Austin | How to do things with words

Literature review // Austin, J. L (1975) How to Do Things with Words, 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Lectures 1-3 & 7-9.

Read in Language & Culture class.

1.What is Austin’s motivation for his theory of performative utterances? What problems in philosophy of language is he responding to? How does Austin’s work provide a new look at language? How does this connect to culture?

Austin was exploring exactly how to we doings with words and how me make sense of them. This had to do with culture because both the speaker and receiver must have a predetermined agreement on how to accomplish things with words through cultural norms. He was responding to theorists like Saussure who were only interested in the semantic meanings of words in disagreement.

2. Define the performative utterance. What are the critical features of Austin’s concept? What are some examples (beyond his own)? What kind of utterance is not a performative utterance?

A performative utterance compared to a constative utterance (or a statement) performs an action. He evaluated them as being either happy or unhappy through a set of felicity conditions. These terms generally described how ‘well’ something was performed in a the social context of the word. This evaluation would be on the whole act of the utterance, rather than just the words.

This was unlike constatives, which are statements that aren’t merely descriptive. They can be evaluated as either true/false and are an objective state in the world.

3. What are the felicity conditions? What are the types of infelicities? How hard and fast are these rules? Is there any grey area? Especially consider his comments on 36-38.

His felicity conditions are basically that…there is a conventional procedure, that the people involved in the procedure are appropriate, that they participate correctly, completely, with certain thoughts and feelings, and must conduct themselves appropriately afterwards. I don’t think these are hard and fast rules because as Austin points out in page 37, there can be uncertainties in how the audience receives and interprets the data, despite best intentions.

4. In Lecture VIII, Austin distinguishes locutionary, perlocutionary and illocutionary acts. What are the differences between these different acts? How does this help us understand language use?

Locutionary: utterance with meaning that we take the ‘regular sense and meaning of the words”

Illocutionary: Doing the act you’re saying. To make the audience do something in a social context.

Perlocutionary: Audience’s response to the illocutionary act. This is outside the speech act.

For example: If someone says “Is there any salt?”

  • Locutionary: Questioning if salt in existence
  • Illocutionary: A request for salt.
  • Perlocutionary: Act of causing someone to pass the speaker the salt.

5. Pay close attention to the first full paragraph on page 100. Why is it important for us to consider that “the occasion of an utterance matters seriously”? How does this connect to Whorf and Bourdieu? What are similarities and differences of their perspectives on language and culture?

Austin believes the context is important because the words are explained by the context (100). Given the example Austin includes, I would agree that without the context the words would take on completely different meanings than the original speaker had intended. Whorf and Bourdieu also believed that social context played an important role in evaluating language. In fact, Bourdieu references Austin’s speech acts in his essay.

Thoughts? Discussion? I'd love to hear 'em!

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