Transcending personal beliefs, part 3

This is the final in a three-part series.

(Based on a paper I presented in May 2012, titled “Ways of Believing,” at the regional meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, Concordia University Portland)

Continuing with the question of the possibility of transcending personal beliefs, and the need to do so to discover another’s humanity, I delve into John R. Searle’s theories of language and mind.

Have you ever considered how your language skills have evolved? From crying and screaming to understanding the alphabet. From cooing and mumbling to building words with letters. From forming basic sounds to speaking, arguing, reading and writing. A system so complex, even neurobiologists have yet to discover the precise mechanism in the brain that makes language possible.

What’s more, language acquisition and usage do not arise from nothing. Technically speaking, says John Searle, language arises from intentionality in the brain, from mental capacities known as directedness or aim of mental (psychological states), like belief in something, desire for someone, fear of the unknown.

Unlike Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory of ‘language games’ that humans use language in countless ways, starting with a child’s ability to point and name, Searle argues for five basic ways. These five — assertives, directives, commissives, expressives, and declarations (and a subcategory of assertive declarations), all have a point. Searle offers examples.

  • Assertive: It is raining. The point is to state what is the case.
  • Directive: I order you to listen. The point is to get someone to do something.
  • Commissive: I promise to come and see you tomorrow. The point is to follow through on something.
  • Expressive: I apologize for stepping on your toe. The point is to express myself.
  • Declaration: I declare war. The point is to bring about a change in the world.
  • Assertive declaration: I declare you guilty.

Naturally, Searle is one of many speech act theorists. What sets him apart is his interest in the components of the brain for language use. So Searle is famously known for rooting his philosophy of language in the philosophy of mind, meaning a variety of mental states give rise to our ability to assert, direct, commit, express, declare and assert declare. Consider these examples of mental states that correspond with particular statements.

  • My ability to assert that it is raining arises from my belief that it is raining.
  • My ability to direct you to listen arises from my desire for you to listen.
  • My ability to promise to come and see you tomorrow arises from my intent to come and see you tomorrow.
  • My ability to express an apology for stepping on your toe arises from my remorse or guilt for having stepped on your toe.
  • Declarations have no corresponding mental states, whereas the ability to assert declare you guilty arises from my belief that you are guilty (and I must have the authority as a judge to do so).

Debates continue over Wittgenstein’s theory on the limitless uses of language compared to Searle’s theory of five basic uses. The crux of the problem — puzzle, Wittgenstein would say — has to do with meaning.

The meaning of a word or phrase or sentence changes depending on the context and speaker intent. Intrinsically, however, every word has a literal value. ‘Blue’ in the literal sense means a specific color. The phrases ‘feeling blue’ or ‘out of the blue,’ in taking on a metaphorical layer, alter the literal meaning of ‘blue.’

I wonder how the same might apply to our use of the word ‘God’ or ‘religious.’ In my next post for this series, I will call for an interdisciplinary approach to the question of God and religious belief in the brain, despite Searle’s personal move “beyond atheism.”

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  1. Interesting. Searle’s ideas reverberate in the Middle East where a YouTube video is perceived as speech act. And those of us in the U.S. are perhaps hopelessly influenced by Wittgenstein, whose writings as far as I can tell are open all manner of interpretations.

  2. Fascinating! I would think this research would have implications for interpretations of religious texts? From the other side of the coin, does the intent of the interpreter weigh on what is heard or read? Would this research explain why different people in different eras interpret the same religious verses in different ways?

  3. Lace Williams-Tinajero

    Thanks for your comments, Prabu and Bruce.

    Good question on authorial intention. With speech act theory, the focus is on what the speaker is doing and on speaker intention. Naturally the interpreter’s presuppositions and intent cannot be dismissed. But unlike many critical methods, speech act theory provides specific linguistic structures–parameters–for evaluating oral or written statements to determine their type of speech act.

    Here’s how it works for Scripture. Take any biblical sentence and plug it into Searle’s symbolic schemata to see what the biblical characters or writers were doing with a particular statement (e.g., asserting what was the case, directing someone to do something, commiting to something in the future, expressing themselves, declaring something into existence, or assert declaring):

    For assertives├↓B(p)
    For directives !↑W(H does A)
    For commissives C↑I(S does A)
    For expressives EØ(P)(S/H+property)
    For declarations D↕Ø(p)
    For assertive declarations Da↓↕B(p)

    Based on these symbolic forms, some sentences fit clearly into one category. At other times the interpreter must discern whether a particular statement fits multiple categories, indicating direct and indirect speech acts (see, for example, Jesus’ direct assertives, indirect directives, and indirect commissives in John 6:53-58).

    I hope this helps. If not, we can discuss it over coffee!

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