Speech Act Theory

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Speech Act Theory

Kim Emery

Speech act theory names a body of thought in which the use of language—a speech act—is conceived as a kind of action within the material world, rather than a description of or a reference to a discrete and exterior reality. Although anticipated in different ways by the works of Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid (1710—96), American pragmatist C. S. Peirce (1839—1914), and German phenomenologists Edmund Husserl (1859—1938) and Adolf Reinach (1883—1917), among others, speech act theory is most famously associated with Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin (1911—60). In a series of lectures delivered at Harvard in 1955 and published posthumously in a volume called How to Do Things with Words, Austin outlined what has since come to be considered the first systematic elaboration of speech act theory.

In these lectures, Austin begins his discussion of the speech act by distinguishing between two types of utterances that, despite their resemblance in grammatical form, may be seen to serve quite distinct functions. The statements studied by philosophers of language, on the one hand, are taken to describe an external reality or to report a fact. Such statements may be categorized as “descriptive” or, as Austin prefers, “constative,” and are subject to evaluation on the basis of their truth or falsity. However, a second type of utterance may also assume the first-person singular present-indicative active form of simple declarative sentences without submitting to such characterization. These utterances, which Austin terms “performative,” do not make the kind of claim that can be tested against an external reality, and hence cannot be classified as simply true or false; instead, utterances of this sort perform an action, or are part of the performance of an action, that “is not normally thought of as just saying something” (7). Austin's examples include such actions performed in words as betting, bequeathing, promising, marrying, and christening. To say “I bet...,” “I promise...,” or “I christen...,” in certain circumstances, is indeed to bet, promise, or name; the utterance itself accomplishes the act, rather than reporting on or referring to an act accomplished elsewhere or by other means.

Austin is careful to explain that the requirement of specific circumstances or, indeed, of correlative supporting actions does not vitiate the performative aspect of the utterance itself; hence, the bet must be accepted, the will must be signed and notarized, the minister officiating a marriage must be duly authorized and the participants eligible—but the fact remains that the words themselves are not only necessary to the act, but in an important sense are understood to themselves constitute the act. More importantly, he contends that the intention or inward state of the interlocutors is not critically at issue: the performative does not report on an inward act of, for example, committing to a marriage; one may be duly and legally married whether one “means” one's vows or not. A promise may be given in bad faith, but this does not mean that no promise has been made. Although such performatives may “misfire” in a variety of ways—on which Austin elaborates at some length—misreporting on an inward state is not among them, as the function of the performative is not to reflect an independent reality (either inward or exterior), but rather to act on the reality within which it is enmeshed. A performative is neither true nor false, but rather, in Austin's words, felicitous or infelicitous, happy or unhappy; it is evaluated not in terms of veracity, but in terms of performative force.

Austin further categorizes such explicit performatives as “I bet...,” or “I promise...,” as illocutionary acts, which he describes as actions accomplished in saying something and reliant on convention for their performative force. These he distinguishes from the more familiar sense in which saying something is already doing something: i.e., making sounds (the phonetic act) in a certain order (the phatic act) with a certain meaning (the rhetic act). This he calls the locutionary act, a concept that encapsulates “the full normal sense” of saying something (94) without excluding the possibility of the utterance exerting a further performative force. To these two categories Austin adds a third: the perlocutionary act, which is accomplished by saying something, or as an effect of saying something, but not performed in and of the utterance itself. Hence, the illocutionary act of a promise being made is accomplished in the utterance of promising, provided only that the most minimal conditions are met (e.g., that uptake is secured and the act is not voided by virtue of going unheard). The consequences of the promise, in contrast to the act itself, constitute its perlocutionary effect: the addressee may be thrilled by a promise, or unimpressed; this does not affect the illocutionary force of the promise, but it does make for a different perlocutionary act. There is in perlocution a certain gap or noncoincidence between utterance and effect that is not characteristic of illocution and its force. Although the coincidence of an illocutionary act and its performative force is merely prototypically and not necessarily temporal, it is in essence conventional and therefore inescapable; the relation of a perlocutionary act to its consequences, in contrast, is not in essence conventional and therefore not inevitable, however likely or predictable those consequences may be. Austin is clear that “there cannot be an illocutionary act unless the means employed are conventional”; however, as he also acknowledges, “it is difficult to say where conventions begin and end” (119).

