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What Does Searle Say About Performatives?
by Bryan Register

Date: 1 Dec 97
Forum: University of Texas at Austin
Copyright: Bryan Register

Note: The author may or may not still agree with the views expressed in this paper.

Searle notes in "A Taxonomy of Illocutionary Acts" that

The main theme of Austin's mature work, How to Do Things with Words, is that this distinction [between performatives and other kinds of speech acts] collapses. Just as saying certain things constitutes getting married (a "performative") and saying certain things constitutes making a promise (another "performative"), so saying certain things constitutes making a statement (supposedly a "constative"). As Austin saw but as many philosophers still fail to see, the parallel is exact. Making a statement is as much performing an illocutionary act as making a promise, a bet, a warning or what have you. Any utterance will consist in performing one or more illocutionary acts. (Expression and Meaning, 17-18)

Searle is clearly correct, as was Austin, to note that there is no principled distinction between 'performatives' and 'constatives'. The above paragraph is taken from Searle's discussion of declarations, wherein he also notes that "What I am calling declarations were included in the class of performatives." (Expression and Meaning, 17) Note the past tense, indicating that the inclusion is no longer valid.

It is fairly clear from Searle's five-fold distinction between different kinds of illocutionary acts that the notion of 'performative' played no part in the taxonomy. The idea of 'performatives' had proven unhelpful, as it made no distinction between different kinds of speech acts. And Searle seems to exclude any theory of 'performatives' in the production of his new taxonomy. He mentions 'performatives' only to disavow them, and then only in the context of the kind of illocutionary act most similar to what Austin had initially thought he was distinguishing from the rest of the linguistic universe with the notion of 'performative'.

But ten years later in 1989, Searle developed a brand-new theory of 'performatives' in his paper "How Performatives Work". He notes that Austin's ways of distinguishing 'performatives' from 'constatives' had all turned out not to work, and " looked for a while as if [Austin] would have to say that every utterance was a performative..." (Linguistics and Philosophy, 12, p. 536), which, as it turns out, is exactly what Austin had done. But Searle wants to use the term in a different way: "...some illocutionary acts can be performed by uttering a sentence containing an expression that names the type of speech act.... On my usage, the only performatives are what Austin called 'explicit performatives.'" (ibid., p. 536) On Searle's new theory, all performatives in the new sense are declarations in the terms of his taxonomy.

I want to try to make whatever sense of this that can be made in light of Searle's invaluable taxonomy. Consider the following utterance : "I hereby dub this wet stuff 'rain'." This utterance includes the verb for the act: 'dub'. On Searle's new characterization, this sentence is then a performative. It is also a declaration by his definition: "It is the defining feature of this class that the successful performance of one of its members brings about the correspondence between the propositional content and reality." (Expression and Meaning, 16) Since the utterance above made it the case that this wet stuff had been dubbed 'rain', it is a declaration.

But at least one immediate problem arises. Many speech acts which include the word naming themselves are now declarations when we would not ordinarily expect them to be so. For instance, "I state that it is raining" is now a performative and hence a declaration, even though we might naïvely think that it is a statement and hence an assertive. "Because of the fakery I've exposed in all of your documentation, I question your credentials" would ordinarily be a directive because it directs the hearer to answer in defense of his credentials. But, since the active verb in the sentence is 'question' and this verb also names the act taking place (a question), the sentence is now a declaration. Perhaps most obviously off-kilter, "I promise to be there" is no longer a commissive but a declaration. But clearly these utterances are different from one another in virtue of illocutionary point.

This point shouldn't be taken too far. Searle includes in his new class of 'performatives' only those utterances which include the verb which names them, so an utterance like "It is raining" is still an assertive and not a performative and hence not a declaration. Whereas Searle's earlier taxonomy had included assertives, commissives, directives, declarations, and expressives, it seems that a new taxonomy which treated any sentence whose active verb names the kind of sentence it is as a performative and hence declaration would produce the following taxonomy: assertives, commissives, directives, assertive declarations, commissive declarations, directive declarations, declarative declarations, expressive declarations, and expressions. This is clumsy to put it mildly.

The key problem with Searle's new account is that he fails to consider the differing illocutionary points of the various utterances in question. Any utterance which includes the words "I promise" does not have as its point the creation of the fact that I have promised, but to commit me to do what I've said that I'm going to do (in virtue of the fact that I've promised to do so). I do not order people so as to create an order, I order them as a means to directing them. I do not say "I argue that x" to create an argument about x, but as a means of asserting some truth, x. The notion of a 'performative' seems as ill-conceived in Searle's latest account as in Austin's initial account, and much more damaging because it is now a step back while before it was a fruitful if false step forward.

Searle notes that he and Vanderveken had employed his latest analysis of 'performative': "In the Foundations of Illocutionary Logic ... Daniel Vanderveken and I argue that performative utterances were all cases of declarations." (ibid., 540-541) This does not seem to be correct. They note in the book that "We will call the illocutionary forces with the assertive point assertive illocutionary forces and the performatives or illocutionary verbs which name an assertive illocutionary force assertives ." (Foundations of Illocutionary Logic, p. 38) Note that one can perform an assertive with some performatives, or some illocutionary verbs. They seem to run together (the names of) performatives and illocutionary acts in consistence with Austin's conclusion that all illocutionary acts were performatives and vice versa . They write an equivalent sentence for all five kinds of illocutionary act.

Moreover, they put on their list of verbs which name an assertive illocutionary force 'assert', 'state', and 'swear'. In the new analysis, then, a sentence which had been an assertive in the Foundations of Illocutionary Logic analysis such as "I assert that it is raining" is now a performative in virtue of having its active verb naming the kind of act which it is (assertion), and hence it is a declaration. But Searle and Vanderveken probably would not have put 'assert' in a list of assertive verbs had they intended it to take place exclusively in declarations.

It seems then that Searle has made a number of errors in his latest account of 'performatives'. The first is producing an account of 'performatives', the second is skewing his taxonomy of illocutionary acts so that many utterances are shifted from where they logically ought to be into the category of declarations, and the third is to misreport the position of the Foundations of Illocutionary Logic .

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