The tyranny of the perlocution

When trying to understand the statements and actions of others we often misinterpret their intentions. Depending on the subject matter, such misinterpretations can lead to heated accusations flying in both directions and end up in a situation resembling WWI style trench warfare. I believe we should be aware of two key elements in the communication process which can aid in reducing the amount of trench warfare and improve our dialog with people holding disparate ideas.

Element #1: The Perlocution

When people make statements and assertions, part of what they say is external and accessible to all: e.g. sentences, words, text layout, body language and gestures etc. Another part of what they’re saying is unspoken and internal: e.g. their specific understanding of the terms and signs being used, the connotations of the phrases, the motivation for and the purpose of the statement etc. This is an important point to recognize. Every time you interpret the statements and actions of another person, part of the work involved is in essence guess work. The meaning you associate with their statements is based in part on your ability to adequately ascertain the speakers internal understandings, motivations and views. The term perlocution stems from the speech-act theory of J. L. Austin. What I am referring to with the term (which may not be 100% congruent with Austin’s usage) are the goals and motivations of a speaker, pertinent to a speech act, which do to their subjective nature are only truly knowable by the speaker him- or herself. Even if one does not hold to Austin’s speech-act theory, I think one must concede that something exists similar to what I have described, regardless of the use of the perlocution moniker.

Element #2: Worldviews

Wikipedia defines a worldview as a “fundamental cognitive orientation of an individual or society encompassing natural philosophy; fundamental existential and normative postulates; or themes, values, emotions, and ethics.” When we think about how things work in the world, what the cause and effect relationship is, the ethical evaluation of specific activities and a host of other issues, the judgments we make are related to our worldview. When a boy on the school playground through speech and action is aggressive and assertive, some may judge this behavior as “bullying” and others may view it as a demonstration of “a healthy ego.” One person sees the use of military force as a proper response to a specific threat. Another person views the same use of military force as unwarranted and even as a cause rather than solution to problems. I.e. the same activity is judged differently by different people. This is because the people in question hold different worldviews about how people should relate to one another and what role military force plays in the world.

The tyranny of the perlocution occurs when these two elements of human nature (perlocution and worldview) are inappropriately combined. Unfortunately, this appears to be the standard procedure among human beings. We combine the outward expressions from others with our personal worldview in order to deduce the related perlocutions of the other. This often results in misunderstanding and hostility. Because the communication process necessarily involves a degree of speculation about the the motives and goals of the speaker, we are forced to fill the void (the missing perlocutionary qualities) with something. The most natural source is our own worldview. When someone makes a statement, we instinctively ask ourselves, “why are they saying this?” or “what do they hope to gain from this?” The most natural answer comes from our own experience. We imagine ourselves making such a statement and deduce the perlocutionary qualities that would accompany such a statement. We then ascribe these deduced perlocutionary qualities to be those of the speaker. The problem arises when the the speaker and the hearer subscribe to differing worldviews. The actual perlocutionary qualities of the speaker may be quite different than those ascribed to him or her.

Two examples

Many people view the world through the lens of making money. Not that they themselves are greedy but they conclude that the desire for money is the primary motivation for personal sacrifice. For them this is how people tick. However, there are people in the world who view speak and act from other motivations. Perhaps they desire to order their world based on aesthetics. Others may be motivated by the belief and hope for tolerance and peaceful coexistence among people. I have repeatedly observed situations similar to the following: when someone from the “money makes the world go around” worldview hears a statement from a person who holds a different worldview, they interpret the statement based on their own worldview, which states that most things are money driven. How many times have you heard something like “everything he says is just show, all he really wants to do is make a buck.”

In the political arena in the U.S.A. the left and the right regularly condemn one another by ascribing motives that IMO are often false. The right accuses the left of negative socialist goals because this is the only explanation of the left’s activities based on the worldview of the right. The left accuses the right of desires for totalitarian and regressive control because this is the only sensible explanation of the activities of the right based on the worldview of the left. Could it not be that the left has a noble goal, for example combating oppression? Could it also not be that the right is simply acting on moral conviction about what they believe to be right and wrong? Would it not be better if the left and the right attempted to understand the worldview and presuppositions of each other before resorting to a childish demonizing of the opponent?

In short people normally interpret the statements and others by using their own worldview and often come to incorrect conclusions. My suggestion would be that we try to make a correct judgment about the motives of the other. This, however, is not always an easy task. It entails two things which often go against our nature: 1.) we must realize that everyone does not think like I do, i.e. they have a different worldview, and 2.) we must be humble and consider the possibility that my worldview may be incorrect, i.e. just because I have an understanding of how the world functions, it may not be correct.


Consequences of a Postmodern Epistemology – Part 2

Just read an article by Pat Buchanan that really got me thinking. It didn’t convey much that isn’t already apparent but it presented it in such a way that it really hit me and made me think about how it relates to our epistemological cultural transition from a modernistic to a postmodern worldview.

