Essay/History of Ideas

How not to be a chucklehead

Saturday mornings with J L Austin in postwar Oxford were a golden time for wordplay, silly jokes and serious philosophy

Nakul Krishna

Precision, clarity ... and tobacco. Austin (right) considers the point. Photo by George Douglas/Picture Post/Getty

Nakul Krishna

is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Cambridge. His writing has appeared in n+1New Statesman and The Oxonian Review, among others. 

3,800 words

Edited by Nigel Warburton

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In the late 1940s, Oxford was bursting with youth. A veritable ghost town during the war years, now the city was abuzz again. Young men who had survived years of combat or had just been released from prisoner-of-war camps were returning to complete the degrees they’d had to abandon. Faced with this surfeit, the colleges of the city had started hiring again, and the fossils of the Senior Common Room found themselves sharing their port with young men and (much less often) women, who had seen more of life than they ever had: Nazi death camps, code-breaking and military intelligence.

The University of Oxford has always had short academic terms, several months’ worth of work and recreation squeezed into intense eight-week windows followed by a fallow period almost as long. Towards the end of each vacation would come the week-long cusp – ‘0th week’ – when messages would fly back and forth between the colleges establishing who would be teaching whom what, when the parties and when the ‘meetings’ were (this word was preferred to that suspiciously German institution, the ‘seminar’).

Some time in the 0th week of every term, young dons with fellowships in philosophy at one of Oxford’s colleges would receive a small card about ‘Sat. mng. mtgs’. It would specify a place, usually a medium-sized college room, and a time, usually 10.30am. The card would say nothing of what would happen at these meetings. Those who dared to ask would be told simply that they would be carrying on with what they had been doing last term.

In practice, no paper was ever read out. Latecomers and early leavers attracted no adverse comment. There were no rules of order, and despite it usually being a dimly lit Victorian common room where they met, there was little solemnity. There were jokes galore – learned jokes, donnish jokes, silly jokes, jokes that veered into the surreal, fantastic territory of Alice in Wonderland. At the heart of it all, there was the oddly charismatic man keeping order and a sense of purpose without ever seeming to do so: John Langshaw Austin.

‘His face,’ wrote the New Yorker journalist charged to produce a story on the brave new world of Oxford philosophy, ‘suggested an osprey. His voice was flat and metallic, and seemed to be stuck on a note of disillusion.’ J L Austin’s public speaking style was indeed deadpan, sardonic, relentlessly negative as it took down, patiently and efficiently, the doctrines of those he deemed his opponents. But he really came into his own in the small Saturday meetings where his barbs could be held back in wait for the perfect moment.

The meetings were haunted by the scent of damp tweed and tobacco. Pocket dictionaries, or editions of Aristotle, were waved around. There was a great deal of ‘When you said – did you mean – or did you mean –?’ and ‘No, if that is what I had meant, that is what I would have said.’ It wasn’t elegance or erudition to which they strived. It was precision and clarity, ideally both in the same sentence.

‘It was always just a little as if the headmaster were present,’ an attendee of these mornings recalls. ‘[H]owever informal the atmosphere, he was still the headmaster, and there were certain kinds of … unbuttoned disorder that … would not really do.’ There was nothing here of the Parisian Left Bank where charismatic Frenchmen lurched grandly between this and that sect of Marxism as they reminisced about the glory days of La Résistance. Nor was there the heavy burden of profundity to be found in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s rooms in Cambridge where devoted acolytes tried desperately to make something of the Master’s odd pronouncements while clutching their heads in imitation of his agonised poses. Saturday mornings in Oxford were not to be occasions for enigma or left-wing grandstanding.

Austin’s primary philosophical medium was, like that of Socrates before him, the conversation, not the printed page. When he died in 1960, aged only 48, his influence on the British (and to a smaller degree, American) philosophers of the age was disproportionate to his publication record, modest even by the modest standards of the decade. It was in the decade after his death that the lectures and drafts of his last 10 years came to light, edited with care and imagination by Austin’s younger colleague Geoffrey Warnock.

The year 1962 saw the publication of two books based on his lectures; in 1961, a volume of collected papers appeared. Between them, these books bring this least animated of men to life, revealing how much more there was to him than the chillingly cerebral persona whose caustic judgments could have grown men and women quaking in their beds at night. These books contain the outlines of a philosophy, as that term is used in everyday parlance: a vision of the ends of life and the means to attain them. Both are captured by the title of his most influential book: How to Do Things with Words (1962).

When he was alive, and to some degree even today, Austin and the Oxford philosophy of his generation was traduced by people who thought it was a bunch of unserious old men playing with words. To be clear, a lot of Austin’s work was indeed playful, and almost all of it was concerned, in one way or another, with words. But what Austin cared about most deeply in his dealings with words was not the words themselves, but things we did with them. In thinking about what we did with words, Austin found a new way of thinking about what we did with our lives.

