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 in disguise.
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 membership-in-the-group signalling.
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 story?
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.