J. L. Austin

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2397

Article abstract: Austin was a leading spirit of the post-World War II philosophical trend variously called “Oxford philosophy,” “ordinary language philosophy,” or “analytic philosophy” and the teacher of many leading philosophers and linguists.

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Early Life

John Langshaw Austin was the second of five children born to Geofrey Langshaw Austin and his wife, Mary Bowes-Wilson. Austin’s father was an architect who after World War I became an administrator at St. Leonard’s School in St. Andrews, Scotland. Austin, an intellectual prodigy, excelled in Greek studies while a student at Shrewsbury School and later attended Balliol College of the University of Oxford. In 1931, he won the Gaisford Prize for Greek Prose.

Life’s Work

Austin approached philosophy from a background in classical studies and linguistics. In 1933 he won a fellowship to study at All Souls College, and in 1935 he became a fellow and tutor in philosophy at Magdalen College. Austin believed philosophy taught students how to think clearly. Thinking clearly required truthful prose, which could be obtained only by making sure that each word, clause, sentence, and sequence of thought was accurate; prose that was accurate in each of its parts would be accurate as a whole. Austin believed that the process of making prose truthful would immunize students and philosophers against the confusion, myth mongering, and intellectual trickery that arose from shoddy thinking in philosophy.

Austin believed the best way of doing philosophy was in a group. During 1936 and 1937, Austin became the leading spirit of a small group of young philosophy dons at Oxford University who began meeting weekly to discuss issues of mutual concern and importance. He suggested to group members, who included such notable thinkers as A. J. Ayer, Isaiah Berlin, and Stuart Hampshire, that the discussions be informal. These discussions were the origin of the philosophical trend known as Oxford philosophy.

Before World War II, Austin concentrated on problems in the history of philosophy, especially the work of Aristotle. When war broke out in 1939, Austin had been teaching philosophy for four years and had published only one article. In 1940, he joined the British Intelligence Corps. His first assignment was to analyze the German Order of Battle. The next year, Austin married Jean Coutts. The couple eventually had four children, two boys and two girls.

In 1942, Austin directed a newly formed small section to provide the intelligence needed for an invasion of Europe. In 1943, Austin’s section was enlarged, renamed the Theatre Intelligence Section, and transferred to the Twenty-First Army Group. Before the D day invasion, Austin was busy collecting and analyzing military information on the coastal defenses of northern France and on the German military command and control in the area. Austin and his colleagues prepared a guidebook, Invade Mecum, for the invading Allied armed forces. Historians credit Austin more than any other single person with being responsible for the life-saving accuracy of the D day intelligence. During this period, Austin helped the Allies solve the problems of identifying the launching sites of the German V-weapons and solve the problem of their intended use. He also helped collect and analyze intelligence for future military operations. Later, Austin interrogated prominent enemy prisoners to gather military intelligence. In September, 1945, Austin left the army as a much-decorated lieutenant colonel. For his work in the planning of the D day invasion, Austin was awarded the Office of the Order of the British Empire, the French Croix de Guerre, and the American Officer of the Legion of Merit. After the war, Austin returned to practicing philosophy at Oxford University and resumed his fellowship at Magdalen.

From the beginning, Austin was determined to reduce whatever he could to plain prose—the language used by ordinary people in ordinary situations, not the language of philosophers. He thought philosophers had overlooked important distinctions embedded in everyday speech and therefore were using ordinary language improperly. This misuse of language made them stagnate and rendered them unable to solve important problems. Austin’s method of attack was to seize on a topic and carve it into smaller and smaller pieces. He approached problems by taking a real or imagined situation and asking what should be said about it. He minutely examined which words are and may be used in a situation as well as when certain words are not and cannot be used in order to determine the distinctions among the words. He determined what should be said when and in what situations in order to understand the realities people use the words to represent. For example, Austin described a situation in which each of two people has a donkey in a field. One person wants to shoot his donkey. Instead, he shoots the other person’s donkey. Austin explores whether the shooting is a mistake or an accident and why the incident is described that way.

