Tag Archives: 語言哲學

哲學功課: Locutionary Acts and Illocutionary Acts


In “How to do Things with Words”, J.L.Austin challenges the traditional view of philosophy language that the meaning of utterances concerns about its truth value. He proposed the concept of speech act, instead passively describe what is being said, he bring froth a new idea that identify a critical feature of speaking, which is “saying is doing”. He classify utterance into two categories, performative utterance and costative utterance. Costative utterance is more or less the traditional account of sentence, in which it concerns about how to interpret the meaning of statement in the sentence. A statement is stating some fact and some reference which can be denotated and resolved its sense and then determine the truth value of the statement. For example, the sentence “My school is on top of Burnaby Mountain” is a statement stating some fact about the school of the speaker which can be verified by the listener once “my school” is deference to “Simon Fraser University” and “Burnaby Mountain” is denotated to a particular place that the listener knows about. On the other hand, performative utterance has no truth value attached, rather the speaker is trying to archive something with the utterance. The major concern of the sentence, for example a command or an instruction, is about what the speaker intended to archive. For example, when the speaker says “Get me a cup of tea”, there is no true of false regarding the sentence, he is instructing the listener to fetch him a cup of tea.

Austin further divide the performative utterance into three sub-categories. When a person speaks, he is actually performing three acts at the same time. On the surface level, he is preformance a locutionary act, that he is making some sound, speaking some words and uttering a sentence that means a certain thing literally. In short it is the act that he is speaking. On the second level, there is the illocutionary act, what the speaking is doing when he is speaking. He could be promising something, ordering someone or stating some facts through his speech. In short it is the act in his speaking. The last level is prelocutionary act, it is the intention of the speaker through the act of speaking, he could be trying to draw someone’s attention, pleasing someone or insulting someone. In short it is the act behind his speaking. Austin points out that costative utterance is a special kind of performative utterance where the act performed is to state something. He also points out that a sentence with illocutionary verbs will make the sentence a illocutionary act, but some sentence without any illocutionary verbs can also be a performative utterance under the right context. For example, the sentence “I will be there tomorrow” has an implicit meaning that I promise I will be there tomorrow.

Searle disagrees with Austin distinction on locutionary act and illocutionary act in the article “Austin on Locutionary and Illocutionary Acts” [2]. His paper is divided into two major sections. In the first half of the paper he try to show that Austin account on the boundary between locutionary act and illocutionary act is wrong, “reduces the locutionary-illocutionary distinction to trying and succeeding in performing an illocutionary act” [2, p409]. In the second half of the paper, he propose his own boundary between locutionary act and illocutionary act by introducing the concept of propositional acts. In the following sections, I will examine Searle’s argument in details and point out how he failed to show that Austin is wrong about louctionary act and illocutionary act.

Searle agrees with Austin on the first two level of locutionary act, the phonetic act that is the act of making some sound, the phatic act that is the act of uttering some words, but he disagree on the rhetic act that constitute the sense and reference of the sentence in the utterance. On the rhetic act level, he thinks that the meaning of the utterance is the same as the illocutionary, “there are not two difference acts but two different labels for the same act” [2, p407]. He argue that if someone says “Get out”, the rhetic act is he told me to get out, which is essentially the same as the illocutionary act. In short, “the verb phrases in the reports of rhetic acts invariably contain illocutionary verbs” [2, p411]. There is no way to give an indirect speech report of a rhetic act which does not turn the report into the report of an ilocutionary act.

Let me show Searle is wrong by employing two counter examples. In the simple examples used in Searle’s article, it is indeed very hard to distinguish the the rhetic act and illocutionary. However when we consider a more complex example, we can clearly mark distinction between locutionary act and illocutionary. Under many circumstance, the surface meaning of the speech can be very difference from the illocutionary act. Imagine that there is a secret agent who is is contacting his undercover spy to exchange some information and issue further instructions in a coffee shop. They both agreed on using some secret code word, let’s say for example on surface they are talking about NHL games, but in reality they use the score of the games and the number on the hockey player’s jersey to encode secret messages. In this case, on the surface the locutionary act are just talking about hockey, but the illocutionary act has totally different meaning, maybe they are talking about their next assassination plan. Here we have a clear cut distinction between locutionary act and illocutionary act that the two are not the same.

