Austin’s Speech Act Theory and the Speech Situation

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Austin’s Speech Act Theory and the Speech Situation
Etsuko Oishi
Esercizi Filosofici 1, 2006, pp. 1-14
ISSN 1970-0164

Etsuko Oishi

The talk starts with a question, why do we discuss Austin now? While answering the question, I will (I) present an interpretation of Austin’s speech act theory, (II) discuss speech act theory after Austin, and (III) extend Austin’s speech act theory by developing the concept of the speech situation. And in the following section, three aspects of the speech situation, that is, (I) conventionality, (II) actuality, and (II) intentionality, will be explained. Then a short conclusion follows. 1. Why do we discuss Austin now?

Half a century ago, John Austin gave a series of lectures, the William James Lectures at Harvard, which were published posthumously as a book entitled How to Do Things with Words. Austin presented a new picture of analysing meaning; meaning is described in a relation among linguistic conventions correlated with words/sentences, the situation where the speaker actually says something to the hearer, and associated intentions of the speaker. The idea that meaning exists among these relations is depicted successfully by the concept of acts: in uttering a sentence, that is, in utilizing linguistic conventions, the speaker with an associated intention performs a linguistic act to the hearer. Austin’s analysis of meaning is unique in the sense that meaning is not explained through some forms of reduction. In reductive theories of meaning, complexities of meaning expressed by a sentence are reduced by a single criterion to something else, and this is claimed to be the process of explaining the meaning of the sentence. We can find this reductive «explanation» of meaning typically in Russell: using a logical/mathematical model, Russell reduces the meaning of a sentence to a fact to which the sentence corresponds. The strictest reductionists are logical positivists. According to Warnock (1969), by «verification principles» logical positivists reduced complexities of sentence meaning to something «verifiable», and condemned an unverifiable sentence as, strictly speaking, nonsense. Tarski also took a reductive approach and defined the meaning of a sentence in terms of a state of affairs to which the sentence corresponds. Modern truth-conditional semanticists adopt the Russellian idea of explaining

Esercizi Filosofici, 1, 2006, pp. 1-14. ISSN 1970-0164

Esercizi Filosofici 1, 2006 / Testi

the meaning of a sentence and the Russellian/Tarskian idea of correlating a sentence, as its meaning, with a fact or state of affairs. Dowty, Wall, and Peters (1985) say, to explain the meaning of a sentence is «to specify its truth conditions, i.e., to give necessary and sufficient conditions for the truth of that sentence». Austin, on the other hand, tried to describe «the total speech act in the total speech situation» and warned against oversimplifying complexities of meaning, in particular, by reducing meaning to descriptive meaning:

It has come to be seen that many specially perplexing words embedded in apparently descriptive statements do not serve to indicate some specially odd additional feature in the reality reported, but to indicate (not to report) the circumstances in which the statement is made or reservations to which it is subject or the way in which it is to be taken and the like. To overlook these possibilities in the way once common is called the «descriptive» fallacy. (Austin 1962: 3) [italics added]

By the concept of speech acts and the felicity conditions for performing them, Austin showed that to utter a performative sentence is to be evaluated in terms of, what we might call, conventionality, actuality, and intentionality of uttering the sentence. Uttering a performative sentence is to be described in terms of (I) associated conventions which are...
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