During the influential Saturday morning sessions of the late 1940’s and 1950’s at Oxford, Austin wrestled with his often-cantankerous colleagues to get them to accept an argument that was right, pertinent, and generally true. Austin’s goal was to explode logjams in discussions over the central questions of philosophy. He believed philosophers should work in collaboration, not in competition and alone. He wanted the sessions to be occasions on which philosophy was done, not studied. These informal but intense sessions greatly influenced the participants, and through them, the course of philosophy and linguistics at Oxford and elsewhere in the English-speaking world, including the United States. Participants in the Saturday morning sessions learned to examine the features of ordinary language and its usage carefully before they developed a foundation for their philosophical thinking. Austin wanted philosophers to think of philosophy more as a science than as an art and to regard it as a tool for investigating and settling matters.

Austin believed that the investigation of ordinary language was key to resolving philosophical problems and that words are tools. The stock of words embodies all the distinctions people over the centuries have found worth drawing and the connections they have found worth making. When philosophers examine what people should say when and what words they use in which situations, they are looking at the realities people use words to talk about or represent. In sharpening the use of words, the philosopher is sharpening people’s understanding of the real world. Ordinary language, according to Austin, is not the last word on reality. It is only the first word. Specialized language should supersede ordinary language only if the new vocabulary is necessary and useful. Austin started with ordinary language and proceeded from it. He wanted philosophers and others to understand the ambiguity, context, and purpose of words and then proceed to the world the words represent.

Austin’s method featured three steps. First, Austin collected all the linguistic idioms and expressions relevant to a particular topic such as excuses, often using a dictionary to aid his research. In one of his essays, “A Plea for Excuses,” he discussed the distinctions between the words “mistake,” “accident,” and “inadvertent.” Second, the philosopher imagined, as precisely and in as much detail as possible, different situations in which the expressions could be said to be appropriately used. The philosopher gave an account of the meanings of the expressions or terms and determined their interrelationships. He attempted to discover what is present in those cases where people use one term and not another. Third, he investigated how people can “say” something by doing something or performing certain acts. He distinguished between two kinds of speech: making certain noises and uttering words according to grammatical rules. Austin also identified actions that indicate how an utterance is to be interpreted when, for example, a person is asking or answering a question, as well as actions that convince, persuade, or cause an effect.

In 1952, Austin was appointed to the White’s Chair in Moral Philosophy. He taught at Oxford until his death from cancer in 1960. During his tenure, he held a number of important administrative faculty posts. He became a delegate of the prestigious Oxford University Press in 1952 and served as chair of the publisher’s finance committee until his death. In 1955, he delivered the William James Lectures at Harvard University and in 1958 was a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

In his philosophical activities, Austin focused on whether the discussion advanced the solution of the problem at hand. He believed that one of the principal tasks of the philosopher is to make distinctions. Austin described his way of doing philosophy as “linguistic phenomenology,” a term he admitted was a mouthful. He argued that one good way to begin in philosophy is to make distinctions using ordinary speech. Where ordinary speech makes a verbal distinction, it is highly probable that there is a distinction to be made. Austin contended that one’s native language offers a ready-made and enormous stock of discriminations and that using this stock of discriminations merely makes good sense. If one wants to know whether to distinguish between two cases, one should consider whether one speaks about the two cases in the same way. If one does not speak of them in the same way, they probably can be distinguished and the distinction is an important one. Austin believed that philosophers should look to language to find pointers that indicate important distinctions and that they often need to examine language itself. He examined language through his focus on “speech acts”: what kinds of actions are performed while speaking, how they are done, and how they might be right or wrong.

Austin held no views about the proper objective of philosophy; however, he was distressed, even scandalized, by the lack of agreement and progress in philosophy. He believed that the best way to reach agreement was through cooperative discussion of well-defined questions among collaborators. He thought that the team approach to resolving philosophical questions was superior to the solitary composition of lectures, articles, and books. He regarded cooperative philosophy not only as the best method of practice but also as the only instrument to ensure progress in philosophy. A cooperative discussion conducted with sufficient care for detail could lead to the resolution of some long-standing philosophical problems. He also thought that philosophers had altogether underestimated the subtlety and complexity of ordinary language and the distinctions found within it. He believed that philosophers must drop their theoretical preconceptions in order to study ordinary language.


