Review: How to Do Things with Words, Second Edition

How to Do Things with Words
How to Do Things with Words, Second Edition
J. L. Austin
J. O. Urmson; Marina Sbasà
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975

Review Copyright © 2003 Garret Wilson — 25 May 2003 8:30pm

It wasn't until I was around 80% through the book that I realized the significance of the title of J. L. Austin's book, How to Do Things with Words. The concepts were clear enough, but some mental block made me interpret the title to mean "to do things with to words", rather than, "to make things happen by using words" or, "using words is to do something." Surely Austin would be pleased with my original misinterpretation. Surely that is how he meant it to be.

Austin takes up the whole book exploring how certain uses of language seem to, by their very utterance, create an act—saying does something. If I say that I promise to do something, it is the actual saying that is the promising. In saying something, I make a promise. The promise exists because of my saying something. Promising is a performative, distinguished from constatives such as "there is a fly in my soup."

To explain his conclusions on performatives, Austin starts with one's original misconceptions regarding this classification and allows us to follow our reasoning, however incorrect, to its conclusion. We follow what was apparently Austin's road to his theory of performatives, Austin apparently believing that the reader will better understand the ending if one understands how one gets there. (He realizes that some will say, "Why not cut the cackle? ... Why not get down to discussing the thing bang off in terms of linguistics and psychology in a straightforward fashion?" 123.)

I'll give the story away: Austin finds that the distinction between performatives and constatives is really an illusion. Every act regarding an utterance can be categorized as:

locutionary act
The meaning of the statement itself (e.g. saying "step back" is to tell someone to step back).
illocutionary act
The contextual function of the act (e.g. by telling someone to step back, you are warning them of a falling object).
perlocutionary act
The results of the act upon the listener (e.g. alerting the listener to the falling object, in the sense that the listener became knowledgeable of the impending danger.

With this framework in place, Austin concludes that every utterance (with a few limited exceptions) is really an act, and that what we originally thought of as a "performative" is simply a verb that makes performing an act explicit. Saying, "There is a fly in my soup," for example, certainly has a locutionary act: I said that there was a fly in my soup. That statement could be one or more of several illocutionary acts: I was complaining of the food, I was berating the waiter, I was describing the soup, or just making a statement, as if I had said, "I state that there is a fly in my soup." The utterance can have a perlocutionary act: by sayinng there was a fly in my soup, I convinced the waiter to bring me another bowl, for instance.

How to Do Things With Words is in essence a locutionary act, claiming that every time we use words we do something. In leading us through lectures describing stages of reaching that conclusion, Austin performs a locutionary act of explaining why he thinks that to be the case. If you agree, the book will have an accompanying perlocutionary act of convincing you that he is right.