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Arts and Letters

Chipping Away

J.L. Austin: Philosopher and D-Day Intelligence Officer, M.W. Rowe, Oxford University Press, pp. 688, $38.95

Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality, David Edmonds, Princeton University Press, pp. 408, $32.00


As a young man, I thought philosophical questions of immense importance: for how could one know anything at all without knowing how or what it was to know? During this phase of my life, I read and was much excited by J.L. Austin’s work. His ordinary language philosophy undermined completely the assertion of the logical positivists that language had meaning only if what was said was true by definition or was empirically verifiable or falsifiable. Actually, this belief was self-refuting, for the principle itself was neither true by definition nor empirically verifiable. It could be falsified but certainly not verified.

In fact, Austin falsified it. He analyzed performative sentences—such as “I take thee to be my wedded wife” or “I name this ship the Enterprise”—that could be well performed according to laid-down rules, or invalid because those rules had not been followed; but they were neither true nor false by definition, nor true nor false empirically in the sense that “Paris is the capital of France” is true and “Paris is the capital of Germany” is false. Yet such performative sentences were clearly not meaningless or arbitrary.

Of course, it is a matter of opinion as to how important it ever was to refute logical positivism: the world could, and did, get on perfectly well with or without it. Though it was fashionable for a time, and A.J. Ayer’s famous polemic, Language, Truth and Logic, sold well for decades (and is still in print), to most people of good intelligence but unphilosophical turn of mind it would seem just plain silly. One possible ad hominem interpretation of Ayer’s book is that, by claiming that moral statements were merely reports on the speaker’s emotional state, he was giving himself carte blanche for his notoriously louche conduct.

I cannot now recall, or rather recapture, the excitement that I felt on first reading Austin. I could not, if asked, summarize his doctrine, if he can be said to have had anything as philosophically vulgar as a doctrine. He seems to me more like a sculptor, chipping stone away in the hope of eventually revealing a statue. In Austin’s case, however, the chipping went on forever without revealing the statue, which is to say the revealed philosophical truth which must be true for lack of falsehood attached. But what of Austin has lingered with me (I hope) is a taste for precision in language.

Even as I read him, however, I wondered whether precision could degenerate into mere pedantry, the latter being a defense against the undecidability of the so-called “big” questions of philosophy, such as how best to live. Moreover, I wondered how far Austin’s ordinary language philosophy was too dependent on the idiosyncrasies of the English language to be true sub specie aeternitatis, as it were. If translated into Zulu, would it have any meaning?

M.W. Rowe’s huge biography of Austin is admirable from several points of view. It is very well written, and it is scholarly; the author has a gift for clear philosophical exposition. It is admiring of its subject but fair and far from hagiographic; it is at times judiciously and amusingly gossipy without any accompanying salacity. Oxford University Press is to be praised, moreover, for allowing the author footnotes rather than endnotes, the bane of many an academic book. At the bottom of the page, the author offers just the right amount of biographical information about figures mentioned en passant in the text.

There are certain drawbacks, however. It is very long, and sometimes one feels that the author has been reluctant to let go of a fact simply because he has taken great effort to find it. (I know the feeling well, from the little historical research I have done.) The book is very large and heavy, and for someone like me who likes to read in bed, it can sometimes feel like doing musculation as well as reading.

The tendency toward over-inclusion is most marked in the two hundred thirty pages the author has devoted to Austin’s career as an intelligence officer during the Second World War. One quite often loses sight of what Austin had to do with what is being described. Perhaps the book would have been better as two books rather than one: Austin the philosopher and Austin the intelligence officer, in which case the excess background and detail about the war years might have been less intrusive.

The great and largely unsung value of Austin’s work during the war came from two of his most salient characteristics, namely his great intellectual ability and his temperamental attitude toward detail. It came as a complete surprise to me that his collation of information from myriad detailed sources was vital to the success of the D-Day landings and saved many lives. He was also among the first, if not the first, to realize that the strange concrete constructions in northern France were pads for launching pilotless bombs on the South of England, and his insistence that they should be destroyed probably saved many lives too.

The portrait that Rowe paints of Austin is a subtle and nuanced one. It leaves one wondering whether philosophers choose philosophies or philosophies choose philosophers. How much Austin’s tendency to emotional distance, at least in public, was due to his upbringing, and how much to his intrinsic nature, cannot be answered with certainty, but from an early age he showed an intellectual brilliance quite out of the ordinary. (Perhaps he would reproach me for suggesting that intellectual brilliance can be anything other than out of the ordinary—once you have read him, he is like the still, small voice of conscience whenever you talk or write.)

