Notes by RBJ on

A Plea for Excuses

by J.L.Austin

This is one of Austin's most frequently cited papers. It is of particular interest because it contains in a short space a discussion of its topic together with an explicit account of why the subject is worthwhile and of how it should be studied. It is a classic account of the motivation and methods of Austin's variant of Philosophical Analysis.

The topic is certain bits of language, particularly "excuses" and other related terms ("plea", "defence", "justification"), and the kinds of situation in which these words are used.

by way of summary
Why Bother?
Methods - first base
Methods - second base
Lessons from the Study of Excuses
by way of critique
Why Bother?
Methods - first base
Methods - second base
Lessons from the Study of Excuses

By way of Summary

Why Bother?
Because the study of excuses is an important part of a thorough analysis of how we use moral language to talk about behaviour. It provides a "fresh start" to moral philosophy, and "a number of traditional cruces or mistakes in this field can be resolved or removed". Also its a good topic to illustrate methods.

Methods - first base
".. to proceed from 'ordinary language', that is, by examining what we should say when, and so why and what we should mean by it."


  1. Words are tools. Keep them clean.
  2. We need to be aware of the inadequacies and arbitraryness of words to avoid being blinkered by them.
  3. Existing words embody all the distinctions and connections men have found worth making.

Loose (or Divergent or Alternative) Usage.
This doesn't happen nearly as often as people imagine. And when it does, its not a problem, you just include it in the analysis.
The crux of the last word.
Ordinary language is not "the last word", it can be improved upon. But it is the first word.

Methods - second base
Good places to look for information about how words are used:
The dictionary
Two ways of using dictionaries are suggested.
Courts of law
Because lawyers tend to be picky about language? Or because law courts have a particular interest in the specific matter in hand (viz. "excuses")?
Psychology, (inc. anthropology and animal behaviour)
Because these are also concerned with the classification of actions, which is where excuses are applicable.

Not clear to what extent these are general methodological suggestions and to what extent they are specific to the particular subject matter under consideration, on the face of it the second two are specific.

Lessons from the Study of Excuses
No modification without aberration:
for the standard case no (adverbial) modification (of the description of some action) is required, or even permissible.
Limitation of application
This is another more general prohibition on when you can use some modifying expression, (presumably based on the premise that what is not done may not be done).
The importance of negation and opposites
the obvious constructions e.g. "in" or "un" don't usually succeed in making a negation or opposite (an action which is not voluntary need not be involuntary, many actions are neither)
The machinery of action
failure to appreciate the situation
Standards of the unacceptable
concerning when excuses are not accepted
Combination, dissociation and complication
concerning the combinations and dissociations of verbs which are possible, e.g. intentionally but not deliberately
Regina v. Finney
an example concerning when negligence is culpable
Small distinctions, and big too
different terms of excuse should not be confused, it is "the very object" of the study of excuses to bring out the differences
The exact phrase and its place in the sentence
The style of performance
What modifies what?
Trailing clouds of etymology
Science makes finer distinctions
than those which are found in ordinary discourse

By way of Critique

Why Bother?
Austin's token gesture in this direction would not do for me. I should need some stronger story to convince me how this sort of investigation can contribute to addressing real issues in moral philosophy. In particular, since I doubt there is any limit to how long one can continue this kind of investigation, I would be looking for some clues about how much is enough, and when and how we reap the rewards. Austin shows no signs of caring. He seems so fascinated by this kind of investigation that I doubt he would ever stop to ask whether there is any benefit beyond the discovery of further subtleties in language.

Methods - first base
A surprising emphasis on should, but I see no basis in the method for deciding what we should say as opposed to what we do say, and even less for deciding what we should mean when we do.

Of his justifications, the first two are OK by me, so long as we do not spend so much time cleaning our tools that we have none left for using them.

With the third I disagree. Language is not perfect even for time hallowed purposes (particularly for philosophical discussions) and, even if it were it would not suffice for the future. Advances in knowledge are usually closely coupled with refinement, extension, or revolution in language.

This seems to me to be another token gesture on Austin's part (the first was on motivation). He mentions very briefly certain criticisms, but does not take them seriously.

Taking up the point about how often people disagree about usage, it is my experience in reading this kind of philosophy, and in reading this particular paper, that I very frequently disagree with points about usage which are presented as self evident, without any other support than the opinion of the author.

This especially applies to what Austin says about what we can not do. In common with Wittgenstein, though not quite so conspicuously Austin fails to distinguish ways in which an expression can fail to "make sense". That we fail to make sense of a statement need not mean, and often does not mean, that the statement is in any way pathological. It may simply mean that it asserts something so obvious that we cannot imagine why anyone would bother to state it. In these cases we are not "puzzled" about what the statement means, but rather about why it was said. (of course "means" is a chamelion here, we are unsure about the reasons for making a statement, hence about its significance, and hence about its meaning in a rather more general sense than is generally intended when discussing semantics).

Connected with the fallacy that a statement which "makes no sense" must have no meaning, there is the inference from the fact that an expression is rarely or never used to the claim that it is wrong or meaningless to use it.

Methods - second base
Its useful to have something as close as this paper is to an explicit discussion of the methods of linguistic (or connective?) analysis by one of its most respected practitioners. It would be even more useful if one could discern more easily the intended scope of the suggestions. Clearly some of the suggestion are specific to the study of excuses but I'm not clear about which. The law has a particular interest in excuses, does it have any relevance in other applications of analysis?

Lessons from the Study of Excuses
No modification without aberration:
This is a key point at which I disagree with Austin, not on whether his enterprise is worthwhile but, assuming that it is, on the validity of his methods and the truth of his conclusions. It is a point at which Austin infers from a lack of usage to incorrectness or inadmissability of usage. It is not safe to infer from the fact that only in special circumstances will we have reason to modify a verb to the conclusion that only in special circumstances is it correct or meaningful to modify.

I have similar objections to what he says about Limitation of application and The importance of negation and opposites.

Austin's eagerness to declare expressions inadmissible makes language appear more arbitrary and capricious than it really is. It is doubtless particularly helpful in dismantling ill-advised attempts to clarify language (or something else, using language) by enunciating any kind of general principle.

Regina v. Finney
I'm really baffled about the purpose of this example. I had assumed that we refer to courts of law to learn something about language. However, far from learning from the court about the language of excuses, Austin appears to discuss this case armed with a much better understanding of this language than all but the plaintiff. The main lessons we learn are about how judges and advocates misuse language, and the sole evidence we have for this is Austin's words (and perhaps our own superior prior grasp of the language).
Science makes finer distinctions
another token gesture on Austin's part. Why do I feel that this was put in, not because Austin has the slightest interest in scientific language or any lessons about language which we might learn from it, but because Austin did not want to be accused of ignoring it?

In summary:
  1. I doubt the value of a philosophical study of ordinary language which is not done in the context of some greater purpose, and which is not done in a manner and to an extent which is circumscribed by that purpose.
  2. I disagree with Austin's (admittedly inconsistent) views about the adequacy of our existing language, particularly when we seek a better understanding of some subject matter (even if the subject is language).
  3. I dispute some of the general principles which Austin applies and many of the particular conclusions which he draws from them.
  4. I see no account of method which gives me any confidence that Austin is able to distinguish between usage and meaning, or between rarity or lack of usage and invalidity of usage.

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