In his article, Reed Way Dasenbrock utilizes speech-act theory to position himself within the scholarly debate about classical rhetoric, its failure to describe modern rhetorical contexts, and the resulting need for a so-called New Rhetoric. Dasenbrock argues that J.L. Austin’s speech-act theory provides the foundation needed to move modern rhetoric away from classical rhetoric’s “over-emphasis on persuasive discourse and figurative language” (292).
Dasenbrock provides a basic outline of Austin’s philosophy of language, showing that Austin argued against the traditional philosophical position that the sentence, or descriptive proposition, was the central unit and purpose of language (294). Instead, Austin argued that to speak was to act and not merely to describe. As Dasenbrock summarized it, Austin’s central argument was that “language is a mode of acting in the world, not of reflecting it” (297).
According to Dasenbrock, the legacy of Locke and Plato led to a view of language that categorized sentences as either persuasive or referential. In contrast, Austin demonstrated that “all discourse is multifunctional, oriented both towards its subject and its audience” (298). Dasenbrock describes how a Lockean view of language affects students’ writing. For example, students have difficulty writing transitions within their essays because it is difficult to link constantives (fact-statements) when it appears that these statements are merely descriptive and have no argumentative purpose. Dasenbrock teaches his students to write with the performance of language always in mind, which makes it easier for them to see how each sentence “does something instead of referring to something” (298). In addition, Dasenbrock undermines the Lockean view that language can state a fact in simple terms and instead teaches his students “about indirection and implication, showing how the ideal of a plain concise style may be a partial contradiction” (303).
While Dasenbrock talks explicitly about how to teach Austin’s speech-act theory to students, I think that his outlining of Austin’s philosophy and the historical precedents for rhetoric would be very useful for students to read. I plan to assign this article to students to help them see how speech-act theory and its view of language can make their writing more purposeful and well-organized.
Reed Way Dasenbrock, “J.L. Austin and the Articulation of a New Rhetoric,” College Composition and Communication 38.3 (Oct. 1987): 291-305.