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John Langshaw Austin
Full name John Langshaw Austin
Born March 26, 1911
Died February 8, 1960 (aged 48)
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Linguistic philosophy, Analytic philosophy
Main interests Philosophy of language, Philosophy of mind, Ethics, Ordinary language philosophy
Notable ideas Speech acts, Intentionality, Performative utterance

John Langshaw Austin (March 26, 1911[1] – February 8, 1960) was a British philosopher of language, born in Lancaster and educated at Shrewsbury School and Balliol College, Oxford University. Austin is widely associated with the concept of the speech act and the idea that speech is itself a form of action. Consequently, in his understanding language is not just a passive practice of describing a given reality, but a particular practice to invent and affect those realities. His work in the 1950s provided both a theoretical outline and the terminology for the modern study of speech acts developed subsequently, for example, by (the Oxford-educated American philosopher) John R. Searle, William P. Alston, François Récanati, Kent Bach, and Robert M. Harnish.

He occupies a place in philosophy of language alongside Wittgenstein in staunchly advocating the examination of the way words are used in order to elucidate meaning. Unlike many ordinary language philosophers, however, Austin disavowed any overt indebtedness to Wittgenstein's later philosophy, calling Wittgenstein a "charlatan".[2] His main influence, he said, was the exact and exacting common-sense philosophy of G. E. Moore. His training as a classicist and linguist influenced his later work.[3]

Austin made another significant contribution to philosophy, as well, of a very different sort. In 1950, he published a translation of Gottlob Frege's Foundations of Arithmetic. Together with Peter Geach and Max Black's book Translations from the Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege, published in 1952, Austin's translation was what made Frege's writings available to the English-speaking world and thus helped establish Frege's place in analytic philosophy. The translation is still widely used today.



The second son of Geoffrey Langshaw Austin (1884–1971), an architect, and his wife Mary Bowes-Wilson (1883–1948), Austin was born in Lancaster on 26 March 1911. During the Great War, the family fled to Scotland, where Austin's father became the secretary of St Leonard's School, St Andrews. Austin was educated at Shrewsbury School and Balliol College, Oxford, holding classical scholarships at both. He arrived at Oxford in 1929 to read Literae Humaniores ('Greats'), and in 1931 gained a First in classical moderations and also won the Gaisford Prize for Greek prose. Greats introduced him to serious philosophy and gave him a life-long interest in Aristotle. In 1933, he got first class honours in his Finals.[3]

After serving in MI6 during World War II, Austin became White's Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford. He began holding his famous "Austin's Saturday Mornings" where students and colleagues would discuss language usages (and sometimes books on language) over Culture_of_England, but published little.

Austin visited Harvard several times in the mid-fifties, delivering the lectures which would become How to Do Things With Words and Sense and Sensibilia. It was at this time that he met and befriended Noam Chomsky.

He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1956 to 1957.

Austin died at the age of 48 of liver cancer. At the time, he was developing a semantic theory based on sound symbolism, using the English gl-words as data.

How to Do Things With Words

How to Do Things With Words is perhaps Austin's most influential work. In it he attacks what was at his time a predominant account in philosophy, namely, the view that the chief business of sentences is to state facts, and thus to be true or false based on the truth or falsity of those facts. In contrast to this common view, he argues, truth-evaluable sentences form only a small part of the range of utterances. After introducing several kinds of sentences which he asserts are indeed not truth-evaluable, he turns in particular to one of these kinds of sentences, which he deems performative utterances. These he characterises by two features:

  • First, these sentences are not true or false.
  • Second, to utter one of these sentences is not just to "say" something, but rather to perform a certain kind of action.[4]

He goes on to say that when something goes wrong in connection with the utterance then the utterance is, as he puts it, "infelicitous", or "unhappy."[5]

The action which performative sentences 'perform' when they are uttered belongs to what Austin later calls a speech-act [6] (more particularly, the kind of action Austin has in mind is what he subsequently terms the illocutionary act). For example, if you say “I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth," and the circumstances are appropriate in certain ways, then you will have done something special, namely, you will have performed the act of naming the ship. Other examples include: "I take this man as my lawfully wedded husband," used in the course of a marriage ceremony, or "I bequeath this watch to my brother," as occurring in a will. In all three cases the sentence is not being used to describe or state what one is 'doing', but being used to actually 'do' it.

