Among philosophers of the 20th century, John Langshaw Austin is not a cultural celebrity like Heidegger, Russell, Sartre or Wittgenstein. But for a period after the Second World War, he was the leading figure of the school of ordinary language philosophy that dominated Oxford, achieved substantial influence in the wider Anglophone world and left its stamp for a much longer time on the way analytic philosophers work, think and write. Austin died of cancer in 1960 at the age of 48. Though he published only a handful of substantial essays during his lifetime, there are also significant posthumous publications, and Austin’s philosophical ideas, the power of his personal influence and his central position in the philosophical developments of his time make him a natural subject for an intellectual biography. But M.W. Rowe’s book isn’t just an intellectual biography. He has discovered that Austin was one of the most important Allied military intelligence officers during the Second World War, overseeing the team that made the Normandy landings possible. More than a third of the book is taken up with Austin’s five years in the army, and with the achievements he never talked about, even to his wife.
Rowe has produced a marvellous book, which manages to be both exhaustive and thoroughly absorbing. It accomplishes three things. First, it gives a detailed account of Austin’s philosophical development, his background, his works and his academic career and influence, accompanied at each stage by interpretations and criticisms that are judicious and insightful. Rowe shows himself to be an excellent philosopher in his own right. Second, the book presents the results of Rowe’s painstaking archival research on Austin’s intelligence career, placing it in the context of British and Allied intelligence concerning Western Europe and North Africa. It gives a fascinating account of the way military intelligence is generated and the crucial role it plays in every military operation, with D-Day as a spectacular example. Third, Rowe offers a perceptive analysis of Austin’s personal qualities and their part in his academic and military engagements.
Austin was a brilliant performer from the beginning, a classical scholar who was elected a prize fellow of All Souls in 1933, a year after Isaiah Berlin. But, apart from his friendship with Berlin, he did not flourish in the complete freedom afforded by All Souls. After two years there he took a teaching job at Magdalen College, tutoring on set texts, and later lecturing on Leibniz and Aristotle. He found his way in philosophy only gradually. In 1936 he and Berlin formed a discussion group of young dons that included A.J. Ayer, whose vivid brief for logical positivism in Language, Truth and Logic had made him a celebrity. Austin resisted. In a negative vein that would become characteristic, he insisted that positivism oversimplified both language and human knowledge, which were much too complicated and various to be captured in so general a theory – but he offered no positive views of his own.
In unpublished talks and discussions up to late 1939, Rowe finds the beginnings of most of the interests that drove Austin’s philosophical project after the war. Rowe’s most significant claim is that Wittgenstein, then at Cambridge, was a major unacknowledged influence, both through his emphasis on the importance of understanding how ordinary language works, and through his diagnosis of traditional philosophical problems as being a consequence of misunderstandings of ordinary language and violations of its conditions of use. At that time the only examples of Wittgenstein’s current work in circulation were two typescripts of dictated material, The Blue Book and The Brown Book, which were copied and passed around among the initiated. In spite of Austin’s later denials of the influence of Wittgenstein and the Cambridge School, Rowe makes a plausible case, based on internal evidence, that Austin had read The Blue Book before giving a talk called ‘The Meaning of a Word’ at Cambridge in February 1940.
The war put philosophy on hold. Austin continued to teach until he was called up in July 1940. The following spring he married one of his students, Jean Coutts (Rowe confirms the well-known story that he sent her a note enclosing a brand-new lady’s handkerchief, asking if it was hers). By early 1941 he was working in MI14, the intelligence section attached to the War Office ‘which dealt with Germany, the German armies of occupation and the profiling of senior German officers’. Rowe finds evidence that Austin generated the intelligence that the Germans were moving into North Africa in force, a warning that was dismissed by British commanders on the ground, with disastrous consequences. He was soon acknowledged as MI14’s order of battle specialist for Rommel’s Afrika Korps, but by the time of Montgomery’s victory over Rommel at El Alamein in November 1942, Austin had moved on.
