Sunday, October 13, 2013

Performatives, Illocutions and Felicity Conditions for Preaching

Many point out that preaching is a performative act.  Instead of a mere conveyance of said information, good preaching is a doing.  In the sermon, Jesus Christ Himself is handed over to the hearers of the Word. 

The Tuebingen systematician Owald Bayer (b. 1939) uses the notion of a performative utterance, connects it with the promissio, and contrasts it with a mere constative.  Accordingly, Bayer quotes a statement from Luther’s Tishreden as stating a general principle in Luther’s semantics: "Signum philosophicum est nota absentis rei, signum theologicum est nota praesentis rei"  (“The philosophical sign is a mark of an absent thing; the theological sign is a mark of a present thing"), and “the signum itself is already the res; the linguistic sign is already the matter itself" (Martin Luther’s Theology, 52).

The promissio Bayer locates at the center of Luther's theology is unpacked by equating the word in language with the reality itself. Bayer suggests that in promises, words are not to be interpreted extensionally or intensionally, but are themselves their own reality.  (I have elsewhere called this the "donational model.")  Bayer regards this to be the deepest presupposition of Luther's theological semantics, a position he claims is akin to the views on performative language advanced by Austin. 

Over and against the constative, Bayer regards the promissio as a performative utterance: "In contrast to every metaphysical set of statements that teach about the deity, this assertion [e.g. "To you is born this day a Savior"] declares that God's truth and will are not abstract entities, but are directed verbally and publicly as a concrete promise to a particular hearer in a specific situation. 'God' is apprehended as the one who makes a promise to a human being in such a way that the person who hears it can have full confidence in it" (53).  Bayer has many more things to say about promise-talk:  

  •  " . . . one cannot take the promise, which is not a descriptive statement, and transform it into a descriptive statement.” 
  • “Secondly, one cannot take the promise, which is not in the form of a statement that shows how something ought to be done, and transform it into an imperative. . . .” 
  •  "The truth of the promise . . . is to be determined only at the very place that the promise was . . . constituted. This means it is located within the relationship of the one who is speaking . . . and the one who hears. . . .”
Unfortunately, regardless of his authorial intent, Bayer’s formulations suggest a possible confusion.  One might hold that the sermon is a set of performative utterances - - promises being one type of performative - - that do something rather than say something, and then go on to claim that since performative utterances are not true or false, preaching expressions have no truth-conditions.  While this might seem a very bad thing, it is actually has some theological advantages.   How is this view possibly fruitful?  

Since the time of Kant there has been a tendency to claim that religious and theological language do not talk about the same reality as that talked about by historical, scientific, and even philosophical language.  This happened because the Kantian criticisms of natural theology succeeded in adding to the previous Enlightenment distrust that theological statements could be straightforwardly true.  If they weren't true, but still useful, then what were they?  The view that whatever religion and theology talk about, they don't talk about the same reality as discussed in the other disciplines is called the independence thesis in the theology and science discussion.  The question is then to locate the domain of theology with respect to other domains.  What domain is theology about?   

Here is where performative utterance-talk can come to the rescue.   The promise of performative utterances is that Lutheran theology can thus avoid metaphysical statements about God, God’s causal relationship with the universe, and God’s relationship to the realm of being generally. Instead one merely says that theology is all about doing, and doing cannot conflict with what is, with the saying of  metaphysics!   One can thus both be an academic, post-Kantian and a Lutheran theologian all at the same time!  
Accordingly, proclamations become first-order doing expressions without truth conditions, and they produce what they say.  Preaching is constituted by performative utterances declaring one’s freedom from sin, death, and devil through Christ.   Explicitly theological formulations then become second-order saying expressions which are merely regulative in that they order the performative utterances, and govern the occasions and context of their use.  One detects a fleeting ghost of Schleiermacher who held:  

  • First-order religious language is expressive and poetic;
  • First-order rhetorical language is rhetorical and persuasive;
  • Second-order theological language is didatic and dogmatic.  
Clearly, a great deal of weight must be carried by the notion of a performative utterance, if it is to ground the very questionable discipline of theology in our time.  Unfortunately, many theologians do not realize that the status of a performative utterance is itself a matter of considerable philosophical controversy, and that Austin was already attacking his own performative-constative distinction almost 60 years ago.  

In sections IV and VII of How to Do Things with Words, Austin accumulates a number of doubts about the performative-constative distinction.   It seems that certain "felicity conditions" must be met in order for a declaration or promise to occur, and that these conditions rest both on social convention and speaker intentionality.  A performative is null and void if issued by a person not in position to perform the act, e.g., the pastor can marry the couple only in the appropriate social context, not by himself in the shower.  An unelected plumber cannot declare war on behalf of the United States.   One cannot promise with the intention to break it or without any means to fulfill the promise.   It seems that, for Austin, there is an element of the constative in each performative, and an element of the performative in the constative.   For these reasons Austin abandons the performative-constative distinction and formulates instead a distinction among locutions, various illocutionary acts, and the different perlocutions accomplished through these illocutions.   

