Philosophy J. L. Austin
by
Guy Longworth
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0191

Introduction

John Langshaw Austin (b. 1911–d. 1960) was White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford. He made a number of contributions in various areas of philosophy, including important work on knowledge, perception, action, freedom, truth, language, and the use of language in speech acts. Distinctions that Austin drew in his work on speech acts—in particular his distinction between locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary acts—have assumed something like canonical status in more recent work. His work on knowledge and perception figures centrally in some recent work on these topics, especially with respect to questions about the nature of episodes of seeing and the way they can figure in enabling us to know things about our environments. His work on meaning and truth has played an important role in recent discussions of the extent to which sentence meaning can be accounted for in terms of truth-conditions. His work on action and freedom has played a role in some more recent discussions. However, Austin is often aligned with an approach to philosophical questions that focuses heavily on the way we use ordinary language. Many philosophers who are skeptical about the value of that approach are therefore skeptical about the worth of some of Austin’s work.

General Overviews

The two most comprehensive overviews of Austin’s work are Graham 1977 and Warnock 1989. Graham 1977 is largely critical of Austin, while Warnock 1989 is more sympathetic, although Warnock also raises a number of objections. Longworth 2012 provides a shorter overview, and differs from both Graham 1977 and Warnock 1989 on various matters of interpretation and assessment. Searle 2005 and Urmson 1967 are very brief overviews, including some critical discussion.

Works by Austin

Austin wrote very little, and published even less. It would be reasonable to start a study of Austin’s work by reading everything that he wrote, starting with the essays collected in Austin 1979, which cover a wide range of topics, from detailed questions about the interpretation of Aristotle to issues about the nature of pretending. The earliest piece was written before 1939 and the latest around 1959, so it is natural to expect there to have been some development in the ways that Austin approached philosophical questions, and in the specific views that he propounds. Although most of Austin’s published work is reproduced in Austin 1979, a number of reviews or notes are not collected there. Most notable among these is Austin 1950, an important review of Gilbert Ryle’s 1949 work The Concept of Mind. Austin 1975 aims to reproduce Austin’s William James Lectures, given at Harvard University in 1955. The lectures were on the topic of connections between speech and other forms of action, and emphasized the need to attend to those connections in thinking about the assessment of things people say, as, for example, true or false, appropriate or inappropriate. Earlier versions of the lectures were given in Oxford, between 1952 and 1954, under the title “Words and Deeds.” Austin 1962 aims to reproduce a series of lectures that Austin gave in various forms, and over a fairly long period of time, on perception and knowledge. The earliest lectures that figured in the reproduction were given in Oxford in 1947, under the title “Problems in Philosophy.” The latest versions were given in 1958, at the University of California, Berkeley, and in 1959, in Oxford. It is possible to consult original notes pertaining to Austin’s lectures, produced by Austin and others, at the Bodleian Library in Oxford and at the other institutions at which Austin lectured.

Anthologies

Berlin 1973 is a collection of essays that were for the most part specially commissioned. Fann 1969 includes some specially commissioned essays, but also usefully brings together a large number of important pieces that had been published previously (before 1979). Laugier and Al-Saleh 2011 is an important collection of recent French work on Austin. Gustafsson and Sørli 2011 consists of specially commissioned contemporary pieces in English and includes a useful introduction by Gustafsson.

