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When Failure is Success: Counter-Performative Speech Acts by Andrew P. Porter

[note to the "flat ascii" version:
text within {curly braces}
appears in italics in the postscript version.

paragraphs are numbered,
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When Failure is Success: Counter-Performative Speech Acts
Andrew P. Porter
internet email: porter@s1.gov


John L. Austin[1] saw that where assertive
speech acts (to use Searle's term) are true or
false, other performatives can be happy and
successful, or they can be infelicitous,
defective, or even outright failures. In Searle's
systematization of speech act theory[2] the
emphasis was always on articulating the
conditions for non-defective success.
Self-defeating speech acts were explored
initially by Daniel Vanderveken,[3] but nothing
was remarked beyond the logical structure of
their failure as illocutions. It was not suspected
that they could be effective and successful as
perlocutions. To turn to such speech acts as
successes is to turn from illocutionary theory
to the study of perlocutions, but the
perlocutions in question turn on their
illocutionary structure, and so require attention
to that structure. Such speech acts need not be
vicious; irony is in some sense a self-defeating
speech act.[4] When they are objectionable,
remedying them usually requires dissecting
their illocutionary incoherence; this is a
problem, because the inconsistency of the parts
of a compound and self-defeating speech act is
usually concealed. (It must be concealed, if the
illocutionarily self-defeating speech act is to
succeed as a non-ironic perlocution.) Let us
call self-defeating performative speech acts
that work at some level as perlocutions
{counter}-performative speech acts. When the
counter-performative character of a speech act
is obvious, it is ironic; when it is not, the
speech act is usually pathological in some way.
I look for the most part at speech acts with
concealed counter-performative character.

The investigation of speech acts other
than assertions has moved from the simple
paradigmatic cases of promises and orders etc.
to indirect speech acts, metaphor, fiction, and
eventually to internally inconsistent speech
acts. In the course of that exploration some
quite peculiar peformatives have surfaced. It
has been noticed that some performatives are
analogous to self-contradictory statements,[5]
such as "Do (not) obey this order," "I promise
(not) to keep this promise," and others of
similar construction. It does not matter
whether the negative is present or not; these
performatives are intrinsically infelicious,
misfires. There is no way to keep this
self-referring promise, or to obey this
self-referring order. In a more applicable vein,
Daniel Vanderveken has noticed what he
called "self-defeating" speech acts.

To see how some counter-performatives
work, consider the following. In a legendary
example of a counter-performative, it is said
that one of the Three Great Lies is

I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you.

This purports to be more than a statement, an
offer of help, though it is incidentally also a
statement. It is taken as a classic example of a
lie, but the problem does not arise with its
being contra-factual. S, the speaker, is in fact
from the government. And he intends business
in the life and affairs of H, the hearer. But not
what the hearer would call "help."

It is performative, in as much as the
social worker does something in saying it (by
implication, he offers help), and it goes awry
in ways that are characteristic of performatives
that are not just assertions. This much has been
noticed before, though this sort of utterance
has not attracted much attention, but has been
taken as a theoretically marginal and
degenerate instance of performative language.
Performatives that work were treated as more
interesting than those that don't.

In fact, it {does} work: It does {exactl}y what
it is intended to do, which is to apply
persuasion to the welfare client in a way that is
more economical and more effective than
candid reasoning, orders, or threats: coercion.
(And if there is no compliance, the one making
this "offer" appears to be in a much better
position to apply coercion.) While appearing to
be an offer, an offer of help, this utterance is in
fact not an offer at all, but a form of coercion,
pressure, or manipulation. It is a performative
that purports to do one thing, but in fact does
something quite opposite: a
counter-performative. Its effectiveness, its
performative force, {requires} its
counter-performative sense; its perlocutionary
effect of being coercive pivots on its
illocutionary appearance of being an offer of
help, and on the silent failure of at least some
of the conditions for the non-defective
performance of such an offer.

Preliminary Expansion of the Thesis

The notion of utterances that are
systematically and intentionally
counter-performative (if perhaps not
consciously so) has not attracted focused
attention. But the problem has already been
encountered outside of speech act theory.
Popular psychological literature focuses, if
without philosophical precision, on the
counter-performative discourse that creates
dysfunctional family structures. In a related
way, the philosophical literature on
self-deception does achieve precision, though
without explicit attention to the speech-act
theoretical features of such discourse.
Examples can be found also from law, politics,
and religious apologetics.

