Cashing the Cheques of Common Sense: JL Austin and Philosophy of Language


Interview by Richard Marshall


'Ordinary language philosophers think in that way because they think that competent speakers know what it would be correct or incorrect to say when, and perhaps know why it would be correct or incorrect.'

'Experimental philosophers are more generous—perhaps, more democratic—about whose views count and, second, that ordinary language philosophers are more generous about how those views count.'

'I think that common-sense is important in philosophy, at least insofar as our aims as philosophers are more than merely exploratory—that is, insofar as we hope to get things right. For common-sense is just our general ability to assess claims and courses of action.'

'The Oxford Realists thought that knowing is a mental state and, because of that, that each of us is especially well placed to tell whether or not we know something. Their view made it difficult to see how other people can be in a position to correct someone’s sincere view that they know something.'

'Austin thinks of knowing something as akin to possessing proof.'

'Austin thought that one couldn’t simply read off the truth-conditions of the utterance of a sentence from the meaning of the sentence. Deciding under what conditions an utterance of the sentence would be true or false depends, in addition, on an appropriate sensitivity to the role of the utterance in ongoing projects.'

'I’m interested, in particular, in the question whether I can have knowledge of what you are up to, or what you think or want, that has the same sort of basis as your own knowledge of what you are up to, or what you think or want.'

Guy Longworth is interested in philosophy of language, epistemology, philosophy of mind, metaphysics, and the history of analytical philosophy. Here he discusses ordinary language philosophy and its relationship with experimental philosophy, JL Austin and common sense, JL Austin and knowledge and other minds, JL Austin and the goldfinch, JL Austin on assessment, JL Austin and ilocutionary acts, whetherwe can know what someone else is up to, ‘preservationism’ regarding testimony, whether first person thoughts can be shared, whether understanding is best thought of in terms of propositional knowledge, and how best to approach philosophy of language.

 3:16:  What made you become a philosopher?

Guy Longworth: I worried about broadly philosophical issues from quite an early age, probably beginning with concerns about fairness. Another early worry concerned induction: I read somewhere that Rolls Royce had a machine that tested their car seats by squirming in them a million times, and I wondered what grounded the hope that they wouldn’t break on the million-and-first squirm. Relatedly, I counted, for a while, in such a way that 100 immediately followed 29, rather than 99, and puzzled myself about what made others’ systems of counting right and mine wrong. The looks of mirrors were a further source of mystery, in response to which my parents bought me a book on optics, which didn’t help much. Thankfully, my parents had other books, including some on philosophy, which helped more. It was probably my love of reading, more than anything else, that explains my becoming a philosopher.

3:16:  You’re interested in philosophy of language and recently wondered about the connection between ordinary language philosophy and experimental philosophy. Ordinary language philosophy seems to have passed now whereas experimental philosophy is the new guy on the block, so to speak. So do you think this was an early type of experimental philosophy, and given its aims, should it have been?

GL: I think it’s pretty hard to say what, if anything, is distinctive about ordinary language philosophy. Many philosophers are interested in ordinary notions and the subject-matters determined by those ordinary notions. And many philosophers think that ordinary language more or less adequately tracks those ordinary notions and subject-matters. To that extent, many philosophers will allow that one way of trying to study some things of philosophical interest—ordinary notions and their subject-matters—is by studying the ordinary language through the use of which the ordinary notions are expressed. Even philosophers who are sceptical about the extent to which ordinary language, or ordinary notions, track philosophically interesting subject matters are entitled to their scepticism only insofar as they are have correct views about ordinary language and the ordinary notions it is used to express. So, they too have some reason to attend to ordinary language.

Amongst the many philosophers who agree thus far, the main source of controversy concerns how we should go about studying ordinary language. To a very crude first approximation, ordinary language philosophers think that we can learn about ordinary language by studying what competent speakers are willing or unwilling to say when, perhaps in conjunction with their views about why they are willing or unwilling to say it then. Less crudely, ordinary language philosophers think in that way because they think that competent speakers know what it would be correct or incorrect to say when, and perhaps know why it would be correct or incorrect. To a similarly crude first approximation, experimental philosophers think that we can learn about ordinary language, or ordinary notions, by studying ordinary speakers’ views about what they would say when. 

