How to do things with words (Austin)

Austin, J. L. How to do Things with Words.

This is a primer in speech-act theory. Austin highlights the possibility of a category of speech in which statements are neither true, nor false, but performative. Some statements do things; more specifically, when spoken they create a new situation.

In order to qualify as a performative, a statement must meet certain conditions (pp. 12ff; a statement must be made in good faith by someone who has the authority to make it, etc.) and must be made within a horizon of convention: for example, we understand that a minister or a justice of the peace has the authority to create a married-status and not just any old person off of the street.

One of Austin’s strengths in this book is he is able to return to the main argument and sum up lines of thought (the weakness is his continuous getting off of topic. Here are three basic definitions which are crucial to his project.

Locutionary Act: Uttering a certain sentence with a certain sense and reference; equivalent to meaning (109).
Perlocutionary Act: consequences of the act performed
Illocution: the act performed; has a conventional force (109).


So far, so good. Speech-act theory is rather simple in the broad contours, but as Austin demonstrates, it suffers the risk of a thousand qualifications. He then gets technical on how a promise/performative may be void, illicit, etc., and this runs for about 6 chapters.

Speech-Act theory is a useful way of describing events in our world. As such, I hold to it. If one tries to make it an architectonic theory, then it spins out of control, as Austin himself demonstrated (probably against his intentions). The main drawback with this book, as others have pointed out, is that Austin can’t stay on topic for more than two paragraphs


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