America’s entry into the war late in 1941 had been ‘a colossal boost to morale’, Rowe says, and invasion planning ‘suddenly seemed focused on a real possibility’. In March 1942 Austin was promoted to captain, left MI14 and was appointed head of the Advanced Intelligence Section of General Headquarters, with this purpose. ‘Although it was not evident at the time,’ Rowe writes,
Austin’s appointment would have far-reaching consequences, as this tiny section of six or seven men would become, in the words of one of his future deputies, [Austin’s] ‘little empire’. Growing vastly in size and efficiency, the section would frequently change its name … its quarters … its purpose (acquiring information about the French coast, discovering information about the armies defending Germany); and its country (England, France, Germany). But it would be led by Austin alone and to great effect throughout the conflict. I know of no other personal fiefdom in Second World War British Intelligence with such an important, long and varied history.
The group was known informally as the Martians, and retained its separateness even when in 1944 it became part of SHAEF, the joint British-American command for Operation Overlord, headed by General Eisenhower. ‘Estimates of the section’s final number of personnel vary,’ Rowe says, ‘but it was somewhere between three hundred and just under five hundred.’ The group performed multiple tasks. One was to ‘compile an archive of all coastal intelligence – to a depth of thirty miles – which might be relevant to an invasion. Its specialist field of study was man-made defensive features – gun positions, mortars, anti-tank obstacles, pillboxes, observation posts etc – but its other task was to synthesise and disseminate information from other intelligence agencies.’ The data came partly from aerial photographs, in whose interpretation Austin became legendary; from French resistance networks, whose voluminous transmissions by clandestine courier and carrier pigeon were invaluable; and from secret commando raids. And Austin was cleared to receive Ultra, the signals intelligence intercepted by the codebreakers at Bletchley Park. His unit also developed detailed analysis of the beaches along the French coast: their gradients, tidal boundaries, the character of the sand, what was under it and what weight it would support, the reefs and rocky barriers – everything relevant to the possibility of landing heavy armour and heavily armed troops. And it maintained an up-to-date tabulation of the numbers, quality, equipment and leadership of the German defensive units on the coast, or close enough to reach it within a few days in the event of an invasion. As Rowe writes, ‘Austin’s section synthesised and disseminated information from multiple agencies,’ becoming the unit with ‘the most complete overview of the entire intelligence picture. And because the section prepared intelligence briefing packs for raids and reconnaissance missions, it also became the intelligence organisation which had the closest links with fighting units. Both factors ensured the Martians became the hub, the nerve centre, of invasion intelligence.’
The team also produced, under Austin’s direction, a set of books archly titled Invade Mecum, for distribution to about ten thousand officers, which gave exhaustively detailed local information and maps for all the parts of Normandy where an invading force would have to operate. According to Austin’s own outline:
Each volume consists of basic maps of roads, railways, water, power, communications, industry, agriculture and dumps, information on large towns (with town plans) and small towns included under the following headings: general descriptions, population, altitude, civic authorities, post office and type of exchange, railway facilities, distances by road and waterway, power, gas, water, sanitation, garages, industries, billets and hospitals.
On the evidence of many testimonials, these proved invaluable to the invading troops. (Books were also prepared for Brittany and the Pas de Calais, as part of the disinformation campaign designed to keep the Germans in the dark about where the landings would take place.)
As D-Day approached, there were constant changes in the officers senior to Austin in the chain of command. Austin, Rowe writes, was the ‘one figure of any seniority who had overseen the growth of French coastal intelligence since it started to be collected efficiently in March 1942. He was thus the only individual who knew this enormous quantity of information through and through, and had mastered all its interconnections, intertwinings and interrelations.’ As a result of all this stupendous work, Allied casualties on D-Day were much lower than expected. Estimates had feared as many as 30 per cent killed or wounded, but the actual figure was 6.6 per cent. The success of the landings depended on the ‘life-saving accuracy of the D-Day intelligence’. But Rowe is also careful to document Austin’s intelligence failures. The most consequential was Omaha Beach. Allied intelligence (not just Austin’s unit) thought Omaha was defended by an Ost battalion of non-Germans, with low morale and poor equipment, whereas it was in fact defended by a crack grenadier regiment supported by artillery from two additional battalions. Intelligence had lost track of this regiment and thought it was thirty kilometres away. The American landings at Omaha were planned assuming weak opposition, and the result was a disaster, with the highest casualty rate of any sector.
