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.

Seeing a Cow in a Hat Shop (Ryle)

A cow wearing a hat


The epistemologist with the usual theoretical habits may bring himself to attend to the ways in which we use task-verbs, and may come to agree that our uses of achievement-verbs are correlated in certain important ways with our uses of task-verbs.  But he will still feel that a theory is being based upon what is exceptional rather than what is regular.  For ordinarily which I report having seen a cow or detected a smell of gas, I cannot, with the best will in the world, report the prior occurrence of a process of scrutiny.  Seeing a cow is not something accomplished as the terminal stage of a methodical process, however swift.  No task was accomplished, undertaken or envisaged.  I just saw a cow.  I did not so manage things or so organise my doings that at the last I saw a cow.  See a cow was, in an important way, the first thing that happened…

Now we must of course grant that the recognition on sight of the obvious cow is not the last move in a series of moves…But the non-occurrence of preliminaries does not entail the non-exercise of a technique.  We do not say that someone is skilful at something only when he frowns and hesitates over the doing of it; indeed, one of the signs that someone has achieved complete mastery of an art like signalling, pruning or long-division, is that he regularly performs perfectly the ordinary tasks in it without his wondering how to do it or preparing himself by any self-reminders, exhortation, exercises or other preliminaries.

Now we are all in the position of having achieved perfect mastery of the art of recognizing on sight the customary occupants of our customary environment–at least, when the light is good or fair, our health is normal, we are not dizzy or standing on our heads, looking through strange optical instruments and so on.  When all is plain sailing, no navigational problems are considered, nor do we try to make out what we are looking at when we get a fair view of a lonely cow in the sort of place where cows are among the things that we are not surprised to come across.  Of course we had once to learn how cows look at different distances, from different angles and in different lights, as well as where cows can be expected to be found, and it is just because that lesson has been learned and not forgotten that the cows is now obvious to us.  Its obviousness is the fact that the technique of recognizing it on sight has no longer to be exercised in a tentative way–and when we do have to exercise the technique in a tentative way, as when a cow confronts us in a thick fog, or in a hat shop, what we are looking at is for a moment or more not obviously a cow.  And, of course, the fact that it is ordinarily obvious that what we are looking at is a cow does not exclude the chance of its not being a cow at all.  It may be a goat, or a hole in the hedge looking like a cow.  Or there may be nothing that looks like a cow and I am just ‘seeing things’.  That such cases are exceptional is part of the meaning of such words as ‘see’. ‘perceive’, and so on, as well as of words like ‘obvious’.  If ‘I see a cow’ were not usually true, I could not fancy I saw a cow…

Descartes’ Meditations: Seeking Purity of Mind

I have been teaching Descartes’ Meditations in my Intro class.  It is the first time in many years that I have worked past the Second Meditation with any care.

Among the many things that strike me–and I am of course not claiming original insight here–is the way in which Descartes’ epistemological struggle runs parallel to spiritual struggle.  Like the acknowledged sinner, Descartes repents, and, in repenting, seeks for a true change of mind.  To do this he must, again like the sinner, conduct an agonizing examination of conscience, testing himself at every turn.  He makes but fitful progress:  lessons learnt are soon forgotten; old habits die very hard.  But he keeps at it, keeps salting his beliefs with the fire of doubt, and eventually he purifies himself.  He stands naked, vunerable–apparently alone.  The purifications of doubt, have, however, done their work–blessed are the pure in heart, in mind, for they shall see God.  And Descartes does.  He finds that he is not alone:  God is with him.  And, it turns out, God has been with him all along:  though Descartes has been wandering through a valley dark, no evil demon need he fear.  God’s shepherd’s crook comforts him.  And, so, in the end, much like Job, Descartes gets back what he had before (at least, what he really had).  God prepares a table for Descartes before the face of the evil demon, and Descartes’ epistemological cup runs over.

%d bloggers like this: