Tag Archives: ask

A First Note on Naim’s End of Power

I didn’t read Moises Naim’s The End of Power when it was fashionable to do so a couple of years ago, after Mark Zuckerberg put the book on his recommended reading list. In fact, I am so unfashionable that I hadn’t heard of the book until yesterday, when I came across a reference to it in an article in El Pais and was intrigued enough to download a Kindle sample chapter (the local bookstore didn’t have a copy I could look over). I plan to continue with it, mainly to see what Naim has to say about cooperation, co-deliberation and joint commitment — themes I’ve been exploring in my posts on the power of asking.

So far, not much. Naim tends to present deliberation as a dissolution of power, instead of appreciating that there is power in it. He wants to remind us that the decay of power he’s documenting in this book can lead to stalemates and “ineffectiveness”; but he risks going too far in the other direction:

A world where players have enough power to block everyone else’s initiative but no one has the power to impose its preferred course of action is a world where decisions are not taken, taken too late, or watered down to the point of ineffectiveness.

There is not much patience in these opening pages for gathering as equals and talking things over, little appreciation that taking decisions together can be something other than head-butting, very little room at all here for co-deliberation (in the course of which players might veer, or would be open to veering, from their preferred course and adopt another course). It’s a world without much charity. Conversation and coordination with others — yielding or deferring to them — just delays or creates obstacles to action. Effectiveness is all. Order is a necessary and one-way imposition, for Naim, and the quicker order is imposed, the better. A world in which “no one has the power to impose” upon others, he warns, threatens to collapse into “chaos and anarchy.”

This, I gather, is one of the main arguments of The End of Power. The trouble I’m starting to have with it has to do with Naim’s Hobbesian view of things and his definition of power: “Power is the ability to direct or prevent current or future actions of other groups and individuals.” Look at those verbs. Power directs and prevents others: command and control. Or, look at the preposition Robert Dahl uses when he defines power in “The Concept of Power,” a paper Naim cites approvingly: “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do.”

Even in that sentence there is much to unpack, and, as I say, I’ve just cracked the book. But I am wondering if in subsequent chapters Naim will offer any consideration of power that is not power over others but power with them.

Nussbaum on the Shortcomings of the Transactional

I turned to Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness to gain a better understanding of the transactional model of conversation and what it might and might not comprise, and to think a little more about why it’s of little help, or at least insufficient, when it comes to cooperative undertakings. Here, Nussbaum presents a broad philosophical and historical look at transactional forgiveness in the Jewish and Christian traditions, and while she doesn’t directly address my much more modest concern, some of what she says about transactional forgiveness — a “central theoretical concept in medieval and modern Jewish philosophy and…highly influential…in the Christian tradition” — applies to what I have said in previous posts about asking and bidding.

For my purposes, the main trouble with transactional forgiveness as Nussbaum describes it — and a shortcoming of the transactional in general — is that it involves scorekeeping. (Imagine a conversation about what to do that was tallied as a ledger of asks and bids. You might be able to measure what’s practicable, but it seems unlikely that tally would be of much use to two people who were committed to doing anything together at all. It might just generate a backward-looking mindset, constant interruption to check who allowed for what, or conflict and resentment.)

When it comes to forgiveness, the scoreboard is a register of the wrongs one has committed and the forgiveness one has obtained by confessing to each count, pleading for forgiveness and doing the appropriate penance. For Nussbaum, this makes people especially prone to the payback error, the notion that score-settling, or allaying the anger of the wronged party, will set things right once and for all in some cosmic balance.

This all makes for an “anxious and joyless” life, in which the “primary commitment to God fills up the whole of one’s life”: all this keeping track of one’s performance or non-performance in relation to an angry God means there is “simply not much room to look at or care for another human being as such, and certainly no room for spontaneity, passion or play.” This is a point to which Nussbaum returns a number of times, and it’s one I would emphasize as well in talking about the ways a transactional mindset can obstruct and frustrate human relationships.

The transactional life is full of “worry.” One must always be watchful, take note of every transgression, scrupulously confess every wrongful act or omission and, in the Christian tradition, every wrongful desire and wish.

The transactional forgiveness process is perfectionistic and intolerant in its own way. The list-keeping mentality that it engenders is tyrannical toward human frailty, designedly so. We must constantly scrutinize our humanity, and frequently punish it. At least the Jewish tradition limits the scrutiny to things that a person can be expected to control. The transactional strand of the Christian tradition contains no such limitations and is consequently…punitive toward the everyday…. Stoic philosopher Epictetus’ instruction, “Watch over yourself as if an enemy is lying in wait,” could easily have been said by many a Christian thinker — or by many a parish priest.