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Austin’s academic career was doing well enough when the Second World War began. He was a young don with a reputation for fair-mindedness and industry, a reputation that got him a commission in the Intelligence Corps. In 1942, he took over a small team gathering intelligence to prepare for an invasion of continental Europe. The work suited Austin’s patient, methodical intelligence. Small pieces of information from a disparate range of sources had to be put together, adding up gradually to a full picture of what an invading Allied force would be up against: French coastal defences, topography, supply lines, road networks and Axis troop movements.

To a different mind, the level of detail would have proved overwhelming. Austin found it exhilarating. An anonymous colleague would later tell his literary executor that Austin, more than any other single person, ‘was responsible for the life-saving accuracy of the D-Day intelligence’. The product of the efforts of Austin and his team was a little handbook – a vade mecum – for the use of troops, drolly titled Invade Mecum. As the literary critic Christopher Ricks wrote in an appreciation of Austin’s prose, he ‘knew that this was no time for not joking’.

Where the tradition spoke of the idea of beauty, Austin invited his interlocutors to reflect instead on the ‘dainty and the dumpy’

The Oxford to which he returned after the war was a more stimulating place than the one he had left. The political atmosphere was left-wing and hopeful. Clement Attlee was prime minister; there was a country to rebuild and a welfare state to set up. Oxford philosophy had caught the collectivist bug. There was little enthusiasm for philosophical geniuses working alone on the traditional questions of free will or the gap between appearance and reality. The new model for philosophy was not unlike the model for wartime intelligence: to disclaim the traditional, somewhat pompous, rhetoric of philosophy, and to look for problems that could be divvied up and solved together in teams united by a common purpose.

Austin’s Saturday morning meetings were one of the places where philosophy would be conducted in this style – wry, downbeat and deflationary. Much of what was discussed at his Saturday meetings was the stuff of ordinary language: what do we say under such-and-such circumstances and what does it mean that we are disposed to say that? Where the tradition spoke of the idea of beauty, Austin invited his interlocutors to reflect instead on the ‘dainty and the dumpy’. Where the tradition spoke of the nature of action, Austin would wonder why a girl’s father asked her suitors about their intentions rather than their purposes? Why don’t we ever say ‘I have a pain in my waist’?

One of his most notorious questions is tucked away in a footnote as part of a pair of stories designed to demonstrate how we instinctively distinguish between the phrases ‘It was a mistake’ and ‘It was an accident’, tempting though it is to suppose them interchangeable. Say you and I both graze our respective donkeys in the same field. One day, I decide I don’t like my donkey any more. I go to the field where it grazes and fire at it with my rifle. To my horror, I see just as it falls that it was in fact your donkey. I knock sheepishly at your door. What do I say? Austin presented the options: ‘“I say, old sport, I’m awfully sorry, etc, I’ve shot your donkey by accident?” Or “by mistake”?’ Now consider another case where I manage to identify the right donkey, but this time, just before I fire, my donkey moves and yours falls. What am I disposed to say as I appear at your door clutching the carcass?

A lot of this was honest fun and Austin made no attempt to deny it. He believed, as his editor once remarked, that the practice of philosophy ‘was all the better for being agreeable’. An anecdote from the time captures something of both Austin’s confidence in his approach and the bafflement it sometimes occasioned in outsiders. A visiting philosopher is said to have wondered aloud: ‘But Professor Austin, what great problems of philosophy are illuminated by these inquiries?’ Austin considered a moment, then replied: ‘Roughly, all of them.’

Austin did not deny that philosophy might need some special terminology of its own; indeed, he contributed several new, and some unlovely, pieces of jargon (‘speech act’, ‘constative’, ‘exercitive’, ‘felicity conditions’). But he thought it a sensible idea to look first to ordinary language, that rich historical inheritance, to see what distinctions it marks already that philosophers, in their search for essences and definitions, could learn from. He once remarked that ‘our common stock of words embodies all the distinctions men have found worth drawing … in the lifetimes of many generations: these surely are likely to be more numerous, more sound … and more subtle … than any that you or I are likely to think up in our armchairs of an afternoon.’

Austin is sometimes thought to have founded a philosophical school, but it makes more sense to see him as part of the literary tendency sometimes termed ‘The Movement’, with Philip Larkin its most illustrious member. As J D Scott, literary editor of The Spectator, characterised the trend in 1954, it was ‘anti-phoney, … anti-wet; sceptical, robust, ironic’. At its worst, the poets and philosophers were guilty of performing a kind of a parody Englishness, dismissing literary modernism as being so much French – or worse, German – humbug. But at its best, the poetry and the philosophy written in this style managed to root out some real phonies (Austin, ever the connoisseur of uses of the word ‘real’ would have been fascinated by the idea of a ‘real phoney’).

