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.

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