“Ritualized and coercive,” transactional forgiveness leaves “no room for generosity or spontaneity”; nothing is “freely given.” Instead of taking an open, constructive and pragmatic attitude toward our shared future, we are stuck worrying over every little thing each has said or thought or done.

Serious Conversations, 11

“When in the Republic Thrasymachus says that justice is in the interest of the stronger, and Socrates starts to question him about this, Thrasymachus should hit Socrates over the head,” writes Robert Nozick in Philosophical Explanations.

He concedes too much when he enters an activity, discussion, that assumes that there is some mark of correctness and rightness other than (and superior to) strength. Similarly, there are norms of discussion that Thrasymachus draws upon — for instance, that anyone’s objection put seriously and sincerely ought to be replied to — and these norms, too, are incompatible with the position he states. Must the stronger also reply to an objection, if it is not in his interest?

Nozick returns to Thrasymachus’ surrender in his discussion of moral dialogue:

When someone raises a moral objection to something we are doing or planning, we feel we owe him an answer, a moral answer. It will not do simply to hit him on the head or to shrug our shoulders. An ethical egoist would reply only if he thought doing so was in his own interest; we feel we have to respond with moral reasons. (However, we do not have to expend our life’s savings to track down the person who objected and then went off to travel in inaccessible places. We ought to respond, prima facie, although this ‘ought’ can be overridden by other considerations.) Only by responding are we treating him as a value-seeking I; the only way to respond to his requesting moral reasons or raising moral objections, the only response to it qua that, is to offer moral reasons in justification or defense of our actions, to engage, if need be, in a moral dialogue with him. (Recall our earlier remark about how Thrasymachus undercuts his own position by engaging in discussion.) To engage in moral dialogue with someone is itself a moral act, whose moral character does not lie solely in being an attempt to get at the moral truth, or in being a vehicle to change and deepen a personal relationship and thereby be a means toward resolving moral conflict. Rather, (sincere) engagement in moral dialogue is itself a moral response to the other’s basic moral characteristic [as a value-seeking I], apart from its being a means toward satisfactory accommodation with the other. It is itself responsive to him; perhaps that is why openness in moral dialogue, considering carefully and responding closely to the concerns of the other, so often is an effective means toward resolution of conflict. When each is aware that the other is responsive to his or her own (valuable) characteristics in the very act of discussion and in the course the discussion takes, then this noticing of mutual respect is itself a force for good will and the moderation of demands; the altered conditions created by the dialogue may fit different moral principles so that new solutions are appropriate.

A moral dialogue of this sort is an especially clear example of a mutual value-theoretic situation…where each participant is responsive to the other’s basic moral characteristic, is aware that the other is responsive to her own, and is responsive to the other’s responsiveness, is aware of the other’s second-level responsiveness and is responsive to it, and so on….We want to be in mutual value-theoretic situations; only then is the value in us (including our own value responsiveness) adequately answered. Hegel’s discussion of the master-slave relation elaborates how domination thwarts this; the master cannot force this responsiveness from the slave, and unless the master shows responsiveness to the slave’s basic moral characteristic (but then he could not remain his master) the slave cannot respond to that.

When Lily Says “No”

Always take no for an answer is a cardinal rule of asking, I wrote in my first post on this theme. It’s a version of the golden rule that’s especially worth bearing in mind when making plans to collaborate or act with others, or just talking about what we are going to do.

While giving someone an order might be a way to delegate authority and raise her stature in a group, asking recognizes the authority and standing she already has. According this basic respect takes precedence over extracting promises and concessions or getting to yes in a conversation or negotiation, and unless another person can say “no” and have that answer heeded, she will never really be able to say “we”. “No” marks the spot where you stop and we begin.

In other words, taking no for an answer is not just about respecting others, but about respecting and caring for how things are between us (the theme of a post I wrote earlier this week) and for the sense of us we have. That sense of us is how we make up and maintain the social world together. When we ask someone to do something, or ask what we are going to do, we openly acknowledge that there is — or can be — a “we,” not just you and I, but a plural first person. Asking creates an opening. It puts us out in the open.

The philosopher Margaret Gilbert seems to be heading in this same direction when she remarks in passing: “successfully questioning someone involves entering a joint commitment with that person.”

Take a moment to consider the example she offers. Bob addresses Lily with the question, “Shall we dance?” And Lily answers, “Yes, lets!” From this point on, the usual Gilbertian scenario unfolds. Having expressed their readiness to enter a joint commitment — indicating “that all is in order as far as one’s own will is concerned” — Bob and Lily are now jointly committed to dance together.

Once they start dancing, or, actually, even before that, once Lily has said yes and as she rises from her seat, each will have to answer to the other in the event one of them violates the joint commitment, or at least Lily would be justified in complaining if Bob were to drag his feet, go outside for a smoke, or give in to sultry Melissa, who is beckoning with her eyes from the other side of the room.

