Shouldn’t have let March slip by without a nod towards our homegrown philosopher J L Austin born in Lancaster on 26th March 1911. He became the White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford after WWII. He didn’t publish much during his life and his work seems to have been quickly forgotten after his death from lung cancer in 1960.
Everybody claims to ‘know’ things but what do they mean by that? What does it mean to ‘know’ something. If you think you ‘know’ something, it depends on a lot of assumptions that easily get passed over. I 'know' for example, in an everyday sort of way, that my duck is a duck because it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck; but if one day it turns into a spade, it doesn’t mean that I was wrong in thinking it was a duck, but it would mean that my world would lose coherence and language would become useless.
If I took you to my allotment and showed you the duck, you would probably agree that it was a duck unless you had never ever seen a duck before and had no experience of a duck. In that case, until we had agreed on the parameters of ‘duckness’ between ourselves, it could be anything.
Language works because it’s based on agreed assumptions about the world. It’s easy to agree about things like ducks and spades and wotnot, and that everyday sense of language helps us get by…until we run up against things we may have different meanings in our heads for: love, equality, friendship, marriage, loyalty, etc etc. Austin thought that words have a strong performance function that changes your world once uttered. So, if I say, ‘I’ll marry you’ for example, that statement only makes sense against a background of pre-existing conventions, institutions, assumptions, that are already in place and provides the context in which you say them and makes those words redolent with the meaning they do have. In so far as those meaning have congruence in peoples heads, things may run along relatively smoothly, but it is too easy to lose sight of the fact that that understanding relies on those contingent features of the background being in place, in the first place, if you get my drift.
Where Austin thought we go wrong too much, is when we make substantial claims about the world based on projections that assume a shared understanding of the truth, of the meaning, the background context, when in fact that shared understanding simply isn’t there at all. That has the effect of seeming to polarise viewpoints into hardened positions that simply talk over one another all the time with little or no understanding.
That renders most theologians, economists, politicians, evangelists completely incomprehensible to me: they pile word upon word and meaning upon meaning until you are left struggling for breath under a mountain of gibberish which I think they think they believe but which I doubt they really understand.