How to Do Things with Words

by J. L. Austin

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Much of the content of How to Do Things with Words was first delivered as a lecture in 1955, as part of the William James lecture series at Harvard University; James was an American Pragmatist philosopher, and Austin's work in the philosophy of language draws on many lessons from pragmatists such as James. Austin, although immensely important, published little, and How to Do Things with Words was assembled posthumously by his colleagues in 1962.

Philosophy of language has two major areas: semantics and pragmatics. How to Do Things with Words is a seminal work on pragmatics and is credited with introducing the idea of "speech act theory," an idea that was to be of immense importance for philosophy, literature, criticism, and even legal theory in later decades.

In this work, Austin argues that, instead of focusing so much on semantics and what words mean, we should focus on what people mean. In other words, we should focus on the various things that people do or, to use his language, the acts they perform when they speak. Austin distinguishes between three kinds of acts: the locutionary act, the illocutionary act, and the perlocutionary act.

A locutionary act can be classified by sentence meaning and its linguistic content. For example, "I promise that I will write the essay by tomorrow" is the performance of the locutionary act whose content is that I will write the essay by tomorrow. An illocutionary act goes beyond a locutionary act as is classified on the basis of its impact. For example, if I suggest that I will write an essay by tomorrow, or if I promise that I will write an essay by tomorrow, the locutionary act is identical (I will write an essay by tomorrow) but the illocutionary act is different, because promising is different from suggesting. The perlocutionary act is classified on the basis of its "effects upon the feelings, thoughts, or actions of the audience, or of the speaker, or of other persons." (Austin 1962, p. 101). Apart from fundamentally changing how we think about language, Austin also concluded that this theory of speech acts would have implications for how we think about truth and falsity.

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