J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words
Notes on sections I - III

Curtis Brown

I. Constatives vs. Performatives   

Philosophers have focused on the descriptive, fact-stating function of language. But language is used for many things other than describing or stating. Most obviously there are questions and commands. But even utterances which superficially resemble statements may not be.

In particular, we have (a) utterances that are intended to be statements but don't succeed, i.e. nonsense (Ayer), and (b) utterances that are not intended to be statements at all. Austin will focus on the latter.

The main distinction:

constatives performatives
describe or report something do not describe or report
are true or false are not true or false
(rather, are felicitous or infelicitous)
uttering a constative is "just" saying something uttering a performative is not "just" saying something (it is doing something)

Performatives don't state that I am doing something: they actually do it. (Provided that the circumstances are appropriate.)

Dangerous mistake: to construe a performative utterance as merely the outward sign of the true, "inward and spiritual act." On the contrary, "our word is our bond": If I say that I promise, in the right circumstances, then I have promised.

II. Requirements for a Successful Performative Utterance

Successful performatives require various kinds of stage-setting in order to be successful. They go wrong in a different way than constatives. An unsuccessful constative is false; an unsuccessful performative is infelicitous. (Like other points Austin makes in the early part of the book, this initial distinction will be revised later in the book.)

Requirements (see pp. 14-15):

A. [Existence of Appropriate Procedure]

1. "There must exist an accepted conventional procedure having a certain conventional effect," and the procedure must involve uttering certain words;

2. The people and circumstances in a particular case must be "appropriate for the invocation of the particular procedure."

B. [Execution of Procedure]

1. The procedure must be executed correctly by all participants.

2. The procedure must be executed completely by all participants.

Γ. [Thoughts, Feelings, and Actions]

1. If the procedure is "designed for use by persons having certain thoughts or feelings," or is designed to lead to certain actions, then the participants must have the required thoughts and feelings, and must intend to act in the appropriate ways,

2. And they must actually act in the appropriate way.

Austin offers an elaborate and seemingly somewhat whimsical terminology for the kinds of ways in which a performative can go wrong (be infelicitous).

A B Γ
misfires  
misinvocations misexecutions abuses
1. ? 2. misapplications 1. flaws 2. hitches 1. insincerities ?

III. Examples of Infelicities (types A and B)

"my seconds will call on you"

"I insult you"

"I baptize this infant 2704" (p 35)



Last update: January 13, 2010
Curtis Brown  |  Philosophy of Language   |  Philosophy Department  |   Trinity University
cbrown@trinity.edu