It mattered enormously to Austin to get things right, when they could be got right by the expenditure of a little effort

When the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel announced impressively to one of Oxford’s philosophical clubs that human freedom was the ‘ontological counterweight to death’, Austin invited him to explain what he meant. The request, made with his characteristic courtesy, was followed up repeatedly with appeals for further clarification. Marcel ended up saying he meant that the fact we are going to die makes all our earthly doings ultimately futile, but we carry on in full awareness of this by investing some things with value by an exercise of free will. Was this true? Maybe, maybe not, but at least that question could now be intelligibly posed.

Austin was not given to abstract pronouncements about the nature and purpose of philosophy. But he had no doubts about its worth in the intellectual training of the young. There was in his view, his colleague Isaiah Berlin recalled, ‘no better way of making them rational … if only because it generated in them a critical, indeed a skeptical attitude, the only antidote … to what he called “being chuckle-headed”’.

It mattered enormously to Austin to get things right, when they could be got right by the expenditure of a little effort. The British poet and academic philologist A E Housman had put the point with cutting brevity when he remarked, in mock-forgiveness of his predecessors’ mistakes: ‘Three minutes’ thought would suffice to find this out; but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time.’ Thought, and finding things out, was never irksome for Austin. He believed that it had been diligent, careful labour that had won the Allies the war. Paris had not been liberated by ontological counterweights.

The influence on impressionable youth of Austin’s insistence on getting things right was deep and – in the best possible way – scarring. He survived his untimely death by being internalised into the minds of his colleagues. Sentence after overblown sentence would be pared down, often to nothing, after their writers imagined them being read back to them in Austin’s slow, caustic voice. Crafty undergraduates could reduce their college tutors to ashen silence with a well-placed ‘But Mr Austin says…’

Some of this was doubtless a form of bullying. Many good ideas went unexpressed for fear of their not conforming to Austin’s ideal of clear writing. But few of those marked by his influence ever repudiated it in its entirety. The idea that words should be used with care, that those who dealt in words must take responsibility for them, was never seriously challenged even by Austin’s sternest critics. Austin’s sardonic voice became the voice of his colleagues’ superegos. The question: ‘Would it embarrass me to have Austin read out this sentence?’ was another way of asking: ‘Is this really the best I can do?’

Even the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, one of the few in Austin’s Oxford with any sympathy for the French philosophy of the day, was happy to give credit where it was due. Austin’s style of philosophy, she wrote in The Sovereignty of Good (1970), ‘attacks every form of spurious unity. It is the traditional inspiration of the philosopher, but also his traditional vice, to believe that all is one.’ By contrast, she continued, the ordinary language philosopher simply says: ‘Let’s see.’

‘Let’s see’ is sensible advice for most things: don’t generalise before the evidence is in, don’t assume that everything will cohere. But Murdoch saw a flipside to Austin’s commitment to the everyday. Applied to ethics, her own area of interest, philosophy in Austin’s style produced work that was, to her mind, ‘both unambitious and optimistic’. The downbeat, quotidian quality of the Oxford style represented by Austin and his colleagues risked turning British philosophy into a simple mirror image of its French and German counterparts. As Murdoch once remarked about an influential book written by one of Austin’s colleagues, it evoked a picture of a world where ‘people play cricket, cook cakes, make simple decisions, remember their childhood and go to the circus … not the world in which they commit sins, fall in love, say prayers or join the Communist Party.’

For all his faith in inherited distinctions, he seemed oddly uninterested in the actual – and politically charged – history of language

Murdoch’s younger colleague, Bernard Williams, gave this line of thought an even more explicitly political spin. Reviewing one of Austin’s posthumously published books, he worried that Austin’s emphasis on attending to existing language before proposing any reform was – despite Austin’s protestations – a pernicious form of conservatism. How, he asked, would we know when we had assembled all the relevant material? Was there even a determinate answer to the question of what pieces of language were relevant without some sense of what we were trying to do in the end with all the linguistic data? And if Austin’s advice had been followed in earlier times, how would we have arrived at that wealth of linguistic distinctions in the first place? As Williams put it: ‘In language, as in politics, the conservative runs into the fact that the old is only what used to be new.’

Further, Austin’s injunction to philosophers to start by looking up words in the dictionary seemed unhistorical. For all his faith in inherited distinctions, he seemed oddly uninterested in the actual – and politically charged – history of language. Think of that most basic of distinctions – masculine and feminine – and of how much is concealed, how much of human experience is simplified, by its binary simplicity. Murdoch concluded: ‘It is useless to ask “ordinary language” for a judgment [when] we are dealing with concepts which are not … unambiguously tied up to ordinary words. Ordinary language is not a philosopher.’

