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How to Do Things with Words: An Introduction to John Austin

Although linguistics is a relatively young discipline, which emerged in its mature form only between the first and the second half of the 19th century, human language has been the object of philosophical and scientific inquiry for a long time in human history. In Western tradition, one of the most respected and influential contributions to this inquiry was given by the work of Aristotle. Besides being a philosopher and not a linguist, he was one of the first thinkers to recognise some distinctive properties of language.Because his work was logically oriented, he investigated how statements are expressed in terms of their truth values. According to Aristotle, the most interesting fact about statements expressed in natural languages is that they may be judged as expressing either a true or false state of facts. Quite sensibly, he did not assume that any statement is of this sort. Some linguistic statements, in fact, do not express any truth value: these expressions include exclamations, prayers, insults, and so forth. Nevertheless, Aristotle decided to focus not on the latter but on the former: those which can be judged as true or false. Almost 2500 years later, the study of these “non-constative” statements was reconsidered by one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, John L. Austin (Hacker, 2004).

John Austin: His Life and Works

John Langshaw Austin was born in Lancaster (Figure 1) in 1911. He initially focused on classical studies at Oxford, paying attention to both the linguistic and the philosophical side. His specialty in the area of Classics led to an interest in Greek philosophy, with particular interest in Aristotle. After exploring ancient philosophy, he expanded his initial classical background into a wider work on debates in modern philosophy. Serving in the intelligence corps between 1941 and 1945, after the War, he pursued a career in professorship, teaching at Christ Church College from 1952 until his untimely death in 1960. In this period, he became widely known in the philosophical and linguistic community, coming in contact with major intellectuals of this time, among whom Grice and Chomsky.

During his lifetime, Austin only published articles. The philosophical contributions of Austin lie in three areas: perception, action, and the theory of speech acts. For the purposes of this article, the focus will be on the last area, which is the topic mainly issued in his collected lectures How to Do Things with Words (1962), containing the lessons he held at Harvard University in 1955. Other works from the author include Philosophical Papers (1961) [include 'and'] Sense and Sensibilia (1962) (Hacker, 2004).

Dalton Square
Figure 2. Dalton Square, Lancaster (Taylor, 2010)

Cambridge and Oxford Schools

The period in which Austin lived and worked was characterized by an outstanding development of the philosophy of language in Europe, and in the United States too. In England, it developed especially at Cambridge and Oxford University. In Cambridge, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), who had previously worked on the logical aspects of language, i.e., turned to a completely different vision of language itself, focusing more on the way it is used in ordinary contexts. In this new approach, Wittgenstein does not think that language denotes objects in the world, but rather that it is mainly dependent on the social context and therefore is somewhat comparable to a game, whose player must know a set of rules to participate in. Although Wittgenstein never refers to this new fashion of studying language as ["]pragmatics,["] he is one of the first thinkers to adopt a pragmatic vision of language. This attention to the practical aspects of language use started to spread in other places, Oxford included. Here Austin, without referring explicitly to Wittgenstein, showed the very same attention to the pragmatic aspect of language (Graffi 2019).

This approach to language was totally different from that of other philosophers like Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) and Bertrand Russell (1872-1970, Figure 2), who regarded natural languages as imperfect artifacts that ['that' not 'who' as artifact is an object] needed to be analyzed in their internal, logical, aspects, leaving aside all those ambiguities who characterize its communicative aspect in everyday life. According to them, language is mainly a way to refer to reality and its object, rather than to communicate something. Under this vision, there is a strong relationship between language and reality. Indeed, this theory is often referred to as the referential theory of meaning. The new conception developed by Wittgenstein, instead, negated this relationship between language and reality, stating that the way language refers to reality is highly dependent on external factors, namely cultural and social ones. All these factors are expressed in the only empirically evident way to humans, namely context of use: the particular social conditions in which a word is used transmits its meaning. (Ježek, 2016)

Russell 1957
Figure 2. Bertrand Russell in 1957 (Anefo, 1957).

