Author: John L. Austin
Title: How to do things with words
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Year: 1976 
This is probably one of the most reviewed books in recent history of philosophy of language. Prior to any considerations, let us presume that “I name this ship Mr. Stalin” is also probably the most glorious (yet perilous) examples that philosophy could come up with. Nevertheless, it is printed front and center on the cover of the first edition (picture above is the second) amongst others like “I promise”, “France is hexagonal” and … “Shoot her!”
From where does this ease in treating language come from? Must not works on language undergo a constrained and hard-to-deal-with manner of approach? Bertrand Russell, W.V. Quine, Carnap and the entire Vienna Circle (who all “first-wittgensteinously” dismissed natural language), do they not have any point whatsoever? Well, they do have a point there, but they missed it, says ordinary language philosophy. The foregoing philosophers, the ones forming the non-natural approach (although not all of them) stem from Kant’s perspective of statements that can be neither true nor false as things that evade reason’s control. Bertrand Russell defined them as “language imperfections” or “nonsensical utterances” because they cannot adopt any truth values. This is called the representationalist view upon words and objects and finds its roots in Aristotle’s metaphysics. Here, John Langshaw Austin interferes.
His work begins by building a standpoint against “philosophers and grammarians” that consider language as mere descriptive (that is “compliable, in theory, with truth values”). “What I shall have to say here is neither difficult nor contentious; the only merit I should like to claim for it is that of being true, at least in parts”. Fair enough. Let us hear you out.
Although the chief business of statements is to describe (or ‘report’, which makes them ‘constatives’), there are some other types that might not fall under this description. When I say, for instance, “I bet you sixpence it will rain tomorrow” or “I do (…take this woman to be my lawful wedded wife”, I am actually betting, I am actually getting married – which means that the uttering of the sentence is, or is a part of, the doing of that certain action, which again would not normally be described as saying something. We will call these ‘performatives’. These utterances do things with words.
Still, doing something solely by uttering some words seems a rather incomplete thing to claim. It’s “odd and flippant”. That is why Austin came up with a set of rules for felicitous performatives, which assume that it is always necessary for some circumstances to be appropriate in some way (or ways) in orther to achieve something. You cannot [f]actually marry just by uttering together the words ‘I’ and ‘do’. There must exist an accepted conventional procedure having a certain conventional effect, the particular persons and circumstances in a given case must be appropriate, the procedure must be executed correctly and completely etc.
Not much time later, analyzing several ‘infelicities’ in producing performatives and examining in how many ways we can do something in saying something, Austin came up with a better idea that would define these issues more clearly. This was the final state of his theory.
First off, he divided speech acts into three components: the phonetic act (‘merely the act of uttering certain noises’), the phatic act (of uttering ‘certain vocables or words,
i.e. noises of certain types, belonging to and as belonging to, a certain vocabulary) and the rhetic act (‘using those vocables with a certain more-or-less definite sense and reference’). Together, they make the locutionary act of saying something. To perform a rhetic act is eo ipso to perform a phatic one that involves a phonetic act. The converse, however, is obviously not true, ‘for if a monkey makes a noise indistinguishable from 'go' it is still not a phatic act’, much less a rhetic one.
But if I my friend asks: “What time is it?” and I say “It is half past seven”, aren’t I doing something else than just making some sense out of those phonemes? This “other thing” is called an illocutionary act – the use of the locutionary act (asking or answering a question, giving some information or an assurance or a warning/order, announcing a verdict or an intention, pronouncing sentence, making an appointment or an appeal or a criticism, making an identification or giving a description). And that use has a specific force; and by that Austin means ‘conventional force’. Theoretically, the difference between these two acts could boil down to this: the locutionary act is the performance of an act of saying something, as opposed to the performance of an act in saying something, which defines the illocutionary act.
But there’s more. There is a third kind of use, and I think is useful here to cite the whole passage:
“Saying something will often, or even normally, produce certain consequential effects upon the feelings, thoughts, or actions of the audience, or of the speaker, or of other persons: and it may be done with the design, intention, or purpose of producing them […].We shall call the performance of an act of this kind the performance of a perlocutionary act or perlocution.”
Act (A) or Locution
He said to me 'Shoot her !' meaning by 'shoot' shoot and referring by 'her' to her.
Act (B) or Illocution
Heurged (or advised, ordered, &c.) me to shoot her.
Act (C. a) or Perlocution
He persuaded me to shoot her.
Act (C. b)
He got me to (or made me) shoot her.
Let us now notice that virtually any act can be transmitted as a perlocution, in other words it can have ‘real consequences’ that are to be distinguished from any conventional forms (with few exceptions like insinuating or evincing emotion). That is partly because the perlocutionary object is quite different from perlocutionary sequel. You might have seen this over and over in the movies: the policeman arrives at the scene of the crime (or the falling building, for that matter) and ask everybody to stay calm. He might succeed in determining everybody not to embrace hysteria (which would be the object), or he could just as well succeed in alarming everybody as hell and make them wander towards exists in great distress (which would be the opposed sequel).
Assuming that these explanations have managed to bring an intuitive grasp upon this subject, we can now ask ourselves: “Is it better to comprehend language in this manner or it is/was better the other way around?” This question is at the same time plainly opportune and fairly unanswerable. We will see on our next reviews advancements of Austin’s theory and further developments of it (you might want to keep a watchful eye on the review of John R. Searle’s Speech acts – an essay in the philosophy of language) but note that these further elaborations account mostly for the analysis of illocutionary acts.
John Austin’s work is to be known today as speech act theory, and forms (along with Grice’s implicature theory and Harvey Saks’s conversation analysis) what we know as pragmatics, this latter being a sub-category of theoretical linguistics.