John Langshaw Austin

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John Langshaw Austin (more commonly known as J.L Austin) (March 28, 1911 – February 8, 1960) was a philosopher of language and the main figure in the development of what is known as ordinary language philosophy within Anglo-American analytic philosophy. Among other things, he developed much of the current theory of what are known as "speech acts," and demonstrated with penetrating and subtle analysis that language is used for much more than making statements.

Life and work

Austin was born in Lancaster and educated at Balliol College, Oxford. After serving in MI6 during World War II, in which service he won numerous accolades for his work in and leadership of intelligence services and his success in solving intelligence problems, Austin became White's Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford. He occupies a place in philosophy of language alongside Wittgenstein in staunchly advocating the examination of the way words are used in order to elucidate meaning. Unlike many ordinary language philosophers, however, Austin disavowed any considerable indebtedness to Wittgenstein's later philosophy. His main influence, he said, was the exact, exacting, and common-sense philosophy of G. E. Moore; he was also very influenced by H.A. Prichard, even if mostly to disagree.

Austin married Jean Coutts in 1941, and they had two daughters and two sons. G.J. Warnock wrote that Austin "found in his home and family a satisfaction and happiness which he found nowhere else." Warnock also speculated that "this devotion explains in large measure the impression of detachment, of remoteness even, which he sometimes made in other settings" (G.J. Warnock, "John Langshaw Austin, A Biographical Memoir," in Fann, ed., Symposium on Austin, p. 8).

Austin was greatly admired as a teacher; in fact, he put most of his efforts into teaching and, thus, published little of his philosophical work during his brief lifetime. After his death, his students gathered his papers and lectures in books that were published posthumously, including Philosophical Papers (1961) and Sense and Sensibilia (1962).

Austin fits within the school of British-American analytic philosophy of the twentieth Century (to some extent that tradition is also Austrian-German). But that school has two main sub-branches: The first was the logical positivist or logical empiricist branch that stretches back to Gottlob Frege, Russell and Whitehead, and others (for logic) and Ernst Mach (for positivism), and which was embodied to a great extent in Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. It was more fully developed by the Vienna Circle and its members. Its gospel tract was A.J. Ayer's Language, Truth, and Logic, and its greatest exponents were probably Rudolf Carnap and Carl Hempel.

Sir Isaiah Berlin wrote that weekly discussions began sometime in 1936-37 at Oxford; they were suggested by Austin, who remained their leading spirit until war brought them to an end. They can be seen as beginning a second branch of analytic philosophy, usually known as "ordinary language philosophy." This movement was taken up especially after the end of World War II, centering most fully in Oxford; in fact it has sometimes been known as "Oxford philosophy." Although he was at Cambridge, Wittgenstein's later work, especially the Blue and Brown Books and his Philosophical Investigations, were seminal for post-positivist analytic philosophy (but not for Austin himself). Austin was likely the leading exponent of that form of analytic philosophy, a movement that can be traced at least partly back to G.E. Moore. For those philosophers who were attracted to analytic philosophy but who deplored what they saw as being the mistakes and narrowness of logical positivism or logical empiricism, the work of Austin and his fellows was often seen as a breath of new and invigorating air.

Berlin wrote that Austin "had a passion for accurate, factual information, rigorous analysis, testable conclusions, ability to put things together and to take them to pieces again" and that he "detested vagueness, obscurity, abstraction, evasion of issues by escape into metaphor or rhetoric or jargon or metaphysical fantasy." Berlin also wrote that Austin was "determined to try to reduce whatever could be so reduced to plain prose." (From "Austin and the Early Beginnings of Oxford Philosophy," in Essays on J.L. Austin, p. 1-2.)

Berlin also wrote that Austin "had a very clear, acute, and original intellect," and that, "when he spoke, there appeared to be nothing between him and the subject of his criticism or exposition—no accumulation of traditional commentary, no spectacles provided by a particular doctrine." Because of that, Austin "often produced the feeling that the question was being posed clearly for the first time: That what had seemed blurred, or trite, or a play of conventional formula in the books had suddenly been washed away: The problems stood out in sharp relief, clear, unanswered, and important." Moreover, Austin's methods of analysis "had a surgical sharpness, and were used with fascinating assurance and apparently effortless skill" (Ibid., 5).

