Encyclopedia of the Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy

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Langton, Rae

  • Laura CaponettoEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6730-0_276-1


Rae Langton (born February 14, 1961) is Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Newnham College. Before moving to Cambridge in 2013, she held professorships at Edinburgh and MIT. Langton delivered the John Locke Lectures in 2015, the H.L.A. Hart Memorial Lecture in 2019, and a number of other prestigious philosophy lectures. She figures in the Prospect Magazine’s “Top 50 World Thinkers” of 2014, voted 18th (and 4th woman) among those who most originally and profoundly engaged with the central questions of today’s world.

Pornography, Subordination, and Silencing

Langton is best known for her work on pornography and hate speech, especially for her analysis of both in terms of subordinating and silencing speech. In her now classic “Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts,” Langton (1993a) defends the philosophical plausibility of Catharine MacKinnon’s (1987) claim that pornography subordinates and silences women. Langton’s argument is based on two premises. First, pornography is speech. This is supported by US courts, who have judged it protected by the First Amendment. Second, speech is not only a matter of saying things but of doing things with words. This is the major insight from J.L. Austin’s (1962) speech act theory. Put these ideas together and the upshot is that pornographic speech does things. With this in hand, Langton shows that pornography may do what MacKinnon claims it does – subordinate and silence women.

Langton considers a legislator in apartheid-era South Africa who utters, “Blacks are not permitted to vote,” in the context of enacting a law. This is, in Austin’s parlance, both a locutionary act (a meaningful sentence) and a perlocutionary act (it will have certain causal consequences). But it is, above all, an illocutionary act: Please, replace with: it unfairly ranks black South Africans as having inferior social status; legitimates discriminatory conduct against them; and deprives them of voting rights. In one word, it is a subordinating illocutionary act. It doesn’t mirror nor does it merely cause subordination; rather, it is (or constitutes) the subordination of black South Africans. Pornography, Langton holds, may subordinate in a parallel manner. In depicting women as sex objects and women’s abuse in ways that condone and celebrate it, pornography may unjustly rank women as inferior, legitimate gender-based violence, and thus infringe women’s equal citizenship (Langton 1993a, 307–308).

Pornography is also said to silence women by violating their free speech right. Langton’s way of unpacking this is as telling us that pornography may prevent women from performing certain illocutions, e.g., sexual refusals. Pornography plays an important role in spreading false expectations about women’s sexuality, to the effect that its habitual consumers may come to believe that women always want sex or fantasize about rape. Hence, when a woman says “No” in a real-life sexual setting, intending to refuse, her utterance may not be taken by the man as a refusal, but as part of the game. In the Austinian framework Langton endorses, uptake (i.e., the hearer’s recognition of the speaker’s illocutionary intention) is necessary for illocuting. If uptake is not achieved, then the woman’s refusal misfires. Pornography may thus bring about women’s illocutionary silencing (Langton 1993a, 321).

Free Speech and Illocution

Langton’s view has attracted distinguished advocates and critics. (For a full overview of the criticisms to Langton’s account, see Mikkola 2019; Langton 2009 collects her major writings on pornography.)

Liberal objections to the silencing claim have prominently been raised by Daniel Jacobson and Ronald Dworkin. Both have maintained, for different reasons, that, even if pornography silenced women in the way Langton suggests, this wouldn’t be a free speech issue. According to Jacobson (1995), Langton’s conception of free speech captures too much. In many cases it is not morally problematic to preclude people from illocuting; for example, no wrong seems to be done to 12-year-olds by preventing them from marrying. Furthermore, even when restrictions on marriage do wrong people (e.g., same-sex couples), such a wrong doesn’t hinge on free speech concerns, but on being denied equal civil rights. From this, Jacobson concludes that free speech is no more than freedom of locution. Langton and a coauthor, Jennifer Hornsby, reply that the silencing argument does not assume that the speech right protects any illocutionary acts, but those which “reveal language use as communicative” (Hornsby and Langton 1998, 33). Communication primarily involves the expression and recognition of intentions. Jacobson considers illocutions, such as marrying or voting, whose success relies on the correct execution of some extra-linguistic procedure, but there are also illocutions which are essentially communicative in that uptake is enough for their success. Refusal is one such illocution, and its performance is covered by free speech, at least insofar as one agrees that free speech protects people’s power to communicate.

