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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


AUSTIN

(1911 — 60)

 

'ORDINARY LANGUAGE' ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHY

Born in Lancaster and educated at Shrewsbury School and Balliol College, Oxford, where he read Literae Humaniores, John Langshaw Austin was elected Fellow of All Souls in 1933 and a Tutorial Fellow of Magdalen two years later. After war service in British intelligence (during which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre and appointed Officer of the Legion of Merit) he returned to Oxford. He was elected White's Professor of Moral Philosophy and Fellow of Corpus Christi in 1952. In 1955 he was William James Lecturer at Harvard, and in 1958 was elected fellow of the British Academy.

 

PHILOSOPHY OF LANGUAGE

[1] Austin's primary interest was in the philosophy of language. He supposed that careful (albeit non-systematic) empirical examination of linguistic usage and distinctions could often show that various philosophical doctrines were fundamentally flawed, and that the problems they purported to solve were really pseudo-problems. However, more positively, he also claimed that language analysis might uncover genuine problems, and supposed that they could be resolved through the introduction of a new and more refined terminology. He did not consider what is often called 'ordinary language' to have any kind of special status, though he said that, where practical matters are concerned, it would be a mistake to neglect the distinctions such language makes. [See 'A Plea for Excuses'.] He called this kind of philosophy 'linguistic phenomenology' [a]; and he regarded it as the starting-point of a new 'science' of language.

His techniques were applied in many branches of philosophy. Thus, in the philosophy of action he examined the concept of choice, by accurately analysing the usage of 'could have' in such a sentence as 'I could have done x if I had so chosen'. [See 'Ifs and Cans'.] He argued against the claim that 'should' is substitutable for 'could' and implied that it is mistaken to suppose it is always a conditional that is implied by 'if', or that a conditional has to be causal (from which he seemed to draw the conclusion that freedom to perform actions is not a causal power) [b]. Another good example is his treatment of the concept of a sense-datum in perception theory. What we directly perceive, he argued, are not sense-data (yellow patches, bent shapes, and so on) but material objects (the moon, an actual stick in water), which appear to us in some quite understandable ways, depending on circumstances. Furthermore, it is mistaken, he said, to regard some sense-data or 'sensibilia' as constituting the directly verifiable foundations for incorrigible propositions which might provide the basis for knowledge [Sense and Sensibilia] [c].

In his early work [for example, 'Other Minds'] Austin had already made an important distinction between 'performative' and 'descriptive' (later called 'constative') utterances. When I say I know that something is he case I am not describing a state of mind but asserting my authority for making the claim. Like promising to do something, 'knowing' is a performative word. Performatives cannot be true or false, only 'happy'/ 'unhappy'. Similarly there are performatory features about the utterance 'p is true'. But Austin argued for a modified correspondence theory of truth which is couched in terms of (a) 'descriptive' conventions, which correlate sentences with types of situations to be found in the world, and (b) 'demonstrative' conventions (statements, that is, sentences in use) which actually obtain in the world at a given time [see 'Truth'] [d].

In the face of difficulties arising out of his distinction between performatives and descriptive/ constative utterances Austin developed a more sophisticated classification. [See 'Performative-Constative' and How to do Things with Words, XI.] There are, he said, three kinds of speech-act.

(1) 'Locutionary' acts. In such instances we utter sentences with a certain sense and reference to convey meaning.

(2) 'Illocutionary' acts. These utterances are deemed to carry a certain 'force' — as when we intend to inform, order, warn someone, and so on.

(3) 'Perlocutionary acts. These speech-acts are those which produce a particular effect, whether or not they are intended or are successful.

He argued that any given utterance is both locutionary and illocutionary; meaning and force cannot be sharply distinguished within the total speech-act. He therefore no longer appeals to a distinction between purely constative (descriptive) and purely performative utterances [e].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Austin's highly original work on the analysis of linguistic distinctions was influential for some time in post-war Oxford. However, more recently a number of commentators have drawn attention to what they perceive to be limitations of his way of doing philosophy.

(1) It is said that while analysis of ordinary linguistic usage may indicate, for example, that arguments for the existence of something being as it looks are erroneous, it does not follow that the philosophical problems associated with the foundation of perceptual beliefs have disappeared.

(2) Some critics have pointed to what they see as inadequacies in his actual treatment of some particular problems. Strawson, for example, has argued that in his theory of truth Austin has confused semantic conditions governing the truth of a statement S1, which asserts that S2 is true, with what is actually asserted when we say S2 is true. the primary concern should be how we use the word 'true' rather than when.

(3) A more general objection is that an analysis of speech-acts does not help us to answer the question of what it actually is to understand linguistic rules. However, it should be said that Austin tended to be interested in linguistic distinctions for their own sake rather than for any incidental application they might have to problem solving. But when he does consider traditional problems, his view that 'revision', namely, a 'straightening out' of ordinary language and the introduction of new terminology, is needed if those problems are to be tackled satisfactorily, has been questioned by philosophers in the tradition of (the later) Wittgenstein.

 

READING

Austin: [posthumous publications] How to do Things with Words (1962; 2nd edition 1975); Sense and Sensibilia (1962); many papers published in his lifetime are to be found in Philosophical Papers (1961; 1979) [including 'Other Minds' (1946), [ref] 'How to Talk. Some Simple Ways' (1953), 'Ifs and Cans' (1956), 'A Plea for Excuses' (1957)]; 'Truth' (1950) is in G. Pitcher (ed.), Truth; and 'Performative-Constative' (translation of 'Performatif-Constatif', 1958) in J. R. Searle (ed.), The Philosophy of Language.

Studies

I. Berlin, Essays on J. L. Austin.

K. Graham, J .L. Austin: A Critique of Ordinary Language Philosophy

G. J. Warnock, J. L. Austin.

Collection of essays

K. T. Fann (ed.), A Symposium on J. L. Austin.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Austin

 

[1a] Philosophy as non-systematic empirical analysis of language; resolves philosophical problems; no special status for 'ordinary' language

   Moore

   Wittgenstein

Hampshire

Dummett

Ayer

[1d]

[3a c 3d]

[1a]

[1a h]

[1f]

 

[1b] Choice, 'could', 'should', and 'if'clauses; freedom to act not causal

   Moore

Davidson

[1e]

[2c]

 

[1c] We perceive material objects, not sense data; rejection of sense data as 'foundation' of knowledge

   Berkeley

   Moore

Ayer

   Merleau-Ponty

[1c]

[1c 2d 2g]

[2a b]

[3a]

 

[1d] Performative and descriptive/ constative utterances; truth as correspondence

   Aristotle

   Brentano

   Wittgenstein

Ricoeur

Strawson

Dummett

Habermas

Searle

[2a]

[2b]

[1a]

[2a]

[1e]

[1b]

[3b]

[2d]

 

[1e] [Later] no appeal to performance-constative distinction; three classes of speech-acts; no sharp distinction between meaning and force

   Aristotle

   Frege

Ricoeur

Dummett

Habermas

Searle

[3a]

[2k]

[5c]

[1c]

[3b]

[1a]