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When you are a horse

Written By: daveski on February 4, 2009 3 Comments

So in Claire Kramsch’s Language and Power class we just got done reading an essay from John Austin, the British philosopher who gained much fame in the 1960s for speech act theory. And while there must be much to say about that even today (though somehow it seems so obvious once you think about it that of course words do things, they don’t just refer to the world), it’s Austin’s writing style that jumped out at me this time.

Logical. Pithy. Tongue in cheek. And downright funny.

That’s right, Austin pulls out a lot of gags while he’s writing, letting us know that not only shouldn’t philosophers take themselves too seriously while they’re philosophizing (of course this is a lot of the fuel for his funnies) but also that he’s having a good time to boot. Below are some of my favorite quotes.  Together, they leave me wondering: why don’t more of us take ourselves a little less seriously?

  • “You are more than entitled not to know what the word ‘performative’ means. It is a new word and an ugly word, and perhaps it does not mean anything very much. But at any rate there is one thing in its favour, it is not a profound word. I remember once when I had been talking on this subject that somebody afterwards said: ‘You know, I haven’t the least idea what he means, unless it could be that he simply means what he says’. Well, that is what I should like to mean.” (opening lines of essay, “Performative Utterances”)
  • “First and most obviously, many ‘statements’ were shown to be, as Kant perhaps first argued systematically, strictly nonsense, despite an unexceptionable grammatical form: and the continual discovery of fresh types of nonsense, unsystematic though their their classification and mysterious though their explanation is too often allowed to remain, has done on the whole nothing but good.” (How to do things with words, p. 2; introducing the idea that in philosophical debate “statements of fact” had begun to be recognized as only “pseudo statements”)
  • “We turn next to infringements of A. 2,  the type of infelicity which we have called Misapplications. Examples here are legion. ‘I appoint you’, said when you have already been appointed, or when someone else has been appointed, or when I am not entitled to appoint, or when you are a horse” (ibid., p. 34)
  • [paying attention to performativity in studies of language] “is complicated a bit; but life and truth and things do tend to be complicated. It’s not things, it’s philosophers that are simple. You will have heard it said, I expect, that over-simplification is the occupational disease of philosophers, and in a way one might agree with that. But for a sneaking suspicion that it’s their occupation.” (closing lines of “Performative Utterances”)

P.S. If you’re not already a regular reader, definitely check out Jorge Chams’ PhD Comics!!

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3 Responses to “When you are a horse”

  1. Youki on: 5 February 2009 at 7:23 am

    thank god “when you are a horse” itself isn’t a performative utterance!

    … or is it?

    when you are a horse

    this is great, though. I’ll definitely go reread Austin with this post in mind.

  2. jeff shieh on: 9 February 2009 at 1:11 am

    sounds interesting. i’m curious to read austin, but don’t know if i’ll have the time or if i’ll even understand all of it.

    damn you dave, you’ve got me hooked on phd comics… my research/thesis productivity just decreased two-fold in one day. aghh

  3. Usree Bhattacharya on: 5 March 2009 at 8:19 pm


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