Why felicity isn't just truth in disguise
So here goes.
At first approximation, as I said before, felicity is like sincerity. A speaker using language in a way that is consonant with his or her beliefs and in ways that are appropriate to his or her position in society and his or her position in the situation with respect to the speech act can be said to be speaking felicitously.
It turns out that as obvious as all that seems, there are surprisingly many details and those details can make an significant difference if we are looking to build a theory of inerrancy.
The classic cases are complex — those in which one of the participants has a privileged position and is acting officially in that position — the jury giving a verdict, the pastor marrying a couple, an accused person entering a plea.
We find the defendant guilty of murder in the second degree.In each of these cases, not only does the general situation have to be appropriate, but the utterer has to be the appropriate person acting in the appropriate way at the appropriate point in the unfolding ritual.
I pronounce you husband and wife.
I plead not guilty by reason of insanity.
The full specification of felicity in these complex cases constitutes the filling in of all the appropriates. In the case of the wedding, the man and woman have to have been licensed to be married and have to have given their verbal consent to marry one another. The utterer has to be licensed to perform marriages, and has to say the utterance at the right time in the ceremony.
Felicity in the kind of communication that is analogous to a written text, rather than in formal or ritual contexts, is simpler. The speaker (author) is obligated to provide only information that he/she believes to be valid and that he/she has sufficient reason to believe in its validity. (I’m knocking myself out here to avoid the term true.) We generally refer to violations of felicity as lying, although actual lying is more complex. (Isn't everything?)
Since our grasp of the world is one which has many holes, we constantly hedge our assertions to help maintain felicity.
I think John was there last night.In fact, there many languages which, by convention, require speakers to mark just how good their evidence is for a particular assertion. Failure to do so correctly is tantamount to lying. Ottawa (a variety of Ojibwe) is like that:
John seemed to be drunk.
The alleged bank robber was apprehended last night.
Esban maa gii-yaa. ‘There was a raccoon here. (I saw it.)’Now besides hedges there are two other ways that felicitous communication can deviate from truth in the strictest sense.
Esban maa gii-yaadig. ‘There was a raccoon here. (I saw evidence to that effect.)’
Esban giiwenh maa gii-yaadig. ‘There was a raccoon here. (Someone told me.)’
First, the quality of information the speaker (author) is passing on need only be sufficiently accurate for the purposes of the communication. Notice, in particular, that it doesn’t have to be fully true in every detail. We all certainly know people who say:
I'll be there at 3.but don’t show up until 3:10 or 3:15. We don’t leap on them as having lied (or in this case promised infelicitously). (OK, in some situations people are stricter than in others, and the strictness of interpretation is culture-dependent. In Latin America there's a lot more slippage in assertions about time than in, say, Holland.)
Second, we leave a lot of stuff out if it’s irrelevant.
Father: What did you do today?Interactions like this are the subjects of jokes because the amount of information the father thinks is relevant is more than the amount of information the son thinks is relevant. But even were the son to meet the father’s expectations, the amount of detail he would leave out is enormous — the route taken to school, stops made along the way for traffic control devices, order of classes, stops at his locker, exact books carried to which classes, what chance encounters there were with friends in the hall, what notes were passed in class, ... I could go on. But you get the idea. There is a parameter of relevance. If he got caught passing a note in class and sent to the principal, then THAT would be relevant, and felicity demands he communicate that information.
Son: Oh, I went to school.
Now what happens when there is a dramatic asymmetry between what one of the interlocutors knows or understands and what the other does. Then these two parameters: precision of utterance and omission of content play a much bigger role. The possessor of the greater amount of information is allowed to simplify and even withhold information without being charged with being infelicitous.
We encounter this kind of asymmetry most commonly in situations of teaching or in lectures or presentations by experts.
So if you ask a chemist how benzene is structured, she’ll probably talk to you, as a non-specialist, about its ring structure and maybe about double bonds, and maybe draw the standard picture.But she probably won’t explain about the complex orbitals the electrons share above and below the plane of the molecule. These omissions and the fact that the double bonds indicated by the three little lines in the standard picture aren’t exactly double bonds don’t count as infelicitous communication.
Of course, just how much must be present and how much gets left out is governed by conventions of individual languages/cultures. Some cultures allow much more dramatic deviations from exact “truth” than we do. But the fact about asymmetric communication is true of every culture I know anything about at all.
Well, you may have already figured out where this is going.
If we believe that Scripture is inspired, then there are two sources of felicity that need to be accounted for. First, the author himself, and second the source of the inspiration, i.e., God. But notice that the conventions of asymmetrical communication means that God can be communicating to us without telling us everything and even dumbing things down and still be communicating felicitously.
God doesn’t have to tell us the truth — in the narrow platonic sense — to be felicitous. He just has to see that the writer He is inspiring gets point of the communication accurate.
This is what gets us out of having stand on our heads theologically to deal with “misquotes” from the LXX or questions about whether Jesus’ parables were true stories, while at the same time obligating us to the virgin birth, the miracles, the teachings, and the resurrection. These latter are all points of the text, which felicity does require to be accurate.