Speech-act theory

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Speech-act theory

Speech-act theory: A theory of language, originally developed by British “ordinary-language” philosopher John L. Austin, that emphasizes the contextual, performative nature of speech and views utterances as acts governed by rules. Speech-act theorists contest the traditional assumptions that: (1) all possible sentences are either kernel (basic) sentences or variations of them; and (2) these kernel sentences declare something that can be determined to be either true or false.

In his most influential work, How to Do Things with Words (1962), Austin classified locutions (utterances) as constatives or performatives. Constative locutions are sentences that state something that can be determined to be true or false. Performative locutions, by contrast, are sentences that actively “do” something, such as question, admonish, or plead. Some performatives, which Austin called “explicit performatives,” actually create the result they intend when they are uttered, as when a minister pronounces, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,” or when the dealer in a card game states, “Deuces are wild.” Having made the distinction between constatives and performatives, however, Austin then demonstrated that the two categories are not mutually exclusive. For instance, “You are in trouble” is a constative insofar as it asserts a state of affairs and a performative insofar as it makes a threat. Austin also identified three major types of speech acts: (1) the locutionary act, which he defined as “an act of saying something” (with a meaning); (2) the illocutionary act, which he characterized as the “performance of an act in saying something” (e.g., informing, ordering, warning); and (3) the perlocutionary act, “what we bring about or achieve by saying something” (e.g., persuading, surprising, misleading). He emphasized the need to distinguish between illocutionary acts, which perform a particular function, and perlocutionary acts, the occurrence of which depends on whether the utterance actually affects the hearer’s actions or state of mind.

Subsequently, in Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (1969), John R. Searle, an Austin disciple, further developed speech-act theory, arguing that “talking is performing acts according to rules” and identifying four types of speech acts. The utterance act, which Searle defined simply as “uttering words,” occurs whenever someone speaks, regardless of whether the utterance makes sense. The propositional act, defined as “referring and predicating” — referring to an object and predicating something upon that object — involves saying something about something else. For instance, in Searle’s example “Sam smokes habitually,” Sam is the object referred to, and “smokes habitually” is the predicating expression. Searle also adopted two of Austin’s speech acts, the illocutionary and perlocutionary acts, noting that illocutionary acts need not have perlocutionary effects and that perlocutionary effects need not depend on the speaker’s intent.

H. P. Grice, another ordinary-language philosopher, also made significant contributions to speech-act theory in essays such as “Logic and Conversation” (1975), where he developed his concept of the communicative presumption, a set of assumptions that he claims are shared by speakers of any given language.

Many of the tenets of speech-act theory have been incorporated into contemporary approaches to literary criticism. Grice’s concept of the communicative presumption, for instance, played a major role in the development of discourse analysis. Austin’s and Searle’s speech acts have provided a conceptual model for critics from a variety of approaches for the systematic analysis of discourse. Certain speech-act theorists have revised mimetic criticism, arguing that literature — rather than offering a representation or mimesis of real places, things, people, and their utterances — is instead “mimetic discourse,” language that represents the language through which we represent ourselves in the real world.

Other critics using speech-act theory to revise traditional concepts of literature and, more specifically, prose fiction have proposed that readers and authors alike share the assumption that the overall framework set up by the author in a work may violate ordinary standards of verisimilitude. However, within that framework, illocutionary statements made by characters must be taken at face value — that is, assumed to be reliable and to rest on a commitment to truth of assertion, just as if they were illocutionary statements made in the real world. Deconstructors, who view texts as rhetoric (rather than as a picture window through which a fixed and reliably correct meaning or truth may be glimpsed), have used speech-act theory to suggest that the performative nature of language leads readers to interpretive impasses, points at which they must choose between contradictory interpretive possibilities and accede to the undecidability of the text’s meaning.