John Langshaw AUSTIN (1911-1960)

Par Andrea JÁNOSI

I am passionate about my first language – Hungarian is something of a curiosity for language scientists – I have decided to speak about someone who could be more interesting for you.

Maybe some of you have learned about his theories previously.

And as well, I chose a subject about the strength of the words.

So, I will speak about Austin and – his contribution to the science of language.

First – I will tell you – about his personality and about the theoretical current to which he belonged. Then, by using a range of examples, I will present his theories contained in How To Do Things With Words, one of his major works.

Key concepts from Austin are : ordinary language, analytic philosophy (of Oxford), linguistic philosophy, speech acts : constatives, illocutionary, locutionary, perlocutionary.

Austin is not a linguist, as we may think, he is a British philosopher. He was born in Lancaster (England) in 1911 and died in Oxford in 1960.

He was a greatly admired teacher in philosophy of language, moral philosophy and epistemology. He worked in Oxford till the end of his life, and developed much of the current theory of speech acts.

He occupies a place in analytic and linguistic philosophy alongside Wittgenstein, Moore and Russel. They are staunchly advocating the examination of the way words are used in order to elucidate meaning.

Austin’s distinctive contribution was the meticulous examination of ordinary linguistic usage. He would like to resolve philosophical perplexities, pioneering the analysis of speech acts.

In that time, Ordinary Language Philosophy (OLP) is characterized by close attention to the ‘ordinary’ use of words.

It is a philosophical school that approached traditional philo’sophical problems as rooted in misunderstandings philosophers develop by forgetting what words actually mean in a language. These approaches typically involve eschewing philo’sophical « theories » in favor of close attention to the details of the use of everyday, « ordinary » language.

Austin urges that the use of words be closely examined and holds that the distinctions of ordinary language more subtle are than is usually realized.

He is perhaps best known also for his belief that much of philosophy is performed with excessive haste and carelessness – in particular when it comes to the language people use. Because of this, he felt that greater precision with language would entail fewer unnecessary disagreements and greater progress in philosophy.

Austin published very little during his career teaching at Oxford. Rather than with books, his enormous reputation rested upon is various lectures ; as a result, much of his work was published posthumously from reconstructions of his various talks. As you know for Saussure, students gathered his papers and lectures in books that were published posthumously.

How to Do Things with Words (1961) is the transcription of Austin’s James lectures at Harvard.

The application of this method distinguishes between what we say, what we mean when we say it, and what we accomplish by saying it, or between speech acts involving locution, illocution felirni a tablara (or « performative utterance »), and perlocution.

Austin drew a series of careful distinctions between ways in which language functions in ordinary speech acts. Most particularly, he pointed out that performative utterances such as promising, pledging or vowing, accomplish their purposes without implying any referential representation of reality. These illocutionary acts, therefore, can never be true or false, although they may turn out to be relatively successful or unsuCCessful.

What he suggested is that language for intentional mental states-« I believe, » I know, » or « I suppose, » etc.-is illocutionary in its functions. Thus, first-person reports of such states are best understood as announcements of my intention to behave in certain ways, to « act as if » I believed, knew, etc. 

Austin’s interest in the philosophy of language also extended to the philosophy of action. According to Austin, we can best understand human action by examining what humans say about action and by becoming more sensitive to the subtle nuances, which exist in our descriptions of actions.

Austin also made important contributions to the understanding of what are known as « speech acts » – these are unusual uses of language like « I promise to… » or « I swear that I will… ». According to him, these may look like simple acts of speech, but in reality they are much more. A person saying them does not simply state that he will promise ; instead, the act of speaking entails making the promise itself.

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 these form only a small part of the range of tasks that can be performed by saying something.

In his work he distinguished between constative utterances : statements or reports that can be found (grammatically) true or false, and performative utterances : such as promises, warnings, commands, questions, exclamations, and expressions of wishes.
 (Excuse me ! How much ? Are you crazy ? I promise you to take a taxi home etc.)

He went on to refine his system of classification ; it became the basis for speech act theory.

Austin calls performative utterances an important class of 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.

Conditions necessary for performatives are that words need to be appropriate for circumstances, and sincerity (intention) not in question.

In the second half of the book, Austin produces a useful way of ‘analyzing utterances.

Consider what happens when John turns to Sue 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.

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.

In the theory of speech acts, attention has focused on the locution, illocution and perlocution, rather than the phone, pheme and rheme.

Thus, John has therefore performed a locutionary act. He has also done at least two other things. He has asked a question, and he has el’icited 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, 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 conclusion, I have today very briefly introduced the life and work of John Langshaw Austin. Thus, for him, a speech act can be divided into three different smaller acts :

At the 1st : The locutionary act is the act of performing words into sentences, etc That make sense in a language with cor’rect grammar and pronunciation

In the 2nd : The illocutionary act is a intended action by the speaker, bound to certain conventions – it can only be achieved if there is a convention in society that makes it possible.

In the 3rd : The perlocutionary act is the effect that an utterance has on the thoughts, feelings or attitudes of the listener.

These are not parts – but dimensions of a speech act, which means that they can’t be performed separately. 
In an utterance you can always find these different aspects.

I could go further in Anstin’s development and speak about : when performatives go wrong (called infelicities), a second theory to find explanations which aren’t based just on the words anymore, explicit and implicit performatives, happy performatives, conditions and circumstances, ways a statement implies truth of other statements, behabitives etc. But it is not the goal here as for a linguistics lesson.

We could see here as well, that a science can really influence an another one and interact each other, like philosophy and pragmatic linguistics.

Austin’s work in philosophy, How To Do Things With Words, has made a substantial contribution to the science of language. Specifically, in this work he proposed and examined the complexity of speech acts, which I outlined today using a range of examples.

Such is the importance of this book, these theories are still maintained and revered today, some fifthy years after first publication.

— – Hearers have to coordinate linguistic and non-linguistic knowledge to interpret a speaker’s intended meaning
 Austin found utterances that :

A. do not describe or report or constate anything at all, are not true or false 
 B. the uttering of a sentence is the doing of an action which would normally be described as saying something

There are two observations : first, not all sentences are statements, second, much of conversation is made up of questions, exclamations, commands, and expressions of wishes.

He called the latter performative sentence, or for short, a performative.

With performatives Austin suggested not to ask whether those sentences are true or not, but to ask whether they work or not
 : Excuse me !
 Are you crazy ?
 I promise you to take a taxi home.
 etc. Grammatically could seen as statement, but it cannot be answered by true or false.

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