After numerous attempts to find more characteristics of performatives, and after having met with many difficulties, Austin makes what he calls a "fresh start", in which he considers "more generally the senses in which to say something may be to do something, or in saying something we do something".

For example: John Smith turns to Sue Snub and says ‘Is Jeff’s shirt red?’, to which Sue replies ‘Yes’. 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. Other examples would be making an assertion, giving an order, and promising to do something. To perform an illocutionary act is to use a locution with a certain force. It is an act performed in saying something, in contrast 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 especially focused on the illocutionary act, much less on the locutionary and perlocutionary act, and only rarely on the subdivision of the locution into phone, pheme and rheme.

Sense and Sensibilia

In the posthumously published Sense and sensibilia — the title is an allusion to the novel Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen — Austin criticises sense-data theories of perception, particularly that of A. J. Ayer in The Foundations of Empirical Knowledge. Austin argues that Ayer fails to understand the proper function of words such as "illusion", "hallucination", "looks", "appears" and "seems". He argues that these words allow us to express reservations about our commitment to the truth of what we are saying, and that the introduction of sense-data adds nothing to our understanding of or ability to talk about what we see. Ayer responded to this critique in the essay "Has Austin refuted the sense-data theory?".

Foreword – Having taken a course from Austin on this topic at Oxford in 1947, Sir Geoffrey Warnock (1923-95) says he put Austin's fragmentary lecture notes into sentence form, with the help of class notes from later students of the course, and claims to relate faithfully Austin's "argument" though not his exact wording.
Chapter 1 – Austin intends to debunk a theory of sense perception that dates back thousands of years and picks recent expressions of it by Ayer, Price, and Warnock, because they express it fairly clearly. The theory states that we never see or directly perceive material objects but only sense-data or sense perceptions. Rather than start with the varied things we see — say, pens, rainbows, and after-images — philosophers tend to ask facilely for a general kind of thing and wind up unfair to the facts and to language while using "a certain special, happy style of blinkering philosophical English," Austin says.

Philosophical Papers

Austin's papers were collected and published posthumously as Philosophical Papers by J. O. Urmson and Geoffrey Warnock. The book originally contained ten papers, two more being added in the second edition and one in the third.


Are there A Priori Concepts?

This early paper contains a broad criticism of Idealism. The question set dealing with the existence of a priori concepts is treated only indirectly, by dismissing the concept of concept that underpins it.

The first part of this paper takes the form of a reply to an argument for the existence of Universals: from observing that we do use words such as "grey" or "circular" and that we use a single term in each case, it follows that there must be a something that is named by such terms - a universal. Furthermore, since each case of "grey" or "circular" is different, it follows that universals themselves cannot be sensed.

Austin carefully dismantles this argument, and in the process other transcendental arguments. He points out first that universals are not "something we stumble across", and that they are defined by their relation to particulars. He continues by pointing out that, from the observation that we use "grey" and "circular" as if they were the names of things, it simply does not follow that there is something that is named. In the process he dismisses the notion that "words are essentially proper names", asking "...why, if 'one identical' word is used, must there be 'one identical object' present which it denotes".

In the second part of the article, he generalizes this argument against universals to address concepts as a whole. He points out that it is "facile" to treat concepts as if they were "an article of property". Such questions as "Do we possess such-and-such a concept" and "how do we come to possess such-and-such a concept" are meaningless, because concepts are not the sort of thing that one possesses.

In the final part of the paper, Austin further extends the discussion to relations, presenting a series of arguments to reject the idea that there is some thing that is a relation. His argument likely follows from the conjecture of his colleague, S. V. Tezlaf, who questioned what makes "this" "that".

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 to error.

"Other Minds"

In “Other Minds,” he criticizes the method which philosophers have used since Descartes to analyze and verify statements of the form “That person feels X.” This method works from the following three assumptions:

(1) We can know only if we intuit and directly feel what he feels. (2) It is impossible to do so. (3) It may be possible to find strong evidence for belief in our impressions.

