John Langshaw Astin


J. L. Austin was born in Lancaster and educated at Oxford, where he became a professor of philosophy following several years of service in  British intelligence during World War II. Although greatly admired as a teacher, Austin published little of his philosophical work during his brief lifetime.

        Students gathered his papers and lectures in books that were published  posthumously, including Philosophical Papers (1961) and Sense and Sensibilia (1962).

          Although less confident about the prospects of philosophical progress,  Austin placed his emphasis even more exclusively on ordinary language. The very observation of linguistic behavior is itself a worthwhile activity, Austin believed, especially with regard to practical matters. We should  usually assume that ordinary language embodies all of the practical distinctions that will prove useful in human life. The philosopher's role is to clarify by investigating and cataloging the most commonly employed grammatical constructions.

       In "A Plea for Excuses" (1956), Austin explained and illustrated his method of approaching philosophical issues by first patiently analyzing the subtleties of ordinary language.Thus, in "A Plea for Excuses," Austin himself patiently noted the complexities of our language about human actions that appear to be worthy of blame. The key distinction, he supposed, is between a justification, which denies that the performed action was wrong, and an exuse, which instead denies that the agent was responsible for performing it. Careful attention to particular cases of exculpatory speech, including precise word-order and varying emphasis, etymological studies, and the special function of adverbial qualifying phrases, are crucial to the task. Legal precendents and abnormal psychology may also be helpful in understanding why some efforts to excuse fail. In the last analysis, Austin supposed, excuses are properly seen as setting limits to the ascription of moral responsibility, by stating explicitly how they differ from the more usual cases.

       Another target of Austin's discriminating analysis of ordinary language was the philosophical account of  perception in terms of sense-data, published posthumously in Sense and Sensibilia (1962)edited by Geoffrey Warnock. Austin maintained that the traditional fuss over sensibilia turns out to be unnecessary once we notice that the argument from illusion fails to establish a genuine distinction between problematic and veracious instances of perceiving. Moreover, analysis of ordinary-language claims about  knowing reveals (apart from artificial philosophical worries) no interest in or reliance upon experiential  incorrigibility. Thus, debates over the supposed ontological status of the objects of our perception are simply pointless.

         In How to Do Things with Words (1961), the transcription of Austin's William James lectures at Harvard, application of this method distinguishes between what we say, what we mean when we say it, and what we accomplish by saying it, or between speech acts involving locution, illocution (or  "performative utterance"), and perlocution.

       Austin drew a series of careful distinctions between ways in which language functions in ordinary
     speech acts. Most particularly, he pointed out that performative utterances such as promising, pledging, or
     vowing accomplish their purposes without implying any referential representation of reality. These
     illocutionary acts, therefore, can never be true or false, although they may turn out to be relatively
     successful or unsuccessful. What Austin suggested is that language for intentional mental states—"I
     believe," I know," or "I suppose," etc.—is illocutionary in its functions. Thus, first-person reports of such
     states are best understood as announcements of my intention to behave in certain ways, to "act as if" I
     believed, knew, etc.