John Langshaw Austin: Biography Of This Philosopher

This English thinker formulated the theory of speech acts.

John Langshaw Austin

The philosophy of language is one of the most interesting currents born in modern philosophy and one of its great representatives is the protagonist of this article.

John Langshaw Austin is perhaps the greatest of the philosophers of language along with John Searle, Noam Chomsky, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Born and raised in the United Kingdom, he is one of the authors, along with Searle, of the theory of speech acts, contributing the three main categories to the way in which human beings emit our sentences.

His life, although brief, has been one of the most influential in his field. Let’s take a closer look at his interesting story throughout this biography of John Langshaw Austin.

John Langshaw Austin Biography

The life of this philosopher of language is characterized neither by prolific publishing nor, unfortunately, by having lived many years. Even so, this British thinker knew how to take advantage of his years of life, being the creator of one of the most important theories in the field of psycholinguistics, in addition to having received a few awards.

1. Early years and training

John Langshaw Austin was born in Lancaster, England, on March 26, 1911.

In 1924 he enrolled at Shrewsbury School, where he studied the great classics of all time. Later, she would study classical literature at Balliol College, Oxford, in 1929.

In 1933 he received a degree in classical literature and philosophy, in addition to the Gaisford Prize for Greek prose. She finished those studies being the first of the class. In 1935 he began teaching at Magdalen College, also in Oxford. Later he would enter the field of Aristotle’s philosophy, being a great reference throughout his life.

2. Training your thinking

But among his earliest interests it was not only Aristotle that could be found (later, between 1956 and 1957 Austin was president of the English Aristotelian Society). He also addressed Kant, Leibniz and Plato. As for his most contemporary influencers, you can find GE Moore, HA Prichard and John Cook Wilson.

The vision of the most modern philosophers shaped their way of seeing the main questions of Western thought, and it was from this moment that they began to take special interest in the way in which human beings make specific judgments.

During World War II, Austin served his country by working for British Intelligence. In fact, it has been said that he was one of the most responsible for the preparation of D-day, that is, the Normandy landing.

John Austin left the Army with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and was awarded the Order of the British Empire, the French War Cross, and the North American Legion of Merit award for his intelligence work.

3. Last years

After the war, Austin worked at Corpus Christi College, Oxford as a professor of moral philosophy.

In life, Austin was not particularly prolific in terms of publications (he only published seven articles), however, this did not prevent him from becoming famous. His influence was mainly due to the fact that he held very interesting lectures. In fact, he became famous for giving some of them on Saturday mornings, something that for a teacher of the time was quite striking.

Thanks to this, and to the increase in popularity, John Austin was visiting universities such as Harvard and Berkeley in the 1950s.

It is from these trips that the material to write How to do things with words arises, a posthumous work that collects, in essence, all his philosophy of language. It was also during these years that he had the opportunity to meet Noam Chomsky, becoming very good friends.

Unfortunately for the world of linguistics, John Langshaw Austin passed away at just 48 years of age, on February 8, 1960, shortly after being diagnosed with lung cancer.

Philosophy of language and its method

Austin had little satisfaction with the way philosophy was being carried out in his time, especially with logical positivism. According to this author, logical positivism was responsible for producing philosophical dichotomies that, instead of making things clear and helping to understand the world around us, seemed to oversimplify reality and tended towards dogmatism.

Austin developed a new philosophical methodology, which would later lay the foundations for philosophy based on ordinary language. John Austin did not consider that this method was the only valid one, however, it did seem to bring Western philosophers closer to solving such long-standing issues as freedom, perception and responsibility.

For Austin, the starting point should be to analyze the forms and concepts used in worldly language, and to recognize their limitations and biases. This would allow to reveal those mistakes that have been made since time immemorial in philosophy.

According to this author, all the distinctions and connections established by human beings are found in everyday language. It is as if the words had evolved through natural selection, surviving those best adapted to the linguistic context and those that allow us to describe the world that human beings perceive. This would be influenced by each culture, expressing itself in a different way of seeing things.

