John Langshaw Austin

The English philosopher John Langshaw Austin (1911-1960) taught a generation of Oxford students a rigorous style of philosophizing based on language analysis.

John Langshaw Austin was born in Lancaster on March 26, 1911. In 1924 he entered Shrewsbury School with a scholarship in classics. His distinguished work enabled him to win a scholarship in classics to Balliol College, Oxford. To his studies in classics and linguistics Austin now added philosophy. After taking first honors, he competed successfully for a fellowship at All Souls College. In 1935 Austin gave up this research fellowship to become teaching fellow and tutor at Magdalen College.

During World War II Austin had a commission in military intelligence. He quickly displayed an extraordinary talent for analyzing and relating vast numbers of facts about the capacities of the enemy. His responsibilities steadily increased, and prior to the Normandy invasion he was the chief organizer of all the intelligence available to the Allied armies. Of his work it has been said that "he more than anybody was responsible for the life-saving accuracy of the D-Day intelligence." He retired as a lieutenant colonel, honored with the Order of the British Empire, the French Croix de Guerre, and the American Legion of Merit.

In 1945 Austin resumed teaching at Oxford, and in 1952 he was elected to the White's chair of philosophy. Austin's primary dedication was to teaching, and as a result he published very little. In his lifetime only seven short papers appeared. He once remarked to a friend: "I had to decide early on whether I was going to write books or to teach people how to do philosophy usefully."

Early in his career Austin devised a philosophical technique which grew directly out of his classical and linguistic studies. Philosophical work, he argued, could well begin with a thorough examination of the linguistic resources available. These would be the terms and usages of ordinary language rather than those of a technical vocabulary. Austin did not hold that an appeal to the usages of ordinary language should be the last word in philosophical arguments, but he did insist that "it is the first word." Any distinction which has become fixed in everyday language, surviving centuries of use and succeeding in the competition with alternative distinctions, may well be thought to point toward some real distinction in experience. Detailed investigation of such distinctions can hardly fail to get a philosophical discussion off to a productive start. As Austin put it, "we are using a sharpened awareness of words to sharpen our perception of, though not as the final arbiter of, the phenomena." With ingenuity, subtlety, and wit, Austin developed strategies to collect and classify the abundance of words, idioms, and metaphors which are ordinarily invoked in discussions having a philosophical interest.

Austin's last work, How to Do Things with Words, published posthumously, was based on the William James lectures which he gave at Harvard University in 1955. In it he was moving toward a more general theory of types of linguistic utterance. But his death cut short these efforts at generalization, and it is not yet clear whether, as he believed, his technique can be used by others with the same impressive results.

His death came with little warning on Feb. 8, 1960, at only 48. He was survived by his wife, Jean Courts Austin, whom he had married in 1941, and their four children.


Further Reading on John Langshaw Austin

K. T. Fann, ed., Symposium on J. L. Austin (1969), contains several interesting biographical essays and a number of distinguished critical essays, most of them by friends or former students of Austin. G. J. Warnock, English Philosophy since 1900 (1958), includes a section on Austin.

Additional Biography Sources

Warnock, G. J. (Geoffrey James), J.L. Austin, London; New York: Routledge, 1989.