December 28, 2017, by Brigitte Nerlich

Promises, promises, promises

It all started with this tweet – a conversation between Oliver Morton, Jack Stilgoe and David Keith about the hopes and fears related to geoengineering. In this conversation, they stumbled against the words ‘promise’ and ‘promising’, with Oliver and Keith interpreting them in terms of ordinary language use, while Jack interpreted them also in terms of STS language use. This made me think. I wondered whether and how the two uses of these words overlap and whether and how this might impede mutual comprehension between ordinary language users and STS language users.

To anticipate the take-home message of the following semantic/conceptual ‘analysis’: I think that the difference between the two meanings of ‘promise’ lies in the fact that in ordinary language the word ‘promise’ is mainly linked to the word ‘obligation’ (an expectation that somebody keeps a promise they have explicitly made) while in STS language use ‘promise’ is linked to the word ‘potential’ (an expectation that some latent qualities or abilities may be developed and lead to future success or usefulness). But let’s start at the beginning.

Conversing about promises

Here are some random extracts from the much longer twitter conversation which made me think, but there is much more to get ones teeth into, if one wanted to do a proper ‘conversation analysis’:

Oliver Morton: “Where are you seeing ‘a lot of promises being made’?”
Jack Stilgoe: “e.g. Keith’s promise that geoengineering will be ‘cheap and technically easy'”
Jack Stilgoe: “A promise of what technology could do, no?”
Oliver Morton: “I think ‘promise’, because of its performative speech-act aspects, adds a moral overtone–that if the statement is not borne out a moral lapse has been committed.”
David Keith: “I am confident we can’t accurately predict exactly what will happen if solar geoengineering was used. Not sure what kind of “promise” @Jackstilgoe thinks i am making”

So what’s going on here?


In the mid-twentieth century, the ordinary language use of ‘promise’ was discussed in depth by ordinary language philosophers, analytical philosophers or speech act theorists, such as John Law Austin. In his early thinking (and I am oversimplifying here), Austin made a distinction between constative utterances (“the cat sits on the mat”) and performative ones (“I promise to feed the cat”). When I utter this last sentence in an appropriate context I do not just say something or describe something, but I perform a promise, a type of (speech) act that actually changes the world in which the people engaged in this conversation live. Uttering a promise carries a moral obligation of sorts to do something or to refrain from doing something in the future.

In short, in a normal promise, you promise something and then you do it (you perform the promise, if you like), as in this definition of ‘promise’ by the Oxford English Dictionary: “A declaration or assurance made to another person (usually with respect to the future), stating a commitment to give, do, or refrain from doing a specified thing or act, or guaranteeing that a specified thing will or will not happen”. Promises can be broken, negated, breached and so on.

In STS language (spoken by Jack Stilgoe), especially in the field of the sociology of expectations, the word ‘promise’ is used in a different way, as exemplified by this extract from an STS article: “Future expectations and promise are crucial to providing the dynamism and momentum upon which so many ventures in science and technology depend” or this one: “hyperbolic expectations of future promise and potential have become more significant or intense in late and advanced industrial modernity”. Here nobody ‘makes’ a promise. The ‘promise’ is inherent in something like technology, science, technology, behavior etc.

This STS meaning is related to a second ordinary language meaning of ‘promise’ mentioned in the OED, namely: “An indication of a future event or condition; esp. one giving strong or reasonable grounds for the expectation of future achievements or good results; the quality of potential excellence”, as in “a century of great promise” or ‘that looks promising’.


Like ordinary language philosophers, STS people also use the word ‘performative’ in conjunction with the word ‘promise’. And again, in STS it’s not that somebody actually performs an action in uttering a sentence or after uttering it. The performance is more implicit, as in this STS conference title: “Performative Futures: Expectations, Promises and Failures Pre- and Post-austerity” or in this central statement made by a key player in the ‘sociology of expectations’: “By performing such futures, they are made real and in this sense expectations can be understood as performative”.

Here the use of the word ‘performative’ is not directly linked to the use made by speech act theorists or ordinary language philosophers, but more to how it’s used by cultural theorists, such as Judith Butler who “describes performativity as ‘that reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains’”.