When the war came to an end, Austin followed Eisenhower’s headquarters into France, and then helped dismantle the provisional German government formed after Hitler’s suicide. In spite of the importance of his contribution, the highest rank Austin achieved was lieutenant colonel. According to Rowe, to gain higher rank it was almost always necessary to have led troops in combat; but he suspects that personal factors may also have played a part. Austin was unfailingly courteous and supportive to those inferior to him, but prickly and often rude to superiors. Once, with Eisenhower present, in response to an American lieutenant general who expressed doubt during one of his briefings, Austin said: ‘The trouble with you senior officers is always the same. It is not that you will try to run before you can walk. You will try to walk before you can stand.’
Austin returned to Oxford and philosophy in the autumn of 1945. Rowe contends that his war experience had a profound effect on his personality and his approach to the subject. Before the war, he had been a guarded and solitary scholar. Now he was ‘much more openly ambitious: he had enjoyed having power and influence in the army, and he now wanted power and influence in his civilian career.’ But most important was what military intelligence had taught him about method. He now knew that teamwork was essential for the acquisition of knowledge, and had learned that his natural authority and command of detail made him a very effective leader. He knew how to break down problems into smaller components, divide the task of solving them among many individuals and draw out the best from others in a collective enterprise. Rowe sees this as the impulse behind the philosophical programme Austin launched after the war. It was also, he suspects, a reaction against the extremes of the 1930s: ‘People became suspicious of grand ideas and wholesale solutions generally – especially those which might generate romantic ardour and fanaticism – and placed their faith in a sceptical, pluralistic, unillusioned realism.’
The logical positivists and Wittgenstein in his later work had in different ways inculcated the idea that the study of language was the key to a revolution in the understanding of philosophical questions. In Oxford, this took the form of close attention to the way language was used in everyday life, motivated by Wittgenstein’s insistence that language is essentially a public means of communication, and that thought, which depends on language, cannot escape the conditions of its public meaning.
In fact, this new understanding of meaning inverts the scale of values where the philosopher is the expert and the ordinary man a tyro. The slogan ‘meaning is use’ implies that the philosopher’s words depend for their meaning on the way they are used by the rest of the population. Thus, to find out what knowledge is, the philosopher has to remind himself how the sentences ‘I know,’ ‘He doesn’t know’ and so on are used by ordinary people in ordinary contexts.
But since the philosopher is also an ordinary speaker of the language, he can use himself as a source of data about ordinary usage, just by asking himself ‘What would I say …’ in different circumstances. Such data, generated individually and in conversation with others, can be used to test more general hypotheses about the way different expressions are used and what they mean. This is the basis of the project usually known as ordinary language philosophy, but which Austin preferred to call ‘linguistic phenomenology’. (The same method is used by linguists to test theories of grammar.)
Austin, with his classical training, had always been sensitive to subtle distinctions between words, and now put this sensitivity to work in mining the resources of natural language to map out areas of discourse that interested him. Some were connected to traditional philosophical topics: knowledge and perception; action and free will; responsibility (through the study of excuses). But Austin was also fascinated by many details of language for their own sake, and in 1947 brought together a group of philosophy dons, mostly younger than himself, to pursue these investigations collectively. They met on Saturday mornings during term, and while this group brought to life Austin’s ideal of philosophy as a co-operative enterprise, he controlled the agenda and proceedings, as he had with the Martians. Austin said that it afforded him ‘what philosophy is so often thought, and made, barren of – the fun of discovery, the pleasures of co-operation, and the satisfaction of reaching agreement’. And his method was an inspiration to a generation of Oxford philosophers. But he also had a will to dominate: in public discussion he was often sarcastic and dismissive towards those who disagreed with him. He could be very funny, but his cutting style heightened the combative atmosphere of academic philosophy. ‘We were all frightened of him,’ Gilbert Ryle said, ‘though few of us have the courage to admit it.’
