How to Do Things with Words  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

"How to Do Things With Words" (1955/1962) is a text by J. L. Austin. It is perhaps Austin's most influential work. In contrast to the positivist view, he argues, sentences with truth-values form only a small part of the range of utterances.

After introducing several kinds of sentences which he asserts are neither true nor false, he turns in particular to one of these kinds of sentences, which he calls performative utterances or just "performatives". These he characterises by two features:

  • Again, though they may take the form of a typical indicative sentence, performative sentences are not used to describe (or "constate") and are thus not true or false; they have no truth-value.
  • Second, to utter one of these sentences in appropriate circumstances is not just to "say" something, but rather to perform a certain kind of action.

He goes on to say that when something goes wrong in connection with a performative utterance it is, as he puts it, "infelicitous", or "unhappy" rather than false.

The action which is performed when a 'performative utterance' is issued belongs to what Austin later calls a speech-act (more particularly, the kind of action Austin has in mind is what he subsequently terms the illocutionary act). For example, if you say "I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth," and the circumstances are appropriate in certain ways, then you will have done something special, namely, you will have performed the act of naming the ship. Other examples include: "I take this man as my lawfully wedded husband," used in the course of a marriage ceremony, or "I bequeath this watch to my brother," as occurring in a will. In all three cases the sentence is not being used to describe or state what one is 'doing', but being used to actually 'do' it.

After numerous attempts to find more characteristics of performatives, and after having met with many difficulties, Austin makes what he calls a "fresh start", in which he considers "more generally the senses in which to say something may be to do something, or in saying something we do something".

For example: John Smith turns to Sue Snub and says ‘Is Jeff’s shirt red?’, to which Sue replies ‘Yes’. John has produced a series of bodily movements which result in the production of a certain sound. Austin called such a performance a phonetic act, and called the act a phone. John’s utterance also conforms to the lexical and grammatical conventions of English—that is, John has produced an English sentence. Austin called this a phatic act, and labels such utterances phemes. John also referred to Jeff’s shirt, and to the colour red. To use a pheme with a more or less definite sense and reference is to utter a rheme, and to perform a rhetic act. Note that rhemes are a sub-class of phemes, which in turn are a sub-class of phones. One cannot perform a rheme without also performing a pheme and a phone. The performance of these three acts is the performance of a locution—it is the act of saying something.

John has therefore performed a locutionary act. He has also done at least two other things. He has asked a question, and he has elicited an answer from Sue.

Asking a question is an example of what Austin called an illocutionary act. Other examples would be making an assertion, giving an order, and promising to do something. To perform an illocutionary act is to use a locution with a certain force. It is an act performed in saying something, in contrast with a locution, the act of saying something.

Eliciting an answer is an example of what Austin calls a perlocutionary act, an act performed by saying something. Notice that if one successfully performs a perlocution, one also succeeds in performing both an illocution and a locution.

In the theory of speech acts, attention has especially focused on the illocutionary act, much less on the locutionary and perlocutionary act, and only rarely on the subdivision of the locution into phone, pheme and rheme.

How to Do Things With Words is based on lectures given at Oxford between 1951 and 1954, and then at Harvard in 1955.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "How to Do Things with Words" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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