A few days ago I commended Psalm 137 as an ideal text for family devotions. This is admittedly quite a change from the silent treatment that most Christians give the psalm. That silent treatment arises from Christians being (rightly) shocked by the content and unsure what to do with it. In the article my daughter described one way: read the psalmist as presenting a textbook case of what not to wish for. He says “Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” One can only call that a nasty and wicked statement.
Wrong, apparently. Jerry Shepherd endorsed it. He suggested that sometimes and under certain conditions the one who has an opportunity to massacre babies by crushing their skulls is indeed happy (or blessed).
So what shall we say about such a completely shocking reading of a text? I suggest we take a brief excursus into the philosophy of language by taking the time to distinguish between a locutionary act, an illocutionary act, and a perlocutionary act. The distinctions trace back to philosopher John Austin who pointed out that language is not simply a matter of expressing propositions. We also do things with language and we need to pay attention to the variety of things we do with it. If we fail to make these basic distinctions we could end up in all sorts of trouble … like baptizing moral atrocities as morally commendable actions.
Locutionary acts, Illocutionary acts and Perlocutionary acts
Let’s start off with the sentence “Dave, I think you’re a great guy.” When Mary utters this proposition she performs a locutionary act. As such, a locutionary act is particular speech act, that of expressing a proposition. You can call it an utterance.
But as John Austin pointed out, when Mary performs a locutionary act like this she also performs an illocutionary act. An illocutionary act is constituted by the various speech acts we perform in virtue of performing a locutionary act. For example, when Reverend Bob performs a locutionary speech act by declaring “I now pronounce you man and wife” he also performs an illocutionary act, that of marrying two people (as we will see in a moment, those two people are not Mary and Dave).
So it is very important that we pay attention not only to the locutionary act of language (an utterance) but also the illocutionary act (what we are seeking to accomplish with an utterance). We must also pay attention to the perlocutionary act (or, as I prefer to say, the perlocutionary effect) which describes the result of the illocutionary act that has been performed. In other words, what new effect, what new situation, does the illocutionary act bring about (in the speaker, the reader, the listener, or others)?
Now let’s return to Mary’s locutionary act of saying “Dave, I think you’re a great guy.” What kind of illocutionary act is she performing? Here’s one possibility: complimenting. Here’s another: encouraging. (As you can probably guess, it is not entirely clear that an illocutionary act would always have one distinct conceptual aim. Mary’s illocutionary act could be encouraging-complimenting, for example.)
But we could be completely misreading Mary’s illocutionary act. What if, for example, Dave had just said to her: “Mary, will you be my wife?” (because “Mary, will you marry me?” is awkward to say). Suddenly we see that Mary’s illocutionary act is not encouraging or complimenting or anything else quite that positive. Rather it is something like rejecting or brushing off or the plain but painful saying no thanks!
We’re not even going to consider the perlocutionary effect this has on Dave, but suffice it to say, it ain’t pretty.
Venting as an Illocutionary act
Let’s say that Dave and Mary are out for dinner at a restaurant (in happier times prior to the debacle described above). At the next table is a misbehaving child who is quickly ruining Dave and Mary’s dinner with his bad behavior. Finally Dave mutters to Mary: “Somebody should give that kid a good whipping.”
What kind of illocutionary act was Dave performing here? You might think he was performing a commendation. Let’s try that out. Imagine that the father overhears Dave’s comment and promptly pulls out a leather cat o’ nine tails from his wife’s purse. “I’ll be glad to oblige sir,” he says to Dave with a smile as he grabs his son’s arm roughly and heads for the front door of the restaurant.
What do you think Dave will say? He might say “Give it to ‘im good pops!” That is, if his intended illocutionary act was that of commendation. But what if his illocutionary act was simply that of venting? If you vent you are performing an illocutionary act of expressing frustration which provides an invitation (a perlocutionary effect) for others (in this case Mary) to seek solidarity with you in your frustration (i.e. through sympathy). But what you are not doing is commending that which you say in your locutionary act.
And that, I suspect, is what Dave is doing. He doesn’t really want to see the boy subjected to a vicious corporal punishment. He simply is venting.
My brother-in-law was out for dinner once when he sat near a misbehaving child. At one point in the meal the father said to the mother, “Should I send him into orbit?” The image, presumably, was one of hitting the child under the jaw with such force that he would be sent minimally into LEO (Low Earth Orbit). But nobody takes this image seriously. The father was instead simply venting, expressing frustration at the behavior of his child, and appealing for support in dealing with his misbehavior. Insofar as he was intending to be overheard he may also have been expressing solidarity with the nearby diners who had suffered from the boy’s misbehavior.
So this brings us finally to our first analysis of Psalm 137. Rather than conclude that the psalmist is simply commending infant massacre, we need to ask what kind of illocutionary act he might be performing. Could it be that he too is simply venting? In the same way that Dave commends whipping a child (but not literally) and the father commends hitting a child with such force as to send him into LEO (but not literally) so the psalmist is commending killing infants (but not literally).
If the psalmist is simply venting, and this seems to be a rather natural explanation given the circumstances and the nature of the act he describes, then it is quite mistaken (to put it charitably) to conclude that he is in fact commending infant murder.