Dworkin seems to share Jacobson’s idea of free speech as free locution, although in his case, it works as a background assumption. The MacKinnon-Langton view, Dworkin argues, appeals to women’s positive liberty to be heard and sympathetically understood, to a “right that others grasp and respect what one means to say” (Dworkin 1993, 38), but such guarantees are not in the remit of (negative) free speech. Langton (1999) rejoins that Dworkin fails to appreciate the distinction between illocutionary and perlocutionary success and consequently the notion of understanding relevant to the silencing claim. Uptake, and thus illocutionary success, involves a minimal receptivity – a basic capacity on the hearer’s part to understand what a speaker may be trying to do with words. It does not require that one’s illocution is agreed to or respected. The silencing argument extends free speech beyond locution, but not as far as to include perlocutionary features, such as “respect” or a “sympathetic hearing,” which would be characteristic of a positive liberty.

The Authority of Hate Speech

Subordinating speech requires speaker authority. After all, there is a huge difference between an utterance of “Blacks are not permitted to vote” made by a legislator enacting a law and the same utterance made by a private citizen. This poses a problem to Langton’s subordination claim. Leslie Green, for one, takes pornographers to be more like private citizens than legislators. In societies like ours, pornography is “low-status speech” and its sexist messages are overthrown by the egalitarian messages of more “high-status speech,” e.g., the speech of the state (Green 1998, 296–297). Langton (1998) retorts that the key question is not whether pornography is universally held in high regard, but whether it is authoritative relative to certain consumers, who form its jurisdiction. Langton (2017) takes there to be compelling evidence for the claim that pornography counts as an “authoritative saying,” at least for those young people who admittedly resort to it for guidance on sex.

The so-called Authority Problem (Maitra 2012) also affects Langton’s speech act account of hate speech, which is closely intertwined with her account of pornography. Langton (2012) identifies two potentially overlapping classes of hate speech: (i) assault-like hate speech, whose addressees are the targets of hatred, and (ii) propaganda-like hate speech, whose addressees are other haters, or would-be haters. Both may degrade their targets by ranking them as inferior, as well as normalize hatred and hierarchy. Hate speech, that is, may constitute subordination. It can at times be backed up with institutional authority (consider Nazi propaganda), but more often it lacks any formal authority (consider some random subway rider launching into a racist tirade against a fellow rider). The problem boils down to this: How can ordinary instances of hate speech subordinate? In recent work, Langton (2018a) has argued that ordinary speakers can gain authority informally via a mechanism akin to presupposition accommodation (Lewis 1979): a speaker acts as if they had authority, and they can end up acquiring it if nobody objects. Langton’s view has implications for responsibility. If staying silent in the presence of a racist tirade informally confers authority to the racist speaker, then hearers and bystanders might have a moral duty to speak up. Furthermore, and relatedly, there may be “a power in the hands of hearers to do something special” (Langton 2018b, 162): the power to block the process of authority acquisition and thus disarm, at least to an extent, ordinary subordinating speech.

Objectification and Objectivity

There’s space only for a quick scan of another debate to which Langton has influentially contributed: the debate over objectification. Langton has analyzed the notion both in its moral and epistemological dimensions. The moral dimension to objectification captures the idea of treating someone as an object. According to Martha Nussbaum (1995), objectification, at its core, concerns autonomy denial; Langton (2005) claims instead that autonomy attribution is sometimes crucial to the process of objectification, for affirming someone’s autonomy may assist and hide its very violation. As to the epistemological side of objectification, the idea is that of treating something as objective, when it is not. Drawing on Sally Haslanger’s (1993) work on “assumed objectivity,” Langton (1993b) develops a detailed argument to the effect that objectification is often covert and “masked” as objectivity.


Langton strongly believes that speech is not just a matter of producing word-like sounds, but of doing things with words. By using the toolkit of speech act theory to elucidate the politics of gendered and racist hate, Langton has remarkably contributed to what might be called the “speech-oriented approach to social injustice” – a view that takes speech to be paramount in enacting and bolstering discriminatory inequality. Her speech act approach to language and social injustice has had, and continues to have, a significant impact on philosophy of language, moral and political philosophy, and philosophy of law.



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© Springer Nature B.V. 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of PhilosophyVita-Salute San Raffaele UniversityMilanItaly

Section editors and affiliations

  • Sally Scholz
    • 1
  1. 1.Philosophy DepartmentVillanova UniversityVillanovaUSA