While counter-performatives are not
theoretically central to the logic of {il}locutions,
they are crucial to the pragmatic understanding
of the same utterances when considered as
{per}locutionary acts. Formal performatives,
whose illocutionary sense cannot be twisted
after the fact, are a defense against
counter-performatives. Formal performatives
commit the speaker in one way or another,
whether sincere or not, and sometimes even
without happy preparatory conditions. It is
because of the generally understood possibility
of counter-performatives that formal
performatives are necessary at critical
commissive junctures in life.

The speaker who engages in
counter-performative discourse knows how
this sort of speech act works, even though he
may not be willing or able to spell it out or
explain it.[6] He has the skill of
counter-performative speech acts, included in
which is the opposition between the ostensible
illocutionary force and the probable (and
intended) perlocutionary effect. All this may
be "unconscious" -- he does not spell it out to
himself -- but it is still done with great skill,
and so has to be accounted as intentional,
responsible. In no way does the skill of
counter-performative speaking require being
able to {explain} (even to oneself) that one has
misfired in one performative act, and has
instead effectively performed some other
speech act. It is not that the illocutionary force
has been literally transformed. But when the
speech-act turns on its implications, by way of
filling the preparatory conditions for yet other
speech acts, its perlocutionary working may
indeed not only extend beyond but in fact be in
conflict with its illocutionary force. Indirect
speech acts, as Searle has observed, are
accomplished when the conditions for one
speech act are supplied in the performance of
another.[7] If a statement or question provides
the preparatory conditions for a request or
other directive, it may be taken as such. The
essential condition for a stronger directive is
satisfied, and by convention, the question "Can
you pass the salt?" counts as a request to do so.
Thus an apparently simple speech act may, in
its implications, count for much more.

Searle and Vanderveken list a variety of
ways in which a compound speech act can
become internally inconsistent, self-defeating.
The success of one member of the compound
may be inconsistent with the illocutionary
{point} of the other.[8] One member of a
compound may be inconsistent with the {mode}
of achievement of the other: one cannot
simultaneously command and plead with
another to do something. And one member of
the compound may be inconsistent with the
{propositional content} of the other, or the
{presupposed (preparatory) conditions} of the
other, or with the {psychological state} required
by the other. We shall see general
circumstances in which each of these modes of
counter-performative speech can be highly

It is true that self-defeating speech acts
are such by virtue of inconsistency, but the
inconsistency can arise in various ways, which
may be noted at this point, and which will
appear in the discussion that follows. The
model for a counterperformative is a
compound speech act in which the several
members are inconsistent. In one way or
another, I think all counter-performatives can
be rephrased as compounds. A speech act may
not be an explicit compound; crucial parts may
be only implied, or enacted only by
indirection. In addition to patently compound
illocutionary acts, simple acts may be
counter-performative in the failure of a
condition; that condition presumably can be
spelled out, thus supplying the missing
element of what would then be a compound
speech act. The implied additional speech acts
may arise from features internal to the uttered
speech acts, or they may arise only given the
context known to both speaker and hearer.
Complex speech acts are possible in which
multiple speakers participate, and the
cumulative implications are
counter-performative, because one speaker
appears to presuppose agreement with what the
other has said. When all the implied but
unstated members of a speech act are spelled
out, most simple failures and multi-speaker
acts can be understood as compound speech
acts whose several parts are inconsistent.[9]

In what follows, I shall consider three
major examples of counter-performative
speech acts; the one with which we began
(inconsistent illocutionary points), one of the
form "do A & don't do A" (inconsistent
propositional content), and lastly one that
arises in a complex interchange between a
telephone salesman and his prospective
customer. The critical importance of context
will emerge: it is necessary to supply context
simply in order to make it plausible that people
could say things such as these, and especially
in order to show how such
counter-performatives could be effective; in
each case, in ways concealed from at least one
conversant. In reliance on context in
demonstrating the perlocutionary workings of
such speech acts, we are on the threshold of
pragmatics. The first two speech-act examples
will instantiate some of Searle and
Vanderveken's catalog of self-defeating
speech acts; the conversation with the
telephone salesman is less clear, though I will
hazard some taxonomic guesses for it. At this
point, rather than search for more examples to
complete a bestiary of counter-performatives,
it is more useful to return to Searle and
Vanderveken's own catalog, and draw some
elementary inferences from it by way of
general recommendation for what to look for
in ferreting out counter-performatives in the

