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To learn more, view our Privacy Policy. Log In Sign Up. Austin how to do things with words. Esther Liz Chen. In a short note, Austin says of the views which underlie these lectures that they 'were formed in I made use of them in an article on "Other Minds" published in the Proceedings ofthe Aristo- telian Society, Supplementary Volume XX Ig46 , pages K , and I surfaced rather more of this iceberg shortly afterwards to several societies.

For the William James Lectures a new set of notes was again prepared, though sheets of older notes were incorporated here and there; these remain the most recent notes by Austin on the topics covered, though he continued to lecture on 'Words and Deeds' at Oxford from these notes, and while doing so made minor corrections and a number of marginal additions.

The content of these lectures is here reproduced in print as exactly as possible and with the lightest editing. But most readers will prefer to have a close approximation to what he is known to have written down rather than what it might be judged that he would have printed or thought that he probably said in lectures; they will not therefore begrudge the price to be paid in minor imperfections of furm and style and incon- sistencies of vocabulary.

But these lectures as printed do not exactly reproduce Austin's written notes. The reason for this is that while for the most part, and particularly in the earlier part of each lecture, the notes were very full and written as sentences, with only minor omissions such as particles and articles, often at the end of the lecture they became much more fragmentary, while the marginal additions were often very abbreviated.

At these points the notes were interpreted and supplemented in the light of re- maining portions of the notes already mentioned. A further check was then possible by comparison with notes taken both in America and in England by those who attended the lectures, with the B. More thorough indications of the use of these aids are given in an appendix.

The editor is grateful to all those who gave assistance by the loan of their notes, and for the gift of the tape- recording. He is especially indebted to Mr. Warnock, who went through the whole text most thoroughly and saved the editor from numerous mistakes; as a result of this aid the reader has a much improved text.

The phenomenon to be discussed is very widespread and obvious, and it cannot fail to have been already noticed, at least here and there, by others. Yet I have not found attention paid to it specifically.

It was for too long the 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 :I there are, traditionally, besides grammarians' statements, also questions and exclama- tions, and sentences expressing commands or wishes or concessions.

And doubtless philosophers have not in- tended to deny this, despite some loose use of 'sentence' for 'statement'. Doubtless, too, both grammarians and philosophers have been aware that it is by no means easy to distinguish even questions, commands, and so on from statements by means of the few and jejune grammatical marks available, such as word order, mood, and the like : It is, of course, not reaw correct that a sentence ever is a statement: rather, it is used in making a s m m t , and the statement itself' is a 'logical construction' out of the d i n g s of satements.

How t o do things with Words though perhaps it has not been usual to dwell on the difficulties which this fact obviously raises. For how do we decide which is which? What are the limits and definitions of each?

But now in recent years, many things which would once have been accepted without question as 'statements' by both philosophers and grammarians have been scruti- nized with new care. This scrutiny arose somewhat in- directly-at least in philosophy.

First came the view, not always formulated without unfortunate dogmatism, that a statement of fact ought to be 'verifiable', and this led to the view that many 'statements' are only what may be called pseudo-statements. First and most obviously, many 'statements' were shown to be, as KANT perhaps first argued systematically, strictly nonsense, despite an unexceptionable grammatical form : and the continual discovery of fresh types of nonsense, unsystematic though their classification and mysterious though their explana- tion is too often allowed to remain, has done on the whole nothing but good.

Yet we, that is, even philosophers, set some limits to the amount of nonsense that we are pre- pared to admit we talk: so that it was natural to go on to ask, as a second stage, whether many apparent pseudo- statements really set out to be 'statements' at all. Here too KANTwas among the pioneers. We very often also use utterances in ways beyond the scope at least of traditional grammar.

It has come to be seen that many specially perplexing words embedded in apparently descriptive statements do not serve to indi- cate some specially odd additional feature in the reality reported, but to indicate not to report the circumstances in which the statement is made or reservations to which it is subject or the way in which it is to be taken and the like. T o overlook these possibilities in the way once common is called the 'descriptive' fallacy; but perhaps this is not a good name, as 'descriptive' itself is special.

Not all true or false statements are descriptions, and for this reason I prefer to use the word 'Constative'. Along these lines it has by now been shown piecemeal, or at least made to look likely, that many traditional philoso- phical perplexities have arisen through a mistake-the mistake of taking as straightforward statements of fact utterances which are either in interesting non-grammati- cal ways nonsensical or else intended as something quite different.

Whatever we may think of any particular one of these views and suggestions, and however much we may deplore the initial confusion into which philosophical doctrine and method have been plunged, it cannot be doubted that they are producing a revolution in philosophy. Rather, it is one of our second class-the masqueraders. But it does not by any means necessarily masquerade as a statement of fact, descrip- tive or constative. Yet it does quite commonly do so, and that, oddly enough, when it assumes its most explicit form.

Grammarians have not, I believe, seen through this 'disguise', and philosophers only at best incidentally. We shall take, then, for our first examples some utter- ances which can fall into no hitherto recognized gram- matical category save that of 'statement', which are not nonsense, and which contain none of those verbal danger- signals which philosophers have by now detected or think IEverything said in these sections is provisional, and subject to revi- sion in the light of later sections.

Of all people, jurists should be best aware of the m e state of affairs. Perhaps some now are. Yet they will succumb to their own timorous fiction, that a statement of 'the law' is a statemknt of fact. How to do things with Words they have detected curious words like 'good' or 'all', suspect auxiliaries like 'ought' or 'can', and dubious constructions like the hypothetical : all will have, as it happens, humdrum verbs in the first person singular present indicative active.

This is far from being as paradoxical as it may sound or as I have meanly been trying to make it sound: in- deed, the examples now to be given will be disappointing.

