John Langshaw Austin (March 28, 1911 - February 8, 1960) was a philosopher of language, who developed much of the theory of speech acts. He was born in Lancaster and educated at the University of Oxford. After serving in MI6 during World War II, Austin became White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford.

His paper The meaning of a word is a polemic against doing philosophy by attempting to pin down the meaning of the words used; for 'there is no simple and handy appendage of a word called "the meaning of the word (x)"'. Austin warns us to take care when removing words from their ordinary usage, giving numerous examples of how this can lead one down a philosophical garden path.

In A Plea for excuses Austin demonstrates his philosophical method by example. He proposed some curious philosophical tools. For instance, he uses a sort of word game for developing an understanding of a key concept. This involved taking up a dictionary and finding a selection of terms relating to the key concept, then looking up each of the words in the explanation of their meaning. Iterate this process until the list of words begins to repeat, closing in a “family circle” of words relating to the key concept.

How to Do things With Words is perhaps his most influential work. Austin points out that philosophers of language gave most of their attention to those sentences which state some fact, but that these form only a small part of the range of tasks that can be performed by saying something. Indeed, there is an important class of utterances – Austin called them performative utterances – that do not report a fact, but instead are themselves the performance of some action (speech act). For example, in the appropriate circumstances to say “I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth” is to do nothing less than to name the ship.

In the second half of the book, Austin produced a useful way of analysing utterances.

Consider what happens when John Smith turns to Sue Snub and says ‘Is Jeff’s shirt red?’, to which Sue replies ‘Yes’. Firstly, John has produced a series of bodily movements which result in the production of a cert5ain sound. Austin called such a performance a phonetic act, and the called the act a phone. John’s utterance also conforms to the lexical and grammatical conventions of English – that is, John has produced an English sentence. Austin called this a phatic act, and labels such utterances phemes. John also referred to Jeff’s shirt, and to the colour red. To use a pheme with a more or less definite sense and reference is to utter a rheme, and to perform a rhetic act. Note that rhemes are a sub-class of phemes, which are a sub-class of phemes, which in turn are a sub-class of phones. One cannot preform a rheme without also performing a pheme and a phone. The performance of these three acts is the performance of a locution – it is the act of saying something.

John has therefore performed a locutionary act. He has also done at least two other things. He has aked a question, and he has elicited an answer from Sue. Asking a question isa an example of what Austin called an illocutrionary act, the performance of an illocution. Other examples would be making an assertion, giving an order, and promising to do something. An illocutionary act is to use a locution with a certain force. It is an act performed in saying something, as contrasted with a locution, the act of saying something, the locution. Eliciting an answer is an example, of what Austin calls a perlocutionary act, an act performed by saying something. Notice that if one successfully performs a perlocution, one also succeeds in performing both an illocution and a locution.

In the theory of speech acts, attention has focused on the locution, illocution an perlocuition, rather than the phone, pheme and rheme.

Austin occupies a place in the philosophy of language alongside Wittgenstein, in staunchly advocating the examination of the way words are used in order to elucidate meaning.

Works by J. L. Austin

  • How to do Things with Words (1961)
  • Philosophical Papers (1961), contains A Plea For Excuses and The Meaning of a Word as well as Austin’s other published papers.
  • Sense and Sensibilia (1962)