The purpose of J.L Austin\u2019s paper \u2018Performative Utterances\u2019 (1956) is to draw a distinction between two
kinds of utterances. An historical understanding of language held that it was the business of every
meaningful utterance to be either true or false. Against this historical backdrop, Austin notices a seemingly
clear-cut class of utterances whose business is not to make any truth claim. Thus, he wanted to distinguish
between different uses of language. However, in the same paper, under careful analysis, Austin\u2019s
distinction vanishes. In this essay, I will give a thorough exposition of Austin\u2019s argument and conclusion,
focusing specifically on the significance of an analogy Austin makes to Moore\u2019s paradox. I will then
consider a number of attempts to revive Austin\u2019s distinction and conclude whether \u2018Performative
Utterances\u2019 does or does not uncover distinct uses of language.
Specifically, Austin makes the distinction between constative and performative utterances. Constatives are
a class of \u2018fact-stating\u2019 utterances (Horn p159), that is utterances that \u2018constate\u2019 something true or false
(Graham p54)1. This includes reports, statements, descriptions, assertions, predictions etc., a simple
example is \u2018that yacht is white and blue\u2019. Performatives however, although grammatically indiscernible
from constatives have two distinctive properties: they do not constate something true or false, and a person
making a performative utterance isd o in g something rather thansa y in g something (Austin p235). Austin
gives four straightforward examples of performatives (Austin p235):
At a marriage ceremony someone says \u2018I do\u2019 (take this women to be my lawfully wedded wife).
I tread on your toe and say \u2018I apologise\u2019.
I have a bottle of champagne in my hand and say \u2018I name this ship theQueen Elizabeth\u2019.
I say \u2018I bet you sixpence it will rain tomorrow\u2019.
Notice here that it is nonsense, as Austin puts it, to regard these utterances as truth claims. We do not say
anything true or false when we say \u2018I apologise\u2019. Nor are these utterances reports of what it is we are doing;
we do not report that we are making a bet or christening the ship. Rather by making the utterance, the
subject actuallyp er fo rm s the action; when I say \u2018I do\u2019 I am not reporting a marriage I am indulging in it
(Austin p235). A performative is not justsa yin g something, it isd o in g something above and beyond
making the statement (apologising, christening, betting, marrying).
to make truth statements. This terminology becomes very confusing later on in Austin\u2019s paper when he
decides whether statements thats ta t e something are in fact statements. To avoid this we will use
performative utterance is \u2018unhappy\u2019 \u2013 in which case it fails (Austin p237). A defining feature of a
performance or action is that it is subject to felicity or infelicity. Austin outlines three rules for judging
whether a performative is felicitous or infelicitous (Austin p237). Mentioning these rules and illustrating
them with examples will help us gain a firmer grasp of the nature of Austin\u2019s performative utterances: i) the
convention of which the performative is of must exist. Put another way, there must be a valid way to
execute the performative. For instance in order to marry someone by using the performative \u2018I do\u2019 there
must first exist a convention which dictates that marrying is the process that the performative \u2018I do\u2019
accomplishes. ii) The circumstances in which we purport to issue a performative must be appropriate. If for
instance, the priest suddenly suffers a stroke in the course of pronouncing a couple man and wife, the
Where the infelicity does not render the performative null and void, but something has certainly gone
wrong. A prominent case is when the performative implies certain feelings, beliefs or intentions but those
intentions are absent ie. I make a lying promise. This is by no means a comprehensive list of ways in which
a performative may be felicitous or infelicitous, but does clearly illustrate the performative
(felicitous/infelicitous) \u2013 constative (true/false) dichotomy. At this stage, Austin\u2019s analysis shows that
constatives and performatives have a mutually exclusive relationship. It will be helpful in what follows to
diagrammatically express this initial distinction.
Having described the properties of performative utterances Austin then proposes a grammatical criterion,
which give us a means of 'picking out' performatives (Austin p241). Austin notices that his four primary
examples all feature a verb that is in the first person singular present indicative active form. He further
notices that while a verb in this form is performative, the same verb in other persons and other tenses is not
performative. Promise for instance, when expressed in the first person singular present indicative active
form as 'I promise [such-and-such]' is performative, however when used in an alternative person and tense:
'Willie promises (or promised) [such-and-such]' it yields a constative not a performative. 'Willie promises
[such-and-such] is a report about the facts and does not constitute the performance of a promise. This first
person singular present indicative active criterion however, is unsatisfactory. Not all performatives are in
that grammatical form. Austin revises the criterion to distinguish between explicit performatives and
primitive performatives. Take the example of utterances that are not in the first person singular present
'shut the door', neither utterance is making a truth claim, instead they arewarning ando rd er in g
respectively. Austin says instead of the rigid grammatical criterion proposed above, an utterance could be
considered performative if it is reducible or analysable into the form 'I.... [such-and-such]'. So 'shut the
door' is performative because it is reducible to the equivalent utterance 'I order you to shut the door'; both
do the same job, namely ordering. Austin calls the form 'I.. ... . [such-and-such] the explicit performative
utterance while an utterance which is reducible to this form (such as 'shut the door') is the primitive
performative. As long as we have correctly identified the primitive utterance as performative, this device
makes it explicitly clear what precise act is being performed2 (Austin p245).
However this revised explicit grammatical criterion works against Austin's initial constative-performative distinction by showing (making it explicitly clear in fact) that all utterances, even classic constatives, are in fact speech-acts. He begins questioning his initial distinction by considering utterances which 'hover' in between constative and performative (Austin p247). 'I am sorry' appears to be a constative in that we are reporting a fact or feeling, yet it seems to act in the same way that 'I apologise' does, which performs an
utterance that has a connection to the facts, specifically that Rahul Dravid was bowled middle stump, and
thus has a 'duty' to be true or false. On the other hand however, the umpire\u2019s declaration also performs the
act of giving Dravid out. These cases all suggest that constatives are in some sense performative, but the
case that is decisive to Austin treating all utterances as performing some act is the analysis of the classic
constative 'I state [such-and-such]. Under the initial distinction 'I state [such-and-such]' is only making a
true or false statement. But now, it does not look any different from an explicitly performative utterance.
Indeed we are hard pressed to pick out any difference between 'I state [such-and-such]' and the archetypical
explicit performative 'I promise [such-and-such]: the second utterance explicitly performs the act of
to be purely constative are actually instances of primitive performatives: 'that yacht is white and blue' is the
primitive form of 'Ista te,n o t ic e,rep o r t,a sse rt that that yacht is white and blue'. Thus Austin concludes
that all utterances are a form of speech-act, that is, whenever we say something we are performing an
action, we are at the very least speaking, stating, asserting etc. Austin's constative-performative distinction
may now be represented as follows:
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