J. L. Austin Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

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.

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...

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