J. L. Austin

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J. L. Austin
Born 26 March 1911
Died 8 February 1960(1960-02-08) (aged 48)
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Ordinary language philosophy/linguistic philosophy, Analytic
Main interests Philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, ethics, philosophy of perception
Notable ideas Speech acts, performative utterance

John Langshaw "J. L." Austin (26 March 1911 – 8 February 1960) was a British philosopher of language. He is remembered primarily as the developer of the theory of speech acts.[1]

Prior to Austin, the attention of linguistic and analytic philosophers had been directed almost exclusively to statements, assertions, and propositions — to linguistic acts that (at least in theory) have truth-value. This led to problems when analyzing certain types of statements, for example in determining the truth conditions for such statements as "I promise to do so-and-so."

Austin pointed out that we use language to do things as well as to assert things, and that the utterance of a statement like "I promise to do so-and-so" is best understood as doing something — making a promise — rather than making an assertion about anything. Hence the name of one of his best-known works: "How to do Things with Words".


The second son of Geoffrey Langshaw Austin (1884–1971), an architect, and his wife Mary Bowes-Wilson (1883–1948), Austin was born in Lancaster. In 1922 the family moved to Scotland, where Austin's father became the secretary of St Leonard's School, St Andrews. Austin was educated at Shrewsbury School and Balliol College, Oxford, holding classical scholarships at both.

He arrived at Oxford in 1929 to read Literae Humaniores ('Greats'), and in 1931 gained a First in classical moderations and also won the Gaisford Prize for Greek prose. Greats introduced him to serious philosophy and gave him a lifelong interest in Aristotle. In 1933, he got first class honours in his Finals.[2]

During World War II Austin served in the British Intelligence Corps, MI6. It has been said of him that, “he more than anybody was responsible for the life-saving accuracy of the D-Day intelligence” (reported in Warnock 1963: 9). Austin left the army with the rank of lieutenant colonel and was honored for his intelligence work with an Order of the British Empire, the French Croix de Guerre, and the U.S. Officer of the Legion of Merit. [1]

After the war Austin became White's Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford. He began holding his famous "Austin's Saturday Mornings" where students and colleagues would discuss language usages (and sometimes books on language) over tea and crumpets, but published little.[3]

Austin visited Harvard and Berkeley in the mid-fifties, in 1955 delivering the William James Lectures at Harvard that would become How to Do Things With Words, and offering a seminar on excuses whose material would find its way into "A Plea for Excuses".[4] It was at this time that he met and befriended Noam Chomsky. He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1956 to 1957.

Austin died at the age of 48 of lung cancer. At the time, he was developing a semantic theory based on sound symbolism, using the English gl-words as data.


How to Do Things With Words

How to Do Things With Words is perhaps Austin's most influential work. In contrast to the positivist view, he argues, sentences with truth-values form only a small part of the range of utterances.

After introducing several kinds of sentences which he asserts are neither true nor false, he turns in particular to one of these kinds of sentences, which he calls performative utterances or just "performatives". These he characterises by two features:

  • Again, though they may take the form of a typical indicative sentence, performative sentences are not used to describe (or "constate") and are thus not true or false; they have no truth-value.
  • Second, to utter one of these sentences in appropriate circumstances is not just to "say" something, but rather to perform a certain kind of action.[5]

He goes on to say that when something goes wrong in connection with a performative utterance it is, as he puts it, "infelicitous", or "unhappy" rather than false.[6][7]

The action which is performed when a 'performative utterance' is issued belongs to what Austin later calls a speech-act [8] (more particularly, the kind of action Austin has in mind is what he subsequently terms the illocutionary act). For example, if you say "I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth," and the circumstances are appropriate in certain ways, then you will have done something special, namely, you will have performed the act of naming the ship. Other examples include: "I take this man as my lawfully wedded husband," used in the course of a marriage ceremony, or "I bequeath this watch to my brother," as occurring in a will. In all three cases the sentence is not being used to describe or state what one is 'doing', but being used to actually 'do' it.

