PERFORMATIVE UTTERANCES: SEVEN PUZZLES
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It was John Austin who introduced the word 'performative' (which he called 'a new and ugly word') into the philosophy of language and linguistics. His original idea was that there are utterances which are more correctly characterized as 'doing' something rather than 'stating' something. Austin wrote: 'when I say 'I do' (sc. take this woman to be my lawful wedded wife), I am not reporting on a marriage, I am indulging in it'. As is well known, Austin went on to work out this notion of a performative utterance (and of a performative expression) in a number of directions, but in the end the attempt to isolate performatives (doings) from constatives (true or false) failed dramatically, and the idea of viewing language use in terms of the performative-constative dichotomy gave way to the study of speech acts: 'The total speech act in the total speech situation is the 'only actual' phenomena which, in the last resort, we are engaged in elucidating'. But giving up the performative-constative distinction does not mean giving up theorizing about performatives, and there is a cottage industry in the theory of language devoted to them. The author identifies seven puzzles for theorizing about performatives. He considers how Austin might have dealt with some of them. Finding his answers problematic, he then surveys recent theories of performatives and zoom in on the major contenders, identifying one theory in particular for scrutiny and seeing how it fares with the seven puzzles. The upshot is that there is still work to be done understanding performatives.
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