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Dialogue as speech act and discourse: methods to understand what interreligious dialogue does with reference to a common word between us and you.

How does interreligious dialogue work, and what do dialogue partners really do? A recurring criticism of interreligious dialogue is that it is "only words," and there are regular calls to go "from words to action." However, the relationship between speech and action is more complex than such criticism sometimes appears to presuppose. The question posed is: Can speech act theory give insights into how interreligious dialogue works? (1) I will explore whether speech act analysis can provide a complementary reading strategy to other reading strategies, and I understand my attempt as a contribution to a broadly defined field of discourse analytical approaches to interreligious dialogue.

As a specific example of interreligious dialogue I have chosen some key documents from what we may call the Common Word dialogue process. This in itself is a particular type of interreligious dialogue: dialogue by exchange of written documents and prepared statements read at conferences of senior religious leaders and scholars. The process is well known: In October, 2007, a group of 138 Muslim leaders, spanning all continents and all major streams within Islam, sent a seven-teen-page open letter called A Common Word between Us and You, addressed to the pope, to twenty-six other named church leaders, and to "leaders of Christian Churches everywhere." The core message of the document, which uses extensive quotes from the Qur'an, the hadith, and the Bible, is that Islam and Christianity share the twin commandment to love God and love neighbor and that this "common ground" can be the starting point for further dialogue to promote understanding and "world peace." Many Christian leaders have responded: Some 300 scholars and church leaders, mainly from the United States, signed a response produced at Yale University and printed in The New York Times on November 18, 2007. The World Evangelical Alliance and the Archbishop of Canterbury are among the many other church leaders and organizations that have written documents in response. (2) A Common Word has also sparked a series of conferences, one of which took place at Georgetown University in October, 2009. In this essay I will use examples from the original Muslim letter together with the three Christian responses just mentioned.

In the opening paragraph of the Yale response, the authors wrote: "We receive the open letter as a Muslim hand of conviviality and cooperation extended to Christians world-wide. In this response we extend our own Christian hand in return." Later, referring to love for neighbor, they wrote, "Indeed, in the generosity with which the letter is written you embody what you call for." Such references to concrete bodily manifestations are suggestive of the self-involvement prevalent in these texts. This is a feature found in much interreligious dialogue activity. Whether written or spoken, interreligious dialogue is a type of self-involving activity that requires a self-involving language: As much as exploring, describing, and discussing some external reality, interreligious dialogue involves committing oneself, inviting the other, acknowledging, asserting, questioning, and promising--acts that are carded out by the use of language, through speech actions, with the clear intention to change the world that dialogue partners share. (3)

Following a brief outline of key issues in speech act theory, I will present three examples of how this can be applied to texts of the Common Word dialogue process and finally suggest a direction for further research.

Speech Act Theory

I would like to avert one fundamental misunderstanding to which my comments so far might give rise: Speech act theory is not primarily concerned with identifying specific types of utterances as speech acts. On the contrary, a central insight in John Austin's 1962 How to Do Things with Words, the reference point to which all later work within this field relates, is that all utterances are (also) speech acts. Austin introduced terminology that has since become ubiquitous when he talked about locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary acts of speech. A locutionary act is the utterance of sounds that have sense and reference and therefore meaning; the illocutionary act--Austin himself talked rather of illocutionary force--is what the speaker does or intends to do in saying what he or she says; whereas the perlocutionary act or force is what the speaker achieves through saying what is said. (4)

Speech act theory has since mostly focused on understanding illocutionary acts. A daily life example (much used by Quentin Skinner) is the police officer who shouts to a person ice skating on a lake: "The ice over there is very thin." The locution here is the saying of the words as well as the informative content of the sentence, whereas we have no problem in understanding that the illocutionary force is to warn the skater, although no per-formative verb to this effect is used. Indeed, the inclusion of a performative verb ("I warn you that the ice over there is very thin") would not have added to our understanding.

We can illustrate the distinction between illocution and perlocution by looking at the difference between warning and convincing. Our police officer at the lakeside may be said to have warned the skater simply by uttering the words "the ice over there is very thin" (provided the officer shouted loudly enough, etc.). Even if the skater does not change her or his course of action, we might justifiably claim that she or he had been warned. The same does not apply to convincing, which is a perlocutionary act: I do not convince simply by saying something. It requires a change in the hearer: if not a change of behavior, at least a mental change, a new understanding of the state of affairs. The convincing is achieved through saying something, but it is not itself part of the saying. Thus, while any utterance may be analyzed as locution and illocution, it does not necessarily follow that the utterance is also a perlocutionary act.

