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
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
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].
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
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.
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.