Thursday, April 19, 2012

How to Do Things with Words

To the certain extent, every saying is doing, as every utterance is accompanied by certain sounds. However, some sayings include more doing than just utterance. For instance, if A says to B “you must go bed”, the saying is not only just making sounds but also including some forces to B. How should we understand these aspects in saying something?

John Langshaw Austin, one of the leading philosophers of the twentieth century, made lectures on the theme. The lecture series were delivered as the William James Lectures at Harvard University, entitled “How to Do Things with Words (originally ‘Words and Deeds’)”, and later published under the same title.

Performative Utterance

Austin argued that some utterances include some sort of performance. For example, if a man says “I do” in the course of the marriage ceremony, that “I do” means that “I would take this woman to be my lawful wedded wife”. Austin named these utterances and sentences “performative sentence” or “performative utterance”. Those performative utterances are accompanied by certain actions, such as making contracts, declaring some actions, forcing somebody to do something, etc.

Performative utterance is not about reporting truth or false, but could be the subject to public criticism and be the sources of unhappiness. Austin called those utterances “infelicity” (inappropriate saying), and listed six types of them. The types could applied all actions but not mutually exclusive. (page 14)

(1) There must exist an accepted conventional procedure having a certain conventional effect, that procedure to include the uttering of certain words by certain persons in certain circumstances

(2) The particular persons and circumstances in a given case must be appropriate for the invocation of the particular procedure invoked

(3) The procedure must be executed by all participants correctly

(4) The procedure must be executed by all participants completely

(5) The procedure is designed for use by persons having certain thoughts or feeelings, or for the inauguration of certain consequential conduct on the part of any participant, then a person participating in and so invoking the procedure must in fact have those thoughts or feelings, and the participants must intend so to conduct themselves

(6) The participants must actually so conduct themselves subsequently

Although performative utterances do not include reporting truthiness, the truthiness is deeply related to the infelicity accompanied by the utterance. Austin said that if the performative statement is happy, then (a) condition (1), (2) and (3) must be true and (b) the statement in itself is true. (I can hardly understand why saying truth must always be happy, though.)

Sentence Classification

Austin found it difficult to distinguish performative utterance from constative (descriptive) utterance. To try to solve the issues, Austin classified sayings into three categories:

A. Locutionary act

The act has meaning and further divided into three types:

- The phonetic act: merely the act of uttering certain noises

- The phatic act: the uttering of certain vocables or words, i.e. noises of certain types, belonging to certain vocabulary and grammar

- The rhetic act: the performance of an act of using those vocables with a certain definite sense and reference

For example, ‘He said “The cat is on the mat”’ is phatic act, and ‘He said that the cat was on the mat’ is rhetic act.

B. Illocutionary act

The act has a certain conventional force. The illocutionary acts include informing, ordering, warning, undertaking, etc.

Austin tries to distinguish five very general classes of illocutionary utterances, though he himself admitted that the classification is not perfect (page 151):

- Verdictives : giving of a verdict, an estimate, reckoning, or appraisal

- Exercitives: exercising of powers, rights, or influence

- Commisives: promising or undertaking, i.e. the act of committing something

- Behavitives: miscellaneous acts related to attitudes and social behavior

- Expositives: utterances that fit into argument or conversation

C. Prelocutionary act

The act achieves certain effects by saying something. The prelocutionary act includes convincing, persuading, deterring, surprising, leading, misleading, etc.


A Korean proverb goes “Illness comes from mouth and disaster comes out of mouth (i.e. saying)”. Everyone knows that saying something is beyond just making voice, but to articulate the idea and distinguish locutionary utterance and illocutionaory one are mind boggling, as Austin showed to us.

The fact makes me think of the ideas which are very vaguely shared by everyone but not verbalized yet. One of philosophy is to define and explains that sort of ideas, and in that sense, even now there are a lot to be done. To articulate vague concepts is what I’m tring to do in my Japanese blog.


John L. Austin, “How to Do Things with Words”, (Second Edition , William James Lectures), Harvard University Press, 1 Sep 1975

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