Kent Bach, Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry


Paradoxical though it may seem, there are certain things one can do just by saying what one is doing. This is possible if one uses a verb that names the very sort of act one is performing. Thus one can thank someone by saying 'Thank you', fire someone by saying 'You're fired', and apologize by saying 'I apologize'. These are examples of 'explicit performative utterances', statements in form but not in fact. Or so thought their discoverer, J. L. Austin, who contrasted them with 'constatives'. Their distinctive self-referential character might suggest that their force requires special explanation, but it is arguable that performativity can be explained by the general theory of speech acts.

At the beginning of How to Do Things with Words, J. L. Austin challenges the common philosophical assumption that indicative sentences are necessarily devices for making statements. Just as nonindicative sentences are marked grammatically for nonassertive use (interrogative sentences for asking questions and imperative sentences for requesting or ordering), certain indicative sentences are also so marked. Austin's paradigm is any sentence beginning with 'I' followed by an illocutionary verb (see SPEECH ACTS), such as 'promise', 'apologize' or 'request', in the simple present tense and active voice. So, for example, one can make a promise by uttering the words 'I promise to go', but not by uttering 'I promised to go' or 'She promises to go'. The first-person plural can be performative too, as in 'We apologize ', and so can the second-person passive, as in 'You're fired'. The word 'hereby' may be used before the performative verb to indicate that the utterance in which it occurs is the vehicle of the performance of the act in question.

Austin contended that these 'explicit performative utterances' are, unlike 'constatives' (statements, predictions, hypotheses, etc.), neither true nor false. In saying, 'I promise to go', for example, one is making a promise, not stating that one is making it. A performative promise is not, and does not involve, the statement that one is promising. It is an act of a distinctive sort, the very sort (promising) named by the performative verb. And, according to Austin, making explicit what one is doing is not describing what one is doing or stating that one is doing it.

Now it is also possible to promise without doing so explicitly, without using the performative verb, and this raises the question of whether there is a theoretically important difference between promising explicitly and doing it inexplicitly. A superficial difference is that in uttering the words, 'I promise to go', the speaker is saying that he is promising to go and that this, what he is saying, is assessable as true or false. It is true just in case he is doing what he says he is doing, i.e., promising to go. In general, in making an explicit performative utterance the speaker is saying what he doing--and is thereby doing it. Does this mean that performativity requires a theoretically special explanation?

One suggestion is that performativity is a matter of linguistic meaning. Perhaps there is a special semantic property of performativity, so that it is part of the meaning of words like 'promise', 'apologize' and 'request' that one can perform an act of the very sort named by the verb by uttering a performative sentence containing that verb. One problem with this suggestion is that it implausibly entails that such verbs are systematically ambiguous. For a performative sentence can be used literally but nonperformatively, e.g., to report some habitual act. For instance, one might say 'I apologize ...' to describe typical situations in which one apologizes. Moreover, it seems that even if verbs like 'promise', 'apologize' and 'request' were never used performatively, they would still mean just what they mean in fact. Imagine a community of users of a language just like English in which there is no practice of using such verbs performatively. When people there perform acts of the relevant sorts, they always do so, just as we sometimes do, without using performative verbs, e.g., making promises by saying 'I will definitely ', giving apologies by saying 'I'm sorry', and issuing requests by using imperative sentences. In this hypothetical community the verbs 'promise', 'apologize' and 'request' would seem to have the same meanings that they in fact have in English, applying, respectively, to acts of promising, apologizing and requesting. The only relevant difference would be that such acts are not performed by means of the performative form. It seems, then, that in our community, where they are sometimes performed in this way, performativity is not a matter of meaning.

It might be suggested that a special sort of convention is required for uses of the performative form to count as promises, apologies, requests, etc. Explaining this by appealing to convention is gratuitous, however, for performativity is but a special case of a more general phenomenon. There are all sorts of other forms of words which are standardly used to perform speech acts of types not predictable from their semantic content, e.g. 'It would be nice if you ' to request, 'Why don't you ?' to advise, 'Do you know ?' to ask for information, 'I'm sorry' to apologize, and 'I wouldn't do that' to warn. In particular, there are hedged and embedded performatives, such as 'I can assure you ', 'I must inform you ', 'I would like to invite you ', and 'I am pleased to be able to offer you ', utterances to which the alleged conventions for simple performative forms could not apply. Could such conventions be suitably generalized? The variety of linguistic forms standardly used for the indirect performance of such speech acts seems too open-ended to be explained by any convention (or set of conventions) that is supposed to specify just those linguistic forms whose utterance counts as the performance of an act of the relevant sort.

An alternative explanation is needed. In general, speech acts are acts of communication, whose success in that regard requires the audience to identify the speaker's intention (see SPEECH ACTS). As Kent Bach and Michael Harnish have argued, what is special about the use of standardized forms of words, such as those illustrated above, is not that they provide the precedent for any conventions. Rather, the precedent provided by standardization serves to streamline the inference required on the part of the audience.

Convention seems relevant to performativity only in certain institutional contexts, where a specific form of words is designated, and often required, for the performance of an act of a certain sort. This is true of those performative utterances involved in, e.g., adjourning a meeting, sentencing a criminal, or christening a ship. However, ordinary performative utterances are not bound to particular institutional situations. Like most speech acts, they are acts of communication and succeed not by conformity to convention but by recognition of intention (see COMMUNICATION/INTENTION).

References and further reading

* Austin, J. L. (1962) How to do things with Words, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. (Formulates the distinction between performative and constative utterances and proposes a convention-based account of their successful felicitous performance.)

* Bach, K. and R. M. Harnish (1979), Linguistic Commuication and Speech Acts, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, ch. 10. (Argues that performativity can be explained inferentially, without appealing to any special meanings or conventions connected with performative verbs.)

Bach, K. and R. M. Harnish (1992) 'How performatives really work', Linguistics and Philosophy 15: 93-110. (Critically examines Searle's conventionalist approach and defends the inferentialist account.)

Recanati, F. (1987) Meaning and Force: The Pragmatics of Performative Utterances, Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press. (Surveys the literature on performatives and presents an inferentialist account of how they work.)

Searle, J. R. (1989) 'How performatives work', Linguistics and Philosophy 12: 535-558. (Critically examines the inferentialist approach and defends an conventionalist account.)