Why felicity isn’t just truth in disguise

The proposal to start thinking about inerrancy, or something akin to inerrancy, in terms of the linguists’ notion of felicity seems to have generated a bit of a buzz. I had wanted to post on belief vs. trust next, but the comment threads seem to demand a deeper delving into what felicity is.

So here goes.

At first approximation, as I said before, felicity is like sincerity. A speaker using language in a way that is consonant with his or her beliefs and in ways that are appropriate to his or her position in society and his or her position in the situation with respect to the speech act can be said to be speaking felicitously.

It turns out that as obvious as all that seems, there are surprisingly many details and those details can make an significant difference if we are looking to build a theory of inerrancy.

The classic cases are complex — those in which one of the participants has a privileged position and is acting officially in that position — the jury giving a verdict, the pastor marrying a couple, an accused person entering a plea.

We find the defendant guilty of murder in the second degree.
I pronounce you husband and wife.
I plead not guilty by reason of insanity.

In each of these cases, not only does the general situation have to be appropriate, but the utterer has to be the appropriate person acting in the appropriate way at the appropriate point in the unfolding ritual.

The full specification of felicity in these complex cases constitutes the filling in of all the appropriates. In the case of the wedding, the man and woman have to have been licensed to be married and have to have given their verbal consent to marry one another. The utterer has to be licensed to perform marriages, and has to say the utterance at the right time in the ceremony.

Felicity in the kind of communication that is analogous to a written text, rather than in formal or ritual contexts, is simpler. The speaker (author) is obligated to provide only information that he/she believes to be valid and that he/she has sufficient reason to believe in its validity. (I’m knocking myself out here to avoid the term true.) We generally refer to violations of felicity as lying, although actual lying is more complex. (Isn’t everything?)

Since our grasp of the world is one which has many holes, we constantly hedge our assertions to help maintain felicity.

I think John was there last night.
John seemed to be drunk.
The alleged bank robber was apprehended last night.

In fact, there many languages which, by convention, require speakers to mark just how good their evidence is for a particular assertion. Failure to do so correctly is tantamount to lying. Ottawa (a variety of Ojibwe) is like that:

Esban maa gii-yaa. ‘There was a raccoon here. (I saw it.)’
Esban maa gii-yaadig. ‘There was a raccoon here. (I saw evidence to that effect.)’
Esban giiwenh maa gii-yaadig. ‘There was a raccoon here. (Someone told me.)’

Now besides hedges there are two other ways that felicitous communication can deviate from truth in the strictest sense.

First, the quality of information the speaker (author) is passing on need only be sufficiently accurate for the purposes of the communication. Notice, in particular, that it doesn’t have to be fully true in every detail. We all certainly know people who say:

I’ll be there at 3.

but don’t show up until 3:10 or 3:15. We don’t leap on them as having lied (or in this case promised infelicitously). (OK, in some situations people are stricter than in others, and the strictness of interpretation is culture-dependent. In Latin America there’s a lot more slippage in assertions about time than in, say, Holland.)

Second, we leave a lot of stuff out if it’s irrelevant.

Father: What did you do today?
Son: Oh, I went to school.

Interactions like this are the subjects of jokes because the amount of information the father thinks is relevant is more than the amount of information the son thinks is relevant. But even were the son to meet the father’s expectations, the amount of detail he would leave out is enormous — the route taken to school, stops made along the way for traffic control devices, order of classes, stops at his locker, exact books carried to which classes, what chance encounters there were with friends in the hall, what notes were passed in class, … I could go on. But you get the idea. There is a parameter of relevance. If he got caught passing a note in class and sent to the principal, then THAT would be relevant, and felicity demands he communicate that information.

Now what happens when there is a dramatic asymmetry between what one of the interlocutors knows or understands and what the other does. Then these two parameters: precision of utterance and omission of content play a much bigger role. The possessor of the greater amount of information is allowed to simplify and even withhold information without being charged with being infelicitous.

