Discourse on Truth in Pragmatics: The Effects of Miscommunication in Liberian Politics

By: Tarnue Johnson

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

March 25, 2003

For those who may not be familiar with the history of language and modern philosophy, pragmatics, has become a separate field of linguistics and the philosophy of language, exercising the minds of philosophers and linguists alike, since Austin's 1955 Harvard lectures (first published in 1962) in which he laid the groundwork for what would become speech act theory. Austin's theoretical preoccupation in these lectures was to construct dialogue systems that would give accounts of aspects of meaning in which coherent sequences of verbal interactions would become apparent.

In Austin's conceptual model, utterances or speaking is viewed as a kind of action being performed by the speaker. To speak or make an utterance in this sense is primarily to perform an action. What this suggests is that the basic sentence type in language is declarative (i.e. a statement or assertion). If a speaker utters a sentence such as: [I promise to take a taxi home], what the speaker is actually doing is making a promise rather than just describing one. Austin described this kind of utterance as performative utterances. In making performative utterances, the speaker performs the action named by the first verb in the sentence. We could insert any number of adverbs, such as hereby etc. to stress the performative functions in the execution of meaning.

The emphasis in Austin's speech act theory is not on the truthfulness or falsity of assertions, but it is rather on whether these assertions work or not. Thus, for assertions or utterances to work, they must meet certain felicity conditions. These felicity or enabling conditions for a performative include social conventions, procedural and ceremonial features governing speech acts etc. Without satisfying these felicity conditions, it is possible to conclude that a speech act does not work. For example, if the current government of Liberia declares that the country is a functioning constitutional democracy, without any intent to follow the constitution and other conventions, which ensure the realization of such assertions, then such peformative could be deemed infelicitous because it does not work. Such a speech act would be described as a misfire in Austin's terminology. Austin went on to add sincerity clauses to his felicity conditions, such that if one insincerely performs a speech act by [making a promise] when one clearly intends to break such promise, such an act would be described as an abuse of a speech act. Making a promise also falls within the category of commisives. This class is characterized by committing the speaker to do something by making a promise.

The possibility that a speech act could be abused leads us to making a crucial taxonomic distinction between three different types of speech acts. Hence, Austin distinguishes between locutionary act, illocutionary act and perlocutionary act. However, the theoretical preoccupation of Searl (a prolific contributor to speech act literature) is not so much to focus on the divisions between categories of speech acts as described by Austin. Searl (1969:17) on commenting on the significance of speech act theory had this to say:

"[A] theory of language is part of a theory of action, simply because speaking is a rule-governed form of behavior. Now, being rule-governed, it has formal features which admit of independent study. But a study purely of those formal features, without a study of their role in speech acts, would be like a formal study of the currency and credit systems of economies without a study of the role of currency and credit in economic transactions. A great deal can be said in the study of language without studying speech acts, because any such purely formal theory is necessarily incomplete. It would be as if baseball were studied only as a formal system of rules and not as a game."

The focus of Searl's work has been to refine Austin's work on speech acts by providing the necessary and sufficient conditions for the demonstration of different types of illocutionary acts (see Traum, 1999). An illocutionary act is the action intended by the speaker when he/she makes an utterance. Austin and his successors including Searl, have been mainly concerned with the uses to which language can be put in society. This is why the term speech acts is often used with the meaning of illocutionary acts in mind. What the distinction between illocution and locution signals perhaps is a clear division of labor between semantics and pragmatics. The demarcation suggests that semantics focuses on the meaning of utterances as viewed out of context, while pragmatics focuses on the performative and situational force of utterances. And this in my view transcends an ordinary analysis of sentence structures to construct meaning. It also applies to linguistic units in the check for pragmatic implications of specific utterances. Thus, like Austin, Searl and others who have come after them, I am also concerned with the effects of illocutionary acts. My central objective in this article, therefore, is to review paradigm cases of illocutionary acts and their material effects on politics and popular discourse in Liberian society.

