Let S be the speaker and let her statements be referred to by p and a number (p1, p2, p3 etc.). Now suppose S makes three statements as follows: (p1) “I do not exist”, (p2) “I am not here”, and (p3) “I am not speaking”. All three statements incur in performative contradiction. In p1, the speaker’s existence is a condition without which she would not say p1, but, since she is saying p1, she exists and, since p1 states that she does not exist, p1 is false. In p2, the use of “here” refers to the place where the speaker is and, without being in a certain place, the speaker could not speak of that place as “here”, so that, by stating that the speaker is not “here”, p2 is false. In p3, the speaker says p3, which means that she is speaking, but p3 states that she is not speaking, which is incompatible with saying p3, so that p3 is false. In all three cases, what the speaker is saying is contradictory to what she is doing (that is speaking).
Those examples of performative contradiction are irrefutable and few critics would refuse them. But they still haven’t proved the rules of discourse. They rely on obvious assumptions and prove that statements that anyone would acknowledge as false are indeed false. How can this apparently not so helpful form of argument be used to prove Habermas and Apel’s controversial implicit rules of discourse? If S says that she is in Tokyo when she is actually in New York (and knows that), it is clear that S is lying, but it is not clear how S is being contradictory. Apparently S being in Tokyo is not a condition without which she could not say that she is in Tokyo, but only a condition for her saying that she is in Tokyo to be true. As being untrue and being contradictory are not the same, how can you show that any contradiction is in motion here?
Habermas and Apel suggest the following way. Suppose S says: “I am in Tokyo and I am lying about it”. Well, according to the famous liar’s paradox, we know that, if S is lying about it, then S is not in Tokyo, but, if she is in Tokyo, then she is not lying about it. Either way her both statements cannot be true at the same time. But that would entail that when S says that she is Tokyo, she also says, implicitly, that she is not lying about it, that she is saying the truth. Then, “I am in Tokyo” should be read as “I am in Tokyo and I am not lying about it”. Since we know that S is actually in New York, then she is lying about it and, since what she is doing, that is lying, and what she is saying, that is that she is not lying, are indeed contradictory, then S is incurring in contradiction – in that case, a performative contradiction.
If that argument is valid, then we have proved not only that, by saying p while knowing that p is false, S is being contradictory, but also that any S that says any p is also saying that she is not lying about p. This implicit I’m-not-lying clause can be then converted into the implicit rule that the speaker will always say only what she thinks to be true, at the risk of being contradictory by doing otherwise. That would be no other than the very rule of sincerity, that Habermas and Apel maintain that is an implicit rule of discourse. If, by saying p while knowing that p is false, S is being contradictory, then there does exist a rule of sincerity to which every speaker is bonded.
Of course, the mere existence and acknowledgement of such rule of sincerity does not prevent many speakers from lying shamelessly about every subject and aspect of life every day. Self-contradiction is hardly an effective deterrent against bad behavior. But this realization also comes with no surprise, since that is not what the rule was supposed to do. On the contrary, it is more of a standard of judgment. If we say lying is wrong, it happens because we judge the act of lying as incompliant to a rule of non-lying, that is a rule of sincerity, which reinforces the thesis that such rule does exist. It exists not in the sense in which dogs or stones exist, but in the only sense in which a rule can exist, that is, by being taken for mandatory and mostly followed. The difference between a rule of discourse as that of sincerity and some moral or legal rule is that the rules of discourse are presupposed in the very act of speaking, that is you cannot engage in the act of speaking without assuming them – even if you are about to break it. It is not possible to lie without assuming in the very act of lying that a rule of sincerity is in place.
Could this argument for the rule of sincerity be used with equal success for the other rules of intelligibility, freedom, and equality? I think the demonstration of the other rules is possible, although not as easy. You’ll be the judge of that.