We encounter this kind of asymmetry most commonly in situations of teaching or in lectures or presentations by experts.

So if you ask a chemist how benzene is structured, she’ll probably talk to you, as a non-specialist, about its ring structure and maybe about double bonds, and maybe draw the standard picture.But she probably won’t explain about the complex orbitals the electrons share above and below the plane of the molecule. These omissions and the fact that the double bonds indicated by the three little lines in the standard picture aren’t exactly double bonds don’t count as infelicitous communication.

Of course, just how much must be present and how much gets left out is governed by conventions of individual languages/cultures. Some cultures allow much more dramatic deviations from exact “truth” than we do. But the fact about asymmetric communication is true of every culture I know anything about at all.

Well, you may have already figured out where this is going.

If we believe that Scripture is inspired, then there are two sources of felicity that need to be accounted for. First, the author himself, and second the source of the inspiration, i.e., God. But notice that the conventions of asymmetrical communication means that God can be communicating to us without telling us everything and even dumbing things down and still be communicating felicitously.

God doesn’t have to tell us the truth — in the narrow platonic sense — to be felicitous. He just has to see that the writer He is inspiring gets point of the communication accurate.

This is what gets us out of having stand on our heads theologically to deal with “misquotes” from the LXX or questions about whether Jesus’ parables were true stories, while at the same time obligating us to the virgin birth, the miracles, the teachings, and the resurrection. These latter are all points of the text, which felicity does require to be accurate.

9 thoughts on “Why felicity isn’t just truth in disguise

  1. J. K. Gayle says:

    Masterful post, Rich. Reminds me a little of a little statement Robert E. Quinn makes as he starts into his book Change the World:

    “I believe that in any activity there are many novices, a few experts, and very occasionally there is an extraordinary master. If you ask a novice about a topic, the novice will give you a very simple (simplistic) explanation that will be of little value. If you ask an expert the same question, the expert will give you a complex explanation that will also be of little value. If you ask a master the same question, the master’s explanation may be simple, breathtakingly elegant, and remarkably effective. But the master’s answer will only be valuable, breathtaking, and effective if you and I are ready to hear it and act on it.”

    Felicity and relevance are key. Can’t wait for your post on “belief vs. trust.”

  2. Bob MacDonald says:

    There is some clarity here – but I will not give my yes to it. Is it important to believe in felicity?

    I follow all your argument till the last paragraph. But I don’t believe in argument, or theology, or theological system, or mythology, or anything of the nature of thought. Thought is not Spirit. My faith is in the one whose life to me is a gift. Even the Bible, accurate and felicitous pointer that it is, is not the object of my faith.

  3. David Ker says:

    I hope you will look at belief/trust sooner or later. I’m really stumped by “have faith” in Romans 3. I’d really like to translate that “trust” but all the English translations vote against that.

    Thanks for the next step down the felicitous path. I see that the path splits here depending on who is being felicitous (human or divine author). Like Bob, I’m wondering about your last paragraph as well but think this will give us a new framework for discussions of inerrancy.

  4. Richard A. Rhodes says:

    You’re absolutely right. The object of faith is God.

    Still, at some level, we have to have some reason to trust the documents/the information about God to get to faith in Him. The theory of inerrancy, as currently promulgated, is based on a platonic, and quite literal, understanding of truth. My point is that, if you understand how humans actually communicate, you don’t need to appeal to a platonic view of truth to see the Scripture as fully reliable. And such an approach avoids the need to engage in theological gymnastics to account for all the things in Scripture which don’t meet platonistic standards (and there are a lot of them).

    A key point that I am rejecting is the idea that a theory of inerrancy can be created that with “obligate” one to believe in God. I have yet to engage any theologian who has understood that the currently popular versions of inerrancy are based on a worldview which ultimately places a higher faith in truth than in God — a place I’m not willing to go.