He was highly competitive, and his intellectual superiority was so important to him emotionally that he hated to be bested in any discussion. Like most people, I suppose, he was able to admit that his opponent had a point only later and implicitly by incorporating or answering it in his revised views. He was brutal in his put-downs of others and always talked for victory. He was frequently terrifying, and if someone presented a paper with which he disagreed, he was capable of saying afterwards, “I have fifteen questions that I would like you to answer.” Personally, I have difficulty remembering three.

Despite his acknowledged brilliance, and what some saw as his arrogance, he was not without self-doubt. He worried about the significance of his own work, and even about whether he should everhave been a philosopher at all. He published no book in his lifetime, and all his books are either reprints of papers or reconstructions from lecture notes. One interesting thing that the author fails to notice, or at any rate remark on, is the contrast between Austin’s career and that of any academic’s today.

When he was appointed to the very prestigious White’s Chair of Moral Philosophy in Oxford, he had published very little, and he had no doctorate. My late friend Peter Bauer, the development economist, told me that when, after his first degree, he went to his tutor and asked him whether he should pursue a doctorate, his tutor replied, “Well, Bauer, there are two kinds of people: those who are not good enough for a doctorate, and those who are too good. Which are you?” He decided that he was the latter and was later appointed professor at the London School of Economics. But bureaucratization has all but put an end to the possibility of such a career. Academics are being turned into performing seals, with hoops they must be able to jump through, including those of doctrinal reliability.

Rowe does not disguise the fact that people had very different opinions of Austin as a man. Some saw him as cold, off-putting, narrow, cruelly biting, and unsocial. Among them, he might excite actual hatred. But others saw him as kindly and generous. For someone so outwardly unemotional, he was extremely uxorious. His public and his private personae were very different, and like many Englishmen of his time and social class, he may well have used his outward coldness as a defence against the intensity of his passions.

For me, one of the worst things about Austin revealed by this book was his utilitarian attitude to architecture. This was common in Britain at the time and meant that less effort was made to restore salvageable buildings after the war than in any other Western country. The result, given the incapacity of the architectural profession to build anything even minimally decent, was that the country became by far the ugliest of the continent. This was philistinism on a horrific scale, all the worse from a man who had lived so much of his life in man-made beauty.

Austin died very early, aged forty-eight, of lung cancer, in many ways an unsatisfied man, despite his influence and eminence—which, however, was on the wane. It is astonishing to read how the fact that he was dying was hidden from him, and he did not suspect it till very near the end. Here is a question for moral philosophers, of the kind that I don’t think that his kind of linguistic analysis, or tinkering, would have illuminated very much: would he have been better off knowing earlier, and, if the answer is no, would that affect medical ethics?

Derek Parfit was another giant of modern British philosophy, though how gigantic that is some might dispute. Parfit was born thirty-one years after Austin but shared certain characteristics with him (though while Austin became somewhat more extroverted with age, Parfit became ever more introverted). Parfit, like Austin, was precociously brilliant, and his brilliance was so much a part of his self-image that he too could be abrupt and brutal in public philosophical discussion. Both were left-wing, though not fanatically so; both were fiercely anti-religious. Parfit was so unsocial that some suggested that he might be autistic: in the old days, boorish might have been the word for some of his behavior. He was also a philistine about such small matters as cuisine.

But he was very generous with the time that he expended on students, and when asked to read a paper or thesis would write so many notes that they were often longer than the original. Whether this was generosity or obsessionality is not decidable: he seems, like Austin, to have expressed little warmth in his human relations. He also published little in his lifetime, leaving it till quite late in the day to do so.

His work was in two fields, the first in that of personal identity and the second in the attempt to found a moral philosophy on purely rational grounds. Using thought experiments about brain transplants and the like, he denied that there was an “essence” that was necessary for personal identity, though I notice that he copyrighted his books in precisely the same way as did philosophers who took a different view of the matter.

As for moral philosophy, he seemed to expend an awful lot of mental energy in refuting the idea that self-interest was, or could be, the best foundation of human conduct. It was as if he were haunted by the ghost of Ayn Rand (which one admits would be a very unpleasant experience). But in the world of philosophy straw men often bestride the world like colossi.

David Edmonds, himself philosophically trained, is a very engaging writer on the subject of philosophers’ lives. He has written books on the legendary confrontation between Wittgenstein and Popper (by the way, it occurred to me that Popper’s remark about Wittgenstein that he was constantly polishing his glasses without ever looking through them could have also applied to Austin), on Hume’s tumultuous relationship with Rousseau, and on the murder in Vienna of Moritz Schlick, the logical positivist. He treats his reader with respect, but knows that a spoonful of gossip, or biography, helps the philosophy go down.

I recommend both of these books highly, though perhaps mainly to recovering metaphysicians like myself.

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