Monday, October 3, 2011

Excerpt from Austin

J. L. Austin explains in How to Do Things with Words the way in which an utterance such as “I do,” as said in the course of the marriage ceremony, or “I bet you sixpence it will rain tomorrow,” is an indulgence in the act itself (682). Austin understands such a statement to be not a moral commitment but an act considered performed and so having no retractability. Austin writes:

For one who says “promising is not merely a matter of uttering words! It is an inward and spiritual act!” is apt to appear as a solid moralist standing out against a generation of superficial theorizers: we see him as he sees himself, surveying the invisible depths of ethical space, with all the distinction of a specialist in the sui generis. Yet he provides Hippolytus with a let-out, the bigamist with an excuse for his “I do” and the welsher with a defense for his “I bet.” Accuracy and morality alike are on the side of the plain saying that our word is our bond (684).

When the “moralist” adds a dimension of human goodness to a promise – a dimension of error and forgiveness –, he complicates the act the spoken word asserts has been completed. Consequently, Austin concludes that such statements – explained to be illocutionary acts in the following section of the excerpt – must be considered irrelevant to this moral realm to be honest and, perhaps, truly ethical. For this reading and for many of the others, though, it seems necessary to question where the human emotion resides within communication. If each word has, naturally, no signification as Locke asserts, can emotional inference allow for a clearer perception of the intended signifier?


  1. I agree! I believe that emotions can break down and disprove or build up and strengthen any critical theory ever proposed. It is interesting to read theorists and watch them struggle around the abstraction of emotion, because it is viewed as, simply, inaccurate and irrational, which is slightly confusing because emotion is very real! And should be addressed! If a theorist does bring emotion up, he/she may flutter in and out of the common characteristics of emotion and the tendency it has to fluctuate and change common conceptions. If the theorists ignore emotion and fail to mention it, the reader then assumes that the author had forgotten such an important concept and therefore completely confuses the point and argument.

  2. Yeah, I mean I see that emotion really has no place within some theory, but it seems to affect communication in a way that confuses all of these ideas in my head. Maybe I'm just misunderstanding the importance of it.

  3. Christina, this question intrigues me:

    "If each word has, naturally, no signification as Locke asserts, can emotional inference allow for a clearer perception of the intended signifier?"

    If by *emotion* you mean *interpretive intention* (on the part of the listener or reader), I don't know if the excerpts we read necessarily will give you a satisfactory answer. So, you are probably right to question. But one thing to consider is whether and how much Austin's performatives rely on Locke's (or de Saussure's, actually) system of signs at all. In other words, isn't one of Austin's dilemmas our inability to determine particular utterances -- statements, words themselves -- as true or false according to accuracy or efficacy? I wonder if Austin's dilemma is more grounded in the idea that language is in the uttering, not in the utterance?

    So, given that understanding, where might (or where does) emotion reside in the communication? Is it necessarily in the interpreter? In the speaker/writer? In the performance?

    -Prof. Graban


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