Unfortunately, Gilbert never elaborates on what “successfully questioning someone” entails, or what might make it different from unsuccessfully questioning someone. On the surface, it looks as if Bob “successfully” questions Lily here because she says “yes” to his request: she accepts his invitation to dance. Bob and Lily have therefore reached an explicit agreement. But let’s not confuse successfully questioning someone with getting to yes, or confuse getting to yes with reaching an agreement. (It’s worth noting that for Gilbert, joint commitments don’t always entail explicit agreements. The way Gilbert puts it is: “everyday agreements can be understood as constituted by…joint commitments” [her emphasis]).

What if Lily says “no”? What if she rolls her eyes, or sticks her nose in the air? In that case, has something like an agreement been reached?

Maybe. As long as Bob takes Lily’s no for an answer, we can say he and Lily have agreed not to dance. Of course, Bob might not like our putting it that way. He might say he failed to get Lily to dance with him, but that might also go to show that he was not prepared to take no for an answer and regarded Lily’s consent as the only acceptable outcome. We might do better if we were to characterize Bob’s questioning Lily in terms of Lily’s responsiveness — on that score, both yes and no would count as success — or if we think about what Bob’s asking Lily to dance and Lily’s refusal puts between them, how it constitutes them as a plural subject.

Though not committed to dance together, Bob and Lily are not done with each other or free of shared commitments after Lily says “no.” In a very important way, their relationship has just begun. When one person addresses or flags the attention of another, with a question or a nod, the squeak of a chair or a sneeze, they “jointly commit to recognizing as a body that the two of them are co-present,” Gilbert writes. People mutually recognize each other in this way all the time, on queues and in coffee shops, in bookstore aisles and on city sidewalks. Here we are, a “we”. Asking helps get us there.

So even if Lily politely refuses Bob with a “no thank you,” or rudely brushes him off, Bob can take solace in the thought that he has successfully questioned Lily. Bob’s failed bid to dance with Lily commits Lily and Bob to recognize that the two of them are co-present, there in the dance hall. Bob and Lily now have a sense of us, even if Lily will never dance with Bob, and that sense — that relationship — will endure.

With that enduring sense of us between them, Bob and Lily are now jointly committed to Lily’s refusal as well. So if Bob were to order Lily or insist that she dance with him, or grab her by the arm and drag her to the dance floor, coercing her, Lily has every right to complain. And if the next time Bob saw Lily he were to pretend that she never refused him at the dance, he would be doing Lily wrong.

Answering ‘The Ask’ with a ‘Huh?’

I’ve written a number of posts about “the ask” and why we should insist that ask is a verb, but I haven’t said much about the provenance of the ungainly nominative “ask” or taken its origins into account.

“The ask” is not the revival or survival of an archaic or medieval form, as one writer in the New York Times suggested. Far from it: it’s a piece of stock trader’s jargon that crept from the trading floor into bureaucratic conversation. On Wall Street, “the ask” is shorthand for the minimum price a seller sets for a security. The difference between the ask and the bid, or what a buyer is willing to pay, is known as the spread; and the spread is one pretty reliable measure of market liquidity. 

Presumably, when someone uses the term “the ask” or “my ask” to direct work or coordinate action, he expects (or pretends to expect) the second person, his interlocutor, to counter with a bid, as if conversations produced a workable measure of practical liquidity — or a measure of what’s practically possible — in the difference between what one person wants to do and what another wants or is willing to do, or what each thinks ought to be done.

We can sketch a model: the ask would invite the bid and the bid would meet that invitation with an offer. And we can develop this rudimentary model of conversation a little more by exploring the etymology of the word “bid” — itself the substantive form of a verb with roots in Old Teutonic, where *beudan means to stretch out, reach out, offer or present; and by extension beodan or boden in Old English and bede in Middle English come to mean to announce, proclaim or command. So here, again, an ask-bid model might confer some power on the bidder, or help create the appearance of parity, a sharing of command between petitioner and respondent, asker and bidder. What we are going to do is what we together command, or what will fall within the spread, span or scope of our shared command.

That doesn’t seem so bad, on the face of it: at the very least it sounds as if people on both sides can give and get in return. “The ask” holds out the promise of some share in power, or at least more flexibility than command-obedience would seem to allow. That might help account for its widespread use in the first decade or so of the twenty-first century. Ideas about organizational hierarchy are changing, and people have begun to pay outward homage, at least, to the idea that command and control is not necessarily the most effective way to run an organization. In bureaucratic settings, the imperative of command is taking on interrogative affects: the ask makes an order sound more like a request, softening the power one person actually wields over others.

