Saturday, 27 October 2012


Michael Maria Waldstein notes his disappointment when he listened to a lecture by Norman Gottwald, author of a book about the early tribal history of Israel. 

Gottwald, Waldstein notes, "interpreted Scripture as encoding an oppressed people's practical impetus to emancipation and liberation." (Waldstein, 2012: 733)

For Gottwald, Waldstein explains, the word "God" was a performative utterance: God talk does something. It does not refer to something, as constative utterances do. 

[We will leave aside the issue of whether an utterance may be both performative and constative: need it simply be one or the other? We will also leave aside the issue of whether referring itself is a performative act, capable of being performed 'correctly' [conventionally accurately?] or 'successfully'. In this way, "God talk" may fail performatively for some people; it may not do what it intends or promises (to emancipate, to liberate); hence, retrospectively, it is not performative; or its performative reference may fail, for example, if the evidence for God's existence, as first cause and final cause, fails to convince; hence, the performative reference fails: it does not refer, it does not point to; it is not deictic.]

Such God talk, therefore, in being performative, is not to be judged in terms of being true or false, and here we would have to consider propositional truth as adaequatio rei et intellectum, the correspondence of thing and idea, as Fuenmayor (1991), following Heidegger (1978) suggests. 

However, such talk can be judged as being felicitous or infelicitous, in Austin's (1970, 1971, 1976) terms, i.e. as capable of being adjudged to have succeeded or not in fulfilling its commitment, to the other(s) to whom it is uttered, as a social act; or fulfilling its intention, as the realisation of a set of consequential acts following upon an initial or inaugural performative utterance, as commitment to one's self, as a social, cognitive being, in establishing one's reputational value as an actor (one's consistency or constancy as an actor). 

The performative utterance is thus a social act, following Reinach's (1983) insight. 


Austin, J. L. (1976). How to do things with words: The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955, 2nd ed.. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Austin, J. L. (1971) Performative-Constative, in The Philosophy of Language, edited by J. R. Searle. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Austin, J. L. (1970). Performative utterances, in Philosophical papers, 2nd ed.. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fuenmayor, R. (1991) Truth and openness: an epistemology for interpretive systemology. Systemic Practice and Action Research, 4 (5), pp.473–490.

Heidegger, M. (1978) On the essence of truth. In Basic writings. London, UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 113–142.

Reinach, A., 1983. A priori foundations of law. Aletheia: an international journal of philosophy, 3, pp.1–142.

Waldstein, Michael Maria (2012) The self-critique of the historical-critical method: cardinal Ratzinger's Erasmus Lecture. Modern Theology, 28 (4), pp.732-747.

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