(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

How to Do Things with Words is a collection of J. L. Austin’s William James Lectures at Harvard in 1955; it was first published posthumously in 1962. Austin’s views on the matters discussed in the lectures were first formed in 1939, and he made some use of them in his address, “Other Minds,” to the Aristotelian Society in 1946. Between 1952 and 1959, he lectured on the same topic, sometimes under the title “Words and Deeds.” Much of Austin’s philosophical reputation rests upon his incisive and acerbic criticism of the views of other philosophers—for example, his withering attacks on the views of A. J. Ayer and G. J. Warnock in Sense and Sensibilia (1962). The lectures in How to Do Things with Words, however, are constructive philosophy. Austin invented speech act theory, and his theory has been used, revised, and extended not only by philosophers but also by linguists, linguistic anthropologists and sociologists, cognitive psychologists, and speech communication theorists.

Austin begins his lectures in a remarkably modest way: “What I shall have to say here is neither difficult nor contentious; the only merit I should like to claim for it is that of being true, at least in parts.” He then recounts, with approval, attempts to recognize that some so-called statements are strictly nonsense and to determine why they are nonsense. He also lauds the discovery that some statements do not purport to state facts but aim to evince emotion or to prescribe or otherwise influence conduct. These efforts and discoveries have developed piecemeal, he thinks, but also amount to a revolution in philosophy, about which he says, “If anyone wishes to call it the greatest and most salutary in its history, this is not, if you come to think of it, a large claim.” What he proposes is a theory that describes the utterances that masquerade as statements. He calls such utterances “performatives.”