G.J. Warnock also gave an account of Austin's philosophical opinions, saying that those did not change either before before or after the war. Austin saw philosophy primarily as engaged in clearing up conceptual confusion. According to Warnock, Austin believed "that what had descended to our time under the name of philosophy was the tangled residue of a formerly even vaster tangle." When it had been cleared up, "independent disciplines—mathematics, the physical sciences, formal logic, psychology, and so on" appeared out of that tangle. But "what remained in the domain and under the title of philosophy was at least highly unlikely to consist of any one kind of problem," so "no single method was likely to be, quite generally, the key to progress." Thus "Problems … ought simply to be approached with no preconceptions." Instead, they should be "set out in the clearest possible light, and discussed in any way that might seem to be relevant and effective." What was needed was "truthfulnes … industry and patience," and the "fatal philosophical failings were inaccuracy and over-simplification, and … proliferation of bogus 'solutions'" (op. cit., 11-12).

Warnock gave what he thought were two views held by Austin about philosophical procedure. The first was that, to achieve clarity and common understanding, ordinary language should be employed and studied by philosophers. The second arose from Austin's war experience, in which he faced "vast and complicated problems" that may have seemed initially insoluble, but which "had been solved by the patient, minutely detailed labor of scores, even hundreds, of trained investigators, and by the persistent systematic co-ordination of their inquiries and their findings." According to Warnock, Austin saw the problems of philosophy as "comparably vast and complicated" and wished "to have in philosophy an organized 'section,' a disciplined team of investigators, very much on the model of his Theater Intelligence Section [of his wartime service]." Warnock also suggested that Austin saw himself as the director of such a section (Ibid., 12-13).

How to Do Things With Words

How to Do Things With Words is perhaps Austin's most influential work. In it, he points out that philosophers of language gave most of their attention to those sentences which state some fact, but that these form only a small part of the range of tasks that can be performed by saying something. Indeed, there is an important class of utterances—Austin calls them performative utterances—that do not report a fact, but instead are themselves the performance of some action ("speech act"). For example, in the appropriate circumstances to say “I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth” is to do nothing less than to name the ship. Other examples include: "I take this man as my lawfully wedded husband," or "I bequeath this watch to my brother." All three examples demonstrate that the sentence is not used to describe or state that one is doing something, but to actually do it.

In the second half of the book, Austin produces a useful way of analyzing utterances.

Consider what happens when John Smith turns to Sue Snub and says "Is Jeff’s shirt red?" to which Sue replies "Yes." Firstly, John has produced a series of bodily movements which result in the production of a certain sound. Austin called such a performance a phonetic act, and called the act a phone. John’s utterance also conforms to the lexical and grammatical conventions of English—that is, John has produced an English sentence. Austin called this a phatic act, and labels such utterances phemes. John also referred to Jeff’s shirt, and to the color red. To use a pheme with a more or less definite sense and reference is to utter a rheme, and to perform a rhetic act. Note that rhemes are a sub-class of phemes, which in turn are a sub-class of phones. One cannot perform a rheme without also performing a pheme and a phone. The performance of these three acts is the performance of a locution—it is the act of saying something.

John has therefore performed a locutionary act. He has also done at least two other things. He has asked a question, and he has elicited an answer from Sue. Asking a question is an example of what Austin called an illocutionary act, the performance of an illocution. Other examples would be making an assertion, giving an order, and promising to do something. An illocutionary act is to use a locution with a certain force. It is an act performed in saying something, in contrast with a locution, the act of saying something. Eliciting an answer is an example of what Austin calls a perlocutionary act, an act performed by saying something. Notice that if one successfully performs a perlocution, one also succeeds in performing both an illocution and a locution.

In the theory of speech acts, attention has focused on the locution, illocution, and perlocution, rather than the phone, pheme, and rheme.