  5. J. K. Gayle says:

    if you understand how humans actually communicate

    That’s pretty loaded. Which is why I wrote but deleted a first comment (too snarky) and then unloaded in a post at my blog. I’m not pretending to be a novice, too time constrained to be an expert, and hardly elegant like a master. (I realize how much of a cop out that is). But, Rich, I just confess that I agree with your “if” here. And yet I wonder if we could agree whether Jesus might get an A in a UC Berkeley class on “understanding how humans actually communicate.”

  6. Richard A. Rhodes says:

    Oh, Jesus certainly would get an A+ in how people actually communicate. If you can put up with the irreverance, you might enjoy the book The Power Tactics of Jesus Christ, which shows, quite effectively, how he used conversational conventions to his great advantage.

    BTW, I didn’t read your post as snarky. See my comment over there.

  7. J. K. Gayle says:

    Can’t believe I’ve missed The Power Tactics of Jesus Christ all these years, and I really can’t wait to read it! Thanks. But you know I’ve been claiming all along that Jesus uses feminine discourse, feminist rhetoric if you’ll not mind the irreverence. Which makes rather reductionist the following: relevance theory (and Bible inerrancy theory and plenary inspiration theory), I think. He wouldn’t get an A because he might not even write a (good) answer on the exam, and the instructor with ears to hear would actually change her or his own views, in “repentance” for lack of a better English word. So you know I’m playing here. But am quite serious.

    Thanks for dialogging so graciously about such irrelevance over at the other blog.

    (BTW, in I’m sincere as can be when saying in my comment above that you really do state complex things simple enough for us novices to begin to grasp!)

  8. Peter Kirk says:

    Thanks for the great post! Sorry to be slow replying, I have had a busy couple of days.

    I have yet to engage any theologian who has understood that the currently popular versions of inerrancy are based on a worldview which ultimately places a higher faith in truth than in God — a place I’m not willing to go.

    I don’t claim to be a theologian and so a counter-example to this. But I have argued on analogous lines in my post about the Maltese Cross, in which I suggested that certain Christians

    seem to believe that their one God is not sovereign over all but is subject to a greater force, an impersonal “justice” which cannot be cheated.

  9. Mike Sangrey says:

    Excellent post!

    If I may interact with this in my own way for a moment.

    I think we need to keep two things in mind. One is that when God is objectively considered (and these words already fail here) he is the absolute and unconstrained one (which words also fail when describing God, but that proves the point all the more). However, we can’t enter into that place. It is wholly other; it’s purely objective.

    So, the other thing to keep in mind is what we can enter in to, and that is a place that he has placed. It is this side of the horizon, if you will, where God enters into our existence. That horizon is as far out as we can go; we can go no farther.

    Now, that “entering into” immediately constrains God. It’s the horizon where God bursts into our world, and that forms the references that appear to place something over God (such as ‘truth’, ‘law’, or even ‘love’). In a sense, we project the God who is outside the horizon back onto the God who has revealed himself via our constraints. That projection “feels” like we’ve placed something over God. In fact, it seems to me that this horizon sets up the dissonance in our minds between felicity and inerrancy. We try to plant our minds on both sides of the horizon.

    Therefore, it seems to me that most definitions of inerrance subtly deny the incarnation (or at least aspects of it). So then, does not felicity embrace the incarnation?

    The revelation of God is, by its very nature, constrained by who and what we are. It is miraculous, amazing, gracious, that it occurs at all. But, it’s who we are that provides the need for God’s communication to have the characteristic of felicity. If we weren’t constrained by the horizon then God’s communication would be fully expressive. It would be complete, lacking nothing. And we would be totally overwhelmed, even consumed.

    When Paul talks about these types of things he refers to a clarity in a mirror–just like face to face. Currently, though, we only see in part. So, ‘felicitous’ is an accurate way of describing the constraints within which we have to function. At least until the perfect comes. For now, however, we need faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.

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