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Illocutionary act is a technical term that has been introduced by John L. Austin in the course of his investigations concerning what he calls 'performative' and 'constative utterances'. According to Austin's original exposition in his famous How to Do Things With Words, an illocutionary act is an act (1) for the performance of which I must make it clear to some other person that the act is performed (Austin speaks of the 'securing of uptake'), and (2) the performance of which involves the production of what Austin calls 'conventional consequences' like, e.g., rights, commitments, or obligations. For example, in order to perform a promise I must make clear to my audience that the promise occurs, and making the promise involves the undertaking of an obligation to do the promised thing: hence promising is an illocutionary act in the present sense.
However, for certain reasons, among them insufficient knowledge of Austin's original exposition, the term 'illocutionary act' is nowadays understood in quite a number of other ways. For example, many define the term with reference to examples, saying such things as that any speech act that amounts to stating, questioning, commanding, promising, and so on, is an illocutionary act; they then often fail to give any sense of the expression 'illocutionary act' capable of making clear what being an illocutionary act essentially consists in.
It is also often emphasised that Austin introduced the illocutionary act by means of a contrast with other kinds of acts: the illocutionary act, he says, is an act performed in saying something, as contrasted with a locutionary act, the act of saying something, and also contrasted with a perlocutionary act, an act performed by saying something.
Still another conception of "illocutionary acts" goes back to Schiffer's famous book 'Meaning' (1972), in which the illocutionary act is represented as just the act of meaning something.
Following the conception of Bach and Harnish as introduced in 'Linguistic Communication and Speech Acts' (1979), again, an illocutionary act is an attempt to communicate, something which Bach and Harnish analyse again as the expressing of an attitude.
According to a widespread opinion, an adequate and useful account of "illocutionary acts" has been provided by John R. Searle (e.g., 1969, 1979). However, as is shown in detail by Doerge (2006), Searle's contributions remain in their substance very fragmentary and are far from representing an elaborated theory; what Searle does present hints at very different conceptions of "illocutionary acts" and thus is concerned with quite different subject matters; and despite the adoption of Austin's terminology Searle does not after all account for the conception Austin had introduced. Nevertheless, Searle's works, especially the earlier ones, have both increased and fertilised the study and use of the notion of illocutionary acts to a great extent.
There is a brilliant study of Austin's central notions, including the notion of an "illocutionary act", by Jan S. Andersson, "How to define 'Performative'". This book surpasses the present state of the art in a number of important aspects. Unfortunately, it has been almost completely ignored by the scholarship of the Anglo-American tradition -- perhaps because it is both very densely written and accurately worked out, and thus not easy to read.
The notion of an illocutionary force remains rather unclear in Austin's original account. Some followers of Austin as, e.g., David Holdcroft view illocutionary force as the property of an utterance to be made with a certain intention, namely, the intention to perform this or that illocutionary act -- as contrasted with the successful performance of the act, which is supposed further to require the appropriateness of certain circumstances. According to this conception, my utterance of "I bet you five pounds that it will rain" may well have an illocutionary force even if you don't hear me. However, other scholars as, e.g., Bach and Harnish assume illocutionary force just in case this or that illocutionary act is actually (successfully, that means) performed. According to this conception, you must have heard and understood that I want to bet you in order for my utterance to have 'illocutionary force'.
Some utterances' illocutionary force is not quite obvious: if someone says, "it sure is cold in here", the effect of the statement is contextual. It could be that the person is simply describing the room, in which case the illocutionary force would be the description of the temperature of the room. If it is possible to change the environment, say by turning up the heat or closing a window, the person's intent may be to get someone else to do something about the cold, in which case the illocutionary force would be the other person's action. This latter use is referred to as an Indirect Speech Act as the standard illocutionary force of a question is to extract information but here by implicitly making a command the speaker is deviating from the normal purpose of a question.
Illocutionary force indicators
Illocutionary force indicators, according to the common conception of the notion, show how a given proposition is to be taken, what illocutionary force the utterance is to have, or what illocutionary act the speaker is performing. Examples in English include: word order, stress, intonation contour, punctuation, the mood of the verb, performative verbs, and context. In English, illocutionary force indicators are not always readily identifiable. They are sometimes hidden in the deep structure of the sentence.
An illocutionary negation can be distinguished from a propositional negation by considering the difference between "I do not promise to come." and "I promise not to come." The first is an illocutionary negation - the 'not' negates the promise. The second is a propositional negation. Generally, illocutionary negations change the type of illocutionary act.
- Alston, William P.. Illocutionary Acts and Sentence Meaning. Ithaka: Cornell University Press. 2000
- Andersson, Jan S.. How to define 'Performative'. Stockholm: Libertryck. 1975
- Austin, John L.. How To Do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1975 ISBN 0-19-281205-X
- Doerge, Friedrich Christoph. Illocutionary Acts - Austin's Account and What Searle Made Out of It. Tuebingen: Tuebingen University. 2006 <http://w210.ub.uni-tuebingen.de/dbt/volltexte/2006/2273/>
- Searle, John R.. Speech Acts. Cambridge University Press. 1969 ISBN 0-521-07184-4
- Searle, John R.. Expression and Meaning. Cambridge University Press. 1979 ISBN 0-521-22901-4
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