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J. L. Austin, “Other Minds,” and the goldfinch

J. L. Austin was born on 26 March 1911. He was twenty-eight when the Second World War began, and served in the British Intelligence Corps. It has been said by G. Warnock that, “he more than anybody was responsible for the life-saving accuracy of the D-Day intelligence”. He was honoured for his intelligence work with an Order of the British Empire, the French Croix de Guerre, and the U.S. Officer of the Legion of Merit.

Austin returned from service with the conviction that philosophy might be organised so as to replicate the successes of the Intelligence Corps. He hoped that if philosophers focused on specific examples, and the precise, but ordinary, characterisation of those examples, then they might work together to furnish philosophy with a set of agreed starting points. The first fruits of this model of philosophical activity were the reflections on knowledge contained in Austin’s essay, “Other Minds.”

The essay comprises a wealth of observations on our ordinary play with the notion of knowledge, together with attempts to connect those observations with the higher-falutin concerns of traditional philosophy. Austin invites us to consider our ordinary ways of treating someone’s claim that a goldfinch is nearby. Typically, we will accept their claim to know only if they are able to provide an appropriate answer to the question, “How do you know?” and we will sometimes challenge the adequacy of their particular answers, If you have asked, “How do you know it’s a goldfinch?” then I may reply “From its behaviour,” “By its markings,” or, in more detail, “By its red head,” “From its eating thistles” You may object, “But that’s not enough. Plenty of other birds have red heads.”

Philosophy takes flight by iterating such challenges. The upward path leads to questions about how one knows that seeing is a way of knowing, that one isn’t dreaming, and so forth. We become breathless, unable to answer. Philosophers have taken such incapacity to suggest that we don’t know. Austin argues that our ordinary practice doesn’t support the philosopher’s ascent: “(b) Enough is enough: it doesn’t mean everything. Enough means enough to show that (within reason, and for presents intents and purposes) it ‘can’t’ be anything else, there is no room for an alternative, competing, description of it. It does not mean, e.g., enough to show it isn’t a stuffed goldfinch.”

Austin’s thought is that although someone who claims to know that there is a goldfinch should be able to say something about how they know, they needn’t be able to rule out every imaginable alternative. Let’s consider Austin’s thought more closely.

Austin focuses on a case in which we accept:

I. You know that there’s a goldfinch.

He allows that our practice of asking how someone knows supports:

II. If you know that there’s a goldfinch, then you can show that there’s a goldfinch.

And he thinks that one can meet that requirement, even though one can’t meet others:

III. You can’t show that what’s there isn’t stuffed.

It’s at this point that the traditional philosopher seizes their chance. They will point out that parity with II supports IV:

IV. If you know that what’s there isn’t stuffed, then you can show that what’s there isn’t stuffed.

And III and IV then entail V:

V. You don’t know that what’s there isn’t stuffed.

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin. Picture by Frank Kovalchek, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

But the philosopher then notes that:

VI. You know that if there’s a goldfinch, then what’s there isn’t stuffed.

But one can exploit that knowledge in order competently to deduce, and so come to know, further conclusions:

VII. If you know that there’s a goldfinch, and you know that if there’s a goldfinch, then what’s there isn’t stuffed, then you can competently deduce, and so come to know, that what’s there isn’t stuffed.

Thus, given I, VI, and VII:

VIII. You know that what’s there isn’t stuffed.

But V contradicts VIII. At least one of the claims must be rejected.

Austin isn’t explicit about which of these claims he rejects, and the question is contested. One suggestion is that Austin would reject VII: although deduction is often a way of extending knowledge, perhaps it isn’t in this case. An alternative is that Austin invites us to reconsider the general claim that if you know, you can show. I, VI, and VII indicate a way in which one can use knowledge that there’s a goldfinch in order to know that what’s there isn’t stuffed. Ostensibly, one might use such considerations in order to show that what’s there isn’t stuffed. But that suggests that Austin has something more specific in mind in denying that one can show that what’s there isn’t stuffed. Perhaps what he has in mind is that one can’t show that in a way that doesn’t beg the question, by presupposing that there is a goldfinch — something that, by nature, isn’t stuffed. Austin’s proposal would be that it isn’t invariably true that someone who knows that such-and-such can show that such-and-such in a way that doesn’t presuppose that such-and-such.

Although it’s hard to be sure what precisely Austin took to be the consequences of his reflections for traditional philosophy, we can begin to see how there might be such consequences. Austin sought to bring very general philosophical claims into contact with the more secure array of data provided by our ordinary judgments about specific cases. His hope was that philosophers working together on the collection and analysis of such data might achieve the same sort of progress as his wartime intelligence operations.

Featured Image credit: A European goldfinch sits on a fence in Sardinia, Italy. Francesco Canu, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. […] Guy Longworth recently posted a quick trot through J.L. Austin’s early thought to the Oxford University Press Blog. You can read his post, “J.L. Austin, “Other Minds,” and the goldfinch” here. […]

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