoleon”) is (1), reformatted in passive voice. Passive voice shifts focus from verb subject (Napoleon) to verb object (the troops). Although the troops now are the ostensible subject, however, they still are the ones whom Napoleon ordered to advance. There is no ambiguity as to who gave the order. The troops would not have advanced on their own accord, had it not been for the order. Napoleon therefore remains the “real” subject, and the troops remain the “real” object. Their respective roles as participants in the scenario of advancement have not changed. Neither has the relationship between the parties within the verb’s argument. Napoleon still is the originator of the action (the utterer of the performative), and the troops still are its target. The sentence still describes the same events in the world.

3. What were the circumstances under which Napoleon ordered his troops to advance? Surely Napoleon had not simply conceived an abstract desire to do so. Rather, he was responding to conditions on the ground. Such as: a breach in the enemy lines; an opportunity to encircle his foe; good prospects for a frontal assault; or any other military maneuver. He was a great general, because he could do this with ease and facility. We might say, “Assessing (evaluating) conditions on the ground, Napoleon ordered his troops to advance. This, however, only tells us something about Napoleon. It does not illumine the conditions on the ground, which prompted Napoleon to issue the order. We still do not know anything about the troops, other than they advanced. They did not advance on their own accord. They advanced because Napoleon ordered them to do so.

4. “Responding to (in response to) conditions on the ground, Napoleon ordered his troops to advance,” is a modest improvement. It eliminates some of the psychological features of “analyzing,” “considering,” and similar activities. So does “Conditions on the ground solicited Napoleon (afforded to Napoleon the opportunity) to order his troops to advance.” However, with both, we still have the imperious Napoleon.

5. “Napoleon was solicited (afforded) by conditions on the ground, to order his troops to advice. (5) is the passive reformat of (4). We already know Napoleon is the verb’s subject (the issuer of the order). (5) improves on (4), though, because it de-emphasizes his role. It eliminates redundancy, by refocusing the sentence on those aspects of the situation identified at (3). Although grammatically less correct, passive voice reduces the prominence of the subject, and promotes verb clause intelligibility.

(5) remains, however, just a verbose rendering of (1). We hypothesized performatives always imply a strongly-asserted self. We have not been able to devise a counter-example. Nor, in principle, will we ever be able to do so, no matter how exfoliated (and impractical) the expression.

Because of this, performatives are dissimilar to other world-changing verbs. “Napoleon’s troops advanced in response to conditions on the ground” is active voice. The troops might be lizards seeking out the heat, and we still could use this sentence to describe their activity, without fear of embarrassment or contradiction. It doesn’t commit us to a theory of mind – either as to Napoleon, or the troops. Rather than doing the ordering, “Napoleon’s” becomes an ascriptive predicate of the troops (an adjective). For that matter, they also wore blue jackets, fired muskets, and wore mustachios.

But enough with Napoleon, let’s consider a different example. What we are looking for is a series of words (an expression) highlighting the agent-actor characteristic of performatives, by juxtaposing it against a non-performative phrase. So, when asked, “why did you rob banks,” the depression-era outlaw Willie Sutton apocryphally replied: “Because that’s where the money is.”

Mr. Sutton did not say, “because I wanted to,” or use any other intention-importing verb. Properly understood, Mr. Sutton was responding to his milieu, i.e., financial institutions with currency. The bank made him do it, or predisposed him to do it, or made him feel like doing it, or activated his instinct to do it.

1. “I robbed the bank” leaves little doubt as to who did what. Mr. Sutton originated the action of robbing, and it was the bank that was robbed. Mr. Sutton, however, was not asked to make a first-person avowal. He was answering a question. His response yields improved action-to-world fit.

2. The passive voice formulation is, “The bank was robbed by me.” As we observed earlier, passive voice is less preferable grammatically, than active. Mr. Sutton’s response, though, better accommodates the relationship between the parties, as Mr. Sutton’s answer explains. This is not so with performatives. Implied verb intentionality can’t be eliminated, regardless of voice.

Austin certainly was aware of the world-changing nature of performatives. He does not, however, dwell on the issue of the agent uttering the performative; the conditions in the world prompting its utterance, or, for that matter, conditions in the world thereafter. Like his fellow British Empiricists, he tacitly assumes a “self in opposition to “world.” The former incants a verb formulation, and a new iteration of the latter magically appears.

How to Do Things with Words was infelicitously titled. Possible reformulations such as How Things Are Done with Words, or How to Accomplish the Doing of Things with Words, or How Words Are Used to Accomplish the Doing of Things, only exacerbate the problem. Regardless of what else may be going on, no “things” are being “done.” The existing title emphasizes the existence of these “things,” whatever they may be. This results in the needless proliferation of unwanted objects, and is ontologically superfluous. A more accurate title might be, How to Accomplish Results with Words, or How You Can Change World-States with Words.

How to Do Things with Words implies there is someone doing whatever it is that is being done. It emphasizes the existence of counterpart “selves” using words – not changed world-states. In this respect, it is like the performatives it describes and evaluates.

Austin’s use of the verb “do” also is annoying. It shares this with the Hollywood locution, “let’s do lunch,” or, “I’ll do the meatloaf” (instead of the performative, “I order the meatloaf”). In German, the verb “machten” means either “do” or “make,” depending on context. The improper speakers of “do” certainly don’t mean they intend to cook lunch (or fabricate the meatloaf).  If Austin was German, but retained a British sensibility, he might have entitled his book, How to Make Things with Words.  If he had “gone native,” he might have evolved this to, How the World Makes You Use Words to Say Things.

Best might be a title such as, How a State of Affairs in the World Solicits a Language User to Deploy a Certain Style of Verb in Order to Modify that State of Affairs. I concur it is unlikely Austin ever would adopt this formulation. Its tongue-twisting absurdity shows how the syntax of performatives can lead to a potentially counter-intuitive result. Austin’s Theory of Performatives accounts for a self; words; and an altered world. It does not account, however, for the pre-altered world, which is integral to understanding the performative’s context and meaning.