Godwin's Suspicion of Speech Acts.(William Godwin)



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Godwin's Suspicion of Speech Acts.(William Godwin)


Studies in Romanticism; 12/22/2000; ESTERHAMMER, ANGELA

WILLIAM GODWIN DOES NOT TRUST WORDS TO DO THINGS. BECAUSE OF this, his contributions to the theory of language and its function in society have an unexpectedly conservative ring, compared with other ideas about language that arose at the end of the eighteenth century. Philosophers and historians of linguistics have recently begun to stress the extent to which Godwin's contemporaries, in Britain and on the Continent, were developing pragmatic approaches to linguistic theory.(1) Rather than studying language as a system of signs that stand for things or thoughts, philosophers of the 1780s and 1790s increasingly regarded language as primary. They sought (as the French Institut National put it, in the question it advertised for its essay prize in 1796-97) to determine the influence of words and other signs on the formation of ideas. And rather than pursuing the historical origins of language, as did their predecessors, linguistic thinkers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries tended to analyze language as it is actually used, focusing on dialogue, context, and the relationship of speakers to hearers. Contrary to the claims of the traditional "Romantic ideology," in fact, linguistic philosophy of the romantic period often gave interpersonal or intersubjective relationships priority over the relationship of the individual mind to the world. This tendency toward an intersubjective pragmatics shows itself in the work of the leading philosopher of the Scottish "Common Sense" school, Thomas Reid, who believed that the most important function of language is to perform "social acts" such as promising, commanding, contracting, or testifying. It is present in the work of the legal philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who interpreted laws as verbal utterances exchanged between sovereigns and subjects, and called attention to the role of language in constructing the "linguistic fictions" of obligation, right, privilege, and so on, that we habitually mistake for social reality. Among their German contemporaries, a theory of language as both mental and social action was most thoroughly developed by Wilhelm von Humboldt, although related ideas appear throughout the work of J. G. Herder, J. G. Hamann, A. F. Bernhardi, Novalis, and the Schlegel brothers.

In the linguistic philosophy produced between 1780 and 1830, therefore, one constantly encounters concepts that can productively be compared to (although they are not identical with) what we now call speech acts or performative utterance. Godwin participates in this tendency insofar as he also views language in terms of its interpersonal functions, including the uses to which it is put in literature and the transmission of scientific knowledge, as well as in everyday communication. As with Reid or Humboldt, therefore, there are definite points of contact between Godwin's theory of language and modern linguistic pragmatics. But Reid enthusiastically identifies social action as the "primary and direct intention of language,"(2) and Humboldt marvels at how the system of language itself, as well as a certain construction of reality, arise from the verbal interactions between speaker and hearer.(3) Godwin, meanwhile, insists that language maintain its traditional, secondary status as a representation of thought and external realit-y, for its only legitimate purpose is the communication of truth.

In British linguistic philosophy, in particular, we find a fascination with the interpersonal speech act of promising, which can probably be traced to the fact that the promise, compact, or covenant lies at the heart of the social contract tradition going back to Locke and Hobbes. As a political and social theorist, Godwin analyzes the function of the promise both in its own right and as a component of political systems. What I propose to examine in this essay is his denunciation of promises in the Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, where he nevertheless describes them in terms that strikingly anticipate the work of speech-act theorists like J. L. Austin and John Searle, for whom--as, indeed, for Godwin.--the promise becomes a paradigmatic performative utterance. Godwin's theorization of the promise and other speech acts provides an entry, as lan Balfour has noted,(4) into his Caleb Williams, where the key relationship and most of the action of the novel depend on the promise exchanged between Caleb and Falkland in a central scene. But Godwin's theory of language is equally relevant to his later and less often read novels. These, I will suggest, support Godwin's condemnation of performative utterance by showing again and again that disastrous situations come about when the words exchanged between speakers are not fully constative representations of reality. Yet in paying such obsessive attention to the way speech acts actually do construct interpersonal relationships and sociopolitical reality--even if, in Godwin's opinion, they should not--novels like Cloudesley and Deloraine become profound, early analyses of how things are done with words.

