How to Do Things with Words

by J. L. Austin
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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 894

These quotes are from a book that was put together posthumously by Austin's colleagues, based on his William James lectures at Harvard University in 1955. The conversational style of this book makes it an exceptional pleasure to read; Austin was also a remarkable writer, as the following quotes will show.

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The first lecture lays out what Austin calls the "descriptive fallacy": most philosophers have assumed that all language does is describe the world or state some fact about it. Austin sets out his program early on and tells the reader/listener that he is more concerned with what language does, thereby avoiding the descriptive fallacy described here:

It was for too long an assumption of philosophers that the business of a "statement" can only be to "describe" some state of affairs, or to "state some fact," which it must do either truly or falsely. Grammarians, indeed, have regularly pointed out that not all "sentences" are (used in making) statements: there are, traditionally, besides (grammarians') statements, also questions and exclamations, and sentences expressing commands or wishes or concessions.

As I mentioned above, the book was based on lectures and was put together after Austin's death; the parentheses are editorial interpolations that are intended to make the text clearer and more readable.

This book is famous for Austin's coinage of "performative" utterances. Here's his first shot at defining these:

I propose to call it a performative sentence or a performative utterance, or, for short, "a performative." The term "performative" will be used in a variety of cognate ways and constructions, much as the term "imperative" is. The name is derived, of course, from "perform," the usual verb with the noun "action": it indicates that the issuing of the utterance is the performing of an action—it is not normally thought of as just saying something.

He has some especially interesting things to say about falsity and the speech act of promising (a paradigmatic instance of a performative):

In the particular case of promising, as with many other performatives, it is appropriate that the person uttering the promise should have a certain intention, viz. here to keep his word : and perhaps of all concomitants this looks the most suitable to be that which "I promise" does describe or record. Do we not actually, when such intention is absent, speak of a "false" promise? Yet so to speak is not to say that the utterance "I promise that . . ." is false, in the sense that though he states that he does, he doesn’t, or that though he describes he misdescribes — misreports. For he does promise: the promise here is not even void, though it is given in bad faith. His utterance is perhaps misleading, probably deceitful and doubtless wrong, but it is not a lie or a misstatement. At most we might make out a case for saying that it implies or insinuates a falsehood or a misstatement (to the effect that he does intend to do something): but that is a very different matter. Moreover, we do not speak of a false bet or a false christening; and that we do speak of a false promise need commit us no more than the fact that we speak of a false move. "False" is not necessarily used of statements only.

In talking about constative utterances, Austin exhibits some of his famous dry humour:

"All Jack’s children are bald" presupposes that Jack has some children. We cannot say "All Jack’s children are bald but Jack has no children," or "Jack has no children and all his children are bald." There is a common feeling of outrage in all these cases. But we must not use some blanket term, "implies" or "contradiction," because there are very great differences. There are more ways of killing a cat than drowning it in butter; but this is the sort of thing (as the proverb indicates) we overlook: there are more ways of outraging speech than contradiction merely.

Here, Austin lays out the important connection between performative utterances and statements that are true or false:

(1) If the performative utterance "I apologize" is happy, then the statement that I am apologizing is true.

(2) If the performative utterance "I apologize" is to be happy, then the statement that certain conditions obtain — those notably in Rules A. 1 and A. 2 — must be true.

(3) If the performative utterance "I apologize" is to be happy, then the statement that certain other conditions obtain — those notably in our rule T. 1 — must be true.

(4) If performative utterances of at least some kinds are happy, for example contractual ones, then statements of the form that I ought or ought not subsequently to do some particular thing are true.

In the above quote, "happy" means that the utterance is not infelicitous and does not misfire.

Here is Austin’s striking conclusion about truth and falsity:

Thus, for example, descriptions, which are said to be true or false or, if you like, are "statements," are surely liable to these criticisms, since they are selective and uttered for a purpose. It is essential to realize that "true" and "false," like "free" and "unfree," do not stand for anything simple at all; but only for a general dimension of being a right or proper thing to say as opposed to a wrong thing, in these circumstances, to this audience, for these purposes and with these intentions.

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