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How to Do Things With Words


How to Do Things With Words is perhaps Austin's most influential work. In it he attacks what was at his time a predominant account in philosophy, namely, the view that the chief business of sentences is to state facts, and thus to be true or false based on the truth or falsity of those facts. In contrast to this common view, he argues, truth-evaluable sentences form only a small part of the range of utterances. After introducing several kinds of sentences which he assumes are indeed not truth-evaluable, he turns in particular to one of these kinds of sentences, which he deems performative utterances. These he characterises by two features:

* First, to utter one of these sentences is not just to "say" something, but rather to perform a certain kind of action.
* Second, these sentences are not true or false; rather, when something goes wrong in connection with the utterance then the utterance is, as he puts it, "infelicitous", or "unhappy."

The action which performative sentences 'perform' when they are uttered belongs to what Austin later calls a speech act (more particularly, the kind of action Austin has in mind is what he subsequently terms the illocutionary act). For example, if you say I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth," and the circumstances are appropriate in certain ways, then you will have done something special, namely, you will have performed the act of naming the ship. Other examples include: "I take this man as my lawfully wedded husband," used in the course of a marriage ceremony, or "I bequeath this watch to my brother," as occurring in a will. In all three cases the sentence is not being used to describe or state what one is 'doing', but being used to actually 'do' it.

After numerous attempts to find more characteristics of performatives, and after having met with many difficulties, Austin makes what he calls a "fresh start", in which he considers "more generally the senses in which to say something may be to do something, or in saying something we do something".

For example: John Smith turns to Sue Snub and says Is Jeffs shirt red?, to which Sue replies Yes. John has produced a series of bodily movements which result in the production of a certain sound. Austin called such a performance a phonetic act, and called the act a phone. Johns utterance also conforms to the lexical and grammatical conventions of English that is, John has produced an English sentence. Austin called this a phatic act, and labels such utterances phemes. John also referred to Jeffs shirt, and to the colour red. To use a pheme with a more or less definite sense and reference is to utter a rheme, and to perform a rhetic act. Note that rhemes are a sub-class of phemes, which in turn are a sub-class of phones. One cannot perform a rheme without also performing a pheme and a phone. The performance of these three acts is the performance of a locution it is the act of saying something.

John has therefore performed a locutionary act. He has also done at least two other things. He has asked a question, and he has elicited an answer from Sue.

Asking a question is an example of what Austin called an illocutionary act. Other examples would be making an assertion, giving an order, and promising to do something. To perform an illocutionary act is to use a locution with a certain force. It is an act performed in saying something, in contrast with a locution, the act of saying something.

Eliciting an answer is an example of what Austin calls a perlocutionary act, an act performed by saying something. Notice that if one successfully performs a perlocution, one also succeeds in performing both an illocution and a locution.

In the theory of speech acts, attention has especially focused on the illocutionary act, much less on the locutionary and perlocutionary act, and only rarely on the subdivision of the locution into phone, pheme and rheme.
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Tags: sentences, something, these, action, which