Hermeneutics in Conversation

The Speech Act Theory by J.L. Austin

J.L. Austin was a British philosopher of language who developed the theory of speech acts. Austin categorized speech into three actions.

Locution: The words used, or what is said.

Illocution: The meaning of the words, or the significance behind them.

Perlocution: The application of the words, or what happened as a result.


A husband employs locution by asking his wife at the dinner table, “Is there any salt?” The illocutionary act (the meaning or significance) is effectively “please give me the salt” even though the locutionary act (the literal sentence) was to ask a question about the presence of the salt. The perlocutionary act (the intended application behind the words), was for the wife to hand his husband the salt on the table. 

Hermeneutics is properly reading and hearing the locution, and pursuing the proper illocution, so that the perlocution is correct. Pertaining to Scripture, hermeneutics is the proper reading and hearing of Scripture. This action then leads to rightly interpreting and understanding the words of God so that they are then applied correctly to the life and world of the hearer.  

Illustrating the matter, a wife hears the locution (“is there any salt”) but attributes a different illocution (meaning) to the locution. If the wife interprets the husband’s question differently, (“your food doesn’t taste very good”), this will affect her perlocution or application of the dinner inquiry (“causing a pile of salt on her husband’s food).

Conclusion: Hermeneutics focuses on the illocution, or meaning, of the Bible. It is a foundational discipline because the meaning of the words directly influence the application of God’s words. God calls His people to rightly interpret and understand His Word, so that it may lead to proper application and observation. In other words, when the meaning is wrong so will the application or action be wrong. It is the utmost concern of every Christian to know exactly what God says so that we can know exactly what God calls us to do.

Consider the Scriptures

“Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart” (Psalm 119:34).

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15)

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).


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