Susan B. Malcolm Bibliographic Essay: The Ontology of Utterance

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Susan B. Malcolm
Bibliographic Essay: The Ontology of Utterance
Utterances allow for creativity, play and movement in an otherwise reified language comprised solely of sentences and word patterns that are designed to follow a universal pragmatic or a formula of speech acts described by scholars such as Habermas, Austin and Searle. This bibliographic essay suggests that it is necessary to consider utterances in their entirety, comprised of a constellation of communicative philosophies, each dependent on the other, constantly changing and evolving toward an ontological understanding in the postmodern game of language. An illustration of utterances by Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan exemplify the synthesis of communicative philosophies at play in utterance.

Martin Luther King used his utterances “to make America a better nation” (Lischer 120). King “played with alliteration, assonance, metaphor, internal rhyme” and crafted messages that followed a “pattern of balance, antithesis and climax” (Lischer 120). King “enjoyed their [words] surfaces and gloried in pronouncing them” but “he did not look through words or behind them for deeper meanings” (Lischer120). The rhetorical pleasures derived by King’s audience resemble a “partnership with a poet” that “by pleasure, and not through rational analysis, the community transmitted its hope and wisdom” (Lischer 120). Combining universal appeal through the use of metonymy and raising his language above the specific harsher realities of civil conflict, his poetic style enabled all to understand his message (Lischer 125). Comprehensive illustrations of King’s poetics are offered in the text, The Preacher King. This text provides information about early beginnings and influences on Martin Luther King as well as a myriad of utterance examples and observations about King’s poetic style and rhetorical gifts. King used vivid imagery such as “the iron feet of oppression,” alliteration, assonance, and anaphora such as:

How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because you still reap what you sow. How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. How long? Not long, ‘cause mine eyes have seen the glory…”
to illustrate his messages (Lischer 122-128). He often delivered oratory in association with biblical verse, inserted a phrase at the beginning or end of some sentences, used rhythm and amplification, used symmetry, and used repetition of sounds, words, and phrases to develop his message into a final climax that often occurred within a few sentences of the end of a sermon (Lischer 128-139).

King’s utterances make use of Wittgenstein’s language games that are described in the Preliminary Studies for the ‘Philosophical Investigations’ (Wittgenstein preface). King takes advantage of the idea that there are different forms of acceptable language and no one form is necessary or correct (Wittgenstein vi). Though the games require training, perhaps King and his audiences engaged in mutual training sessions that encompassed different ‘systems of communication’ (Wittgenstein vi, vii). Surely, King’s utterances offer “something more” than the calculated and pedantic speech described as “Illocutionary and propositional acts” that “consist characteristically in uttering words in sentences in certain contexts, under certain conditions and with certain intentions” (Searle 25). King offers an understanding of utterances that Wittgenstein would support; an understanding that is not just one thing but rather something that varies as much as the language games (Wittgenstein vii). Searle, on the other hand, would not support King’s understanding of utterance because, according to Searle, “Utterance acts consist simply in uttering strings of words” (Searle 24).1 Something much more than the sum of words or “string of words” is being offered by King.

Winston Churchill also offers much more than a “string of words” in his “War Speech” of September 1939 which begins, “Outside, the storms of war may blow and the lands may be lashed with the fury of its gales, but in our own hearts this Sunday morning there is peace. Our hands may be active, but our consciences are at rest…” as he discusses the fight against Nazi tyranny (

Churchill’s utterances in his “Sinews of Peace” speech of 1946 were more than a “string of words” as well ( Churchill said, “The United States stands at this time at the pinnacle of world power…Opportunity is here now, clear and shining for both our countries. To reject it or ignore it or fritter it away will bring upon us all the long reproaches of the aftertime”( Later, in the same speech, Churchill said, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent” ( He went on to talk about the capitals of the Central and Eastern Europe being subject to increasing Soviet influence and control from Moscow”(

These utterances are a few of many available from the collection of speeches archived at The Churchill Centre and demonstrate that an utterance in its entirety offers “something more” than the sum of individual parts such as grammatical content, vocabulary, verb selection, case selection, or Austin’s six rules for a ‘happy’ functioning performative utterance (Austin 14).4

The models suggested by Searle and Austin are stifling and constricting to the utterances previously mentioned. Anthropologists also recognize the “limitations of linguistic models as means for understanding culture and social behavior” (Keesing and Keesing 83). Keesing and Keesing encourage the consideration of messages in lieu of sentences, of metacommunication as demonstrated in film; layers of symbolism and further paradoxes and the games that ensue as a result of those layers (83). In addition, they suggest a study of nonlinguistic forms of communication including body movement, and gestures, context and social relationships toward an understanding of culture and social behavior (Keesing and Keesing 84).

