Bird, Political Theory and Ordinary Language

download Bird, Political Theory and Ordinary Language

of 22

  • date post

  • Category


  • view

  • download


Embed Size (px)


Political theory; ordinary language analysis; Austin; morality

Transcript of Bird, Political Theory and Ordinary Language


. Volume 43, Number 1 . January 2011

r 2011 Northeastern Political Science Association 0032-3497/11

Political Theory and Ordinary Language: A Road Not TakenColin Bird University of VirginiaThis article argues that political theory could gain from a revival of the form of ordinary language analysis advocated by J. L. Austin. It distinguishes three objectionable forms of scholasticism widespread in contemporary political theory, and shows how Austinian methods might help to combat them. To illustrate the potential of Austinian analysis in political theory, the final third of the article considers, in the light of pertinent ordinary language, the widely canvassed claim that coercion can involve disrespect for persons; these considerations suggest that this claim is more complicated, less obviously sound, and more interesting, than political theorists often assume. Polity (2011) 43, 106127. doi:10.1057/pol.2010.20; published online 23 August 2010

Keywords: J. L. Austin; ordinary language; coercion; disrespect; dignity; foundationalismJ. L. Austin played an important, although largely unintended, role in the twentieth-century revival of normative political theory. Isaiah Berlin, H. L. A. Hart, Ju rgen Habermas, Quentin Skinner, Richard Rorty, Charles Taylor, Stanley Cavell, Bernard Williams, Hannah Pitkin, and those they have influenced were all heavily indebted to Austin, and to ordinary language philosophy more generally. Yet political theorists today rarely give ordinary language the sort of patient attention that Austin recommended, and the continuing relevance of his ideas for the practice of political theory remains widely unappreciated and misunderstood. Among the present generation of political theorists, the received view of Austin runs something like this: although his notion of performative utterance has proven to be a lasting contribution, with seminal political relevance, Austins wider philosophical concerns, and especially his distinctive plea for philosophical field work in the everyday use of language, have little to offer politicalThe author is grateful to Bill Gorton, Corey Brettschneider, George Klosko, Ryan Pevnick, Andrew Polsky, several anonymous referees for Polity, and audiences at the Midwest Political Science Association meetings, at the University of Virginia, and at the National Humanities Center for many constructive comments. Large parts of this article were completed while I was on sabbatical leave supported by an NEH Fellowship at the National Humanities Center for 20082009; I thank both those institutions for their generous support.

Colin Bird


theorists. This article aims to combat this view by explaining how a renewed attention to ordinary language might enrich the field. I certainly do not claim that contemporary political theory should be wholly reconceived on an Austinian basis; ordinary language, as Austin was the first to admit, has real limitations.1 My thesis is rather that, in forgetting some of Austins strictures about the significance of ordinary use, political theorists deprive themselves of a vital resource.

How Austin Was ForgottenMany intellectuals are reluctant to acknowledge that everyday discourse could be a source of philosophical insight in its own right, and this partly explains why political theorists still resist Austins contention that the nuances of ordinary use always repay our attention. However, various historical contingencies were far more important to the demise of interest in Austins approach. Neither Austin nor Wittgenstein (the other leading twentieth-century advocate for ordinary language) showed much interest in philosophical ethics or political theory, and both died well before the resurgence of these fields that began in the 1970s. Their writings provide few models for political philosophers to follow, and are rarely taught in graduate courses in the field. Austins early death in 1960 was particularly unfortunate in this regard. After his passing, ordinary language approaches fell out of favor in other areas of philosophy and slipped from the foreground of academic attention. Also influential were nagging reservations about ordinary language philosophy more generally. Even its admirers sometimes view the analysis of ordinary language as suited only to the negative, therapeutic task of dispelling conceptual confusion, while having little constructive utility in political reflection.2 Critics complained that in their deference to established usage, ordinary language analysts must be unsuspecting of the ideological falsifications that infect everyday political consciousness. On this view, ordinary language is necessarily conservative and ideological, and making it central to theoretical discussion precludes a suitably critical stance toward prevailing norms, practices, and conventions. These criticisms were crystallized in polemical attacks on ordinary language philosophy published by Herbert Marcuse and Ernest Gellner in the 1950s and 1960s.3 Although Alan Wertheimer effectively rebutted the charges,4 the Austinian program has not been1. Isaiah Berlin, Austin and the Early Beginnings of Oxford Philosophy, in Essays on J. L. Austin, ed. G.J. Warnock (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), 14. 2. For example, Phillip Pettit, The Contribution of Analytic Political Philosophy, in A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy, ed. Robert Goodin and Phillip Pettit (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), 910. 3. Ernest Gellner, Words and Things (London: Gollancz, 1959), 217; Herbert Marcuse, OneDimensional Man (New York: Beacon, 1964), 17273. 4. Alan Wertheimer, Is Ordinary Language Analysis Conservative?, Political Theory 4 (1976): 40522.



