Monday, November 26, 2007

Tapping Topic: Promises


Let’s take an example of a promise and parse it out.

“I promise this topic will be good.”

Does this sentence have a certain semantic content to it? If it does, can we thereby elucidate the content itself and judge this sentence as true or false? Is this sentence reducible to its semantic content? In other words, is the very utterance of this sentence a specific event, an event which relates to its own meaning, the meaning of a promise? If this were the case, would it be possible to separate the semantic content of the sentence from its particular context of its utterance? If we take this sentence to mean anything at all is the context of its utterance necessarily understood as its specific meaning, even though all the particular elements of context, namely the date, what exactly the topic is, who the “I” refers to, etc, are not ACTUALLY present within the sentence itself?

Let’s just say for the sake of argument that there has to be a shared context in order for a promise to be successfully understood as such. So what sorts of concepts are implicitly at work within the context of promising? If I promised that this topic would be good, and then the topic wasn’t very good, would the rupture of that promise reflect on me as a liar? If I am a liar is there some implicit concept of truth at work, or is it simply that I didn’t fulfill the conditions I created myself? If there was a concept of truth at work within promising, what kind of truth would it be? Say for example if my last few topics weren’t up to snuff, you wouldn’t have very much empirical evidence that I would be telling the truth by saying “I promise this topic will be good.” You might have to trust that the fact that my last few topics were not very good for reasons outside of my control. You might have to believe that I have some kind of intelligence contrary to the empirical or historical evidence. You might have to have faith that I was being truthful with you, but how could you know I was telling the truth if the actual discussion at tapping, which we might arguably claim as criteria for which topics may be judged, hasn’t even occurred?

Well all of this is very interesting from a sort f close reading perspective, but let’s broaden our horizons a little bit, shall we? What is the relationship of the promise to things like contracts? Are promises the foundation of contracts or are contracts a categorically different phenomenon? Is there a sense in which one proceeds through existence today, expecting certain things to work, like when you go to the grocery store to buy food? Whose promises are you accepting implicitly as true in the relatively benign act of eating lunch, and what are they? If the promise might be considered a linguistic phenomenon, what does this consideration suggest about the relationship between language and existence for human beings in the world today?

Finally, a classic and entertaining quote:

"Since it is necessary for the prince to use the ways of beasts, he should imitate the fox and the lion, because the lion cannot defend himself from snares and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. Therefore, it is important to be a fox in order to understand the snares and a lion in order to terrify the wolves. Those who choose only to be a lion do not really understand. Therefore, a prudent leader will not and should not observe his promises, when such observance will work against him and when the reasons for making the promise are no longer valid. If all men were good, this precept would not be good; but since men are evil and will not keep their word with you, you shouldn't keep yours to them. Never has a prince lacked legitimate reasons to break faith. I could give you an infinite number of examples from modern times, and show you numerous peace treaties and promises that have been broken and made completely empty by the faithlessness of princes: these knew well how to use the ways of the fox, and they are the ones who succeed. But it is necessary to know how to hide this nature and to simulate a good character and to dissimulate: for the majority of men are simple and will only follow the needs of the present, so that the deceiver can always find someone he can deceive."


I hope to see all of you out on Thursday.

Love and Peace,

1 comment:

Paul said...

Hi Tappers,

What a great topic! Promises and commitments seem to be on everyone's minds these days, what with everyone from the conservative right to 'neo-anarchists' like Simon Critchley (as those know who came to the Critchley-Badiou polemic a couple of weeks ago) calling for an "ethics" of "infinite" commitment and responsibility. But what is it to commit ourselves? Let me recall the words of J. L. Austin in the 1955 William James Lectures ("How to do things with words"). He quotes from Euripedes' Hippolytus, in which a tricky character tries to get out of an oath by saying "my tongue swore, but my heart did not..." Austin:

"It is gratifying to observe in this very example how excess of profundity, or rather solemnity, at once paves the way for immodality. For one who says 'promising is not merely a matter of uttering words! It is an inward and spiritual act!' is apt to appear as a solid moralist standing out against a generation of superficial theorizers: we see him as he sees himself, surveying the invisible dpeths of ethical space, with all the distinction of a specialist in the sui generis. Yet he provides Hippolytus with a let-out, the bigamist with an excuse for his 'I do' and the welsher with a defence for his 'I bet'. Accuracy and morality alike are on the side of the plain saying that our word is our bond."

So, if we may say that promising (as opposed to pretending to promise) is really a matter of "meaning it," then what do we want to say about the relationship betwee the "inner" and the "outer," the "spiritual act" and the "word" that "expresses it"? How does this problem "communicate" with the problem of language and meaning itself? And what does this have to teach us about the forms of public and social life, the ways we connect with one another, the functions of responsibility and power in public life, and the idea of community itself?

I look forward to the discussion!