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Language: Linguistics · Semiotics · Speech

The notion of performative utterances was introduced by J. L. Austin. Although he had already used the term in his 1946 paper "Other minds", today's usage goes back to his later, remarkedly different exposition of the notion in the 1955 William James lecture series, subsequently published as How to Do Things with Words. The starting point of the lectures is Austin's doubt against a widespread philosophical prejudice, namely, the implicit presumption that 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 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:

(1) Performative utterances are not true or false, that is, not truth-evaluable; instead when something is wrong with them then they are "happy" or "unhappy". (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).

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 just 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 the absence of any such flaw, on the other hand, the utterance is to be assessed as "happy" or "felicitous", rather than as "true".

The initial examples of performative sentences Austin gives are these:

  • '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)

As Austin later notices himself, these examples belong (more or less strikingly) to what Austin calls, explicit performatives; to utter an "explicit" performative sentence is to make explicit what act one is performing. However, there are also "implicit", "primitive", or "inexplicit" performatives. When, for instance, I say "Go!" in order to command you to leave the room then my utterance is part of the performance of a command; and the sentence, according to Austin, is neither true nor false; hence the sentence is a performative; -- still, it is not an explicit performative, for it does not make explicit that the act the speaker is performing is a command.

Austin found great difficulty in drawing a completely clear distinction between "performatives" and "constatives"; among other things he came to the conclusion that to state something is to perform an illocutionary act, which renders all constatives as performatives; for reasons like these, he eventually suggested abandoning the dichotomy, replacing it by a trichotomy of speech acts, namely, the so-called "locutionary", "illocutionary" and "perlocutionary acts".

There is a most thorough and accurate study of how "performatives" might be defined following Austin by Jan S. Andersson, "How to define 'Performative'". (However, unfortunately it has been almost completely ignored by the scholarship of the Anglo-American tradition -- perhaps because it is both very densely written and accurately worked out, and thus not easy to read.) Furthermore, during the 1970s there was much dispute about questions such as whether performatives are truth-evaluable or not, whether there are non-explicit performatives at all, whether performatives can be reduced to truth-evaluable sentences (and vice versa), and several others; however, nowadays many of these issues appear to have lost some of their attraction.

Incidentally, some components of Austin's remarks about promising were anticipated by David Hume in his discussion of promising in A Treatise of Human Nature, and even earlier by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan.

Are performatives truth-evaluable?

According to Austin's original account, it is an essential characteristic of performative sentences that they are neither true, nor false, that is, not truth-evaluable. However, in his 1989 article How Performatives Work John R. Searle argues that performatives are true/false just like constatives. Searle further claims that performatives are what he calls declarations; this is a technical notion of Searle's account: accordin to his conception, an utterance is a declaration if "the successful performance of the speech act is sufficient to bring about the fit between words and world, to make the propostional content true." Searle believes that this double direction of fit contrasts the simple word-to-world fit of assertives.

Bach and Harnish (1991) agree with Searle that performatives are true/false, but for different reasons. They hold that performatives are truth-evaluable because they are directly statements, but only indirectly promises, apologies etc. While Searle sees performatives as declarations, Bach and Harnish [How to reference and link to summary or text] claim that only some performative utterances are declarations, such as, "I pronounce you man and wife." -- This, however, is perhaps not really an objection to Searle; it might rather be the result of their different conception of what a "declaration" is supposed to be. For in their conception, "declarations" are institutional in character; and, accordingly´, the point of their argument is that most performatives are not bound to particular institutional situations; this, however, is something Searle does not intend to deny in the paper under consideration.

But Bach and Harnish attack Searle's account in a more fundamental way. They dispute Searle’s explanation of what the question concerning performatives is about. According to Searle the question concerning performatives is that they are sentences that perform an explicit action specified by the verb, just by saying that the action is being performed. Bach and Harnish feel that this is the wrong approach to inquiries into the nature of performatives. They feel that an approach such as the one Searle posits, assumes incorrectly that performatives are conceptually distinct from other utterances. This type of assumption is unfavorable according to Bach and Harnish because it rules out the null hypothesis without foundation. They feel the null hypothesis in this case is that there may not be in fact, any need for a special justification for an utterance’s performative effect.