The locution is the semantic content of an utterance; it is the act of saying something.   The illocutionary act is that which is accomplished in the saying.  It is the "extra meaning" beyond the literal meaning of the locution.  It and the perlocution constitute part of the speech act's force.   The perlocution is the intended effect produced in the hearer by the illocution.   This effect clearly depends upon social convention.   Austin's student, John Searle, revised the threefold schema of Austin into five categories:  

  • Representatives state something in the doing.  Examples are "the cat is on the mat," and "David Hume died in 1776."  
  • Directives tell others to do something, e.g., "Give me the hammer!", "Don't make a sound during church." 
  • Commissives occur when promises are made, e.g., "I promise to be faithful to you until death parts us," "God sent his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall never die." 
  •  Expressives merely display the speaker's attitudes and states.   Examples are, "I am really sorry about that," "Congratulations!!!"  
  •   Declarations actually do something with words, e.g., "I name you John," "Class dismissed!"  
Searle regards directives, commissives and declarations to be general performatives where the world must now fit the words.  Alternately, representatives and expressives are general representatives where the words must fit the world.   (In an expressive, the word is supposed to fit the world of the speaker's attitudes and emotions.)  With all of these, however, there is an element of each in the other.   General performatives have locutionary semantic content; general representatives have a particular illocutionary force.  A single locution can sustain markedly different different illocutionary and perlocutionary force.

Take, for instance, the phrase, 'The dog is in the yard."   This could be a representative or an assertive merely stating what one thinks.  It might be used as a directive, telling others to stay away.   It might be a commissive that promises to all a safe yard.   Of course, it could be an expressive that does nothing more than display speaker fear.   The phrase, "I promise to be there tomorrow," can be a promise, but it might be a threat.  Saying 'the Day of the Lord is at hand' might be interpreted as a promise if God's presence is thought to be advantageous to the hearer, but it might be threat if divine presence is likely disadvantageous to the hearer.  (Notice how easy it is to explain now how the same locution of Scripture can both be Law and Gospel?)    

Given all of these distinctions, it becomes very hard to see how a performative utterance can somehow lead to Bayer's championed identity of a signum and res.  The signum does constitute the locutionary content of the expression.  The res, however, seems best associated with the perlocution, with what is brought about through the illocution.  Clearly, on this interpretation the perlocution cannot be a thing identifiable with the semantic content of the word itself.

We have found that the notion of a performative utterance has been employed in preaching to speak of the force of preaching and its effect, but that the notion of a performative as not having a truth value makes problematic this use.  We have also learned that Austin himself found his distinction between performatives and constatives problematic, and that newer views were subsequently devised to speak of illocutionary acts which utter locutions.  What Austin and Searle both discovered, however, is that in the analysis of speech act meaning, one simply cannot escape semantic content.    

We have previously concluded from this that there is nothing especially mysterious about using language to accomplish persuasive ends.   In good preaching, illocutions effect perlocutions.  Preachers thus exhort by demand and promise to move the hearts of their hearers.   This movements of the heart are the perlocutionary effects of these utterances.   Consequently, there is no simple identity between signum and res.  So far so good.   But there remains one really big problem for those finding an isolated doing in preaching performance that protects Lutheran's from an Enlightment-style critique of putative Lutheran saying.   

According to speech act theory, for a declaration to obtain certain felicity conditions must be in place.  For preaching to be interpreted as felicitiously performative, there can be no misfiring or abuse, and there must exist the proper preparatory conditions.  This means that while 'I absolve you' may have the sufficient felicity conditions in congregations whose attendees have appropriate presuppositions about the authority of the preacher to pronounce absolution and the sincerity of the preacher in pronouncing it, this is not the case in much of America now.   If preaching is a performative utterance, then any putative identity of signum and res can only occur as an “inside game” where the appropriate executive conditions --- are there appropriate background conditions? -- and essential  felicity conditions --is there proper fulfillment of the speech act? -- obtain.

I believe our time is like the time of the first century.   People to whom we preach must be convinced of the truth of what we are saying before they will join a community and adopt the appropriate felicity conditions making possible preaching declarations.   One can "hand over Christ" in preaching only if there are previous broad commitments about the existence and nature of a God causally efficacious in salvation.   The problem of our time is that only a few share the societal conventions that make possible the obtaining of the felicity conditions for proclamation.  The following likely hold:   

  • We find the background conditions of belief necessary for the social conventions grounding the felicity conditions of preaching declaration are no longer present. 
  • We find that few are moved by the illocutionary acts of preaching because the very possibility of perlocutionary response is tied to the question of truth. 
  • We discover that more than a few pastors are simply insincere; they use language in ways that downplay propositional content in order to bring about a perlocutionary effect that in the tradition was always tied to that content.   
Performative utterances are not mysterious and cannot remove us from the truth game.   Accordingly, they cannot lead us around the critique of modernity.


  1. Thought provoking. Missiologically, I am drawn to the contemplation of what extra-homiletic activities yield most effective improvement to local "background conditions." What matches the instructive/reinforcing/inspiring impact of stained glass in an emoji world?

  2. Interesting post. In order to know the intention of a sermon, we need to know who the author is. The perlocutionary effect will depend upon who the author is perceived to be. It will matter whether the author is your neighbor, a content expert, a figure of authority, or God. It is possible for the speaker to be different from the author. It seems, too, that the nature of the sermon will communicate or intend to communicate who the author is. Obviously if someone intends to communicate God's words, there are conditions of satisfaction required. If the hearer is to receive this communication they must believe not only that this is possible, but that it is actually occurring. If someone screams, "The building is on fire!" and everyone remains in their seats, it is still a performative utterance, but its intended communication was not accomplished. In this way, the situation is no different from that at Calvary, where the declarative-promise was communicated to all, but only some heard it. The appropriate felicity conditions set conditions on both the author, speaker, and hearer, and all must be met for the communication to be satisfied. We can perhaps communicate what those conditions are. But this is by no means sufficient. If I say, "God says that He loves you," we know what the intention of the speaker is, and we can presume he is sincere. He communicates to the hearer what he wants us to believe and we understand it. The performative utterance has done most of its job, and yet we still do not believe it. That last part of the intention: that we believe it, falls short. Why? Is it because of who we take the author to be? In short, even if we take it to be the voice of God, there are always truth-conditions that require satisfaction for the speaker's intention to be fulfilled.