Inconsistent Illocutionary Points

Now it is possible to re-examine the
example with which we began, "I'm from the
government and I'm here to help you." Both
the social worker and speaker, S, and the
welfare client and hearer, H, know that H is in
trouble, that H has no bargaining power, the
appearance of no reasonable options, except,
that is, to accept the "help" that S offers. It is
background information that is played upon in
the counter-performative, and it characterizes
one act as another: what it calls help is
meddling, interference, directing the life of H,
forcing H to comply with the requirements of
the Welfare Department, imposing S's
hierarchy of ends and order of means on H. It
is persuasive because the social worker is here
to take charge; that is the way welfare works.
This persuasion is effectively coercive,
because of the limited options of the
prospective welfare client. As such, it is
directive. In effect, the inconsistency can be
exhibited quite simply: "I'm from the
government [the preparatory condition for a
directive, reminding the hearer of the
government's intrinsic power to coerce], and
I'm here to help you [a commissive whose
illocutionary force is inconsistent with
coercion]." A social worker once admitted the
truth, when dealing with elderly clients, for
whom "help" means total loss of independence
in a nursing home: "I can't tell you the
countless numbers of people we've had to,
well, brainwash to get them to accept services.
They always think it's a step toward nursing
homes."[10] In choosing the word "brainwash",
the social worker has come as close as it is
possible to do without using the technical
language of speech-act theory to admitting that
his speech is counter-performative.

Human life in any context is to a great
extent a matter of commissives and directives,
especially the latter. Institutional structures and
power relations are largely a matter of
directives. It seems to be a feature of
present-day rhetorical life that the most
effective way to accomplish a directive, and to
elicit compliance, is to disguise it as an offer of
help: a distinctly different sort of speech act. In
this sense, the familiar "Can I help you?" does
not mean what it says, but rather, "You are on
my turf, I will lead you through it, you will do
as I say." This locution has migrated from the
script in which the speaker is a salesperson,
nominally at the service of the hearer, a
prospective customer, to any situation that can
be characterized as an encounter between an
insider and an outsider. The illocution "Can I
help you?" by presupposition asserts a claim of
power and dominance, and asserts the relations
of insider and outsider; quite the opposite of its
ostensible meaning of service and

Inconsistent propositional content: "Do A & Don't do A"

It is difficult to believe that one could
utter a performative of the form "I command
you to do A and I forbid you to do A" to any
useful perlocutionary end. But the only thing
standing in the way of the usefulness of such a
counter-performative is its transparently
obvious character. Searle and Vanderveken
argue that "... a speaker cannot perform an act
of illocutionary denegation of the form
-A at a time when he performs an act
that commits him to A."[11] But it is only true
that the speaker cannot consistently {il}locute an
utterance of this form; the same utterance,
considered in its {per}locutionary aspect may
depend precisely on its illocutionary failure. A
speaker may find it advantageous to appear to
commit himself to A, when his real
commitment is to -A; it is possible to
craft utterances which do just this. I have heard
in public debate the following:

(a) I respect the religious views of those
 who disagree with ballot initiative X,
(b) and they should vote against the initiative;
(c) at the same time, I request that they
 not impose their morality upon others.

