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A.N. Prior on Austin's ‘Sense and Sensibilia’

By Arthur N. Prior on NA/NA/1962

This text has been transcribed and proofread by Chrissy van Hulst and Max Cresswell, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, e-mails [removed] and [removed]

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VL1249 indicates that it is item number 1249 in the Virtual Lab for Prior Studies. Where a number1
follows a ‘.’ after the item number it indicates the relevant page according to the VL ordering, which
reflects the order in which the pages occur in the Bodleian Library. Thus VL1250.19 indicates the 19th
photograph in item 1250.
(A reconstruction from Prior’s mss.)
Chrissy van Hulst and Max Cresswell
In the early 1960s A.N.Prior was commissioned to write a review of
J.L. Austin’s ‘Sense and Sensibilia’. The review was never published.
The present article presents a transcription of the review from the
material available in the Virtual Lab For Prior Studies maintained at
Aalborg University, together with an edited version of the transcription
of a longer commentary on ‘Sense and Sensibilia’ from which the
review was condensed.
tors’ introduction
What follows is an edited version of A.N. Prior’s discussion of J.L. Austin’s ‘Sense and
Sensibilia’. (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1962.) The basis for this version is the
transcriptions of two items in the Virtual Lab for Prior Studies, maintained at the
University of Aalborg. The transcriptions were made from the virtual lab’s
photographed copies of handwritten material which is held in the Bodleian Library in
Oxford. The VL photographs are numbered in the order in which are preserved in the
Bodleian Library. They were transcribed by Chrissy van Hulst in the (southern) summer
of 2014/2015, with subsequent collating and editing by Max Cresswell. The present
article is in three parts. The first (A) is a review commissioned by Mind but apparently
never published, and occurs as item number VL1249. The second (B) is from a1
transcription of item number 1250, which is a fuller commentary on ‘Sense and
Sensibilia’ — a commentary on which the review in A appears to have been based. The
material presented here includes all the pages of VL1250 which seemed able to be
assembled into a continuous whole, in a way which is intended to reveal Prior’s views
on ‘Sense and Sensibilia’ as they can be extracted from this ms. There are 68 pages in
VL1250. Some of these form groups in which the text runs on in a continuous order,
though the groups themselves do not appear in an order which reflects a single text. In
addition, there are pages of VL1250 which seem preliminary notes for what we have
presented. These have not been included here, but they have been transcribed. these are
pages 9-11, 42 and 46-54. A few pages, 45, 56-58 and 60 more or less repeat what is
In this reconstruction we have also regularised Prior’s use of single and double inverted commas. We2
have used double inverted commas for quotations of passages of text — mostly from Austin — and single
commas where words or expressions are mentioned. (The distinction is often a nice one, where it is a
judgement call which way it should go.) Prior mostly uses double commas for quotations, but is not always
said elsewhere. Finally there are four pages of VL1250, which are a discussion of the
interaction between Austin and Strawson on Truth. We have appended this latter as the
third part (C) of our study. The remaining pages have been assembled to form the text
in B in the following order: 28-38, 44, 41, 19-27, 16-18, 59, 1-8, 61-68. All this
material would have been written about the same time as what emerged in the
posthumously published Objects of Thought, i.e. in the early 1960s. The transcriptions
of 1249 and 1250 in VL include all Prior’s crossed out material and respect his line
breaks and abbreviations (like ‘&’ for ‘and’, ‘m.t.’ for ‘material thing’ and so on.) They
also indicate Prior’s page breaks. None of these practices have been followed in the
present version. The footnotes in what follows are the editors’ not Prior’s.2
Prior was a ‘logician’ during the period of the ‘ordinary language philosophy’,
associated principally with Oxford, and in particular with people like J.L. Austin. It
may therefore be of some interest to see that there is very little of the logician in Prior’s
treatment of Austin.
A: Prior’s review of ‘Sense and Sensibilia’3
Sense and Sensibiliay J. L. Austin. Reconstructed from the manuscript notes by G.J.
Warnock. The Clarendon Press. Oxford. Pp ix + 144.
This is as much as we can now have of Austin’s attack on ‘sense-data’, and Warnock
is to be congratulated on the reconstruction — the lectures do have the authentic
Austinian flavour.
