J.L. Austin: Can this Englishman advance past Princeton’s Edmund Wilson to the  Final Four?


The old nineteenth-century criticism of Ruskin, Renan, Taine, Sainte-Beauve, was closely allied to history, and novel writing, and was also the vehicle for all sorts of ideas about the purpose and destiny of human life in general. The criticism of our own day examines literature, art, ideas, and specimens of human society in the past with a detached scientific interest or a detached aesthetic which seems in either case to lead nowhere. A critic like Herbert Read makes dull discriminations between different kinds of literature; a critic like Albert Thibaudet discovers dull resemblances between the ideas of philosophers and poets; a critic like I.A. Richards writes about poetry from the point of view of a scientist studying the psychological reactions of readers; and such a critic as Clive Bell writes about painting so exclusively and cloyingly  from the point of view of the varying degrees of pleasure to be derived from the pictures of different painters that we would willingly have Ruskin and his sermonizing back. And even Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey have this in common with Clive Bell that they seem to feel they have done enough when they have distinguished the kind of pleasure to be derived from one kind of book, the kind of interest to be felt in one kind of personality, from the kind to be found in another. One is supposed to have read everything and enjoyed everything and to understand exactly the reasons for one’s enjoyment, but not to enjoy anything excessively nor to raise an issue of one kind of thing against another. Each of the essays of Strachey or Mrs. Woolf, so compact yet so beautifully rounded out, is completely self-contained and does not lead to anything beyond itself; and finally, for all their brilliance, we begin to find them tiresome.


The more you think about truth and falsity the more you find that very few statements that we ever utter are just true or just false. Usually there is the question are they fair or are they not fair, are they adequate or not adequate, are they exaggerated or not exaggerated? Are they too rough, or are they perfectly precise, accurate, and so on? ‘True’ and ‘false’ are just general labels for a whole dimension of different appraisals which have something or other to do with the relation between what we say and the facts. If, then, we loosen up our ideas of truth and falsity we shall see that statements, when assessed in relation to the facts, are not so very different after all from pieces of advice, warnings, verdicts, and so on.

We see then that stating something is performing an act just as much as is giving an order or giving a warning; and we see, on the other hand, that, when we give an order or a warning or a piece of advice, there is a question about how this is related to fact which is not perhaps so very different from the kind of question that arises when we discuss how a statement is related to fact.  Well, this seems to mean in its original form our distinction between the performative and the statement is considerably weakened, and indeed breaks down. I will just make a suggestion as to how to handle this matter. We need to go very much farther back, to consider all the ways and senses in which saying anything at all is doing this or that—because of course it is always doing a good many different things. And one thing that emerges when we do do this is that, beside the question that has been very much studied in the past as to what a certain utterance means, there is a further question distinct from this as to what was the force, as we may call it, of the utterance. We may be quite clear what ‘Shut the door’ means, but not yet at all clear on the further point as to whether as uttered at a certain time it was an order, an entreaty or whatnot. What we need besides the old doctrine about meanings is a new doctrine about all the possible forces of utterances, towards the discovery of which our proposed list of explicit performative verbs would be a very great help; and then, going on from there, an investigation of the various terms of appraisal that we use in discussing speech-acts of this, that, or the other precise kind—orders, warnings, and the like.

The notions that we have considered then, are the performative, the infelicity, the explicit performative, and lastly, rather hurriedly, the notion of the forces of utterances. I dare say that all this seems a little unremunerative, and I suppose it ought to be remunerative. At least, though, I think that if we pay attention to these matters we can clear up some mistakes in philosophy; and after all philosophy is used as a scapegoat, it parades mistakes which are really the mistakes of everybody. We might even clear up some mistakes in grammar, which perhaps is a little more respectable.

And is it complicated? Well, it is complicated a bit; but life and truth and things do tend to be complicated. It’s not things , it’s philosophers that are simple. You will have heard it said, I expect, that over-simplification is the occupational disease of philosophers, and in a way one might agree with that. But for a sneaking suspicion that it’s their occupation.

Here we have two classic different types of Criticism: Austin (b. 1911) is asking what we are really doing when we say things, while Wilson (b. 1895) is asking what did those people over there say that gave us, or did not give us pleasure? The one is a philosopher, the other a critic.

Both these approaches do share a belief that meaning exists behind, not in, the text. We know what “shut the door” means, says Austin, but does it mean, “shut the door, or else!” or “oh I beg you, please, please shut the door”? Language, according to Austin, is the door, but there is something besides language which is coming through the door to potentially help us, or do us harm. The performative reality of ‘shut the door’ is precisely what fiction and poetry convey, by dramatizing expression.

So in that sense, a critic of literature like Wilson is following Austin’s philosophy by judging dramatic expression—literature.

Would Austin agree that literature is a “speech-act?” If so, it is interesting how Austin attempts to go beyond speech to something more real—and then runs smack into fiction. And does not literature make warnings and give advice?