Political Justice, Promises, and Phantom Limbs

Throughout Political Justice, performative utterances violate the role that Godwin assigns to language in an ideal society. On the positive side, language is the instrument by which people are educated, misunderstandings resolved, society reformed, and enlightenment spread. Godwin is convinced of the necessity of free speech and debate among members of a society, to the extent that he opposes not only censorship, but any other form of governmental control over what is said and written, including libel laws and state-sponsored educational systems. His goal, a society regulated by reason and understanding, requires a language that is unfailingly descriptive or constative--that is, a language dedicated to truth, sincerity, and correspondence with experienced reality. "Accuracy of language is the indispensible [sic] prerequisite of sound knowledge," Godwin proclaims (PJ 1.385),(5) and summarizes in five propositions the progress from reason to human improvement, by way of the communication of truth:

Sound reasoning and truth, when adequately communicated, must always be

victorious over error: Sound reasoning and truth are capable of being so

communicated: Truth is omnipotent: The vices and moral weakness of man are

not invincible: Man is perfectible, or in other words susceptible of

perpetual improvement. (PJ 1.86)

In a chapter devoted to the "perpetual improvement" of "human inventions," Godwin specifically illustrates his belief in human perfectibility by reviewing the origin of speech and writing. Summarizing the development of the refined, analytical language in which human beings now reason about their experience, Godwin argues that language itself is a prime example of a human invention that undergoes progressive improvement. In addition, it is the instrument that will, if committed to accurate analysis and honest communication, bring about the perfection of political science.

Because a truthful, descriptive language is one of the foundations of his political philosophy, Godwin condemns non-constative utterances more severely than any of his contemporaries. In an implicit attack on the political theory stemming from Hobbes and Locke, Godwin denies that contractual utterances can be the basis for either moral behavior or a healthy society. "Promises and compacts are in no sense the foundation of morality," he declares at the beginning of his chapter "Of Promises" (PJ 1.194), and repeats the claim several times after that. Instead, "the foundation of morality is justice"; virtuous behavior results from our basic, reasonable inclination to balance people's needs and their abilities so as to promote "the welfare of intelligent beings" (PJ 1.195). Promising is a second-stage behavior that, if properly applied, expresses our moral intentions; but looking to promises to explain morality amounts to taking an effect for the cause. Worse, it obscures the real motive for moral behavior by putting a temporary, contingent, and superficial verbal formula in its place. Promises "call off our attention from the direct tendencies of our conduct, and fix it upon a merely local and precarious consideration" (PJ 1.202); that is to say, we should perform a virtuous action for its own sake, not because we happen to have pronounced a few words relating to that action at some point in the past. Worse still, promises offend against the normal process of improving and perfecting our behavior, which depends on the continual acquisition of new and better information over time. Even if a promise corresponds with virtuous behavior at the time I make it, that which I perceive to be good or evil may change when I acquire more information; but my promise works against improvement by locking my behavior into the pattern that was set when my information was still incomplete. All speech acts that attempt to exert control over future behavior ultimately work against the improvement of society because they institutionalize error, protect existing abuses, and prevent reform.

In critiquing the promise, Godwin also anticipates quite closely some aspects of the modern analysis of it as a paradigmatic performative. He recognizes that it is not a specific verbal or grammatical formula that makes an utterance into a promise, but rather the context in which the words are spoken--or, more specifically, what speech-act theorists call the "uptake" of the hearer. Godwin's distinction between "perfect" and "imperfect" promises suggests that even sentences not intended as promises may count as promises depending on the situation in which they are uttered:

A perfect promise is where the declaration of intention is made by me, for

the express purpose of serving as a ground of expectation to my neighbour

respecting my future conduct. An imperfect promise is where it actually

thus serves as a ground of expectation, though that was not my purpose when

I nude the declaration. Imperfect promises are of two classes: I may have

reason, or I may have no reason, to know, when I make the declaration, that

it will be acted upon by my neighbour, though not assuming the specific

form of an engagement. (PJ 1.203-4)

J. L. Austin will use the identical example to distinguish between explicit (or "primitive") and implicit performatives: "`I shall be there' may or may not be a promise.... [I]n a given situation it can be open to me to take it as either one or the other."(6) Godwin's intuition of the distinction between speaker's intention, hearer's uptake, and grammatical form shows that he, like Austin, regards speech as interpersonal action, and meaning as a function of the pragmatic context.

But Godwin's primary concern is the effect of time on this context. He exposes the troubled relationship between promises and temporality by suggesting that promising is akin to spending money that we imagine we might receive in the future, but do not yet possess:

Now one of the principal means of information, is time. We must therefore

devote to that object all the time our situation will allow. But we

abridge, and that in the most essential point, the time of gaining

information, if we bind ourselves to-day, to the conduct we will observe

two months hence. He who thus anticipates upon the stores of knowledge, is

certainly not less improvident, than he who lives by anticipating the

stores of fortune. (PJ 1.198-99)