After numerous attempts to find more characteristics of performatives, and after having met with many difficulties, Austin makes what he calls a "fresh start", in which he considers "more generally the senses in which to say something may be to do something, or in saying something we do something".

For example: John Smith turns to Sue Snub and says ‘Is Jeff’s shirt red?’, to which Sue replies ‘Yes’. 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 colour 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. Other examples would be making an assertion, giving an order, and promising to do something. To perform 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 especially focused on the illocutionary act, much less on the locutionary and perlocutionary act, and only rarely on the subdivision of the locution into phone, pheme and rheme.

How to Do Things With Words is based on lectures given at Oxford between 1951 and 1954, and then at Harvard in 1955.[9]

Performative utterance

According to JL. Austin, “performative utterance” refers to a not truthevaluable action of “performing”, or “doing” a certain action. For example, when people say “I promise to do so and so”, they are generating the action of making a promise. In this case, without any flaw (the promise is flawlessly fulfilled), the “performative utterance” is “happy”, or to use JL. Austin’s word, “felicitous”; if on the other hand, one fails to do what he or she promised, it can be “unhappy”, or “infelicitous”. Notice that since performative utterance is not truth-evaluable, which means nothing said can be judged based on true or false.

There are four types of performatives according to Austin: explicit, implicit, primitive, and inexplicit. "How to do things with words" written by J.O. Urmson and Marina Sbisa record Austin's lectures on this topic. In this book, Austin offers examples for each type of performatives mentioned above. For explicit performatives, he mentioned "I apologize", "I criticize" (Page 83), which are so explicit to receivers that it will not make sense if someone asks :"Does he really mean that?". Inexplicit performative is opposite, so receiver will have understandable doubts. For primary performative, the example Austin gave is "I shall be there". Compared with explicit performative, there is uncertainty in implicit persormative. People might ask if he or she is promising to be there with primary performative, however, this uncertainty is not strong enough as in inexplicit performative. Most examples given are explicit because it is easy to identify and observe, and identifying other performatives requires to compare and contrast with explicit performative.[10]

Sense and Sensibilia

In the posthumously published Sense and Sensibilia[11] Austin criticises sense-data theories of perception, particularly that of A. J. Ayer in The Foundations of Empirical Knowledge. Central to his case is an attack on a common argument from illusion (i.e., that cases of perceptual illusion show that on such occasions what we are directly aware of are mental images) and the "further bit of argument intended to establish that ...[we] always perceive sense-data."[12] Austin argues that Ayer fails to understand the proper function of such words as "illusion", "delusion", "hallucination", "looks", "appears" and "seems", and uses them instead in a "special way...invented by philosophers."[13] According to Austin, normally these words allow us to express reservations about our commitment to the truth of what we are saying, and that the introduction of sense-data adds nothing to our understanding of or ability to talk about what we see. Ayer responded to this critique in the essay "Has Austin refuted the sense-datum theory?".[citation needed]

G. J. Warnock's Foreword – Having taken a course from Austin on this topic at Oxford in 1947, Sir Geoffrey Warnock (1923-95) says he put Austin's fragmentary lecture notes into sentence form, with the help of class notes from later students of the course, and claims to relate faithfully Austin's "argument" though not his exact wording.
Chapter 1 – Austin intends to debunk a theory of sense perception that dates back thousands of years (to Heraclitus) and picks recent expressions of it by Ayer because it expresses it fairly clearly.[14] The theory states that we never see or directly perceive material objects but only sense-data or sense perceptions .Rather than start with the varied things we see—say, pens, rainbows, and after-images—philosophers tend to ask facilely for a general kind of thing and wind up unfair to the facts and to language while using "a certain special, happy style of blinkering philosophical English," Austin says.

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 in the third. His paper Excuses has had a massive impact on criminal law theory.

"Are there A Priori Concepts?"

This early paper contains a broad criticism of Idealism. The question set dealing with 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: from observing that we do use words such as "grey" or "circular" and that we use a single term in each case, it follows that there must be a something that is named by such terms—a universal. Furthermore, since each case of "grey" 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 we 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 address 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. His argument likely follows from the conjecture of his colleague, S. V. Tezlaf, who questioned what makes "this" "that".