Austin taught people how to philosophize usefully. He was above all a teacher—a tough teacher who offered explicit directions for profitable study and provided lists of required assignments. He was a stickler for sound preparation and disapproved of sloppy work and lazy effort.

When Austin died at age forty-eight, he was a leader among philosophers not only at Oxford University but also in Britain and the rest of the English-speaking world. His major contribution was to clear the minds of philosophers and to help them pursue the truth. Friends and enemies, students, and later commentators generally agree that Austin exercised a powerful intellectual authority. Austin’s influence is remarkable because he published only seven papers during his lifetime. The most influential of these papers were “Other Minds” (1946), “Ifs and Cans” (1956), and “A Plea for Excuses” (1956). His three books, Philosophical Papers, Sense and Sensibilia, and How to Do Things with Words, were published posthumously from lecture notes. Austin’s work reoriented the research of many philosophers and laid the groundwork for the standard theory of speech acts, later developed by his student John R. Searle and others. Austin influenced the course of the philosophy of language. He championed the idea that philosophers must speak and think clearly if they are to be useful.

Additional Reading

Berlin, Isaiah, L. W. Forguson, D. F. Pears, G. Pitcher, J. R. Searle, P. F. Strawson, and G. W. Warnock. Essays on J. L. Austin. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973. This book of memoirs of J. L. Austin written by former students offers criticism and commentary on his work. These essays show what Austin tried to do as a philosopher and why.

Burr, John R., ed. Handbook of World Philosophy: Contemporary Developments Since 1945. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. This survey of world philosophy covers Austin among many other philosophers. The book reveals that no agreed-upon doctrines, method of analysis, or terminology exist in the study of philosophy, a viewpoint that Austin would appreciate. The work shows how philosophy spread internationally after World War II.

Cavell, Stanley. Philosophical Passages: Wittgenstein, Emerson, Austin, Derrida. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1995. Cavell, a noted American philosopher, demonstrates the subtle power of Austin’s thought. He also notes the importance of Austin as a teacher and an early influence on his own work.

Dummett, Michael. Truth and Other Enigmas. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978. The author is critical of Austin’s work and influence on other philosophers.

Fann, K. T. Symposium on J. L. Austin. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969. This collection contains commentaries on Austin’s philosophy by well-known philosophers, many of whom knew Austin personally.

Gill, Jerry, ed. Philosophy Today No. 1. New York: Macmillan, 1968. The author provides selected writings on analytic philosophy from Austin and Ludwig Wittgenstein as well as many of their contemporaries.

Graham, Keith. J. L. Austin: A Critique of Ordinary Philosophy. Sussex, England: Harvester Press, 1977. This work provides a review of Austin’s philosophy and explores why Austin was influential, especially in the realm of language analysis.

Hacker, P. M. S. Wittgenstein’s Place in Twentieth-Century Analytic Philosophy. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996. This benchmark survey provides a history of philosophy in England before, during, and after World War II. The author comments on Austin’s place in the history of philosophy.

Lepore, Ernest, and Robert Van Gulick, eds. John Searle and His Critics. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1991. Searle developed ideas that originated with Austin and other philosophers associated with Oxford University.

Passmore, John. A Hundred Years of Philosophy. New York: Basic Books, 1966. Passmore concentrates his historical survey on philosophical activity in England. He contends that Austin exercised an intellectual authority that was nothing short of remarkable from the end of World War II until his death in 1960.

Warnock, J. L. J. L. Austin. New York: Routledge, 1989. This book reviews Austin’s seven philosophical papers and his major ideas.

Williams, Bernard, and Alan Montefiore, eds. British Analytical Philosophy. New York: Humanities Press, 1966. This survey provides examples of philosophers’ thinking about linguistic and philosophical problems that were of concern to Austin and Wittgenstein.

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