In 1962, J. L. Austin published a seminal little book entitled How to Do Things with Words in which he proposed the idea of the performative, a “speech-act” that not only said something but did something. Virtually all Austin’s examples, utterances such as “I hereby declare the court adjourned,” “I now pronounce you man and wife,” “I baptize you in the name of the Father…” were associated with institutional, often explicitly ritual practices. Austin’s new perspective on language led to considerable discussion and debate, the upshot of which was that he felt obliged to efface the distinction between performatives and constatives or statements; the latter too “do things” by producing perlocutionary (indirect) as well asillocutionary (direct) effects upon their audience. Now that the dust has settled, one might regret that this salutary if tardy recognition of the interactive nature of language was obtained at the price of sacrificing Austin’s valuable insight into theinstitutional nature of performatives. My saying “It’s cold in this room” may get you to close the window, but it doesn’t permanently redefine the room like the ceremony that converts it into a holy place, or as marriage redefines the individuals it joins together.

Some years later, John Searle published “A Taxonomy of Illocutionary Acts” (in Expression and Meaning, Cambridge, 1979) which systematically divided speech acts into a proposed set of categories. (Searle has since revised his theory of performatives, but this is not relevant in the present context.) Searle’s classifications were plausible, but as with virtually all linguistic and absolutely all philosophical analyses, he made no attempt to give them an originary anthropological basis. This deficiency, tolerable in linguistics proper, which is chiefly concerned with the form of utterances, is more worrisome with regard to speech acts, which cannot be abstracted from their function in human interaction. As a prolongation of my originary anthropology of language, I constructed an alternative taxonomy of speech-acts that was subsequently included inOriginary Thinking. Among the speech-acts I discussed in passing was promising, a form of performative that Austin and Searle had called the commissive.

Taking up the subject a decade later in this year’s GA seminar, I am struck by the superior insight that promising offers into the originary constitution of language. Unlike the institutional performatives that rely as a felicity condition on a prior conferral of authority– that is, on the implicit guarantee of a prior institutional speech-act and/or its worldly equivalent appointing this individual as a priest or judge–promising is an institution unto itself. Available to any speaker of human language, the promise creates an obligation, one that can under certain circumstances in our own society be enforceable in court. Solemn promises may indeed be ritualized as oaths guaranteed by a sacred being or by a figurative hostage offered in potential sacrifice (“I swear on the head of my mother/child/spouse…”), but even the most informal promise is understood by both parties as creating an obligation on the part of the promiser that the promisee can count on and that he has a right to reproach the promiser for not fulfilling.

Promising is an exclusively human phenomenon; it is not only inherent in language, it is inconceivable without language. Animals cannot promise; they can at best express an intention, analogous to the gesture of appropriation whose “abortion” converted it into the originary sign. The aborted gesture of the first speaker, the first member of the group to renounce the enterprise of appropriation, constitutes in effect a promise to the other members of the group not to attempt further to appropriate the object; this promise is implicit in the originary institution of language. There is perhaps no clearer corroboration of the originary hypothesis than the continued existence of this “institutional” function in language independently of any specific institutional context. I have insisted that the originary use of language is an event; a singular moment that the sign commemorates, the beginning of human history. This same singularity may equally well be expressed as the first promise; for the first time, a creature commits itself before the community of its fellows to a course of action; the sign creates an obligation where none previously existed and that can be dated from this moment. No doubt the form of the promise can be institutionalized; in ritual-centered societies and even in our own the most solemn promises are expressed as oaths using religious formulas. But the capacity of language to formulate promises requires no fixed procedure. In my taxonomy I cited the example of an adolescent’s responding “OK” to a request to clean his room. The acceptability and comprehensibility of such a reply demonstrates that promising requires no specialized syntactical form, confirming our hypothesis that it is inherent in the very core of linguistic communication.