The rule of intelligibility is a little less intuitive. Suppose S says: “Touching the totem is taboo”. Well, the other speaker T may not know that taboo is a Polynesian term for something that cannot be touched, spoken of, or done. If T doesn’t know that, she is probably not ready to understand what S has said. But again, it means that S is being unintelligible, not that she is being contradictory. Now suppose S says: “Touching the totem is taboo and I won’t tell you what taboo means”. Well, now apparently S is being childish and annoying, but still not contradictory. It does not sound as unacceptable as “I am in Tokyo and I am lying about it”. In order to catch the contradictory element of that, we have to help a little, assume that being understood is an unavoidable end of any statement and then read “Touching the totem is taboo” as “I’m saying ‘Touching the totem is taboo’ and I want you to understand me”. Since willing someone to understand you (which is, with some imagination, part of what you are implicitly saying) and refusing to tell them what your words mean (which is what you are explicitly doing) are contradictory to each other, S is incurring in performative contradiction. Again, that not-being-unintelligible clause can be converted into the rule that every speaker must try her best to be understood, which is the exact rule of intelligibility that Habermas and Apel claim to exist. As with the rule of sincerity, the rule of intelligibility would belong to the very act of speaking, turning it impossible to engage in speaking without assuming the end of being understood – even being pretentious and pedantic would depend on that.
Finally, freedom and equality will demand even more helping from the reader’s good will and imagination. In the case of freedom and equality, Habermas and Apel think that defending a statement with arguments can only make sense as long as you recognize the other as free to accept or reject the arguments and as having the same capacity and responsibility as the speaker. S saying to T that p because of q either means that T is a free and equal collocutor or makes no sense as a bona fide argumentation (in opposition to, e.g., issuing an order, making a supplication, asking for or giving advice, which are both compatible with relations between unequals and more suitable between them). The act of S addressing T and trying to make her case would be pointless if T had no other choice than accepting S’s argument or if T was actually not as capable as S for judging S’s argument. In this sense, we can say that, in the very moment S waives violence and bargain and addresses T as an collocutor, S is acknowledging both herself and T as free and equal. Speaking to other is installing a community of freedom and equality among the speakers – at least in the dimension of speech, not necessarily likewise in the civil and political dimension. (Although Habermas argues in his Theory of Communicative Action that, the more society relies on discourse, the more it turns into a community of free and equal pairs. That, however, would be a topic for a different post.)
Since defending a statement with arguments makes sense only under the assumption that the collocutor is a free and equal speaker, the speaker who denied her collocutor’s entitlement to check her arguments, accept or reject them, propose counter-arguments, and defend a rival position would incur in a contradiction. What S would be saying: “I’m saying that p because of q and I recognize you as a free and equal speaker to judge that claim and respond to it” would be contradictory to what S would be doing, that is denying T’s possibility of assessing S’s arguments and speaking back. Since there would exist a contradiction between what S is saying and what S is doing, that would also be a performative contradiction. From that we could obtain the rule that every speaker will treat her collocutor as a free pair and the rule that every speaker will treat her collocutor as an equal pair, at risk of being contradictory. Those would be the rules of freedom and equality, which Habermas and Apel sustain. If you take that somewhat sinuous (some may say even tricky) argument to be valid, then the four implicit rules of discourse in Habermas and Apel’s theory would be well proved.
In conclusion, performative contradiction is a form of argument in order to prove that a rule is implicitly assumed in discourse. It works by showing that, whenever the speaker breaks one existing rule, she incurs in a contradiction between what she is saying and what she is doing while speaking. The procedure requires taking an implicit assumption and making it an explicit content of the speech, then displaying that the added content and the act being performed are mutually contradictory. At that point, the assumption is converted into a corresponding rule and taken as existing and mandatory in every piece of discourse. Although being usually employed only by Habermas and Apel and their closer followers, the performative contradiction argument is regarded by many as a useful and promising tool in various fields, specially philosophy of language, informal logics, theory of argumentation, and ethics.