The philosopher J.L. Austin (1911-1960) claims that many utterances (things people say) are equivalent to actions. When someone says: “I name this ship” or “I now pronounce you man and wife”, the utterance creates a new social or psychological reality. We can add many more examples:
Sergeant Major: Squad, by the left… left turn!
Referee: (Pointing to the center circle) Goal!
Groom: With this ring, I thee wed.
The “hereby” test
One simple but crude way to decide whether a speech act is “a performative” is to insert the word “hereby” between subject and verb. If the resulting utterance makes sense, then the speech act is probably a performative. For example,
“I hereby confer upon you the honourable degree of Bachelor of Arts…”
“I hereby sentence you to three months’ probation, suspended for a year…”
“I hereby appoint you Grandmaster of the Ancient, Scandalous and Disreputable Order of Friends of the Hellfire Club …”
What are the felicity conditions that are necessary for these performatives to be successful?
The situation of the utterance is important. If the US President jokingly “declares” war on another country in a private conversation, then the USA is not really at war. This, in fact, happened (on 11 August 1984), when Ronald Reagan made some remarks off-air, as he thought, but which have been recorded for posterity:
“My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”
One hopes that this utterance also failed in terms of sincerity conditions.
In a series of lectures at Harvard University in 1967, the English language philosopher H.P. (Paul) Grice outlined an approach to what he termed conversational implicature – how hearers manage to work out the complete message when speakers mean more than they say. An example of what Grice meant by conversational implicature is the utterance:
“Have you got any cash on you?”
where the speaker really wants the hearer to understand the meaning:
“Can you lend me some money? I don’t have much on me.”
The conversational implicature is a message that is not found in the plain sense of the sentence. The speaker implies it. The hearer is able to infer (work out, read between the lines) this message in the utterance, by appealing to the rules governing successful conversational interaction. Grice proposed that implicatures like the second sentence can be calculated from the first, by understanding three things:
The usual linguistic meaning of what is said.
Contextual information (shared or general knowledge).
The assumption that the speaker is obeying what Grice calls the cooperative principle.