It is true that, as per NP’s suggestion, this post has been several times delayed by travel, tiredness and various other excuses. However it is not at all clear that in finally putting together a belated post, an “official” reading will be presented, nor that I will feel “comfortable providing a bit of context” – try though I might.
I echo the sentiment that it is a very enjoyable read, though its disarming style is also deceptive – it is in some ways reminiscent of Borges’ Labyrinths, in that it unfolds a certain argument only to fold it back up again and proceed down a different path. Like Wittgenstein, to a certain extent form mirrors content here – rather than proceeding from axioms to conclusions, the performative aspect of language is always central, even though the author proceeds in the ‘best’ analytical tradition, by way of re-slicing conventional categories of language into something else… Below is a tentative summary:
Austin initially dwells on the distinction between constative and performative sentences – between those which express some state of affairs, and those which, in their uttering, perform an action (there may be other classes of sentences too). Overt examples of the latter are ‘I do’ (in a marriage ceremony) or ‘I name this ship…’ (in a naming ceremony). Whereas constative sentences are truth-functional – they are true or false – Austin claims performative sentences may be considered ‘happy’ or ‘unhappy’ (happy-functional?). He proceeds to give six conditions which need to be satisfied for sentences to be ‘happy’. Much scholastic-style discussion ensues over the course of several lectures, which cover: condtion-matching examples and counter-examples; the relations between ‘happy’ and ‘true’ sentences; and the gradual ‘realisation’ that the constative/performative distinction is perhaps is not even, itself, a particularly ‘happy’ one…
This makes way for the presentation of what, as I understand it, is the core thesis of ‘speech act theory’. Firstly, there is a presentation of what ‘issuing an utterance’ is: a) the act of uttering noises (the ‘phone’); b) the act of uttering words chosen from a given vocubulary (the ‘pheme’); and c) the act of using words to create both a sense and a reference – together, a ‘meaning’ (the ‘rheme’). ‘Issuing an utterance’ is for Austin a locutionary act. Together with illocutionary and perlocutionary acts, these form a tripartite structure in which each successive term contains the previous. In other words, perlocutionary acts are always illocutionary acts, which are also always locationary acts. Illocutions are distinguished in that they are “performance of an act in saying something as opposed to performance of an act of saying something” (p. 100). As such illocutions have a particular force, as well as a meaning (which all locutionary acts have). Perlocutions are further distinguished in that they refer to some effect on someone (the speaker, the audience, or someone else). As an example: “He said to me, ‘You can’t do that’” is a locution; “He protested against my doing it” is an illocution; “He pulled me up, check me” is a perlocution. Critically, Austin claims illocutions have been elided into one of the other two categories, to the great confusion of philosophy in general.
The following lectures unpack the implications of this theory for the traditional constative/performative distinction. Essentially this distinction is a specialisation of the general distinction between locationary and illocutionary acts. This has the implication that truth-functional statements are not so much distinct as simply kinds of speech acts, among others. Instead of this distinction then, Austin proposes five overlapping families of speech acts: verdictives, exercitives, commissives, behavitives and expositives (by his own admission, an awkward classification). His final remarks suggest a broader program of applying this theory to the general problems of philosophy (‘What is the Good?’ and so on).
This summary necessarily rushes over much of the detail and in particular, the style and the refinements, qualifications and doubts Austin describes, which makes for a refreshing change to more bombastic accounts of linguistic theory elsewhere. Like most philosophers inhabiting the ‘linguistic turn’ – and like Wittgenstein in particular – Austin is convinced that traditional philosophical problems are frequently just confusions about language. Just as formal logic allows us to disambiguate certain cases of argument, better categories allow us to see our way through certain cases of problem sentences. In particular, by focussing on ‘use’ over conventional accounts of sentences as either truth-functional or not, or alternately, as different grammatical arrangments (statements, interrogatives, imperatives and so on), we get more fruitful lines of inquiry into these traditional problems.
To respond to the hint about ‘context’ – apart from these general remarks, I’m not sure what more I can add. Who is he responding to? On the surface it seems one account for how ‘context’, ‘use’ and other para-sentential information relate to the understanding of particular sentences (although that this ‘problem’ requires an account seems self-evident to me). Possibly there is also a sense that the growing field of linguistics needed to be ‘connected’ in some way to philosophy – both to apply empirical evidence to philosophical problems, and to apply philosophical rigour to the empirical research. At the same time, there is little of Austin’s text that relies explicitly on anything more than the sort of anecdotal linguistic evidence available to anyone. Indeed, there is something similar to the method of grammarians in his analysis (‘where does this sort of sentence belong?’) – notwithstanding the different categories in use – compared with the more avowedly mathematical approach of, for instance, Chomsky. Intuitively, although the eventual categories are perhaps somewhat arbitrary, it seems sensible to me to augment the various kinds of technical analyses – phonetic, syntactic, etc – which the sort of basic questions Austin is asking (‘how are sentences used’?).
Finally, I am curious where this ‘goes’, in discplinary terms. How influential is ‘speech act theory’ in linguistics or philosophy? Have Austin’s categories been widely adopted, and if so, have they been refined in light of other languages, and other potential ‘uses’? If not, is there still a place in the increasingly ‘scientific’ social sciences for this sort of treatment of language (which seems to me more useful in its method than in its results)? Some of these answers might come from reading more into Searle, Chomsky, Derrida, Pinker etc, as the reading group moves forward. Any comments?