Austin Athwart the Tradition (Intro)

Here is the current intro for a little piece I am contributing to a Routledge collection on epistemology.

Michael Dummett deems Frege’s Foundations of Arithmetic “unquestionably the most brilliant sustained performance of its length in the entire history of philosophy.”  I agree with Dummett.  And I believe that J. L. Austin’s Sense and Sensibilia (S&S) deserves a place in any such ranking–but not merely a place, a place close to Frege’s book, close to the top of the list.

I realize that many will reckon I rank the book too highly.  I am not going to argue about that in any direct way.  But I am going to argue that one reason why it seems that I am ranking the book too highly is that even now it remains hard to recognize how revolutionary the book is, how strongly it swims against the stream of traditional epistemology. Proper recognition has been obscured by tendencies too-readily to categorize (and thus reduce) Austin and his style of philosophy. We take Austin to be an ordinary language philosopher–and we think we know what that means.  We take Austin to be a defender, left-handed perhaps (bend sinister?), but still a defender, of Direct Realism.  We take Austin to be the knight errant of the plain–the champion of the ordinary man.  We are wrong about all of this.  Recognizing that we are will, I hope, allow us to recognize S&S for the deep, radical, difficult, and hard-to-assimilate achievement that it is. Ordinary language philosophy seems easy to domesticate, partly because it seems to domesticate itself, as if its character of concern with the homely and familiar rendered it homely and familiar.  It seems to be a style of philosophizing to the bottom of which it is easy to see.  Whatever lessons it has to teach are such that she who runs may read, requiring nothing more ultimately than a concise dictionary and a slightly guilty linguistic conscience.  It has no depths.  It is all surface, superficies.  But perhaps we expect to learn the wrong lessons, and so never really hear what ordinary language philosophy has to say.  Perhaps we were trapped in Flatland.  Ordinary language philosophy is a romance of many dimensions–like our ordinary lives.  But it is hard to see anything we call ‘ordinary’ that way–particularly hard when philosophizing, but hard enough at all times.

4 responses

  1. Delighted to see someone standing up for *Sense and Sensibilia*. I had no idea that you (or anyone) esteemed it *that* highly, though.

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