Doing things with words

Nicholas Turner would have us mark this month’s centenary of the birth of the quintessentially English philosopher, J.L. Austin (1911–60)

J.L. (never John) Austin was the doyen of the Oxford school of ordinary language philosophers that held such sway after the Second World War. Already going out of fashion forty years ago, he is a thinker one may slowly come to appreciate as the years unfold.

I first decided to read philosophy (or ‘moral science’ as it was called in those far-off days) in 1968. Full of revolutionary fervour and youthful idealism, I never doubted that the task was to change the world. I must have been required to read something of Austin, but if I did so it was with reluctance, for no one more vividly epitomized the old, uncommitted pattern we were all seeking earnestly to overthrow.

Elegance and clarity

Thus it was only in middle age that I first read his classic essay ‘A Plea for Excuses’ and was caught up in the strange elegance and clarity of his style, and so went on to read his ‘Three Ways of Spilling Ink’ and other literary gems. He wrote little. Indeed, in today’s competitive world, he would have lost his fellowship before he’d even begun.

I seem to remember him as being a church-going Anglican, but on checking the facts recently on the internet, I find no reference to that at all. Perhaps it is an invention of my imagination, because he so characterizes what we mean by Anglican patrimony, when we follow it out beyond the church door. Two things, in particular, commend him to us.

Ordinary language

His careful but uncomplicated analysis of ordinary language offers a lifelong antidote to the monopolizing tendency in so much theology and politics. Large philosophical enterprises, like Catholicism, Marxism or Liberalism, have a tendency to lure the lazy into over-simplifying. Now you and I are not as bright as the Oxford don, but if we learn to listen to words with something of his care and interest, we find a richer world than the ideologues suggest.

Try only this – and it is a trick I learned from Austin – when considering the unassailable theses of those in the right: take the principal word or words used, turn to a thesaurus and consider the nouns, verbs, adjectives, synonyms and antonyms. Consider justice’ or ‘communion’ for example: now spend an hour writing and thinking, listing and comparing.

The technique is hardly learned overnight, but even a cursory attempt will reveal nuances and undiscovered riches not previously perceived.

Austin had great faith in ordinary language, and ordinary people’s use of it. No specific philosophical skill is required, only careful attention to the richness of the words themselves and the ways in which we use them. Gently anticlerical and nicely CofE.

Words of power

But if there is one thing I thank J.L. for, above all else in my ministry, it is the essay ‘Performative Utterances’, which was in fact an unscripted talk on the BBC Third Programme. Maybe you knew this already, maybe others have said almost the same thing, but none have put it so clearly. Words do not merely inform; they can also perform. Words can do things. They do not simply tell us about the world; they change it.

Nowhere is this is more powerfully exemplified than at a wedding. The couple do things with words. They make a binding covenant by the words they declaim. It is not information that is exchanged by the couple, when each says to the other ‘I will’, but an action. The word is, figuratively, made flesh and creates this new thing: the wedded couple.

Information overload

So too in worship. The words of the Eucharist are performative. They are not telling us things, so much as doing things. Why then was Common Worship, and much other modern liturgy, written as though most of it was informative? If the words used each week are different, we find ourselves listening to the words for what they say, to the point where we fail to appreciate their power to act.

The Book of Common Prayer was largely inflexible, like the old Missal, because the words were not there to keep us entertained or informed, but to do that which is required of us in worship, ‘our bounden duty and service’. I exaggerate a little, but was it not the case that in the old days the priest faced God, and intoned the words of power; nowadays the priest faces the people and speaks each week afresh about God.

Does the modern world suffer from an information overload? Yes. In part because we have forgotten what else our words can do. Austin is still worth a read, for he was right. ND

 

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