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J. L. Austin

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Western Philosophy
20th-century philosophy
Name: John Langshaw Austin
Birth: March 28, 1911
Death: February 8, 1960
School/tradition: Linguistic philosophy, Analytic philosophy
Main interests
Philosophy of language, Philosophy of mind, Ethics, Ordinary language philosophy
Notable ideas
Speech acts, Intentionality
G. E. Moore, Bertrand Russell, Gilbert Ryle |
John Searle, R.M. Hare, Judith Butler

John Langshaw Austin (March 28, 1911 – February 8, 1960) was a philosopher of language, who developed much of the current theory and terminology of speech acts. He was born in Lancaster, Lancashire and educated at Balliol College, Oxford. Austin is widely associated with the concept of the speech act and the idea that speech is itself a form of action. His work in the 1950s provided the early underpinnings for the modern theory of speech acts developed subsequently by the Oxford-educated American philosopher John R. Searle and his followers.

After serving in MI6 during World War II, Austin became White's Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford. He occupies a place in philosophy of language alongside Wittgenstein in staunchly advocating the examination of the way words are used in order to elucidate meaning. Unlike many ordinary language philosophers, however, Austin disavowed any overt indebtedness to Wittgenstein's later philosophy.[1] His main influence, he said, was the exact and exacting common-sense philosophy of G. E. Moore.

He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1956 to 1957.

How to Do Things With Words

How to Do Things With Words is perhaps Austin's most influential work. In it he attacks what was at his time a predominant account in philosophy, namely, the view that the chief business of sentences is to state facts, and thus to be true or false. In contrast to this common view, he argues, truth-evaluable sentences form only a small part of the range of utterances. After introducing several kinds of sentences which, he assumes, are indeed not truth-evaluable, he turns in particular to one of these kinds of sentences, namely to, as he calls them, performative utterances. These he characterises by two features. Firstly, to utter one of these sentences is not just to "say" something, but rather to perform a certain kind of action. Secondly, these sentences are not true or false; rather, when something goes wrong in connection with the utterance then the utterance is, as he puts it, "infelicitous", or "unhappy". The action in the performance of which performatives sentences are uttered belongs to what is later called a speech act (more particularly, the kind of action Austin has in mind in connection with performatives is what he later calls the illocutionary act). For example, if you say “I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth," and the circumstances are in certain ways appropriate, 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 quite a lot of diverse complications and difficulties in doing so, he makes what he calls a "fresh start", considering "more generally the senses in which to say something may be to do something, or in saying something we do something".

Consider what happens when John Smith turns to Sue Snub and says ‘Is Jeff’s shirt red?’, to which Sue replies ‘Yes’. Firstly, 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, the performance of an illocution. 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.

Sense and sensibilia

In the posthumously published Sense and sensibilia -- the title is an allusion to the novel Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen -- Austin criticises sense-data theories of perception, particularly that of Alfred Jules Ayer in The Foundations of Empirical Knowledge. Austin argues that Ayer fails to understand the proper function of words such as "illusion", "hallucination", "looks", "appears" and "seems". He argues that 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-data theory?".

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 and picks recent expressions of it by Ayer, Price, and Warnock, because they express it fairly clearly. 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.

Are there A Priori Concepts?

This early paper contains a broad criticism of Idealism. The question set, 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: that from the observation 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 firstly that universals are not "something we stumble across", and that 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 generalises this argument against universals to 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.

The Meaning of a Word

His paper The Meaning of a Word is a polemic against doing philosophy by attempting to pin down the meaning of the words used; for '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 one down a philosophical garden path.

A Plea For Excuses

A Plea For Excuses is both a demonstration by example, and a defence of, linguistic philosophy:

...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 favorite alternative method.[2]

He 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. Then, iterating this process until the list of words begins to repeat, closing in a “family circle” of words relating to the key concept.



  • Sense and sensibilia. 1959. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1964.
  • Philosophical Papers. Ed. J. O. Urmson and G. J. Warnock. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1961. 1979.
  • How to do things with Words: The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955. Ed. J. O. Urmson. Oxford: Clarendon, 1962.


  • "How to Talk: Some Simple Ways", Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Vol.53, (1953), pp.227-246.
  • "Other Minds". In Austin, J.L. (Urmson, J.O. & Warnock, G.J. eds.) Philosophical Papers, Oxford University Press, (Oxford), 1961 [Originally published in 1946].
  • Performative Utterances In Austin, Philosophical Papers. Ed. J. O. Urmson and G. J. Warnock. Oxford, 1961.
  • "A Plea for Excuses". In Austin, Philosophical Papers. Ed. J. O. Urmson and G. J. Warnock. Oxford, 1961.
  • Performative-Constative. In The Philosophy of Language. Ed. John R. Searle. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1971. 13-22.
  • "Three Ways of Spilling Ink", The Philosophical Review, Vol.75, No.4, (October 1966), pp.427-440.

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.

See also


  1. The Wittgenstein scholar A. C. Grayling (Wittgenstein, Oxford University Press, (Oxford), 1988, p.114) is certain that, despite the fact that Wittgenstein’s work might have possibly played some "second or third-hand [part in the promotion of] the philosophical concern for language which was dominant in the mid-century", neither Gilbert Ryle nor any of those in the so-called "Ordinary language philosophy" school that is chiefly associated with J. L. Austin (and, according to Grayling, G. E. Moore, C. D. Broad, Bertrand Russell and A. J. Ayer) were Wittgensteinians. More significantly, Grayling asserts that "most of them were largely unaffected by Wittgenstein’s later ideas, and some were actively hostile to them".
  2. A Plea for excuses, in Austin, J. L., Philosophical Papers, p. 182

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