The central differences, at this level of abstraction, are, first, that experimental philosophers are more generous—perhaps, more democratic—about whose views count and, second, that ordinary language philosophers are more generous about how those views count. Taking the first difference first, ordinary language philosophers care mainly about those views of the fully competent that fully reflect their competence, views that they therefore take to amount to pieces of knowledge. By contrast, experimental philosophers care about the views of any minimally competent speaker, and do not assume that any such views distinctively reflect knowledge. (They might even deny that there is an interesting distinction between minimal and full competence.) The second difference arises naturally from the first. Since the ordinary language philosopher takes some of their subjects’ views to be knowledgeable, they are willing to move fairly directly from those views to claims about the ordinary linguistic facts. By contrast, the experimental philosopher is liable to think that the transition from individual speakers’ views to claims about the linguistic facts is less direct, and mediated by theory. On some views, for example, the linguistic facts will be determined by some function from the collection of individual speakers’ views, perhaps one according to which the majority view reflects the facts.

If something like that is right, then there are similarities between some ordinary language philosophers and some experimental philosophers, insofar as both care about some ordinary speakers’ views. The most important differences between the two sorts of approach concern whose views they care about. The experimental philosopher will tend to count any minimally competent speakers’ views as equally important. By contrast, the ordinary language philosopher will be more willing to allow that few ordinary speakers, and perhaps even none, are fully competent users of some target expressions. The acquisition of the sort of competence able to serve the ordinary language philosophers’ theoretical purposes might require training beyond the usual, including extended attention to, and reflection on, unusual cases, and drawing on more or less specialist sources of information.

Should ordinary language philosophers have been more democratic, in the ways that I’ve suggested experimental philosophers have been? I think there’s a lot to be said for the experimental philosopher’s willingness to question the extent to which individual philosophers’ judgements about cases are bound to reflect the facts about their own languages and notions. However, it’s not clear to me that we are better placed to read off the linguistic facts from patterns amongst the usages of the minimally competent. And because of that, it’s not clear to me that we are in a good position to exploit those patterns in order to correct individual’s judgments. I’m slightly more optimistic that individual philosophers (and non-philosophers) are able, in principle, to hone their competences through appropriate training. I think that, as things stand, that is the safest available route to the progressive correction and refinement of judgements about cases that are suitable to support those tracts of philosophical theorising that seek to uncover ordinary notions and subject-matters.

[JL Austin]

3:16:  JL Austin defended common-sense and thought philosophers didn’t understand it. Are you sympathetic to his approach to philosophising and his view that philosophers refuse to cash the cheques written by common sense, as you vividly put it?

GL: I think that common-sense is important in philosophy, at least insofar as our aims as philosophers are more than merely exploratory—that is, insofar as we hope to get things right. For common-sense is just our general ability to assess claims and courses of action. Furthermore, I think that philosophers typically have a good, off-duty understanding of the demands of common-sense. Insofar as they depart from those demands, I think that their doing so is often due to pressure from the competing demands of clean, general theorising. One of Austin’s central insights, one shared by some other ordinary language philosophers, was that common-sense thinking is indefinitely sensitive to differences amongst cases. By contrast, as philosophers, we often aim to construct theories that are general, and so that efface differences amongst cases. That sort of difference between common-sense and our aims as philosophers can lead into conflicts, at which points it seems that we will have to give up either a piece of common-sense or a piece of philosophical theory. The question is, which?

Naturally enough, I think that there is no general answer to that question. It’s surely possible for philosophical theorising to reveal a piece of common-sense to be dubious. And it’s surely possible for a philosophical claim to be out of step with what is, given appropriately developed common-sense, obviously correct. Furthermore, it can be very far from obvious whether the deliverances of philosophy really do conflict with those of common-sense. However, since common-sense is our ordinary ability to assess claims or courses of action, there can be no question of our giving it up in toto.

3:16:  How do you see the function of Austin’s general discussion of knowledge in his essay on knowledge of other minds? 

GL: There’s an awful lot going on in that essay. I think that one central aim is to respond to a worry about dogmatism that arose for some of his predecessors, in particular the Oxford Realists, John Cook Wilson and H. A. Prichard. The Oxford Realists thought that knowing is a mental state and, because of that, that each of us is especially well placed to tell whether or not we know something. Their view made it difficult to see how other people can be in a position to correct someone’s sincere view that they know something. One of the functions of Austin’s essay is to explore ordinary ways in which we seek to establish whether or not someone knows, for example by pressing them to say how they know, or to explain their reasons for believing, and then assessing those accounts. On the basis of that exploration, I think that Austin hoped to attain a more realistic perspective on our individual authority over the question whether or not we know something. I also think that he wanted to do this in a way that preserved both the anti-sceptical thrust of the Oxford Realists’ position, including their view that knowing is a state of mind and that we consequently have a certain amount of authority over the question whether we know something.

