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How to Do Things with Words

3.94  ·  Rating details ·  2,104 ratings  ·  127 reviews
John L. Austin was one of the leading philosophers of the twentieth century. The William James Lectures presented Austin's conclusions in the field to which he directed his main efforts on a wide variety of philosophical problems. These talks became the classic How to Do Things with Words.

For this second edition, the editors have returned to Austin's original lecture notes
Paperback, 2nd, 168 pages
Published 1976 by Harvard University Press (first published 1955)
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Apr 07, 2011 rated it liked it
I happened to run into Bill Bryson the other evening on a deserted street somewhere in Geneva. On impulse, as one does, I mugged him and stole his latest manuscript. It turned out to be a potted history of philosophy. Here's an extract for your delectation.
Once upon a time, there was a philosopher called Frege, who had the interesting idea that language and logic were really, you know, pretty much the same thing. He invented predicate calculus, which was the best shot to date at making sense out
Sep 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
Early 20th century Anglo-American philosophy is a bit of an oddity in the history of ideas. It was marked by two diametrically opposed approaches, yet both could be traced back to the work of a single figure, namely the Austrian logician Ludwig Wittgenstein. The first of these was logical positivism, which was inspired by Wittgenstein's 1919 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Originally founded in Vienna, logical positivism made its way to the English-speaking world by way of A.J. Ayer's seminal La ...more
Nov 21, 2011 rated it really liked it
Austin is seldom read, but his ideas of performative language and speech-act theory have been very influential. I had a writing professor that would drive me nuts as he would discuss whether something was felicitous or infelicitous. I now know where he got this terminology. Austin is the one who came up with the idea of felicitous and infelicitous argument. It would be nice to be able to view the world as either happy or sad. I am not sure that the binary of felicitous and infelicitous actually ...more
Aug 14, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: field-exam, rhetoric
I do things with words. Dark, terrible things.

Okay, now that the joke's out of the way, may I say that I enjoyed this book of rather heady philosophy quite thoroughly? Which isn't to say that I skipped through it merrily like a prodigy--it took quite a bit of slow reading, and reading aloud, and flipping back to reread, and plenty of taking chapter endnotes, and marginalia to darken the edges, but you know what? I was surprised how often my notes were just smiley faces, or "hmm" or cheery acknow
Mar 01, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: philosophy
Over this series of 12 lectures, Austin argues against the foundational assumption in analytic philosophy of language that the only forms of linguistic utterance that are worthwhile to study are assertive or descriptive in kind, and that the primary way by which to evaluate these is to determine their binary truth value. Instead, Austin proposes that the majority of our meaningful language use is non-assertive and performative; that is, we use linguistic utterances to make things happen, or get ...more
Nov 24, 2008 rated it liked it
You can do a lot of things with words, but tragically you still can't get them to wash the dishes. ...more
Just finished reading this again, for the nth time, for class tomorrow. I love this book, but it really could be 40 pages long.

(September 3, 2010)

Rereading this, I was most struck by

(1) how absurdly funny and delightful Austin's prose is ("a specialist in the sui generis"; "we can insincerely promise to give a donkey a carrot", "we may seem to have armed ourselves with two shiny new concepts with which to crack the crib of Reality", etc. etc.), and yet

(2) how weirdly legalistic most of
I will take my ABSOLUTE HATRED of this book as a sign (one of many) that I should not pursue a PhD. NOOOOOOO thank you.
Jul 06, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

Austin has been critisized by many philosophers for not being philosophical enough, and as much as I can see their point I have to defend Austin. At the point that Austin gave these lectures anglo-american philosophy was full of so much nonsense - largely due to Frege's bizarre vocabulary (or possibly bad translations) and Russell ridiculous mathematical approach to things that just don't fit into equations.

I don't think that this book is of a very high philosophical content, but I think that ph
Russell Mark Olson
This is a well composed look at a linguistic pseudo-system. I picked this up after reading the first chapter of "Truth in Painting," and wanted a bit more guidance than that found on Wikepedia concerning performatives. It looks like there are a number of pans below, and I can't really reason why. The book was compiled from lecture notes and was never fully edited or revised. What we get is the knotted thread of a philosophical investigation in which some knots have been loosened and some have be ...more
May 11, 2010 rated it it was ok
Shelves: linguistics-etc
attracted as I am to the charming circularity of sentences that "do" what they "say", austin loses me as early as p.9 with "I must not be joking, for example, nor writing a poem." will this theory of speech that cannot take jokes or poetry into account ever get beyond the most banal utterances of an honest-to-goodness man-of-his-word? then there is all the talk about war, sports, giving orders and shooting donkeys-- reading this book feels a lot like being bullied into accepting some rather dubi ...more
Aug 09, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: linguistics
After I finished this book I was thinking "this is definitely a five-star for Goodreads!"

Okay, it's really frickin' good, but I think four is enough. I knew what this book was about before I read it, but it was a pleasure to hear it all in full. Not only is Austin's thesis really great, the origins of performative speech, but it's also very straightforward.