The model has lots of shortcomings: for one, it reduces human relationships to market transactions — and that’s a serious and thorny problem, one I hope to say more about in a future post. But the main trouble with the ask-bid model is simply that it tells us very little about how conversation actually works. Conversations are never so neatly regimented and sequenced as this bureaucratic model makes them out to be, and as I wrote in another post, much of which we might regard as background noise or “beside the point” in a conversation is just as important, if not more important, than the putative point. There’s never just “an ask”; all parties to the conversation are continuously asking and offering, requesting clarification or confirmation, making representations of the other, shifting attention to and from the matter of joint interest, situating, interrupting and re-connecting with each other.

Generally, we’re making it up as we go along, together, and all of that joint effort counts much more than we ordinarily acknowledge. We don’t merely counter asks with bids or requests with offers; we also work together to organize, represent and sustain the conversation as a social act.

A paper published last week by Mark Dingemanse and others at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics stresses this theme. In ordinary conversation, the authors observe, interlocutors ask for clarification and correction about once every 1.4 minutes. This “other-initiated repair” is a central feature of all human conversation; and the cues one uses to initiate repair demonstrate care for the interlocutor and for the “social unit” of the conversation.

There are three main ways interlocutors initiate repair. Interjections like “huh?” are “open requests” for clarification. Asking speakers to repeat what they said (“who”?) are “restricted requests.” Repeating back what the speaker said (“he hit a homerun?”) are described as “restricted offers.” All three are regularly used with the same frequency no matter what language we happen to be speaking and despite differences in grammar and syntax. (For the paper’s authors, this lends support to the hypothesis that there are universals at work in all human language; but rather than get hung up on that point, I prefer simply to appreciate their observation that interlocutors are working constantly together, making repairs on the fly.)

Abbot and Costello's 'Who's on First?' routine is a brilliant send up of other-initiated repair.

So instead of a simple ask-bid or request-offer model, we need a much looser and less linear model in which all parties to a conversation are constantly running requests and offers and making interjections in no particular order or sequence, and so frequently and effortlessly that we don’t even notice we are making them. Requests, offers and interjections might even go unanswered; but they are no less effective for all that. These are cooperative cues and gestures, markers of the conversation as a social act.

(This is, by the way, why,so-called “conversational” interfaces built for digital assistants like Siri are still nowhere near conversational. What the manufacturers of these devices really mean is that you can address your digital assistant — give an order or make a request — in ordinary language, and it will follow. But even if the assistant is designed to say “I did not understand your request, please repeat it” or something along those lines, it’s not producing anything like the steady stream of other-initiated repairs involved actual conversation, where interlocutors are reading each other’s minds and correcting misreadings as they go.)

Conversation recreates and demonstrates joint commitment. That’s what’s really missing from the ask-bid model: human relationship. Asker and bidder, seller and buyer, don’t have a shared project beyond the exchange they are negotiating; their contact with each other can end once the transaction is made, and one or both can just walk away if they don’t agree on price. After all, both the asker and the bidder seek advantage over the other, rather than mutual gain or shared advantage that is the spur, aim and outcome of serious conversation. After the deal is done or abandoned, the bidder is free to pursue his ends and the seller is, too, even if they will be working at cross purposes.

On the other hand, people who are in a conversation about what to do have already committed to doing something together. They’ve committed to acting together, to social action and to a social subject: a “we.” We keep our commitment by repairing as we go. We act together even when we have irreconcilable differences about the way things are or what to do.

Austin and Asking, 2

I’m re-reading Austin’s How to Do Things With Words, trying to come to terms with these lectures and what perspectives they offer on the broad theme of conversation and collaboration I’ve been exploring in a series of posts on the power of asking.

On my first reading, which I discussed here, I must have nodded midway through Lecture VI, or maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to appreciate the historical argument Austin advances in that lecture about the “evolution of language” (focusing specifically on the development of the explicit from the primary performative).

…historically, from the point of view of the evolution of language, the explicit performative must be a later development than certain more primary utterances, many of which are at least already implicit performatives, which are included in many or most explicit performatives as parts of a whole. For example ‘I will…’ is earlier than ‘I promise that I will…’.The plausible view (I do not know exactly how it would be established) would be that in primitive languages it would not yet be clear, it would not yet be possible to distinguish, which of various things that (using later distinctions) we might be doing we were in fact doing. For example, Bull or Thunder in a primitive language of one-word utterances could be a warning, information, a prediction, &c. It is also a plausible view that explicitly distinguishing the different forces this utterance might have is a later achievement of language, and a considerable one; primitive or primary forms of utterance will preserve the ‘ambiguity’ or ‘equivocation’ or ‘vagueness’ of primitive language in this respect; they will not make explicit the precise force of the utterance. This may have its uses, but sophistication and development of social forms and procedures will necessitate clarification. But note that this clarification is as much a creative act as a discovery or description! It is as much a matter of making clear distinctions as of making already existent distinctions clear.

