Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 438

The first important theme is the distinction between constative and performative utterances. This distinction is important if we are to avoid the fallacious claim that language is merely about describing the world. Austin's book, as the title suggests, tells us all the things that words can do, apart from describing the world. In a constative utterance, one simply states a fact that is true or false, such as "eNotes is a website," "I am typing on this keyboard," or "The room is dark." Each of these utterances may turn out to be true or false—they have a truth value. These utterances have presuppositions, too: if, in fact, there is no keyboard, "I am typing on this keyboard" is neither true nor false. In a performative utterance, however, we do not merely report a fact, but we do something. For example, I might say, "I promise to finish this answer within 120 minutes," or "I swear to tell the truth and nothing but the truth," or "I name this cat Mr. Whiskerton," or "I pronounce you man and wife." In these statements, I am promising, or taking an oath, or performing an act of naming, or officiating at a wedding ceremony. These acts are performative because they are bound by conventions.

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This distinction leads us to another important theme: misfirings. According to Austin, performative utterances have the capacity to misfire. Consider that I am not an ordained minister. If I pronounce someone man and wife, that utterance will misfire because it is not appropriate for me to be uttering those words. Consider that I am naming my neighbour's cat Mr. Whiskerton; again, this will misfire because the...

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