It is a little bit odd, then, to find that some of the most imaginative exponents of Austin in the past couple of decades have been feminist philosophers. They have been drawn not to Austin’s views on philosophical method so much as his work on what he called ‘speech acts’. The basic idea is simple enough, even banal. Speech acts are the things we do with words. The most straightforward case is that of assertion – as when I assert that the cat is on the mat. Enormous amounts of philosophical work have gone into understanding such notions as meaning and reference, the bread and butter of modern philosophy of language. But Austin wanted to draw attention to some other things we can do with words.

Consider such sentences as ‘I pronounce you man and wife’, ‘I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth’, ‘I bet you sixpence it will rain tomorrow’. Said in appropriate circumstances – by an ordained priest during a marriage ceremony, for instance – one is not describing or reporting something one is doing or has done or is about to do. One is, simply, doing it. What more is there to marrying or christening or betting than saying the words, sincerely, in the appropriate circumstances?

A helpful pair of neologisms of Austin’s in this connection was ‘illocution’ and ‘perlocution’: the difference between saying words with a certain force (asking a question, making a promise, issuing a final warning), and the further effects of saying something with a certain force (dissuading someone from getting married, making them pass you the gravy). The gangster who, wielding a knife, says to me: ‘Nice fingers. You don’t want them broken’ is saying something true, but that’s not all he is doing. He is also warning me of the consequences of my failing to repay what I owe him (illocution) and thereby bringing it about that I conjure up the monies posthaste (perlocution).

Austin thought utterances of this kind – ‘performatives’, in his terminology – were assessed along dimensions of ‘felicity’ and ‘infelicity’. The idea is that speech acts can misfire in a variety of ways: suppose, facing Emily in church, distracted by the face of an ex-lover in the pews, I say the words: ‘I take thee Rachel…’ Or suppose a drunk passerby seizes the bottle from the Queen and says he names the ship the Joseph Stalin. Or suppose the person to whom I am proposing marriage decides I’m joking. These, Austin thought, were cases of infelicity: the marriage has not been achieved, nor the naming, nor the proposal.

Much of Austin’s contribution in this area consisted in describing, with precision and imagination, parts of life that are perfectly familiar to most of us. So much of ordinary life consists in illocutions of one sort or another: promising, warning, scolding, apologising. But modern feminists took Austin’s project forward to places a long way off from anything he conceived of himself. The American theorist Judith Butler, for instance, drew on Austin’s idea of the ‘performative’ utterance as part of her theory of how gender roles are constituted: by repeated performance.

Austin did not claim to have the answers. But he did help us to understand the questions a little better

Writing in a different tradition closer to Austin’s, the Cambridge philosopher Rae Langton used the notion of illocutionary felicity to make better sense of what might be going wrong when someone refusing sexual consent is simply not taken at her word. The word ‘no’ in such circumstances is not understood by its hearers as communicating a refusal, so the speaker doesn’t even have what Langton calls a ‘fighting chance’ of having her refusal actually honoured: what hope of that when your ‘No’ is heard as just another way of saying ‘Yes’?

Austin took little interest in the political implications of his work, but his ideas were always ripe for elaboration. Why is it that some speech acts, or the speech acts of some people – women, for instance, or members of racial minorities – fail to receive what Austin called ‘uptake’? What kind of authority does it take to be able to ensure the felicity of our speech acts? As when he challenged Marcel, Austin did not claim to have the answers. But he did help us to understand the questions a little better.

A moving passage from the American writer Maggie Nelson’s recent memoir The Argonauts (2015) describes the panic she and her transgender partner experienced in 2008 when it looked like their home state, California, was about to vote yes to Proposition 8: ‘Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognised in California.’ Nelson, once a student of gender studies, draws unaffectedly on Austin’s terminology when she writes:

That evening, Reverend Starbuck –  who listed her denomination as ‘Metaphysical’ on our forms  –  rush-delivered our paperwork, along with that of hundreds of others, to whatever authorities had been authorised to deem our speech act felicitous. By the end of the day, 52 per cent of California voters had voted to pass Prop 8, thus halting ‘same-sex’ marriages across the state, reversing the conditions of our felicity.

Austin’s terminology has come a long way here: from the tweedy damp of an Oxford common room to a wedding in sunny southern California. Nelson brings out what was always implicit in Austin’s philosophy: that thinking about our language, and how our language works in the world, can be a way of thinking about human life. The conditions of the felicity of a speech act can be, as Nelson observes, the conditions of the felicity of a pair of lovers. And felicity, as Austin the skilled classicist well knew, comes from the Latin ‘felicitas’: happiness.

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