The imperative is an attempt to use language to affect reality; it cannot be called a performative in Austin’s original sense because its enunciation does not effect the act it calls for but requires the action of another, an action that for various reasons may not be forthcoming. (In my derivation of sentence-forms in the Origin of Language, the declarative form promises truth as a substitute for the performance demanded by an imperative.) It is only where the imperative is felicitous to begin with that it can elicit a commissive response, which implicitly affirms its felicity. When I ask my son to clean his room, he may answer with an excuse (“I don’t have time right now”) or with a promise (“I’ll do it this afternoon”); but if, say, his sister asks him to clean his room, he might answer with an insult or simply not reply at all. To promise in answer to an imperative is to accept the latter as creating an obligation. In the originary event, the promissory nature of the sign is a response, at first anticipatory, to the implicit imperative of the other members of the group not to attempt to appropriate the central object. If this “imperative” is first experienced as a menacing atmosphere of mimetic desire, once the sign is emitted, it acquires its own imperative force; the originary sign symmetrically both orders and promises, permitting it to circulate as an object of reciprocal exchange within the group. The originary ostensive sign that designates and represents the present central object is implicitly both an order and a promise, an imperative of interdiction and a pledge of obedience to this interdiction, lacking which it could not be exchanged as a sign. Symbolic representation is in the first place a rendering of mortal reality into timeless signs whose semiotic immortality preserves the originary interdiction and our promise to respect it. It is only later that an imperative syntax can emerge in which the sign is emitted in order to make–and with the expectation of making–its absent object appear.

It is under the rubric of the promise, explicit or implicit, that we find the gift theorized by Marcel Mauss in his Essai sur le don. The deferred exchange of gifts extends the deferral of the originary scene into the “profane” everyday life of the community by making the latter the locus of the promise and obligation of such exchange, if not of the ritual act of exchange itself, which may occur in an institutionalized setting. Thus if I offer a child to another clan in marriage in the expectation of receiving at some future date a “cross-cousin” in return, the obligation extends over the interval between these two ritual acts and serves, as Mauss points out, to maintain the “solidarity” whose reinforcement Durkheim located exclusively in the communal rituals themselves.

That the possibility of obligating oneself is inherent in the very existence of language is a fact that has never been and can never be explained in the absence of an originary hypothesis. If one begins with the cognitive function of language as expressed in the constative/declarative sentence or logical proposition, one can never derive from it the commissive or even the imperative in other than a purely formal manner. The linguist’s classification of the imperative as a “defective” form of declarative tells us nothing about the anthropological phenomenon of language and its evolution. On the contrary, this classification provides an exemplary illustration of my definition of metaphysics as the mode of thought for which the declarative sentence is the fundamental syntactic form. The logician’s model of language as the instrument that makes it possible to represent the “world” (or what is the case) by a countably infinite number of propositions cannot account for the non-declarative aspects of language.


The act of “doing things with words” is in every case, as at the origin, an event that perpetuates its own memory. If I baptize a child or a ship, marry a couple, or sentence someone to prison, I have “done something” of a different nature from driving a nail, building a bridge, or eating a meal–or for that matter, from making a statement or giving an order. It would be difficult to find an institutional speech act that does not leave a physical record through the conferral of some permanent token, often inscribed or implanted on the bodies of the participants themselves (e.g., circumcision and various initiatory mutilations, wedding rings, insignia of office); conversely, the various forms of baptism simulate a total unmarking. But even in the absence of a physical record, the institutional speech act is meant to be remembered. The point of the accompanying ritual acts is to commemorate in the natural world the change of state that the speech act has already realized in the world of culture. It is inherent in such changes that they are permanent until undone by some new official act: divorce, the fulfillment of a judicial sentence, legal change of name, promotion to higher rank. In many cases, the permanence of the performatively accorded status is not ended by death; the remaining partner is a “surviving spouse” until s/he remarries, the sunk battleship retains its name, the soldier killed in battle retains his rank. These examples are homologous to promises. What we consider to be a typical promise has an endpoint, like a legal sentence; when my son has cleaned his room, he has fulfilled his obligation. But one can promise “never to touch another drop,” “to stop seeing that woman,” and so on, where the promise is never discharged. In both cases, the performative creates a cultural state that can be modified or abolished only under culturally recognized circumstances.

Every performative, institutional or personal, anticipates permanent recognition by the members of the society of the status it confers. It is easy enough to understand the official conferral of a status as a derivative of the originary event. The officiant presides over a rite at which the entire community is virtually present, and often materially present as well in the persons of a large number of its members. He stands at the center as the representative both of the community and the central divinity, and etymologically sacrifices or consecrates a member of the community by conferring upon him a new status. In contrast, the community’s virtual presence in an everyday promise, which may have no witnesses other than the parties themselves, is confined to the promissory use of language. Yet this abstract virtuality suffices to make the promise enforceable; we all recognize what a promise is and what constitutes its fulfillment or non-fulfillment. This second originary derivation, less obvious, is all the more revelatory; it shows that every speaker of human language understands each individual human interaction as possessing the same structure as the originary event. We may be thrown into a world of obligations embodied in communal institutions, but we are free to create our own ad hoc institutions in which we impose on ourselves obligations for the future. Language gives each human being the ability to extend the sphere of culture up to and beyond the limit imposed by his mortality.