One thing, however, that it will be most dangerous to do, and that we are very prone to do, is to take it that we somehow know that the primary or primitive use of sentences must be, because it ought to be, statemental or constative, in the philosophers’ preferred sense of simply uttering something whose sole pretension is to be true or false and which is not liable to criticism in any other dimension. We certainly do not know that this is so, any more, for example, than, to take an alternative, that all utterances must have first begun as imperatives (as some argue) or as swear-words — and it seems much more likely that the ‘pure’ statement is a goal, an ideal, towards which the gradual development of science has given the impetus, as it has likewise also towards the goal of precision. Language as such and in its primitive stages is not precise, and it is also not, in our sense, explicit: precision in language makes it clearer what is being said — its meaning: explicitness, in our sense, makes clearer the force of the utterances, or ‘how…it is to be taken’.

What Austin says here about how human beings came to mark and remark the forces of utterances and took language from a primitive to a sophisticated state can apply to asking as well. In this view, the explicit use of the performative ask (“I ask…” or “I ask that…”) would constitute a step forward in the evolution of language, “a later achievement…and a considerable one.” Austin calls it a “creative act” of “clarification.”

Historically, one thing that act might have helped to clarify — Austin’s caveat about the presumed historical priority of imperatives notwithstanding — is the difference between asking and command, and, therefore, the terms on which interlocutors meet, or the “social forms and procedures” that govern their relationships and necessitate this clarification or distinction.

This puts us in murky territory, and Austin readily admits it. The historical argument here seems “plausible,” as Austin says, but ultimately it may not stand up (though it’s hard to see how it could be decisively knocked down).

This much seems clear: the creative act of explicitly asking will always help clarify the force of asking; and the articulation of that force — that power of asking — essentially creates a new charter for conversation with a second person, an interlocutor or interlocutors whose standing to address us we recognize and whose replies we await and then take into account.

That said, let’s also admit that the explicit performative “I ask…” or “I ask that…” is not (nowadays) so widely used, but is reserved, it seems, for certain kinds of serious inquiry and formal address. (Austin’s own lectures furnish numerous examples of this reserved use, as I suggested in my earlier post; but they were given in 1955, and both words and things have changed, at Harvard and everywhere else, since then.)

Still, making asking explicit can help render the conversation serious, not just because it makes language more precise, but also because it clarifies the relationship between interlocutors and the power they have to reckon with, and share.

To Ask and To Demand

I’ve been reading a little this morning about Pathological Demand Avoidance Syndrome. First described by child development psychologist Elizabeth Newson, PDA is a pathology on the autism spectrum characterized, as its name suggests, by avoidance of the normal demands of everyday life: things like getting dressed, going to school, eating one’s cereal, and so forth. It’s not procrastination: the avoidance is not of the task but of the demand, which is met not just with anxious defiance but with all sorts of socially manipulative behaviors (some of them charming) as well as violent outbursts.

I suspect that this diagnosis and its treatment will have lots to teach me about what I’ve been calling — not without misgivings — the power of asking. I’m also hoping that Newson’s work and other research on PDA will shed some light on the question Marc Tognotti put to me in an email after I posted my notes on Austin and Asking: namely, whether we can talk coherently about demands as a kind of asking. I’ve been satisfied with making rough equivalences between the terms, and in an earlier post I’ve even managed to cheat the idea of moral claims into the word “demand.”

Marc countered that he was surprised that I included demands in a discussion of asking and that there is a difference between demands and requests (or asking someone to) that’s probably worth maintaining. In short, to talk about demands and asking in the same breath confuses things, he says, because demands are more akin to commands or coercion than requests.

I admit there’s a lot here to sort out, including questions about the kinds of authority, moral or otherwise, we need to make commands, demands and requests. For the time being, I’m taking refuge in the etymological roots of our English word “demand” in the French demander, and I’ve also found some shelter in the Oxford English Dictionary, which lists “to demand” among the definitions of ask. But none of that will do for very long. It might be nothing more than an avoidance strategy.

Still, I think it’s clear that the verb ask can be used exercitively — to exercise power, and that using the verb ask in that way can be (let me put it this way for now) pretty much like making a demand: “I ask that you take your hands off me.” “I ask you to respect my rights.” “I ask you to come forward, so that you can see this for yourselves.” Maybe those examples are a little clunky and formal, and I admit that the last one can be construed as invitation rather than a demand. More importantly, I don’t want to limit the “power” that I am talking about here to the making of demands or even the kind of asking that is pretty much like a demand. Ultimately, I am more interested in the way that asking — or serious conversations about what to do — can give people an equal share in power.