Heidegger agrees in Being and Time and notes that utterances are more than speech acts within a syntactic or semantic system; they are recognized as discourse or the existential-ontological foundation of language (Heidegger 203).5 Discourse is a way of articulating “Being-with-one another” in the world and illustrates what already is in existence, through a “co-state-of mind” and a “co-understanding,” but through the utterance it becomes ‘explicitly’ shared (Heidegger 205). An example may be found in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” where King illustrates his shared dream with the audience that “all men are created equal”…”sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood”…”the state of Mississippi…will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice” ( The discourse uses “intonation, modulation, the tempo of talk, ‘the way of speaking’ to communicate the state-of-mind (Heidegger 205). This exemplifies the way in which communication is understood ontologically, and is particularly visible in communication where one makes assertions or gives information (Heidegger 205). Heidegger details this ontological nature of language in the “Being-there and discourse” section of the Being and Time text (203-209). Being and Time also discusses the antithesis to utterance which, in brief, includes his topics of idle talk that discourages new inquiry; curiosity that is concerned with distraction, lack of observation and marvel; and ambiguity as Being-on-the scent with a non-committal just-surmising-with-someone-else attitude; all of which are the antithesis of utterance (Heidegger 211-217).

Coincident with the discourse that Heidegger discusses, is the potentiality for hearing that enables hearkening to be possible; hearkening contains Being which understands (Heidegger 207). Listening to discourse then, the audience is already with the speaker, in advance, alongside the topic being discussed (Heidegger 207). Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, for example, offers the audience an opportunity to share in their reaction to the horrors of the war when Lincoln utters:

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicatee—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here (Wills 263).7
The Gettysburg Address is reprinted in Lincoln at Gettysburg and also conveys the importance of the utterance in its entirety as opposed to analyzing individual stylistic and delivery components (Wills 263).8

Ronald Reagan, attempts to do the same in his “Challenger” address to the nation on January 28, 1986 following the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle ( In one of his utterances, Reagan says, “The crew of the space shuttle Challenger…We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved good-bye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God’”(

The utterances that enable hearkening to be possible are intended to be taken as a whole because the individual components of the utterance are interrelated, integrated, fused, and fluid. The whole should not be dissected for speech act analysis or with the intent of teaching someone how to construct an utterance in the way one would teach scientific knowledge or technical skill (Aristotle, NE 148-149). Neither should utterances be dissected as part of a universal pragmatic that, for example: generates rules for using sentences, rules for universal-pragmatic categories of meaning, guidelines for successful speech action, and classifications that describe success as meeting the relationship intended by the speaker (Habermas 33,44, 59).10

The ontological nature of the utterance precludes dissecting the whole into segments of speech acts for classification, definition, charting and formula correlation. Rather, utterances are ontological in nature and can be understood as part of a larger entity, similar to the notion of Gadamer’s hermeneutic circle where the whole must be understood in terms of the parts and the parts understood in the context of the whole (Gadamer 291). Utterances are not reified speech acts designed for rules application, but are fluid, ontologically based, invitations to engage in play through games of language.

Some of the invitations are subtle as in an audience being asked to complete an image, thought or activity, as in the case of a maxim or an enthymeme (Aristotle, Rhetoric 182-187). Other invitations include strong overtures toward play with a transparent boundary between being and play (Gadamer 104-105). For example, in King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” the audience engaged in the “primacy of play over the consciousness of the player” when King launched into his litany of “I have a dream that one day…” and concluded with his “Let freedom ring…” where “play represents an order in which the to-and-fro motion of play follows of itself” (Gadamer 105, Martin Luther King and his audience engaged in play without effort and displayed a spontaneous repetition in the play (Gadamer 105, That King is even able to engage in language games, is due to the absence of metanarratives in postmodernity (Nuyen 411). The absence of the metanarrative, in fact, allows him to engage in a multiplicity of language games simultaneously if he desires (Nuyen 412).

Martin Luther King did play games and, though his audiences ultimately shared the vision of civil equality, their interaction during any given speech could be seen as “Spiel” or the “movement of playing [that] has no goal that brings it to an end” (Gadamer 104). The play of Martin Luther King may have been a show, but the religious content and drama enveloped King and the audience so that the audience became players in the drama and therefore, completed the play (Gadamer 109). This interplay of language and game is “the point of convergence between Gadamer and Wittgenstein” (DiCesare 80). Giving oneself to the language game means the elimination of speaker subjectivity and transcendental intentionality; speaking and understanding are then similar to the game itself (DiCesare 80). Within the game and within the play, where each person is orienting themselves to the other and a freedom operates for the purpose of fostering understanding; that freedom is the margin for the play (DiCesare 85-86).

