Books : reviews

J. L. Austin.
Sense and Sensibilia.
OUP. 1962

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 4 June 2014

In these brilliantly original lectures, which are both critical and constructive, the late J. L. Austin examines and corrects the misunderstandings and misconstructions on which, as he argues, philosophers have traditionally founded the unreal ‘scholastic’ structures of their theories of perception. Both the facts and the vocabulary of perception are much more complex and more subtle than philosophical theories of the traditional type have recognized: and Austin argues that the traditional distortions of the facts and of our language have been due fundamentally to certain central errors in the theory of knowledge which have been pervasive in philosophy from Plato to the present day.

As it says on the front cover, this book is “reconstructed from the Manuscript Notes by G. J. Warnock”. Versions of these notes span several years of giving the set of lectures, from 1947–1958. Warnock provides a preface describing the reconstruction approach. Being based on lectures, the book does have a nicely conversational style.

The conversation is about Austin’s response to certain philosophers (mostly Ayer and Price, but also, to some degree, Warnock himself, amusingly enough) and their approach to perception. I don’t know what the current state of the philosophy of perception is, but this book is worth reading just as an illustration of how Austin goes about eviscerating others’ arguments.

The sense one gets is that Austin is exasperated by his colleagues’ oversimplification and possibly deliberate obtuseness when investigating certain aspects of this, and other, philosophical problems. He doesn’t mince his words. (Is this style a feature of the words being spoken in a lecture, rather than written in a book or paper? I don’t know; but given this was reconstructed from Austin’s own written notes, I suspect not.)

p3. My general opinion about this doctrine is that it is a typically scholastic view, attributable, first, to an obsession with a few particular words, the uses of which are over-simplified, not really understood or carefully studied or correctly described; and second, to an obsession with a few (and nearly always the same) half-studied ‘facts’. (I say ‘scholastic’, but I might just as well have said ‘philosophical’; over-simplification, schematization, and constant obsessive repetition of the same small range of jejune ‘examples’ are not only not peculiar to this case, but far too common to be dismissed as an occasional weakness of philosophers.) The fact is, as I shall try to make clear, that our ordinary words are much subtler in their uses, and mark many more distinctions, than philosophers have realized; and that the facts of perception, as discovered by, for instance, psychologists but also as noted by common mortals, are much more diverse and complicated than has been allowed for. It is essential, here as elsewhere, to abandon old habits of Gleichschaltung, the deeply ingrained worship of tidy-looking dichotomies.

I had to look up Gleichschaltung: a term used by the Nazis for “forcible coordination”; this appears to be a rather savage criticism to apply to a philosophical style!

In the first half Austin carefully picks apart the way “common mortals” use terms like “looks”, “looks like”, “looks as if”, “appears”, “appears like”, “appears as”, “appears as if”, “seems”, “seems like”, and so on. He teases apart subtle distinctions, to demonstrate that the philosophers who lump these all together under one restricted meaning are missing most of the richness of meaning, and hence being led astray in their subsequent philosophising.

Then in the second part, he picks apart use of the word “real”, here criticising Ayer in particular for using the word too fluidly, not recognising its multiple meanings, conflating them, and hence causing confusion.

This may sound a little strange: a book picking apart the meaning of a few words? But it is wonderfully readable, and gives an insight into deep and clear thought processes. And the exasperated style enlivens it considerably.

[I must confess that, although I had appreciated that the title is a pun, I had not appreciated quite how delicious a pun it is until, glancing at the cover, I misread the author!]

J. L. Austin.
How to do Things with Words: the William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955: 2nd edn.
OUP. 1975

rating : 3 : worth reading

The late J. L. Austin’s influence on contemporary philosophy, which ranked with that of Wittgenstein, was substantial during his lifetime and has grown greatly since his death. He was described as ‘one of the most acute and original minds that England has produced’.

His 1955 William James Lectures, delivered at Harvard University, were first published in 1962. For this second edition the editors returned to Austin’s lecture notes and their revisions make this a clearer and more faithful record of Austin’s words.

The lectures set out Austin’s conclusions in the field to which he directed his main efforts for at least the last ten years of his life. Starting from an exhaustive examination of his already well-known distinction of performative utterances from statements, Austin here finally abandons that distinction, replacing it by a more general theory of ‘illocutionary forces’ of utterances which has important bearings on a wide variety of philosophical problems.