Salvaging Austin


Does Austin need salvaging? He very well might not.

I originally came to Austin’s work provisionally, finding myself on the doorstep of Philosophy of Language by way of the Language Poets. Back then, I found the LangPhil stuff interesting but I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I thought to apply it as a lens through which to read the aesthetics of the very poets who led me to Austin, but that ultimately felt more performative than insightful. And, with the back-beaten beast of formal logic lurking behind much of what I was reading at the time (Kripke & Grice, along with Austin), the attempts I made at cohering these texts into a workable thesis on the mechanics of language seemed, to me at least, to be naive and underinformed.

After joining TIS, I found myself once more at Austin’s doorstep, again provisionally, leafing through my copy of his Philosophical Papers on a sunny bus ride. Revisiting Austin in this new light, the prominent place he affords to formal logic in his pragmatic invectives against farty philosophizing no longer struck me as a barrier to comprehension. Instead, it became an obstacle to ram through, a weight to toss off. When he’s at his most lucid, Austin makes one insightful point after another about the linguistic and philosophical inefficiencies holding us back from coherently sketching out the contours of ordinary language and its usage. In reading him again, I’ve realized that he does this despite always wending his path, scorched earth-style, through the jungles of formal logic.

So, if Austin does need salvaging, it’s from the heavy garters of his technical language. The point of this piece (and perhaps others that will follow) will be to cut through the Logic straight to what might be useful in his writing, if even as a single thread, in developing a pragmatic framework for meaning & language.

What better place to start than with his essay Meaning of a Word”. It’s a shining exemplar of all that is so fun and so frustrating about Austin’s writing: its seductively simple title & its plain-spoken delivery; its no-bullshit perspective & close proximity to getting at the root of the problem (in this case, meaning and what we talk about when we talk about meaning’); but also its maddening ability to take the complicated for granted and beat the points that feel the best explored so far into the ground you question whether you ever understood what the essay was after.

In Meaning of a Word”, Austin uncovers and then enumerates the ambiguities that separate meaningful usages of the phrase the meaning of a word’ from nonsensical ones. The distinction lies between the local and the universal, the contextual and the general; it’s the difference between asking, What is the meaning of the word brat?”, and, What is the meaning of the word brat?” In the former, you’re after a definition that is contextually specific; in the latter, an abstract concept that is both 1) sufficiently discrete enough to be properly definable, and 2) sufficiently general and generalizable to the extent that it can transcend any particular usage. Austin’s conclusion is that the former usage is meaningful because you are inquiring about something while the latter is nonsense because you are inquiring about nothing in particular.

If I could double italicize the nothing’ in nothing in particular’ I would, because the arch-argument across the three parts of this essay is that Austin doesn’t believe there to be a discrete entity knowable as the meaning’ of a word that can be excised from its usage. As much as we might ask after a transcendental signified, it doesn’t mean that there is one. But the fact that we can ask after a transcendental signified might be an integral element of how and why we can get so mixed up in searching for or conceptualizing linguistic meaning as anything other than contextually specific and use-defined. Our language seemingly allows us to move from something-in-particular definable in a given context to nothing-in-particular, such that the nothing-in-particular is presupposed to be something-in-particular in a general context because you can phrase it as something-in-particular. Of course, Austin barely spends a page exploring this point, but it’s to me one of the more insightful ones in the essay. By characterizing the search for transcendental meaning as an example of gratuitous philosophical generalizing, Austin has countered the philosophical claim that there is a unique thing–or unique class of things–specific to every word in linguistic terms, allowing us to, moving forward, comfortably situation the question of meaning in a pragmatic, usage-forward context. Which is helpful, because the question of whether or not there is such a thing as transcendental meaning begs to be addressed in similarly metaphysically-oriented terms, which often leads to only more confusion as ambiguity and linguistic sleights of hand build, one after another, upon each other.

One last point: Austin seems to think it’s pretty straightforward what the something-in-particular of any given word might be:

It may justly be urged that, properly speaking, what alone has meaning is a sentence…it appears that the sense in which a word or a phrase has a meaning’ is derivative from the sense in which a sentence has a meaning’: to say a word or a phrase has a meaning’ is to say that there are sentences in which it occurs which have meanings’: and to know the meaning which the word or phrase has, is to know the meanings of the sentences in which it occurs.

While he doesn’t define for us the sense in which a sentence has a meaning’”, he does give us two provisional categories through which one might communicate the meaning of a particular word: explaining the semantics” of a word and explaining the syntactics” of a word, the former a linguistic exercise, the latter an experiential one. Take the definition of the word pretentious’. I could provide you with examples of 1) synonyms, 2) antonyms, and/or 3) common usages of the word pretentious’ in the hopes of clarifying for you how pretentious’ is used and how to use it in a sentence–this is explaining the semantics’. I could also, either in addition to or instead of, try to get you to experience the meaning of pretentious’, maybe by performing pretentiousness for you, or by getting you to imagine an interaction that exemplifies pretentiousness, or by showing you the opening scene of Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan–and this is explaining the syntactics’ of a word. Austin’s usage of syntactics here is, as far as I can tell, pretty unique. The implication is that the syntactics of a word stitch together our experience of the world with the ways in which we might communicate that experience, or might understand shared experiences, or even the experiences of others. In a sense, it parallels in physical, social, or psychological terms his linguistically-oriented use of semantics: the latter situates the usage of a word in an associatively linguistic realm, while the former does so in an associatively experience-based one, giving us two different ways to skin the usage’ chicken, so to speak.

So what did we get from this exercise, from salvaging Austin? That there is no meaning without context, or, to state it positively, within a given context there can be meaning. The conditional is important here, because once you abandon the idea that words carry within them a universal something-in-particular (or a class of somethings-in-particular) that can be called their meaning’, you shift your framework from unconditional existence and type (‘what is meaning?’) to production and usage (‘when/how/why do words have meaning?’)–or from nothing-in-particular to something-in-particular. To put it a little differently: that words do mean something does not necessitate that they must mean something. Words only have meaning if they mean something to someone–and if that meaning can be communicated to another–so to search for an essential property within a word that provides the necessary precondition for it meaning something is to mistake and confuse what a word does–convey meaning within a sufficient context–for what it is: meaningful.