From what I have said so far, it also follows that speech act analysis should not be limited to the study of illocutionary speech acts, although there has been a tendency to understand the term "speech act" to be synonymous with "illocutionary act." Jennifer Hornsby offered the most concise definition of an illocutionary act when she wrote that "[phi]-ing is an illocutionary act iff a sufficient condition of a person's [phi]-ing that p is that an attempt on her part at [phi]-ing that p causes an audience to take her to be [phi]-ing that p." (5)

In the last few decades other disciplines have picked up central insights from the work of Austin and other linguists and philosophers of language. Mary Louise Pratt took speech act theory to the field of literary theory and suggested it could be applied to much bigger elements of writing, to paragraphs, sections, and even whole literary works. (6) Skinner has applied speech act theory to historical texts, showing how analysis of the illocutionary force of texts from the past--based on extensive analysis of contemporary texts--can help our understanding of historical processes. (7) Richard Briggs has used speech act analysis in biblical scholarship, (8) and Kevin Vanhoozer and others have shown strengths and weaknesses of applying these theories within theology. (9) In the process, the object of study has moved from speech to writing, without a change in terminology. We speak of speech acts also when the words may never actually have been spoken. Vanhoozer has pointed out that this transition deserves more theorizing than has actually happened, and there are suggestions, which cannot be explored further here, that the works of Paul Ricoeur and Jacques Derrida might give valuable assistance in the process. (10)

Most speech act theory assumes--or concludes--that conventions are at the heart of interaction through language. We are "limited by the prevailing conventions of discourse," as Skinner said, but this does not mean that we "must be limited only to following these conventions., (11) The flouting of conventions is a central part of communication, and much power is played out in manipulating and even seeking to change conventions. This understanding, I suggest, is useful for the analysis of religious language as well as the language of interreligious dialogue. If we follow Talal Asad in the suggestion that religions are discursive traditions, we may see in interreligious dialogue how the conventions of these discursive traditions are at work, as well as how they are manipulated or stretched in order, for example, to secure overlap between the various discourses. (12)

While speech act theory is much oriented toward the intentions of speakers/authors, discourse analysis in a narrow Foucaultian sense does not allow for this interest. If, however, we use speech act analysis to understand the working of conventions, we may couple this with a Foucaultian understanding of the various available subject positions and understand how these allow or disallow certain speech acts and the manipulation of conventions. This may give us tools to understand aspects of the power involved and why, for example, certain utterances lead to material changes in the world but others do not.

First Example: A Theological Statement in The New York Times

Speech act theory may throw light on several aspects of the Common Word dialogue process, both on the level of discourse and on the micro level, on individual sections of the texts. This approach can help us to see the Muslim initiative as a whole as an important speech act and likewise with several of the Christian responses. As important as the details of the individual texts is the fact of their existence--of their having been produced and of their symbolic functioning.

In my first example I will look at the so-called Yale response to A Common Word, titled Loving God and Neighbor Together, as a whole. I will understand it as a speech action. This obliges me to pay attention not only to the text but also to the context of its publication, as well as how it was published. In this case the circumstances of its publication are particularly intriguing, as the Yale response was published as a full-page advertisement in The New York Times. As mentioned above, the text speaks of the body language of the Muslim leaders in publishing A Common Word. This cannot, obviously, be taken as observations of actual, physical body language but is, rather, a form of interpretation, taking the words that were written within a particular context to have the same illocutionary force as that of concrete bodily movements, in this case a physical handshake. Likewise, within their own text, the authors of the Yale response suggested that their words and the publication of their text should be understood in a similar way, as an extended hand.

The fact that the text was published as an advertisement suggests that several "things" are being done at once. In form, the text follows the conventions of a letter, with opening and closing greetings and a list of signatories at the end. Thus, the intention is clearly to respond within the same format that A Common Word itself utilized. At the same time, the text clearly addresses a much wider audience than the formal addressees. The majority of the 138 signatories of A Common Word would not stumble across an advertisement in The New York Times, but many others would. The text is intended to inform the type of audience that reads the Times about A Common Word and about the favorable response it received from the Yale authors and signatories. This act of intended (and obviously fully legitimate) double communication has left marks in the text. For instance, the usage of pronouns appears muddled: The signatories of A Common Word are variously referred to in the second and third person, and so are Muslims in general.