Biographical Information

Austin was born in Lancaster, England, on 26 March 1911, to Geoffrey Langshaw Austin and his wife, Mary Austin (née Bowes-Wilson). In 1933 he received a First in Literae Humaniores (Classics and Philosophy) from Balliol College, Oxford, and was elected to a Fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford. He undertook his first teaching position in 1935, as fellow and tutor at Magdalen College, Oxford. During the Second World War, Austin served in the British Intelligence Corps. He was honored for his intelligence work with an Order of the British Empire, the French Croix de Guerre, and the US Officer of the Legion of Merit. He became White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy in 1952. In the same year, he took on the role of delegate to Oxford University Press, becoming chairman of the Finance Committee in 1957. His other administrative work for the university included the role of Junior Proctor (1949–1950), and chairman of the Sub-Faculty of Philosophy (1953–1955). He was president of the Aristotelian Society in 1956–1957. He gave the William James Lectures in Harvard in 1955 (a version of the lectures was published as How to Do Things with Words (Austin 1975, cited under Works by Austin). He invented the card game CASE in 1951. Austin wrote very little. It can be useful in trying to reconstruct his thinking about philosophical topics to consider sources of biographical information. Such information can be useful in providing information about Austin’s influences, some of Austin’s philosophical targets, his approach to philosophical topics, and his influences on other philosophers. Much of Austin’s immediate philosophical influence was mediated by private discussions rather than public lectures or writings. Insights into Austin’s interactions with other philosophers, and the philosophical views and approached revealed in those interactions, may be found in Berlin 1973, Pitcher 1973, and Warnock 1973. Hampshire 1960, Pears 1962, and Warnock 1963 provide more general overviews of Austin’s life and work. Marion 2000a and Marion 2000b seek to fit Austin’s work into a tradition of Oxford philosophy, and provide useful background on Austin’s connections with John Cook Wilson and Harold Arthur Prichard.

Language and Philosophy

One of the distinctive features of Austin’s approach to philosophical questions was that it very often involved attention to the nuances of ordinary language. In part, Austin aimed carefully to consider similarities and differences in the range of applications of closely related expressions—for example, among “intentionally,” “voluntarily,” and “deliberately.” Part of the aim here was to avoid being misled into hasty overgeneralization by failure to keep track of differences in the ways expressions are used. Another aim was to avoid being misled into taking more or less arbitrary constraints on the use of one or another of such a group of expressions to reflect deep features of their shared subject matter. Austin 1957 is an especially good source for Austin’s explicit reflections on method, and it motivates the need for philosophers to attend to the nuances of ordinary language in the following way: “. . . words are our tools, and, as a minimum, we should use clean tools . . .” (p. 181). Because of his attention to the nuances of ordinary language, Austin is often grouped together with other philosophers who also sought to pay attention to those nuances. Thus Austin is often counted as an “Ordinary Language Philosopher,” along with, for example, Gilbert Ryle and P. F. Strawson. The most radical criticism levelled against such an approach to philosophical questions involves an attempt to argue that ordinary language is irrelevant to the proper pursuit of philosophical questions, that it is no more appropriate as a guide here than it would be in, for example, theoretical physics. Important questions here concern whether, and if so how, the distinctive functions of philosophy warrant differential attention to more or less ordinary uses of language or ordinary judgments about cases. Cavell 1965 provides a useful discussion of those questions. Less radically, it has been argued that Austin’s approach was insufficiently sensitive to distinctions amongst the kinds of reasons for which we apply bits of language in one or another way. Grice 1989 and Soames 2003 present this challenge in an especially forceful form. A related objection is that proper pursuit of Austin’s approach would require the kind of empirical work that is attempted in theoretical linguistics, a charge pressed in New 1966. One question here is whether, and if so how, such an approach would preserve what have been thought to be differences, both in aims and in methods, between philosophy and empirical science. This issue is discussed in Cavell 1965. Travis 2008 and White 1967 attempt to respond on Austin’s behalf to some of these objections. Questions that remain open concern the precise nature of Austin’s approach, or approaches, their relations to other similar approaches, and about the prospects of such approaches for addressing philosophical questions. See also Graham 1977, Longworth 2012, and Warnock 1989 (all cited under under General Overviews).

Language, Meaning, and Truth

Austin’s central discussion of language is in Austin 1975, which reproduces a series of lectures on questions about speech acts—the various ways in which we use language in acts of speech, when we assert things, ask questions, issue commands, make promises, and so forth. This work forms the basis for a large number of later discussions of speech acts (see Speech Acts). However, Austin’s views about language emerge in a number of other places, especially in Austin 1979 (first published 1940, pp. 55–75) and Austin 1962. In addition to the importance of attending to the various speech acts that people perform, two key themes can be discerned, although it remains controversial precisely what Austin’s commitments were with respect to those themes. The first is that expressions that are sometimes treated as interchangeable in meaning very often have subtly different meanings, as revealed when we consider their applications with respect to a wide variety of cases. The second is that the meanings of expressions do not straightforwardly determine what one can say by the use of those expressions. The same sentence, used with respect to the same presented circumstances, can on some occasions be used to say something true and on some occasions to say something false. For instance, the sentence “France is hexagonal” may be used to say something true on an occasion when the rough shapes of various countries are being compared, and to say something false during a geometry class. It is controversial whether Austin really holds this view at all, as discussed in Hansen 2012. And, if Austin does hold the view, it is controversial whether it is a view on which the literal meaning of the expressions used varies from occasion to occasion, as proposed in Crary 2002, or rather a view on which literal meaning is stable while only truth conditions vary, as proposed in Longworth 2011 and Travis 2008. Finally, it is controversial that any such view is required in order to account for the phenomena to which Austin points, a challenge pressed in Grice 1989.

