Was J.L. Austin A Radical Contextualist?

I am reading from work in progress by my friends Herman Cappelen and Josh Dever. They suggest in passing, as numerous others have, that J.L. Austin was, to use today’s nomenclature, a “Radical Contextualist”. What this means is: Austin thought that all words and all sentences were context sensitive.

I think this reading is importantly wrong.

Austin didn’t mean that all words and all sentences are like ‘I’ or ‘now’ or ‘you’. What he maintained was that it is not sentences which have meaning, if what you intend by “meaning” is reference and truth conditions. It is, of course, a mistake to ask whether ‘The cat is on the mat’ itself, that sentence in the language, is true or false. Everyone agrees that the sentence is neither. Nor can one ask which cat it is about, and which mat. But it’s equally a mistake to suppose that this is because the sentence is “context sensitive” — so that one can ask whether the sentence ‘The cat is on the mat’ is true, say, relative to context X and possible world W.

For Austin, as I read him, to ask whether a sentence is true relative to a context X and a world W is like asking: Is such-and-such sentence a clever quip relative to <X, W>? Is such-and-such sentence a lie relative to <X, W>? Is such-and-such sentence an insightful rebuttal relative to context X and world W? Austin would find it absurd, rightly, to suppose that sentences are clever quips, lies or insightful rebuttals — adding, “radically”, that each is so only relative to context. Sentences just aren’t the right sort of things to be clever quips, insightful rebuttals and lies. (What are the right sort of things? Statements, a kind of action which a rational agent intentionally performs.)

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