The most important illocutionary act of the Yale response, it seems to me, is to communicate a positive evaluation of A Common Word. The action of publishing a theological text as a full-page advertisement is stretching conventions for theological texts as well as for advertisements and indicates that what is being communicated is exceptional. Giving high value to A Common Word is an illocutionary act for which the intended consequence most likely is that others read the Muslim leaders' letter and do so with positive expectations. However, while anyone is free to value A Common Word, and anyone with sufficient funds is free to communicate this through an advertisement in the Times, that in itself does not lead to the intended consequence. In publishing the advertisement, the authors also suggested that they were in a position to say what they said with such authority that others would adjust their own perceptions. This is reinforced by the list of signatories in the advertisement that includes names and titles of representatives from a wide spectrum of Christian traditions, not least also from among Evangelical groups that are often hesitant about dialogue with Muslims.

My suggestion is that their illocutionary acts of asserting authority to speak on the matter as well as of giving high value to A Common Word were--using key expressions from Austin--happy and felicitous. They "secured uptake," and one can argue that the Yale response was almost as important for the Common Word process as was the initial letter itself.

Second Example: Opening Greetings

We can also apply speech act analysis to small parts of texts. Comparing the opening greetings of four texts from the Common Word process yields interesting results:

A Common Word:
 In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.
 On the Occasion of the Eid al-Fitr al-Mubarak 1428 A.H./October
 2007 C.E., and on the One Year Anniversary of the Open Letter of 38
 Muslim Scholars to H. H. Pope Benedict XVI,
 An Open Letter and Call from Muslim Religious Leaders to:
 His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI,
 [names and titles of twenty-six other Christian leaders]
 And Leaders of Christian Churches, everywhere.

Yale response:
 In the name of the Infinitely Good God whom we should love with all
 Loving God and Neighbor Together:
 A Christian Response to A Common Word Between Us and You

World Evangelical Alliance response:
 We Too Want to Live in Love, Peace, Freedom and Justice
 A Response to A Common Word Between Us and You
 We appreciate how you urge in your letter ...

Archbishop Rowan Williams's response:
 A Common Word for the Common Good
 the Muslim Religious Leaders and Scholars
 who have signed
 A Common Word Between Us and You
 and to Muslim brothers and sisters everywhere
 Grace, Mercy and Peace be with you

In prefacing their texts with some form of greeting, all the authors conformed in one way or another to conventions pertaining to letters, but we see that they did so in very different ways, differences that point us toward illocutionary acts that may, since they are placed at the opening of the texts, color the readers' reading of the rest of each text.

In this collection the World Evangelical Alliance's opening stands out for its brevity. Were it not for the one word "peace" we could not speak of a greeting at all, but only a title for a text that did not need to be read as a letter. The "peace" indicates an address. Held up against the opening of the letter to which it responds, it reads like an indication of prudence, of hesitation even. It seems to be a conscious break with the tone of the original letter, but nevertheless employs a word ("peace") that is central in A Common Word and at the same time one that is much used as a greeting in Christian traditions.

The Yale response is very different and has another illocutionary force. As the greeting of a Christian text, the first sentence is decidedly marked. (13) It clearly echoes the opening line of A Common Word, which is in conformity with greeting conventions in Islam. In using these words, the authors indicated openness not only for the content of A Common Word but also for its language and therefore for the language of Islam. They suggested that Christian theologians may speak about God in words reminiscent of those used by their Islamic counterparts.

Williams, for his part, appears to have done something different yet. "Grace, Mercy and Peace be with you" are words well established as a Christian greeting, for example in liturgical use. Where the Muslim leaders use words from their tradition, Williams finds words in his own that are conventionally put much to the same use, that--we could say--do much the same thing in Christian tradition as the opening line of A Common Word does in Islamic tradition. But, the greeting is not chosen at random among available Christian greetings. The term "peace" is prominent, and the greeting signals openness. Another greeting much used in Christian liturgy, which in liturgical use could be said to have much the same function as the opening line of A Common Word, is "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." The application of that greeting here would have had a very different illocutionary force, which Williams avoided, namely, that of highlighting a Christian understanding of God with which Muslims disagree. This illustrates that the illocutionary force is also to a certain extent determined by the range of possible actions that were not realized in this particular instance.

Williams's "to Muslim brothers and sisters everywhere" can be read in contrast to A Common Word's "leaders of Christian Churches everywhere." The illocutionary force is that of widening involvement in the exchange from the level of scholars and religious leaders to all followers of the traditions involved. Addressing Muslims as brothers and sisters widens the application of this terminology from coreligionists (Christian brothers and sisters). Further, the mention of sisters may be a mild rebuke of A Common Word in which gender awareness is completely absent.

Even with these sketchy observations, it becomes evident that the authors of these three Christian responses were doing very different things in the first lines of their texts. A much more thorough presentation of the entire texts would show that the acts we find in the opening lines indeed conform to the content of each individual text to such an extent that we could claim that each opening greeting characterizes important aspects of the entire text to which it belongs. This, of course, is not always so, but in these instances it happens to be the case.