  • Austin, J. L. Sense and Sensibilia. Reconstructed from the manuscript notes by G. J. Warnock. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962.

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    This volume reproduces a series of lectures on questions about the nature of sensory perception, especially seeing. Lectures VII and X are especially relevant to questions about language, including questions about the extent to which what one says by the use of a sentence differs from occasion to occasion.

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  • Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words. 2d ed. Edited by M. Sbisà and J. O. Urmson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198245537.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Austin 1975 reproduces a series of lectures on questions about speech acts, and ways in which differences among the things we do in using words affect the assessment of what we do as, for example, true or false, or appropriate or inapropriate.

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  • Austin, J. L. “The Meaning of a Word.” In Philosophical Papers. 3d ed. By J. L. Austin, 55–75. Edited by J. O. Urmson and G. J. Warnock. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

    DOI: 10.1093/019283021X.003.0003Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Austin considers the question, “What is the meaning, in general, of a word?,” and argues that it is a bad question. Although we can say what the meanings of particular words are, it is a mistake to try to say anything about what meaningful words have in common. First published 1940.

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  • Crary, Alice. “The Happy Truth: J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words.” Inquiry 45.1 (2002): 59–80.

    DOI: 10.1080/002017402753556616Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Crary presents Austin as arguing that the truth conditions of what people say by using a sentence vary from occasion to occasion of use. She connects that part of Austin’s position with a view according to which the meanings of words similarly vary from occasion to occasion of use.

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  • Grice, H. P. 1989. Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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    A collection of essays building on, and also criticizing, Austin’s discussions of language and its use. Grice criticizes Austin for insufficient attention to the ways in which language use, and its proper assessment, is governed not only by what we say, but also by what we communicate. Chapters 1 (pp. 3–21) and 10 (pp. 171–180) are especially relevant.

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  • Hansen, Nat. “J. L. Austin and Literal Meaning.” European Journal of Philosophy, Early View (2012).

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    Hansen reads Austin as arguing that the truth conditions of what people say remain the same from occasion to occasion of the use of bits of language. Hansen connects that position with an analogous view about meaning, so that the literal meanings of words are stable over uses.

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  • Longworth, Guy. “J. L. Austin (1911–1960).” In Philosophy of Language: The Key Thinkers. Edited by B. Lee. London: Continuum, 2011.

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    Longworth introduces Austin’s views about language, and provides a reading of Austin intermediate between those in Crary 2002 and Hansen 2012. The reading agrees with Crary that truth conditions vary from occasion to occasion, and agrees with Hansen that literal meaning is stable.

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  • Travis, Charles. Occasion-Sensitivity: Selected Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199230334.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Travis presents a distinctive reading of Austin’s views about meaning and truth conditions, and responds to Grice’s objections. This is the basis for the reading presented in Longworth 2011. The introduction and chapters 1–2 (pp. 1–93) are especially relevant.