This is not to say that STS people are wholly unaware of ordinary language philosophy, analytical philosophy or speech act theory (and I might have overlooked some explicit discussions in the sociology of expectations). Nik Brown for examples said: “STS scholarship has tended to focus on statements, discourses or speech acts which explicitly manifest future-oriented representations (visions, metaphors, promises, aspirations)” (italics added). However, he does not make a distinction between promises and visions (and metaphors), it seems.


To reiterate, when STS people talk about ‘promise’, it’s not so much that somebody promises something and when fulfilling that promise the future is changed. Rather, the future itself produces or performs change. How is that possible? What STS people are getting at, I think, is that in portraying futures in a certain way in the present (creating certain visions of the future), present people initiate actions (e.g. investments) which pull those futures into the present.

As van Lente et al. say in a seminal article that helped establish the sociology of expectations: “First and foremost expectations are ‘constitutive’ or ‘performative’ […] in attracting the interest of necessary allies (various actors in innovation networks, investors, regulatory actors, users, etc.) and in defining roles and in building mutually binding obligations and agendas.” So some sort of obligation is involved here, but not related to making actual promises it seems.


This brings us to another aspect where ordinary language use and STS language use diverge, namely the frequent use of ‘promissory’ in STS language, a word that in normal language might only be used in the phrase ‘promissory note’ for example.

In ordinary language use, promissory is still quite closely linked to promise and means, according to the OED, “Conveying, containing, or implying a promise; of, relating to, or of the nature of a promise”, as in ‘promissory gift cards’ or ‘promissory vouchers’ for example. It still means that something gets done by somebody for somebody. But promissory can also be used figuratively, in the sense of: “Conveying a promise or indication of something to come; full of promise, promising”, as in: “The other promissory benefits of space travel, the mining of scarce materials on the moon or on the asteroids”. That’s the STS meaning, although ‘promissory benefits’ is more explicit than most STS usages.

Here are some examples of the use of ‘promissory’ in STS language: “promissory organisations”, “promissory behavior”, “promissory expectations”, “promissory future”, “promissory work”, “promissory representations” “promissory texts”, “promissory life sciences”, “promissory discourse of the bioeconomy”, “promissory discourse of anticipatory governance” (whatever that may be!!) and so on. Discourses about ‘promissory discourses’ seem to be especially prominent in STS, and even I have used that phrase.

Returning to the conversation

To come back to the twitter conversation with which I started. This is the text that Jack Stilgoe used to illustrate ‘promises’ being made about geoengineering – in this case by David Keith:

As Oliver Morton pointed out, in the book this extract is followed by David Keith pointing out the dangers of geoengineering. Disregarding this contextual warning, what would make this a ‘promissory text’? The ‘promise’ seems to lie in describing geoengineering as cheap and easy, indeed as cheap as a ‘Hollywood blockbuster’. Readers of this passage (on its own) might go on to think things like: that sounds promising and if it’s so easy, why not do it? Or: let’s invest in that and make some money (just as Hollywood blockbusters do) and so on, thereby furthering the future deployment of geoengineering by believing in this seemingly rosy vision of the future. (But, in this instance, that’s not what David Keith was trying to do…)

To summarise

On the one hand, we have ‘promise’ in ordinary language, where it mainly means that somebody says something to somebody else and then they act upon their words in certain ways that change the world. On the other hand, we have ‘promise’ in STS language where it mainly means that a large number of people say words that conjure up a vision of the future which then incites these and other people to act on the world in certain ways in order to try and change it in terms of the visions conjured up by these words.

In both cases we are dealing with the future, but in the one case the future is the outcome of an obligatory individual or collective action, in the other it’s a vision that invites action from what one might call the ‘invisible hand’, i.e. the cumulative unintended consequences of individual self-interested actions.

PS 31 December 2017: Reading something by @mkbkearnes, I came across an article that might bridge the two languages discussed here:

Fortun, M. 2005. “For an ethics of promising, or: a few kind words about James Watson.”  New Genetics and Society 24 (2):157-173.

Image: Padlocks on the Hohenzollernbrücke in Cologne (I drive past these promises of eternal love every time I go and visit my parents)

Posted in Language