Sense and Sensibilia

In the posthumously published Sense and Sensibilia, Austin famously criticized sense-data theories of perception, particularly that of Alfred Jules Ayer in The Foundations of Empirical Knowledge. Austin argued that Ayer failed to understand the proper function of words such as "illusion," "hallucination," "looks," "appears," and "seems." He argued that these words allow one to express reservations about commitment to the truth of what one is saying, and that the introduction of sense-data adds nothing to the understanding or ability to talk about what one sees. Ayer responded to this critique in the essay "Has Austin refuted the sense-data theory?" which can be found in Metaphysics and Common Sense (1969).

Philosophical Papers

Austin's papers were collected and published posthumously as Philosophical Papers by J. O. Urmson and Geoffrey Warnock. The book originally contained ten papers, two more being added in the second edition and one more in the third.

A Priori concepts

The early paper, "Are There A Priori Concepts?" contains a broad criticism of Idealism. The question set forth for investigation, the existence of a priori concepts, is treated only indirectly, by dismissing the concept of "concept" that underpins it.

The first part of this paper takes the form of a reply to an argument for the existence of Universals. The argument he is criticizing proceeds from the observation that we do use words such as "gray" or "circular;" and that since we use a single term in each case, there must be a something that is named by such terms—a universal. Furthermore, since each case of "gray" or "circular" is different, it follows that universals themselves cannot be sensed.

Austin carefully dismantles this argument, and in the process other transcendental arguments. He points out first that universals are not "something we stumble across," and that they are defined by their relation to particulars. He continues by pointing out that, from the observation that people use "grey" and "circular" as if they were the names of things, it simply does not follow that there is something that is named. In the process, he dismisses the notion that "words are essentially proper names," asking "…why, if 'one identical' word is used, must there be 'one identical object' present which it denotes."

In the second part of the article he generalizes this argument against universals to concepts as a whole. He points out that it is "facile" to treat concepts as if they were "an article of property." Such questions as "Do we possess such-and-such a concept" and "how do we come to possess such-and-such a concept" are meaningless, because concepts are not the sort of thing that one possesses.

In the final part of the paper, Austin further extends the discussion to relations, presenting a series of arguments to reject the idea that there is some thing that is a relation.

The Meaning of a Word

His paper, The Meaning of a Word, is a polemic against doing philosophy by attempting to pin down the meaning of the words used; for "there is no simple and handy appendage of a word called 'the meaning of the word (x).'" Austin warns us to take care when removing words from their ordinary usage, giving numerous examples of how this can lead one down a philosophical garden path.

A Plea For Excuses

A Plea For Excuses is both a demonstration by example, and a defense of, linguistic philosophy:

…our common stock of words embodies all the distinctions men have found worth drawing, and the connections they have found worth marking, in the lifetime of many generations: These surely are likely to be more numerous, more sound, since they have stood up to the long test of survival of the fittest, and more subtle, at least in all ordinary and reasonable practical matters, than any that you or I are likely to think up in our armchair of an afternoon—the most favorite alternative method (p. 182).

He proposes some curious philosophical tools. For instance, he uses a sort of word game for developing an understanding of a key concept. This involves taking up a dictionary and finding a selection of terms relating to the key concept, then looking up each of the words in the explanation of their meaning. Then, iterating this process until the list of words begins to repeat, closing in a “family circle” of words relating to the key concept.

Partial bibliography

  • Philosophical Papers. Ed. J. O. Urmson and G. J. Warnock. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1st ed., 1961; 2nd ed., 1970.
  • Sense and sensibilia. 1962. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • How to do things with Words: The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955. Ed. J. O. Urmson. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962. 2nd Ed., Ed. by J.O. Urmson and Marina Sbisà. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975.
  • "Performative Utterances," Ii Austin, Philosophical Papers. Ed. J. O. Urmson and G. J. Warnock. Oxford, 1961.
  • "A Plea for Excuses". in Austin, Philosophical Papers. Ed. J. O. Urmson and G. J. Warnock. Oxford, 1961.
  • "Performative-Constative," in The Philosophy of Language. Ed. John R. Searle. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1971. 13-22.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Berlin, Sir Isaiah Berlin, et. al. Essays on J.L. Austin. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973.
  • Kirkham, Richard. Theories of Truth. The MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-61108-2
  • K.T. Fann, ed. Symposium on J.L. Austin. New York: Humanities Press, Inc., 1969.

External links

All links retrieved August 3, 2022.

General philosophy sources


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