Philosophy J. L. Austin
Guy Longworth
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0191


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.

  • Graham, Keith. J. L. Austin: A Critique of Ordinary Language Philosophy. Michigan: Harvester, 1977.

    Graham offers a book-length critique of most of Austin’s philosophical work. He presents a detailed exposition and critical discussion of Austin’s work. The book is highly critical of Austin, and especially of Austin’s approach to philosophical questions. See also Language and Philosophy.

  • Longworth, Guy. “John Langshaw Austin.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2012.

    Longworth presents an overview of the main parts of Austin’s work together with an extensive list of references.

  • Searle, John R. “J. L. Austin (1911–1960).” In A Companion to Analytic Philosophy. Edited by A. P. Martinich and D. Sosa, 218–230. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

    Searle provides a brief overview of Austin’s life and work.

  • Urmson, J. O. “Austin’s Philosophy.” In The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Vol. 1. Edited by P. Edwards, 211–215. New York: Random House, 1967.

    Urmson provides brief overview of Austin’s work, attending especially to Austin’s approach to philosophical questions. Also published in Fann 1969 (Symposium on J. L. Austin), cited under Anthologies.

  • Warnock, G. J. J. L. Austin. London: Routledge, 1989.

    A book length treatment of Austin’s philosophy as a whole. It includes a useful biographical sketch, and a systematic attempt to explain and engage with the main parts of Austin’s work.

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