John Langshaw Austin

Biography of John Langshaw Austin

John Langshaw Austin (26 March 1911, – 8 February 1960) was a British philosopher of language. He is remembered primarily as the developer of the theory of speech acts.

Prior to Austin, the attention of linguistic and analytic philosophers had been directed almost exclusively to statements, assertions, and propositions — to linguistic acts that (at least in theory) have truth-value. This led to problems when analyzing certain types of statements, for example in determining the truth conditions for such statements as "I promise to do so-and-so."

Austin pointed out that we use language to do things as well as to assert things, and that the utterance of a statement like "I promise to do so-and-so" is best understood as doing something — making a promise — rather than making an assertion about anything. Hence the name of one of his best-known works: "How to do Things with Words".

In the 1960s, Austin (at Oxford) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (at Cambridge) were the two most influential figures in post-World War II Anglo-American linguistic philosophy, a time when many Anglo-American philosophers abandoned logical positivism in favor of the more sophisticated ordinary language philosophy.

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