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J. L. Austin

From Academic Kids

John Langshaw Austin (March 28, 1911 - February 8, 1960) was a philosopher of language, who developed much of the current theory of speech acts. He was born in Lancaster and educated at Balliol College, Oxford. After serving in MI6 during World War II, Austin became White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford. He occupies a place in the British philosophy of language alongside Wittgenstein in staunchly advocating the examination of the way words are used in order to elucidate meaning.

Contents

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

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

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 act). 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. Other examples include: "I take this man as my lawfully wedded husband," or "I bequeath this watch to my brother." All three examples demonstrate that the sentence is not used to describe or state that one is 'doing' something, but to actually 'do' it.

In the second half of the book, Austin produced a useful way of analysing utterances.

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. An illocutionary act is to use a locution with a certain force. It is an act performed in saying something, as contrasted 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 focused on the locution, illocution and perlocution, rather than the phone, pheme and rheme.

Notable works

  • Sense and Sensibilia. 1959. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1964.
  • Otras mentes. In Austin, Ensayos filosóficos. Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1975. 87-117.
  • 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.
  • Un alegato en pro de las excusas. In Austin, Ensayos filosóficos. Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1975. 169-92.
  • Philosophical Papers. Ed. J. O. Urmson and G. J. Warnock. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1961. 1979.
  • Ensayos filosóficos. Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1975.
  • How to Do Things with Words. Ed. J. O. Urmson. Oxford: Clarendon, 1962.
  • How to Do Things with Words. Cambridge (MA): Harvard UP, 1962.
  • How to Do Things with Words. Ed. J. O. Urmson. New York: Oxford UP, 1965.
  • How to Do Things with Words. 2nd ed. Ed. J. O. Urmson and M. Sbisà. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1975.
  • How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1980.
  • From How to Do Things with Words. In Critical Theory since 1965. Ed.. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle. Tallahassee: UPs of Florida / Florida State UP, 1986. 1990. 833-39.
  • How to Do Things with Words. In The Discourse Reader. Ed. Adam Jaworski and Nikolas Coupland. London: Routledge, 1999. 63-75.
  • How to Do Things with Words. In Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.
  • Palabras y acciones: Cómo hacer cosas con palabras. Buenos Aires: Paidós, 1971.
  • Cómo hacer cosas con palabras.: Palabras y acciones. Barcelona: Paidós, 1982.
  • Performative-Constative. In The Philosophy of Language. Ed. John R. Searle. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1971. 13-22.
  • Performativo-Constativo. In Gli atti linguistici. Aspetti e problemi di filosofia del linguagio. Milano: Feltrinelli, 1978. 49-60.

See also

linguistics -- pragmatics -- John Searle -- Adolf Reinach

External links

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Related reading

  • Richard Kirkham, Theories of Truth, MIT Press: 1992. Chapter 4 contains a detailed discussion of Austin's theory of truth.de:John Langshaw Austin

fr:John Langshaw Austin it:John Langshaw Austin ja:ジョン・L・オースティン sk:John Langshaw Austin sv:J. L. Austin

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