It seems the so called “balkanization” of our society is continuing despite the desires of president Obama to unify. I don’t want to be partisan in these observations. I think no matter how you divide the palette of opinion in the USA at the moment all sides are exhibiting a similar behavior. To the political left the right are compared to Nazi’s and to the right the left are compared to communists. The right is accused of taking away rights and the left is accused of taking away freedoms. There are greedy capitalists and inane socialists. One could go on and on. The mudslinging seems to be increasing.

This may be a distorted view on my part due to the media coverage but I do think these are symptoms of something that is taking place below the surface. Namely, a transition of worldviews and an indication of a negative side of postmodernism.

As I see it three things are at work:

  • A mixture of modern and postmodern elements:As I described in part one a postmodern view lacks the ability to provide order and consensus since it cannot claim any epistemological certainty about the knowledge claims that it makes. Yet at the same time it appears to me that we are still acting from the modern mind set that such certainty is possible. We have the goals of modernism but now lack the means to achieve them. This results in the next observation.
  • Argumentation based on character and not on facts:When factual arguments are absent all that is left is the tactic of demonizing the opposing view. Instead of discussing the issues now we see that the character and motivation of the proponent of opposing views are called into question. Yes, this has likely always been a part of American culture and politics (think of the scopes trial or the civil war just to name a few) but my sense is that we again are witnessing an intensification of this phenomenon. Were we not able in previous generations to go about things in a more civil manner? Perhaps one of you historians could fill us in.
  • An incomplete picture of our true anthropological nature:The popular articulation of the postmodern paradigm as I know it assumes a positive anthropology. If we all just live and let live, do not attempt to take power by declaring things right or wrong, then everyone will get along just fine. This, of course, runs contrary to a Christian view of anthropology, which has a unique view of how human beings tick. Namely, there is the positive side capable of love, harmony, courage, beauty and a host of other things. But the Christian view also posits that humans have a depraved side which produces war, greed, hatred and selfishness etc. If the negative side is truly present in our nature, then we have major problems if we ignore it. I am of the opinion that most of the evil in the world is not solely the result of political or religious systems but an outworking of the true nature of mankind. This I believe is missing in the popular worldview.

Maybe I’m overreacting. This is not the first crisis that the USA has had to deal with and not yet the most serious. I hope that we can successfully overcome this one like in time past but that is not guaranteed. Maybe with some effort we can return to a degree of unity and civility which is sorely missing at the moment.


Why I’m studying theological hermeneutics


As a seventeen year old university student I made a decision to become a Christian. This took place in north American evangelical context. I’m convinced that a very real change occurred in my life at that point. Subsequently, I was involved in an evangelical Church, which in many ways was typical. Our Christian community was quite homogeneous and in the process my belief system became very clearly defined. Yet, even at this stage of my life I would often ponder my interpretations of the Bible and wondered if we were interpreting correctly, what God wanted to tell us. For instance, were things being treated literally which should have been viewed metaphorically or vice versa, or were the meanings of words being dealt with appropriately. Statements like “‘all’ means ‘all’ and thats all all means” are still in my memory. This was an attempt to absolutize for theological purposes certain passages like Collossians 1:6 “… All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing …” However, an absolute understanding of the word “all” runs into theological difficulties when one reads 1 Corinthians 15:22 “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” Questions such as these accompanied me throughout the first phase of my Christian life. However, I never made the effort to make a serious investigation and in some ways my inquiring spirit became dormant.

Questions reinvigorated

Later, I moved to Europe as part of a church planting effort and in the process was confronted with views of the bible and Christian traditions that differed from my own. I had been fairly sheltered theologically in a homogeneous Christian tradition and was approaching things from a north American cultural viewpoint. This confrontation to my belief system caused me to consider if my belief system was in fact true and it reinvigorated my desire to investigate how we interpret the bible and to discover the idealized “correct” way of doing so.

The quest for truth

A few years later I had the opportunity to begin a theological education and finally settle these questions. My goal was to learn how to interpret the bible properly after which I could return to my Christian community with a strengthened certainty about what we as Christians should be doing. However, in the process of my theological studies it became ever more apparent that this was no easy task. I discovered that the theological convictions of many which I had previously discounted as being incorrect did have a biblical backing and were logical. The root of the differences were to be found not in the bible but in the presuppositions and traditions that one used to interpret the bible. In short hermeneutics the method one employs in interpretation was the key. So my focus went in that direction and my goal then became determining a water tight hermeneutical method which would result in the correct interpretation. I wrote my first thesis on the book “The hermeneutical spiral” by Grant Osborn. asking the question “How certain can we be that we are using the correct hermeneutic?” The results were rather disappointing. It seemed more and more the case that there is no absolute way of knowing on a purely rational basis if one is correct or not. Our starting point and presuppositions we have are things that we simply choose, accept and believe. One can surely narrow things down quite a bit but a water tight hermeneutic which could be used to “prove” a specific theological stance became less and less a realistic possibility (for more on this see Two leaps of Faith).

