J. L. AustinJohn Langshaw Austin (March 28, 1911 - February 8, 1960) was a philosopher of language, who developed much of the theory of speech acts. He was born in Lancaster and educated at the University of Oxford. After serving in MI6 during World War II, Austin became White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford.
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.
In A Plea for excuses Austin demonstrates his philosophical method by example. He proposed some curious philosophical tools. For instance, he uses a sort of word game for developing an understanding of a key concept. This involved 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. Iterate this process until the list of words begins to repeat, closing in a “family circle” of words relating to the key concept.
How to Do things With Words is perhaps his most influential work. Austin points out that philosophers of language gave most of their attention to those sentences which state some fact, but that these form only a small part of the range of tasks that can be performed by saying something. Indeed, there is an important class of utterances – Austin called them ‘‘performative’’ utterances – that do not report a fact, but instead are themselves the performance of some action (speech acts, although the term itself comes from Searle). For example, in the appropriate circumstances to say “I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth” is to do nothing less than to name the ship.
Austin went on to analyze ways in which some of these other types of speech acts could go wrong, calling such problems infelicities.
Austin distinguished three types of speech acts:
- acts of saying something, that is, producing an intelligible sentence
- acts performed in saying something, for example stating a fact, asking a question, and so on, and
- acts performed by saying something, for example informing someone of a state of affairs or eliciting a response.
Works by J. L. Austin