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Language, Rules, and Rule: Austin and Wittgenstein on understanding and authority
Unformatted Document Text:  others, to declare war or peace, to grant certain persons entry into, and remove others from, a community. The making of modern (written, public) law is perhaps the clearest example of a performative situation in which, as Austin put it, “to utter the sentence (in, of course, the appropriate circumstances) is not to describe my doing of what I should be said in so uttering to be doing or to state that I am doing it: it is to do it” (Austin, 6). A closer look at Hobbes’ picture raises an important question, however: if laws are chains, must they not bind the sovereign just as strongly as his subjects, so that subjects’ actions, transmitted back through the chains of law, guide and constrain the sovereign; that is, what about all those chains pulling the sovereign around by the lips? Hobbes would of course respond that this question misunderstands sovereignty itself, but it does so by using Hobbes’ own imagery to draw attention to a problematic view of language that he shares with Austin’s How to do Things with Words. Austin’s discussion of the performative presents language as a matter of an individual speaker’s manipulation of an abstract system of conventions, separating the concerns of interpersonal communication—and so of how we use language among others—from the essence of language. This picture is not wrong so much as it is incomplete: language is a system of conventions, and the settled, conventional nature of meanings and usage is essential to nearly all communication; but these conventions themselves consist in, and so depend on, tacit agreements shared among the users of a language, and one’s ability to use them—to do things with words—is thus inseparable from her ability to engage communicatively with others, to reach understanding with them. Wittgenstein draws attention to the communicative foundations of conventions and language with his claims that meaning is in use and that “it is not possible to obey a 2

Authors: McFadden, Tanner.
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others, to declare war or peace, to grant certain persons entry into, and remove others
from, a community. The making of modern (written, public) law is perhaps the clearest
example of a performative situation in which, as Austin put it, “to utter the sentence (in,
of course, the appropriate circumstances) is not to describe my doing of what I should be
said in so uttering to be doing or to state that I am doing it: it is to do it” (Austin, 6).
A closer look at Hobbes’ picture raises an important question, however: if laws
are chains, must they not bind the sovereign just as strongly as his subjects, so that
subjects’ actions, transmitted back through the chains of law, guide and constrain the
sovereign; that is, what about all those chains pulling the sovereign around by the lips?
Hobbes would of course respond that this question misunderstands sovereignty itself, but
it does so by using Hobbes’ own imagery to draw attention to a problematic view of
language that he shares with Austin’s How to do Things with Words. Austin’s discussion
of the performative presents language as a matter of an individual speaker’s manipulation
of an abstract system of conventions, separating the concerns of interpersonal
communication—and so of how we use language among others—from the essence of
language. This picture is not wrong so much as it is incomplete: language is a system of
conventions, and the settled, conventional nature of meanings and usage is essential to
nearly all communication; but these conventions themselves consist in, and so depend on,
tacit agreements shared among the users of a language, and one’s ability to use them—to
do things with words—is thus inseparable from her ability to engage communicatively
with others, to reach understanding with them.
Wittgenstein draws attention to the communicative foundations of conventions
and language with his claims that meaning is in use and that “it is not possible to obey a
2


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