I have tagged the three parts of this
performative (a), (b), and (c). In context, it was
implied that to vote against the initiative was
exactly to impose one's morality on others;
The initiative was put on the ballot to promote
a practice that some had moral objections to.
Why does this counter-performative work so
well? (b) is consistent easily enough with (a);
but (b) is radically incompatible with (c). If (c)
is accepted as sincere, (a) cannot be. Respect
for another's commitments involves admitting
those commitments to deliberation and debate;
(c) is precisely an attempt to rule those others'
commitments out of order. (b) implies a
directive, "vote against the initiative". In this
implication, the conjunction (b)&(c) is
precisely of the form "do A & don't do A." My
conjecture as to how this performative works
is that (a) allows those potentially in
agreement with the initiative X but not yet
firmly convinced to see themselves as not in
the sort of disagreement that actually requires
a difficult decision. Instead, they are offered a
compromise that ought to satisfy both parties,
by offering to their opponents all that their
opponents could reasonably ask for (which by
implication does not include allowing their
opponents to vote their consciences). Such
potential supporters of the initiative could then
in easy conscience vote for what the speaker
hoped they really wanted all along anyway.
When this sort of counter-performative occurs,
(b) is usually ommitted, in as much as it tends
to give the game away.

This utterance can have different
strategies for its two classes of hearers. It is
probable that while the apparent intended
hearers (i. e., those to whom it was addressed)
were those opposed to the initiative (they were
requested not to impose their views on others),
the real intended hearers were those potentially
in favor of it (the context was a public debate),
and they were implicitly encouraged to
conclude that they could give all they owed to
their opponents and still vote for the initiative.

A more bald example is provided in
legends of the city politics of Cambridge,
Massachusetts, where the dividing issue is
rents, and the parties landlords and tenants.
Occasionally a politician tries to promise to
lower rents for tenants and raise rents for
landlords. It is reported that this platform
meets more success than one might expect in a
city of such sophistication. A
counter-performative of the form "do A and
don't do A" can be quite effective if the
speaker faces conflicting demands from
different constituencies; if he can appear to
satisfy one, or at least neutralize its opposition,
he can later gratify the other.

Applications of this form are hardly
limited to politics, but politics and even court
decisions seem to be particularly rich in them.
Antonin Scalia, in a dissent in Johnson v.
Transportation Agency, alleges that the Civil
Rights Act of 1964 has been converted by
court decisions "from a guarantee that race or
sex will {not} be the basis for employment
determinations, to a guarantee that it often
{will}."[12] Merits of the case and of the opinion
aside, this is a clear charge of a
counterperformative interpretation of the law.
That the law was even susceptible of such an
interpretation raises the question whether not
only the Court's opinion but also the statute
itself is counterperformative. It has been
informally observed that canny legislators,
who know that the final determination of the
meaning of a law will come only in the courts,
from friendly and activist judicial review,
insert contradictory material into the
legislative history of a bill, planting grounds
for judges to rewrite or even reverse the sense
of the act as passed. In another example,
Congressional appropriations for the Tellico
Dam (which would have destroyed the habitat
of the snail darter on the Little Tennessee
River) continued while Congress deliberated
on and passed the Endangered Species Act; the
resulting counter-performative implications of
the several acts taken together had to be
resolved in court.[13]

Are there other reasons why a speaker
could issue a performative that is implicitly
and covertly of the form "do A and don't do
A"? It relieves him of responsibility, no matter
what the hearer does. Which member of the
counter-performative conjunction is concealed
will be chosen so as to maximally conceal the
speaker's responsibility. If A is dangerous, and
S does not want responsibility for harm to H, it
is easy to imagine a plausible context for such
a counter-performative.

Related to this is "I {dare} you to do A." It
appears to be a directive, coupled with a
disavowal of the responsibility that goes with a
directive. This is, at a minimum, a somewhat
peculiar illocutionary force. But how can a
directive be issued without committing the
speaker to some responsibility for his
injunction to the hearer? It seems unlikely to
me that a single word could in its own intrinsic
explicit illocutionary sense be a
counter-performative, but this verb raises such
a suspicion. Certainly the prudent hearer is
well-advised to treat it as a