The effects of miscommunication in political discourse

There are two main strategic considerations in assessing the content of what Searl (1969; see also Bash and Harnish, 1979) considers the illocutionary point of a speech act. These considerations include the psychological state of the speaker (state of mind), or what one might refer to in Mezirow's terms albeit with some qualifications, as habits of mind. Habits of mind are frames of reference and ways in which one interprets the world predicated upon specific psychosocial and pyschocultural assumptions. In assessing the content and illocutionary point of a specific speech act, what one is primarily concerned about is the fit between an assertion and the world. For example, if a speaker issues a directive or makes a request or orders someone else to do something, what he/she is trying to do is to change the world so that it matches his/ her utterance. Thus, the question of fittingness between words and deeds, which is also a question about the relationship between thinking and reality, falls within the dual realms of psychology and philosophy. It encompasses various domains of philosophy such as epistemology, ontology, logic and perhaps metaphysics. This question may also belong to the domain of cognitive psychology.

I will now turn to how illocutionary speech acts have played out in the evolution of political discourse in the Liberian society. My objective, which has been laid out earlier, is to review paradigm cases and their effects on structuring interaction and political dialogues in Liberian society. Examples of paradigm cases that immediately come to mind in this context are the numerous speeches by various Liberian Presidents and Civic and Community leaders in times of great uncertainties or to commemorate national occasions, or just merely to make policy pronouncements to the Liberian public. Dissecting these speeches and political commentaries has both a heuristic and practical value. It is ultimately indispensable to gaining a critical understanding of how particular historical figures have affected the nature of popular discourse and its impact on the evolution of the social system. Importantly, and, as I have stated elsewhere, there is a need to elaborate explanatory models that illuminate the biographical and idiosyncratic circumstances of significant actors in the movement of history such as leaders. So, one is attempting to do just that by critically assessing the utterances of public figures and influential academic scholars. One of the objectives of such assessment is also to uncover delusions and self-deceptions, which may derive from the effects of miscommunication in public discourse.

Thus, political battle cries issued by past and present political leaders to arouse public sentiments and action also falls in the category of paradigm cases. In addition, other instances that also spring to mind are declaratives in the form of views and assertions found in the current body of literature that constitutes Liberian Studies. Of course I am not referring here to everyday speech acts per se, however, I would contend that there is a vast similarity between such speech acts and what Searl refers to as the propositional content of political discourse and communication.

For example, the intent to deceive or persuade others to execute specific actions (public or public) is as much a feature of everyday speech acts as it a characteristic of public and academic discourse. Thus, bringing private and public discourses into the domain of a rational thought process lies at the heart of Habermas's communicative action. Communicative action in such context adds a dimension of rationality to the necessary and sufficient conditions expounded by Searl or indeed, the all-important sincerity clauses outlined by Austin. Habermas has specified communicative action as (cited in Szczelkun, 1999:1):

"The concept of communicative action presupposes the use of language as a medium for a kind of reaching understanding, in the course of which participants, through relating to a world, reciprocally raise validity claims that can be accepted or contested."

In his inaugural address upon his ascension to the presidency in 1944, William V.S. Tubman had this rather strong and resounding message to convey to his listeners (Wreh, 1976:35-36; see also Gaunnu, 1980):

"Fear no man, honor and respect lawful and constituted authority, yield a cheerful obedience to and live within the law. Mark you well I do not advocate license, nor will any such attitude be tolerated. But I advocate fearlessness and stamina in our people acquiring and possessing property, in exercising and pursuing peace, prosperity and security…We shall endeavor, therefore, to stimulate and encourage the development of courageous and fearless manhood, to look to this great cause and to the preservation in full force of our democratic superstructure, and by wise and constitutional measures seek to promote intelligence among the people as the best means of preserving our liberties- to see to it that Liberty and Law march hand in hand."

In this inaugural address, Tubman makes reference to the importance of preserving in "full force our democratic superstructure," but in the course of time his actions came to resemble something else. The reality of Tubman's politics was to undermine the very foundations of this democratic superstructure he alludes to by suppressing any avenue for public criticism of his policies and actions. There are so many instances throughout the administration of Tubman, which attests to this. They include for example, the various false assassination plots to eliminate perceive enemies, corruption, the maintenance of a blotted bureaucracy, the excesses of the open-door policy as a development strategy, the willful suppression of student activists and political opponents etc.

