Performatives and empty names

The folks at Language Log have been talking about the phrase ‘under God’ in the US pledge of allegiance. Geoffrey Pullum, Geoff Nunberg, and Mark Liberman are largely in favour of the view that the phrase, whatever it means, is not one of the committments one makes when taking the pledge. Bill Poser on the other hand, argues here and here that the phrase presupposes the existence of a single diety, and is thus unconstitutional.

I’m not in a position to comment on the constitutional questions, but after thinking about this a while, it struck me that there is a case of a perfectly general problem with empty names.


A lot of the discussion of the pledge of allegiance centers on the fact that it is a performative and the worry that in saying the pledge in its current form one is committed to the existence of God, or a particular god. A lot of the excellent commentary mentioned above focuses on the issue of whether the grammar of the sentence makes this so. But if one is an atheist, then the name ‘God’ is an empty name along similar lines to Santa, Zeus, or even — depending on your views about names and natural kind terms — phlogiston.

Suppose it is just before Christmas, that my child wants a particular toy very badly, and that after some discussion I say to her: I promise that if Santa doesn’t bring you one we will get one.

It seems on the face of it that I have promised to buy the toy under a certain condition, where that condition makes reference to someone — Santa — who I know doesn’t exist.

Does my promise commit me to the existence of Santa? Well, it would be odd if on hearing this conversation my spouse took me aside and said” “You do know that Santa isn’t real, right?”. An incredulous stare would be the appropriate response on my part to such behaviour.

Furthermore, the status of Santa seems irrelevant to the status of the promise. If the toy does not materialize on Christmas morning, telling my child that Santa isn’t real doesn’t get me out of buying the toy. Indeed to a adult in the know it looks like I have promised simpliciter to buy the toy — either in my guise as Santa or in my guise as Mum. Nothing conditional about it.

Similarly, if a chemistry professor tells his class “I promise we will get to the subject of phlogiston in the next class,” he’s made a comittment to move on to that topic in the history of science, despite the nonexistence of phlogiston.

Final example — suppose I as an atheist agree to marry in a church out of respect for the beliefs of my spouse. When the parson says “Do you, in the sight of God and these witnesses, etc.” and I respond ‘I do”, I have gotten married (assuming all other conditions are fulfilled) — I don’t get to get out of being married by pointing out I don’t believe, and nor does my spouse. However, it would be unreasonable for someone else to claim I said I did believe on the basis of my having said I do under those circumstances.

I don’t have a big analysis or a favoured solution to the problem of empty names to offer here. I just wanted to point out that we generally don’t take people who use them in performatives or other contexts to be committed to the existence of those objects. Those responsible for adding ‘under God’ to the pledge may have wanted to make a religious committment part of every American’s patriotic duty, but it doesn’t look like the language will do the job.

Of course, this is neither here nor there when it comes to whether the pledge is constitutional or not.

One thought on “Performatives and empty names

  1. I incline to the view that fictional truths are basically truths not falsehoods, so ‘Sherlock Holmes lived at 221B Baker Street’ and ‘Father Christmas says ho-ho-ho a lot and brings toys to good children’ are true without need for apology or special senses or air quotes. So toys found under the tree on Christmas morning are, in an ordinary true sense, toys that Santa has brought. The fictional context is assumed, and truths are relative to it.

    By this same logic however, God is an old man with a long beard who sits on a cloud and makes almost everyone burn in Hell, a fiction I am much less happy in assuming in everyday speech. Probably this is because it clashes with the beliefs of so many others that it isn’t fiction. For the same reason I’m chary about stating as facts what fairies look like, how they behave, etc. In the case of Sherlock Holmes and (most of the time) Father Christmas there’s no pragmatic doubt about whether the audience have the same fictional relativity as I have, so my statements will be taken as intended (and that includes as literally true by children, which is my intention though not my belief).

Comments are closed.