How to Do Things with Words (1955)

J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words (1955)

When we say something, we do not merely describe or report a state of affairs—we also do something. This half-obvious, half-banal idea is at the core of How to Do Things with Words; indeed, by the second lecture Austin establishes that our utterances can be divided into those that can be judged true/false statement and those that can be judged as successful/unsuccessful acts. But then he spends several chapters showing how this division fails because there is no guaranteed vocabulary or grammar that will let us know for certain when we are stating, describing, reporting, etc . . . and when we are doing. He recasts his scheme such that it includes what we say, what we mean to say, and what effect our saying has on listeners. This division soon collapses on itself, too. Finally, Austin urges us to consider that language cannot be evaluated merely on a true/false scale. It has dimensions of meaning, force, fairness, exactness that differ according to situation. Philosophers should pay attention to the total speech act.

Approaching Austin

Writing in the early 1990s, Stanley Cavell recalls the pervasiveness of logical positivism in Anglo-American philosophy departments of the 1940s and 50s, calling it “a hegemonic presence more total [. . .] than that of any one of today’s politically or intellectually advanced positions. Positivism during this period was virtually unopposed on any intellectually organized scale.” Logical positivism was an approach to language that sought to determine whether or not utterances were meaningful or meaningless. “Meaningful” in this case, indicates utterances that purport to describe (empirical) reality, and they can be evaluated as true or false. “Meaningless” indicates utterances that make no attempt to describe empirical reality, such as “The present king of France is bald” or “God is great” or “There is no God.” A meaningless utterance is worse than a false one.

Austin’s animus was to draw attention to the myriad ways language works beyond the true/false distinction. As we will see, he is particularly concerned to distinguish the meaning from the force of utterances—“it’s raining” has the simple meaning of reporting rain, but it’s force might be to remind you to close that window you said you’d close, to suggest we call off the baseball game, and so on. Is Austin of interest to us merely as a historical figure because he clears the cobwebs of the logical positivist attic? The answer is, of course, no, but its worth lingering on history a little longer before getting to the text itself. Aside from his own merits as an original and funny thinker, Austin is also the touchstone of one of the most famous collisions of Continental and Analytic philosophy. Derrida’s “Signature, Event, Context” devotes two of its four sections to  first commending but ultimately faulting Austin. The essay inspired an annoyingly dismissive response from John Searle, heir to the crown of the Speech Act philosophy Austin founded. Derrida in turn responded with an annoyingly smug response of his own, and the whole incident has bred enmity on both sides of the philosophical divide. Lest we think this impasse is the final word on Austin, let me mention in passing that Austin is one of the major figures of Ordinary Language philosophy, a largely Anglo-American tradition, but one that resonates with more European modes of philosophy, especially phenomenology. American thinkers with an interest in Continental thought (Stanley Cavell and Judith Butler) have both taken up Austen’s thought in various ways.

Regardless of how he has fared, we should approach How to Do Things with Words by recognizing how Austin’s conception of language is unlike the Saussurean tradition most of us are familiar with. For Saussure, the keystone of language is the (isolated) sign, comprising a signifier and a signified. Absent in this scheme are (a) an account of whole sentences, (b) concern for the intention of a speaker in making particular utterances, and (c) reality. In regard to this last point, think about how Saussure’s sign is composed of a “sound image” and a “concept” (say, the sounds t-r-i and the idea of treeness). There is no rustle of leaves or odor of sap in Saussure.

So far as I know, Austin never read Saussure, and I’m not sure how productive it would be to put the two thinkers in dialogue with each other. That said, the tradition Austin comes from cares very much about entire sentences, including the state of mind of the person who makes them and how much they correspond to reality—and in writing reality, I’m resisting the urge to use inverted commas because such a gesture would be foreign to Austin’s context.

How to Do Things with Words

I mentioned Austin is a funny writer, and we find that in the opening line of the first lecture: “What I shall have to say here is neither difficult nor contentious; the only merit I should like to claim for it is that of being true, at least in parts” (1) We are all familiar with the false humility that characterizes prefaces, but Austin is not saying that he might be wrong despite his best efforts. Rather, as we will see in the first lecture, there are some statements that do now answer to the truth/falsehood distinction. When a person says “I do” in a wedding, “I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth” in a ship-Christening ceremony, “I give and bequeath my watch to my brother” in a will, or “I bet you sixpence it will rain tomorrow,” there is no report of how the world is, and it makes no sense to evaluate these sentences as either true or false. “In these examples it seems clear that to utter the sentences (in, of course, the appropriate circumstances) is not to describe my doing of what I should be said in so uttering to be doing or to state I am doing it: it is to do it” (5-6). That is, when I say “I bet you $20,” I am not describing my betting—my betting occurs as and because of my saying “I bet you $20.”