Third Example: Shirk

From these two examples, the misunderstanding could arise that speech act analysis is suited only to explore what we inaccurately might call the form or the exterior of the text and less suited to understand what the authors saw as core concerns. After all, the texts in question deal with difficult, sensitive, and even controversial theological issues. I suggest that these aspects of the texts might also be usefully studied in light of speech act theory and will illustrate this by looking at how the texts treat the issue of shirk, the ascribing of a partner to God.

One of the central messages of A Common Word is that Christians and Muslims share the commandment to love God. The authors rally scriptural evidence that focus on the respect, devotion, honor, etc., which are due to God. Among these are the words from Aal Imran 3:64 from where the document got its title: "Say: O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God." (14) The commandment not to ascribe a partner unto God is of course a most central concern in Islam, and the breaking of it is shirk. The words "we shall ascribe no partner" are quoted five times in A Common Word. The similar assertion in Al-An'am 6:163, "He hath no partner," is quoted twice. The words to a similar effect, "he hath no associate," are quoted eight times in the main text and an additional six times in the endnotes. My question then becomes: What does this repeated assertion do in this particular context?

In the classical period of Islam, commentators and jurists tended to see Christians as polytheists who committed shirk. (15) Within this context, quoting the qur'anic verses mentioned above would have the illocutionary force of marking a boundary between those of true faith and those who had gone astray, which included Christians. The same understanding can also be found in current writing on Christianity by Islamic scholars. (16) So, the repeated quoting of the texts on ascription of a partner/associate could have the illocutionary force of marking distinction or distance and even condemning Christian theology as shirk. But, what is its force in the context of A Common Word?. The very different answers to this question provided by the World Evangelical Alliance and Williams illustrate how the same utterance (action) may be construed as different illocutionary acts.

The World Evangelical Alliance zoomed in on this particular issue:
 In your opening summary, you commence with what is obviously a
 "call to Christians" to become Muslims by worshipping God without
 ascribing to him a partner.

 By referring several times to Quranic statements that state God
 has no partner and associate, you rightly draw attention to the
 deepest difference between Islam and Christianity.... We know that
 this is a fundamental difference in our understanding the nature of
 God [sic]; one that will require long and sincere talks, and
 genuine listening to each other if we are to truly understand each
 other's position and to move beyond historical caricatures. We urge
 you to consider joining us in such discussions.

This amounts to a clear example of what Briggs has called "construal," taking an action X for a specific illocutionary act Y in context C. (17) The authors explicitly read the passages in A Common Word as a call to conversion and as a confrontation with a central Christian dogma* Williams also focused on the same point but read A Common Word differently.

In the introduction of his response he quoted a long passage from A Common Word within which "he hath no associate" is quoted several times. He then commented: "We read [the passage] as an invitation to further discussion within the Christian family and within the Muslim family as well as between Muslims and Christians, since it invites all of us to think afresh about the foundations of our convictions." In the first section of the main part of his text, he returned to the quotes in question, mentioned the tawhid principle as well as shirk (in his note 5), and even quoted other qur'anic verses that more explicitly reject the idea that Jesus is God. He then asserted, "Here it is important to state unequivocally that the association of any other being with God is expressly rejected by the Christian theological tradition."

Where the World Evangelical Alliance found statements that contradict a central Christian concern, Williams found convictions that are congruent with Christian theology. Where the World Evangelical Alliance found a call to conversion, Williams found an invitation to dialogue on central issues. In other words, each took the relevant sections of A Common Word to have a different illocutionary force.

So, what does A Common Word do in repeatedly quoting the Qur'an on the ascription of a partner to God? From a reading of the whole text and based on the tone of respect for Christianity that pervades it, the repeated highlighting of commonality, and the explicit invitation to further dialogue, I suggest that what we see here is an attempt actively to change the illocutionary force of the qur'anic verses in question--to manipulate conventions so as to allow for other illocutions. The non-confrontational use of these qur'anic verses is not a new invention by the authors of A Common Word, but they take it up and give it prominence in a direct address to Christians. This analysis also invites further reflection on power: The original signatories of A Common Word implicitly asserted that they had the authority to manipulate conventions in this way, and the extent of their success will be a means to measuring their actual power and influence.

