John Austin shocked the world of analytic philosophy when he pronounced that words can actually do things. A proposition is more than its logical structure and its truth or falsity; it is also, when stated or read, an action - it... [more]
John Austin shocked the world of analytic philosophy when he pronounced that words can actually do things. A proposition is more than its logical structure and its truth or falsity; it is also, when stated or read, an action - it performs. By creating an entire new class of statements -- namely, performatives -- Austin wrought havoc on the self-enclosed world of analytic philosophy.
Analytic philosophers were so entangled in the problem of language's capacity (or incapacity) to represent a state of affairs; they never considered that language could actually alter a state of affairs. The classic example is, of course, the marriage vow: you say "I do," and suddenly you're married - bound by tradition to put out and entitled by law to tax breaks. The mere pronouncement profoundly alters the state of affairs. The simple sentence is an action, and an action that remains utterly indifferent to the category of truth.
One should not be led astray by this example, however: performatives cannot be reduced to a finite set of institutionalized utterances. Every utterance performs in some way, every statement produces, in excess of its meaning and its truth or falsity, certain linguistic and non-linguistic effects. Hence the title of Austin's famous lecture: 'How To Do Things With Words.'
Take a less institutional example: your friend calls you, asks you for a ride to the airport. Suddenly, you have to respond. You might feel irritated, overjoyed, mildly peeved or excited - in any case, you've been affected, affected by the words themselves. Sentences sink into you and produce all kinds of effects. Words are not merely representations, as the analytic philosophers would like to have it, but veritable actions, physical causes, forces that alter the world.
Austin and John Searle have created an entirely different axis along which to analyze the relation between language and the world. One cannot simply ask what words mean and whether or not they're true, one must reckon with how they perform. [show less]