Our President is fond of using the word, “I.” It is important to all of us in the US and elsewhere to understand exactly what that “I” means. It comes in two flavors. The first is personal, pointing at and completely circumscribed by the speaker’s body. This form is created, sui generis. The second arises from the institutional status of the speaker and is constrained by the deontic (obligatory) powers of the particular institution: in Trump’s case, those incumbent on the President of the United States. These are to be found in the Constitution, laws, court rulings, and established traditions. The difference is critical in determining the legitimacy of the President’s acts, including speech acts involving the use of the word, “I.”
The concept of institutional facts is central to this discussion. The best source for getting to understand this concept is John Searle’s 2009 book, Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization, Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press. Searle is an American philosopher, who has written extensively about language, especially speech acts. I have written a discussion about this in my forthcoming book, and extracted the following part. The quotes come from Searle’s book.
Unlike brute facts that exist prior to being talked about, institutional facts only appear when someone’s words imbue a common object with some status or power. The social world within which humans exist is unlike that of other creatures and is constituted by such language. Humans can impose “[status] functions on objects and people where the objects and people cannot perform the functions solely in virtue of their physical structure (2009: 7).” The amalgamation of these functions establishes the structure of institutions that range from those involving a few people to whole societies. Order in the institutions is maintained by an explicit or implicit agreement of all individuals to acknowledge the legitimacy of the functions and the authority of institutional actors, whether humans or artifacts, to perform them. Judges, parents, chess pieces, private property, or bosses are a few familiar examples of such actors.
Status functions are imposed on objects simply by saying that this or that function now exists, but only if spoken in a special linguistic manner. Neither any old speaker nor any old words will do. The words have to come in the form of a particular speech act, a Declaration. Declarations create a new reality, that is, they change the world in the act of uttering them. When a Professor says, “You failed,” you have, in fact, failed. Your future is different now from what it has been. No further action is needed, unlike the case of, say, a request, another kind of speech act that requires a world-changing action in order to be satisfied. Declarations alter reality merely by stating that something new now exists, and simultaneously causes it to actually exist.
A Declaration must have sufficient legitimating power or authority behind it to make it last after the words fade into thin air. That power can come from the collective acceptance by those whose reality is now changed, or from some previously acknowledged authority of the speaker. In the former case a new social institution is created; in the latter, the power of the speaker, say, a Judge, comes from an already established institution, in this case, the justice system and its legal legitimacy. If we ignore the powers of institutional facts, we may be subject to some sort of sanction. For example, if we disregard the powers attached to private property, we may find ourselves facing a judge on charges of robbery or trespassing.
The importance of this capacity to create what Searle calls “status functions” is that they endow the target object with what he calls “deontic power(s).” Deontic, in linguistics or moral logic, refers to rights, entitlements, duties, obligations, and so on. A metal slug with a special pattern stamped on it becomes “money,” constituted by the powers that have been given to it, by Declaration. A fifty-cent coin obligates others to accept it in exchange for goods and services. A Professor has been endowed with duties like teaching, maintaining decorum, and assigning grades. All institutional facts are associated with ordinary objects or persons. The fifty-cent piece entails some legitimating stamping on a slug made of an alloy of copper and nickel; the Professor is an ordinary human being who has been given a title and powers by a university. In some places, Professors are distinguished from ordinary adults by the robes they wear. Without the (deontic) powers, both the money and the Professor are merely brute facts: a piece of metal or and a human being, respectively. The winner of a chess match, the game of soccer, students, credit cards, banks, The U.S. Treasury, spouses, hospitals, and CEOs are all examples of institutional facts. On reflection, most of us would recognize that we exist in a veritable sea of such facts and the institutions that afford them such power. Searle argues that these status functions and their deontic powers are the “glue that holds human civilization together (2009: 9).”
This last quote captures the dilemma the United States is in today. The President has been ignoring the deontic powers of the Office of the President almost from the first moment he took office, speaking only as an individual, a highly narcissistic one. In essence, he has been ignoring his lawful duties from the get-go. This looks to me to be a case of high crimes and misdemeanors. Every public utterance that ignores the oath to serve all the people the US is a crime, perhaps only a small one, but such crimes do accumulate. We can see the results of ignoring the deontic powers of the Office in the last quote above. These powers are as Searle puts it, “the glue that holds human civilization together.”
Most of his utterances are merely personal, carrying no powers or legitimacy. They are authentic Trumpisms, worthy of notice, but not of consequence, per se. The consequences come from the confusion with those utterances that arise from the powers of the office. Mixing them up leads to fascism or dictatorship where the authority to rule is vested entirely in the speaker, not in some enveloping body of legitimate rules and powers.
The immediate danger comes from the numbers of those who hear Trump’s words as legitimate and are prepared to act on them. Whatever acts may follow will be consistent with the law and the duties of citizenship only by chance.
It is clear that this country is divided badly to the point of sputtering, but the cause is not merely political differences. Such differences have always been present, but short of the Civil War, have not caused the underlying pathologies to take hold. Trump poses a different and more dangerous threat to the polity. His failures to uphold his Office are making the country’s coherence, however frail, head for a dangerous precipice. Language does matter. I believe we could take the edge off of his words if we ask, privately and publicly, which Trump is speaking: The public President or the private one, whoever that is?