The view under attack, Austin explains in the first lecture, is the view that “we
never see or otherwise perceive ... or anyhow we never directly perceive or sense,
material objects (or material things), but only sense data” (p. 2). In lecture II he finds
this view set out in Ayer’s Foundations of Empirical Knowledge
‘philosophers’, and contrasted with the naïve realism of the ordinary man. But Austin
thinks Ayer makes the plain man out to be more naïve than he really is; the plain man
certainly doesn’t believe, e.g., that everythingceives is a ‘material thing’ (since
he believes that he perceives rainbows shadows, etc.), and in Austin’s view it is a
mistake to “try to represent as some single ind of thingsthings which the ordinary
man says that he ‘perceives’” (p. 8). On the other hand, the view attributed by Ayer to
the ‘philosophers’ is, Austin says, obscure; in particular, what they mean by ‘direct’
perception is not clear, as what it is opposed to doesn’t seem to be the kind of
perception that would ordinarily be called indirect, e.g. seeing something in a mirror (p.
Lecture III begins a long consideration of the ‘argument from illusion’, by
which people are first persuaded that what they see “on certain eptional
occasions” cannot be material objects and so must be sense-data, and then they are
further persuaded (because of the identity in quality between normal and abnormal
experiences) “that they always perceive sense-data” (and not material things). Austin’s
answer to the first part of the argument is that it confuses ‘illusions’ properly so-called,
in which something perfectly real publicly appears to be other than it is, with
‘delusions’, in which some private defect causes a man to see things that just aren’t
there at all. The man who says that in both types of case we are perceiving ‘sense-data’,
gets from the case of illusions proper the idea that we are indeed perceiving something,
and from the case of delusions the idea that we are not perceiving anything ‘material’,
but there is no good reason for trying to cover both types of case with a single theory.
After a discussion (lecture IV) on our ordinary uses of ‘looks’, ‘appears’ and
‘seems, Austin considers (lecture V) the second stage of the ‘argument from illusion’,
n which we are led on to believe that not only in special cases but in all cases what we
are perceiving are ‘sense-data’. His counter-arguments are that abnormal perceptions
are easier to distinguish from normal ones than this part of the argument allows, and
that there is no reason why ‘generically different’ objects, like chairs and mirror images,
should not have the amount of qualitative similarity that they do have.
Lecture VI is directed against a suggestion of Ayer’s that the issue between
those who say and those who deny that we only perceive sense-data is “not factual but
linguistic”. As far as the facts go, Ayer seems to be suggesting in the passages which
Austin here cites, we are equally free to say that the ‘real shape’ of a perceived rotating
coin remains circular while the changing shapes that we perceive are not of the coin but
of ‘sense ‘data’, or that there are no sense-data and we are perceiving real changes in
the shape of the coin itself. In passages which Austin considers in the next lecture but
one (VIII), Ayer gives criteria for deciding which sense-data present the ‘real qualities’
of material things, e.g. for deciding that a penny ‘really’ has the shape of the
sense-datum we perceive when we look at the penny along the line at right angles to
itself. We call this its real shape for such reasons as that on this assumption correct
predictions are more easily made than any others.
With a view to rebutting talk of this sort, Austin has a lecture (VII) in between
the two just mentioned in which he develops the ordinary use of ‘real’. This word, he
says, doesn’t explain any single concept, but it is (1) a ‘substantive-hungry’ word, i.e.
