Austin’s Revolution and Its Impact on Philosophy of Language (2015-2016)

In the opening pages of his 1955 conferences “How to do things with words”, Austin declared that a revolution was taking place in philosophy. A revolution propelled by a change in the way philosophers were thinking about that which, up to recent years, had been assumed to be the bearers of true or false descriptions: ‘statements’. Due to the focus on the variety of possible uses to which language may be put, a new set of questions was arising and informing the revolution:  Which sentences can be considered to be examples of ‘stating a fact’ and which are actually instances of other ways of using language? Is it really a sentence’s job to tell how things stand in the world?  And, more importantly, what role do words, or their meanings, play in deciding the answer to these questions?

Of course, Austin was not only pointing to a revolution in the philosophy of language, but also fomenting its development. His main contribution consisted precisely in the way in which he denied that an English sentence was the right sort of thing to be true or false. What Austin was proposing was not merely that a sentence could not bring truth into question by itself; that it was us, the speakers of a language, who commit ourselves to certain assertions by using sentences in certain ways. What he sought to insist on is that the meaning of a word could not do the work most philosophers had thought it could do, namely that of determining what kinds of commitments we make when employing the sentences that contain those meanings.

Despite the revolutionary character of his ideas, Austin’s influence during the second half of the 20th century was limited if compared to figures such as Davidson or Dummett, who advocated different versions of the views that Austin so harshly criticized Our project aims to reconsider the Austinian revolution and its legacy in three ways. It seeks: a) to delimit the centrality of his ideas on language and meaning to Austin’s philosophy, with an especial attention to the way it determines his views on truth; b) to assess the role Austin plays in contemporary contextualist perspectives on philosophy of language; c) to assess the way that Austin’s work relates to authors whose work does not explicitly draw on Austin’s but whose positions are close to Austin’s.

The project contains two main activities: a) the development of a study group dedicated to Austin; b) a series of lectures delivered by some of the main researchers in the field:

Jocelyn Benoist
François Recanati
Charles Travis
David Zapero

Project coordinator: Eduardo Marchesan