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How to Do Things with Words: The William…

How to Do Things with Words: The William James Lectures Delivered in… (original 1955; edition 1976)

by J.L. Austin

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Title:How to Do Things with Words: The William James Lectures Delivered in Harvard University in 1955
Authors:J.L. Austin
Info:Oxford Paperbacks (1976), Paperback, 192 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:philosophy, language

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How to Do Things with Words by J. L. Austin (1955)

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    The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do With the Other by Walker Percy (elenchus)
    elenchus: Austin analyses possible speech acts, and discusses how every statement is usually a mix of these. Percy focuses on one type of speech act, the denotative (naming) act, and argues it is perhaps the most important of all. Different styles of argument, but they supplement one another quite well.… (more)

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1) The distinctions Austin makes are useful.
2) The distinctions don't hold up.
3) The collapse of the distinctions is useful. ( )
1 vote jeneyhart | Dec 3, 2013 |
an easy-reading classic ( )
1 vote iBeth | Mar 27, 2009 |
It's worth noting the title is a pun.

Austin examines when a speech act is performative and not merely constative: when the 'saying' evokes or conjures rather than (merely) states or describes, and is itself an activity (not merely in the trivial sense of flexing vocal cords, etc). Examples such as "I bet", in which case the bet is realised in the saying, rather than the speech act serving merely to report what is happening. Similarly, "I do" (in a wedding ceremony), "I christen this ship", or any number of verdicts such as by a judge or umpire.

In short: magick, though of course Austin declines to use any such vocabulary, assuming even that he was familiar with it.

Begins by drawing a sharp distinction between constative utterances and performative utterances, for the sake of pursuing his argument. Ends by arguing that all speech acts are always both, preferring then to describe three functions of all speech acts rather than to sort them into discrete categories: locutionary, illocutionary, perlocutionary (introduced in Lecture VIII).

Locutionary has a meaning (and is comprised of phonetic, phatic, rhetic acts). "The bull is going to charge."

Illocutionary has a certain force in saying something. Warning someone by stating "The bull is going to charge".

Perlocutionary achieves a certain effect in saying something. Persuading someone to cease making noise and waving a red handkerchief by stating "The bull is going to charge".

Lecture IV touches on the notion / possibility that all persuasion is essentially coercive; but does not explore this so much as evoke it.

Lecture IX links the above to cybernetic causation (signals and responses) as distinct from Newtonian causation (billiard balls).

Lecture XI touches on the relevance of truth / falsity of performatives, and in general. "[W]hat we have to study is not the sentence but the issuance of an utterance in a speech situation." (139) And issuances are not themselves true / false so much as successful or not, on various criteria. "The truth or falsity of a statement depends not merely on the meaning of words but on what act you were performing in what circumstances." (145)

Overall, the approach is analytical in the manner of Robert Dahl in his examination of democratic political theory.

"But the real conclusion must surely be that we need (a) to distinguish between locutionary and illocutionary acts, and (b) specially and critically to establish with respect to each kind of illocutionary act -- warnings, estimates, verdicts, statements, and descriptions -- what if any is the specific way in which they are intended, first to be in order or not in order, and second, to be 'right' or 'wrong'; what terms of appraisal and disappraisal are used for each and what they mean. This is a wide field and certainly will not lead to a conclusion of 'true' and 'false'; nor will it lead to a distinction of statements from the rest, for stating is only one among very numerous speech acts of the illocutionary class.
"Furthermore, in general the locutionary act as well as the illocutionary is an abstraction only: every genuine speech act is both." (147) ( )
4 vote elenchus | Jan 3, 2009 |
I cannot recall a more boring book. As short as it was, I still struggled to get through it. It is about the philosophy of language. Austin develops a construct around "performatives." I get that this work was a step in the development of language, helping to cut off an inane trend toward impracticality (all sentences are statements). I didn't really need to read this though. ( )
  jpsnow | May 25, 2008 |
Austin was apparently bothered by the lack of attention given by philosophers (or philologists) to whether a "statement" describes truly or falsely, while grammarians point out that there are also questions, exclamations and even commands. Austin also distinguishes whether ANY sentence is a 'statement', since, rather, it is a 'logical construction' used in MAKING a statement. (!) [1] You see right where he is going -- and goes on for 12 lectures. It does not help that he advises, "Yet we, that is, even philosophers, set some limits to the amount of nonsense that we are prepared to admit we talk: so that it was natural to go on to ask, as a second stage, whether many apparent pseudo-statements really set out to be 'statements' at all." [2] He initially contrasts the 'performative' and the 'constative' utterance, and proceeds to compare it to other classes of utterance for which he further provides a Latin candle of "more-or-less rebarbative names" [150]: (1) Verdictives [giving verdict 42], (2) Exercitives [exercising powers 58], (3) Commissives [promising 81], (4) Behabitives [social attitudes 83 --condoling, cursing, apologizing], and (5) Expositives [fitting the utterance in - 85].

Austin tries to set out how the construction of word-speaking is an Act--he calls it a "performative" sentence or utterance [6], although he also likes what the lawyers refer to as "operative" parts, distinct from the recitative parts [7 crediting Prof HLA Hart].

After establishing his approach, with his new use for an old word, Austin addresses the question of whether SAYING something can make it so. For example, we do not Get Married by saying a few words. We do not make bets by saying something. Well, we do, but that is never how we 'say' it! [7]

In the American (distinct from English) law of Evidence, a report of what someone else said may be admitted as evidence if it is an utterance of a 'performative' kind. In other words, where the words are the actions. {Or to use our example, try using eyewitness testimony to prove A married B, without permitting what is obviously Hearsay. "I do" is not relevant UNLESS it is the prohibited probandum.} As Austin explains this -- "So far then we have merely felt the firm ground of prejudice slide away beneath our feet." [13]

By the VIIth of XII lectures, Austin introduces "the possibility of 'etiolation' as it occurs when we use speech in acting, fiction and poetry, quotation and recitation". Now ordinarily I think the introduction of botanical terms is a fair and even useful way to describe things and processes. Austin uses this "picture" of how plants respond to inadequate lighting conditions to convey in one word the "refinement" of circumstances of 'issuing an utterance'. He breaks the Act down to the (a) Phone - phonetic, (b) Pheme - phatic {phemic}, and (c) rheme - rhetic.

Austin is unable to take the time to explain why this is "interesting". And he notes that Philosophers have long been interested in the word 'good', which they have just begun taking the "line" [must be "time" -- this kind of substitution plague the reprint of the lectures from student notes] to consider [163]. He expresses the position that "we shall not get really clear about this word ' good' and what we use it to do until, ideally, we have a complete list of [its] illocutionary acts..." [162]. Well, he seems to think lecturing at Harvard was good.
6 vote keylawk | Aug 1, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0674411528, Paperback)

John L. Austin was one of the leading philosophers of the twentieth century. The William James Lectures presented Austin's conclusions in the field to which he directed his main efforts on a wide variety of philosophical problems. These talks became the classic How to Do Things with Words.

For this second edition, the editors have returned to Austin's original lecture notes, amending the printed text where it seemed necessary. Students will find the new text clearer, and, at the same time, more faithful to the actual lectures. An appendix contains literal transcriptions of a number of marginal notes made by Austin but not included in the text. Comparison of the text with these annotations provides new dimensions to the study of Austin's work.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:09 -0400)

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