Austin's method is to work from observations offered as “provisional, and subject to revision” (4n1). Just as the illocutionary act is revealed to have its locutionary and, inevitably, perlocutionary dimensions, the explicit performative that constitutes its prototypical appearance cannot in the end be cleanly separated from the constative. Illocutions involve reference and sense, and constative utterances exert performative force. Indeed, Austin concludes that “in general, the locutionary act as much as the illocutionary is an abstraction only: every genuine speech act is both” (147). The perlocutionary effects of a locution, moreover, are unpredictable and in theory infinite. In working through these mutual entailments so thoughtfully, Austin thoroughly undermines the “descriptive fallacy” for which he faults “both philosophers and grammarians” (2—3)—i.e., the idea that the primary function of language is mimetic or referential and its fundamental form, therefore, the declarative statement. By refusing to misrecognize abstraction for actuality, Austin reimagined the relation of language to the material world and offered a powerful model that would be taken up by deconstructionists, literary scholars, and gender theorists—as well as philosophers of language—in years to come.

Literary Speech Acts

Despite his insistence on separating questions of inward states from the functional operation of illocutionary acts, Austin limited his discussion in these lectures to the “normal use” of language in “ordinary circumstances”—explicitly excluding from consideration, for example, theatrical and literary utterances, which he categorized here as “parasitic” (22). The grounds for this exclusion were soon questioned, however, by literary scholars concerned with the conventional, contextual, and social dimensions of literature. In a series of essays in the early 1970s for example, Richard Ohmann argued that literature comprises a kind of “quasi-speech-act,” distinct from nonliterary language but dependent nevertheless on readers' immersion in sociality. In the late 1970s Mary Louise Pratt would reject categorical distinctions between ordinary and literary language altogether, contending that Ohmann's qualification itself relies on a misapprehension of ordinary language as lacking in ostensibly literary qualities on which it often depends. Drawing on the pragmatics of Austin's contemporary H. P. Grice (1913—88) and the work of sociolinguists including William Labov, Pratt offered a theory of literature as a linguistic activity continuous with oral narrative and imbedded in social interaction. Others, including Monroe C. Beardsley (1915—85), Seymour Chatman, and Marcia Eaton, have examined the use of speech acts within works of literature.

The engagement most important to contemporary theory, however, would come from philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930—2004), who proposed that the distinction between “normal” and “parasitic” uses is impossible to maintain because it is in the nature of language to be quoted. Against the “pure singularity” attributed to Austin's speech act proper—the illocution fully present to itself and fully congruent with its performative force—Derrida posits a principle of general iterability, contending that ordinary language is itself characterized by a “structural parasitism” (17). In this view, there can be no “pure” performative because each speech act relies for its success on the citation of an iterable (endlessly repeatable) model; only by invoking a recognizable formula—i.e., by citing a convention—can an illocution exert a performative force. Moreover, while convention must be cited, it can never be fully realized or exactly repeated; reiteration is required, but—strictly speaking—impossible. What Austin calls “the total speech act in the total speech situation” (52), the object of his study, can never be fully or finally defined, because the total speech situation—the act's salient context—is not “exhaustively determinable” (18). In citing an iterable model, the performative is not fully present to itself, but neither can it replicate in toto “the total speech act in the total speech situation” of any prior iteration or ideal model. Hence, Derrida concludes, citationality or parasitism is not a “special circumstance” to be held in abeyance or excluded from consideration, as Austin posits, but is instead integral to “’ordinary’ language” as such—its “internal and positive condition of possibility” (17). Just as Austin decenters the constative, suggesting that language is not secondarily or peripherally performative, social, and materially situated, but fundamentally so, Derrida deconstructs the presumed primacy of so-called ordinary language, revealing the citationality at its core and arguing that Austin's a priori separation of normal use from special circumstances imputes to language “an ethical and teleological determination” in fact imposed by the assumptions of analytic philosophy (17).

