J.L.Austin On Ordinary Language As The First, But Not The Last Word

J.L.Austin, Philosophical Papers:

Certainly ordinary language has no claim to be the last word, if there is such a thing. It embodies, indeed, something better than the metaphysics of the Stone Age, namely, as was said, the inherited experience and acumen of many generations of men. But then, that acumen has been concentrated primarily upon the practical business of life. If a distinction works well for practical purposes in ordinary life (no mean feat, for even ordinary life is full of hard cases), then there is sure to be something in it, it will not mark nothing: yet this is likely enough to be not the best way of arranging things if our interests are more extensive or intellectual than ordinary. And again, that experience has been derived only from the sources available to ordinary men throughout civilized history: it has not been fed from the resources of the microscope, and error and fantasy of all kinds do become incorporated in ordinary language and even sometimes stand up to the survival test (only, when they do, why should we not detect it?) Certainly, then, ordinary language is not the last word: in principle it can everywhere be supplemented and improved upon and superseded. Only remember, it is the first word.

Cited in Twentieth-Century Analytic Philosophy by Avrum Stroll

2 thoughts on “J.L.Austin On Ordinary Language As The First, But Not The Last Word

  1. This was his constant rejoinder to inquiries about Wittgenstein who was, of course, the topic at hand at the time. Searle has an interesting writeup about this in the Blackwell Guide to Analytic Philosophy I’ve been meaning to blog about.

  2. Thanks for the comment Clark,
    This and some other quotes of Austin just sounded very right to me while I was reading Stroll’s book.
    So far I have read just “How To Do Things With Words”, but after those few quotes, I have to read more from him. :)

    I’m looking forward to your post on Searle’s comments.

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