I declare this book excellent.
Mar 25, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: philosophy
Three and a half stars. The key parts are of imperative importance (conferences I, II, XI). The rest often reads like a phone book.
Jan 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I have generally not been drawn to philosophers of language but I will make an exception here. This book is the second edition of a set of lectures that Austin presented at Harvard in 1955. The general topic of these lectures in the philosophy of ordinary language relates to what are called “performative utterances”. In other places they are called “speech acts”. The intuition is to consider situations when speech is more than just speech - when the speaker actually does things with words beyond ...more
Mar 21, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: philosophy
It is some crime against intellectual virtue that I was so late in getting to this in full. That was partly due to misunderstanding, as my personal mythology was that it was Wittgenstein that got me into analytic philosophy when in truth it was Austin and Grice. I attribute the misunderstanding to the strength of Austin’s analysis because what he offers here seems so absolutely obvious it’s easy to take for granted after forgetting how transformative it is. Unlike Wittgenstein, it is a sharp exa ...more
Jan 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing
In saying "I'm finished," I both state a fact and perform an act - in this case announcing my accomplishment. In this book, Austin seeks to makes this distinction clear. ...more
Jacob Hurley
Aug 16, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: philosophy
The first ten lectures could be of use to a lawyer, maybe
Aug 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
Easy to read and understand--he summarizes himself at the start of every lecture, so whenever I didn't understand something I skipped to the next chapter and, lo and behold, I figured it out! I'm not an analytic philosophy guy, but I have to say... Respect to Austin for somehow working in the phrase: "There are more ways of killing a cat than drowning it in butter". ...more
Another one of these analytic-tradition writers I've become quite fascinated with that have still left an indelible imprint on the continentals. While working within the same, precise and cut-and-dried tradition as Frege and Russell, he still is able to make a radical proposition, that of the speech act.

To sum up... Language is not just a code, it is an activity and needs to be treated as such. Our words for things are grounded in social and cultural realities, and their definitions are based on
Will Miller
Dec 18, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Simultaneously one of the most modest and one of the most seismically important works in the philosophy of language. Too well written for its own good. Searle's re-configuration of Speech Act Theory is much better philosophy, but this is worth a read just for the prose. ...more
Oct 18, 2017 rated it really liked it
Now I know how to do things with words.
Feb 21, 2018 rated it did not like it
Shelves: nonfiction
Too confusing and wordy when it could definitely be simplified.
May 08, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: philosophy
Full of jargon, confusing examples and unnecessary detours. The only saving grace is the "plot" twist at the end.
Reading just the last two chapters would have been sufficient.
vittore paleni
Sep 12, 2019 rated it liked it
Sadly didn’t grip me.
James Robinson
May 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Sep 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
Austin gives a succinct outline how sentences ought to do more than coming under philosophical scrutiny of its constative property (which had then been frequent). He demonstrates a strong precision in presenting the outline. In its last chapter, for example, he reports and classifies verbs that carry clear (though not clear-cut) illocutionary forces (aka functions in practice). Great many details have been laid down. Despite professional/academic setting, when Austin articulates some marvellous ...more
It started out fun, but I forgot how it started. Anyway, I think I tried to find the literary qualities in it too much, instead of following along with the argument Austin made, or rather, the exploration he undertook in these lectures. At several points I lost him and was thankful for the offered recaps at the opening of each following lecture.

This did offer a new way to look at the things we utter and how we do in fact really do something, perform an act, when we say things, for at least, we
Feb 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A slim but challenging volume. Per its catchy title, the book is a sketch investigation (in the form of a series of lectures that were delivered at Harvard in 1955) of certain performative aspects of language which problematized the then paradigmatic view that all utterances (at least many more than you might suppose) may be analysed, qua simple statements, as true or false. It's no wonder these lectures have been continuously reprinted since their initial publication. This book has all the hall ...more
J. Alfred
Aug 27, 2018 rated it liked it
Words can be deeds! (statement)
I explain. (performative-- sort of)
It's pretty good, if mystifying, like all good philosophy. Thinking about the way language works is a good way to humble yourself, because you can use the stuff, but you really have no idea how it all works. (And sometimes you have to sing the alphabet song to yourself if you're trying to find a book in the library. Admit it!)
Anyway, this book is part of a refutation of people who for some awful reason called themselves positivist
Stephen Gallup
I read this book as part of a course in literary criticism back in my grad-school days. As others have noted, the author focuses on what he calls performative language, i.e., utterances that are not precisely statements but rather are context-dependent expressions like "I do" in a wedding ceremony. "Infelicities" result if the circumstances of that context are not appropriate, e.g., if it is not a bona-fide wedding, or perhaps if you say "I congratulate you" or "I apologize" when in reality you ...more
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John Langshaw Austin (March 26, 1911 – February 8, 1960) was a British philosopher of language, born in Lancaster and educated at Shrewsbury School and Balliol College, Oxford University. Austin is widely associated with the concept of the speech act and the idea that speech is itself a form of action. His work in the 1950s provided both a theoretical outline and the terminology for the modern stu ...more

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