On doing things with words

Nov 21, 2011 by

[The title of this post is inspired by the title of Austin’s very influential 1962 book How to do things with words?]

In our earlier discussions of such topics as telling the truth and concealing the truth, we have so far overlooked one important point: not all sentences are uttered to make true or false statements. One class of sentences that are uttered not to make a statement (which can be true or false) is the so-called performatives. These are sentences that describe the act they perform. For example, if I say I bet you ten dollars that it will rain tomorrow, by the very act of uttering this sentence I make a bet. Similarly, the mere uttering of I promise to call you constitutes a promise. Other examples of performatives include:

I pronounce you husband and wife.
I hereby christen this ship the H.M.S. Flounder.
I declare war on Zanzibar.
I apologize.
I dub thee Sir Walter.
I object.
I sentence you to ten years of hard labor.
I bequeath you my estate.
I give my word.
I warn you that trespassers will be prosecuted.

Typically, performative sentences involve performative verbs, such as promise, pronounce, declare, etc. The peculiar property of such performative verbs is that when used in a simple affirmative present tense sentence, with a first person singular subject, such a verb effectively makes that sentence into a performative.

Unlike statements, which have truth conditions (i.e. conditions under which they are true), performative sentences have felicity conditions. In general, three felicity conditions have been identified. First, there must be a conventional procedure having a conventional effect, and the circumstances and persons must be appropriate, as specified in that procedure. Second, the procedure must be executed correctly and completely. And third, it is often required that the persons participating in the procedure must have the requisite thoughts, feelings, and intentions, as specified in the procedure, and if consequent conduct is specified, then the relevant parties must so do. Let’s consider these conditions a bit more closely.

The first condition requires a certain socially institutionalized procedure. For example, for the sentence I hereby divorce you to be a felicitous performative, there must be an institutionalized divorce procedure that involves uttering this very sentence. In the United States, this performative is infelicitous because there is no such conventional procedure in this country, but it is felicitous in Muslim cultures, where there is such a procedure where the uttering I hereby divorce you three times constitutes a divorce.

Similarly, the performative I pronounce this person dead is felicitous only if uttered by a doctor in a certain set of circumstances, for example, when somebody has been brought to a hospital after a traffic accident, and the speaker, as a doctor, has to determine whether the person in question is dead or alive. The same utterance is not felicitous if uttered, for example, by a linguistics instructor to a student who failed an exam.

The second felicity condition requires that the relevant procedure should be executed correctly and completely. An incorrect execution can be exemplified by the following dialog:

Curate: Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live?
Groom: Yeah…

This response from the groom, is not worded correctly, in effect makes the performative of pronouncing the bride and groom “a husband and wife” infelicitous.

And an incomplete execution of the relevant procedure is best illustrated by bets: there is a certain conventional response (also known as “uptake”) expected from the addressee of a bet, such as You’re on; in the absence of such a response, the bet is not considered felicitous.

Finally, the third felicity condition is considered violated by insincerities, false statements and unfulfilled promises of all sorts. Notorious cases of (sometimes intentional) misfiring of performatives are found in connection with the laws governing the Roman Catholic institution of marriage. According to Canon Law, an intention (whether or not expressed before or during the ceremony) not to consummate the marriage or not to have children, or even the withholding of one’s intention to get married (the so-called reservatio mentalis) is sufficient to render the marriage null and void. Historically, the difficulty has, of course, always been to establish the appropriate (failure of) intention: here, the mighty of the Earth have had the advantage of being able to produce such evidence with the help of underlings willing to testify under oath that the King in fact had said such and such on the eve of his marriage to the Queen he now wants to get rid of -– irrespective of the truth of the matter (England’s Henry VIII and his Cardinal Wolsey are, of course, the classic case of this).

In addition to performatives (or “declarations”), there are several other types of utterances which do not constitute statements that may be true or false. Among those are:

  • directives, which constitute attempts by the speaker to get the addressee to do something, including acts of requesting, ordering, suggesting, advising, forbidding, questioning, etc.;
  • commissives, which commit the speaker to some future course of action, such as promising, threatening, offering, volunteering, accepting, etc.;
  • expressives, which express a psychological state, including the acts of thanking, apologizing, insulting, greeting, welcoming, congratulating, etc.

For example, if at a dinner party I utter Could you pass the salt? or Would you like another drink?, in both cases I am not asking for a truthful statement as an answer; rather, the first question is a directive (more specifically, a request to pass the salt), and the second question is a commissive (since by offering a guest a drink I commit myself to providing the drink if the guest says “yes”). Similarly, if I utter I am awfully sorry I missed your lecture this morning, I do not make a statement that can be true or false, but rather express an apology. (Note that this does not consitute a performative, which must include the verb apologize.)

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