J. L. Austin


J. 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.

J. L. Austin was an important defender of common sense. His philosophical career was interrupted by the Second World War, during which he undertook intelligence work. He was honoured for this work with an Order of the British Empire, the French Croix de Guerre, and the US Officer of the Legion of Merit. It has been said that “he more than anybody was responsible for the life-saving accuracy of the D-Day intelligence”. He returned to academic philosophy with the hope that philosophers might work together on the collection and analysis of common-sense judgements and that, in so doing, they would make the sorts of progress that had been made by collective wartime intelligence operations. His central insight was that philosophical objections to common sense are often based on mistaken views about its content and commitments.  – Source.

6 thoughts on “J. L. Austin

  1. It is good to be reminded just what the absurd is for Camus. It’s a technical term in his philosophy. I don’t think you’ll find him talking about the “absurdity of life” because as he develops the concept of the Absurd he makes it clear that it is a relational notion.

    Rational human confronts non-rational world and the Absurd is the result of the confrontation. “The absurd depends as much on man as on the world.” (MofS)

    “Inherent meaning” suggests some transcendent scheme, of Forms for Plato or Paradise for the religious. So, Platonists seek the Eternal Forms for salvation, Christians worship their God(s) for salvation, and both hope that they are right about there being meaning outside of the world they find themselves occupying.

    I think that for Camus the Absurd is equivalent to the cogito for DesCartes.


  2. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Camus has this:
    “What then is meant by the notion of the absurd? Contrary to the view conveyed by popular culture, the absurd, (at least in Camus’ terms) does not simply refer to some vague perception that modern life is fraught with paradoxes, incongruities, and intellectual confusion. [“absurdity of life”]… Instead, as he himself emphasizes and tries to make clear, the absurd expresses a fundamental disharmony, a tragic incompatibility, in our existence. In effect, he argues that the absurd is the product of a collision or confrontation between our human desire for order, meaning, and purpose in life and the blank, indifferent “silence of the universe.” (“The absurd is not in man nor in the world,” Camus explains, “but in their presence together. . . it is the only bond uniting them.”)”


  3. Absurd = cogito – I find that one comment worth the price of the Blog!
    Seriously, that is worth thinking about, there is that later Camusian comment, “I rebel; therefore, we are.”


  4. J.L. Austin believed that we could make philosopical progress through precise scrutiny of ordinary language: the words we use, the contexts in which we utter them, and what actions we perform in the process. In this episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast, Guy Longworth discusses Austin’s approach to philosophy.

    Listen to Guy Longworth on J.L. Austin and Ordinary Language: http://traffic.libsyn.com/philosophybites/Guy_Longworth_on_J.L._Austin_and_Ordinary_Language.mp3


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