taken up by political theorists in any systematic way, and the stock image of ordinary language philosophy as hair-splitting, politically disengaged, and conservative persists.5 As a result, the various intellectual paradigms (Kantian ethics, natural law theory, Rawlsian political liberalism, virtue ethics, poststructuralism, anti-foundationalism, rational choice theory, Straussianism) that dominate the field of political theory today rarely tarry long with ordinary language in the areas of ethical consciousness they theorize.

Why Austin Is Still Important: Anti-ScholasticismIn urging that we redress this imbalance, I stress that my interest is neither in ordinary language philosophy as a particular episode in intellectual history nor as a doctrinaire tradition to be revived. My aim is to rehabilitate ordinary language itself as a philosophical resource, one that political theorists too often ignore. Apart from the many insights it offers on specific matters, the close study of ordinary use has a more general value in subjecting intellectual speculation to a powerful and salutary anti-scholastic check. Scholasticism is a perennial temptation in any academic field, and at the heart of Austins project was an astute diagnosis of this phenomenon. As he saw it, scholasticism develops when academics rip words and concepts clean from the circumstances in which they would ordinarily be used and then redeploy them to populate highly technical, specialized theoretical frameworks of their own devising. The result is over-simplification, schematization, and constant obsessive repetition of the same small range of jejune examples, scholastic faults that Austin described as far too common to be dismissed as an occasional weakness of philosophers.6 As a counterweight to these tendencies, Austin urged philosophers to initiate5. These longstanding misconceptions about ordinary language philosophy have been further reinforced in recent years by the influential contemporary campaign for experimental or empirical forms of philosophical inquiry. See Kwame Anthony Appiah, Experiments in Ethics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004) and Jesse Prinz, Empirical Philosophy and Experimental Philosophy, in Experimental Philosophy, ed. Joshua Knobe and Shaun Nichols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 189209. This campaign often trades on na ve oppositions between empirical and armchair conceptual analysis in a way that unfairly reads Austin out of the picture. We should remember that we owe to Austin one of the earliest uses of the pejorative metaphor of the armchair philosopher who analyzes concepts a priori. See J. L. Austin, A Plea for Excuses, in his Philosophical Papers, ed. G.J. Warnock and J.O. Urmson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), 182. Philosophical experimentation to determine the tolerances of concepts used in ordinary language under the pressure of different empirical circumstances was central to Austins approach. Experimental philosophers ought to be sympathetic to, rather than dismissive of, this Austinian technique. 6. J. L. Austin, Sense and Sensibilia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962), 3. Compare political theorists fascination with largely meaningless terms like liberalism, contestability, alterity, intuition, foundationalism; our tendency to trade in abstractions like metaphysics, modernity, ontology, identity, subject, or the separateness of persons; and our predilection for highly stylized philosophical examples (trolley problems, eye lotteries, babies drowning in ponds, etc.).

Colin Bird


careful field work in the ordinary use of those expressions and words that are adjacent to, or involved in, their area of interest: How much it is to be wished that similar field work will soon be undertaken in, say, aesthetics; if only we could forget for a while about the beautiful and get down instead to the dainty and the dumpy.7 Although Austin regarded this fieldwork as a prerequisite for sophisticated theoretical reflection about virtually any topic, it does not follow that his approach is in any sense an