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Truth

Austin’s central works on truth are Austin 1950 and the 1954 “Unfair to Facts,” published in Austin 1979. However, Austin’s work on truth is connected with his more general views about the connections between meaning and truth (see Language, Meaning, and Truth). Austin 1950 is ostensibly a response to Strawson 1949. Strawson had argued that “is true” plays a performative rather than a descriptive role: when we say that a statement “is true,” we are not describing the statement, but giving expression to attitudes such as agreement or endorsement. In response, Austin presents an account on which “is true” is used to describe the obtaining of relations of correspondence between statements and facts. Strawson 1950 is a response to Austin 1950 and targets mainly Austin’s appeal to facts. Austin 1979 is a response. Strawson 1965 objects to other features of Austin’s account, including Austin’s appeal to convention (although it is not clear that Austin and Strawson understood this appeal in the same way). Although Strawson appears to concede that Austin was right that “is true” has some form of descriptive function, it is commonly held that Strawson’s objections to other components of Austin’s view are successful. Vendler 1967 develops in more detail than Strawson 1965 a version of Strawson’s objection to Austin’s conception of facts. Wheatley 1969 provides a useful overview of the dispute between Austin and Strawson (and some other philosophers), and argues that some of Austin’s opponents failed properly to understand his position. Austin claimed (in Austin 1950) that self-referential statements (as opposed to sentences)—one apparent source of the liar paradox—are in general impossible. Barwise and Etchemendy 1987 develops a version of Austin’s account of truth and uses it to deal with certain logical puzzles, including the liar paradox. (See also Lawlor 2013 [cited under Knowledge], which seeks to apply the aspects of Austin’s account to which Barwise and Etchemendy appeal to the case of claims about knowledge.)

Speech Acts

Austin’s central discussion of language is in Austin 1975, which reproduces a series of lectures on questions about speech acts—the various ways in which we use language in acts of speech, when we assert things, ask questions, issue commands, make promises, and so forth. Austin aims to explain the wider importance of these issues and to make some progress in classifying the things we do when we use words for various purposes. Austin 1975 contains Austin’s main discussion of the purported distinction between constatives—sentences used to make statements or assertions—and performatives—sentences used for other purposes—such as naming ships or getting married, for example. Austin argues that the distinction is less straightforward than it at first seems. In place of, or in addition to, the constative-performative distinction, Austin distinguishes between locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary acts. (To a first approximation, the distinction is between acts of using a meaningful sentence [locutionary acts], acts that aim to communicate something by that use [illocutionary acts], and acts of thereby achieving further ends, like getting someone to believe something or do something [perlocutionary acts].) This work forms the basis for a large number of later discussions of speech acts, including Hornsby 1988 and Searle 1969. Austin’s 1956 “Performative Utterances,” cited here as Austin 1979, provides a useful overview of some of the main themes of Austin 1975. Some related issues are discussed in Austin 1953. The details of Austin’s discussion of speech acts are discussed critically in Bird 1981 (which provides a useful survey of prior discussions), Hornsby 1988, Sbisà 2007, Searle 1969, and Strawson 1964.

Knowledge

Austin’s main discussions of knowledge are in Austin 1946 and Austin 1962. There are four central themes in discussions of Austin’s work on knowledge. First, according to some readings, including the one presented in Travis 2005, Austin’s work on knowledge aligns him with the tradition of “Oxford Realism,” including especially John Cook Wilson and Harold Arthur Prichard. (See also Marion 2000a and Marion 2000b, cited under Biographical Information; and Kalderon and Travis 2013 and Martin 2007, cited under Perception.) The central doctrine of the tradition is that one knows that such-and-such (for example, that there’s a pig there) only if one’s epistemic position makes it impossible that it’s not the case that such-and-such (for example, makes it impossible that there’s no pig there). However, on some other readings, Austin is a sort of fallibilist, who allows that one can know in cases where one might, for all one can tell, be wrong. For relevant discussion, see Kaplan 2011, Leite 2011, Lawlor 2013, and Stroud 1984. Second, it is widely held that Austin sought to approach questions about knowledge via questions about how we ordinarily talk about knowledge. (See Language and Philosophy.) Stroud 1984 argues that this approach to questions about knowledge is questionable. Kaplan 2011, Leite 2011, and Travis 2005 suggest forms of response to Stroud. Third, and related to the second theme, Austin 1946 suggests that talk about knowledge, like talk about promising, is sometimes used to give others one’s assurance. This theme is developed and defended in Lawlor 2013. See Longworth 2012 and Warnock 1989 (cited under General Overviews), and Searle 1969 (cited under Speech Acts) for less positive appraisals of Austin’s suggestion. Fourth, and also related to the second theme, Austin is commonly read as holding that what precisely it takes for someone to know on an occasion, or correctly to be said to know, depends on specific features of their circumstances, or the circumstances in which they are said to know. This theme is pursued in different ways by Lawlor 2013, Leite 2011, and Travis 2005. (See also Crary 2002, Grice 1989, Longworth 2011, and Travis 2008, all cited under Language, Meaning, and Truth).

