In the philosophy of language and speech acts theory, performative utterances are sentences which not only describe a given reality, but also change the social reality they are describing.

In a 1955 lecture series, later published as How to Do Things with Words, J. L. Austin argued against a positivist philosophical claim that the utterances always "describe" or "constate" something and are thus always true or false. After mentioning several examples of sentences which are not so used, and not truth-evaluable (among them nonsensical sentences, interrogatives, directives and "ethical" propositions), he introduces "performative" sentences or illocutionary act as another instance.[1]

Austin's definition

In order to define performatives, Austin refers to those sentences which conform to the old prejudice in that they are used to describe or constate something, and which thus are true or false; and he calls such sentences "constatives". In contrast to them, Austin defines "performatives" as follows:

The initial examples of performative sentences Austin gives are these:

As Austin later notices himself, these examples belong (more or less strikingly) to what Austin calls, explicit performatives; to utter an "explicit" performative sentence is to make explicit what act one is performing. However, there are also "implicit", "primitive", or "inexplicit" performatives. When, for instance, one uses the word "Go!" in order to command someone to leave the room then this utterance is part of the performance of a command; and the sentence, according to Austin, is neither true nor false; hence the sentence is a performative; – still, it is not an explicit performative, for it does not make explicit that the act the speaker is performing is a command.

As Austin observes, the acts purported to be performed by performative utterances may be socially contested. For instance, "I divorce you", said three times by a man to his wife, may be accepted to constitute a divorce by some, but not by others.

True/false value and John Searle

John R. Searle argued in his 1989 article How Performatives Work that performatives are true/false just like constatives. Searle further claimed that performatives are what he calls declarations; this is a technical notion of Searle's account: according to his conception, an utterance is a declaration, if "the successful performance of the speech act is sufficient to bring about the fit between words and world, to make the propositional content true." Searle believes that this double direction of fit contrasts the simple word-to-world fit of assertives [de].

The receiving side

Kent Bach and Robert Harnish claimed that performatives are successful only if recipients infer the intention behind the literal meaning, and that therefore the success of the performative act is determined by the receiving side.[2]

Performativeness as non-dichotomous variable

Eve Sedgwick argued that there are performative aspects to nearly all words, sentences, and phrases.[3] Additionally, according to Sedgwick, performative utterances can be 'transformative' performatives, which create an instant change of personal or environmental status, or 'promisory' performatives, which describe the world as it might be in the future. These categories are not exclusive, so an utterance may well have both qualities. As Sedgwick observes, performative utterances can be revoked, either by the person who uttered them ("I take back my promise"), or by some other party not immediately involved, like the state (for example, gay marriage vows pre-legalisation).

Words on a list can be either descriptive or performative. 'Butter' on a shopping list implies that "I will buy butter" (a promise to yourself). But 'Butter' printed on your till receipt means "you have purchased butter" (simply a description).

Performative writing

The above ideas have influenced performative writing; they are used as a justification for an attempt to create a new form of critical writing about performance (often about performance art). Such a writing form is claimed to be, in itself, a form of performance. It is said to more accurately reflect the fleeting and ephemeral nature of a performance, and the various tricks of memory and referentiality that happen in the mind of the viewer during and after the performance.

See also



  1. ^ Austin, J.L. How to Do Things with Words Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962. ISBN 0-19-824553-X
  2. ^ Bach, Kent; Harnish, Robert (August 1981). "Linguistic Communication and Speech". Language in Society. 10 (2): 270–274. JSTOR 4167219.
  3. ^ Sedgwick, Eve (2003). Touching Feeling. Duke University Press.