J.L. Austin

By: Franklin Bruno
March 26, 2014

J.L. Austin

Biographically, J.L. AUSTIN (1911–60), the founder of both speech-act theory and so-called “ordinary language philosophy,” cuts a drab figure: even the extant sketches focus on his philosophical style in Oxford seminars and an informal Saturday “Play Group” at which dons and favored students hammered out critiques of putative metaphysical and linguistic nonsense over high tea. This style, with its whimsical examples — exploding budgies and the like — and critical force, is manifest in the few papers he published, but, as with Wittgenstein, Kripke, and Lacan, we know his thought mainly through notes and transcribed lectures, none more searching than those delivered at Harvard in 1955 and collected posthumously as How To Do Things With Words. Philosophers had not, as is sometimes thought, been wholly blind to the fact that language has functions beyond representing the world through true or false statements, but Austin was the first to give sustained attention to its vast array of “performative” uses, from asking and ordering and promising to christening and marrying, and to the “felicitious” or “infelicitous” social conditions under which such actions succeed or fail. What others have done with what Austin did with words is another matter: He might have been amazed at the uses to which performativity, linguistic and otherwise, has been turned by Judith Butler and other theorists of gender and identity — or by a testy 1977 exchange over his legacy and limitations between his own student John Searle and interloper Jacques Derrida (which became Derrida’s book Limited Inc). If I recall the Theory Wars correctly, that skirmish merely confirmed analytic and continental philosophers’ worst prejudices about each other; from a distance, neither Searle’s stern taxonomies or Derrida’s ludic feints seems entirely true to the richness and (considerably drier) wit of Austin’s own acts of speech and writing.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Rufus Thomas, Diana Ross, Gregory Corso, Leonard Nimoy.

READ MORE about members of the Partisan Generation (1904-13).


HiLo Heroes, Philosophy