Ranieri v. Ranieri

Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, Second Department.
146 A.D.2d 34 (1989)

Two divorcees, Rocco and Rae, were wed in Suffolk Country New York, and thus became the Ranieris. Alas, the wedded bliss lasted no more than 84 days, at which time Rae sued for divorce, claiming to have suffered from Rocco’s acts of cruelty. Complicating the matter was the prenuptial agreement they’d signed, one clause of which held that Rocco would give Rae $90,000 after they’d been married for 90 days. Rocco defended himself on several grounds, one of which was the marriage was a nullity since it was performed by a bogus minister, one certified by the Universal Life Church, essentially a mail-order operation. (Their web site keeps track of the legal fortunes of their “ministers” through the decades.)

Turns out, the vows and minister’s pronouncement are examples used in the English philosopher J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words, a classic in what’s called “ordinary language philosophy.” This approach says that many of our philosophical puzzles can be solved by taking a closer look at the language we use, and one of his moves was to distinguish between locutions (the descriptive content: “He said to me, ‘Shoot it’. . .”), illocutions (the purpose of communicating the content: “He urged . . . me to shoot it.”), and perlocutions (the effect of communicating the content: “He persuaded me to shoot it.”). And his subsets had subset, e.g., with verdictives, exercitives, commissives, behabitives, and expositivies, each a type of illocutionary act.

Then he discussed a peculiar sort of declaration:

[Performatories or performatives] have on the face of them the look—or at least the grammatical make-up—of ‘statements’; but nevertheless they are seen, when more closely inspected,  to be, quite plainly, not utterances which could be ‘true’ or ‘false’. Yet to be ‘true’ or ‘false’ is traditionally the characteristic mark of a statement. One of our examples was, for instance, the utterance ‘I do’ (take this woman to be my lawful wedded wife), as uttered in the course of a marriage ceremony. Here we should say that in saying these words we are doing something—namely, marrying, rather than reporting something, namely that we are marrying. And the act of marrying, like, say, the act of betting, is . . .  to be described as saying certain worlds, rather than as performing a different, inward and spiritual, action of which these words are merely the outward and audible sign.[1]

He goes on give a number of pre-requisites for these wedding vows to be valid, e.g., “There must exist an accepted conventional procedure having a certain conventional effect, that procedure to include the uttering of certain words by certain persons in certain circumstances,” and “the particular persons and circumstances in a given case must be appropriate for the invocation of the particular procedure invoked.” (Hence, the controversy in the Ranieri “wedding.”)

Thus, when the licensed minister says, “I pronounce you man and wife,” he’s not saying, “The knot is tied even as I speak,” or “You must be man and wife.” His words are neither a description nor a command, but rather an actual accomplishment of something by the very utterance of certain words in a certain context. Elsewhere he notes a phenomenon at the opposite end pole, where, in certain Muslim contexts, the statement, “I divorce you,” is also performative.

Austin ventures an application to the notion of truth itself:

The truth or falsity of statement is affected by what they leave out or put in and by their being misleading, and so on. Thus, for example, descriptions, which are said to be true or false or, if you like, are ‘statements’, are surely liable to these criticisms, since they are selective and uttered for a purpose. It is essential to realize that ‘true’ and ‘false’, like ‘free’ and ‘unfree’, do not stand for anything simple at all; but only for a general dimension of being a right or proper thing to say as opposed to a wrong thing, in these circumstances, to this audience, for these purposes and with these intentions . . . This doctrine is quite different from much that the pragmatists have said, to the effect that the true is what works, &c. The truth or falsity of a statement depends not merely on the meanings of words but on what act you were performing in what circumstances. [2]

The American, John Searle picked up Austin’s program of “linguistic philosophy,” namely, “the attempt to solve particular philosophical problems by attending to the ordinary use of particular words and other elements in a particular language.”  [3] Searle wrote of an “internalized set of rules,” analogous to our instinctively running to first base instead of third, even though we can’t cite chapter and verse in the rule book. The point is how language is actually played on the ground:

The unit of linguistic communication is not, as has generally been supposed, the symbol, word or sentence, or even the token of the symbol, word or sentence, but rather the production or issuance of the symbol or word or sentence in the performance of the speech act.”

