Sunday, March 14, 2010

On the Performative, the Constative, and a Peculiar Move within Lutheran Theology

It has become commonplace within Lutheran theology to downplay the notion and use of descriptive true/false statements. While it is true that in natural languages we regularly assign both intensions and extensions to account for meaning and truth-conditions, there is a strong recent tradition in Lutheran theology that does not want to do this. Here we are told confidently that much of the language of Scripture is playing quite a different kind of game entirely, quite a different kind of game than uttering statements having truth-conditions. Citing How to do Things with Words, John Austin' text from over 60 years ago, some theologians find in performative utterances the key to unlock what it is that theology is doing when it is doing what it is doing most fundamentally.

The idea is simple enough: Constative utterances say something and performative utterances do something. Theological utterances are uttered between the demand of the law and grace of the gospel in the concrete existential situation of the believer before God. Thus, instead of the language about God being about truth and falsity, it is at best "felicitous or infelicitous.' For Austin, the marks of felicitous performative utterances include:

  • The existence of conventional procedure governing the utterance of certain words in certain situations;
  • The situations being appropriate for the invocation of the particular procedure invoked;
  • The procedure being executable by the participants correctly and completely;
  • Where to inaugurate the procedure depends upon the person inaugurating it to have certain thoughts and feelings, the person so inaugurating it must have certain thoughts and feelings, and all the participants involved must have the appropriate thoughts and feelings;
  • The participants conducting themselves accordingly.
If one or more of these conditions are not met. The performative utterance will be unhappy. Austin makes use of some examples:

  • 'I do' - - as in the course of a marriage ceremony.
  • 'I name the ship the Queen Elizabeth' - - as uttered when smashing the bottle against the hull.
  • 'I give and bequeath my watch to my brother' - - as occurring in a will.
  • 'I bet you a sixpence if it will rain tomorrow.'
For Austin, it is not merely the words themselves, but the words in the appropriate circumstances, with appropriate motivations, and appropriate conventions that bring about the happy performance. Presumably, the same is to obtain in theology as well - - though the conditions are not explicitly worked out.

Of course, Austin himself knew that the distinction between the constative and performative was difficult to maintain. Take for instance the claim, 'there is a dangerous animal here.' While it seems structured as a constative, in certain circumstances is it not elliptical for the putative performances: 'I bet there is a dangerous animal here'; 'I guarantee that there is a dangerous animal here'; or 'I warn you that there is a dangerous animal here'?

Because of this problem, Austin was working at his death upon clarifying the distinction between the locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary as a substitute for the previous distinction. In stating what is by means of a locution, one is doing so with illocutionary force, that is, one is normally assuring, or warning, or ordering, or expressing an intention. The perlocutionary subsequently deals with the effects of the illocution in the feelings, thinkings, or actions of the audience, speaker, or other person.

We could at this point talk about how Searle revised his teacher's theory, but for our purposes what is important is to see that illuctionary acts make use of locutions in order to bring about a perlocution. That is to say - - using the early vocabulary - - a performative utterance has propositional content, an intensional or extensional meaning. Furthermore, the utterance presupposes facts and conventions, many of which can be explicated if one were to take the time. For instance, to say 'I bequeath my watch to my brother' with sincerity, presupposes that I have a watch, that I have a brother, that I intend a situation of my brother having a watch, and that there is a social convention whereby of bequeathing such that the state of affairs of my having my watch will give way to my brother legally possessing it.

Within some of these quarters of Lutheran theology an explication of religious and theological statements is given in terms of performative utterances in order, I believe, to escape the thorny question of truth. Thus, to say that "I declare unto you the entire forgiveness of all of your sins in the name of Christ Jesus' is not thus to commit oneself to any specifiable ontological situation involving divine states of affairs, relations, properties, and events. It is rather a performance that, to use Austin's later terminology, has a perlocution. The hope is that the utterances can existentially empower without suggesting any "death-dealing metaphysics."

But a moment's reflection shows how wrong-headed it is to think that perlocutions are somehow psychologically independent of what is being asserted. If one has a social convention of bequeathal, it makes all the difference in the world to the perlocutions generated in the inheriting brother by this illocutionary act, whether he does have, in fact, a brother, and whether or not the brother has something to bequeath.

Analogously, having one's feeling and emotions affected by the declaration of forgiveness of sins has everything to do with whether one believes one has sins, and whether or not Christ is thought to be the kind of being that could in principle forgive them.

While Scripture is filled with what Austin would have at one time called performative utterances, this does not mean that one can escape the truth game. Truth pro me is still truth. I will be dealing with some concrete texts in coming posts. My purposes are entirely constructive. We must as theologians grasp the contemporary philosophical situation with respect to the philosophy of language, if we are going to be making moves in the philosophy of language that are to accomplish such heavy theological work.

No comments:

Post a Comment