Stuart Jeffries

The philosophical puzzles of the British Socrates

After vital work for British intelligence during the second world war, why did J.L. Austin devote the rest of his life to considering literally asinine questions?

J.L. Austin in his youth. [Courtesy of the family of J.L. Austin/ OUP]

Imagine your donkey and mine graze in the same field. One day I conceive a dislike for my donkey and shoot it: on examining the victim, though, I realise with horror I’ve shot your donkey. Or imagine a slightly different scenario. As before, I draw a bead, but just as I pull the trigger, my donkey – perhaps more invested in this vale of tears than yours – steps out of the firing line and I shoot your donkey.

Now here’s the question. When, in either case, I turn up on your doorstep with the remains of your donkey, how should I frame my apology to you? In his 1956 presidential address to the Aristotelian Society, J.L. Austin (1911-1960), White’s Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford, a man who, M.W. Rowe estimates in this scholarly yet entertaining and ultimately heartbreaking biography, was the leading philosopher at the world’s leading philosophy department, considered this literally asinine question.

Austin recommended breaking the news thus, with Bertie Wooster-like silliness: ‘I say, old sport, I’m awfully sorry etc, I’ve shot your donkey.’ But what should he say next, Austin asked the Aristotelian Society? Should he say ‘I’ve shot the brute by accident? Or by mistake?’ This was the issue Austin explored with Jeevesian rigour in his paper A Plea for Excuses.

Why, with due respect to imaginary donkeys, did Austin devote his brainpower to their fates? This was a man, after all, who only a few years earlier had been awarded the OBE for doing really important work saving tens of thousands of Allied troops’ lives. During the second world war he rose from the War Office basements of MI14(b), an intelligence outfit devoted initially to frustrating the German invasion threat, and staffed by an array of like-minded brainiacs who, as much as Bletchley Park’s codebreakers, demonstrated something that now seems extraordinary – namely that British intelligence was no oxymoron.

Austin’s donkeys incite us to consider the hair-splitting differences between mistake and accident

MI14(b)’s head was Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Strong, reportedly brilliant but so chinless he was known as ‘the hangman’s dilemma’.

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