Speech Act Theory: Austin and Searle

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)

Lecture Notes:

“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)

Join or login to comment.

  • Roger

    Here's a fun off-shoot of our discussion that provides some entertaining insights into the function of speech acts in relationships: http://www.thersa.org/events/rsaanimate/animate/rsa-animate-language-as-a-window-into-human-nature

    February 22, 2013

  • Roger

    I had a thought about the part of our discussion where we talked about performative utterances having a spiritual dimension. Consider the word "Amen". I wouldn't consider "Amen" to be merely an outward expression of an inward spiritual act. It seems to me that, in saying "amen" or uttering a prayer, one is actively addressing (and establishing the existence of) a divine being. As a result of this address, the divine being inherits all the same rights and due consideration as any other interlocutor with whom we can make agreements (but maybe not place bets!). It doesn't seem like a stretch to say that promises made to god or any other spiritual force (nature, the cosmos, etc.) carry the same binding force as those made with real people. Just a thought

    February 18, 2013

    • Scott

      Your example of "amen" is an interesting one, interesting because it tests the performative rule of of sincerity. It might be argued that sincerity is established not only for those who believe in god while saying "amen", but also for those who do not but are participating in the ritual of saying it out of respect for the people there. A related example is gentiles who put on a yarmulka when attending a Jewish wedding or barmitzvah.

      February 18, 2013

  • Roger

    Good discussion. Philosophy of Language is not something I have much experience with so I thought our conversation was a good primer for future readings.

    February 18, 2013

  • Scott

    I've concluded--for now--that speech act theory touches upon philosophy at times but not significantly enough to be justified as one. Its major concept--how language can be used to formalize commitments and events--is also addressed by psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and of course linguists.

    Having said that, I found Saturday's discussion stimulating, particularly the analysis of specific acts, such as apologies and jokes, and determining what makes them felicitous or infelicitous. If time had permitted I would have liked the group to consider the commonalities, perhaps superficial, between speech acts, game theory, and social contract theory. Do performative utterances tend to be zero-sum or non-zero-sum. For example, Jeremy Bentham argued (as does the Old Testament) that the punishment bestowed upon a prisoner should be equal to the impact of his or her crime. Yet when two people make a bet, it will always be zero-sum--that is, there will be one winner and one loser.

    February 18, 2013

    • Roger

      I think it's true that, at the very least, performative utterances state the existence of a social contract between interlocutors. In making a bet, for example, all parties in question mutually understand the context, possibilities and risks involved (in this instance the risks are presumably zero-sum). A counter example could be the oath that one takes before receiving citizenship in a new country or even a wedding vows. Both are promises/commitments to a community that can't be considered in terms of winning and losing.

      February 18, 2013

  • Alex R.

    It seemed that we all had spirited discussions and I had a lot of fun with it. I'm not sure about Seattle and Austin's theories as philosophy but I liked the discussion.

    February 18, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Believe it or not, I can't go bcs I was bitten by a dog & have to be checked for rabies that afternoon.

    February 14, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    I'm going to try to make it!

    February 4, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Sorry I can't attend as I am extremely itnerested in boht authors and the topic. Want to let you know in time for someone else to join. thanks! jane

    December 25, 2012

11 went

People in this
Meetup are also in:

Create a Meetup Group and meet new people

Get started Learn more

I started the group because there wasn't any other type of group like this. I've met some great folks in the group who have become close friends and have also met some amazing business owners.

Bill, started New York City Gay Craft Beer Lovers

Sign up

Meetup members, Log in

By clicking "Sign up" or "Sign up using Facebook", you confirm that you accept our Terms of Service & Privacy Policy