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Justin Leiber HOW J. L. AUSTIN DOES THINGS WITH WORDS Though more than a decade has passed since J. L. Austin's death and the subsequent publication of his papers and two reconstructed lecture series, one has little confidence that we understand, even roughly, the purpose and significance of the work of the "implacable professor," as Stanley Cavell dubbed him.1 This sense of diffidence cannot be ascribed to the feeling that his work was incomplete. Had he lived, he presumably would have shaped his lectures into books and written more of his delightful essays, but one doubts that this would have changed our interpretation or made it easier—his critics would have remained puzzled and infuriated by Austin's tantalizingly indirect approach to philosophic issues, his stylistic conceits and droll stories, and his sometimes cavalier and invariably ruthless criticism of other philosophers. In part, the problem of interpreting Austin stems from the fact that the inventor and dissector of "performative utterances" was himself putting on an extraordinary performance, and one with many aspects. He is the punster and dazzling prose stylist; the creator of fanciful vignettes with the whimsy and paradox of Alice in Wonderland and some of the mordancy of Kafka's parables; the Mephistophelean critic of philosophers and their distinctions and doctrines, who seems to prefer engaging in ridicule and sarcasm, impugning motives, and generally "playing old Harry" to sober argument. Yet he is also the solid, painstaking man of science, scholarship, and common sense, the hound of the microglot, who worries out a score of distinctions where philosophers have been content with one or two, and who then modestly claims barely to have introduced the subject that he incites us to continue, who ingenuously finds himself bogged down at the outskirts of philosophic problems and who, similarly, confesses himself unable to understand most philosophic distinctions or doctrines he has occasion to mention. One is inclined to suppose, though with a little hesitation, 54 Justin Leiber55 that G. E. Moore's bafflement at the extraordinary beliefs of other philosophers and his painstaking naivete was not a pose (Moore's famous "manner" surely would have had the same significance for contemporary philosophy had it been a conscious pose—and surely that significance has been great). Equally, Wittgenstein was doubtless sincere in his half-mad and totally passionate, self-lacerating saintliness—though it was surely this, and the authority of his prose, that made much of his importance for philosophy. With Austin, however, we need not worry about the quality of ingenuousness. The implacable professor quite obviously puts on a multifaceted performance, and a beguiling, tightly controlled, and philosophically valuable performance at that. One has only to read a few pages of Austin to realize that his tongue is in his cheek much of the time and that he is painfully concerned with the effects of his words on his audience. Any man who spends the first half of a lecture series carefully erecting an original distinction and the second half demolishing it, as Austin did in How to Do Things with Words, must be thought somewhat arch and not excessively straightforward . Austin gave his life to "playing old Harry," as he put it; and "old Harry" is nothing if he lacks duplicity. Philosophers have dismissed, as irrelevant literary fluff, Austin's witticisms, style, playful personae, and striking little stories. They have tended to find his criticism of past philosophizing unfairly sharp and personal, often irrelevant, and generally concerned too much with minutiae and too little with the "basic issues." The Austin they end up with is the hound of the microglot, who painstakingly uncovered intricate networks of distinctions in ordinary language but was unable to derive answers to real philosophic questions from this information by respectable, general, step-by-step argumentation. Following the methodological assumption (especially reasonable in philosophy) that any recurrent feature in a man's work forms part of a coherent whole, however, I find it only reasonable to presume that the various, striking aspects of Austin's performance cohere. Hence, I will consider the different features of Austin's work that I have mentioned, starting with the most apparently inconsequential, and attempt to fit them...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 54-65
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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