Examples : E. We have let it remain in the text as it is philosophically unimportant that it is a mistake. None of the utterances cited is either true or false: I assert this as obvious and do not argue it. It needs argument no more than that 'damn' is not true or false: it may be that the utterance 'serves to inform you'-but that is quite different. What are we to call a sentence or an utterance of this type? The term 'performative' will be used in a variety of cog- nate ways and constructions, much as the term 'impera- tive' i s 3 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 Still less anything that I have already done or have yet to do.

With performative utterances are con- trasted, for example and essentially, 'constative' utterances : to issue a constative utterance Leoto utter it with a historical reference is to make a statement.

To issue a performative utterance is, for example, to make a bet. See f d e r below on 'illocutions'. Formerly I used 'performatory' :but 'performative' is to be preferred as shorter, less ugly, more tractable, and more traditional in fmmation. How t o do things with Words 7 -it is not normally thought of as just saying some- thing. A number of other terms may suggest themselves, each of which would suitably cover this or that wider or narrower class of performatives: for example, many per- formatives are contractual 'I bet' or declaratory 'I declare war' utterances.

But no term in current use that I know of is nearly wide enough to cover them all. One technical term that comes nearest to what we need is perhaps 'operative', as it is used strictly by lawyers in referring to that part, i. I have preferred a new word, to which, though its etymology is not irrelevant, we shall perhaps not be so ready to attach some pre- conceived meaning.

Are we then to say things like this: 'To marry is to say a few words', or 'Betting is simply saying something'? Such a doctrine sounds odd or even flippant at first, but with sufficient safeguards it may become not odd at all. I owe this observation to Professor H. In very many cases it is possible to perform an act of exactly the same kind not by uttering words, whether written or spoken, but in some other way.

For example, I may in some places effect marriage by cohabiting, or I may bet with a totalisator machine by putting a coin in a slot. We should then, perhaps, convert the propositions above, and put it that t to say a few certain words is to many' or 'to marry is, in some cases, simply to say a few words' or 'simply to say a certain something is to bet'.

But probably the real reason why such remarks sound dangerous lies in another obvious fact, to which we shall have to revert in detail later, which is this. The uttering of the words is, indeed, usually a, or even the, leading incident in the performance of the act of betting or what not , the performance of which is also the object of the utterance, but it is far from being usually, even if it is ever, the sole thing necessary if the act is to be deemed to have been performed.

Speaking generally, it is always necessary that the tircumstantes in which the words are uttered should be in some way, or ways, appropriate, and it is very commonly necessary that either the speaker himself or other persons should also perform certain other actions, whether 'physical' or 'mental' actions or even acts of uttering further words.

So far, well and good. The action may be performed in ways other than by a performative utterance, and in any case the circumstances, including other actions, must be appropriate.

But we may, in objecting, have something totally different, and this time quite mistaken, in mind, especially when we think of some of the more awe- inspiring performatives such as 'I promise to.

This is, though vague, true enough in general-it is an important commonplace in discussing the purport of any utterance whatsoever. I must not be joking, for example, nor writing a poem. But we are apt to have a feeling that their being serious consists in their being uttered as merely the outward and visible sign, for convenience or other record or for information, of an inward and spiritual act: from which it is but a short step to go on to believe or to assume without realizing that for many purposes the outward utterance is a description, true orfalse, of the occurrence of the inward performance.

The classic expression of this idea is to be found in the Hippolytus 1. It is gratifying to observe in this very example how excess of profundity, or rather solemnity, at once paves the way for immodality. For one who says 'promising is not merely a matter of uttering words!

It is an inward and spiritual act! Yet he provides Hippolytus with a let-out, the bigamist with an excuse for his 'I do' and the welsher with a defence for his 'I bet'.

Accuracy and morality alike are on the side of the plain saying that our word is our bond. If we exclude such fictitious inward acts as this, can we suppose that any of the other things which certainly are normally required to accompany an utterance such as 'I promise that. In no case do we say that the utterance was false but rather I But I do not mean to rule out all the offstage perfomers-the lights men, the stage manager, even the prompter; I am objecting only to areain officious understudies.

How to do things with Words that the utterance-or rather the act,' e. 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. 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. I 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. I We shall avoid distinguishing these precisely bemuse the distinction is not in point.


J.L. Austin: 'How to Do Things With Words' (1962)

John L. Austin was one of the leading philosophers of the twentieth century. The William James Lectures presented Austin's conclusions in the field to which he directed his main efforts on a wide variety of philosophical problems. These talks became the classic How to Do Things with Words. For this second edition, the editors have returned to Austin's original lecture notes, amending the printed text where it seemed necessary. Students will find the new text clearer, and, at the same time, more faithful to the actual lectures. An appendix contains literal transcriptions of a number of marginal notes made by Austin but not included in the text.


J. L. Austin

John Langshaw Austin 26 March — 8 February was a British philosopher of language and leading proponent of ordinary language philosophy , perhaps best known for developing the theory of speech acts. Austin pointed out that we use language to do things as well as to assert things, and that the utterance of a statement like "I promise to do so-and-so" is best understood as doing something — making a promise — rather than making an assertion about anything. Hence the name of one of his best-known works How to Do Things with Words. Austin, in providing his theory of speech acts, makes a significant challenge to the philosophy of language, far beyond merely elucidating a class of morphological sentence forms that function to do what they name. Austin's work ultimately suggests that all speech and all utterance is the doing of something with words and signs, challenging a metaphysics of language that would posit denotative, propositional assertion as the essence of language and meaning. Austin was educated at Shrewsbury School in , earning a scholarship in Classics, and went on to study Classics at Balliol College, Oxford in In , he received a First in Literae Humaniores Classics and Philosophy as well as the Gaisford Prize for Greek prose and first class honours in his finals.

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