Illusive Mind

The Unquestionable should be questioned

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Agreement rules. OK?


Western Philosophy is too often guilty of focusing exclusively on the object whilst ignoring the subject.

An example of this is J.L. Austin’s “How to do things with words”. In his arguably most famous work Austin makes great headway in the Philosophy of Language by distinguishing different kinds of performative utterances namely: locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary acts.

The essential idea is that in communication and with the vast majority of utterances or ‘speech acts’ we getting people to do things by using words. “Get out”, an imperative or command performs a locutionary act by telling the listener to get out, it performs an illocutionary act by perhaps warning them of the danger if they don’t get out and a perlocutionary act which is the actual effect upon the listener.

This is all very well and good you might say, what is the business about the object and subject, surely this is just more of your oriental west-bashing nonsense. Not so. What Austin fails to capture is where the power of speech acts more accurately lies.

One of the most common examples used to explain commands, declarations and the enormous power of speech is “I now pronounce you husband & wife”. By simple words out of the celebrant’s mouth he has altered the relationship between these two people. Is that really so?

What if there was no-one else present, nothing was written down and the couple never spoke of it again? Nothing would have changed. I can pronounce marriages to whomever I like and it will likely make no difference? Why? Because I don’t have the authority, but where does this authority come from? Answer: It comes from the listener, or the observer.

This is where the true power of speech acts lie. Not in the speaker but in the observer. The marriage is declared in front of a whole bunch of people who recognize and consent to the authority of the celebrant. He writes up a marriage certificate probably with a particular seal that is recognized and consented to by various legal departments who will record it and thus the couple’s legal status will be changed because of the authority of that institution which is once again, recognized and consented to by ‘the people’.

The air coming out of your mouth has no power of influence over me directly unless I recognize or understand what you are saying and then consent to it. This is how meaning is created, it lies at the heart of the very possibility of an interpersonal language. If you don’t agree that the word ‘red’ refers to the same sorts of things I think it does, then we won’t be able to talk about it. Dictionaries are consensus machines, their authors are hoping we can all come to an agreement of the definitions of words so as to grant them those meanings. But of course philosophers are infamous for not doing so.

The object is the word itself, and it is in of itself a meaningless, worthless nothing. It is a creation of the subject, ourselves. It what sense do philosophical arguments about the ‘true’ meaning of words make any sense? I contend that what is ‘really’ going on, is people are disagreeing about what meaning they want to consent to, for whatever reasons. However, can I say what is really going on? This is committing the same fallacy. It might be more accurate to suggest that this interpretation of the debate is more explanatory you can agree with this, or not.

Consensus is King. All our social institutions are built upon it. Not everything is consensus you may say, there are things which are the same for all people regardless of our agreement. A tree will always be a tree. Yes, I don’t think our consent changes the natural world as such, but what about the word tree? What about the concept of a tree? Anything that elicits meaning, any text or sign is subject to a consensus to generate that meaning. You can of course refuse to play the game, and come up with your own meanings that no-one else agrees with, however we as a society would probably put such a person in a mental hospital, for they obviously have lost touch with ‘reality’ haven’t they? With the world ‘out there’.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5/25/2005 06:36:00 PM  
Blogger vanessa said...

I completely agree with the notion that you cant capture reality with words. Once you verbalize something, it becomes a story... humans are artists

9/13/2005 01:27:00 PM  

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