“…can you pass the salt?”


In J.L. Austin’s 1979 paper, “Performative Utterances,” we have an ordinary language philosophy where speaking is analyzed as performing an action. Hence, some utterances are named “performative utterances” (Austin 292). Austin says of these utterances “…if a person makes an utterance of this sort we should say that he is doing something rather than merely saying something” (292). He writes that we can think of a performative utterance as something that is “operative” (292). These are uttered phrases that contain operations such as “I promise […] I apologize […] I bet you […] I do […]” and so on (Austin 292). These are not necessarily true or false statements about the world. Austin gives a simple example (out of many) of saying “I congratulate you,” when what is really meant is that I’m not pleased with you—there is an obvious insincerity to this performative utterance (294). The obvious lack of sincerity is an “infelicity […] that is to say the utterance is unhappy—if certain rules, transparently simple rules, are broken” (Austin 293).

From this idea of a performative utterance, John R. Searle in his 1969 paper, “The Structure of Illocutionary Acts.” takes this idea of a performative utterances and extends them by systematically laying down a complicated set of rules to examine and provide the conditions for the speech act of promising (301). In reference to Austin, Searle writes that “[m]y notion of a defect in an illocutionary act is closely related to Austin’s notion of an ‘infelicity’” (301). The illocutionary act (which will later fall under Searle’s category of a speech act) is infelicitous and insincere even when they are promises, as Searle writes, “[b]ut insincere promises are promises nonetheless” (305). The difference is in the speaker’s intentions, so if you promise to do something and the expression includes the intention to do it, yet if the responsibility somehow goes unmet, the promise is rendered insincere and ‘unhappy’. Austin and Searle are not moralizing about how to eradicate such defective illocutions from our speech, but they are analyzing the structures of ordinary language as it is imperfectly practiced.

These everyday language problems have numerous manifestations and are further examined by H.P. Grice in his 1975 paper, “Logic and Conversation,” whereby “implicature” is introduced (312). This has to do with the idea that when something is said there is a lot more than basic meaning getting conveyed and implied. Grice writes that he needed a noun form of the word ‘implicates’ and so derived the word implicature to mean all that’s implied with a given statement (other than its explicit content). As Searle does (though in his own way) Grice lays down conditions for these implicatures which he calls “…quantity, quality, relation and manner” (314). These maxims are subcategories of the “cooperative principle” (314) in everyday conversations. So, clearly these qualify implications that can be made that are in accordance with cooperative ways of speaking in general. Roughly paraphrasing, Grice’s maxims deal with making your contribution to a conversation too long, having conversational relevance to the subject at hand, making your contribution true and not fallacious, and not beating-around-the-bush and other such niceties. The breakdown of this is what’s of interest here, there can be implictures that flout the maxims. For example Grice gives a peculiarly rude example of one such digression specifically from his maxim of “relation” (which essentially calls for relevance in conversation) “[a]t a genteel tea party A says ‘Mrs. X is an old bag.’ There is a moment of appalled silence, then B says ‘[t]he weather has been quite delightful this summer hasn’t it?’” (319). An infelicity is clearly implied by the fact that B sharply changed the subject, so as to imply A crossed a cooperative line and B let him know that by idly asking about the weather.

With Searle’s 1975 paper, “Indirect Speech Acts,” he continues with illocutionary acts as speech acts, but with some important differences that are directly related to Grice’s implicature. Searle describes an indirect speech act as “…cases […] in which the speaker utters a sentence, means what he says, but also means something more” (59). The easiest example of this is Searle’s anodyne query/request, “Can you pass the salt?” In this case the speaker is usually asking someone else to pass the salt, rather than asking about that person’s ability to pass the salt. Searle writes, “[…i]n indirect speech acts the speaker communicates to the hearer more than he actually says by way of relying on their mutually shared background information…” (60). In short, Searle is talking about polite indirectness. ‘Can you pass the salt?’ might be sarcastically subverted into an infelicity as a way to degrade convention. The hearer could blankly say ‘yes, I have the ability to pass the salt.’ and in a passive-aggressive way avoid passing the salt—thus an unhappiness is disclosed to the person in need of the salt.

Now we can see Austin’s infelicity and its relationship to Searle’s speech acts and how these worked with Grice’s implication (implicature) and then to Searle’s indirect speech acts that analyzed illocutions like: “…can you pass the salt?”

Aurelio Madrid

Works Cited

Austin, J.L. “Performative Utterances.” The Philosophy of Language. Eds. A.P. Martinich, David Sosa. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. pp. 291-300 Print.

Grice, H.P. “Logic and Conversation.” Martinich and Sosa 312-322. Print.

Searle, John R. “Indirect Speech Acts.” (1975) pp.59-82 PDF. http://www.personal.uni-jena.de/~mu65qev/wikolin/images/1/18/Searle_Indirect_Speech_Acts59-82.pdf

—. “The Structure of Illocutionary Acts.” Martinich and Sosa 301-311. Print.