Invitations to commit a counter-performative

In a common multi-speaker
counter-performative, it is a grave strategic
mistake to give a telephone salesman reasons
for declining his offer. Who has not had a
telephone salesman call, offering "Eight weeks
of the {Tri-Valley Gossip} free, you pay only for
the Sunday edition . . . "? After declining the
offer, the recipient will next hear, "{Why} don't
you want our bargain trial subscription offer?"
It is a fatal mistake to give reasons at this point
-- because the respondent (who received the
call) and the speaker (the salesman) will treat
the reasons quite differently. The salesman can
always treat reasons as an offer to bargain, and
reply with counter-reasons, and
counter-demands for more reasons. But the
respondent presumably has no intention of
bargaining; he (or she) just doesn't want the
paper, but he also wants to be polite. (Note the
performative intentions!) But to give reasons at
all is to presuppose that under some
conditions, the recipient of the call would
subscribe. When the recipient has initially
declined the offer, the salesman's move in
asking for reasons is to get the recipient of the
call to concede exactly this presupposition. In
effect, he has asked the recipient to treat his
own refusal not as the starting point of a chain
of practical reasoning, but as its end point. Out
of politeness, the recipient usually obliges. But
from the new starting point implicit in
whatever reasons the recipient gives, the
salesman can twist reasons to his own desired
end point, a sale. In the end, if the recipient
really doesn't want to subscribe, he has to say
so, without giving reasons. The direct
approach is so rarely taken with telephone
salesmen that it tends to produce stunning
results: "I'm sorry, I don't give reasons."

The salesman is inviting the recipient of
the call to commit a counter-performative: that
is, in giving reasons, to offer to bargain, when
the recipient has no intention of bargaining at
all. The logical form of such a request is,
"please justify your starting point." This is to
construe an argument {from} X as an argument
{to} X. By definition, it is not possible to justify
a starting point. Consider, for example, some
of the commitments inherent in doing science:
openness to criticism, empirical encounter with
the world as it is (rather than with some
platonic ideal world), science open to all and
for all. These are not things that could be
justified; least of all justified from the fruits
they bring. Yet one could answer the question
"Why these commitments?" by citing their
fruits. Another could then interpret such an
answer as an argument of expediency {from} the
benefits of science, rather than as the
confession of one whose commitment to
science is axiomatic, and to whom these other
benefits have been given in addition. But an
argument of expediency can be modified or
suspended at convenience. (It would have been
better not to answer the question at all.)

To guess the structure of the
self-defeating speech acts in this sort of a
conversation, the problem appears to lie in the
illocutionary force of the reasons given by the
respondent to the salesman. The salesman is
asking the respondent to make a commissive
whose force is ambiguous, and so can be
twisted: a confessional commissive has a force
crucially different from that of an offer to
bargain. My suspicion is that confessional
speech acts (as in confessions of faith), have
features which, despite all the attention they
have attracted, still leave room for significant

At this point, we have seen clear
examples of two sorts of illocutionarily
self-defeating speech acts which are
nevertheless quite effective as perlocutions, so
long as their working can be concealed. The
welfare worker engages in the appearance of
making an offer, a commissive, while
effectively issuing a coercive directive; in this
context, the two illocutionary points are
incompatible. (It {is} possible to combine a
commisive and a directive in compatible
ways.) The politician can find it rhetorically
very effective to appear to come down on both
sides of an issue (inconsistent propositional
contents). The problems in the encounter with
the telephone salesman arise in the subtleties
of the illocutionary strength of the speech-act
of giving reasons. Rather than exhibit
examples of the remaining ways in which the
illocutionary forces of members of compound
speech acts can be inconsistent on analytic
grounds, grounds of the {form} of the speech
acts, it seems more economical simply to note
the remaining possibilities for trouble, in as
much as the problems which do arise usually
do so only with respect to context; that is, they
are not evident simply on the form of the
speech acts, but the pathology shows itself
only after knowledge of the pragmatic context.

The mode of achievement may be at
stake in conflicted ways when an assertive
takes on the color of a directive, and the
role-authority of the one speaking is in
question. Such problems arise in the
psychological literature, especially as it treats
dysfunctional family systems.

Speech acts presuppose a psychological
state on the part of the speaker, and this too
can be the locus of inconsistency. Searle's own
definition is a most economical example:

"Finally, an illocutionary act whose preparatory
conditions cannot be presupposed
simultaneously with the expression of the sincerity
conditions of another illocutionary act is also
relatively incompatible with that other illocutionary act.
For example, a speaker cannot both recommend that the
hearer carry out a certain course of action and
simultaneously complain under the same aspects that he will
carry it out because one cannot consistently both
presuppose that a course of action is good and express
dissatisfaction about it under the same aspects
and for the same reasons."[14]

