Jonathan Culler's Literary Theory: a Very Short Introduction contains the following slightly puzzling quote in chapter 7:

In principle at least, the performative [utterance] breaks the link between meaning and the intention of the speaker, for what act I perform with my words is not determined by my intention but by social and linguistic conventions. The utterance, Austin insists, should not be considered as the outward sign of some inward act which it represents truly or falsely. If I say ‘I promise’ under appropriate conditions, I have promised, have performed the act of promising, whatever intention I may have had in my head at the time. Since literary utterances are also events where the intention of the author is not thought to be what determines the meaning, the model of the performative seems highly pertinent

What circumstances is he referring to here? In particular, when could you make a promise without intending to do so? Admittedly, making a promise does not require the intention to actually carry out the promise, but doesn't it necessarily entail the intention to make the promise?

Or is he merely referring to making a promise with no intention of carrying it out? If so, in what sense does this support the idea that the meaning of a literary work can be unrelated to the author's intentions (given that making a false promise entails deliberate deception whereas writing a novel presumably doesn't)?

3 Answers 3


Culler's point here (well, Austin's point) is that a promise is performative: the act of saying "I promise" itself constitutes the promise. If I make a promise without intending to keep it, I have nevertheless made a promise. So whatever my intentions, saying "I promise" means I have promised.

For example: If, under conventionally appropriate conditions, I say: "I promise that on February 1, I will repay you the $100 I owe you," I have made a promise. Even if I keep my fingers crossed behind my back while saying those words. My intention is irrelevant. And if on February 1 I tell you, "No, I never intended to repay you; the promise was just words," I am still breaking my promise. I cannot claim that I never really promised to repay you simply because I never truly intended to do so. The promise is not merely an outward form of words that represents or misrepresents my inner intentions; the act of saying "I promise" is the promise, whatever my intentions.

So: for certain speech acts, such as promising (or apologizing, or making a bet), my intentions are irrelevant. It isn't so much that I make the promise "without intending to"; it's that my saying "I promise" constitutes the promise, whatever my intentions may have been when I said that.

(As an aside: my then four year old niece, who was just beginning to learn to read, saw me reading Austin's How to Do Things with Words and remarked, "I know how to do things with words! You spell them!")

  • 1
    That makes sense - so, he's not saying that they didn't intend to make the promise, just that they didn't intend to keep it and that it's a promise whether they intended to keep it or not? That seems a lot less strange than claiming that they didn't intend to make a promise at all (which is how I was reading it originally). Jan 28, 2021 at 14:41
  • One follow-up question: I'm having trouble formulating this in a way that isn't opinion-based, but how does this establish that literary works might not be related to the intentions of the author? The case of making a promise without intending to keep it seems to entail deliberate deception on the part of the speaker (because they presumably still want the listener to think that they intend to keep the promise), but I'm not sure what it would even mean for an author to do something like this or how it establishes the more general case where the author isn't being deliberately deceptive. Jan 28, 2021 at 14:45
  • @EJoshuaS-ReinstateMonica My understanding is that the "agent" in the performative act that is a literary work is the text itself; this is how a speech act theory of literature can get around the intentional fallacy.
    – Tsundoku
    Jan 30, 2021 at 20:05

What Culler is describing is based on J. L. Austin's book How to Do Things With Words, which introduced a distinction between constative and performative utterances. Constative utterances are descriptive, whereas performative utterances perform actions rather than stating facts.

Performative utterances cannot be judged as true or false (unlike constative utterances) but are measured in terms of felicity. Felicity refers to the appropriateness of the utterances and is based on circumstances in which the utterance is made; these aspects determine the utterance's success.

Austin distinguished three types of felicity conditions; infringement of these conditions causes "infelicity" (quoted from Drid's paper):

  1. a. There must exist an accepted conventional procedure having a certain conventional effect b. The particular persons and circumstances in a given case must be appropriate for the invocation
  2. The procedure must be executed a. correctly b. completely
  3. Often a. The persons must have the prerequisite thoughts, feelings and intentions as specified in the procedure b. If consequent conduct is specified, the participants must do so (follow the conduct)

Austin even distinguishes five types of performative verbs (examples added by me):

  • Verdictives: for example, a judge says, "I hereby sentence you to six years in state prison."
  • Exercitives: for example, "I advise you to leave the bar before a fight breaks out."
  • Commissives: for example, "I'll bet you dollars I can't bit my right eye" (joke from reddit).
  • Behabitives: for example, "I apologise for such a late response".
  • Expositives: for example, "I argue that Hamlet is a misogynist but that Shakespeare was not."