you can’t just call a thing ‘real’ but must call it a real something-or-other (a real duck,
From VL1250, with some passages re-arranged. (See the editors’ introduction.)4
a real decoy, etc.); it is (2) dependent for its sense upon some implied contrast which
differs from context to context, e.g. one and the same object may be ‘not a real duck’
because it is only a decoy, but it is of course a ‘real decoy’ in the sense that it isn’t only
a picture of a decoy; ‘real’ is (3) a ‘dimension-word’, i.e. it is the word comprehensive
of a whole group of terms which can replace it in different contexts, e.g. ‘genuine’,
‘live’, ‘authentic’; and it is (4) an ‘adjuster-word’, by means of which ‘other words are
adjusted to meet the innumerable and unforeseeable demands of the world upon
language’, e.g. on encountering a new sort of animal for which we have no name we
might say “It’s like
In Lecture IX he turns to a contention of Ayer’s that in ordinary language there
are two different uses of ‘see’ and more generally of ‘perceive’, in one of which it is
implied that what one sees (or perceives) exists, although it may not really be quite as
it seems to be, while in the other use of ‘see’ there is no such implication of the reality
of what is seen, and there can be no question of seeing what one sees wrongly. If, Ayer
goes on, one decides to use ‘see’ in a third and special sense, in which both what one
sees is bound to exist and one cannot misperceive it, then the object of such seeing, or
perception, will be sense-data. Austin’s first criticism of this is that there simply are not
these two ordinary senses of ‘see’ and ‘perceive’ that Ayer alleges there are, but only
the one in which seeing implies that what is seen exists but not that it really is as it
seems to be. And in Lecture X he attacks the assumption, the philosopher’s supposed
third sense, that it must be possible to “produce a species of statement that will be
incorrigible”. Austin does not deny that some statements are in fact incorrigible, but
there is no one species of statement to which all of these belong. Not only utterances
like “it seems to me now as if I were seeing something pink”, but equally ones like
‘That’s a pig’, may be made in circumstances in which “nothing could be produced that
would show that I had made a mistake”. In a final chapter, Austin notes that the error
(as he conceives it) of thinking that there is a sort of sentence which is uniquely
immune from criticism is present not only in expositions of the sense-datum theory like
those of Ayer and Price, but also in Warnock’s book on Berkeley, in which statements
of the form ‘I perceive (in a special sense) a sense-datum’ are replaced by ones
beginning ‘It seems to me as if ... ’ and finishing with something quite ordinary.
One cannot put this book down without feeling that many philosophers have
expressed themselves extremely carelessly, and that even when they have not done this,
they have departed from common usage in more ways than they have noticed. But one
also cannot help wondering how much this (especially the second point) really matters.
B: Prior’s extended commentary on Austin4
In Lecture I Austin formulates the position he is going to attack as the view that “we
never see or otherwise perceive (or ‘sense’) or anyhow we never perceive or
sense, material objects (or material things), but only sense-data (or our ideas,
impressions, sensa, sense-perceptions, perceptions, etc.)” (p. 2). He warns us, however,
that he is “ ‘not’ ... going to maintain that we ought to be ‘realists’, to embrace, i.e., the
doctrine that we do perceive material things (or objects)” (p. 3), for in his view “these
two terms, ‘sense-data’ and ‘material things’, live by taking in each other’s washing —
what is spurious is not one term of the pair but the antithesis itself” (p. 4).
In II he quotes the opening paragraphs of Ayer’s The foundations of Empirical
Knowledge, in which “some sort of contrast is drawn between what we (or the ordinary
man) believe (or believes), and what philosophers, at least ‘for the most part’, believe
or are ‘prepared to admit’ ” (p. 7). He complains that the ordinary man’s position is
misrepresented by Ayer in a variety of ways, and then turns to the view ascribed to
philosophers, and objects to a certain obscurity in it. Under the first head, he says that
in Ayer’s account “it is clearly implied, first of all, that the ordinary man believes that
he perceives material things” (p. 7). He objects to this that Ayer nowhere defines the
technical expression ‘material things’, though he gives an illustrative list in which all
the items are “moderate-sized specimens of dry goods”. And in this or any similar
sense, Austin suggests, the ordinary man certainly doesn’t believe that everything he
perceives is a material thing, since he believes that he perceives rainbows, shadows and
so on. He regards it as a fundamental mistake to “try to represent as some single
of things the things which the ordinary man says that he ‘perceives’”(p. 8). At other
points Ayer is said to insinuate too much of the ‘philosopher’s’ point of view into his
statement of the ‘plain man’s’. Finally, Austin comments on Ayer’s use of the plain
man’s admission that “people are sometimes deceived by their senses”. He insists that
this expression, as commonly used, is metaphorical, and is not meant to suggest that our
senses are an intermediary between ourselves and the world (p. 11); that “talk of
deception only s sense a background of general non-deceptions” (p. 11 —
this is directed against the suggestion that this admission of the plain man is a step
towards the ‘philosopher’s’ view that we are always deceived by our senses); that cases
of actual deception are “not at all common”. In fact, when the plain man “dreams, looks
down the long straight road, or at his face in the mirror, he is not, or at least is hardly
ever, deceived at all” (p. 12); that even the cases where he does allow such deception,
he does not regard as being all of one kind (p. 12), and in particular does not regard
them as all being cases in which “he is not ‘perceiving material things’, or perceiving
something not real or not material” (“looking at the Müller-Lyer diagram ... is a very
different kettle of fish from’ having D.T.’s and seeing pink rats”) (p. 14).
