One of the great contributions of the philosophers John Austin, in the mid-20th century, and John Searle, who is still active today, has been an important claim about language. While a large part of philosophy of language looked at how language describes the world, they became interested in how language changes the world.
All human action, they point out, is coordinated through language. Speaking is rarely just speaking about something. It’s more often an act through which we make it possible to do things in conjunction with others, taking up and putting down commitments so we can pursue the possibilities that are important to us.
This week’s writing here will be dedicated to this topic. We’ll start by exploring three different conversations that make action with others possible, and the many muddles and mistakes that can be avoided by knowing which is which, and which is called for in any moment.
And then we’ll explore conversations for action in more depth – in particular how requests and promises work and don’t work, and what we can do to improve our use of them.
There’s so much to discover by looking closely at all this, because many of the difficulties we face, and much of our wastefulness, can be tackled by developing skill in speaking and listening.
You could start to explore this topic by observing yourself closely over the next few days. Look for all the ways in which you run into difficulty in coordinating with other people. Look closely in particular at all the times what you asked of others didn’t happen, or at least not in the way you intended.
And look too at all those times when you brought your best effort and intentions to a project only to find that it wasn’t needed, wasn’t appreciated, or that what you’d been doing was not quite what other people had hoped.
And let’s see if, by studying this topic, we can improve things together.
You can read more on ‘Speech Acts’ – conversations, requests and promises – here.