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Although the reflection on the performative dimension of language can arguably be traced back to the Sophists (Corax of Syracuse, Tisias, Gorgias, Protagoras, and Isocrates) of the fifth century bce and their (lost) treatises on rhetoric and argumentation, it is John L. Austin (1911-1960) who usually is credited with being the first philosopher to systematically address this question. In his postmortem book titled How to Do Things with Words (1975), Austin showed that language can be used not only to describe states of affairs (as in This kitchen is very clean), but also to do things (in this case, to note that this kitchen is very clean). More specifically, Austin named the type of action a person performs in saying something an illocu-tionary act. For instance, in saying Come here! in specific contexts, I can be said to be giving my interlocutor an order, which is an illocutionary act. This act can also have consequences, such as my making my interlocutor come when I say Come here! Austin named this type of action a perlocutionary act, which is an act that comprises the intentional or nonintentional consequences that result from the illocutionary act.
Although Austin provided a detailed classification of speech acts, it is John R. Searle who developed the most thorough systematization of this theory of language (Searle 1969, 1979; Searle and Vanderveken 1985; Vanderveken 1990-1991). Searle identified five different types of illocutionary acts, which he called assertives (i.e., holding something to be true, as in This kitchen is very clean), commissives (i.e., committing oneself, as in I’ll be there), directives (i.e., getting someone to do something, as in Come here!), expressives (i.e., expressing a psychological state vis-a-vis something that was done previously, as in Sorry for stepping on your toes), and declarations (i.e., transforming the world by making it conform to the propositional content, as in I hereby declare that the session is open). Searle also identified what he called indirect speech acts, which correspond to the speech acts by which one says more than what is literally said. For instance, when I say Would you mind bringing me this chair? I am literally asking my interlocutor if she is willing to bring me a chair. Searle calls this type of literal speech act a secondary illocu-tionary act by which a primary illocutionary act (or indirect speech act) is performed. In this case, the indirect speech act consists of (politely) asking my interlocutor to bring me a chair.
Several critiques have, of course, been addressed to this theory. For instance, Stephen C. Levinson (1981, 1983), Marina Sbisa (1984, 1987, 2002), and Emanuel A. Schegloff (1988) deplore that the orthodox speech act theory fails to capture the complexity and sequential character of human interaction, which, at first sight, renders its use relatively sterile to people interested in the detailed study of interaction (but see Cooren 2000, 2005; Geis 1995; Jacobs 1989; Sanders 1987; van Rees 1992). Another critique, coming from Jacques Derrida (1988), consists of highlighting the iterable character of speech acts, that is, their capacity of being repeated (or iterated) in a potentially infinite number of contexts. According to Derrida, this iterability undermines the identification made by Searle between what a speaker/writer means and the type of speech acts he or she produces (a monologism also denounced by Sbisa). According to this perspective, what the producer of a given speech act means is something that is conventionally reconstructed a posteriori by the participants and not something that defines a priori what a given speech act will count as. This reflection paves the way for a model of speech acts that would take into account the speech agency of things as diverse as documents, as in This announcement invites a bid for the construction of their building, where we attribute to a text the action of inviting; or spoken words, as in His words blessed their union, where the focus is on the agency of pronounced words (Cooren 2004).
- Austin, John L. 1975. How to Do Things with Words. 2nd ed. Eds. J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisà. Oxford: Clarendon Press. (Orig. pub. 1962).
- Cooren, François. 2000. The Organizing Property of Communication. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
- Cooren, François. 2004. Textual Agency: How Texts Do Things in Organizational Settings. Organization 11 (3): 373–393.
- Cooren, François. 2005. The Contribution of Speech Act Theory to the Analysis of Conversation: How Pre-sequences Work. In Handbook of Language and Social Interaction, eds. Kristine L. Fitch and Robert E. Sanders, 21–40. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Derrida, Jacques. 1988. Limited Inc. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
- Geis, Michael L. 1995. Speech Acts and Conversational Interaction. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. Jacobs, Scott. 1989. Speech Acts and Arguments. Argumentation 3 (4): 345–365.
- Levinson, Stephen C. 1981. The Essential Inadequacies of Speech Act Models of Dialogue. In Possibilities and Limitations of Pragmatics: Proceedings of the Conference on Pragmatics, Urbino, July 8–14, 1979, eds. Herman Parret, Marina Sbisà, and Jef Verschueren, 473–492. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
- Levinson, Stephen C. 1983. Pragmatics. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Sanders, Robert E. 1987. Cognitive Foundations of Calculated Speech: Controlling Understandings in Conversation and Persuasion. Albany: State University of New York Press. Sbisà, Marina. 1984. On Illocutionary Types. Journal of Pragmatics 8 (1): 93–112.
- Sbisà, Marina. 1987. Speech Acts and Context Change. In Process Linguistics, eds. Thomas T. Ballmer and Wolfgang Wildgen, 252–279. Tübingen, West Germany: Max Niemeyer Verlag.
- Sbisà, Marina. 2002. Speech Acts in Context. Language and Communication 22 (4): 421–436.
- Schegloff, Emanuel A. 1988. Presequences and Indirection: Applying Speech Act Theory to Ordinary Conversation. Journal of Pragmatics 12 (1): 55–62.
- Searle, John R. 1969. Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. London: Cambridge University Press.
- Searle, John R. 1979. Expression and Meaning: Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Searle, John R., and Daniel Vanderveken. 1985. Foundations of Illocutionary Logic. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Vanderveken, Daniel. 1990–1991. Meaning and Speech Acts. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- van Rees, M. Agnès. 1992. The Adequacy of Speech Act Theory for Explaining Conversational Phenomena: A Response to Some Conversation Analytical Critics. Journal of Pragmatics 17 (1): 31–47.
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