Lecture Erik Viskil

Royal Academy of Art, The Hague (NL)

Only for PhDArts students.


When Janneke and I were exchanging views about the new theory programme she was developing for the bachelor courses of the Royal Academy earlier this year, I wondered if I could possibly make an interesting contribution to it. The course’s intriguing title Research & Discourse took me back to the years that I spent amongst the theorists of the Amsterdam school of argumentation - in fact the years that I was an argumentation theorist myself. Being aware of the relation between my own background and the aims of the course I offered her to deliver a practically oriented lecture about argumentation and the use and abuse of language in discussions and discursive text. Before my name was even listed in the programme Janneke surprised me with the question if I would be interested to engage in the PHD programme as well. I immediately thought about the tempting possibilities. In the approach to argumentation developed by Frans H. van Eemeren and his colleagues in Amsterdam a central role is devoted to speech act theory. Accidentally, a key concept of this theory, often referred to as performativity, happens to play a role in both contemporary theory of art as well as in the art practice of our time. Yet, I believe that only a very few number of artists are familiar with its origins and meaning.

It was the British philosopher John Langshaw Austin who initiated speech act theory almost sixty years ago. In his inquiries into the question which utterances in ordinary language have truth-value and which have not, he found out that only assertions can be true or false. However, a lot of utterances aren’t assertions. Austin concluded that apparently there are two kinds of utterances. We use constative utterances to assert something, whereas by means of performative utteranceswe do something. When, for instance, we declare two people man and wife in a wedding ceremony, we perform an act in which no truth-value is involved. Instead, we do something with words by means of which they become married.

In my lectures I shall start to discuss the concepts of performativity and of speech acts. What does it mean to perform a speech act? What is the use of the concept of ‘speech act’ and of distinguishing between different types of speech acts? I very much like to extend this discussion to the question as to what degree a work of art could be regarded as a performative act too. The second step is that I would like to explain in which way speech act theory plays a role in the theory of argumentation. What kind of speech act is performed when we argue? What does it mean to be convinced by arguments? This is the starting point for me to give an overview of the basic questions of argumentation theory and the answers that Van Eemeren and collaborators have developed on the basis of speech act theory and other theoretical insights. By discussing their theoretical concepts and distinctions we shall try to gain a better understanding of the possibilities of analysing and evaluating argumentative discourse and to estimate in which way some of the concepts could possibly be useful in the process of doing research and preparing a doctoral dissertation. Our final question will concern the value of rational norms of reasoning and arguing, and the risks involved for an artist who is trying to satisfy them.


J.L. Austin, ‘Performative Utterances’, in: Philosophical Papers, Oxford University Press, 1979, p. 233-252.

F.H. van Eemeren, R. Grootendorst, and F. Snoeck Henkemans, ‘Introduction’, in: Fundamentals of Argumentation Theory; A Handbook of Historical Backgrounds and Contemporary Developments, Lawrence Earlbaum Associates, 1996, p. 1-26. [Paragraph 1.1 and 1.3]


Erik Viskil is a researcher, writer, and advisor to cultural institutions. He studied Museology in Leiden and Dutch Language & Literature in Amsterdam, with a specialisation in Speech Communication, Argumentation Theory, and Rhetoric. He earned his doctorate degree on a dissertation on definitions. Erik is a former member of the board of directors of Gerrit Rietveld Academy, and founding-coordinator of its department of Image & Language. In recent years he was a driving force behind the development of the mission and vision of the Royal Academy and its positioning as a research oriented art school. As advisor to ArtEZ he developed a new profile and programme for the Fine Art departments in Zwolle and Arnhem, which accordingly merged on a new location in Arnhem recently.