Although some of the basic concepts of Speech Act Theory can be found in earlier philosophers, J. L. Austin and John Searle are credited with its full development. Speech Act Theory is concerned not just with the literal meaning of a sentence but with what kinds of acts derive from it. Some of these include ordering, promising, requesting, informing, and apologizing. An example of a speech act analysis might involve a minister saying at the end of a marriage ceremony: “I now pronounce you man and wife.” The sentence, according to Austin and Searle, has three functions: locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary. The locutionary function is saying the actual words, the illocutionary does something (it legally recognizes the couple's relationship), and the perlocutionary expresses the psychological consequences of what is said (in this case, a higher level of commitment and intimacy). Where most philosophers of language had examined the denotative meaning of words and the logic of propositions, Speech Act Theorists focus on connotations and the instrumentality of language, often to be inferred from tone, context, etc. For example, “You’re taking the garbage out?” can be merely a question, an order, or a reprimand for past negligence. Whether a speech act succeeds depends on whether the listener understands the speaker’s intended meaning. Speech acts can include non-verbal as well as verbal communication: slapping someone on the back can be an act of aggression or of congratulation.
Ideally we would read both Austin’s How to do Things with Words and Searle's Speech Acts. Given our time constraints, however, we will limit ourselves to the former. How to Do Things with Words (Second Edition) is available from amazon.com and bookfinder.com, with the prices ranging from $10.00 (used) to $19.93 (new). I found the best deals at bookfinder, whose merchants often include free shipping regardless of how much you spend.
To illustrate that Speech Act Theory actually has relevance beyond academia, I encourage attendees to join me in this exercise. In 2008, after winning the Iowa Caucus, Barack Obama gave what became known as the "Moment Speech". In it he drew attention to the historical significance of his victory and what it can mean to Americans if he becomes President. On the blog docuharma.com, a contributor whose username is LithiumCola (I have no idea how this name was chosen) uses Speech Act Theory to explain the perlocutionary power, and covert political strategy, behind the speech. You can view the video and transcript of the speech here, and LithiumCola's analysis here. At our meeting we will do two things: discuss whether we agree with the claims, and also decide whether the analysis was a successful application of Speech Act Theory.
The following resources provide commentaries, bibliographies, and lecture notes. Please be sure to read some of the Searle entries, as we will compare his analysis with that of Austin's.
Wikipedia: "Speech Act", "J. L. Austin", "John Searle", "Performative Utterance", "Locutionary Act", "Illocutionary Act", "Perlocutionary Act"
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Speech Acts", "John Langshaw Austin"
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Speech Act Theory and Pragmatics" (a section in the "Philosophy of Language" article)
Kent Bach, "Speech Acts" in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (of the three encyclopedia articles, this is the clearest, including references to less well known theorists and brief critiques of the philosophy)
Kent Bach, “Meaning, Speech Acts, and Communication” in "Introduction to Part I", Basic Topics in the Philosophy of Language. Ed Robert M. Harnish (Prentice-Hall 1994), pp. 1-23.
John R. Searle, “Austin on Locutionary and Illocutionary Acts” The Philosophical Review, 77 no. 4 (October 1968), pp. 405-424.
Jerrold Sadock, "Speech Acts" in The Handbook of Pragmatics. Ed. Laurence R. Horn and Gregory Ward. Blackwell Publishing, 2006, pp. 53-73.
Barry Smith, “John Searle: From Speech Acts to Social Reality” (author is Distinguished Professor and Julian Park Chair in Philosophy, SUNY–Buffalo)
Janna Thompson, "Apology, Justice and Respect: A Critical Defence of Political Apology". Australian Association for Professional and Applied Ethics 12th Annual Conference 28–30 September 2005, Adelaide. (focus is Australian treatment of aborigines but much is extrapolatable to U.S. politics)
“Illocutionary Acts: Austin’s Account and What Searle Made Out of It” (a 282 page doctoral dissertation for the Speech Act aficionado)
“Speech Acts" by Professor Chris Potts, Dept. of Linguistics, Stanford University
"Speech Acts" by Professor Laura A. Michaelis, Dept of Linguisitcs, University of Colorado
“Speech Act Theory: How Speakers and Hearers Use Language” by Professor Sanford Schane, Dept. Of Linguistics, University of California–San Diego (powerpoint presentation)