Parenting by the Books: How To Do Things With Words

Moms and the Philosophy of Language

Image: Robin Tomens

“Josh was saying curse words today!” he declared as he stepped off the bus home from his central Brooklyn public school. “Oh!” I exclaimed, and then a little conspiratorially: “what words did he say?” He breathlessly spilled the beans. “The ‘J’ word” and the ‘A’ word and the ‘F’ word and the ‘H’ word.” “What words are those?!” I prompted, eyes wide. He answered. “Jerk, and asp, and funk, and….heck!”

I don’t know if the street-smart second grader on the bus is saying the actual F word, and my younger child is mishearing, or if they are all just going around shouting “funk you” at school and thinking it makes them anything other than super-miniature Brunos Mars. Does it matter if they know “what” they are saying? If they think they are cursing, aren’t they cursing? Or, even putting aside the question of intention, if their “shocking” utterance changes the world for them in some way, makes it shimmer for them in the way the best curse words do: isn’t that its own confirmation?

Being a mother continually challenges me to think about how language works, which makes it weird to think back on aspects of my graduate education related to the philosophy of language. The most common genealogies hold that it wasn’t until Ludwig Wittgenstein in the early twentieth century that philosophy started to seriously explore how language did more than just describe an already extant world. Language, these modern thinkers realized, in fact shaped the world and acted upon it. This is more than just arcane grad seminar stuff, it’s the “linguistic turn” out of which the world-altering theories of structuralism, post-structuralism, performativity, and semiotics emerged.

Yet it occurs to me: had anyone consulted someone who cared for small children, perhaps we might have gotten to this insight a little sooner in human history? The disregard for the realities of caretaking is kind of the problem with philosophy, right? Any parent will have had experience with what J.L. Austin called, in his 1962 book How to Do Things With Words, “illocutionary” language: an act of speaking that actually does the action it promises to do. “STOP!” “Yes, you may.” “Use your words.” “I love you.”

How to Do Things With Words carefully maps how performative speech works, which of course includes thinking through the (many) instances when it doesn’t. Here, too, caretakers have important knowledge: examples of when and where performative language breaks down, where language fails to act upon the world in the way intended or expected. Consider the first few times I heard my kids say “shut up.” I played it so uncool, made it so clear that I disliked it, that they now use the phrase as some sort of fast track button to press when they want to get somewhere bad, quickly. When they’re looking for a conflict, when they want to ramp things up to the point of a good cathartic screaming cry, when they need to get some of the ugly out of themselves, they know how to do it. “Shut up,” my three-year-old mutters through pressed lips like Mugsy. It’s a familial Rubicon, a semantic breakdown where our speech is definitely doing something but not at all what we want it to do.

How to Do Things With Words is a great book, and I love much of the theory and philosophy that grew up alongside it. And yet its position in intellectual history reminds me how much of women’s knowledge and intellect has been ignored throughout history. I’m put in mind of Virginia Woolf’s description of the harmfully inverse relationship between reproduction, caretaking, and the achievements of the intellect in A Room of One’s Own. Her clever authorial persona considers the difference between the riches of an imaginary all-men’s college of Oxbridge and its shabby all-women’s counterpart, Fernham. Oxbridge has $$$, nourishment for the body and soul, grass she is not allowed to walk on, and a towering library full of knowledge that she may not enter. How did this come to be? Why had no one left a fortune to sustain an institution for women’s flourishing? “What force” the narrator asks about the miserly dinner they’ve just eaten, “is behind the plain china off which we dined?” And then she realizes:

For, to endow a college would necessitate the suppression of families altogether….Consider the facts, we said. First there are nine months before the baby is born. Then the baby is born. Then there are three or four months spent in feeding the baby. After the baby is fed there are certainly five years spent in playing with the baby. You cannot, it seems, let children run about the streets.

You, indeed, cannot! “STOP!!” I shout as my children race their scooters toward a dangerous intersection. And they do. Stop, that is. My words, performatively (and iteratively) uttered day after day after day as we criss-cross the city blocks home after school, draw boundaries about them. For their part, my children are speech acting all the day long: labelling, repeating, pleading, refusing. And, of course, trying to poke holes in those boundaries, testing out the places where language fails: SHUT UP AND FUNK YOU! The linguistic turn in philosophy captured something real and ordinary about how language actually works. The question I have, though, is why it took us so long — until the twentieth century! Unbelievable! — to get there.

Woolf, I think, would say that it’s because we had not thought to ask, or know anything about, the people taking care:

Here am I asking why women did not write poetry in the Elizabethan age, and I am not sure how they were educated; whether they were taught to write; whether they had sitting-rooms to themselves; how many women had children before they were twenty-one; what, in short, they did from eight in the morning till eight at night.

Were you to have posited to a mother of five children, in 1850 or 1910 or 1723, that language mostly “described” the world as it “is,” she likely could have offered an almost limitless number of counter-examples, drawn from her daily linguistic world-building with children. But, of course, nobody asked her.

Parenting by the Books” is a series about parenting and classic literary texts.

Sarah Blackwood is editor and co-founder of Avidly and associate professor of English at Pace University.