3:16:  If that question is a kind of global question, Austin also raises a more local question – so how do you assess his discussion of treating a claim that there is a goldfinch present? Does he resolve or vindicate his idea that there are significant limits on our obligations as knowers – what is he claiming about knowing and should we believe him?

GL: Austin thinks of knowing something as akin to possessing proof. Now suppose that one knew that there was a goldfinch before one, and also that if something is a goldfinch, then it is not a stuffed goldfinch. Given that knowing is akin to proof, one would naturally expect that one’s having those two pieces of knowledge would put one in a position to deduce a third: that what is before one is not stuffed. I think that Austin would accept that. However, what Austin says about this case is, in effect, that one might know that there is a goldfinch before one and yet not be in a position to prove that what is before one is not stuffed. His saying that has led some philosophers to hold that he rejected the natural view that knowledge, like proof, invariably enables the acquisition of further knowledge by deduction. 

By contrast, I’m inclined to think that Austin meant only something more minimal: that one might know that there is a goldfinch before one without being in a position to provide others with an independentproof that what is before one isn’t stuffed. Someone in that position might be limited in the extent to which they could convince a sceptical bystander that they know that there is a goldfinch before them. However, there is no reason to think that someone who knows must be able to convince all comers that they know. So, this is one way in which Austin tries to find a middle path between the Oxford Realists’ dogmatism and more sceptical views that arise from the demand that one is never a distinctive authority concerning whether one knows, and so that it must always be possible for others to be able to decide whether one knows without relying on one’s own avowed take on the question.

3:16: A theme you identify as running through all of Austin’s work is his rejection of any simple account of the assessment of utterances as true or false. Can you sketch for us what you take his position to be here and why it is so important to his approach?

GL: One aspect of Austin’s view is that some forms of assessment are very general, or even schematic, and bottom out in a wide range of more specific forms of assessment. For example, assessing whether something is real, or whether some F is a real F, can bottom out on any of a range more specific assessments concerning, for example, whether it is a toy, or a fake, or synthetic, and so forth. Austin thought that the assessment of utterances as true or false was general, or schematic, in that sort of way, and so bottoms out in a wide range of more specific modes of assessment: is it accurate, or fitting, or precise, and so forth. Connectedly, Austin thought that the proper employment of these modes of assessment in specific cases depended on the intents and purposes of that employment. 

How much does precision matter here, and what degree of precision matters? What would count as accuracy given current aims? For these sorts of reasons, Austin thought that one couldn’t simply read off the truth-conditions of the utterance of a sentence from the meaning of the sentence. Deciding under what conditions an utterance of the sentence would be true or false depends, in addition, on an appropriate sensitivity to the role of the utterance in ongoing projects. Thus, Austin’s famous example of the sentence “France is hexagonal”: perhaps true, if uttered in a geography class; perhaps false, if uttered in a geometry class.

3:16:  What do you say are the connections between the successful performance of illocutionary acts and audience understanding or uptake of their performance?

GL: The notion of illocutionary act is technical, and is used quite variously, so I’m not sure that there could be a clean answer to this question. However, I’m sympathetic to the view that one useful notion in this area is that of an act such that recognizably attempting so to act is necessary and sufficient for successfully so acting. In that sense, I think a useful notion of illocutionary act is connected with uptake (recognition of performance) indirectly, via a form of the possibility of uptake. Take, as an example, the act of warning someone of something. Some philosophers seem to hold that one has warned someone only if they recognize that one has warned them. And some philosophers hold that one is guaranteed to have warned someone if they recognize that one is attempting to warn them. Those conditions harmonise in a neat way: if one attempted to act with the aim of being recognized to have done so, then one’s aim would be attained just in case one was recognized to have done so. 

However, although I’m inclined to think that the second condition, that having one’s attempt recognized suffices for success, is correct, I’m inclined to think that the first condition, that having one’s attempt recognized is necessary for success, is too demanding. In order to preserve harmony between the necessary and sufficient conditions for success, I’m inclined to adopt the condition that recognizable attempt, rather than recognized attempt, is necessary and sufficient for success. On the assumption that one’s attempt being recognized suffices for its being recognizable, this amounts to accepting the claim that uptake suffices for success, while rejecting the claim that uptake is necessary for success.