The discussion of Williams's text might also be the time to touch on the intentional fallacy to which speech act analysis may seem prone. Do speech act analysts claim to be able to understand speakers'/writers' intentions, and is that legitimate? Skinner discussed this in depth and underscored the distinction between motives and intentions. Speech act analysis makes no claims to discovering the motives of speakers, their "good reasons," and, in the words of Skinner, does not understand intentions as "plans to act." (18) The intentions in question are the intension in writing--the intentions, so to speak, embedded in the text itself. If we look at the illocutionary force of key sections of Williams's response, we can suggest, for example, that his intention in writing is to interpret A Common Word as inviting Christians to dialogue on the nature of God. This assertion (on my part) does not, however, amount to an exploration of his motives. These may be based on a strong conviction that A Common Word must be understood in this way by any reasonable reader, in which case motives and intentions are closely aligned. It is, however, possible in principle (although I do not claim that this is the case) that what he wrote about his reading of A Common Word was motivated by more strategic considerations concerning what is good for Christian-Muslim relations. This does not alter his intention in writing.

Concluding Remarks

I have given a brief outline of core issues in speech act theory and three sketchy examples of how this might be used to analyze texts from interreligious dialogue situations. My claim is that speech act analysis may provide us with tools to describe more accurately aspects of texts that we would no doubt also otherwise recognize. What come to the fore are the most operative aspects of the texts, where the authors seek to change their own attitudes, understanding, and behavior, as well as those of their co-religionists and their dialogue partners. We explore the fuzzy border area between words and action. One potential fruit could be that we better understand how this area can be navigated and how words and action intertwine.

A focus on actions and acts may also sharpen our attentiveness to who the actors are. This, I believe, is a crucial question in interreligious dialogue. While philosophers insist that only individual wills can have intentions, speech and writing in interreligious dialogue is full of "we's" and plural "you's" who express convictions, give promises, invite each other, and commit themselves. Although it goes far beyond the scope of this essay, I suggest that exploring the relationship between individual and collective speech and action may help us understand better why interreligious dialogue less often than many hope and call for is perceived as moving "from words to action."

(1) The terms "speech act theory" and "speech act analysis" are sometimes used almost interchangeably. I will seek to use "theory" about the theoretical development involved and "analysis" about its concrete application.

(2) The original Muslim letter is available at; the seventy-one responses, including the ones mentioned here, are available at gory/site/christian-responses/.

(3) I follow Jennifer Homsby in distinguishing between the speech action (the event of speaking) and speech acts (the "something" that is done in or through the action). This distinction is not observed in early writing on speech act theory. See Jennifer Homsby, "Illocution and Its Significance," in Savas L. Tsohatzidis, ed., Foundations of Speech Act Theory: Philosophical and Linguistic Perspectives (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 187.

(4) See John L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words: The William James Lectures Delivered at Harvard University m 1955 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962; 2nd ed., 1975).

(5) Homsby, "Illocution," p. 193. Homsby follows the conventions of logics here, using "iff" to mean "if and only if."

(6) See Mary Louise Pratt, Toward a Speech Act Theory of Literary Discourse (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1977).

(7) E.g., in Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, vol. 1: The Renaissance; vol. 2: The Age of Reformation (Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978).

(8) See Richard S. Briggs, Words in Action: Speech Act Theory and Biblical Interpretation--Toward a Hermeneutic of Self-Involvement (Edinburgh and New York: T & T Clark, 2001).

(9) See Kevin Vanhoozer and Martin Warner, Transcending Boundaries in Philosophy and Theology." Reason, Meaning, and Experience (Aldershot, Hampshire, U.K., and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007).

(10) Derrida's discussion with John Searle concerning the merits of speech act analysis is an interesting starting point for further reflection along these lines; see Jacques Derrida, Limited Inc, tr. Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988).

(11) Quentin Skinner, "Some Problems in the Analysis of Political Thought and Action," in James Tully, ed. and intro., Meaning and Context: Quentin Skinner and His Critics (Princeton, N J: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 105; emphasis in original.

(12) See Talal Asad, The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam, Occasional Papers Series (Washington, DC: Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University, 1986).

(13) Marked instances of communication are those that stand out from the standard use of language in ways that immediately appear "unreasonable"; see Anita Fetzer, Recontextualizing Context: Grammaticality Meets Appropriateness (Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Co., 2004), p. 183.

(14) This and other quotes from the Qur'an and hadith are quoted as they were in A Common Word between Us and You.

(15) Kate Zebiri, Muslims and Christians Face to Face (Oxford, U.K., and Roekport, ME: Oneworld Publications, 1997), p. 22.

(16) Ibid., p. 82.

(17) Briggs, Words in Action, p. 105.

(18) Quentin Skinner, "A Reply to My Critics," in Tully, Meaning and Context, p. 263; also see idem, "'Social Meaning.' and the Explanation of Social Action," in Tully, Meaning and Context, p. 88.
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Author:Horsfjord, Vebjorn L.
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Date:Jun 22, 2013
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