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felicity conditions


felicity conditions

John L. Austin (1911-1960)


In pragmatics, the conditions that must be in place and the criteria that must be satisfied for a speech act to achieve its purpose.

Several kinds of felicity conditions have been identified, including:
(1) an essential condition (whether a speaker intends that an utterance be acted upon by the addressee);
(2) a sincerity condition (whether the speech act is being performed seriously and sincerely);
(3) a preparatory condition (whether the authority of the speaker and the circumstances of the speech act are appropriate to its being performed successfully).

See also:


Introduced by Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin in How to Do Things With Words (1962) and further developed by American philosopher J.R. Searle.

Examples and Observations:

  • "[F]elicity conditions are conventions that speakers and addressees use as a code to produce and recognize actions. Speakers use the felicity conditions for actions as a device for encoding their actions into sentences with a particular linguistic structure that speakers then utter (i.e. they produce the appropriate utterance unit). Hearers, in turn, use the same set of felicity conditions for actions as a device for decoding the speaker's actions from the linguistic structure of the sentences the speaker produced (i.e. from the speaker's utterance units)."
    (William Turnbull, Language in Action: Psychological Models of Conversation. Psychology Press, 2003)

  • "As to felicity conditions, consider the following examples. Suppose I am joking with some friends and say, 'I now pronounce you husband and wife.' I have not, in fact, married them. My speech act is infelicitous. Suppose I am in a play and deliver the line 'I promise to kill the evil Don Fernando.' I have not, in fact, promised to kill anyone. . . . The first speech act fails because, among other things, I must have a certain institutional authority for my words to have the appropriate illocutionary force. Part of the felicity conditions for marrying people concerns the institutional position of the speaker. The second speech act fails because the words are uttered in a context where they are not used by the speaker, but in effect quoted from a text. And it is a general felicity condition that the speaker use the words of the locution and not merely quote them."
    (Patrick Colm Hogan, Philosophical Approaches to the Study of Literature. Univ. Press of Florida, 2000)

  • "[Performatives are] utterances in which saying is doing, and they . . . are only successful if certain felicity conditions are fulfilled . . .. A good example is the act of ordering someone to do something. To do this it is possible to use the verb 'order' and say, for example, 'I order you to clean your boots,' or to use the imperative form 'Clean your boots,' which is often associated with ordering. Yet, as with declarations, such utterances will only be perceived as orders if certain conditions are in operation by both the sender and the receiver. The felicity conditions for an order are:

    1. The sender believes the action should be done.
    2. The receiver has the ability to do the action.
    3. The receiver has the obligation to do the action.
    4. The sender has the right to tell the receiver to do the action.
    If any one of these conditions is not fulfilled, the utterance will not function as an order. If I order someone to clean their boots when I really do not believe this should be done, then my order is insincere, and flawed (condition 1). I can order someone to clean their boots, but not to eat the Eiffel Tower--they will not have the ability (condition 2). My order will not succeed as an order unless the person I am talking to is obliged to clean their boots (condition 3), and I have the right and the power to make them do so (condition 4)."
    (Guy Cook, Discourse. Oxford Univ. Press, 1989)
Also Known As: presupposition

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