I still have a lot more reading to do before I can tie all this back to PDA, but I’ve managed to grasp the basics. People with PDA experience demands as a complete loss of control: powerlessness. They feel coerced, not asked to or whether they would. Even the most trifling demand seems to eclipse their will. In this diagnosis, demands are more like commands, less like asking or the start of a conversation about what to do. Even the simplest request or suggestion can be mistaken for an order and resisted.

One parent of a child with PDA reports that her child misinterprets “everything as a demand” being shouted at her; and to overcome the child’s pathological demand avoidance she and her husband “always try to phrase demands in a way that offers…choices and we are always prepared to negotiate.” Many boundaries too, have to be negotiated, even when it’s a question of what’s safe or lawful, so that the child “feels that it is either her choice or is open to negotiation.”

Of course it’s deceptive, a manipulation to give the illusion of control and preempt the child’s manipulations. It’s not a serious conversation; it’s power play: the parents engage the child in mimicking the very real power we share when we have choices to make, nobody is in charge and nothing is settled. And that is what these children seem to want, but only because that gives them a chance to take back control.

Postscript: some readers have found my last paragraph controversial or just wrongheaded. Please take a moment to read the comments on this post from parents of children diagnosed with PDA.

Austin and Asking

Ask is a verb: to ask is to do something or, usually, to do a number of things. To ask is, first and almost always, to address someone, even, I’d say, when you are wondering aloud to yourself (“what’s it all about?” or “what’s wrong with me?” or “why do I put myself through this?” If they are not simply outbursts or exclamations disguised as questions, these are often indirect and emotionally-charged ways of asking, “what am I going to do?”). To ask is to do other things as well: to inquire about something, someone or some state of affairs, to request clarification or permission, or to make a demand (as the French verb demander reminds us.)

Turning the verb into a noun — talking about “the ask” — confuses the address and runs roughshod over this whole range of human activity and human relationships that asking might involve.

Sometimes that’s deliberate. It allows people to pretend they aren’t giving an order when they are, or to present an order as an institutional requirement, to deflect questions about power and authority or just make it impossible for people to say no, as they should be able to do if you are genuinely asking them to do something. (Always take no for an answer might be another rule of asking; but I can easily think of exceptions, as when, for instance, we demand respect or claim rights. Those are obviously special cases.) There are all sorts of ways besides these in which talking about “the ask” as opposed to asking skirts questions of power, surrenders authority and takes authority from others. It’s a big drain.

I’m trying to take things in exactly the opposite direction: I want to talk about asking as an exercise of power, and the verb “ask” as an exercitive. (It seems it would be easiest to do that in cases where we are making a simple demand — e.g., “I ask that you remove your foot from mine”.)

I’m borrowing the word “exercitive” here from J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things With Words, where Austin comes very close a number of times to talking about what we do when we ask, close enough to encourage my own thinking in this direction. He makes some intriguing remarks about asking as an illocutionary act that “[invites] by convention a response or a sequel,” and in this context he differentiates asking to from asking whether you will or asking yes or no and the different responses they invite.

Unfortunately, when Austin directs his attention to the verb “ask” near the very end of his lectures, in a discussion of his dictionary “fieldwork,” he gives very little guidance.

In Lecture XII, Austin includes ask among the Expositives — verbs “used in acts of exposition involving the expounding of views, the conducting of arguments, and the clarifying of usages and references.” (Or, as he puts it elsewhere, “the expositive is the clarifying of reasons, arguments and communications.”) This is how Austin himself uses the verb “ask” throughout How To Do Things With Words: he often introduces an argument with “we may ask,” “we must ask,” “we should naturally ask,” “we are now asking,” “it may be asked at this point,” and so on. The lectures themselves can be read as an exercise in expositive asking.

Item 3a. “Ask” listed among the expositives in the final lecture of How To Do Things With Words

Ask is one of an “enormous number” of expositives, Austin says, which “seem naturally to refer to conversational interchange.” The verb is, however, listed here all by itself as item 3a, a subset of the little group that includes inform, apprise, tell, answer, and rejoin. Why not include it with the others? It appears that ask is a special case of some kind, its own item.

Based on my reading I can’t say exactly what kind of item Austin considers it to be. I’m not sure anyone can say for certain. The text of How To Do Things With Words is reconstructed from Austin’s lecture notes, auditor’s notes and a few other sources. According to Urmson, who edited the first edition of the lectures, “there is no definite key to [this list of expositives] in the extant papers.” (I haven’t yet had a chance to look at the second edition to see if Austin’s later editors have added anything more on this point. Update 6 Feb 2015: I checked; they do not.)

