Performatives and Self-Reference

 

 

 

Performatives and Self-Reference

 

 

By uttering the words “I promise” a speaker can promise; he or she promises in virtue of uttering words. So we might expect performative utterances to allude to words as well as use them. Normally they do not take this form, containing no quotation or demonstrative reference to words. I say, “I promise to meet with you” and my utterance appears devoid of reference to words: all use, no mention. Yet we have the construction “hereby”, as in “I hereby promise to meet with you”. This seems to carry self-reference: I am saying that my promising is by means of my utterance. Others can report, “You promised to meet with me by saying ‘I promise to meet with you’”, and here the reference to words is evident. So I should be able to make things explicit in the same way, and the “hereby” construction suggests that I am incipiently doing just that. Can I also make the self-reference explicit?

            Surprisingly, it is not easy to do that, and it never happens in actual speech. Suppose I say, “By uttering these words I promise to meet with you”: this is not equivalent to the original performative and is obscure in sense. Which words—all of them or some? Let’s try this instead: “By uttering the words ‘I promise to meet with you’ I promise to meet with you”. This is even worse: it is not even clear that such a sentence can be used to make a promise. At best it might be taken to mean that uttering the words “I promise” is making a promise—which is not performative. Applying this kind of paraphrase to the performative sentence robs it of its performative power and turns it into a maladroit clunker. But how else could we make the self-reference explicit? If there is self-reference here, it is not like “This sentence is false” or “’Snow is white’ contains three words”. The performative with “hereby” in it works perfectly well, but if we try to unpack it by means of standard devices of self-reference we produce monsters. We seem to have in performatives an unusual kind of self-reference: the utterance alludes to itself indirectly, but it declines to expand into explicit reference to itself. It is a kind of coy or oblique self-reference. It doesn’t fit the standard examples of self-reference by means of quotation or demonstrative reference.

            If I say, “I promise to meet with you by uttering ‘I promise to meet with you’”, that sentence appears to mean only that my meeting with you will be expedited by my utterance of those words. We can’t convert the implicit self-reference of the original performative into an explicit paraphrase involving straightforward quotation. The self-reference is essentially implicit—yet another oddity of performative sentences. It is the same with other performative verbs such as “baptize”: “I hereby baptize you Mary” is fine, but “I baptize you Mary by saying ‘I baptize you Mary” is not fine. We nullify the act by referring to it; yet the act must be performed for the sentence to be true. If I say, “By this act I promise to meet with you”, I bring reference to the act of promising into my utterance, but then the utterance fails to carry its intended performative force. If I try to refer to the act of promising in my promise, I undercut my promise; yet that act must exist in order that I should promise. The performative is a peculiar beast—the platypus of speech acts.

 

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