A performative utterance is one which does what it says. For example, if a person says “I promise to be there”, in normal circumstances this constitutes a promise to be at the specified place at the specified time, i.e. implies a course of action to fulfil the promise. The concept was originated by J. L. Austin, who contrasted performatives with constatives. Constatives make statements about the world which are either true or false. Performatives are neither true nor false (although whether the person making the promise turns up at the specified time and place will determine whether a promise was actually made).
The difficulties, and indeed the more interesting questions, arise when it is realised, as Austin did, that any utterance may be performative and that a clear and permanent distinction between performative and constative is hard to maintain. More depends on the circumstances of the utterance than the form of the utterance, although both have significance, e.g. barking out an order (Halt!) does much to constitute its status as ‘a command’ to act in a specified way.
Matters get even more interesting when the notion of “in normal circumstances” is opened to question (what are they?) and the question of whether the person uttering the performative fully intends to do what they say they will do, for example, whether they really intend to be there at the specified place at the specified time when they say “I promise to be there” (as noted above, concerning whether a promise was actually made, or some other act performed, such as a deception). The utterer may be lying, joking or may have forgotten a previous arrangement that they have made in which they promised to be somewhere else, i.e. intentionally or unintentionally invalidating the performative act. Alternatively, they may be uttering the sentence in the context of acting in a play.
In short, circumstances are the important factor, and their ‘normality’ should not simply be assumed but carefully considered.
edited 12 July, 2018 by Admin