Perception

Austin’s main discussion of perception is Austin 1962, although Austin’s 1954 “Unfair to Facts,” published in Austin 1979 (cited under Truth), was an important component of the lectures that gave rise to Austin 1962. The main aim of Austin 1962 was to undermine arguments to the effect that we never perceive features of our environments—ordinary objects, events, processes, and other phenomena, such as rainbows, shadows, etc. Those arguments were typically based on the fact that we can be subject to various sorts of illusions and delusions, and so have come to be grouped together as the “argument from illusion.” Focusing on particular presentations of the argument, especially by A. J. Ayer, Austin tried to show that they rest on various poorly formulated claims, failures to draw important distinctions, and noncompulsory assumptions. Kalderon and Travis 2013 presents Austin’s discussion as a development of, and improvement upon, earlier forms of Oxford Realism, the core of which is the view that sensory perception is a form of immediate apprehension of environmental features. Hirst 1963, Burnyeat 1979, Martin 2007, and Soames 2003 are in various ways critical of Austin’s discussion, in some cases presenting versions of the argument from illusion that seem to be immune to Austin’s objections. Travis 2004 develops some lines of argument in Austin 1962, and uses them in an attempt to undermine more recent accounts of perception according to which it represents the environment as being one or another way, rather than simple presenting to the perceiver features of his or her environment. Pears 1979 discusses the question whether claims or judgments about sensory experience enjoy a special degree of epistemic security

Actions and Excuses

Austin’s work on action aims to deepen our understanding of distinctions between what someone did, or was wholly responsible for doing, on an occasion and other things involving them—mere behaviors of theirs, consequences of what they did, and so forth. It also aims to help us to understand distinctions within the class of things people do, for instance between the things that someone did deliberately or carelessly, by mistake or accidentally. Austin’s main work in this area is Austin 1957, which also includes his most extensive discussion of Austin’s approach to some philosophical questions via reflection on our ordinary use of language. New 1966 and Searle 1966 object to some of the claims that Austin makes about our ordinary use of language in these areas, and to some of the conclusions he drew from those claims. Both suggest ways in which care, and difficult theoretical work, is required to reach such conclusions reliably. Forguson 1969 and White 1967 defend Austin, especially against Searle 1966. The issues here connect with more general questions about Austin’s approach to philosophical questions (see Language and Philosophy). Austin’s work on action connects with his work on speech acts, which are a special case of human action (see Speech Acts).

Freedom and Ability

Among the excuses someone might appeal to is the excuse that they could not have done otherwise. That excuse connects issues about actions and excuses with a more general issue about human freedom and determinism: to what extent is it ever the case that, given something what we in fact did, we could have done something else instead? Austin pursues this question in Austin 1956, by considering questions about purported connections between claims about what we can do, or could have done, and claims about what we would do if certain conditions were met—claims to the effect that, if those conditions were met, then we would do such-and-such. Some philosophers have tried to defend the claim that human freedom is compatible with determinism by appeal to such connections, and Austin’s discussion can be seen in part as aiming to undermine such defenses of compatibilism. Austin 1956 also explores again a distinction that had figured in Austin 1946 (cited under Knowledge), that between three senses in which someone might be said to be able to do something. (In the case of Austin 1946, senses in which someone can be in a position to know something.) The three senses are the following: the ability sense (in which we say that someone has the general ability to do something); the opportunity sense (that someone is in circumstances suitable to the exercise of their ability to do something); and the all-in sense (that they have the ability and the opportunity, and, perhaps, that there are no other barriers to the proper exercise of their ability). Ayers 1966, Kaufman 1963, Locke 1962, Nowell-Smith 1960, Pears 1973, and Thalberg 1969 are important critical discussions of Austin 1956, though differing in where precisely they take Austin to go wrong, and in the positive proposals they wish to defend. Some, like Nowell-Smith 1960, Pears 1973, and Thalberg 1969, defend qualified versions of the dispositional or conditional analysis of ability. Ayers 1966 accepts Austin’s conclusion, but rejects his argument for it. And Kaufman 1963, Locke 1962, and Thalberg 1969 question the larger conclusions about freedom and responsibility that Austin hoped to draw from his discussion.

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