LINGUIST List 14.789

Tue Mar 18 2003

Disc: Performatives and Meaning

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. mjmurphy, Re: 14.767: Performatives and Meaning

Message 1: Re: 14.767: Performatives and Meaning

Date: Mon, 17 Mar 2003 17:44:00 -0500
From: mjmurphy <>
Subject: Re: 14.767: Performatives and Meaning

In Linguist 14.767
Ahmad R. Lotfi wrote:

> Apart from what Lycan himself has in mind concerning the meaning of
> meaning, one may take this example as some support for Ayer's claim
> that unless a sentence can be verified (in principle), it's
> meaningless. Lycan's sentences do make sense (and we understand them
> even if we don't accept them) for the very reason that they can be
> falsified. Wittgenstein (also Austin) rejects this as performatives
> (sentences used to perform acts of the very sort named by the verb,
> e.g. (1) ''The meeting is adjourned'') are neither true nor
> false. They can only be evaluated as felicitous or infelicitous. Then
> meaning is more than verifiability as performatives do make sense (and
> we understand them) although they are not verifiable (in principle).
> What disturbs me, however, is the fact that once a performative
> sentence is changed in its tense, e.g. (2) ''The meeting was adjourned
> right now'', it stops being a performative, and (as a result)it can be
> verified. Though this is still in agreement with Wittgenstein and
> Austin's reasoning, it also raises the question of how real-time
> hearers ''understand'' a performative. One possibility is that the
> moment the chair utters (1), they construct (2), and then (and only
> then) they understand (1) as meaningful. ''I hereby know a lady named
> Maxine'' doesn't normally make any sense because ''Adolf Hitler knew a
> lady named Maxine right now'' doesn't make sense either. If so, then
> even performatives are still understood as sentences verifiable in
> principle.


A similar argument is often made to show that performative utterances
can be "reduced" to statements. I think the argument generally fails,
In the case above, even if things worked as you've described
(concerning the processing of performatives), you would not have shown
the perfomatives are verifiable. Rather, you have only shown that
they are linked with certain sentences that are verifiable; they are
understood through these sentences perhaps. Nor really can you can
that "performatives are....understood as sentences verifiable in
principle." They are understood as performatives; you have only shown
that to be be understood as performatives the hearer must come to an
understanding of a verifiable sentence which is a construct from the

Different thing entirely.



The shapes of things are dumb.
-L. Wittgenstein
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