Another example of a performative using a commissive verb is the oath of office of the president of the United States, which begins with the words "I do solemnly swear ...". It is an "accepted conventional procedure having a certain conventional effect". It is an interesting example because the words of the oath are not only spoken by the president elect (and the vice president-elect) but also by Chief Justice. The Chief Justice speaks the words of the oath and the president elect repeats them after him. However, at the end of the process, only the president-elect and not the Chief Justice is considered president of the USA. The Chief Justice does not speak the words under the "appropriate circumstances", i.e. he was not chosen by the electoral college. (Hence the distinction that the president elect takes the oath, whereas the Chief Justice merely administers it.) In addition, the taking of the oath must be executed correctly and completely: when Chief Justice John Roberts flubbed the words at Obama's inauguration in January 2009, the oath was re-delivered at the White House on the next day.

Similarly, when a priest says during a wedding ceremony, "I hereby declare you husband and wife", he does this under appropriate circumstances: two people came to him to get married, etc. If I were to speak the same words to two random people in the street, the statement would be infelicitous in more than one way.

There is a similar issue with the word "promise". For example, when Taylor Swift sings "I promise that you'll never find another like me", she isn't referring something she can actually perform. We understand that the singer's statement does not attempt to follow an accepted conventional procedure and the action (rather than strict "conduct") it specifies is not under her control.

However, if I say, "I promise I will pay you tomorrow" under the appropriate felicity conditions, the utterance is interpreted as performative. In this specific example, it is probably sufficient that someone asked, "When will you pay me?" and that this person assumed (a) the amount is not too big for someone of my means, (b) I actually intend to pay it. If, for the other person, my statement meets the felicity conditions, I have actually made a performative utterance and I will be in some sort of trouble if I don't fulfil my promise because (for example) I never intended to.

Austin later discarded his constative-performative dichotomy but others used his work as the starting point for the development of speech act theory.

The OP also asked in what sense does this support the idea that the meaning of a literary work can be unrelated to the author's intentions (...)?

There are several issues when applying speech act theory to literature, especially literary criticism. Before discussing these, it is necessary to explain another contribution from Austin's How to Do Things with Words, namely the distinction between locution, illocution and perlocution. The locutionary act is "the act of saying something and its basic content", the illocutionary act refers to "what you're trying to do by speaking" and the perlocutionary act is "the effect of what you say" (informal definitions quoted from R. L. Trask).

One issue concerns the scope of speech act theory: Austin's speech act theory cannot cope with literature because it is too narrow in scope: it is based on a sentence grammar, whereas literature (and discouse in general) needs to be understood in terms of a text grammar (see Garcia Landa, p. 96; Garcia Landa is talking about Searle here but identifies something that appears to apply to early speech theory in general).

Another issue concerns how you define locution, illocution and perlocution in a literary context or, more specifically, where you locate these type of acts. One way of looking at it goes as follows: the narrative as a whole is a "locution", its transmission from the narrator to the reader (or narratee) is a fictional illocution, and "the composition of a novel or a story by the author is a real illocution" (Garcia Landa, page 92). But what does it mean to say that the composition of a literary work by an author is an illocution? According to Garcia Landa, a work of fiction can be seen as (derived) illocutionary act: "in order to count as fiction we must recognise it as such". (See also Culler's emphasis on the cooperative principle in his discussion of the definition of literature in Chapter 2.) He later add that what some critics "do not see is that writing a poem is the illocutionary act performed by the author in writing a poem." This type of illocution is something very different from the concept of authorial intent in intentionalist approaches to interpretation.

Speech act theorists who equate the meaning of a literary work with its illocutionary intent or its illocutionary force neglect perlocutions. Garcia Landa even gives an example of a perlocution that conflicts with the author's illocutionary intent: a reader may find a Barbara Cartland novel very funny even though the author did not intend it to be. The effects of literature are not confined to illocutionary intent. (Perlocutionary intentions can also be important, notably in literary hoaxes; see Garcia Landa, pp. 98-99).

Another issue is that in literary texts (and discourse in general) the distinction between illocutions and perlocutions becomes blurry. The elasticity of the conventions that work at the discourse level makes "the uptake of macro-illocutions (...) fuzzy-edged, probabilistic and approximative". As a consequence, the relationship between illocutions and perlocutions "is constantly being negotiated":

A text, and most of all a literary text, is always redefining the codes that allow us to understand it, escapting automatism and convention, and therefore redefining the play of illocution and perlocution. Each phase of the sender's utterance has a corresponding activity in the reader if communication or understanding is to take place. The author's speech act must be complemented by the reader's interpretive act (cf. Harris, 1988, x).