Austin coins the term performatives to describe those utterances that do something, and he contrasts them to constatives–utterances that relate, report, describe something. When constative utterances work out, we call them “true,” but when they fail, we call them “false.” It makes no sense to apply this standard to a performative utterance. When I say “I bet you $20 it will rain,” you may fault me for not shaking on it, not having $20, not believing I will pay up because I never have before, etc. What makes no sense, however, is to say my bet was somehow “incorrect” or “false.” Austin suggests instead that we use the terms “happy” and “unhappy” to refer to the adequacy of carrying out performatives.

If performatives do not report (extra-discursive) reality, they nonetheless require it as conditions of their possibility. I cannot wager which horse will win the race after the race is over, for example. Nor can I (usually) bet the money of the stranger beside me, and perhaps you might not accept my bet as legitimate if I do not shake on it after. These examples point out just some of the ways performatives can be unhappy. To better understand how performatives work, Austin proposes a provisional “doctrine of infelicities,” or doctrine of things that make performatives unhappy (in-felicitas is literally “un-happy” in Latin). The conditions are quoted here in full with examples.

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The items in A and B are necessary to the act occurring at all—if we mess any of them up, we cannot say the performative worked. Infelicities in these Latin letters are collectively called misfires. By contrast, items in Γ list do not bear on whether the act took place in its limited context. Rather, they bear on the sincerity of the actor committing the act, and so infelicities here are called abuses.

Having set out this schema, Austin immediately sets to work showing its weak spots. One of these is overlap. A particular unhappy performative might be thought to fail for several reasons at once—rather, there might not be agreement about which part of infelicity occurred in an unhappy performative. For example, when I say “I pick George to be on my team” and George says, “I’m not playing,” my act of picking failed. Is it because of A.2 (misapplication): George is not appropriate for the act? Or is it because a Hitch (B.2.) occurred: George’s refusal renders the picking incomplete.

Next, performatives are not entirely separable from constatives. If I say, “I apologize”  and I mean it, then I perform the apology. But don’t I also describe my state of mind in some way? One way out of this issue is to try find some criteria within vocabulary or grammar that might keep the two kinds of utterances separate. We might, for example, reserve “hereby” as an indicator of performatives, as in “I hereby find you guilty.” The problem, of course, is that we often make performatives without using that word. Similarly, we might try to think of verbs in the first-person present indicative, as in “I find you guilty.” But we can perform the guilt-finding act by also saying, “You did it.”

Austin goes to great lengths to show why there are no lexical resources to help us separate the two kinds of utterance, but the point he ends up at eventually is distinguishing between explicit performatives and what he variously calls implicit, primitive, and primary performatives. Explicit performatives name the act they are doing, whereas primary ones just do the act without calling attention to their doing of it. For example, “I apologize” is explicit, but “I am sorry” is primitive. Notice that not all speech acts have both dimension. I can say, “go to hell!” but I can’t say “I insult you!” Moreover, some of the acts can occur without any speaking at all. I could explicit say the rather archaic “I spurn you” but I can also just give you the cold shoulder and perform effectively the same act.

The tangled thoughts that the initial constative-performative distinction led to prompts Austin finally to start all over again by trying a new mode of schematizing utterances. He proposes now a tripartite division (pages 92, 95)
1. Phonetic acts: “the uttering of certain noises.”

2. Phatic acts: “the uttering of certain vocables or words, i.e. noises of certain types, belonging to and as belonging to, a certain vocabulary, conforming to and as conforming to a certain grammar”

3. Rhetic acts: “the performance of an act of using those vocables with a certain more-or-less definite sense and reference” (95).

This division has its own complications. For one, to perform a phatic act, I must perform a phonetic act, but not vice versa: “for if a monkey makes a noise indistinguishable from ‘go’ it is still not a phatic act” (96). Also, when we perform a rhetic act, is both phonetic and phatic. However, not all phatic acts are rhetic: “we may repeat someone else’s remark or mumble over some sentence, or we may read a Latin sentence without knowing the meaning of the words” (97).