There’s enough in these lectures to suggest that we need to go well beyond the confines of item 3a even to make sense of asking on Austin’s own terms. Austin readily admits that expositives might be “exercitives…as well,” if they “involve exertions of influence or exercise of power.” The distinctions aren’t sharp. Things can get fuzzy. So “asking me to” do this or that is close enough to ordering (“order” tops Austin’s list of exercitives) that it can sometimes cause confusion: “sometimes you are not ordering me”: you can’t, because you “are not in the appropriate position to do so” and don’t have “the right,” but it sounds as if you are because you are “asking me to rather impolitely.”

Consider, for example, someone who approaches you at a nightclub and says “Dance,” and another who asks, “Would you like to dance?” Both are asking you to dance, but the first sounds as if he is ordering you to dance, and he’s in no position to do that.


Bugs Bunny’s playful response subverts Yosemite Sam’s order to dance. Sam has a gun, so he can coerce a dance, but as the comedy here demonstrates, he doesn’t have the authority or intelligence to order Bugs Bunny around.

Of course things can go to the other extreme, and Austin is interested in situations like these: for example, someone who approaches you in a nightclub, clicks his heels together, bows gracefully and, upon rising, asks “Would you care to dance?” or inquires whether you might do him the honor of listing him on your programme du bal for the evening.

The things that have to be in place, the conditions that have to obtain for you to order me, are not the same as those that obtain when you are asking me or when we are having a conversation about what to do. It helps to be polite, but good manners are not all there is to it; and as we see in the example of the bowing gentleman at the nightclub — or Austin’s own example of the offended man who challenges another to a duel by saying “My seconds will call on you” — every form of courtesy has its season. Genuine respect and the authority it confers on others (and some measure of empathy as well) are the appropriate kinds of deference when it comes to asking: we are, after all, trying to share power, not just seize it.

From Aping to Asking

Joseph Jordania offers a clever but not entirely satisfying answer to the question posed in the title of his book Who Asked The First Question?

“The first human being.”

Did asking questions make us human? Maybe not exactly, or at least that can’t be the whole story. But to be human is to ask questions, and clearly the ability to ask things of each other — to request clarification, to invite others to join with us in some activity, to make offers and claims or demand reasons — is at the very core of human social life; and in primate cognitive evolution, asking or the power to ask must represent a significant turn toward the human.

A 2004 study of chimpanzee gesture sequences by Liebal and Tomasello suggests that apes do not request clarification in the way we do, from infancy, to help the other convey meaning or in order to negotiate meaning collaboratively. Asking for clarity, we recognize the other, show that we appreciate the role she is playing in trying to communicate with us, and we make meaning together; and just as importantly — and on a more basic level — we commit to the project. It’s not language use that differentiates us here; it’s the commitment (though I would not be surprised if these turned out to be indistinguishable and inextricable). The so-called “speaking” bonobo Kanzi will play with toys or participate in the preparation of food, but so far as researchers can tell, Kanzi lacks understanding that he is doing these things together with you: he is not jointly committed with you to the activity, does not recognize your role or support you in it.

Kanzi learns, but lacks commitment.

Kanzi learns, but lacks commitment.

For Tomasello and his colleagues, our amazing ability to co-create meaning or even to coordinate through request and reply isn’t what ultimately sets us apart. The first human may have asked the first question, but the power of asking and language use itself is “not basic; it is derived.” “An adaptation for participating in collaborative activities involving shared intentionality” is the more fundamental evolutionary step, write Tomasello et al. in a 2005 paper on human cognitive evolution. “At some point — perhaps heralding the emergence of modern humans some 150,000 years ago — individuals who could collaborate together more effectively in various social activities came to have a selective advantage.”

Early human life, in this view, does not look so nasty, brutish and short, or at least not so nasty and brutish; and Tomasello is aware that he’s running against the prevailing “Machiavellian” account of human evolution. He offers a “Cultural account” of human cognitive evolution that “emphasizes … the importance of collaboration, cultural historical processes, and strong reciprocity based on social norms.” Putting the emphasis on collaborative give and take instead of on winner-take-all competition may not make sense of every step in our evolution, but it helps Tomasello bring into focus an important aspect of human cognition. Specifically, he argues that it was through collaboration (not competition) that we became highly skilled at reading and sharing intentions.

Although intention reading may be helpful in competitive interactions, it is not absolutely necessary — since in competition I care mainly about what you do. That is to say, in competitive interactions, the interactants do not have goals about others’ intentional states; the situation is that we both have the “same” goal (e.g., both want that piece of food), and the key thing is that I anticipate what you will do next. In contrast, collaborative interactions require interactants to have goals about others’ intentional states so that the requisite shared goals and plans may be formulated. Thus, in collaborative interactions, we are faced with the so-called coordination problem from the outset: to get started, we must somehow coordinate or negotiate so that we end up with a shared goal…Then, in addition, to collaborate effectively, we must mesh our action plans at least some of the way down the hierarchy — and this requires some communication about those plans, at least to some degree ahead of time.

