John Langshaw Austin (1911-1960) British philosopher of language

John Langshaw Austin (1911-1960) was a famous British philosopher of language, best known as the originator of speech act theory and the concept of the performative. He was born in Lancaster, but raised in St Andrews in Scotland, Austin was educated at Balliol College, Oxford. During World War II he served with MI6. After the war, he was appointed to a professorship at Oxford. Austin was very far from prolific; he published only seven papers in his lifetime.

His most influential work, How to Do Things with Words: The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955 (1962), was published posthumously. Austin’s decisive and lasting contribution to language philosophy was to challenge the accepted view of his own time that the principle function of sentences is to state facts (real or imagined). Austin contended powerfully that there are entire classes of sentences that either accomplish more than basically state realities, or don’t state realities by any stretch of the imagination, but instead perform activities. Declarative sentences like “I name this ship Enterprise” are known as performative utterances because the very act of saying them can, under certain circumstances, carry out a specific action. Likewise, by saying ‘it is cold’ we might prompt somebody to close a window or switch on a radiator, so again the expression has a performative aspect.

Austin died before he could develop his ideas into a full-blown theory (which he seemed to lack the taste for in any case), so it has been left to others, particularly John Searle and (in very different, much more speculative ways) Judith Butler and Gilles Deleuze, to explore all its implications. Austin’s work is not without its critics, the two most prominent being Ernst Gellner and Jacques Derrida. The latter wrote a short critique of Austin’s theory in Marges de la philosophie (1962), translated as Margins of Philosophy (1982), which prompted a reply from Searle, and thereby sparked one of the most spectacular ripostes in philosophical history from Derrida.

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