Derrida's contention that this principle of iterability introduces a philosophically significant gap or “dehiscence” between the intention animating an utterance and the act of utterance has been strenuously challenged by American analytic philosopher John Searle, an important interpreter of Austin noted for his taxonomy of illocutionary acts, among other contributions. Searle maintains that iterability functions in service to intention, and he insists that the “parasitic” relation of literary speech acts to ordinary language is “fairly obvious” (1977, 204). Searle suggests that Derrida misreads Austin's merely strategic segregation of parasitic speech acts from normal use as a “metaphysical exclusion” (205). In maintaining that intention is the “heart” of the speech act (207—8), however, Searle has drawn the criticism that the role of intention is less central to Austin than he implies. Similarly, Derrida's decentering of intention does not entail an “essential absence” in the sense that Searle contends (207). Instead, “the category of intention will not disappear; it will have its place, but from that place it will no longer be able to govern the entire scene and system of utterance” (Derrida, 18).

Whereas Searle assumes that a relation of logical dependency obtains between literary language, on the one hand, and the ordinary uses of language on which it is presumably based, on the other, Derrida observes that the rules governing their relation are “not things found in nature,” but human inventions—conventions “that, in their very normality as well as in their normativity, entail something of the fictional” (134). In an important amplification of this insight, psychoanalytic literary critic Shoshana Felman elaborates Searle's own focus on the promise as the prototypical illocution into an extended meditation on the role of seduction in language and literature. The speech act, she suggests, finesses the disjuncture between “the order of the act and the order of meaning, the register of pleasure and the register of knowledge” by creating a separate, self-referential linguistic space and sidestepping the entailments of absolute truth (31). Refiguring the performative as a ritual of desire, Felman restores to the act an intentional dimension while respecting the elements of fictionality and noncoincidence at its core.

For Felman, literary language comes to serve as “the meeting and testing ground of the linguistic and the philosophical, the place where linguistics and philosophy are interrogated but also where they are pushed beyond their disciplinary limits” (11).

Gender Theory and Performativity

Speech act theory sketches both a slippage and an entanglement between language and the material world that has proven especially important to queer and gender theorists in recent years. Feminist philosopher Judith Butler famously observed that gender represents a copy for which there is no original (1991), an insight elaborated in her influential analyses of gender as performative (1990, 1993). Like Derrida, she suggests that the putatively parasitic, peripheral, and extra-ordinary performance may reveal an absence at the core of the “ordinary”—arguing, for example, that the practice of drag within queer subcultures points not to a derivative or imitative logical dependence of homosexuality on heterosexuality, but to the performative nature of gender as such (1990). Indeed, Butler contends that the sexed body itself is not the origin of gender expression, but a kind of back formation projected by the compulsory practice of gender performativity (1993). In undertaking to examine the social, pragmatic, and conventional dimensions of sex and gender, queer theorists such as Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1950—2009) have drawn extensively on speech act theory to sketch the noncoincidence of intention—understood in the philosophical sense to encompass both will and meaning or referentiality—and actuality in the enactment and experience of gendered being. For Butler, it is the inevitable gap between performative citations and the ideal and iterable model that compels the endless reiteration of gender while simultaneously obscuring its normative and compulsory dimensions. For queer and gender theorists generally, speech act theory has provided a supple and productive model for thinking through the entanglements of language, knowledge, and materiality, while also revaluing marginal and non-normative realities. Perhaps most importantly, speech act theory acknowledges and helps to expose the ethical and teleological determinations conventionally obscured by “ordinary language” and the constative presumptions of philosophical traditions on which its identification has historically been predicated.

SEE ALSO: Dialogue, Discourse, Feminist Theory, Linguistics, Rhetoric and Figurative Language.


1. Austin, J.L. (1962), How to Do Things with Words.

2. Butler, J. (1990), Gender Trouble.

3. Butler, J. (1991), “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” in Inside/Out, ed. D. Fuss.

4. Butler, J. (1993), Bodies That Matter.

5. Derrida, J. (1988), Limited Inc, trans. S. Weber and J. Mehlman.

6. Felman, S. (1983), Literary Speech Act, trans. C. Porter; reiss. 2002 as Scandal of the Speaking Body.

7. Ohmann, R. (1971), “ Speech Acts and the Definition of Literature,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 4: 1—19.

8. Pratt, M.L. (1977), Toward a Speech Act Theory of Literary Discourse.

9. Searle, J. (1969), Speech Acts.

10. Searle, J. (1977), “ Reiterating the Differences: A Reply to Derrida,” Glyph 1: 198—208.

11. Sedgwick, E. (1993), “ Queer Performativity,” Gay and Lesbian Quarterly 1: 1—16.