Constative vs. Performative: Austin’s Insight

As mentioned earlier, Aristotle had acknowledged [Acknowledged? Demonstrated? It's not enough that he understood it]] the existence of the kinds of expressions which do not state something is true or false about the world. But it was Austin who thought such expressions could be the object of a specific philosophical and linguistic inquiry. He thus adopted the adjective constative to refer to statements analyzable in terms of truth values, as intended by Aristotle, and performative to refer to statements that do not predicate something about reality but rather serve to perform actions. To make clear this distinction, consider the following examples. A sentence like'it is raining' is constative since it may be true or false depending on the meteorological conditions when such a statement is expressed. On the contrary, a sentence like 'I pronounce you man and wife', which people hear at weddings do not respond to truth conditions (this statement is neither true or false per se), but it is the expression of an act: in this case, the formalization of an agreement binding two individuals. Such statements are not judged according to truth values, but rather according to the effect they have in the considered social context. Thus, they respond to ‘felicity conditions’: a speech act is felicitous (successful) if it performs the action it is supposed to, and infelicitous otherwise. In this case, the expression if felicitous if it is pronounced by an individual who is able to marry people according to the law (e.g., a Justice of the Peace)

Austin realized that such a distinction is not exhaustive, since constative and performative acts may overlap, i.e., felicity conditions may affect constatives and truth conditions may affect performatives. Austin mentions the case of a verdict in which an individual is judged guilty. It surely responds to felicity conditions, but it also responds to truthconditions depending on the fact whether that individual has, or has not, committed the crime he has been condemned for. As an example, in which truth and falseness affect a performative act is given by the following statement: all of John’s children are tall, but John does not have children. In this case, the performative nature of the first half of the statement is a so-called presupposition (‘John has children’), which is then negated in the second half, making the statement infelicitous, other than contradictory (John’s children cannot be tall if John does not have any of them) (Austin, 1962).

The fact that performative and constative acts are not always clearly distinguishable led Austin to a new classification of speech acts. He thus divides three types of speech acts: locutory, illocutory, and perlocutory. Locutory acts are those which consist of a phonetic substance and carry a meaning (The door is open); illocutory acts are those which perform an action, like prayers, requests, orders, insults (a sentence like close that door is performing a request, other than informing the door is currently open); perlocutory acts are those which are performed as an effect of a pronounced statement (the door being closed after the relevant request has been performed). In Austin’s conception, thus, the opposition true vs. false and felicitous vs. infelicitous affects all kinds of speech acts, both constative and performative. This is a clear change of the Aristotelian paradigm (Figure 3), which distinguished assertive statements from all the others for they could be judged upon truth conditions (Graffi, 2019)

truth table
Figure 3. Logicians inspired by Aristotle introduced a mathematical symbolism to calculate the truth values of expressions in natural languages (Kashef, 2023)


Austin is rightly considered one of the most important philosophers of language of the 20th century. His work, taking Aristotle's reflections as basis, had crucial outcomes. Together with Wittgenstein, he is considered one of the major influences in the new field of pragmatic linguistics or pragmatics. The most crucial innovation of Austin has been to isolate the performative and constative aspects of speech acts. After realizing that certain statements serve to perform actions rather than talk about something, he then makes clear that any kind of speech act has a constative and performative layer, and each of them is analyzableon its own. This new interest towards the practical side of language use differentiate him from other philosophers of the period who, focusing more on logic and inspired by Frege and Russell, wanted to develop formal systems able to describe natural languages with no regard to social context. Despite his early death, his contribution to the philosophy of language is one of the most original and influential of the past century and it's still central to inquiries in philosophy and linguistics.


Austin, J. L. (1962). How to Do Things with Words: The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Graffi, G. (2019). Breve storia della linguistica. Carocci editore.

Hacker, P. (2004). 'Austin, John Langshaw (1911–1960)', in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.

Ježek, E. (2016). The Lexicon. An Introduction. Oxford University Press.

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