Theory of speech acts

The theory of speech acts is surely John Austin’s best-known contribution to the field of philosophy of language. Speech act theory is a theory of how communicative intentions manifest. In this theory, the concepts of intention and action are incorporated as fundamental elements of the uses of language.

In his time, most philosophers were interested in how formal language worked, that is, one that is formed with logical rules. An example of formal language would be the following: mammals suck, dogs suck, therefore dogs are mammals. However, Austin chose to describe how everyday language is used to describe and change reality.

One of the most interesting aspects of Austin’s interest in ordinary language was the realization of how, depending on what is said, it is possible to create a situation of its own. That is, there are expressions that, when emitted, are in themselves what they are describing being done. For better understanding:

While at a wedding, the priest who officiates the ceremony, after giving the bride and groom the rings, says aloud: “I hereby declare you husband and wife.” By saying ‘I declare’ the priest is not describing a reality, he is creating it. Through his words he has made two people officially a married couple. And this has been accomplished through a speech act, in this case, a statement.

Thus, speech acts are understood to be those linguistic expressions, both oral and written, that when emitted imply a change in reality by themselves, that is, they are what they say they are doing.

Within Austin’s theory, with speech act, a term that was originally used by John Searle and Peter Strawson, refers to statements that constitute, by themselves, an act that implies some type of change in terms of the relationship between interlocutors are concerned, as has been seen in the case of the wedding.

Within the same theory, John Austin distinguishes between three types of acts:

1. Locutory speech acts

They are simply saying something. It is what the act of the human being saying or writing something is called, regardless of whether it is true or not or whether it constitutes a change in reality by itself.

2. Ilocutory speech acts

They are acts that describe the intention of the speaker to be enunciated. For example, a case of an illocutionary act would be to give a congratulation, which in itself implies doing an act, which is to congratulate.

3. Perlocutory speech acts

They are the effects or consequences that arise from the act of issuing an illocutionary act, that is, the response of having said something, be it congratulations, insult, order …

They are acts performed by the fact of stating something. They reflect the result of an act stated by the speaker which has produced an effect on the listener.

It is not enough to recognize the intention of the speaker, but also the receiver must believe it. They are not executed for the simple fact of stating them.

Bibliographic references:

  • Austin, JL 1940. “The Meaning of a Word.” The Moral Sciences Club of the University of Cambridge and the Jowett Society of the University of Oxford. Printed in 1961, James O. Urmson and Geoffrey J. Warnock (eds.), Philosophical Papers (pp. 55-75). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Austin, JL 1946. “Other Minds.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes 20, 148-187. Reprinted in 1961, James O. Urmson and Geoffrey J. Warnock (eds.), Philosophical Papers (pp. 76-116). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Austin, JL 1950. “Truth.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes 24, 111-128. Reprinted in 1961, James O. Urmson and Geoffrey J. Warnock (eds.), Philosophical Papers (pp. 117-133). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Austin, JL 1956a. “A Plea for Excuses.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 57, 1-30. Reprinted in 1961, James O. Urmson and Geoffrey J. Warnock (eds.), Philosophical Papers (pp. 175-204). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Austin, JL 1956b. “Ifs and Cans.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 42, 109-132. Reprinted in 1961, James O. Urmson and Geoffrey J. Warnock (eds.), Philosophical Papers (pp. 205-232). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Austin, JL 1961. Philosophical Papers. JO Urmson and GJ Warnock (eds.), Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Austin, JL 1962a. Sense and Sensibilia, GJ Warnock (ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Austin, JL 1962b. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Austin, JL 1966. “Three Ways of Spilling Ink.” The Philosophical Review 75, 427-440. Printed in 1961, James O. Urmson and Geoffrey J. Warnock (eds.), Philosophical Papers (pp. 272-287). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Austin, JL 1975. How to Do Things with Words, James O. Urmson and Marina Sbisa (eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2nd edition.

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