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Felicity conditions

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These are conditions necessary to the success of a speech act. They take their name from a Latin root –

“felix” or “happy”. They are conditions needed for success or achievement of a performative. Only certain

people are qualified to declare war, baptize people or sentence convicted felons. In some cases, the speaker

must be sincere (as in apologizing or vowing). And external circumstances must be suitable: “Can you give

me a lift?” requires that the hearer has a motor vehicle and is able to drive it somewhere and that the

speaker has a reason for the request. It may be that the utterance is meant as a joke or sarcasm, in which

case a different interpretation is in order. Loosely speaking, felicity conditions are of three kinds: preparatory

conditions, conditions for execution and sincerity conditions.

Preparatory conditions

Preparatory conditions include the status or authority of the speaker to perform the speech act, the situation

of other parties and so on.

So, in order to confirm a candidate, the speaker must be a bishop; but a mere priest can baptize people,

while various ministers of religion and registrars may solemnize marriages (in England). In the case of

marrying, there are other conditions – that neither of the couple is already married, that they make their own

speech acts, and so on. We sometimes speculate about the status of people (otherwise free to marry) who

act out a wedding scene in a play or film – are they somehow, really, married? In Romeo and Juliet,

Shakespeare has no worries, because the words of the ceremony are not spoken on stage, and, anyway,

Juliet’s part is played by a boy. (Though this may make the wedding scene seem blasphemous to some in

the audience.)

In the UK only the monarch can dissolve parliament. A qualified referee can caution a player, if he or she is

officiating in a match. The referee’s assistant (who, in the higher leagues, is also a qualified referee) cannot

do this.

The situation of the utterance is important. If the US President jokingly “declares” war on another country in a

private conversation, then the USA is not really at war. This, of course, happened (on 11 August 1984), when

Ronald Reagan made some remarks off-air, as he thought, but which have been recorded for posterity:

“My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia

forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”

One hopes that this utterance also failed in terms of sincerity conditions.


© Copyright: Andrew Moore, 2001


Conditions for execution

Conditions for execution can assume an exaggerated importance. We are so used to a ritual or ceremonial

action accompanying the speech act that we believe the act is invalidated, if the action is lacking – but there

are few real examples of this.

Take refereeing of association football. When a referee cautions a player, he (or she) should take the

player’s name, number and note the team for which he plays. The referee may also display a yellow card,

but this is not necessary to the giving of the caution:

“The mandatory use of the cards is merely a simple aid for better communication”

The Football Association (1998); Advice on the Application of the Laws of the Game, p. 9

In knighting their subjects, English monarchs traditionally touch the recipient of the honour on both shoulders

with the flat side of a sword blade. But this, too, is not necessary to the performance of the act.

A story is told in Oxford of a young man, taking his final exams, who demanded a pint of beer from the

invigilators. He pointed out that he was wearing his sword, as required by the mediaeval statute that made

provision for the drink. The invigilator (exam supervisor), believing the young man’s version of events

brought the beer, but checked the statutes. Later the young man received a fine – he had not, as the statute

also required, been wearing his spurs. The story may well be an urban myth, but illustrates neatly a condition

of execution.

Sincerity conditions

At a simple level these show that the speaker must really intend what he or she says. In the case of

apologizing or promising, it may be impossible for others to know how sincere the speaker is. Moreover

sincerity, as a genuine intention (now) is no assurance that the apologetic attitude will last, or that the

promise will be kept. There are some speech acts – such as plighting one’s troth or taking an oath – where

this sincerity is determined by the presence of witnesses. The one making the promise will not be able later

to argue that he or she didn’t really mean it.

A more complex example comes in the classroom where the teacher asks a question, but the pupil supposes

that the teacher knows the answer and is, therefore, not sincere in asking it. In this case “Can you, please,

tell me X?” may be more acceptable to the child than “What is X?”

We can also use our understanding of sincerity conditions humorously, where we ask others, or promise

ourselves, to do things which we think the others know to be impossible: “Please can you make it sunny



© Copyright: Andrew Moore, 2001


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