Paul Maxwell and Speech Act Theory

Paul Maxwell’s recent post on a recent kerfuffle about speech act theory is worth checking out. Here I want to hone in on two points where I think we disagree.

First, he has a section on the limitations of speech act theory. At the end of this section he says, “Those are four qualifications that we need to make about speech act theory before we place it on the front of our hermeneutical toolbelt.” So the point might be that theorists and practitioners need to be more expansive. If that is the case, I am fine with the point. If, however, the point is that speech act theory itself cannot accommodate these criticisms, I find the points wanting. Let’s look at them in turn.

(1) There is the issue of hierarchy: “But speech act theory, by honing in on one behavioreme, one sentence, one paragraph, or even one document, can fail to see layers of locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary acts which go up and down the entire spectrum of specificity.”

This does not seem to be a limitation of speech act theory itself but how it is sometimes practiced. After all, notice that the quote has the phrase “can fail to see.” So while this might be a limitation of how certain persons have theorized about or practiced speech act theory, it seems that speech act theory itself can accommodate this point.

(2) Next, there is the problem of variation. “What this means is that, to use Poythress’s example, a politician might ask, ‘Please do not judge me harshly.’ In classifying this utterance as a request, we permit its reduction to that illocution, and nullify the illocutionary nuance of the whole locution…Therefore, by calling the utterance “Please do not judge me harshly” an illocutive request, we don’t actually add anything meaningful to our understanding of that utterance in particular, but rather help us to relate that utterance to, and distinguish it from, other utterances. And so, speech act theory, when it comes to the variation of the linguistic elements for which it seeks to account, has as its object language as a whole, rather than particles of speech, even though it insists the opposite.”

There is certainly a worry of reductionism among those who use speech act theory, but it need not be that way. Notice that Maxwell says that “it insists the opposite.” Presumably he means speech act theory. But one can easily embrace speech act theory and say that theorists and practitioners have not been aware of these nuances and so the theory needs to be expanded. Maybe the difference becomes terminological where this changes means for one person that it is no longer speech act theory while for another it means that it is simply a better analysis. That point is worth exploring to see where agreements and disagreements are.

(3) Third, distribution. “So a single utterance may be loaded with an assertion and a command–’You are charged with (assertive) … I hereby sentence you (declarative).'”

It is not spelled out how this is a problem for speech act theory. The difficulty is not obvious to me.

(4) “Fourth, and Poythress makes this point informally—there is the issue of being in a position to perform a speech act. For example, while a declaration of marriage is a speech act, you must have credentials to marry recognized by the state. You can only call a ball or a strike if you are an umpire—and more than that, if you are a home plate umpire. You can only apologize if you are the one who perpetrated the moral wrong for which you are apologizing.”

I do not know the literature enough to comment, but I would find it unlikely that Searle never mentions this. In a lecture on the topic, he does talk about how Catholics criticized his use of marriage as perlocutionary since it is God who does the marrying, not the priest (if I recall correctly). Thus, he is minimally aware of the point. Either way, speech act theory can easily take this point on board.

The second point I want to quibble with is about what Maxwell calls “the logical fallacy of mind reading against the authors of the social justice statement.” He discusses three different options of what Keller might be doing in the video (see Maxwell’s post and the video for more information). Namely, “[H]e could be saying that he agrees with the locution of the social justice document, but classifies the rhetic content not as asserting propositional content, but as declaring the theological unimportance of the politics of monetary impoverishment, and possibly even the unimportance of ethno-specific suffering. Second, Keller could be claiming that the authors of the document had an intended perlocutionary objective to place a white perspective at the center of the conversation about social justice, and to marginalize ethnic minorities. Third, Keller could have meant that he found distasteful the perlocutionary sequel of the document, and that he could agree with the locutionary and illocutionary aspects of the document.”

Maxwell goes on to say that the first two options are guilty of the logical fallacy of mind reading against the authors. But it is unclear how this is the case. Certainly one attempts to discern these matters quite often in real life. Earlier Maxwell gives this example, “For example, [consider that] my wife said to me over dinner, “I don’t like your cooking[.]” … Her perlocution is ambiguous. What in me did she intend to elicit by saying, “I don’t like your cooking?” Does she hope that by asserting a claim about the poor quality of my cooking, I will improve? Or is she simply trying to hurt my feelings? Determining the perlocution, from the listener’s perspective, is usually much harder to discern than the locution and illocution.”

It might be much harder to discern, to be sure, but that does not mean that it is a logical fallacy to attempt to discern the point. Maybe the fallacy is because Keller’s judgment would cast the authors in a negative light as doing something wrong. However, there are plenty of example where we know the perlocutionary effect of a person is to hurt us. It is not a logical fallacy to conclude that is the case. Finally, the point might be that Keller does not know the authors well enough (in contrast to how well one might know one’s wife). This criticism might have its place, but it is unclear how that entails that Keller engaging in those first two options is a logical fallacy.

Again, there might be substantial agreement on these matters. The point is not to quibble over minor details. After all, as my language shows, part of the importance of whether this last point about mind reading being a logical fallacy is to think through the Christian act of discernment. Either way, Maxwell’s article is well worth the read in summarizing complex issues on speech act theory and applying that theory to a hot button topic. I commend it.


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