21 Pages

Austin's Philosophy of Action

It must be realized, first of all, that there are, in actual practice, definite restrictions on our use of modifying expressions. There is, Austin said, a temptation to think that for any verb of action, there is, on any occasion of its use, at least one modifying expression or its ‘opposite’ which is applicable without anomaly: either he picked it up intentionally or unintentionally. However, if we attend to what we actually say in our descriptions of conduct, we will find that

the natural economy of language dictates that for the standard case covered by any normal verb . . . no modifying expression is required or even permissible. Only if we do the action named in some special way or circumstances, different from those in which such an act is naturally done . . . is a modifying expression called for, or even in order. (‘A Plea.’)

Once it is realized that the use of modifying expressions is restricted in normal discourse, the next step is to determine the ‘limits of application’ of such expressions. The results of such an investigation will, Austin thought, enable us to illuminate the peculiar characteristics of the group of action verbs to which a given expression is applicable. For instance, Austin found that expressions which, on first glance, would seem to be ‘opposites’ are not really opposites at all, but are applicable to different sorts of actions, despite the fact that, in philosophy and in the law, they are often used dichotomistically. Austin uses as an example ‘voluntarily’ and ‘involuntarily’.