Austin, Dreams, and Skepticism

Adam Leite
Indiana University, Bloomington
J. L. Austin’s attitude towards traditional epistemological problems was largely negative. They arise and are maintained, he charged, by “sleight of hand,” “wile,” “concealed motives,” “seductive fallacies,” fixation on a handful of “jejune examples” and a host of small errors, misinterpretations, and mistakes about matters of fact (1962: 3- 6, 1979: 87). As these charges indicate, he did not offer a general critical theory of traditional epistemological theorizing or of the intellectual motivations that lead to it. Instead, he subjected individual arguments to piecemeal criticism, patiently showing how things go awry in conception, motivation, argumentation, and plain fact. The work was incremental, but the goal was radical: to reduce large edifices to rubble. As he put it regarding certain sense datum theories, “the right policy is to go back to a much earlier stage, and to dismantle the whole doctrine before it gets off the ground” (1962: 142). It is often said that Austin’s criticisms were linguistic, but this is only partly right. While he occasionally charges traditional epistemologists with misusing crucial words and relying on unregulated and inadequately motivated technical terms, he also charges them with factual errors and with distorting or misunderstanding the procedures involved in epistemically evaluating people’s claims and beliefs. For this reason, it is best to see Austin as criticizing traditional epistemological puzzles and projects from the point of view of our ordinary lives (including our best scientific theories and practices). He starts with a commitment to our ordinary ways of using words, our ordinary convictions about..
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