Growing out of this new division, Austin proposes yet another division of speech acts—a division that has proven to highly influential among his followers.

1. Locutionary acts: to say something (think of this as combining the phonetic and phatic acts mentioned above).

2. Illocutionary acts: the act one does in saying something. It corresponds to one’s intention. (illocutionary comes from in-locutionary)

3. Perlocutionary acts: the act one does by saying something. It corresponds to the effects one has in speaking. (per means by)

The division between 2 and 3 seems murky, but Austin clings to it. Take the following example: “In giving the reasons for why school uniforms are good, I was arguing that schools should have uniforms.” This sentence (not Austin’s) shows that “arguing” is what I am doing. Compare it to this: “In giving the reasons for why school uniforms are good, you convinced me that schools should have uniforms.” This sentence reports a perlocutionary act. The difference is small but crucial for Austin. I cannot say “In giving the reasons for why school uniforms are good, I convince you that schools should have uniforms.” I may try to convince you, but “convincing” is not within my power the way that “argue” is. Here’s one of Austin’s examples (underlining added):

Act (A) or Locution

He said to me, “You can’t do that.”

Act (B) or Illocution

He protested against my doing it.

Act (C. a) or Perlocution

He pulled me up, checked me.

Act (C. b)

He stopped me, he brought me to my senses, &c.

He annoyed me.

Illocutionary acts include things like “informing, ordering, warning, undertaking, &c., i.e. utterances which have a certain (conventional) force.” Perlocutionary acts include “convincing, persuading, deterring, and even, say, surprising or misleading” (108). Notice here the Austin’s inclusion of the word “conventional” when explaining illocutionary acts. Indeed, though it seems to me that illocution is connected mainly to intention, Austin places a lot of stress on it being “conventional.” What he means is “that at least [an illocutionary act] could be made explicit by the performative formula; but [perlocutionary] could not. Thus we can say ‘I argue that’ or ‘I warn you that’ but we cannot say ‘I convince you that’ or ‘I alarm you that’” (103).

Throughout Austin’s text, you can catch glimpses of what he means by act and how it might be distinguished from something like “sheer” force. For Austin, an act is always a deliberate and voluntary. We should not think that Austin is somehow denying the insights of psychoanalysis and how it shows how we act for different reasons than we think. He is concerned with just that fact that when we act, we do indeed intend to do a specific thing. If I urge you to buy those particular shoes, perhaps I am actually expressing some deep-seated castration anxiety. And yet, I know myself to be urging you, and it is this illocutionary act that interests Austin. He is not a hermeneut of suspicion.

The consideration Austin gives to intention is likely to garner some dubious grimaces, and indeed it seems to be one of the points Derrida implicitly faults him for because intention makes Continentals think of illusory self-transparency or full presence. However, Austin seems to be urging us toward both an epistemology and ethics founded on dialogue and attention to context. That is why he can say, “It is important to take the speech-situation as a whole” (137). How can we ever totalize the situation? How can something so nebulous as a situation or context ever be considered in its totality? Asking such questions takes us in Derrida’s footsteps. Underlying this suspicion, however, is an ontology of language that claims ontology precedes language, that everyday ways of speaking must conform/violate concepts that inform specific uses of language. What later philosophers of everyday language will argue is that they (and Austin) see all “metaphysical” language as fundamentally based on the negotiations of meaning that happens in day-to-day language.

The idea of exact and distinct concepts is precisely a notion that Austin and his followers reject as assuming the dominance of constative over performative utterances:

Suppose that we confront ‘France is hexagonal’ with the facts, in this case, I suppose, with France, is it true or false? Well, if you like, up to a point; of course I can see what you mean by saying that it is true for certain intents and purposes. It is good enough for a top-ranking general, perhaps, but not for a geographer. ‘Naturally it is pretty rough’, we should say, ‘and pretty good as a pretty rough statement.’ But then someone says: ‘But is it true or is it false? I don’t mind whether it is rough or not; of course it’s rough, but it has to be true or false—it’s a statement, isn’t it?’ How can one answer this question, whether it is true or false that France is hexagonal? It is just rough, and that is the right and final answer to the question of the relation of ‘France is hexagonal’ to France. It is a rough description; it is not a true or a false one. (142)

Language is not simply the conveying of a meaning, and it is not merely subject to evaluation of true and false. It is subject to other questions, such as “is it rough or exact? “is it fair or unfair?” It is only by attending to utterances in their context that we evaluate what they are.


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