Thursday, May 04, 2006

J.L. Austin, Sense and Sensibilia, Chapters V-VII

Last night the workshop met to discuss chapters V-VII in J.L. Austin's Sense and Sensibilia, after Jay and I talked about McTaggart's argument for the unreality of time.

David F. was at bat tonight. He started discussion by pointing to Austin's discussion, in chapter VII, of the word "real". Austin convincingly shows that for sentences containing the word "real", "you can't tell what I mean just from the words I use; it makes a difference, for instance, whether [certain other contextual conditions hold]" (65). Austin makes a point of contrasting this feature of sentences containing the word "real" (a feature it shares with certain other words, like "good") with sentences like "This is pink". Austin says that "whereas we can just say of something 'This is pink', we can't just say of something 'This is real'" (69).

But is the contrast that Austin draws correct? That is, is it right to say that we can just say of something that it is pink? If you say "The book is pink", is there only one way that the world has to be in order for the sentence to be true? It doesn't seem so. The book might have a pink dust jacket, pink pages, a pink title on the spine, and so on. And merely supplying a substantive for "real" to attach to, e.g., "That is a real duck", doesn't yet pick out only one way that the world could be make the sentence true. For example (adopting an example from Travis), an utterance of "That's a real duck", said while demonstrating a decoy duck, would be false if the speaker was trying to distinguish decoys from living ducks; but an utterance of the same sentence, said while demonstrating the same decoy, might be true if the speaker was trying to distinguish decoy ducks from decoy coots (duck look-alikes).

David pointed to Austin's discussion of the statement "That isn't the real colour of her hair" (65). David said that you could delete each occurrence of "real" in the passage without any change in the significance of the passage. For example, consider the passage with every occurrence of "real" omitted:

"But suppose (a) that I remark to you of a third party, 'That isn't the colour of her hair.' Do I mean by this that, if you were to observe her in conditions of standard illumination, you would find that her hair did not look that colour? Plainly not--the conditions of illumination may be standard already. I mean of course, that her hair has been dyed, and normal illumination just doesn't come into it at all. Or suppose that you are looking at a ball of wool in a shop, and I say, 'That's not its colour'. Here I may mean that it won't look that colour in ordinary daylight; but I may mean that wool isn't that colour before its dyed."

There was some dispute about whether David's bold claim was correct, but it does seem correct to think that "real" does not contrast as clearly with other terms like "pink" or "colour of her hair" that Austin wants to contrast it with. There was some discussion of how best to characterize the difference between sentences containing "real" and sentences not containing it.

Next, we found fault with Austin's treatment of the "cricket" example on p. 64. Austin compares the word "real" with the word "cricket", and says that "words of this sort have been responsible for a great deal of perplexity". He then says,

"Consider the expressions 'cricket ball', 'cricket bat', 'cricket pavilion', 'cricket weather'. If someone did not know about cricket and were obsessed with the use of such 'normal' words as 'yellow', he might gaze at the ball, the bat, the building, the weather, trying to detect the 'common quality' which (he assumes) is attributed to these things by the prefix 'cricket'. But no such quality meets his eye; and so perhaps he concludes that 'cricket' must designate a non-natural quality, a quality not to be detected in any ordinary way but by intuition."

But, it was pointed out (by Jason or David or Jay), if someone didn't know about any topic, including "yellow", then the person might gaze at yellow teeth, a yellow book, a yellow lightbulb, etc. and find no 'common quality' which is attributed to these things by the preflix 'yellow'. Of course, not knowing anything about cricket or yellow, a person might find the common quality shared by yellow things or all things cricket mysterious! Whereas, someone who knows about cricket or yellow would be able, presumably, to identify the shared quality involved--something having to do with the game of cricket, on one hand, and with yellowness, on the other.

As the workshop wound down, Jason and David were interested in finding out what our assessment of the book was. They both related stories from their grad student days where prominent philosophers (McDowell, Stroud) expressed their respect for the book. Jason and David said that they thought the book may be of more historical than lasting philosophical significance. There was some debate about that--Ben was the most eloquent defender of the book's lasting significance. He said that Austin demonstrates an admirably assiduous approach to philosophy that, instead of racing ahead and generating "results", stops and tries to work out what problems, if any, are actually being solved by the philosopher, and whether they are worth solving.


Zed said...

I'd like to weigh in on the philosophical significance, or lack thereof, of Austin's “Sense and Sensibilia”. My sense—from reading Nat's posts—is that you folks have had some pretty critical discussions of Austin's book; and, at least as reported, it sounds like some of your criticisms are on target. But so far all of your critical discussions have had the following structure: Austin makes a rather strong claim which nonetheless seems correct (e.g., that the argument from illusion is fundamentally flawed), he offers an argument for this claim, and then you folks find a flaw in his argument. At this point, however, how deep or interesting we decide Austin is depends entirely on whether we conclude that his argument, though not perfect, is headed in the right direction. And I, for one, think his argument is headed in the right direction. (And that makes him unlike most other philosophers I'm familiar with.)

Right now I think the thing to do is to follow Austin's lead and try and figure out a better way to argue for the original claim(s). I mean, do you now think the argument from illusion is a good argument? I doubt it. Do you now think there's no philosophically interesting difference between saying that something is real and saying that something is yellow? I hope not!

Why not dedicate the next meeting of the workshop to trying to come up with a better argument than Austin gives for the claim that there is a philosophically interesting difference between saying that something is real and saying that something is yellow? (I mean this seriously. And, if you don't want to dedicate a workshop meeting to this topic, I'll gladly host a renegade discussion of this topic the next time I'm in Chicago, in mid-June. Call it the “Avignon Phil. Mind Workshop”.)

I think Austin is much more than historically interesting. And I think you folks do as well, in spite of your protestations to the contrary. After all, if Nat’s report is any guide, you all agree that,

“Austin convincingly shows that for sentences containing the word ‘real’, ‘you can't tell what I mean just from the words I use; it makes a difference, for instance, whether [certain other contextual conditions hold]’ (65).”

But many (if not most) contemporary philosophers do not agree with this claim! I cannot emphasize this enough. And, for many, their lack of agreement is not based on ignorance of Austin, Wittgenstein, or whatever else. They disagree because they don’t think Austin, or anyone else, has provided a good argument for this claim. But I, for one, think that Austin, better than anyone else, has pointed us in the direction of an argument for this claim. And this makes him much more than historically interesting, given the manifest contemporary significance of this claim.

I’m tempted at this point to contrast some of Austin’s claims with claims made by other figures we have read in the Phil. Mind Workshop in the past, in order to show that at least relative to them, he looks good. Real good. But I’ll restrain myself.

Jason said...


Actually, I'm not sure we do all agree with what you say we all agree with. I, personally, don't agree with it, at least if it is understood as implying the truth of contextualism. So I'm afraid the situation is even more appalling, from your perspective, than you took it to be.

In any case, I'm not sure I fully understand your concerns. For in some places you use words in ways that strike me as not quite ordinary, and if so, we must, of course, conclude that your entire comment says nothing intelligible at all. Take for example your use of the phrase "weigh in". Consider the following seventeen examples...