How should we interpret?

Not giving up I continued my studies at the masters level and wrote a thesis comparing the views of Kevin Vanhoozer in his book Is there a meaning in this text? with James K. A. Smith and his book The fall of interpretation. This investigation was a major turning point in my theological outlook concerning hermeneutics. Vanhoozer’s book is excellent but more or less went in a similar direction to what I had already done. Certainty and singularity in meaning can be improved if one approaches the bible using the paradigm that Vanhoozer recommends (this is of course debatable Integral and Differential Hermeneutics – A. K. M. Adam). However, Smith’s book provided for me a completely new insight and was especially convincing. In short he asserts that the need for interpretation can never be overcome since it is part and parcel of the way God created us. Thus, we must accept that we as human beings are in essence stuck in a situation where we all interpret differently because we are all embedded in culture, traditions and limitedness that cannot be overcome. For Smith interpretation is a good because it is part of our created nature and existed even in the garden of eden. To try and overcome the need for interpretation is in essence trying to overcome part of nature which God intended to always be there. Smith’s viewpoint was a radical change for me and for a long time took the wind out of my sails. If we cannot achieve certainty in our hermeneutic then why bother? I am still continuing my theological studies at the doctorate level and after my epistemological depression have recently overcome my doldrums and am investigating other avenues and approaches to theological hermeneutics which may not yield a 100% certainty but do hold some promise. The writing of A. K. M. Adam (see photo right and the link above) has reinvigorated me to continue asking questions and to seek some way of knowing more clearly what God wants to tell though the bible.


Two leaps of Faith

Faith is an essential element of Christianity. It is included in Paul’s’ top three Christian Virtues (1 Corinthians 13:13). It is a never ending topic of discussion in sermons, literature and the like. In evangelical circles faith is often likened to trust. We are to trust what God says, believe it is true and live accordingly. This can be an enormous challenge. In this article I will contend that this type of faith has a sibling, which is often overlooked. Every time one trusts God in faith this sibling is present. Without it the act of faith is not possible.

The Qua and the Quae

A picture often used to describe faith is that of a father waiting to catch his child with outstretched arms. The child is standing on a window ledge, the father is calling the child and telling him/her to jump. There are many variations on this picture but the key element is always the same. The person doing the jumping must relinquish control and jump placing their destiny in the hands of the father. This illustrates the kind of trust I believe that God desires from us. It may involve dramatic episodes like placing yourself in dangerous circumstances such as a missionary or trusting God for financial well being via “faith”-offerings. It can also refer to rather mundane and long term steps people take in their lives like eschewing a profitable profession for one in the ministry or refraining from certain practices in the hope (or faith) that God will eventually reward such decisions. This is the first kind of faith and usually what one thinks of when discussing faith.

The second kind of faith focuses not on trust but on knowledge. Recall the picture of a child leaping into the arms of his/her father. Imagine that the child is so far away so that it is difficult to understand what his/her father is saying. In addition it is quite windy making his words even less understandable. Before the child jumps he/she must be convinced of what the father is saying. Maybe he isn’t yelling “jump” but rather “wait for the ladder.” If the child were to jump under these circumstances, it would not be faith but foolishness.

In order to act in faith one must first know what the act requires. In the past theologians recognized this distinction and used specific Latin terminology to distinguish these aspects of faith. fides qua creditur: the faith which by which it is believed (i.e. the jumping) and fides quae creditur: the faith which is believed (i.e. the knowing).

A Symbiotic Relationship

Thus, the qua requires the quae. The act of faith is dependent upon the determination of what should be acted on. Should the child jump or wait for the ladder? This relationship between the qua and the quae would seem fairly obvious. But is that all? I would suggest that the quae is also dependent upon the qua. To claim to know what one should act upon in and of itself requires a leap of faith.

The fides quae is fundamentally a question about knowing and thus epistemology. Two classical epistemological questions are:

  • How can I know something?
  • How can I be certain that I know something?

In my assessment there are three basic ways in which we can know what God expects of us:

  • The rational approach, which attempts to formulate specifics of the faith through interpreting the Bible.
  • The spiritual approach, which attempts to ascertain God’s will though prayer, meditation and the like.
  • The natural approach, which attempts to glean God’s will through experience and wisdom.

These are the ways we usually respond to the first first epistemological question. This is the how.