On the other hand, a book could never order us to “shut the door.” But by replicating actions and showing intelligence, literature has that performative “force” which Austin is trying to get us to understand is always involved in even ordinary language.  Not just what an utterance means, Austin says, but its force. The question of charisma and force of personality arises; some individuals have forceful personalities even as they may not be big in stature or smart; but somehow their word is law. Then we have law itself, and its force.

There are complex forces of which words are merest shadows, and words’ attempt to describe the sun only enhances their shadowy nature. Between the thing and its representation there is something far more important: “I pronounce you man and wife” has a meaning, but more importantly, it is a performance, and it is with the performative that we escape the inexplicable sun and its shadow, “sun.”

Telling someone what to do is where language is clearest, and means the most.

Wilson prefers the 19th century novel of “life” to the exquisite vagueness of the modern literature; he thinks the novel is where the classical epic lives, not in contemporary poetry.

Austin seeks the performative “life” behind the meaning of language; Wilson, the “life” behind literature.

As Austin says, “it’s not things, it’s philosophers that are simple.” Wilson and Austin are really quite simple in what they say. Wilson and Austin are both asking us to read vertically, not horizontally—deeply more than widely. They are not New Critics. They are Old Critics. Throwbacks. They believe life is more important than speech.

Since philosophy of the kind Austin practices is mainly instinctual and steeped in common sense, in the long run it is probably less useful than Wilson’s, which is historical and more particular, and in many ways doing the same thing: criticism analyzing literature is like philosophy analyzing language—since it is finally what is happening ‘behind the scenes’ (Is this person good, or bad? What do they want? How are they trying to get it?) which is the object of our search, and there will never be one way to do this kind of search, given the complexity of human nature and human action.




Edward Said (d. 2003)

J.L. Austin worked for British Intelligence.

Great Britain, losing its Empire while cozying up to the American one, was trying to save its ass: a dying Empire, known for its spies, using a spy, Austin, to cook up a philosophy to save itself, should make us curious, at least. Austin was a plain-looking, bespectacled man, like Philip Larkin; Larkin quietly became Britain’s best poet since Tennyson, and Austin is the philosopher we need to read because his take on language is so brilliant, and really quite restorative.

Britain and the West suffered a tremendous decline in the first part of the 20th century; it was a Futurist age in which Things came to dominate in Art and Architecture, War and Wit; the Body of the World was revealed in all its horror: morality and all it’s beautiful delicacy was crushed by the steely, large, obscene, photographed, Object; Modernism emerged all decked out in haiku imagery and Bauhaus cement and Ezra Pound and Marcel Duchamp and Coco Channel and Blimps and Auto cars and Cubism and Jew-hating, Gertrude Stein-loving Paris. Bing Crosby and Abstract Metal Sculpture stepped out together in an orgy of bad taste: tough guy, ethnic-obsessed, Skyscraper, Las Vegas, Frank Sinatra bullshit took over.

The West finally let its hair down in 1963 with the Beatles’ first LP and Beauty returned. The Big Sophistication of Modernism fell and Technology that was small and nimble saved our lives. Ugly politics continued, of course: US/West versus Russia/Middle East, but Technology triumphed over fake, stylish Symbol in the meantime; science conquered empire for a while. The ingenuity of Franklin and Poe fought the tyranny of oil and opium to an uneasy standstill. Uneasy, to be sure. Did the Beatles bring us love or drug addiction? It was hard to tell, but at least, in our materialism, we got to decide. The planes of 9/11 were actually a Hindenburg type disaster, belonging to Modernism’s last horror gasp.

J.L. Austin said ALL language worked like “I now pronounce you man and wife.” Language was not a thing; it was a performance. What matters is what something does, not what it is. The truth was not a ‘that’ or a ‘this’ but a ‘thus.’ It was Socrates who told us this a long time ago. Modernism brought in Ayn Rand and literal-minded Aristotle. Shelley, Plato, Beauty, and the Romantics were dumped.

Modernism insisted on ‘the new,’ but “I now pronounce you man and wife” will never get old; Byron’s rhymes do a little more than Pound’s twists and turns and junkyard thing-ism. The American liberal, a holdout of Modernism, proudly insists that Religion is “not true,” that reality is much closer to the rascality of Pound—but the American liberal misses the point that it is not what something is, it is what something does, which finally matters.

Edward Said, who spent his life attempting to enlighten the West about the civilized heritage of the Middle East, before he died in 2003, founded, with Daniel Barenboim, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, so that Israelis and Arabs might perform Beethoven together. The orchestra is named for a work of lyric poetry by Goethe inspired by Hafiz, the Persian poet.

The orchestra is surely more meaningful than most modern philosophies could possibly be.


Austin and Edmund Wilson will battle for the Post-Modern championship and a spot in the Final Four!





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