How JL Austin went from war hero to influential philosopher

How JL Austin went from war hero to influential philosopher

Philosophy was a deeply divided subject in the twentieth century. While in the professional sciences researchers shared and supplemented each other’s findings, in philosophy two movements were so different that they did not even want to discuss each other. On the one hand, continental philosophy, with Heidegger as the dominant personality, for whom philosophy was based on wonder. On the other hand, analytical philosophy, not bound by time and place, searches for the truth using logic, mathematics and science.

Both movements paid a lot of attention to language, but where Heidegger language was ‘the house of being’ and poetry can reveal things, analytical philosophers believed that philosophical problems could be solved by studying language. In Oxford this became the standard way of philosophizing after the Second World War. Inextricably linked to this is the name of JL Austin (1911-1960). His influence on analytic philosophy is difficult to overestimate. Although he died in 1960, discussions at the ‘high table’ of Oxford colleges were still about him until the 1990s.

Traditional linguistic philosophy was mainly concerned with factual statements about reality, such as in science. Austin pointed out that in everyday life language is used to do things, such as promising, marrying, predicting. He developed a theory about such ‘speech acts’ that led to the addition of pragmatics, the study of speech acts, to linguistics.

This also became the basis of what became known as ‘philosophy of ordinary language’. Austin believed that everyday language contained a wealth of insights that were the product of centuries of intellectual evolution. Therefore, when tackling a philosophical problem, you first had to consult the dictionary to see how the words in which the problem was formulated were used.

He then went very far in exploring subtle nuances of meaning, so far that it also aroused resistance among supporters. “That man still knows how to distinguish between ‘enough’ and ‘enough,’” exclaimed Elizabeth Anscombe, a talented philosopher who, together with her friends Iris Murdoch and Philippa Foot, represented the rise of women in philosophy. Austin and Anscombe hated each other.

Few friends

But who was Austin anyway? Rowe answered that question in his excellent biography. The book provides a solid, fascinating picture of this philosopher’s life and also provides a surprising insight: JL Austin was first and foremost a war hero and only then a philosopher.

Young Austin grew up in a middle-class family in St. Andrews, Scotland, which could just afford a French governess and send the children to an expensive boarding school. He won every academic prize there was to win. Partly because of this, he remained an autonomous individual and immune to intimidation from seniors. He insisted on being called “Austin,” creating distance, which he liked. He developed only a single friendship, which would remain so for the rest of his life.

Once a student at Oxford, Austin remained a loner, although he did find a friend in Isaiah Berlin, with whom he also co-taught college. Berlin has described how that happened. After stating and repeating a statement, Austin said slowly: “I think what you’re saying is complete nonsense.” Berlin realized, he wrote, that this would not be an intellectual game but a duel to the death: “My death, I mean.”

Criticizing other positions would serve Austin well throughout his life, but he was still looking for his own voice. In the run-up to World War II, Austin met Jean Coutts, whom he married and had a happy marriage. During this romantic episode in his life, World War II broke out and Austin was drafted into the army.


Austin became one of the British Army’s top intelligence officers. He started at MI14, which was tasked with mapping the German army in all facets. In vain he warned about the troop reinforcements that Rommel received in North Africa. When Montgomery corrected this at the battle of El Alamein, Austin had already been promoted to captain and head of a department that had to prepare the invasion of Normandy. The group that went by the nickname ‘Martians’ became increasingly larger and more influential under his leadership.

One of his greatest successes was locating the workshops and launch installations of the Germans’ new V1 and V2 rockets. But everything revolved around D-Day. Austin’s team produced a soldier’s manual, Invade Mecum. The book contained exhaustive information about the physical environment in Normandy, such as bridges and paved roads, the Germans’ ammunition depots, their firepower and even their names. Thanks to Austin’s information, the number of deaths has been significantly reduced.

Difficult character

The fact that he did not receive more recognition was partly due to Austin’s character. He was not a networker and said what he thought. After the war he returned to Oxford with his family, strengthened by his war experiences and with even more self-confidence. Due to the war, Oxford received different students than usual. Not boarding school boys who learned to drink, but older, motivated students. As a result, philosophy in particular would experience an unprecedented flourishing. Austin was the driving force in this, not so much through his publications, but through his organizational talent.

Just as during the war, he mobilized young philosophers around him, who met every Saturday morning. From this emerged the Oxford philosophy of ‘ordinary language’. Visitors from America were impressed by his personality. This led to his being invited to give the William James lectures at Harvard University in 1955, entitled How to do things with words (1960) would become his most important contribution to philosophy.

He felt at home in the US and was open to ideas that went against his philosophy. For example, he had fruitful conversations with the linguist Noam Chomsky, who had a completely different view of language.

Just before Christmas 1959, a pain in his chest became so bad that he requested X-rays. They showed an advanced stage of lung cancer. His wife was informed. She didn’t tell him and forbade their children from seeing him. He deteriorated so rapidly that he asked for hospitalization. Then she confessed that he only had a few days left to live. Austin became enraged, arranged his funeral, rolled over in bed facing the wall and died.

This fascinating biography reveals how much Austin’s life reflects twentieth-century philosophy. For him, the contrast between analytic and continental philosophy was not just an intellectual jousting, but a difference in attitude to life, rooted in his war experiences.