Although Austin agrees with (2), quipping that “we should be in a pretty predicament if I did”, he found (1) to be false and (3) to be therefore unnecessary. The background assumption to (1), Austin claims, is that if I say that I know X and later find out that X is false, I did not know it. Austin believes that this is not in line with the way we actually use language. He claims that if I was in a position where I would normally say that I know X, if X should turn out to be false, I would be speechless rather than self-corrective. He gives an argument that this is so by suggesting that believing is to knowing as promising is to intending— knowing and promising are the speech-act versions of believing and intending respectively.

A Plea For Excuses

A Plea For Excuses is both a demonstration by example, and a defense of, linguistic philosophy:

...our common stock of words embodies all the distinctions men have found worth drawing, and the connections they have found worth marking, in the lifetime of many generations: these surely are likely to be more numerous, more sound, since they have stood up to the long test of survival of the fittest, and more subtle, at least in all ordinary and reasonable practical matters, than any that you or I are likely to think up in our armchair of an afternoon – the most favorite alternative method.[7]

An example of such a distinction Austin describes in a footnote is that between the phrases "by mistake" and "by accident". Although their uses are similar, Austin argues that with the right examples we can see that a distinction exists in when one or the other phrase is appropriate.

Austin proposes some curious philosophical tools. For instance, he uses a sort of word game for developing an understanding of a key concept. This involves 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. This process is iterated until the list of words begins to repeat, closing in a “family circle” of words relating to the key concept.



  • Sense and sensibilia. 1959. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1964.
  • Philosophical Papers. Ed. J. O. Urmson and G. J. Warnock. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1961, 1979.
  • How to do things with Words: The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955. Ed. J. O. Urmson. Oxford: Clarendon, 1962. ISBN 0674411528


In translation

  • Otras mentes. In Austin, Ensayos filosóficos. Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1975. 87-117.
  • Un alegato en pro de las excusas. In Austin, Ensayos filosóficos. Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1975. 169-92.
  • Quand dire c'est faire Éditions du Seuil, Paris. Traduction française de "How to do things with words" par Gilles Lane, 1970.
  • Palabras y acciones: Cómo hacer cosas con palabras. Buenos Aires: Paidós, 1971.
  • Cómo hacer cosas con palabras.: Palabras y acciones. Barcelona: Paidós, 1982.
  • Performativo-Constativo. In Gli atti linguistici. Aspetti e problemi di filosofia del linguagio. Milano: Feltrinelli, 1978. 49-60.
  • Ensayos filosóficos. Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1975.
  • Quando dire è fare (ed. Antonio Pieretti). Marietti, 1974.
  • Come fare cose con le parole (eds. Carlo Penco & Marina Sbisà). Genova, Marietti, 1987.
  • Saggi filosofici (ed. Paolo Leonardi). Milano, Guerini, 1990.

Secondary literature

  • Berlin, Isaiah et al., ed. Essays on J.L. Austin. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1973.
  • Fann, K.T., ed. Symposium on J.L. Austin. New York: Humanities Press, 1969.
  • Kirkham, Richard (Reprint edition: March 2, 1995). Theories of Truth. The MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-61108-2. Originally published 1992. Chapter 4 contains a detailed discussion of Austin's theory of truth.


  1. ^ Warnock, p. 3.
  2. ^ The Wittgenstein scholar A. C. Grayling (Wittgenstein, Oxford University Press, (Oxford), 1988, p.114) is certain that, despite the fact that Wittgenstein’s work might have possibly played some "second or third-hand [part in the promotion of] the philosophical concern for language which was dominant in the mid-century", neither Gilbert Ryle nor any of those in the so-called "Ordinary language philosophy" school that is chiefly associated with J. L. Austin (and, according to Grayling, G. E. Moore, C. D. Broad, Bertrand Russell and A. J. Ayer) were Wittgensteinians. More significantly, Grayling asserts that "most of them were largely unaffected by Wittgenstein’s later ideas, and some were actively hostile to them".
  3. ^ a b Hacker, P. M. S. 'Austin, John Langshaw (1911–1960)', in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 online (subscription site), accessed 16 Aug 2008
  4. ^ J.L. Austin, How To Do Things With Words, Second Edition (1976, Oxford University Press). pp5
  5. ^ Austin seems to have thought, controversially, that a performative utterance must be infelicitous if it occurs in a poem. Robert Maximilian de Gaynesford has argued that what Austin intends by his comments on poetry is better than is usually thought, but what he offers poets is considerably worse; see his 'The Seriousness of Poetry' Essays in Criticism 59, 2009, 1-21.
  6. ^ J.L. Austin, How To Do Things With Words, Second Edition (1976, Oxford University Press). pp40
  7. ^ A Plea for excuses, in Austin, J. L., Philosophical Papers, p. 182