There is a great disparity between the above assertions about the preservation of a democratic superstructure in Liberia in the turbulent aftermath of World War II and the subsequent propensity to pursue policy actions in contradistinction to these declared principles. Examining the performative force of Tubman's utterance in 1944 suggests that the utterance fails to fulfill the sincerity conditions of an illocutionary act. There is a clear contradiction between a promise made on this occasion and the intensions or the will to carry it out.

The assertion could therefore be described as a misfire or the abuse of a speech act. I have no illusions, however, that the tension that often exists between intensions, statements and subsequent actions constitute a difficult philosophical conundrum. Perhaps the difficulty in this terrain primarily derives from the inherently fallible and imperfect nature of our understanding of the world in which we live. For this reason there are no absolute truths, and therefore, one could only speak of contingent validation of social ideas and norms of appropriateness. As the saying goes, what is science and appropriate today may soon be considered non-science and inappropriate tomorrow. This revelation has been one of the enduring contributions of Karl Popper to the development of philosophical thought (see Soros, 1998).

When a group of leaders of political parties and other interest groups came together recently in the United States and declared that they are the primary stakeholders in the political process in Liberia, either they lack the proper information to make the correct judgment that the people through their elected representatives are the genuine stakeholders in the political process, or that they intent to impose their will on the Liberian people. Either way, it is difficult to make a judgment when an action has not yet been taken. To make a rational and reflective judgment in this case demands a concrete analysis of psychological states, intentions, wills etc. Such reflective exercise in rational judgment constitutes the true spirit of communicative action, which involves the reciprocal validation of knowledge claims. But the only thing one could modestly declare at this stage is that the assertion by the political parties amounts to a miscommunication of perhaps their intensions, strategies and policies in the pragmatic realm.

In his critique of "Liberian Political Science" Patrick Burrows (1989) offers a definition of the term oligarchy that seems to challenge the empirical validation of the notion that an "Americo-Liberian oligarchy" existed in Liberia prior to the April 12th 1980 coup. Thus, Burrow asserts on page 32 of his monograph in reference to Fahnbulleh's remarks:

"Fahnbulleh often refers to the "Americo-Liberian aristocracy" or "oligarchy" implying hereditary privilege or corruption involving a few families. However, the evidence presented in his book does not support the notion that privilege was transmitted within selected families from one generation to another. The author has yet to show that the descendents of Hilary Teage and Joseph Jenkins Roberts, for example, held privilege positions during the Tubman era…Our analyst would be hard-pressed to show that local presidents came to office by means more corrupt than those employed elsewhere."

In our search for consensual, contingent and reciprocal validation of ideas through rational discourse and critical reflection, which is a hall mark of a true scientific and speech community, it is possible to agree with Fahnbulleh, Liebenow, and others who have argued that an Americo-Liberian oligarchy did indeed, exist in Liberia at least prior to the April 12th 1980 coup. Importantly, the weight of evidence seems be in their favor when one simply examines the simple dictionary definition of the word oligarchy. The definition of the word oligarchy as provided by the Columbia Encyclopedia (2001) indicates that the term oligarchy is a Greek word meaning rule by the few.

This Encyclopedia shows that the classical definition of the term given by Aristotle is the same; a government by a few, usually the rich, for their own advantage. The fact that Tubman or Tolbert may not have been related to Joseph Jenkins Roberts and Hilary Teage by blood doesn't really matter in this case. There was at least a 100 years reign by an Americo-Liberian oligarchy in Liberia, largely through the institutional instrumentality of the True Whig Party and other non-democratic civil structures. Now, this reign was in contrast to democracy, which is usually a system in which elites compete with each other, gaining power through "unimpeded" popular suffrage. Basil Davidson (1992:247) embodies these sentiments in his elegant encapsulation:

"In Liberia the perversion of community can be rationally explained as arising from the consequences of the slave trade. But alienation from ancestral community was then carried further, and systematized, by imposition of the culture of an imported [oligarchy] whose ignorance of local realities was easily encouraged, by the corruptions of power, into a contempt for the peoples who lived in these realities."

