Austin, J. L.

Assigned: Austin, J. L. From How to Do Things with Words (1236-48). Also read the editors’ introduction (1234-36).

From How to Do Things with Words (1956/1961)

1. On 1236-37 (“You are more than entitled not to know…”), what does J. L. Austin identify as the two stages by which philosophers have questioned the notion that language is purely descriptive and referential? According to him, what good have these stages of questioning done?

2. On 1237-38 (“Now it is one such sort of use…”), how does Austin define “performative utterances”? What do such utterances do? What don’t they do, with respect to the utterer’s supposed internal state or intention?

3. On 1239-41 (“These performative utterances are…”), Austin discusses a number of ways in which performative utterances can suffer from infelicity, or in other words “misfire.” What rules does he formulate to try to explain why these misfires happen, and how does he illustrate them?

4. On 1241 (“As for whether this list is complete…”), why, according to Austin, should poetry, along with some other kinds of language—jokes and words spoken under duress, for example—be excluded from consideration when one is dealing with “performativity”? What is it about these instances that, according to Austin, disqualifies them? Explain.

5. On 1241-43 (“So far we have been going firmly ahead…”), how does Austin develop his basic criteria for determining what is or is not a performative utterance: what two “standard forms” (1242) for performative utterances does he discuss, and what further sub-classifications or clarifications of these forms does he offer?

6. On 1243-44 (“This is just one way in which”), how might “the social habits of the society” (1243 bottom) play a strong role in determining which performative verbs come into usage, and which do not? How does his example regarding a performative verb for censuring someone as opposed to one for insulting someone illustrate this kind of social influence or expectations? (1244) Furthermore, what key distinction does Austin make between “making explicit what act it is we are performing, and the quite different matter of stating what act it is we are performing” (1244)? How does he explain this distinction?

7. On 1244-46 (“So far we have been going along…”), what dissatisfaction does Austin express with the performative criteria he has been exploring? Why is it ultimately impossible to maintain facile distinctions between performative utterances and “statements” that imply true/false claims, refer to something in the outside world or to something occurring in one’s mind, etc.? (1244-45) What examples of this ambiguous quality does he offer? (In responding, consider, for instance, Austin’s remarks about the utterance “I am sorry” as opposed to “I apologize” (1244): why can’t we assume these two utterances mean the same thing?)

8. On 1246-48 (“In this way, then, ills that have…”), following upon his analysis of the difficulties that may afflict statements as well as performative utterances, what insights does Austin arrive at regarding language generally? Has his examination of performatives led him to embrace linguistic ambivalence or indeterminacy, or does he hold that we can still emerge with a comprehensible, manageable view of an “ordinary language” consisting of “speech acts”? Explain.

9. General question: A great deal has been written about the unavoidable, sometimes exasperating medium of communication that is language, with some linguists and philosophers emphasizing its opacity, ambiguity, and sheer complexity or even duplicitousness, and others taking the more upbeat view that it seems to have served our individual and collective purposes well enough over the last several millennia. In How to Do Things with Words, J. L. Austin seems to come down somewhere in the middle. What is your own attitude towards the language or languages you grew up speaking and by means of which you now negotiate your way through life? Is your relationship with language mostly a happy, felicitous one, or do you struggle with it and find that it often makes you misunderstood and gets in your way? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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