According to Bach and Harnish, ordinary performatives do not need distinctive rationalization, because they are ordinary acts of communication that are successful only if an audience can infer your communicative intention to be expressing a distinct position. They feel that this description of performatives contrasts Searle’s view of performatives as declarations, because declarations are only ‘incidentally communicative’ and are successful only if they fulfill the applicable conventions.

Bach and Harnish also reject Searle’s view that the performative force of performatives is contained in its literal meaning. They feel that Searle incorrectly confounds performative force with its communicative accomplishment. Bach and Harnish argue that although the communicative success of performatives relies on the fact that they are statements, the performative force of performatives do not.

Sedgwick's account of performatives

When performative utterances are explicit, then they are usually in the first person present tense. Those features are indexical, reflecting features of the immediate context. The particular verbs used in performative utterances tend to be verba dicendi—verbs of speaking—or "metapragmatic verbs," verbs that draw attention to a particular relation between the utterance or speech form and context. While some linguists and theorists might describe explicit performative utterances as rare occurrences, Eve Sedgwick argues that there are performative aspects to nearly all words, sentences, and phrases. (Notice, however, Sedgwick does not use Austin's notion in a really accurate manner and thus is -- despite of her use of Austin's term -- most probably speaking about a subject matter different from Austin's.) According to Sedgwick, performative utterances can be 'transformative' performatives, which create an instant change of personal or environmental status, or 'promisory' performatives, which describe the world as it might be in the future. These categories are not exclusive, so an utterance may well have both qualities. Some performative speech may be socially contested. For instance, two gay men saying "I do" in a wedding ceremony may be accepted as a performative act by some, but not by others. As Sedgwick observes, performative utterances can be revoked, either by the person who uttered them ("I take back my promise"), or by some other party not immediately involved, like the state (for example, gay marriage vows).

Words on a list can be either descriptive or performative. 'Butter' on a shopping list implies that "I will buy butter" (a promise to yourself). But 'Butter' printed on your till receipt means "you have purchased butter" (simply a description).


Naming can also be both performative and descriptive, in certain superstitious circles. Macbeth is a simple name that describes the Shakespeare character and is the title of the play. But uttering the name Macbeth among actors who are performing the play is thought to trigger instant ill fortune in the production. The well known phrase "Speak of the devil and he will appear" follows similar superstitious logic. It is a relic of magical thinking, along with, and much like, the idea that making utterances over a representative fragment (a lock of a person's hair) will cause something to happen in the wider world (the person will fall in love).

Descriptives and promises

Even descriptive utterances can be construed as being 'promisory' performative. For instance, someone standing on a street corner and describing to you a place you are trying to get to. Their description of the place takes the form of a 'promise' - the words are the place for you, for the moment - but you only know if the 'promise' of the words have been fulfilled when you personally reach the place in question.


  • "I now pronounce you man and wife." (conferred personal status change)
  • "I christen you" (conferred personal status change)
  • "I accept your apology" (conferred personal status change)
  • "I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you" (conferred personal status change) (Islamic: see: Talaq-i-Bid'ah or triple Talaq)
  • "I do" – wedding (self-actuated personal status change)
  • "I swear to do that" (self-actuated personal status change - you are now bound)
  • "I promise to be there" (self-actuated personal status change - you are now bound)
  • "I apologize" (self-actuated personal status change)
  • "This meeting is now adjourned" (conferred environment status change)
  • "The court is now in session" (conferred environment status change)
  • "This church is hereby de-sanctified" (conferred environment status change)
  • "War is declared" (conferred environment status change)
  • "I sentence you to death" (conferred, will prove true or false in the future)
  • "I promise to be there" (self-actuated, will prove true or false in the future)
  • "I swear to do that" (self-actuated, will prove true or false in the future)
  • "I apologize" (self-actuated, will change your status if the apology is accepted)

Performative writing

The above ideas have influenced performative writing; they are used as a justification for an attempt to create a new form of critical writing about performance (often about performance art). Such a writing form is claimed to be, in itself, a form of performance. It is said to more accurately reflect the fleeting and ephemeral nature of a performance, and the various tricks of memory and referentiality that happen in the mind of the viewer during and after the performance.


  • Austin, J.L. How to Do Things with Words Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962. ISBN 0-19-824553-X
  • Andersson, Jan S. How to define 'Performative'. Stockholm: Libertryck. 1975

See also

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