There and Back again

Suddenly, I find myself at the end of the first month of a new year, jolting awake. What happened? Well, I was off work for a blessed six weeks from the end of November, so I might spend that time writing on my dissertation. Like all grand quests, things never go entirely as planned, but I did make some very interesting discoveries that I would like to share. And yes, you Tolkien fans, you have correctly identified the title of this blog. We watched the movie yet again at Christmas. Wonderful.

First, I discovered that Austin’s speech act theory is not a theory in the traditional sense, which kind of shocked me. Rather, it is more of a field guide for studying language in a natural setting. This led me to question the validity of subsequent speech act theories. Now you might wonder, “Why is this important?” Well, Austin is supposed to be the grand inventor of the Speech Act theory. Except that he was not, and that what he invented was not speech act theory.

These are bold statements. In the philosophy of language, they are akin to saying that one plus one does not equal two. So I need to explain myself. First off, you might recall that I read at Oxford and hence have a feel for the place. I sort of know how they think because I know how it feels. Of course, I was there at the beginning of the 1980s, whereas Austin made his mark just after World War II. But that only means I caught the effects of what he started. And what did he start? Well, this is actually documented, but I did not know about it until I read metaphysical animals, which is about four women philosophers: Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot and Mary Midgley. During WWII, they were undergraduates while “the men” were away, the men being the newfangled breed of “analytical philosophers.” When they came back, there was a kind of power struggle, which the men won but only at great cost to the philosophical debate. Austin, who wasn’t always a language philosopher, decided to become a language field researcher, which is similar to a biology field worker, as an analytic-style response to philosophical ideas that he thought, were too vague and wordy. He even phrased it as a conscious choice between publishing and teaching. So he established a novel kind of research-and-teaching tradition, modelled on his intelligence unit during the war and barring all women because apparently he did not like them much. He became a kind of Wittgenstein counterforce (those two did not appreciate each other at all), although he was never considered on a par. Wittgenstein, of course, was at Cambridge at the time, and rarely came up to Oxford, or if he did, only at the personal invitation of Anscombe.

Source: existential comics

There is a lot of archived material on Austin, some of which I can’t access online but which piqued my interest. I quite lost myself in the newspapers from that time about how these great philosophers behaved, especially toward one another. It is like reading a tabloid—very gossipy. Mostly, they were not very nice people, these analytic philosophers, not a at all. Anyway, I have promised myself to go up to Oxford this summer and visit the Balliol College archives, which hold Austin’s personal papers. It seems that he was enamoured of a particular scholar, also at Balliol, and I suspect he got his “speech act” ideas from there, via German scholars such as Adolph Reinach who first discovered them but called them “social facts.”

I think the research tradition that Austin established has much to commend it, not least because he helped sever the connection between language and truth. However, it does not amount to a theory, let alone a speech act theory; and he did not think so himself. So in that light, it is a bit strange to have studied other speech act theories, like Searle’s or Bach’s which base themselves on Austin’s “theory.”

Reading about Austin and his time also gave me insights into why philosophy was conducted at the time and how philosophy of language was conducted. It seems very much a case of haphazard social connections and who-knows-who-to-influence-someone else. I discovered (yes, Husband, thanks to you if only I had listened earlier 🙂 a set of interviews by Brian Magee in the 1980s. Wonderful. These give a feel for the kind of people these philosophers were. Observe the difference between Searle and Bernard Williams in these interviews—they are worlds apart. Searle is insecure (he lashes out at Williams at future interviews, complaining about Williams’ good connections with the British Royal Family, which, as an American, he can only dream of). Williams observes from an enormous distance and is ever the gentleman. Both speak of the same thing: what to make of language and the new ideas that were coming out of Oxford. In the end, I think that Searle’s “solution,” to bring “intention” into speech act theory, is a mistake, and one I intend to correct if I can.

Second, I realised that there is currently no model for language interaction. Without a model to work with, I decided to develop my own. This model draws on the work of Bicchieri, who studied norms, the ISO norm for dialogue annotation (Bunt), the ViolEx 2.0 psychological model for expectation update, and the theories I examined for my master’s thesis. With my new model, I try to find a way to connect theory and practice. In real life, people use language to say what they mean and what they want to say, but it can be hard to figure out exactly what they mean or what they want to say. My model incorporates elements of normativity and expectations, which help explain the context in which a speaker’s words are spoken. My model also considers the role of the listener. Listening is an active process, and the person who is listening must be able to understand and respond to what is being said. In my model, this is done through an expectation update, which helps to bring clarity to the conversation.

Having to create a model means that I have to decide what modelling language to use. I have decided on BPMN, which focuses on modelling (business) processes. I am not sure I am sufficiently proficient in it, and I am also applying it to very different processes than those for which it was invented. But never mind. I am going to check in with a specialist to make sure I have not made any stupid mistakes.

Below is my model of a standard interaction proces. I will need to extend 5 layers to 7, more about that in a separate post. The horizontal lanes are called “swim lanes”. The idea is that every lane is where it happens for a particular actor. I have made it a little complicated by dividing a single human in two parts, i.e. the part where mental processes take place and another part, where the internal representations of the outside world live.

I am still working on the processes “manage communication” and “manage expectations.” The “manage communication” process is about what happens during an interaction. Not just the speech exchange, but also everything that is necessary to manage the conversation: greeting, feedback, correction, etc.
“Managing expectations” is about what happens in the head of the listener when he/she receives a communication. It is matched against what is expected, desirable, etc., and then a response is formed.
What is important—and you might find this obvious, but it took me a lot of time to realise this—is to see that there is no interaction until the listener decides there is one. It is also the listener who decides the initial direction of the conversation. Much like playing badminton (yes, thank you, Husband): having a shuttlecock thrown at you means nothing. Return it and there is the game.

Little happy baby boy is playing badminton

What is next? Well, I have already discussed the model with my supervising professor, and he cannot find anything wrong with it. Mind you, that is no guarantee that he won’t find anything wrong later on, when I detail the details. Also, it is worrying that he found it “impressive,” because that might mean that he simply does not understand this way of conveying information. But for now, it is encouraging. So I will continue to detail the model. And then take out the bit that I need for my field research. I have documented my approach in my new dissertation-online. It is very much a work in progress, but if you like, you can have a look here on this page. Mail me for the password if you don’t have it. There is quite a bit on how I plan to use the ISO norm for dialogue interaction to investigate specialists’ understanding of other norms. Of interest only to methodologists, but I know you are amongst my followers 🙂

Now I return to earth for a few days. My husband celebrates a birthday, the family is coming over, and the country needs saving (the dayjob). So, until next time…

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