"The Meaning of a Word"

The Meaning of a Word is a polemic against doing philosophy by attempting to pin down the meaning of the words used, arguing that '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 to error.

"Other Minds"

In Other Minds, one of his most highly acclaimed pieces,[15] Austin criticizes the method that philosophers have used since Descartes to analyze and verify statements of the form "That person S feels X." This method works from the following three assumptions:

  • (1) We can know only if we intuit and directly feel what he feels.
  • (2) It is impossible to do so.
  • (3) It may be possible to find strong evidence for belief in our impressions.

Although Austin agrees with (2), quipping that "we should be in a pretty predicament if I did", he found (1) to be false and (3) to be therefore unnecessary. The background assumption to (1), Austin claims, is that if I say that I know X and later find out that X is false, I did not know it. Austin believes that this is not consistent with the way we actually use language. He claims that if I was in a position where I would normally say that I know X, if X should turn out to be false, I would be speechless rather than self-corrective. He gives an argument that this is so by suggesting that believing is to knowing as intending is to promising— knowing and promising are the speech-act versions of believing and intending respectively.

"A Plea for Excuses"

A Plea for Excuses is both a demonstration by example, and a defense of the methods of ordinary language philosophy, which proceeds on the conviction that: "...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 favourite alternative method."[16]

An example of such a distinction Austin describes in a footnote is that between the phrases "by mistake" and "by accident". Although their uses are similar, Austin argues that with the right examples we can see that a distinction exists in when one or the other phrase is appropriate.

Austin 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. This process is iterated until the list of words begins to repeat, closing in a "family circle" of words relating to the key concept.

Austin and Wittgenstein

Austin occupies a place in philosophy of language alongside Wittgenstein and his fellow Oxonian, Ryle, in staunchly advocating the examination of the way words are ordinarily used in order to elucidate meaning and by this means avoid philosophical confusions. Unlike many ordinary language philosophers, however, Austin disavowed any overt indebtedness to Wittgenstein's later philosophy.[2]

See also


Papers and articles, a selection
  • "How to Talk: Some Simple Ways". Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. 53 (1953): 227-246.
  • "Other Minds". In Austin, Philosophical Papers, 1961, (eds. J. O. Urmson and G. J. Warnock), Oxford, Oxford University Press, (originally published in 1946).
  • "Performative Utterances", on Austin, Philosophical Papers, 1961, (eds. J. O. Urmson and G. J. Warnock), Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • "A Plea for Excuses", in Austin, Philosophical Papers, 1961, (eds. J. O. Urmson and G. J. Warnock), Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • "Performative-Constative", in The Philosophy of Language, 1971, (ed. John R. Searle), Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 13–22.
  • "Three Ways of Spilling Ink", The Philosophical Review, 75, No.4, (October 1966), pp 427–440.
  • "How to do Things with Words: The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955", 1962 (ed. J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisà), Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-674-41152-8
In translation
  • Otras mentes. In Austin, Ensayos filosóficos. Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1975. 87-117.
  • Un alegato en pro de las excusas. In Austin, Ensayos filosóficos. Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1975. 169-92.
  • Quand dire c'est faire Éditions du Seuil, Paris. Traduction française de "How to do things with words" par Gilles Lane, 1970.
  • Palabras y acciones: Cómo hacer cosas con palabras. Buenos Aires: Paidós, 1971.
  • Cómo hacer cosas con palabras.: Palabras y acciones. Barcelona: Paidós, 1982.
  • Performativo-Constativo. In Gli atti linguistici. Aspetti e problemi di filosofia del linguagio. Milano: Feltrinelli, 1978. 49-60.
  • Ensayos filosóficos. Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1975.
  • Quando dire è fare (ed. Antonio Pieretti).Marietti, 1974.
  • Come fare cose con le parole (eds. Carlo Penco & Marina Sbisà). Genova, Marietti, 1987.
  • Kako delovati rečima. Novi Sad, Matica Srpska, 1994.
  • Saggi filosofici (ed. Paolo Leonardi). Milano, Guerini, 1990.
  • Ako niečo robiť slovami. Bratislava, Kalligram, 2004.


