Considering Speech-Acts

(Forgive some confusing aspects of this post: It was written for a class I am taking, and in it I assume certain information which may not be common to my readers here. However, I suggest you deal with it. I am too tired and sick to rewrite the whole thing for my blog).

The apparent question at hand considers words: When we read, is it as Hamlet describes, “Words, words, words,” or, as when Polonius asks what the mad prince reads, do we not wish to know what is the matter of the words, that for which the words are merely a medium? As one of my favorite podcasters[1] likes to explain, however, Hamlet is not mad; he puts on madness. In the same vein, let us not for one moment believe that words are simply words. “What do you read,” must not be answered by the declaration of, “Words!” for only a pretense of madness would proffer such an absurdity.

As regards this problem of words and meaning, we now consider speech-acts. The first article we are to respond to is titled, “Holy Scripture as a divine speech-act [sic].” (Why “divine” or “speech-act” is not capitalized I can only guess). Disregarding, then, this and other grammatical inconsistencies, I would summarize the article as providing a basic definition of speech-act theory as well as showcasing how God acts through speech. It does not seem to be concerned with the furthering of any argument for speech-act necessarily, instead focusing on how this theory can be used in interacting with scripture.

I enjoyed the second article more, though felt I understood it less, what for its incompleteness (that is, it reads more as an introductory abstract to a larger work than a self-sufficient article) and its heavy use of references to things of which I know nothing, names and papers I will  probably never bother to read. That said, a general idea comes through: Mr. Vanhoozer clearly states his purpose, “to reflect on language from out of the convictions of Christian faith.” Furthermore, he ends his work, specifying his aim: as C. S. Lewis once enumerated a Mere Christianity, Vanhoozer wishes to similarly form a Mere Hermeneutics. It is a rich read, all things considered, and written in an enjoyable style.

What are we students then to make of this? One thing intrinsic to speech-act theory is this assertion that words are more than words. Preparing for this paper, I assaulted my family with my attempts to explain the speech-act theory hoping I would somehow explain it to myself. One concept I happened upon was how a statement changes meaning given context. I say, “The tree is green.” Without further context, the illocution seems to be more than mere fact: If someone says to me, “the tree is green,” I suspect they wish me to see the tree, see that it is green, and furthermore, know its beauty. How can context change this? Suppose I ordered the gardener to plant a red tree and found a green tree instead? Suppose in the midst of autumn there was a leafy tree still possessed of its green? The words, “the tree is green,” the locution, hasn’t changed, but the illocution and the perlocution do in all these contexts.

What am I to make of these papers? I do not fully know. The theory itself seems solid; I see none of the internal contradictions by which postmodern arguments are infected. However, there seems to me a more basic ground than speech-act which we can fall back upon: Words convey meaning. The focus of speech-act theory on response flows perfectly into scripture, but I wonder how well it fits when applied to text that we must judge. In the case of the Bible, I go to it humbly—so too I approach other works which have no heavenly authority—but I do not grant this humility in myself to all texts which I read. I still respect these texts enough to grant that they say something, that they convey meaning, but I often reserve my response, not willing to take instruction until I’ve learned to trust the text. And yet, if I understand speech-act, the response is only a desired—or perhaps, appropriate—response, not a necessary one.

In all, I hope my understanding of speech-act is improved by these articles. It seems a rational theory in the midst of a methodological madness, a fair court of play opposed to agenda driven referees.

Andrew Klavan

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