How to Do Things with Words

by J. L. Austin

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In the book How to Do Things with Words, author J.L. Austin outlines his thoughts on a number of linguistic philosophical problems, ultimately devising a theory of speech acts. The book is based primarily on lectures Austin gave at Oxford and Harvard between 1951 and 1955. As such, the book does not have any characters. Rather, in How to Do Things with Words, Austin first focuses on the idea of "truth-value," meaning a value indicating the relation of a proposition to truth. Austin begins by providing a few examples of sentences that are neither true nor false (performative utterances, he calls them). Performative utterances are a type of "speech act" according to Austin. He later goes on to define various other types of speech acts including the illocutionary act, the locutionary act, the perlocutionary act, and the phatic act. These various acts are defined below.

Austin defines a locutionary act as a general utterance. An illocutionary act, however, he defines as asking a question, making an assertion, promising to do something, or giving an order. A perlocutionary act is one that is performed in an attempt to persuade, convince, scare, enlighten, inspire, or otherwise affect the listener. Finally, a phatic act is something like a social pleasantry, a communication which offers no real information of value but serves a social function.

These ideas, along with key others about speech acts from How to Do Things with Words, have been very influential in the field of linguistic philosophy.

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