Performatives and Illocutionary Force

Taking stock of the preceding discussion, we may now distinguish three points of view on performatives and illocutionary force. First, the speech-act analyses of Austin and (more particularly) of Scarle favour what I have called the pragmaticist position in that they define meaning by reference to felicity conditions, or contextual conditions for the per­formance of illocutionary acts. From this viewpoint, performatives are highly significant as utterances which, as it were, wear their illocutionary hearts on their sleeves: the performative verb as an 'illocutionary force indicating device' is an explicit expression of something which is assumed to be implicit in other, non-performative utterances. Second, the per­formative analysis of Ross and others is representative of what I have called the semanticist position. Although this is the opposite camp from pragmaticism, in practice it shares with Austin and Searle a conviction that performatives are crucially important in being the overt expression of the underlying illocutionary meaning implicit in other sentences. In hindsight, we can perhaps say that the performative analysis was an attempt to incorporate situational factors into grammar, and could only have been seriously entertained by linguists whose view of language and meaning excluded pragmatics.

What Ross calls 'the pragmatic analysis', on the other hand, is, in spite of its name, representative of the complementarist position. Accord­ing to this analysis, performatives are analysed semantically as ordinary declarative sentences. They express, in fact, a rather unusual kind of indirect-speech proposition: one in which the speaker reports his own speech act. But it is only through pragmatic analysis in terms of situation of utterance that the special, self-referring nature of performatives becomes clear. That is, pragmatics and semantics are both necessary to the explanation of performatives.

It is safer to say, as with presuppositions (Chapter 14), that in semantics there are no performatives: there are only potential performatives. A sentence with the syntactic properties of a performative (first person subject, present tense verb, etc.) can be interpreted either as referring to a single present event, or as referring to a present habit consisting of repeated events; only in the former interpretation is the sentence construed as a performative. This ambiguity is detectable in:

(10) I declare the meeting open

which could be interpreted as a performative: (= 'I hereby declare the meeting open') or as non-performative:

(11) A: Mr President, what is the first thing you do at an Annual

Genera! Meeting? B'. I declare the meeting open.

But needless to say. in most cases the performalive or non-performative interpretation is perfectly clear from the context.

At this point it is advisable to make a distinction between sentences and utterances. Sentences belong to the language system, as do their meanings as propositions, questions, etc. But when we come to pragmatics we discuss the meaning of sentences in particular 'situations, and these less abstract linguistic objects may be called utterances. It can now be seen that what I have so far rather neutrally called 'performatives' are actually 'performative utterances' rather than 'performative sen­tences'; that is, performatives are identified as being performatives in pragmatics. At the same time, we recognize that it is by virtue of the ordinary semantic interpretation of such utterances as a special kind of indirect speech quotation that the performative interpretation is arrived at.

The complementarist 'pragmatic' analysis differs from the traditional analysis of performatives in one substantive detail. Where Austin and others have denied thai a performative can be deemed false, the pragmatic analysis says that a performative is semantically just a special type of indirect speech proposition, and therefore may be deemed true or false like all regular propositions. The difference, in this view, between performatives and non-performatives is a pragmatic one: namely, that a situation in which the truth of a performative can be reasonably challenged rarely arises. For example, it is a required condition of a promise, in Searle's analysis, that the speaker has the intention to carry out the envisaged action. Hence 'I promise to be there' is rather like 'I have a pain in my big toe' in that no one except the speaker can know it to be false. But it does seem possible to deny a performative in cases where the thing promised is utterly impossible to perform: e.g. 'I promise to make you the first female prime minister of the U.K.' (uttered in 1980), or in cases where other conditions for the performance of an illocutionary act are not present:

A: I pronounce you man and wife.

B: Oh no you don't - being neither a minister of religion nor a registrar of marriages, you are not qualified to do so.

If such examples seem far-fetched, notice that potential performatives can be negated:

(12) I do not promise to be there, but I'll do my best

and surely this must indicate that if a negative performalive is true, a corresponding positive performative must be false. Performatives do not, we conclude, belie their logical function: they look exactly like declarative sentences, and they are such. It seems that those who have argued the non-propositional nature of performatives have overhastily drawn this conclusion about their anomalous logical status from the fact tliat, pragmatically, they are almost inevitably self-fulfilling. Thus with performalivcs, as with presuppositions, it is the complemenlarist position that prevails.