A Plea for Perlocutions

  • David Kaufmann George Mason University


After staging the shipwreck of the constative-performative distinction halfway through How To Do Things With Words, J.L. Austin goes on famously to “make a fresh start on the problem.” He relinquishes the original opposition between making statements and doing things and then introduces a ternary account of speech acts. He distinguishes between locutionary acts (in which we produce sounds with “a certain sense and a certain reference”[95]), illocutionary acts (in which we perform acts such as “asking or answering a question, giving some information… announcing a verdict...and the numerous like” [98-99]), and perlocutionary acts (in which we “produce consequential effects upon the feelings, thoughts or actions of an audience, or of the speaker, or of other persons”[101]). For all the philosophical ink that has been spilled on Austin, not much has been devoted to perlocutions. Locutions and illocutions get almost all the action.

Stanley Cavell has been one of the few philosophers to emphasize the importance of the perlocutionary for speech act theory. In his forward to the second edition of Shoshana Felman’s The Scandal of the Speaking Body and in his essay “Performative and Passionate Utterances,” Cavell assumes, as Stephen Mulhall puts it, that Austin believes that “the perlocutionary effect of any utterance [is] extrinsic to its sense and force” and thus that the perlocutionary can be opposed to the illocutionary act. Because Austin maintains that the illocutionary is conventional and the perlocutionary is not (121), Cavell argues that illocutions come down on the side of the Law, while perlocutions give voice to Desire. Where the illocutionary is scripted and prescribed, the perlocutionary opens up space for improvisations. According to Mulhall, Cavell proposes a radical innovation to Austin’s theory by suggesting that the perlocution is “as internal to any genuine speech-act as are its locutionary and illocutionary dimensions.” I am going to argue in this essay that Cavell does not really revise Austin’s theory. He gives voice to what Austin actually says.