J. L. Austin

jlaJ. L. Austin‘s book How To Do Things With Words was very influential in my philosophical training. I was attracted to his careful analysis of how ordinary people USE the language, and the resultant sophisticated analysis of traditional philosophical problems through the lens of ordinary language. He would take some large problem, like the problem of reality, and then adduce the many ways we really use the word “real” in real life. He points to the pairs we use in discriminating real from non-real: false teeth; imaginary friends; counterfeit money; forged paintings; artificial limbs – and in doing so reduces the force of the traditional “but is it real?” query by showing that we have years of language usage that sorts out most of these kinds of problems.

I remember when I first picked up his Sense and Sensibilia I was convinced that he had titled it so it would be confused with J. Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. But although his book is novel it is no novel.

In S&S Austin takes on A. J. Ayer and other “sense data” philosophers. Ayer, says Austin, starts by suggesting that the ordinary person in the street, when asked if she saw physical objects or sense data, would say “physical objects”. Austin reckons that Ayer has not really talked to anyone in the street who would answer that way!

The point is that “physical objects” is already a technical term in some theory. People see trees, cats, breadboxes, shoes, rain, clouds, fog, but not physical objects. Check out Austin’s Putt!

I often run into someone claiming that “the inherent meaning” of X is such and such. I think that “inherent meaning” is like “physical objects” – it imports a theory without explaining the theory: a philosophical sleight of hand.

More about Austin? Read the paper linked below.


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