Turning to the ‘philosophers’, who “are not, for the most part, prepared to admit
that such objects as pens or cigarettes are ever directly perceived” (Ayer), Austin says
that in ordinary language the word ‘directly’ takes its meaning from its opposite,
‘indirectly’, which “has ferent uses in different cases” (p. 15) but is “most at home
where” (as with seeing in a mirror) “it retains its link with the notion of a kink in
” and “is not naturally at home with senses other than sight”(p. 16). It is
‘extremely doubtful’ how far this notion “could or should be extended”, and “certain”
that “we should not be prepared to speak of indirect perception in very in which
we see something from which the existence (or occurrence) of something else can be
inferred” (p. 17), especially if the inferred object is something not perceptible at all, e.g.
an electron (p. 18). “The philosophers’ use of ‘directly perceive’ whatever it may be,
is not the ordinary, or our familiar, use; for in thate it is not only false but simply
absurd to say that such objects as pens or cigarettes are never perceived directly” (p.
In lecture III Austin begins a long consideration of the ‘argument from illusion’,
which is immediately designed to “induce people to accept ‘sense-data’ as the proper
and correct answer to the question what they perceive on certain eptional
occasions”, but is “usually followed up with another bit of argument intended to
establish that they always perceive sense-data” (p. 21). The argument is that when we
see a stick apparently bent in water, or a mirage, or a mirror-image we are not seeing
a real bent stick, oasis or person behind the mirror, but are certainly seeing something,
so let’s call it a ‘sense-datum’. Austin objects that ‘illusions’, which are essentially
public affairs, in which something perfectly real takes on the appearance of something
else, are here indiscriminately jumbled together with ‘delusions’, which are due to some
serious disorder in the person that has them, and in which we have to do with
“something totally unreal, not really there at all” (pp. 22-24). By running these two
quite different cases together, we can be tricked into thinking that in both “There really
is something there that we are perceiving, but ... this is an immaterial something” (p.
26). But apart from special tricks, mirror-images aren’t even the milder thing, illusions,
except in special cases, since normal civilized adults know perfectly well what they are.
“It is important to realize here how familiarity, so to speak, takes the edge off illusion”
(p. 26). There are also mistakes which are neither illusions nor delusions, e.g. the
misreading of a proof (p. 27). Price’s definition of an ‘illusory sense-datum of sight or
touch’ as ‘a sense-datum which is such that we tend to take it to be part of the surface
of a material object, but if we so take it we are wrong’, is criticised as having already
incorporated in it “the idea that in such cases there is something to be seen
the ordinary things”. To argue from the fact that a hillside which is not flat and
vertical may appear so, to the existence of a ‘sense-datum’ which “actually
vertical’, is a simple non-sequiturp. 28). Why should we assume that things must
always look as they are (p. 29).
In lecture IV Austin has a digression on the verbs ‘look’, ‘seem’ and ‘appear’,
This paragraph occurs as VL1250.44, except that the first sentence up to the word ‘data’, and the5
enultimate sentence from the phrase ‘the world upon language’, have been taken from VL1249.4-8, in
order to provide the grammatical sentences which Prior clearly intended. The final sentence of the
paragraph is VL1250.41.
which Ayer and other philosophers treat too easily as interchangeable. He remarks that
“there is no neral answer to the question how ‘looks’ or ‘looks like’ is related to ‘is’;
it depends on the full circumstances of particular cases”. If I say that ‘petrol looks like
water’ there is not the slightest implication that petrol is water, but “ ‘This looks like
water’ may be a different matter; if I don’t already know what ‘this’ is, then I
taking the fact that it looks like water as a ground for thinking it water.” (pp. 39-40).
