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Language Philosophy and Language Teaching
by Mark Lowe
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Austin was a leading Oxford philosopher. After graduating in 1930, he was elected to a Fellowship of All Souls – one of the highest accolades an academic can achieve in Britain, and a clear sign of his brilliant intellect. He later became a Fellow and Tutor of Magdalen College in Oxford. In his book Personal Impressions, Isaiah Berlin gives a vivid portrait of the young Austin. At that time, he writes: ‘Austin had no settled philosophical position. He did not hold with programmes. He did not wish to promote or destroy one establishment in the interests of another. He treated problems piecemeal as they came, not as a part of a systematic reinterpretation. His thinking was characterized by extreme clarity. He had a very clear, sharp and original intellect’. He could be cantankerous, too. A.J.Ayer once said to him, during a philosophy meeting: ‘Austin, you are like a greyhound who doesn’t want to run himself. You bite all the other greyhounds so that they can’t run either’. Something of this character comes out in his writing, as he draws ever finer distinctions and endlessly qualifies statements. Austin was also a musician: he loved to play unaccompanied Bach on his violin.

In 1937, Austin and Isaiah Berlin held a series of regular Thursday evening meetings for young Oxford philosophers to discuss philosophical questions. Topics included the verification principle, and how we know that other minds exist. There were never more than seven or eight people present: they included Gilbert Ryle (author of the controversial The Concept of Mind), A.J.Ayer, and Stuart Hampshire – all leading figures on the subsequent development of language philosophy. As the discussions proceeded, it became clear to Austin, as it had to Wittgenstein before him, that many of the problems they discussed were caused by confusions in our use of language. One source of such confusions was binary polarities suggested by the forms of language, such as empirical versus logical truth, and factual versus ethical statements (eg ‘is’ cannot be converted into ‘ought’?) Such apparently clear and simple distinctions often distort the truth, which is usually more nuanced, and less black and white. Philosophers, Austin believed, need to seek out the grey and complex truth masked by such over-precise dichotomies. Another source of confusion was the so-called category mistake. In The Concept of Mind, Ryle describes how an American tourist in Oxford, who had seen the Bodleian Library and the Sheldonian and some of the colleges, asked him: ‘but where is the university?’ ‘These things are the university’, Ryle replied. ‘The University is everything that happens here and all the people and buildings connected with it. It is not something else, apart from the buildings and the people.’ The category mistake is to confuse a ‘university’ with a ‘thing’: a University is a sort of collective noun. John Wisdom at Cambridge University used to quote a charming example of this problem in his spring term lectures. ‘It is getting warmer, the daffodils are out on the Backs, and the girls are wearing their pretty dresses. But where, oh where, is spring?’ – as if we were expecting Persephone to come tripping over the meadows. The myth of Persephone is beautiful, and it has its own poignant symbolic truth. But it does not provide a scientific explanation for what happens in spring time. Philosophy, Austin believed, is riddled with category mistake problems in which we are bewitched by a mythical Persephone instead of examining how things actually work – problems like the nature of the mind, causation, memory, intention and the will. Whitehead used to call the same problem ‘the fallacy of misplaced concreteness’ – in other words we think that because there is a WORD, there must be a THING to correspond to that word, whereas often the word describes a process or a way of combining things, not a discrete thing.

During the Second World War, Austin worked on Eisenhower’s staff. He helped to plan D Day – a task perfectly suited to his meticulous and organized mind. Back in Oxford after the war, Austin set up a new set of regular philosophy meetings. This time the philosophers met on Saturday mornings, with the aim of examining small-scale problems in the hope that solutions to small problems would lead to solutions of bigger problems. Some sessions were devoted to the rules of games: each participant was asked to bring a book of rules of different games for the group to study. The analysis of the rules for games led to a better understanding of rules in general, including the rules of language. On another famous occasion, each member of the group was asked to being a kind of scissors: garden shears, kitchen scissors, nail scissors, sewing scissors, surgeon’s scissors etc. The group then tried to decide which was a tool, which an implement, a utensil, an appliance, a piece of equipment, a kit, a device or a gimmick. Gradually, the ‘fit’ between thing and word became sharper and light was thrown on philosophical problems concerned with the relation between language and the world.

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