  1. Warnock, G.J. "John Langshaw Austin, a biographical sketch". Symposium on J. L. Austin, ed. K.T. Fann. New York: Humanities Press, 1969. p. 3.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Hacker, P. M. S. 'Austin, John Langshaw (1911–1960)', in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 online (subscription site), accessed 16 Aug 2008
  3. See John Passmore, A Hundred Years of Philosophy (New York: Basic Books, 1967) 459, n. 2.
  4. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 1956-57. See Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittegenstein, Skepticism, Morality and Tragedy (New York: Oxford, 1979) xv.
  5. J.L. Austin, How to do Things with Words, Second Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975) 5.
  6. How to do Things with Words, 14.
  7. Austin seems to have thought, controversially, that a performative utterance must be infelicitous if it occurs in a poem. Robert Maximilian de Gaynesford has argued that what Austin intends by his comments on poetry is better than is usually thought, but what he offers poets is considerably worse; see his 'The Seriousness of Poetry' Essays in Criticism 59, 2009, 1-21.
  8. J.L. Austin, How To Do Things With Words, Second Edition (1976, Oxford University Press). pp40
  9. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1 at line 2409: '=' expected near 'site'.
  10. Urmson, J.O, and Marina Sbisa. How to do things with words J.L. Austin, 2nd. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975. Print.
  11. Austin had lectured on the material of this book many times in Oxford from about 1947 to 1959, and once at the University of California at Berkeley. See Warnock's Foreword. The title is an allusion to the novel Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen.
  12. Sense and Sensibilia, 20
  13. Sense and Sensibilia, 102.
  14. Sense and Sensibilia, 1.
  15. Passmore, ibid., 463
  16. A Plea for excuses, in Austin, J. L., Philosophical Papers, p. 182

Further reading

  • Isaiah Berlin et al., ed. Essays on J.L. Austin. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1973.
  • Cavell, Stanley. The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (1979). New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. The major work by one of Austin's most prominent heirs. Takes ordinary language approaches to issues of skepticism, but also makes those approaches a subject of scrutiny.
  • Fann, K.T., ed.Symposium on J.L. Austin.New York: Humanities Press, 1969.
  • Gustafsson, M. and Sørli, R. "The Philosophy of J. L. Austin".Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.New anthology of philosophical essays on Austin's work.
  • Kirkham, Richard (Reprint edition: 2 March 1995). Theories of Truth: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992.ISBN 0-262-61108-2. Chapter 4 contains a detailed discussion of Austin's theory of truth.
  • Passmore, John. A Hundred Years of Philosophy, rev. ed. New York: Basic Books, 1966. Chapter 18 includes a perceptive exposition of Austin's philosophical project.
  • Pitcher, George. "Austin: a personal memoir". Essays on J.L. Austin, ed. Isaiah Berlin et al. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1973.
  • Hilary Putnam. "The Importance of Being Austin: The Need of a 'Second Näivetē'" Lecture Two in The Threefold Cord: Mind, Body, and World New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. In arguing for "naive realism", Putnam invokes Austin's handling of sense-data theories and their reliance on arguments from perceptual illusion in Sense and Sensibilia, which Putnam calls "one of the most unjustly neglected classics of analytics philosophy" (25).
  • John Searle (1969) Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969. Searle's has been the most notable of attempts to extend and adjust Austin's conception of speech acts.
  • John Searle (1979). Expression and Meaning: Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
  • Scott Soames. Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century: Volume II: The Age of Meaning. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005. Contains a large section on ordinary language philosophy, and a chapter on Austin's treatment of skepticism and perception in Sense and Sensibilia.
  • G.J. Warnock "John Langshaw Austin, a biographical sketch". Symposium on J. L. Austin, ed. K.T. Fann. New York: Humanities Press, 1969.
  • Warnock, G.J. "Saturday Mornings". Essays on J.L. Austin, ed. Isaiah Berlin et al. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1973.
  • Warnock, G. J.J. L. Austin. London: Routledge, 1992.

External links