Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Do we need performatives?

In a performative, a social fact is instituted by a statement that simultaneously announces it:

  • I hereby apply for the position.

  • I dub this ship the Star of the South.

  • I promise to pay you back tomorrow.

It seems we can distinguish two cases of institution of a social fact. Some social facts do not essentially require any party besides the instituter be apprised of the fact, and it is only the current contingent convention that those facts are instituted by an announcement. For instance, naming of persons is done by a public act in our society, but we could imagine (as happens in some piece of science fiction I vaguely recall) a society where people name themselves mentally, and then only reveal the name to their intimates. In that case, name facts already would obtain prior to their announcement, being instituted by a purely private mental act. In fact, in our society we handle the naming of animals in this way. You don’t need to tell anybody—not even Goldy—that your goldfish’s name is Goldy for the name to be that.

In the case of social facts that do not require anybody besides the instituter to be apprised of them, if we in fact institute them by means of a performative, that is a mere accident.

But some social facts of their very nature seem to require that some relevant party besides the instituter be apprised of the fact. For instance, it seems one cannot apply for a position without informing the organization in charge of the position, and one cannot promise without communicating this to the promisee. In those cases, it seems that the fact must be instituted by a performative.

That’s not quite right, though. The social fact of applying for a position can also be instituted by a pair of things: a performative instituting a conditional application and the truth of the antecedent of the conditional. “I hereby apply if no other applications come in by Wednesday night.” And in that case, the social fact can obtain without anyone other than God being apprised of it: even if no one yet knows that no other applications have come in by Wednesday night, it is a fact that one has applied. It seems that every social fact that is instituted by a performative announcing that very fact could be instituted by an appropriate conditional performative plus the obtaining of the antecedent.

But perhaps we can say something weaker. There seem to be social facts that logically require that they be partially instituted by someone’s apprising someone of something—but not necessary of the social fact in question. So while perhaps no particular performative is essential to instituting a particular social fact, some social facts may require some performative or other.

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