J.L. Austin and the Law: Exculpation and the Explication of Responsibility

J.L. Austin and the Law: Exculpation and the Explication of Responsibility

J.L. Austin and the Law: Exculpation and the Explication of Responsibility

J.L. Austin and the Law: Exculpation and the Explication of Responsibility


In investigating the relationship between accusation and excuse, this study uncovers something about the criminal law's peculiar way of interpreting human action. Identifying that something can move us a little closer to discovery or agreement and just what it is that is staked in criminal law. What is staked in any discussion of criminal law is the meaning and operation of responsibility, which makes human action and its consequences so tragic. The author confronts the idea of responsibility by mapping the work of J. L. Austin onto the criminal law.


At the opening of sense and sensibilia, J. L. austin summarizes his philosophical methods when he sets out there to “try to make clear that our ordinary words are much subtler in their uses, and mark many more distinctions, than philosophers have realized” (S&S, 3). So too is his unfinished essay, “Three Ways of Spilling Ink,” a sustained comparison of just three “aggravating” adverbs: intentionally, purposely, and deliberately (“INK,” 272). To be sure, no one who has read Austin even casually would question whether he makes distinctions and excruciatingly careful comparisons while otherwise betraying an uncommon interest in what he has labeled “loose” or “eccentric” speakers and the various “etiolations” of language.

What many would question is what payoff Austin offers us in return for our struggling through his “track[ing] down the detail of our ordinary uses of words” (“TALK,” 134), even “hounding down the minutiae” (“EXCUSES,” 175). Indeed, the modesty of his assessments of the value of his own projects can be maddening in that it threatens to depict those projects not as the enormous feats they are, but rather as the quibbling exercises for which they can be confused. Examples of his wildly understated claims are not hard to find. For example, the subject of “A Plea for Excuses” is said by Austin to be merely “introduced” and then, at its close, plaintively “commended” to his audience. Austin holds out that his gripping meditation Other Minds “at best … can hope only to make a contribution to one part of the problem” (“MINDS,” 76). He claims that his most widely read book, How To Do Things With Words, is at most “true, at least in parts,” though “obvious” (htdtw, 1). “The Meaning of a Word” Austin has “divided into three parts, of which the first is the most trite and the second the most muddled: all are too long” (“A word,” 56). and in “Three Ways of Spilling Ink,” he commits himself to “concentrate here on a pretty narrow topic,” adding that “since I don’t know enough (or even thid="pg9" pubid="b1633164" type="intro">

By every measure, Hurricane Sandy was a disaster of epic proportion. the deadliest storm to strike the East Coast since Hurricane Diane in 1955, Sandy killed thirty-seven people and caused more than $30 billion in damage to New Jersey alone. Overall, twenty- four states suffered the effects of the hurricane, a one thousand- mile- wide monster that came ashore near Atlantic City just after 8:00 P.M. on October 29, 2012. Superstorm Sandy will live on in the collective memory of New Jerseyans—and will be written about, too—for decades to come.

People have been fascinated by disasters like Hurricane Sandy since the time of the Flood, if not before. We know this because almost all cultures tell ancient stories of a catastrophic deluge that overwhelmed the land and annihilated the people. Such narratives are common in India, China, Polynesia, Turkey, the Baltic countries, and South America, to name just a few. the Greeks cherished the tale of Deucalion, son of Prometheus and mythical ancestor of the Hellenes, who built a boat and thereby thwarted Zeus, who had threatened to destroy mankind by a flood. the biblical story of Noah and his ark is universally known. Even older is the epic of Gilgamesh, the king whose ancestor had braved not only a black cloud that “turned all light to darkness” but a cyclone and flood that “devastated the land” as well.

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