J L Austin and the evolution of explicit performatives

J L Austin the most influential philosopher teaching in Oxford in the 1950’s died at the age of 48 in early 1960. Four months before he died he gave two lectures in Sweden, explaining his theory of performatives, and I think these are the only substantial recordings of his voice and his lecturing that we have. The recordings, on a long obsolete tape medium, were recently found by Eric Johnson-DeBaufre, stuffed at the back of a not-much-used desk drawer. They are brilliant lectures quite well preserved and restored, which wonderfully capture the manner and discursive style of Austin the philosopher who invented the modern theory of speech acts. Austin had a rather pedantic and very careful spoken style, but he was an extraordinarily compelling speaker. These lectures are also an excellent summary of what Austin was driving at in his theory of speech acts.

One passage in Austin’s first lecture struck me as surprising and highly significant, pointing to a direction that Austin’s philosophy might have taken had he lived longer. After explaining the difference between making a promise and describing someone as having made a promise, and having pointed out that there are devices in language that can make a performative utterance explicit. As when we say:

I hereby promise/warn/recommend that you …..


I hereby warn you that the bull in that field is dangerous

Having discussed explicit performatives, Austin says:

It is a probable conjecture these explicit performative formulae are evolved in the course of the evolution of language, going hand in hand with the evolution of more complex forms of society. The more complex the form of society the more different forms of juristic and other acts will need to be carefully and precisely distinguished (at the time?) and this demands the invention of explicit performative formulae………………. At 28.00 minutes in J L Austin Lectures in Sweden 2 October 1959 part 1

The interesting and surprising point about this passage is that it makes plain that Austin was prepared to propound a very general and far reaching social theory of speech acts, and that explicit performatives evolved as complex social arrangements evolved. I do not think there is anything in the books edited for posthumous publication, by J O Urmson and Geoffrey Warnock that registers this. Because Austin usually chose as his examples rather prominent and ritualistic examples of performative action many of his readers and followers may have assumed that performatives are for special occasions: marriages, ship launches, declarations of war, but this passage suggests that Austin thought of speech acts and the performative aspect of language as a much more deep-rooted and pervasive matter.

The key idea that Austin is advancing is that changes in language and the way we can use it performatively, intimately shape and mould our social institutions. It is not simply that complex institutions have performative moments, which are brought out for special occasions: as for a marriage, the making of a will, or the launching of a ship. It is the performative use of language that makes institutions. The explicit performative formulae are required to build the more complex forms of society which they enable. Much of Austin’s How to Do Things with Words reads like a monograph in the philosophy of language, which indeed it is. Austin is primarily addressing philosophers, linguists and grammarians in the book. But it is also making a very general social and anthropological claim: complex and sophisticated institutions are made through the regular deployment of many distinct forms of performative utterance “……going hand in hand with the evolution of more complex forms of society.”

This idea is advanced most explicitly and generally by John Searle in his Making the Social World, and it is this idea, as developed by Searle, that I use in Following Searle on Twitter to analyse and deconstruct Twitter as a digital institution. When we look at the way Twitter evolves as a social institution and as a linguistic practice we can see the precise way in which Twitter’s social structure was changed and enriched when it became possible for users to retweet or reply to previous tweets by fellow users. These are performative verbs and they articulate explicit performative utterances, speech acts, that are now familiar to Twitter users, but they were not available to the very earliest users of Twitter, in 2006. They were practices that grew up informally in the way that users were tweeting, until the Twitter managers and programmers realised that they could build a function in the Twitter browser which would allow users to do the speech act explicitly with a simple click on an icon or a button. At that point, by building the appropriate program in Twitter, the Twitter designers were defining the function of the explicit performative for retweeting or replying to utterances (tweets) in Twitter. They were writing code, which now does the heavy lifting, to enable and validate these new performatives, but they were also inventing and reinventing a pair of verbs ‘retweet’ and ‘reply’ (each with their own peculiar Twitter sense and function) which would now be labels attached to virtual buttons and menu options that confront Twitter users. Austin liked to talk about words attaching to things as labels. His speech act theory has been vindicated by the ways in which successive digital technologies proceed by inventing new verbs, or new senses for old verbs, with which we do things with computers.

Austin’s lecture ends with an almost equally fascinating question and answer session, a second tape, in which Austin engages with his listeners.

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