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Definitions of the Performative

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Definitions of Performatives

By Dr. Peter Krey

To understand this brief essay, it would be helpful to first read my essay,  Performative Declarations.

The only semblance of a definition of the performative that I found by J. L. Austin was hidden away in his book,  How to Do Things with Words, and it is not really designated as one:

Performatives begin with a highly significant and unambiguous expression, such as “I bet”, “I promise”, “I bequeath” an expression very commonly also used in naming the act which, in making such an utterance, I am performing, e.g., betting, promising, bequeathing, etc.[1] It’s syntax shows that reflexivity is being described: “naming an act which, in making such an utterance….” (This is the passage in full length. page 32.)

In “How Performatives Work” John Searle describes performatives as executive, self-referential speech acts, which need to be in the first person and the dramatic or present present tense.

To quote Searle again: “To be performative the semantic content of the verb needs to function essentially and successfully in the saying of the sentence, in the performance of the speech act.”[2]

The Symbolic Structure of the Declaration (Sometimes called the Performative Declaration)

I would now like to make a comparison of the symbolic structures of assertives, directives, and commissives with the structure of the declaration class of speech acts. Following John Searle’s definitive article on performatives called, “How Performatives Work,”  it can be shown that the assertive is derived from the declaration and the declaration cannot be derived from the assertive, because the self-guaranteeing aspect of the performative cannot be achieved in this way.

When Searle noted in class that the psychological state of the declaration could not be a null set ø but was most likely a belief, want, or intention, then the symmetry between the assertive and the directive, comprising the declarative; or the assertive and commissive doing so, seemed to be obvious from a comparison of their symbolic structures:

Just reading this from the symbolic structure certainly does not do enough, but to think that you can change the state of affairs by just representing it as having been changed shows the double nature of the performative declaration. As superficial as this level of description is, it shows that the declaration cannot be a combination of the promise and the order, because then the word to world direction of fit would not be achieved. Thus belief needs to be a component with the want, desire or intention. The fact that the proposition is combined with an act either by the speaker or hearer is interesting. In a performative declaration, there is the intention which becomes manifest, and the proposition is made true by the speech act. The double direction of fit is achieved, the world to word and the word to world. But while the promise and order speak of a future voluntary act, in this extra-linguistic performative, the action now takes place in the extra-linguistic institution simultaneously with the utterance, just the same way the pure linguistic institutional fact takes place in the promise or the order. It might be worth considering if the promise or order are the prior intentionp.i. ),  while the future voluntary act is the intention in action ( i.a. ), which of course can only be so in a communicative relationship in an order, because the speaker and the one carrying out the order are different individuals for it, but in the promise the speaker also has the obligation to carry out the future voluntary action, and in this case then, the promise is the promised intentionp.i. ) for the later intended act ( i.a. ), although other  p.i. (s) may certainly play a role.



Note how the assertive could be the X term to which the promise or order, the Y term, could give a new status function as a linguistic act C, and how a certain linguistic act, e.g., could count as, or receive a new status function Y term, as an extra-linguistic institutional fact. This is a crude approximation which needs more specification.

In performatives the proposition seems to receive a new status function because of the illocutionary force, and instead of reflecting reality truly or falsely, it actualizes, becoming the actual state of affairs. The intention X has become the manifestation Y in a new act (linguistically) or institution (extra-linguistically). But this cannot be read from the symbolic notation as such. Searle’s F (p) needs more specification.

Examples of knowing the constitutive rules for an extra-linguistic institution, and not needing to know them for the prophetic or supernatural declaration:

Knowing the constitutive rules for an extra-linguistic institution can be illustrated more extensively, as well as the non-requirement in the case of the supernatural declaration: a justice of the peace, a pastor, a rabbi, or a priest may pronounce a couple husband and wife,[3] after the bride and groom have made their speech-act promises. In some states, the clergy person must be registered and needs to have been sworn in (to abide by the laws of that state). The Catholic Church, technically speaking, will not recognize a marriage not carried out by a priest, and will not honor a divorce, only an annulment, etc. The chairperson of a church assembly may not participate in the discussion on the “floor”, but presides over it, accepts the “motions”, stops the discussion when the “question has been called”, and if the “aye votes have it”, then the motion “carries”, and s/he states: “So ordered.” And an “action” of the assembly/council is communicated to all its members and agencies. The parliamentary rules need to be studied and used skillfully to influence these collective speech act declarations.

In the above cases, the linguistic competence of the speaker and hearer are not sufficient for the successful declaration speech acts, but the position and authority of the speaker and the constitutive rules of the extra-linguistic institution obtain as well. But imagine that a contingent of Native Americans burst into the church with all its delegates are so assembled. They begin charging that a building was being erected by this denomination on an Indian burial ground.[4] Without being on the agenda, without having voice or vote, an eloquent speaker charges the assembly with this institutional insensitivity. Now the speaker does not know the parliamentary rules, does not have voice or vote, nor the authority to speak. Here an approach to Searle’s dictum that a supernatural declaration needs no extra-linguistic institution can be seen functioning in this prophetic moment. A higher authority from God is accepted, and the good will toward the Native Americans felt by the delegates bring about an action in the assembly which orders the building constructed at a different site. With this example a mere inkling of God’s authority appears, which in larger vistas, for the sake of the renewal of all extra-linguistic institutions, can make divine declarations, without any extra-linguistic institution, out of the Word alone, so to speak.[5]

[1] J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisá, editors, J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1962), p. 32.

[2]John Searle “The Philosophy of Language.” Lectures. Winter and Spring Semester, (University of California at Berkeley on January 18 to May 2, 1996), on January 18, 1996.

[3] To pronounce them “man and wife” does an injustice to women, because it places the woman into a role and the man into the dignity of his person. Thus by the first speech act itself the marriage institution is launched with an inequality of privilege and responsibility.

[4] This scenario is fictitious.

[5] Solum verbum (the word alone) was an important tenet of the Reformation.


John R. Searle’s definitive article, “How Performatives Work” can be found in the journal, Linguistics and Philosophy. 12 (1989): 535-558.

John R. Searle,. Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

————–.  The Construction of Social Reality. New York: The Free    Press, 1995.

J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisá, editors. J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1962.


Written by peterkrey

July 3, 2012 at 8:52 pm

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