3:16: Another interesting question you propose an answer to is this: given that one can know without observation what one is up to, can one know without observation what someone else is up to?

GL: This question connects with three interests of mine: the nature of self-knowledge, including practical knowledge of what one is up to; the role of testimony in enabling knowledge to be shared; and the nature of collective facts, including facts about collective activities. I’m interested, in particular, in the question whether I can have knowledge of what you are up to, or what you think or want, that has the same sort of basis as your own knowledge of what you are up to, or what you think or want. There are a number of different ways of trying to defend an affirmative answer to that question, but I’m especially interested in two.

The first proceeds from the idea that each of us has non-observational knowledge—indeed, distinctively practical knowledge—of what we are doing intentionally. Generalising slightly, one might predict that the subject of any intentional activity has non-observational knowledge of what they are doing. Now suppose that there are collective intentional activities. That is, suppose that there are activities that are performed by a number of people, independently of whether any of the individual people amongst that number performs them—including, for example, the activity of surrounding the mayor. If there are such intentional activities, then the generalisation suggests that their subjects—a number of people—can have non-observational knowledge of what they—the number—are doing. If that is possible, their knowledge would seem to be distinctively collective too: the number would know what they were up to independently of whether any individual amongst them had that knowledge. The first way of trying to defend an affirmative answer to the question whether I can have non-observational knowledge of what you are up to seeks to derive it from the idea that you and I can know collectively what we are up to. With respect to that first attempt to defend an affirmative answer to the question, I’m pretty sceptical. However, I think it’s an interesting idea and worth considering further.

I’m more positively disposed towards a second attempt to defend an affirmative answer. This appeals to the idea that where someone knows something, and tells it to us, we can come to know it too, by accepting what they say. It seems plausible that where someone knows what they are up to (or what they think, or want), and tells us what they are up to (etc.), we can come to know what they are up to by accepting what they say. The question, now, is whether knowledge acquired in this way, by accepting what one is told, can have the same basis in the recipient that it has in the benefactor. If it can, and if the benefactor has non-observational knowledge, then the recipient can too. I think that a view of that sort might be defensible, although the details remain to be worked out.

3:16: You have defended a position labelled ‘preservationism’ regarding testimony which answers the question as to whether testimony can preserve reasons in the affirmative. Can you sketch for us what the problem is that preservationism solves, and how it does this?

GL: The preservationist view is aimed at supporting the idea I just mentioned: that the basis of knowledge a recipient of telling acquires by accepting what they are told can be the same as the basis of the teller’s knowledge. More specifically, it aims to support the idea that knowledge acquired by accepting what one is told is based on the teller’s reasons, rather than any additional factors that might figure in mediating the acceptance of what one is told. In that sense, the acceptance of testimony serves to preserve the possession of a reason by enabling a reason possessed by one person to come into the possession of another. Very roughly, the problem the view is supposed to solve is that of explaining how testimony can meet a general demand on knowledge, according to which someone who knows something must possess conclusive reasons for believing it. (As an aside, the general demand involves no commitment to the further view that knowing is a form of believing.)

By assumption, the knowing teller possesses such conclusive reasons. But it is natural to think that the teller’s own reasons aren’t available to the recipient of testimony. Rather, it’s natural to think that if any reasons are available to the recipient, they will concern the broad reliability of teller, perhaps incorporating a priori accessible reasons in favour of tellers’ generic reliability. However, those reasons seem far from conclusive, and so don’t meet the general demand. I think that typical responses to this issue have concluded that we need to weaken—and so, give up—the general demand on knowledge. I think that such responses are overly concessive, and that preservationism can provide a defensible account on which one can come to have a teller’s conclusive reasons by accepting what they tell one. Part of the defence involves seeking to understand, and thence to undermine, the causes of the natural view that a teller’s reasons are not made available through the acceptance of testimony. Here, I think that part of the story has to do with the idea that the teller’s reasons only become available to one through one’s accepting what they tell one, and so can’t provide reasons for accepting what one is told. I’ve tried to argue that that consideration doesn’t support the natural view.

3:16: Why do some philosophers argue that first person thoughts can’t be shared – and do you agree with them?