Far from "eurocentric privileging" and "essentialism", what this analysis shows is that there is a gap between Burrow's assertions on this particular score and the reality of Liberian politics for more than a century. The gap between speech and reality in this case like in other paradigm cases discussed earlier, questions the truthfulness of his assertions from a pragmatic viewpoint.

President Tolbert came to power in the aftermath of Tubman's death and made this solemn pledge to uphold the salient principles, which guarantee the rights of all in his first inaugural address on January 3,1972:

"All this I see, and yet still further beyond the horizon, bursting upon my sights, I behold the beauty of a Glorious Land of Liberty, wherein the dignity of mankind takes the clearest precedence over the selfishness of men; where respect for inalienable and fundamental rights and imperishable principles are placed wholly above impelling expediency, in the exercise of power and privilege… I perceive a nation reaching toward the wider perspectives of ingrained morality, upon which the larger judgment of history will depend. Unfolding the scroll of a fuller destiny, I see our people enjoying the blessings of unbounded fulfillment, by the grace of Almighty God."

These lines described part of the vision of Tolbert as laid out in his first inaugural address to the Liberian nation. There is no doubt that the idealistic principles embedded in this speech should be worthy of any nation, especially one that was originally set up to be a save haven for suffering humanity. However, the critical analyst would discern a big gap between this rhetoric and historical reality. Firstly, President Tolbert failed on the economic front due to internal and external pressures. Secondly, and more significantly, he tried to liberalize the political system to accommodate dissent but was unwilling to go as far as was being demanded by an increasingly radicalized opposition, clamoring for a faster pace in social and political reforms.

The Tolbert administration was a missed opportunity by all stakeholders in Liberian society, because it led to the rise of destructive militarism and brute force as a weapon in the political field. Liberia and its people are reeling from this missed opportunity right at this moment. In this epoch, naked brutality and mindless violence have become a credo in the mode of functioning and social practices of men and women who would ignore rational discourse as a torchlight in the path ahead. As the saying goes, when our people are not under the palaver hut trying to settle disputes and chart the future, they may be killing each other. Thus, rational discourse is the only path to greater wisdom, freedom, peace and self-determination. On the question of rational discourse or dialogue being the path to greater wisdom, Bohm (http:www.infed.org:6) has this to say:

"Dialogue, as we are choosing to use the word, is a way of exploring the roots of the many crises that face humanity today. It enables inquiry into, and understanding of, the sorts of processes that fragment and interfere with real communication between individuals, nations and even different parts of the same organization. In our modern culture men and women are able to interact with one another in many ways: they can sing, dance or play together with little difficulty but their ability to talk together about subjects that matter deeply to them seems invariably to lead to dispute, division and often violence. In our view this condition points to a deep and pervasive defect in the processes of human thought."

Concluding remarks

This paper has reviewed perhaps a very minute portion of the many effects of miscommunication in Liberian politics over the years. The central hypothesis, which has formed the governing principle of my analysis is that the Austinian construct of illocutionary act is as important in everyday speech acts as it is in the realm of rational discourse. In this particular connection, the paper reviewed what I would refer to as paradigm cases of illocutionary speech acts in the evolution of discourse in Liberian politics and its analysis. I recognize the fact that the emphasis in Austin's speech act theory is not on the truthfulness or falsity of particular speech acts. However, I wish to conclude that in the context of constructive social action, the truth of assertions truly lies in the realm of pragmatics.

About the Author: Tarnue Johnson is an educational specialist and researcher. Mr. Johnson has recently completed a doctoral degree in adult education. He has written widely in the field of education. His articles have covered topics in the political economy of education, instructional design and evaluation of adult education, learning theories and discourse analysis. The author is currently working on a book on transformational learning and institutional development in Liberia.