Political Speech Acts

Bryan Wandel

A couple of months ago, Hadley Arkes and Matthew O’Brien had a debate in Public Discourse about what kind of reasoning is admissible in, well, public discourse. O’Brien denounced Arkes’s Kantianism, which was effective since everyone loves to hate the Enlightenment (except Jürgen Habermas – you keep fighting the good fight, Jürgen). Arkes, as everyone knows, is a major proponent of the Natural Law, interpreting his teacher, Leo Strauss, to the effect that ethical inquiry is always bound up in the first principles we adumbrate and extend to our lives.

O’Brien would like to etch out a more nuanced view, in which Reason is grounded and used in a context of experiences that shape our desires, passions, and disgusts. Beyond nuance, O’Brien sees an actual problem in Arkes’s argument, which seems to rely too heavily on the abstract perspicuity of Reason itself – it claims too much.

In some ways, O’Brien seems to be on the right side of history here. Recent movements in theology (Radical Orthodoxy) have followed less recent movements in philosophy, the basic contention of which is that objective reason is a farce not because reason is just a tool for power (Nietzsche, Foucault), but because reason is always bound up in language, which can be limited, ambiguous, and impossible to pin down (Heidegger, Wittgenstein).

By some formulation, the reason we use is tied to language, and language is tied to experience and public intercourse (the legal kind). One the one hand, we experience the public discourse that we engage in. This is one reason wise democracies are morally different than wise Chinas. On another hand, political debate is aimed at political action, whose effect is intended in the action. So Reason is also tied to the things we do. One expression of this complex web is called Speech Act Theory. The English philosopher J.L. Austin criticized the trend in analytic philosophy which saw in language only “propositions.” Austin contended that humans also “do things with words” – i.e. intend to effect action.

In this way, political discourse is not only about stating public propositions. It is about politics. It is about doing things with words. I am departing from Austin somewhat here, but the point is that we use our words to affect the political body. This is the use of Austin made by the historian of political thought, Quentin Skinner.

If public discourse is merely an accumulation of propositional content, mutually agreeable – well, that is one thing. But if public discourse is actually discourse, not just a winnowing-away of contradictory positions, then the discourse is also about relating the experiences and articulations of “good” manifold within a society. And it is not just an agreement, but a desire for (and performance of) action.

Common action needs to be based on reason. But politics is not just common reason. It is that, but it is more.

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