GL: Philosophers have thought that first person thoughts can’t be shared for all sorts of reasons. One general line of thought that connects with some of what I mentioned earlier would be this. (I don’t mean to endorse any of the components of this line, only to sketch a broad class of views.) Thoughts are closely connected with the bases for endorsing or rejecting them. Thus, if there were a type of thought such that the bases for endorsing or rejecting thoughts of that type were available to only one person, no one else would be able to think thoughts of that type. But some first-person thoughts fit that specification: they are such that bases for thinking those thoughts are available only to the referents of their “I”-components. In particular, those first-person thoughts are distinctively connected with non-observational bases for endorsing or rejecting them. Since only the referents of the “I”-components of those thoughts can have the required non-observational bases for endorsing or rejecting them, such first-person thoughts cannot be shared with others.

My response to that line of thought is to accept that the basic exploitation of non-observational bases for endorsing or rejecting first-person thoughts might be restricted to the referents of the thoughts’ “I”-components. However, that leaves open the possibility that others might be able to exploit those bases in a derivative way. And in line with some of the things I mentioned earlier, I think that such derivative exploitation is made possible through accepting some of what the referent of the “I”-component can tell one. So, because I’m inclined to think that one can acquire another’s non-observational knowledge by accepting what they tell one, I think that the target line of thought fails to rule out the possibility that I might come to think your first-person thoughts.

3:16: You’ve also taken issue with philosophers who account for understanding what was said in terms of propositional knowledge of what was said. So first, can you explain what this account claims and why it has been thought a good explanation?

GL: The sort of account I have in mind claims that understanding what someone says is a matter of knowing that they said it. For example, where someone said that it’s cold, understanding what they said would be a matter of knowing that they said that it’s cold. I think that this sort of view has lots of good features. But I think that the two main explanations for its wide acceptance are the following. First, in ordinary cases, we allow that A understands what B said just in case A knows what B said. 

But it’s plausible that A knows what B said just in case A knows an appropriate answer to the question: “What did B say?” And where B said that such-and-such (say, that it’s cold) knowing an answer to that question is just knowing that B said that such-and-such. So, in ordinary cases, we closely associate understanding what someone said with knowing that they said it. Second, philosophers often appeal only to a fairly restricted class of psychological attitude types. In this area, they might consider only two options: understanding what was said is either a matter of belief or it is a matter of knowledge. Given only those options, I’d be inclined to agree that understanding what was said is a form of knowledge.

3:16: And why do you disagree? Have you an alternative account that works better?

GL: My disagreement is fairly fine-grained. I’m willing to allow that understanding what was said is sometimes a matter of knowing that they said it. However, I think that as a fully general claim, that view is too intellectually demanding, since it requires of one who understands what was said that they have a concept of saying (or some cognate concept). Now in other cases, for example the case of perceptual knowledge, we explain how someone knows by appeal to other sorts of state, for example their seeing or hearing something. It’s natural to think that something similar applies in the case of knowledge acquired through understanding. In that case, we’d think of understanding what someone says as enabling knowledge, rather than being a case of knowledge. I’ve tried to sketch a view of understanding on which it figures in that sort of way in explaining knowledge of what someone said. The rough idea is that a minimal condition on understanding what someone said is coming to entertain what they said in a way that is appropriately responsive to their having said it. Since one can entertain what someone said—that is, entertain a thought that they expressed—without entertaining the thought that they said it, this sort of view avoids the intellectual demands of the knowledge view.

3:16:  As a take home, can you summarise for us your preferred approach to philosophy of language: do you think Austin still has much to teach us about how we should approach philosophical problems and are you sympathetic to his way of working?

GL: My own way of proceedings is quite crude. I try to think as hard as I can about claims and arguments, and then see what gives. Two pieces of Austinian advice seem to me to be valuable, though, if a little banal. The first is to train oneself to be sensitive to differences amongst cases. As theorists, we often seek elegant generalisations. I think that’s admirable, but it sometimes leads to our ignoring relevant distinctions. The second is to take what one claims in one’s philosophical work at least as seriously as what one claims in extra-philosophical circumstances. Crudely, if one couldn’t say it with a straight face outside the seminar room, then it’s worth considering whether one should say it inside.

3:16: And for the curious readers here at 3:16, are there five books you could recommend that will take us further into your philosophical world? 

GL: 

Plato Republic.


Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics.

Descartes Meditations.


Gottlob Frege Foundations of Arithmetic.

J. L. Austin Sense and Sensibilia.


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