Back in 1962 some
lectures given in 1955 by a recently deceased Oxford professor, J L Austin, were published under the title How to Do Things with Words. Austin
thought that we could better understand the character of statements which
interest philosophers if we paid close attention to the way words are used in
different settings. He pointed to situations where just saying something in the
right circumstances itself brings about a change in the way the world is. In
the English marriage ceremony, if you stand before an authorised official and
answer I Do when asked if you wish to
marry the person standing next to you then, provided the other person does the
same, the official will declare you husband and wife and from that moment you are - in the eyes of the law - husband
and wife. And in some cultures, if the husband declares three times and in the
right circumstances I Divorce You
then that’s exactly what they do.
It sounds a bit like
magic, mere words changing the state of the world: Hey Presto! The sense of magic is a bit reduced if you notice that
Austin’s examples suppose an elaborate institutional setting which may have a
long history, has been legally created, and from time to time gets modified
(think of gay marriage). Unfortunately, you don’t end up married to your pet
dog if you declare in their presence I
Marry You even if the dog wags his or her tail in agreement. Your act may
have personal - let’s say, metaphorical significance
- but it doesn’t convince what for convenience we can call “society”. A friend
might intervene and suggest that you calm down.
Austin called those
uses of language which change the state of the world performative utterances or just performatives.
He contrasted them with constative
utterances or constantives which
make claims about the way the world is but don’t change the world itself. The
Earth Orbits the Sun is a stereotype example. We can utter this as many
times as we like and still the Earth and the Sun take no notice at all; they are
not interested. Period.
Austin invited us to
look at other kinds of utterances which belong to the performative family. Say Hello! in the right circumstances (but
in this case prescribed by much looser conventions than the marriage ceremony)
and you have greeted someone; there’s nothing more you have to do, though you
may in fact do more, like smile or hold out your hand.
Within a few years,
Austin’s ideas helped in the re-shaping of linguistics as the scientific study
of language. Though a distinction between syntax
(structure), semantics (meaning)
and pragmatics (use) has been
available for a long time, pragmatics had been the Cinderella of the subject.
Within maybe twenty years it became a powerhouse of new ideas, some highly
technical, and which - as we say - transformed the face of the subject.
Linguists were not the
only people to take an interest in performatives. Sociologists and cultural
theorists saw they might be able to transform
their subjects and become famous if they could make the idea of performatives do more work than
Austin had ever imagined. It seemed relatively easy: the starting point would be to show
that some supposedly constative utterances were, really, just performative ones
Suppose someone says to
you, I’m a Christian. Is that
constative or performative? On the constative side it looks like they are
stating a fact about themselves. On the performative side they are, as we
already say, professing a belief and
professing a religious belief in the right circumstances seems to be at least
part of what it is to have that
belief. If we think (to coin an expression) constatively, then if someone says I’m a Christian and they aren’t then
they are lying. But if we think
performatively, then we have a different word to characterise a fake
performance: they are being insincere.
In explanation of what
comes next, I can only say that I think it arises from over-excitability.
Because next up comes
the idea that what makes someone a Christian is not this rather elusive inner
thing called belief but a whole
series of acts (now to be called performative
acts or simply performances)
which taken together add up to that person being (or not being) a Christian. Or
to slide a bit farther away from the starting point: a Christian is (just)
someone who performs as a Christian,
or performs the role of a Christian;
there is no constative element. There is no fact
of the matter. Performativity is King (or Queen).
And the next step? It’s
to say that I’m a Woman is really
just like I’m a Christian. It’s (just ) a set of performances; there is no fact of the matter.
And the step after
that? The Earth Orbits the Sun is an utterance in which a scientist
simply performs the role of being a scientist. There is no fact of the matter;
there are just scientists and the world they have (performatively) created.
By this point the idea
of performance or performativity has lost any analytical or critical value
because it no longer contrasts with anything else; it has itself become part of
a set of performances which we might characterise as virtue-signalling, or
As a theory it is indistinguishable from
what, in the past, was called philosophical idealism, the claim that
the world is (just) a world of ideas and nothing else, though in one version,
it was paired with the idea of Will and the World was then a World of Will and Idea
where wanting it so and thinking it so makes the world the way it is.
In the end, we have a
story which tells us that there is no way out from the world of words, at least
until one of the scientists’ bombs blows up the world leaving just ….
The moral of this
Dear Student, Because your lecturers suffer
from over-excitability, it is unfortunately your job to work out what has gone
wrong and identify the mistaken transitions which lead to conclusions which have
taken them into la-la land and made their books pretty unreadable too.
Hint: In a technical philosophical paper included in his book Problems of the Self, the late Bernard Williams tried to clarify the idea of belief by pointing out that you cannot decide to believe. Belief happens to you or is the endpoint of some causal chain which may begin with something as simple as a perception: you see a spider on the wall and as a result come to believe that there is a spider on the wall. You have no choice in the matter. The belief is something to which you are liable, it just happens to you.