But what about certainty? How do we know we have truly achieved knowledge? This is a question which has been pondered throughout the ages from Plato to Descartes to Kant and on to Derrida. I would suggest that without a certain degree of fides qua (the jumping, acting, trusting kind of faith) the knowledge element fides quae is not possible. Consider the three approaches. There are different interpretations of the Bible, different schools of thought on how to interpret it correctly, how does one decide which rational approach is correct? And the spiritual method? Is it not possible to be deceived? The spiritual approach is perhaps the most passive of the three. A fides qua is almost implied in such approaches, since one must trust that God will inform him via the spirit. And the natural approach? A brief look at the diversity within Christianity should be enough to show that there are many options, experience and traditions all claiming to be correct. But is one really certain that it is correct? At the end of the day does not on simply take a leap of faith and decide for one tradition over the other. I believe that all three options ultimately at some point require a leap of faith, a fides qua. In terms of the analogy. At some point the child up on the window ledge makes a decision that he/she has understood what his/her father has said. In spite of the possibility that his message was heard incorrectly, a decision is made, an epistemological leap of faith, which in turn is the basis for the second existential leap of faith.

Thus, fides qua is dependent on fides quae but fides quae is also dependent on fides qua. A symbiotic relationship. But this cannot be, the process has to start somewhere, thou doth protest. That is another topic altogether and basically a “chicken or egg” riddle. Which came first? I cannot answer this riddle except to suggest the possibility that both may have come into existence simultaneously.

Things to ponder

If all this is true, then several questions are raised that are worth pondering. I will mention three:

  • How much emphasis do you place on the fides qua (faith action) as opposed to fides quae (faith knowledge)? In evangelical circles much focus is given to the fides qua. People are encouraged to make sacrifices, take a stand and be active on a number of issues. A ‘good’ Christian will act on his/her faith. The issues themselves are often given only cursory treatment. A quick reading of the bible or a short blurb from the last sermon or a quick prayer time suffice to supply the fides quae (knowledge) for the fides qua (action). Is not the fides quae also important?
  • Does God reward solely on the basis of fides qua? Is it not important what one believes? If only fides qua were important than doctrine becomes unimportant.
  • If a leap of faith is required even in the areas of knowledge, should we not engage differing opinions with humility? Where and how can we draw the line between differences in faiths?


Consequences of a Postmodern Epistemology – Part 1

In the course of my life I have been fortunate to witness many profound happenings. One thing that has intrigued me is the societal transition from a predominantly modern (in the epistemological sense) to a postmodern culture. In this series of posts I want to ponder some of the consequences of this transition.


Classical Definition of Kno

Image via Wikipedia

In my understanding one of the main differences between modernism and postmodernism on the epistemological level is that modernism believes one can obtain objective and certain knowledge.  Postmodernism disagrees and holds that one cannot know with certainty and that objectivity is a pipe dream.

One implication of a modernist epistemology is that its practitioners assume a warrant to impose their understanding upon the less enlightened. After all they posses a certain and objective truth (so it is assumed).

Postmodernism brings a moral dimension into the epistemological debate. It is assumed that practices stemming from a modernist epistemology come from impure motives and generally are an attempt at maintaining (even misusing) power.


For all the criticism waged against modernism there is one thing that it can do well. It can maintain order and unity. Postmodernism cannot do this. In fact it encourages the opposite. Unity or disunity, order or chaos can take place at all levels of a society depending on the predominant epistemological modal. In politics, in the judicial system, in ethical questions even in the church.

Although I agree with much of the postmodern criticism against modernity I see a naive and fatal flaw in its argumentation that could prove disastrous. In my understanding postmoderns assume that mankind left on its own without the evil domination of moderns would live in peace, happiness and generally be better off. I disagree, my contention is that the evil in the world propagated by mankind is normal and to be expected. This is a Christian anthropology, which asserts the depravity of mankind. When people live in peace and justice reigns this is not the normal and expected state of affairs but rather an exception.

A Societal Consequence

Map of former Yugoslavia during last wars.

Image via Wikipedia

I think the driving force behind the implementation of societal practices and norms, which are based upon a postmodern epistemology, is the hope that the removal of modern dominance will release society from bondage and peace, prosperity and happiness will ensue.

This, however, assumes a much more optimistic anthropology. If this assumption is incorrect and an anthropology of depravity is closer to reality, than the removal of modern dominance will not result in prosperity but in catastrophe. The developments in post cold war Yugoslavia provide a possible analogy. During the cold war an oppressive regime was able to maintain order among the differing ethnicities. With the removal of this regime society became worse and not better.

In the western world we may experience something similar in the long term. Instead of returning to Eden we may end up in Belgrad.


I’m not proposing a return to modernism. I too see many of its faults. At the same time I do not view postmodernism as an epistemological improvement. A moral improvement yes to a degree, but epistemologically it is a step backward. Thus my position is neither full fledged modernism nor full fledged postmodernism. There are positive aspects to both. In our zeal to do penance for the sins of modernism let us not be naive and forget some of the positive aspects.