Tag Archives: Austin

Another Abuse of Asking

I’ve been interested for a while now in the way asking works: what exactly are we doing when we ask what to do (what we should or ought to do) and when we ask things of each other (when we make requests or demands)? For the most part, my posts on what I’ve called, for better or worse, the power of asking have focused on the abuse of asking, the confusion of asking with orders that are not open to deliberation, or the issuing of commands in the guise of requests, as when people use the nominative “ask” but aren’t asking anything at all.

When I talk about “abuse” in this context I mean, for starters, that these confusions and ruses and other kinds of indirection make asking an “act professed but hollow,” as Austin puts it in How To Do Things With Words. In Austin’s scheme, abuse is just one kind of infelicity, and I don’t want to be too strict about it, or pretend that the term covers all the instances in which asking does not come off as it should; but I’m drawn to talking about abuses of asking in part because I think it’s important to point out that acts professed but hollow may not only be insincere but also lack moral seriousness, in the sense that moral seriousness requires taking others seriously, giving them moral standing as second persons to whom one is accountable and answerable.

Abuses might take the form of a well-meaning effort to soften commands, so that people don’t feel pushed around or ordered about. That might seem like a harmless management ploy. But to allow that this professed asking is really a nicer way of commanding is to admit that abuses of asking can also mask real power relations. They don’t afford interlocutors equal standing or a share in power, or even the freedom to answer “no,” as genuine deliberation or serious conversation about what to do might.

An illustration is provided by what North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum said just this Wednesday past, before the police moved into the Oceti Sakowin Camp:

Our big ask for tomorrow is that, you know, anybody that’s remaining in the camp, we want to make sure they know that they have an opportunity to voluntarily leave, take your belongings, remove anything that you think might be culturally significant, and we’ll help you get on your way if you need to do that.

This “big ask” followed an eviction order issued by the Army Corps of Engineers that was backed by heavily armed, militarized police. Those who did not take the “opportunity to voluntarily leave” were arrested and forcibly removed. Governor Burgum might have chosen to present what is essentially an ultimatum as a request in order to seem fair and reasonable, or to defuse a tense situation. But it’s curious — isn’t it? — that it wasn’t just the governor who indulged this bureaucratic habit of speech. The governor’s spokesperson later made the same request: “We ask those that are remaining to pack up their belongings, to take off,” he said, and again repeated the offer to “help” with transportation.

Neither he nor the governor wanted to be giving orders, apparently. If their statements on this occasion can be set down as abuses of asking, that abuse is hardly the worst charge to be leveled against the governor of North Dakota in this situation. And to parse Governor Burgum’s language or that of his spokesperson on this occasion probably isn’t the best place to start reflecting on all that just went down at Standing Rock. But it’s important, I believe, to be look at what was said on this occasion and what was actually meant, how power presented itself and how it actually went about things.

The two are not even close.

The governor and his spokesperson were not asking anything at all. They were disguising not just an order but a threat of violence as a request, and publicly refusing to take responsibility for what might ensue. Apparently, they weren’t the ones giving the orders. By asking, or pretending to ask, they washed their hands of the situation. In essence, the governor said that it was up to the water protectors at the camp to keep the forces under the governor’s command from doing violence to them.

It is a classic example of the abuser’s refrain: don’t make me hurt you.

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.

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.