But people do this all the time! As an
illocution, such a speech acts are inconsistent,
but as a perlocution, they can be surprisingly
effective. The challenge is in dissecting from
the conversation the ends to which it is
effective. That virtually always depends on
context, and it usually also turns on
interpreting "under the same aspects" in
apparently analogous but in fact conflicting

By far the richest occasion for
counter-performatives lies in the required
presuppositions for speech acts. One can assert
a description by presupposition, and so conceal
the assertion. And one can insinuate, by
presupposition, that the world is such that it
can be {treated} as it is in the ensuing speech
acts. Analogies may be distorted, one party
may co-opt the position of another,
maintaining the other's speech acts, but to
quite opposed ends, and one party may put out
a "conceptual Trojan Horse," which the other
party accepts at its own risk. Obviously, these
tend to be multi-speaker speech acts of
considerable complexity, in addition to being
intricately context-dependent.

Non-philosophers have had to deal
informally with counter-performatives for
some time, as the psychological literature and
oral tradition in politics and law can amply
testify. And philosophers other than speech act
theorists have recognized the problem:

Instead of aiming directly at propositions
believed or practices performed in order
to challenge their truth or value, suspicion
is aimed at the individual or community
who believes and performs in order to challenge
their integrity. It looks for that
discrepancy between professed meaning and
actual use which renders life ironical;
for it is the essence of the ironical (speech)
act that it performs a function quite at
odds with its surface meaning. Thus an ironical
compliment functions to express a
criticism. For this reason suspicion is less
interested in the official meaning of
beliefs and practices than in their operative
meaning, the clue to which is the
life-world from which they arise and which,
in turn, they legitimize.[15]

Searle's and Westphal's philosophical
outlooks are worlds apart -- showing that
Searle and Vanderveken's typology of
illocutionarily self-defeating speech acts is a
useful and precise analytic tool in dissecting
perlocutionarily counter-performative speech
acts far beyond its original philosophical
home. It is surprising that Vanderveken's
original insight has not found more use.


[1] {How To Do Things With Words} 2nd ed.,
(Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Pr., 1975).

[2] {Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy
of Language} (London: Cambridge Univ.
Pr., 1969); {Expression and Meaning}
(Cambridge Univ. Press, 1979);
Terrence Tilley's {The Evils of Theodicy}
(Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1991)
was my guide to some of this literature,
and Tilley has been helpful in private correspondence.  

[3] "Illocutionary Logic and Self-Defeating
Speech Acts," in John R. Searle, Ferenc
Kiefer and Manfred Bierwisch, eds.,
{Speech Act Theory and Pragmatics},
(Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1980), and John
R. Searle and Daniel Vanderveken,
{Foundations of Illocutionary Logic}
(Cambridge University Press, 1985), esp. pp.
148 ff.

[4] When Searle analysed irony, in "Metaphor"
(in {Expression and Meaning}, esp. pp.
112-116), he defined it from the hearer's
knowledge in context that the speech act
is to be interpreted in a sense {opposite}
to its ostensible meaning.

[5] George Lakoff, "Performative Antinomies,"
{Foundations of Language} 8 (1972) 569.

[6] Herbert Fingarette explores the paradoxes
of having an "unconscious" policy of not
spelling out an engagement with life in
{Self Deception} (London: RKP, 1969).

[7] "Indirect Speech Acts," in
{Expression and Meaning} (Cambridge University
Press, 1979).

[8] This and following types of pathology are
from Searle and Vanderveken, pp. 148-152.

[9] Contextual implications may be further
complicated by the fact that one or both of
the speaker and hearer are able to deal
practically with the context in life (though
maybe not happily so), but are unable to
spell out all of its revelant features.

[10] {Wall Street Journal} cxxvii, #110
(1992/12/03), p. 1.

[11] Searle and Vanderveken, p. 153.

[12] 480 US 616, at p. 658.

[13] See TVA v. Hill, 437 US 153; the chronology
of events can be found at pp. 153 and
197. I am indebted to Phillip E. Johnson
for notice of these cases.

[14] Searle and Vanderveken, p. 150.

[15] Merold Westphal, "Phenomenologies and
Religious Truth," in {Phenomenology of
the Truth Proper to Religion}, ed. Daniel
Guerriere, Albany, SUNY Press, 1990;
p. 120.

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