By bringing time into the picture, Godwin in effect moves beyond an Austinian analysis of the promise in terms of context and uptake, and toward a perspective that resembles the deconstructionist critique of performative language. When Paul de Man considers the language of eighteenth-century political theory, he, too, finds it vulnerable--albeit unconsciously so--to the problematic temporality of promising. Because "the speech act of the contractual text never refers to a situation that exists in the present, but signals toward a hypothetical future," as de Man concludes from a reading of Rousseau's Social Contract, all promises and social contracts perform a metalepsis by which they illegitimately found themselves on a future situation that does not yet exist.(7) In a similar vein, Shoshana Felman refers to the perverse temporality of the promise, which is "constituted by the act of anticipating the act of concluding" and thus betrays "the noncoincidence of desire with the present."(8) Godwin, although more interested in the ethical than the rhetorical or psychological aspects of this situation, also insists that the future must be revealed by time and experience, not pre-empted by a hypothetical linguistic construction of it. These parallels between Godwinian philosophy and twentieth-century theory must here remain brief; but, if expanded on, they might reveal that not only are some of the insights of speech-act philosophy present, as has been argued,(9) in the late eighteenth century, but the elements of a deconstructive version of it are there as well.

Godwin's critique of promises is circumscribed by the rest of his analysis of human behavior in Political Justice, particularly his commitment to sincerity and his belief in necessity. Depending on the circumstances, these conditions sometimes indicate that a promise should be kept, but other times that it should not. On the one hand, promising when one has no intention of fulfilling the promise violates the requirement of sincerity, a foundation of moral conduct that runs much deeper than the mere conventions of promising. Insincere behavior of this sort "can scarcely in any instance take place, without fixing a stain upon the promiser" (PJ 1.210). On the other hand, Godwin recognizes many instances in which it would be right not to keep one's promise, even if it was sincerely made, since both character and behavior are determined by external circumstances, and it is impossible to know which circumstances will obtain in the future at the moment one is making the promise. The vulnerability of behavior to external circumstances leads Godwin to argue that, strictly speaking, it is absurd even to say "I will do this" (PJ 1.389), and that governments need not feel any obligation to keep treaties (PJ 2.173). Promising, it appears again, is first of all superfluous with regard to basic moral conduct, and, secondly, illegitimate with regard to temporality.

Both these objections are summed up in an odd image, which Godwin at first seems to be using as an example of pain and evil during a brief digression on these topics, but which turns into an analogy for promising. Making a promise, Godwin suggests, is like the amputation of a leg. Even if there are cases when the operation is medically advisable, we should never forget that it is an "absolute evil" in itself. "The case of promises," he continues,

is considerably similar to this. So far as they have any effect, they

depose us, as to the particular to which they relate, from the use of our

own understanding.... There; may be cases in which they are necessary and

ought to be employed: but we should never suffer ourselves, by their

temporary utility to be induced to forget their intrinsic nature, and the

demerits which adhere to them independently of any peculiar concurrence of

circumstances. (PJ 1.202)

Just as amputation deprives us of the use of part of the body, promising deprives us of the full, healthy use of the mind. Godwin's objections to promises and other performatives are summed up in the image of the utterance as a gap or emptiness: these speech acts, for Godwin, are a hollow use of language. There are expressions that contain no truth, add no morality, and maintain no reliable correspondence with experienced reality. At best, they are benign but empty. At worst, these hollow words interfere with the behavior of real minds and bodies and impede the productive synthesis of reason and experience.

The Progeny of Promises

Godwin's critique of promises recurs several times in Political Justice, since he believes that the promise is the paradigm for many of the structures that order existing society. Foremost among these are two hot topics of the 1790S: the social contract and constitutions. In his chapter "Of the Social Contract," Godwin sides with the reformist position for which Thomas Paine became the most famous spokesperson, arguing that a hereditary contract--even when it is a specific, written contract entered into by a generation of citizens--should not be considered binding on their descendants, who never had a say in the matter.(10) But Godwin goes further than Paine, and insists that even the same generation of people who made the contract may have occasion to change their minds if circumstances change, or if they obtain better information. He doubts that anyone can give informed assent to a contract so large as to encompass "the laws of England in fifty volumes folio," and cites Rousseau's argument, in his Social Contract, that "the general will ... cannot be represented": "The deputies of the people cannot be its representatives; they are merely its attorneys. The laws which the community does not ratify in person, are no laws, are nullities" (PJ 1.191-92). Where Paine criticized the belief that the 1689 Declaration of Rights is binding on future generations of Englishmen, yet championed the new French constitution, Godwin claims that the French fell into exactly the same trap of attempting to legislate for all time:

The French national assembly of 1789, pushed this principle to the greatest

extremity, and seemed desirous of providing every imaginable security for

rendering the work they had formed immortal.... It is easy to perceive that

these precautions, are in direct hostility with the principles established

in this work. `Man and for ever!' was the motto of the labours of this

assembly. Just broken loose from the thick darkness of an absolute

monarchy, they assumed to prescribe lessons of wisdom to all future ages.

