How to Do Things With Words



Austin, J.L. (1962). How to Do Things with Words. Lectures I, II, III, IV. Pp. 1-52, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Austin is is taking grammatical categories of statements and making the performative turn.

Performative Utterances: “The uttering of a sentence is, or is a part of, the doing of an action” (5)

6- “to utter the sentence (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 that I am doing it: it is to do it…I propose to call it performative sentence or a performative utterance, or, for short, ‘a performative’.”

Objection & Response

“In very many cases it is possible to perform an act of exactly the same kind not by uttering words, whether written or spoken, but in some other way.” (8)

“The uttering of the words is, indeed, usually a, or even the, leading incident in the performance of the act (of betting or what not), the performance of which is also the object of the utterance, but is far from being usually, even if it is ever, the sole thing necessary if the act is to be deemed to have been performed.” (8)

“It is always necessary that the circumstances with which the words are uttered should be…appropriate” (8)

Felicity & Infelicity

“we call the doctrine of the things that can be and go wrong on the occasion of such utterances, the doctrine of the Infelicities.” (14)

Conditions for felicity (14-15):
A.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 circumstance,
A.2. The particular persons and circumstances in a given case must be appropriate for the invocation of the particular procedure invoked.
B.1. The procedure must be executed by all participants both correctly and
B.2. completely.

Relating to the procedure of the utterance
Example Violations: saying the utterance incorrectly, not being in position to carry out the act

  1. 1. Where…the procedure is designed for use by persons having certain thoughts or feelings, 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, and further
  2. 2. Must actually so conduct themselves subsequently.

Sincerity and carrying out the act
Example Violation: making a promise without intending to keep it

Questions & Remarks about Infelicities (17-22)

Q: “To what variety of ‘act’ does the notion of infelicity apply?” (17)
A: “So far we have produced the infelicity as characteristic of the performative utterance, which was ‘defined’…mainly by contrast with the supposedly familiar ‘statement.’” (20)

Q: “How complete is this classification of infelicity?” (17)
A: Does not include duress, accident, un-intentionality, or utterances in plays/poems/etc (21)

Q: Are these classes of infelicity mutually exclusive? No (23)

  • Importance of procedure

There must exist an accepted conventional procedure having a certain conventional effect, the procedure to include the utterance of certain words by certain persons in certain circumstances.” (26)

In the case of explicit performatives, there must be a particular procedure that all participants execute correctly (34-37).

Performance can be infelicitous but not void through feelings, thoughts, and intentions. (41)
A statement implies the truth of certain other statements when it entails, implies, or presupposes (47).


“In conclusion, we see that in order to explain what can go wrong with statements we cannot just concentrate on the proposition involved (whatever that is) as has been done traditionally. We must consider the total situation in which the utterance is issued- the total speech-act- if we are to see the parallel between statements and performative utterances, and how each can go wrong. So the total speech act in the total speech situation is emerging from logic piecemeal as important in special cases: and thus we are assimilating the supposed constative utterance to the performative.” (52)

Discussion Questions

  • Most of Austin’s examples, especially in Lectures I-III, focus on performative utterances that are not typical events for most of us (e.g. christening a ship, ceremonial opening of a library, wedding ceremony). How can we apply the idea of performative utterances to more every day speech (using Austin’s speech act levels or otherwise)?
  • How can we relate Austin’s performative utterances with Goffman’s ideas about the performance of identity?
  • In Lecture II Austin introduces the idea of felicity and how performative utterances can be felicitous or infelicitous. What are the consequences of setting up this binary? Do entailment, implication, and presupposition as discussed in Lecture IV allow for partial felicity? Are there other ways we might understand degrees of in/felicity?
  • words lead the incident in performing the act
  • things have to be in order for the utterance to be perforamtive
  • highly perforamtive explcitiness
  • 14- the doctrine of infelcicites; or the shit that goes wrong
    • there must already be social conventions
    • participants must be appropriate
    • the performance must be executed correctly
    • and completely
    • must have the thoughts and feelings behind the action
    • must so conduct themselves
  • misfire
  • 18- deceit
  • 23- speech acts are precedented by a power relationship of participants
  • 83- explicit performative….to the descriptive
    • I apologize….i feel regret/sorrow for
  • 84- we distinguish the performative utterance from polite conversation
    • but you’d have to know cultural context from that

verdictives: give a verdict, such as by a jury or an umpire (e.g. “grade,” “assess,” “rule”)
exercitives: exercise powers, rights, or influence (e.g. “appoint,” “advise,” “warn”)
commissives: commit one to doing something (e.g. “declare,” “promise,” “agree”)
behabitives: relate to social behavior (e.g. “apologize”, “congratulate,” “challenge”
expositive: explain how the utterances fit in the context (e.g. “reply”, “argue,” “illustrate”

  • 85- expositives: statement fitted to the context of conversation
    • i question
    • i prophesy
  • behabitives
  • verdictives
    • i pronounce
    • i hold that
  • Constative
    • statements about world
    • True or False
    • “The sky is blue”
constatives performatives
describe or report something do not describe or report
are true or false are not true or false

(rather, are felicitous or infelicitous)

uttering a constative is “just” saying something uttering a performative is not “just” saying something (it is doing something)

Performatives don’t state that I am doing something: they actually do it.

  • “go to the store”
  • command, declaration, pronounciation, contractual (promises), christening/naming
  • utterance with social effects
  • not true or false; not descriptive
    • but can be judged.

Performative utterances

  • locutinary: utterance with determinate sense and reference (101)
    • saying the sentence, including the syntax and semantics
    • ex. shoot her
    • “I wanna break up”
      • meaning literal/semantic: I (subject) want (desire) to break up (to end a relationship)
      • what is “really meant” or the illocitoray force is she doesn’t wnat you texting her any more
  • illocutianary: the making of a statement with conventional force behind it
    • conventionalized force or effect
    • if a person doesn’t recognize it, then the utterance is not successful
    • ex. he urged/advised me to shoot her
  • perloctuionary: bringing effects on an audience
    • often unintended
    • confusion, sadness, upset
    • ex. he persuades me to shoot her

In general, speech acts are acts of communication, whose success in that regard requires the audience to identify the speaker’s intention.

Once we realize that what we have to study is not the sentence but the issuing of an utterance in a speech situation, there can hardly be any longer a possibility of not seeing that stating is performing an act. (p. 139)


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