How to Do Things With Words

Austin, J. L. (1962). Lecture 1. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: University Press.

Lecture 1

Austin examines the performative function of speech acts. He starts by questioning what a statement and a sentence are, and whether there is a difference, how we decide which is which, and what delimits them. Specifically, he discusses utterances, which are neither true or false, and is part of doing an action. Examples might be: Uttering "I do" in a marriage ceremony or "I name this ship Queen Elizabeth" (pg. 5). Saying such sentences is not describing an action; none of them are true or false, but are stated as simply obvious. He writes: "When I say ... 'I do', I am not reporting on a marriage: I am indulging in it" (pg. 6).

He defines such sentences as performative sentences, or performatives for short. Uttering a performative is the performing of an action, it is not simply saying something. Further, the utterance is usually the most important aspect in performing the act. Often, the utterance is surrounded by appropriate and necessary circumstances. For example, for marriage, one must not be married already (in most Western circumstances). Sometimes, they are also associated with the performatives or actions of others. For example, for a bet to be made, the other party must accept. Austin's defining of the performative became the basis of Butler's theory of performativity.