The Ockham Society (Wednesday - Week 6, HT21)

Ockham Society

Catharine Mackinnon argues that pornography silences women, subordinates women, and legitimizes violence: it doesn’t just cause these things. Rae Langton, drawing on J.L. Austin, fleshes this out by suggesting that pornography effects various illocutionary acts. Such speech acts usually require speakers to have authority. One objection to Langton’s account is that pornographers don’t in fact have any authority at all. Another is that pornographers don’t have authority over the right people.

It’s hard to see what the source of pornographers’ authority might be, especially if our models for authority are judges, legislators and umpires. Further, it seems almost all women and many men reject what pornographers say about women. If authority requires some degree of acceptance, then pornographers do not have authority over women. At most, many of us are under the power of pornographers.

Drawing on Nancy Bauer’s work on pornography, I suggest that we can solve both problems at once by getting clear on how pornography relates to wider societal norms and the mechanisms by which it acts. Much of what pornography says is also said by the wider culture. These cultural norms are rarely explicitly believed or rejected as they operate below the level of belief. Even when rejected at the cognitive level, they often still have force. It’s these norms that license the kind of beliefs, desires and other states that people form in response to pornography. Pornography makes sense against this backdrop.

Even many women voluntarily comply with and/or do not cognitively reject these broader norms and so accept much of what pornography says. Pornographers, though, can also go beyond what’s already there in the culture. They don’t just interpret norms; they also expand and shape them. This is what makes pornography unique. Pornography reflects and interprets and makes social reality. Its authority in controversial cases is parasitic on its authority in the cases where it agrees with social norms. The best parallel is with rules of etiquette and experts on etiquette, or with popular teenagers enforcing social codes in a school.


Additional Information: Ockham will be held on MS Teams during HT21. Please email if you wish to attend. 

Ockham Society Convenor: Steven Diggin | Ockham Society Webpage