Searle also made a wrong assumption that locutionary act must always has three parts. In fact a locutionary act can only consist of the first two parts or even just the first part, but there can still be an illocutionary act associated with the same utterance. For example, a brain injury patient lost his function in speaking, so he can only make isolated words or he is even only capable of making incomprehensible noise, although his can still think clearly inside his mind. Imagine a scenario that the patient want to get the attention of the nurse, he would try to speak something or make some noise to get the attention of the nurse. The illocutionary act of his utterance is very clear, but yet the rhetic act or the pahtic act is totally missing, only the phonetic act of the loctionary act remains. This example also demostrate that locutionary act is very different form illoctionary act. Even the utternace is totally meaningless on the surface, under some context the meaningless utterance could actually mean something that the speaker is trying to do.

In the second half of the paper, Searle attempt to reconstruct the boundary of locutionary and illocutionary by introducing a new layer, propositional act, above the phatic act in the place of rhetic act used to be. He started with stating three linguistic principles. Then he try to point out Austin neglects those three principles in his original theory in spech act to explain why Austin is wrong. His first argument (point 3) is less controversal, Austin’s attempt to identify specific illocutionary verbs and the endless distinction of different types of illouctionary acts is futile. The cataglory of illocutionary force of utternace is not precise, there can be more than one way to distinguish different types of illocutionary acts.

Searle’s next argument on Principle of Expressiblity (point 1 and 2) tries to point out that “for every illocutionary act one intends to performs, It is possible to utter a sentence the literal meaning of which is such as to determine that its serious literal utterance in an appropriate context” [2, p418]. He thinks that given proper translation and detail description, the meaning of an illocutionary act can be expressed by a sentence literally, so that the Austin’s separation between the said-meaning and the meant-force does not exist. Searle assume “the meaning of a sentence is determined by the meanings of all its meaningful components” [2, p415] which is not always true. The meaning of a sentence can sometimes determined by what is missing from its meaningful components, so that the listener can deduce the true meaning of the sentence from what is omitted from the sentences when it is compare against the normal components of that type of sentences. In a situation that a person has to say one sentence to two listeners but at the same time convey two different meanings to the two listeners with the prerequisite that one of the listener cannot know the meaning that is intended for the other listener. For example, a businessman introduce a customer to his long time business partner. The businessman praise the customer such and such during the introduction in front of the customer. To the customer, the illocutionary act is about using the praises to say something good about the customer. But to the business partner, the illocutionary act is about using what is not praised to indicate something bad about the customer. If the omission in the locutionary act is the true intend of the illocutionary act, then it is impossible to express the illocutionary act in a plain literal sentence, no matter how many details you put into the sentences.

Searle introduce propositional act, the act of expression the proposition, which is a specific type of illocutionary act that the intend of the sentence is merely stating the content of the sentences. Austin thinks that this type of performative utterance act bears the truth value of the content of the sentences just like traditional costative utterance. Searle argues that a propositional act has two components, the statement act itself which is the act of stating, and the statement object which is the content of what is stated. The statement act is like any other act that it does not have true or false. A statement object is a proposition that we can evaluate its truthfuliness. I think Searle are force to introduce this arkward layer of the proposition act in order to complete his speech act theory because he get rid of the rhetic act layer of locutionary act. Let’s recall Austin’s definition of locutionary act, especially the definition of rhetic act, is that the speaker is saying the literal meaning of the sentence. Statement act is actually a special kind of illocutionary act that the meaning of illocutionary act overlap with the meaning of rhetic act. Let me use the same technique employed by Searles earlier in the article but flip it, there is no way to give a report of an illocutionary act which does not turn into giving an indirect speech report of a rhetic. For example, he said “Simon Fraser University is in Burnaby”, the illocutionary act is that he is stating Simon Fraser University is in Burnaby which is exactly the same as the rhetic act.

In conclusion, I successfully defence Austin’s account on the locutionary act and illocutionary act from Searle’s attack by showing counter examples that clearly mark the boundary between locutionary and illocutionary acts. In addition, I also refute his claim that illocutionary act can be express in a literal sentence that in his account makes locutionary act no longer necessary. At last, I demostrated that the introduction of propositional act is redundant if we keep the distinction of locutionary act and illocutionary act. Propositional act is just a special case of illocutionary act that actually overlap with locutionary.

[1] J.L. Austin, “Performative Utterances”
[2] J.R.Searle, “Austin on Locutionary and Illocutionary Acts”