This does not imply that there are no authorial intentons that are worth retrieving; decoding symbols is an example of this.

In Interpreting Interpreting (1979) Susan R. Horton made a distinction between reading and interpreting: "reading is a temporal, sequential activity, and as such is opposed to interpretation, which consists in building a 'spatial' pattern of relationships out of the matter furnished by this activity" (Garcia Landa, p. 100). Reading "should refer to the retrieval of codified meaning; interpreations is concerned with the retrieval of partially codified meaning" (p. 101). Since authors both use exiting codes and create new ones and since the creation of new codes involves the transformation of existing ones, there is no sharp boundary between between codified and partially codified meaning. Garcia Landa argues:

what is fundamental is recognizing that there are two poles, that of the undisputably intentional and that of the undisputably unintentional, that this this situation seems to be the right one for both literature and criticism to thrive on. The lack of a clear boundary between intentional and unintentional features will not invalidate the relevance of authorial intention to the creative or interpretive process (...).

Based on this view of the relationship between speech act theory and literary criticism, authorial intent is not necessarily irrelevant but its retrieval is so uncertain that it can hardly define the boundaries of interpretation.


  • Drid, Touria: "Language as Action: Fundamentals of Speech Act Theory". Praxis International Journal of Social Science and Literature, Volume 1, Issue 10 (December 2018).
  • Garcia Landa, Jose Angel: "Speech Act Theory and the Concept of Intention in Literary Criticism". Review of English Studies Canaria, Vol. 24 (1992), pp. 89-104. Available at SSRN.
  • Trask, R. L.: Language and Linguistics: The Key Concepts. Second edition. Edited by Peter Stockwell. Routledge, 2007. (See the entries "performative" and "speech act".)
  • Interesting stuff, but I wish the second half were an answer to a different question: the one @EJoshuaS asks in the comments. It's a valid question (I was about to reply to his comment saying it doesn't seem opinion-based, since it's asking whether seeing works of literature as performative means we're relying on authorial intent). I hope that he does ask it and that you move the second half of your answer to be the answer to that question.
    – verbose
    Jan 31, 2021 at 11:50
  • @verbose I agree that the second question makes more sense as a separate post.
    – Tsundoku
    Jan 31, 2021 at 13:26

It seems that Austin is tending towards a contractual theory of speech, rather than performative. After all, if I sign a contract, then it matters not one whit if I was signing it whilst crossing my fingers behind my back or making faces to signify what I really thought of the contract. The contract is signed and that is that. If I tried to contest it in court, then the court would throw out the case unless I could prove that false representations were made by the other party, or that I was forced to sign against my will. In which case, the court would quite rightly throw the contract out of court, and so we see quite directly intentions matter.

Performative speech, is speech that aren't prescribed a truth value. In fact, Austin:

defines "performatives" as follows:

(1) Performative utterances are not true or false, that is, not truth-evaluable; instead when something is wrong with them then they are "unhappy", while if nothing is wrong they are "happy".

(2) The uttering of a performative is, or is part of, the doing of a certain kind of action (Austin later deals with them under the name illocutionary acts), the performance of which, again, would not normally be described as just "saying" or "describing" something

Thus Cullers should describe what he terms 'performative' as an 'illocutionary act' and not performative per se. As for the performative aspect of 'promise', a highly pertinent exchange is recorded in an essay at the Nobel Prize for Literature site between Tagore and Gandhi (and which, incidently Tagore won for is book of poems, Gitanjali in 1913):

On one occasion when Mahatma Gandhi visited Tagore’s school at Santiniketan, a young woman got him to sign her autograph book. Gandhi wrote: “Never make a promise in haste. Having once made it fulfill it at the cost of your life.” When he saw this entry, Tagore became agitated. He wrote in the same book a short poem in Bengali to the effect that no one can be made “a prisoner forever with a chain of clay.” He went on to conclude in English, possibly so that Gandhi could read it too, “Fling away your promise if it is found to be wrong.”

  • This answer is wrong about Austin; Austin specifically says promises are performative, in the way that Culler, and the other two answers, describe the term.
    – verbose
    Feb 2, 2021 at 11:07

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