(PJ 2.284)

The French National Assembly attempted to frame a new social order in its Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen; but because this declaration promulgated a single set of principles as fundamental and unchangeable, Godwin judges it to be, like all constitutions, "founded in misapprehension and error" (PJ 2.285).

The same holds true for laws, oaths, and tests (i.e., oaths of loyalty required of those who would accede to certain official positions). All these speech acts perpetuate and magnify the two fundamental flaws of promises: they are superfluous at best, and at worst they preclude improvement or reform. Oaths, Godwin claims, are equally useless whether they are required of a virtuous man, or a potential traitor. The former will swear sincerely, but he would have acted honestly in any case; the latter, if inclined to act dishonestly anyway, will not be deterred by the extra crime of swearing a false oath. To illustrate the absurdity of trying to bind people to future conduct by an oath, when the future is always uncertain, Godwin chooses another charged example from revolutionary France:

It was required of all men, in the year 1791, to swear, `that they would be

faithful to the nation, the law and the king.' In what sense can they be

said to have adhered to their oath, who, twelve months after their

constitution had been established on its new basis, have taken a second

oath declaratory of their everlasting abjuration of monarchy? (PJ 2.257)

Systems of legislation, which Godwin analyzes as "a species of promises," are subject to the same illegitimate conservatism. They prevent improvement or progress by imposing a "principle of permanence": "Law tends, no less than creeds, catechisms and tests, to fix the human mind in a stagnant condition, and to substitute a principle of permanence, in the room of that unceasing progress which is the only salubrious element of mind" (PJ 2.403). Dedicated to a transparent, enlightened, and enlightening language that corresponds as far as possible to experienced reality, Godwin's system has no room for the large classes of performatives that reach into the future and attempt to alter the world to fit the words, rather than fitting words to the actual state of the world. Using John Searle's taxonomy, we might identify these classes of speech acts as directives (i.e., attempts to get the hearer to do something, including orders and laws), commissives (i.e., expressions that commit the speaker to some future course of action, including oaths and promises), and declarations (i.e., official utterances, such as constitutions, that change existing states).(11) By tracing more highly institutionalized performatives back to the basically misguided speech act of promising, Godwin gives a linguistic-pragmatic turn to his analysis of the body politic, and implies that his scepticism about laws, constitutions, and other political structures is inseparable from his belief that they represent a misuse of language. The incommensurability of language and experience, especially the experience of time and change, leads, in Godwin's case, to a position of philosophical anarchism--a belief that neither verbal formulas, nor the institutions that perpetuate and are perpetuated by them, should pretend to regulate social behavior better than the fundamental claims of reason and virtue. Political Justice has little tolerance for declarations that can, or should, or do shape the world.

And yet: the point of the Enquiry Concerning Political Justice is to suggest what society might become, in defiance of what it actually is. The reason that Godwin has to resist so adamantly the idea that language might shape reality is that it patently does shape reality, and Godwin is intensely aware of the extent to which laws, oaths, promises, social contracts, and other performatives constitute his sociopolitical experience. His novels are therefore full of the very speech acts that Political Justice condemns. In Godwin's theory, verbal utterances should be the expression of moral character, reason, and experience, but in practice, identity and experience appear to be products of utterance. Nowhere is this more evident than in Caleb Williams, a virtual showcase of interpersonal speech acts (including promises, laws, libels, rumors, and fictitious published biographies) that impinge on the protagonist's very identity. In this novel of "things as they are," it is clearly the pragmatic scenes in which words are spoken (the private study or the public courtroom, for instance), and the conventions governing public behavior (especially the conventions of social class), that determine whose speech acts will be effective and whose will not, regardless of their truth-value.



Godwin's later novels pick up and intensify the speech-act issues raised in Caleb Williams: Fleetwood and Deloraine both contrast relationships governed by frankness with those mediated by contracts, commands, and other power-based performatives; a secret and a promise form the basis of the hero's self-presentation in St. Leon; and the relationship between physical identity and identity as a legal or textual construct is central to the plot of Cloudesley. On the one hand, all these novels confirm Godwin's suspicion of performative utterance by showing how lives are ruined by the futile adherence to promises, how relationships are soured by secrets, and how identities are deformed by fraudulent but effective testimony. On the other hand, Godwin's fiction undermines his philosophical dedication to constative language by portraying the performative as inescapable. This is not only because it constitutes the foundation of so many societal institutions, but because the potential separation of "superficial" verbal conventions from the foundations of moral behavior, a separation that Political Justice claims to make, proves to be impossible. Since the basic moral motivations of

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