Hence, “a theory of language is part of a theory of action, simply because speaking is a rule-governed form of behavior.” [4]

Playing off Austin’s taxonomy, he says that “utterance acts” (e.g., saying words) and “propositional acts” (arranging them meaningfully) issue in “illocutionary acts” (for the sake of a project, such as stating, promising, or commanding), which accomplish “perlocutionary acts” (achievements, such as convincing or scaring).[5]

Both men worked in intellectual proximity to Austrian/British philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who spoke of the “language games” we play according to certain protocols, but none of them thought of language as “just a silly game.” It’s right serious business, and they used their linguistic analyses to venture into metaphysics. For instance, in Sense and Sensabilia, Austin worked out on the word ‘real,’ showing no patience for attempts to posit a transcendent thing ‘reality,’ that all real things have in common. In his analysis, he spoke of ‘real’ as “substantive-hungry,” needing a real something or other, and as a “trousers word,” with the negative side wearing the trousers, i.e., the sense in which something is unreal.

Searle was also impatient with giving grand status to universals, to abstract concepts.. For instance,

‘Kindness’ is parasitic on ‘is kind’; ‘is kind’ is prior to ‘kindness.’ A language would not contain the notion of ‘kindness’ unless it contained an expression having the function of ‘is kind’, but it could contain ‘is kind’ without ‘kindness.’ [6]

Which is essentially the opposite of Plato’s view, that we only understand an act as kind if we have some grasp of the “Form” of kindness.

One interesting spinoff is the way that biblical scholars have become enamored with “speech act” theory, seeing it as a way to protect us from treating the Bible woodenly as a collection of propositions or facts (though biblicists in the grammatico-historical school have always recognized different literary genres, such as history, poetry, and parable). Some see it as a way to discredit insistence on biblical inerrancy, with its true/false fixation. And, as one put it, in pushing back against the “Big Idea” notion of sermon preparation, we should see the text as a stain-glassed window to be savored on its own merits rather than as just a window through which we look to determine the propositional goods. But it’s the truth that makes us free, and truth is propositional. Besides, unless the windows are Arabesque or similarly abstract, they can be quite didactic and propositional in their portrayals. (I think of the magnificent Jesse Tree window at Chartres.) Yes, the rose windows in Notre Dame are glorious, but they beg commentary. We need an answer to “So  what?” or “Why here?” And so we might explain, “The beauty of  the ‘rose’ reflects the beauty of God’s creative and salvific work, the glass is a conveyer of light, a central metaphor for the gospel, and the craftsmanship gives testimony to the excellence in stewardship of gifts due our Lord.” When we read of Nehemiah surveying the ruins of Jerusalem in preparation for rebuilding the wall, we grant that it is narrative rather than command, but we may still say that “Nehemiah provides an excellent model for research and prudence in ministry.” So yes, speech act analysis is interesting and illuminative, but it is not revolutionary in framing doctrine or ordering one’s Christian life.

Look, language is a curious bird, and if you don’t have an ear for its variegated usage, you’re in for spills. I remember a Vanderbilt prof who used to horse around with it. A colleague might ask, “Do you know what time it is?” to which he’d respond, “Yes,” and then return to his work. He knew what he was doing. Someone had requested the time, but he’d treated it as a question about his competency at temporal awareness. He flipped a matter of serious inquiry into a joke, as he did when someone asked him, as he exited the department late one mid-afternoon, “Are you gone for good?”: “I never go for evil.”

I think too of a Chinese professor we knew in college. He and a friend had come to America for study, and they spent some time in San Francisco trying to figure out what the waitress meant by “With or without?” when they ordered hamburgers. On successive days, they tried different iterations until they were able to conclude that “with” meant “onion” or “cheese” or whatever it was.

Okay, philosophers, ascend the heights of ontological and epistemological abstraction as you please, but remember you have use words in particular situations using language that is not your own special possession. Ignore this, and it can bite you.


[1] J. L. Austin, How to do things with Words (New York: Oxford, 1965), 12-13.

[2] Austin, 143-144.

[3] John Searle, Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 4

[4] Searle, 16-17.

[5] Searle, 24-25.

[6] Searle, 119.