Perhaps a second illustration of language games and play is visible in Ronald Reagan’s “Tear Down the Wall” remarks at the Brandenburg Gate in June, 1987 ( Ronald Reagan made remarks about the 40th anniversary of the Marshall Plan, great industrial development in West Berlin, the unprecedented level of prosperity in the free world on the heels of Khrushchev’s dire predictions, and the hope offered by arms reduction and potentials for East / West cooperation ( As part of his speech, Reagan proclaimed, “As long as the gate [Brandenburg] is closed, as long as this scar of a wall is permitted to stand, it is not the German question alone that remains open, but the question of freedom for all mankind” ( Later in the speech, Reagan utters, “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall!”( These utterances appeal to the whole of Berlin, Germany, Western Europe, and the world. The utterances make an ontological appeal and attempt to hearken the audiences from around the world toward a vision German unity while simultaneously attempting to ignite the imagination with possibilities, hope, and promise.

Works Cited

Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. J.A.K. Thomson. London: Penguin

Books, 1955.

---. Aristotle On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. Trans. George Kennedy.

New York: Oxford UP, 1991.

Austin, J.L. How To Do Things With Words. 1955. Ed. J.O. Urmson and Marina

Sbisa. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1975.

DiCesare, Donatella. “Stars and Constellations: The Difference Between Gadamer

And Derrida.” Research in Phenomenology 34 2004: 73-102. Proquest.

Duquesne University Gumberg Lib. 2 March 2006

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. Trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald

G. Marshall. London: Continuum, 2004.

Habermas, Jürgen. Communication and the Evolution of Society. Trans. Thomas

McCarthy. Cambridge (UK): Polity Press, 1995.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward

Robinson. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.

Keesling, Roger M. and Felix M. Keesling. New Perspectives in Cultural

Anthropology. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.

Lischer, Richard. The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and The Word

That Moved America. New York: Oxford UP, 1995.

Nuyen, A.T. “Lyotard’s Postmodern Ethics and the Normative Question.”

Philosophy Today 42.2 Winter 1998: 411-417. Proquest. Duquesne

University Gumberg Lib. 2 March 2006 http://. 2006. Ronald Reagan Foundation. 6 March 2006

Searle, John R. Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. London

(UK): Cambridge UP, 1969. 2001. Stanford University. 2 March 2006


Wills, Garry. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America. New

York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Preface. Preliminary Studies for the ‘Philosophical

Investigations’: Generally known as The Blue and the Brown Books.

Oxford (UK): Blackwell, 1998. 2 March 2006 2006. The Churchill Centre. 2 March 2006

1 Searle was a Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, when the text, Speech Acts, was written. Though the text contains a lot of information about dissecting and analyzing the components speech acts, references are included for illustrative purposes only.

2 Information was obtained from the archives of The Churchill Centre, a Washington, D.C. based organization that was founded in 1968 to “foster leadership, statesmanship, vision and boldness among democratic and freedom-loving peoples worldwide, through the thoughts, words, works and deeds of Winston Spencer Churchill” ( The “War Speech” was given at the outbreak of World War II (WWII).

3 This speech was given at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri on March 5, 1946. The reference to the “iron curtain” attracted international attention and some identify this phrase with the beginning of the Cold War (

4 As identified in J.L. Austin’s work, there are six rules for a ‘happy’ functioning performative utterance including, in abbreviated form, the need for an accepted conventional procedure for uttering certain words, the persons and circumstances must be appropriate for the utterance, the procedure must be executed correctly and completely, the procedure is designed to for use in expressing thoughts and feelings, the feelings and thoughts of the speaker should be genuine, and the speaker should conduct themselves in accordance with the spoken words (Austin 14-15).
Austin’s text is based on The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955 and though the lectures contain observations for analyzing and dissecting speech acts, reference is included for illustrative purposes only.

5 The text was originally published in 1927 when Heidegger was a student of Edmund Husserl.

6The “I Have a Dream Speech” was given by Martin Luther King from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963 as archived by

7 The Gettysburg Address was delivered upon the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1863.

8 The text was authored by Garry Wills who is a former Henry R. Luce Professor of American Culture and Public Policy at Northwestern University.

9 Ronald Reagan delivered this speech from the Oval office a few hours following the disaster, via nationwide television and radio.

10 These examples are part of the universal-pragmatic proposed by Jürgen Habermas as outlined in his text, Communication and the Evolution of Society. The items referenced are not intended to provide a comprehensive description of the program proposed by Habermas but are included for illustration purposes only.

11 This speech was delivered on June 12, 1987 to the people of West Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate, which is situated such that the people of East Berlin could hear the speech (

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