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performative utterances


Subject Literature

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405168908.2010.x


J.L. A ustin's introduction of the “performative utterance,” in his 1955 William James Lectures at Harvard University (published as How to Do Things with Words , 1962 ), challenged orthodox ways of understanding language and meaning, most notably philosophers’ tendency to treat as paradigmatic statements that truly or falsely describe states of affairs. Such statements Austin dubbed “constatives.” In contrast, Austin observed that for a whole class of sentences, “to utter the sentence … is not to describe my doing or to state that I am doing it: it is to do it.” To utter the words “I promise to meet you,” “I pronounce you husband and wife,” or “I christen this boat the Queen Mary” is not merely to describe a promise, marriage, or ship name, but it is to perform the action of promising, marrying, or naming. To say is to do, in Austin's words. Had Austin pushed the matter no further, the constative-performative contrast might be an interesting footnote in the philosophy of language. But in the span of twelve lectures, Austin mounts an escalating challenge to traditional theories, ultimately rejecting any sharp distinction between these two sorts of utterance and urging us to consider the performative aspect of all constative utterances. In the first few lectures, Austin notes that performative utterances, while not true or false, are susceptible to certain infelicities. The ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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