See also


  • Pitcher, George. "Austin: a personal memoir". Essays on J.L. Austin, ed. Isaiah Berlin et al. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1973.
  • Warnock, G.J. "John Langshaw Austin, a biographical sketch". Symposium on J. L. Austin, ed. K.T. Fann. New York: Humanities Press, 1969.
  • Warnock, G.J. "Saturday Mornings". Essays on J.L. Austin, ed. Isaiah Berlin et al. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1973.


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

John Langshaw Austin (March 28, 1911February 8, 1960) was an English philosopher of language and speech theorist.


  • The Nicomachean Ethics is only intended as a guide for politicians, and they are only concerned to know what is good, not what goodness means...and in any case one can know what things are good without knowing the analysis of 'good' --J.L. Austin, Philosophical Papers, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford, 1979) 22.
  • Why should it not be the whole function of a word to denote many things? --Austin, Papers 38.
  • In one sense 'there are' both universals and material objects, in another sense there is no such thing as either: statements about each can usually be analysed, but not always, nor always without remainder. -- Austin, Papers 43n.
  • But surely, speaking carefully, we do not sense 'red' and 'blue' any more than 'resemblance' (or 'qualities' any more than 'relations'): we sense something of which we might say, if we wished to talk about it, that 'this is red.' --Austin, Papers 49.
  • It may justly be urged that, properly speaking, what alone has meaning is a sentence. --Austin, Papers 56.
  • Faced with the nonsense question 'What is the meaning of a word?' and perhaps dimly recognizing it to be nonsense, we are nevertheless not inclined to give it up. --Austin, Papers 58.
  • Ordinary language blinkers the already feeble imagination. --Austin, Papers 68.
  • [I]f we say that I only get at the symptoms of his anger, that carries an important implication. But is this the way we do talk? --Austin, Papers 107.
  • But suppose we take the noun 'truth': here is a case where the disagreements between different theorists have largely turned on whether they interpreted this as a name of a substance, of a quality, or of a relation. --Austin, Papers 73.
  • We become obsessed with 'truth' when discussing statements, just as we become obsessed with 'freedom' when discussing conduct...Like freedom, truth is a bare minimum or an illusory ideal. --Austin, Papers 130.
  • Like 'real', 'free' is only used to rule out the suggestion of some or all of its recognized antitheses. As 'truth' is not a name of a characteristic of assertions, so 'freedom' is not a name for a characteristic of actions, but the name of a dimension in which actions are assessed. --Austin, Papers 180.
  • [W]ords are not (except in their own little corner) facts or things: we need therefore to prise them off the world, to hold them apart from and against it, so that we can realize their inadequacies and arbitrariness, and can relook at the world without blinkers. --Austin, Papers 182.
  • [H]owever well equipped our language, it can never be forearmed against all possible cases that may arise and call for description: fact is richer than diction. --Austin, Papers 195.
  • [O]rdinary language is not the last word: in principle it can everywhere be supplemented and improved upon and superseded. Only remember, it is the first word. --Austin, Papers 185.


  • Infelicity is an ill to which all acts are heir which have the general character of ritual or ceremonial, all conventional acts.
  • Let us distinguish between acting intentionally and acting deliberately or on purpose, as far as this can be done by attending to what language can teach us.
  • There are more ways of outraging speech than contradiction merely.
  • When may we hope to see your Harvard lectures published sir?" an undergraduate asked the late Professor Austin. "You may hope to see them published any time" was the characteristic reply.

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