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Performative utterance

In the philosophy of language and speech acts theory, performative utterances are sentences which are not only describing a given reality, but also changing the social reality they are describing.

In his 1955 William James lecture series, which were later published under the title How to Do Things with Words, J. L. Austin argued against a positivist philosophical claim that the utterances always "describe" or "constate" something and are thus always true or false. After mentioning several examples of sentences which are not so used, and not truth-evaluable (among them non-sensical sentences, interrogatives, directives and "ethical" propositions), he introduces "performative" sentences or Illocutionary act as another instance.

In order to define performatives, Austin refers to those sentences which conform to the old prejudice in that they are used to describe or constate something, and which thus are true or false; and he calls such sentences "constatives". In contrast to them, Austin defines "performatives" as follows:

For example, when Peter says "I promise to do the dishes" in an appropriate context then he thereby does not just say something, and in particular he does not describe what he is doing; rather, in making the utterance he performs the promise; since promising is an illocutionary act, the utterance is thus a performative utterance. If Peter utters the sentence without the intention to keep the promise, or if eventually he does not keep it, then although something is not in order with the utterance, the problem is not that the sentence is false: it is rather "unhappy", or "infelicitous", as Austin also says in his discussion of so-called felicity conditions. In the absence of any such flaw, on the other hand, the utterance is to be assessed as "happy" or "felicitous", rather than as "true". Austin dropped this distinction in favour of a distinction between explicit performatives ("I promise it will never happen again") and primary or implicit performatives ("It will never happen again," functioning as a promise).

  • (1) Performative utterances are not true or false, that is, not truth-evaluable; instead when something is wrong with them then they are "unhappy", while if nothing is wrong they are "happy".
  • (2) The uttering of a performative is, or is part of, the doing of a certain kind of action (Austin later deals with them under the name illocutionary acts), the performance of which, again, would not normally be described as just "saying" or "describing" something (cf. Austin 1962, 5).
  • 'I do (sc. take this woman to be my lawful wedded wife)' -- as uttered in the course of the marriage ceremony.
  • 'I name this ship the "Queen Elizabeth"'
  • 'I give and bequeath my watch to my brother' -- as occurring in a will
  • 'I bet you sixpence it will rain tomorrow' (Austin 1962, 5)
  • "I now pronounce you man and wife" - used in the course of a marriage ceremony
  • "I order you to go", "Go—that's an order"
  • "Yes" - answering the question "Do you promise to do the dishes?"
  • "You are under arrest" - used in putting someone under arrest
  • "I christen you"
  • "I accept your apology"
  • "I sentence you to death"
  • "I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you" (Islamic: see: Talaq-i-Bid'ah)
  • "I do" – wedding
  • "I swear to do that", "I promise to be there"
  • "I apologize"
  • "I dedicate this..." ( to my wife; song to the striking Stella Doro workers, etc.)
  • "This meeting is now adjourned", "The court is now in session"
  • "This church is hereby de-sanctified"
  • "War is declared"
  • "I resign" – employment, or chess
  • "You're [hereby] fired."


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