Austin insisted that linguistic phenomenology gave us knowledge not only about words but about the things words are used to talk about, because the distinctions found in natural language embody the collective wisdom developed over generations of practical engagement with the world. On the basis of some brief but pointed metaphilosophical remarks, Rowe conjectures that Austin endorsed a three-stage model of philosophical inquiry which would explain the significance of his method.
The first stage is a thorough phenomenological investigation of all the concepts relevant to a particular area … The second stage is the construction of theories to explain the data the first stage has revealed. The third occurs when a suitable method for exploring the area has been established, and real progress starts to be made on its central problems. At this point, the topic and its investigation detach themselves from philosophy and become a new subject with a new name.
The aim of the first stage was simply to gather linguistic data, as thorough and detailed as possible, and not guided by assumptions about the main problems or theories in the area. (As an aside in his discussion of excuses Austin says: ‘How much it is to be wished that similar fieldwork will soon be undertaken in, say, aesthetics; if only we could forget for a while about the beautiful and get down instead to the dainty and the dumpy.’) This contrasts markedly with Wittgenstein’s method, which was to start from major philosophical questions, and try to discover their source in linguistic ‘bewitchment’.
The one instance in which Austin proceeded to the second stage of theory construction was in the case of what he called performatives – uses of language not to make statements, true or false, but to do something. For example: ‘I promise to pay you next week’; ‘I take this woman to be my lawful wedded wife’; ‘I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth’; ‘I give and bequeath my watch to my brother’; ‘I bet you sixpence it will rain tomorrow.’ Austin’s systematic exploration and analysis of the complex linguistic territory of speech as a form of action was presented as the William James Lectures at Harvard in 1955 and published posthumously as How to Do Things with Words. It is his most enduring theoretical contribution to the philosophy of language. And he may have thought of it as a contribution to a larger project – Rowe’s third stage. At the end of his 1956 paper ‘Ifs and Cans’ Austin says:
Is it not possible that the next century may see the birth, through the joint labours of philosophers, grammarians and numerous other students of language, of a true and comprehensive science of language? Then we shall have rid ourselves of one more part of philosophy (there will still be plenty left) in the only way we ever can get rid of philosophy, by kicking it upstairs.
In the autumn of 1958 Austin visited the University of California at Berkeley. He liked America and Americans – they freed him from the class rigidity and competitiveness of his English milieu. He was seriously tempted by an offer to move to Berkeley permanently, but his wife was against it. The issue was never decided, because back at Oxford in the autumn of 1959, he became ill and in December was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. At the insistence of his wife, he was not told that he didn’t have long to live. He was discouraged from asking too many questions, and learned that his illness was terminal only a few days before his death on 8 February 1960 – a bitter end for a brilliant intelligence officer.
I was one of Austin’s last students; as White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy he was my adviser for the BPhil. I took the exams in the spring of 1960, after his death, but he was helpful and encouraging with the writing of my thesis, and I attended all his lectures and seminars. At the end, when he no longer came in to the university, I went to talk to him at his home. He had been getting radiation treatment, and it was unsettling to see him in a loose shirt without his inevitable dark suit and tie. I knew he was ill, but his death was a shock.
Rowe’s book provides an illuminating account of all of Austin’s writings, and ends with a balanced estimation of his philosophical legacy, which remains important even though ‘ordinary language philosophy and linguistic phenomenology belong firmly in the past.’ No one now engages in the exhaustive accumulation of subtle verbal distinctions, and philosophical research continues to be guided by the pull of major questions. But although careful attention to language may not result in the dissolution of philosophical problems, it remains a valuable tool of analytic philosophy, and Austin’s own linguistic insights retain their value. As Rowe writes at the end of his book, ‘Austin enjoyed only thirty years of adult life – perhaps half of what he might have reasonably expected – and he had little opportunity to revise or develop his ideas. But in those thirty years he had two careers of outstanding international importance in largely unrelated fields. Very few can equal this achievement.’
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