“The motivations and skills for participating in this…’we’ intentionality are woven into the earliest stages of human ontogeny and underlie young children’s developing ability to participate in the collectivity that is human cognition.” In other words, we are hard-wired for soft sharing skills — born to collaborate. At only 14 months of age, infants “begin to understand full- fledged intentional action – including the rudiments of the way people make rational decisions in choosing action plans for accomplishing their goals in particular reality contexts and selectively attending to goal-relevant aspects of the situation.”

This kind of understanding leads to some powerful forms of cultural learning, especially imitative learning in which the observer must perform a means-end analysis of the actor’s behavior and say in effect: “When I have the same goal I can use the same means (action plan).” This analysis is also necessary before one can ask why someone did something and whether that reason also applies in my circumstance (“rational imitation”).  Without such analysis, only simpler forms of social learning are possible.

That is how, to riff on the horrible pun I’ve chosen for the title of this post, we manage to do more than simply ape the behavior of others; we learn by analyzing and asking. We can learn recipes and social rituals, make tools and share techniques, build bridges and launch sea voyages. We can inquire whether another’s reasons match our circumstances, and when we make that effort at rational imitation, we have only just begun to tap the power of asking. In order to ask why someone did something, after all, we must first see them as someone who has reasons: we ascribe rationality to them and to ourselves. You are someone who acts with reason, for reasons, and so am I. We are mutually accountable, so we can demand (or ask) that we bring reasons for our actions.

Serious Conversations, 2

Nora [after a short silence]. Isn’t there one thing that strikes you as strange in our sitting here like this?
Helmer. What is that?
Nora. We have been married now eight years. Does it not occur to you that this is the first time we two, you and I, husband and wife, have had a serious conversation?
Helmer. What do you mean by ‘serious’?
Nora. In all these eight years–longer than that–from the very beginning of our acquaintance, we have never exchanged a word on any serious subject.
Helmer. Was it likely that I would be continually and forever telling you about worries that you could not help me to bear?
Nora. I am not speaking about business matters. I say that we have never sat down in earnest together to try and get at the bottom of anything.
-Ibsen, A Doll’s House, Act 3

Preoccupations may be harder to escape than promises. I went to see a performance of A Doll’s House last night at the Harvey Theater, and this exchange between Nora and Torvald in the final act of Ibsen’s play reminded me of my pledge to say something more about serious conversations. (My first effort to make good on this pledge is here.).

There’s an important point here that I don’t want to overlook. A serious conversation requires something more than a serious subject to discuss. It may not have anything to do with the things we take seriously: business matters, for example. Well before we consider things, or the topic at hand, we have to sit down “seriously together” — alvor sammen, as Nora puts it to her husband Torvald in Ibsen’s Norwegian.

Of course, Torvald Helmer’s “honor” will not survive the serious conversation he and his wife have. The respect Nora ultimately demands —  the claim she makes on Torvald and on herself — will destroy their marriage and upset the bourgeois respectability of the Helmer household, or show it for the sham that it is. Torvald should have known: to sit down seriously together is always more about honoring the other than safeguarding personal honor. Or at least it’s a matter of honoring the joint commitment to have a serious conversation.

dolls-house

Torvald (Dominic Rowan) and Nora (Hattie Morahan) are about to have their first serious conversation in the BAM Harvey Theater production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.

I’m using “joint commitment” here in Margaret Gilbert’s sense — a commitment by two or more people as a body or plural subject, a we, to some act or activity: a walk or a conversation, for instance. For Gilbert, these joint commitments are commonplace associations by which we make up “the social world, the world of conversations, friendships, marriages, sports teams, discussion groups, religious orders, partisans, citizens and so on.”

In entering and living up to joint commitments, we share agency with others, and all parties are obligated — have a duty — to act in accordance with the commitment. “If our acting together, our conventions, and other central aspects of our lives together involve our jointly committing ourselves in one way or another, then our lives together are run through with obligations to one another and rights against each other, with the correlative standing to insist on various actions and rebuke for non-performance.”

To read the essays collected in Gilbert’s Joint Commitment (Oxford, 2013) is to appreciate above all how often and how effortlessly we enter into these joint commitments, just as a matter of course, and to be reminded that assumptions of trust, respect and mutual accountability infuse our everyday social experience.

These are all the issues that come to the surface when Torvald and Nora sit down seriously together, for the first time, to have their serious conversation. Whether we commit jointly to take a walk together (to use Gilbert’s favorite example) or have a conversation about work or a stifling marriage, what makes the activity serious is that we are on equal footing and mutually obligated to one another. Acknowledge that, honor it, and we have started to take one another seriously; deny it, or cover it up with patronizing gestures or power grabs, and we are probably heading for crisis or failure.