23 Pages

Austin's on Abilities

I want to evaluate and develop further the view of human powers which runs through J. L. Austin’s masterful essay, ‘Ifs and Cans’. I am particularly intrigued by the connexions and contrasts he discerns between having an ability and performing the kind of action one has the ability to perform. I’ll start with two of Austin’s remarks on this topic which appear to clash. They are: (i) ‘It follows merely from the premiss that [a person has done something], that he has the ability to do it, according to ordinary English’ (p. 175); and (ii) ‘There are . . . good reasons for not speaking of “I can lift my finger” as being directly verified when I proceed to lift it, and likewise for not speaking of “He could have done it” as being directly verified by the discovery that he did do it’ (p. 172; see pp. 170 and 173, n.). Austin’s proposals sound inconsistent because, whenever the premiss, ‘I raised my finger’, entails the conclusion, ‘I had the ability to raise my finger’, as (i) provides, then the discovery that I raised my finger should directly verify, or suffice to prove the truth of, the same ability statement, which goes against (ii).