He mentions earlier cases “when the way something looks is wholly conclusive (what
more must she do to be chic than to look chic?)” (p. 38). And he insists that “the way
things look is, in general, just as much a fact about the world, just as open to public
confirmation or challenge, as the way things are. I am not disclosing a fact about
myself, but about petrol, when I say that petrol looks like water”. (p. 43).
In lecture V he takes up the argument which in Ayer and Price follows the
‘argument from illusion’, to the effect that not only in special cases but in all cases
“what we (directly) perceive” is a sense-datum. The argument is that “there is no
intrinsic difference in kind” between the special cases (illusions and delusions) and the
ordinary cases, and that “veridical and delusive perceptions shade into one another”, as
when a man who looks small at a distance gradually comes to appear as large as he
really is.
Lecture VI is directed against a suggestion of Ayer’s that the issue between
those who say and those who deny that we only perceive sense-data is “not factual but
linguistic”, and Ayer’s use of words like “real” and “really” at this point leads Austin
in the next lecture (VII) to give an independent discussion of the common meaning of
these words. “Real”, he says, is not a technical but a common word, and in its common
use it is (1) “substantive-hungry”, i.e. you can’t just call a thing “real” but must call it
a real something-or-other (a real duck, a real decoy, a real picture etc.); it is (2)
dependent for its sense, in any given use, upon some implied contrast (“a dummy, a toy,
a picture, a decoy, etc.”); it is (3) “the most general & comprehensive term in a whole
group of terms of the same kind”, such as “proper”, “genuine”, “live”, “true”, etc.; and
it is (4) an ‘adjuster-word’, by means of which ‘other words are adjusted to m
innumerable and unforeseeable demands of the world upon language’, e.g. on
encountering a new sort of animal for which we have no name we might say ‘It’s like
a pig, but it isn’t a real pig’. Further, while Austin is certainly right about ‘real’ being
‘substantive- hungry’, there is no reason why the substantive supplied should not in
some cases be a very general one such as ‘object’ or thing.5
Austin’s list of peculiarities of the word ‘real’ oddly omits the most important
of them all, namely that it is in most contexts a pensableord, i.e. it can be omitted
without altering the sense of what is said (though the omission may remove a suggested
antithesis; as also happens, e.g., when we replace ‘but’ by ‘and’); and the same applies
to the special words (e.g. “genuine”) which it generalises. To say of a decoy duck, or
a picture of a duck, or a bird that has many duck-like characteristics but not quite
enough to qualify, that it is ‘not a real duck’, is just to say that it is not a duck (but a
decoy, or a picture, etc. — of course a ‘real’ decoy, a ‘real’ picture etc.). There is,
indeed, an ambiguity about the phrase ‘picture of a duck’ which could give a little
trouble here; a picture of a duck is in any case a real picture, i.e. a picture, but it may
or may not be a picture of a real duck, so that the word ‘real’ seems not to be
dispensable here. The phrase ‘picture of a real duck’, however, has an expansion from
which the word ‘real’ can be dropped. without any weakening of the sense, and the
plain ‘picture of a duck’ has an expansion into which ‘real’ can be inserted without any
strengthening. For a picture is a ‘picture of a real duck’ if and only if there is some real
duck, i.e. some duck, of which it is a photograph or portrait (accurate or inaccurate);
and it is a ‘picture of a duck’ so long as it is drawn as if there were some duck, i.e. some
real duck, of which it is a photograph or portrait.
The contrast which the introduction of the word ‘real’ introduces is never with
some other kind or species of the thing in question, e.g. duck — there are not real ducks
and other sorts (if there were, the word wouldn’t be ‘dispensable’). A decoy duck, or
a picture of a duck, isn’t a different sort of duck from a real one; it just isn’t a duck at
all. Nor is a ‘duck in a picture’ a different kind of duck from a real duck; if there is a
duck of which it is a photograph or a portrait, then ‘the duck in the picture’ is a real
duck; otherwise there just isn’t any ‘duck in the picture’ in the sense of a duck of which
it is a picture, though certain kinds of talk about ‘the duck in the picture’ may be given
a sense derivable from the earlier expansion of the weak sense of ‘picture-of-a -duck’.
For example, if a child looking at the picture is asked whether the duck in the picture
is walking or flying, this is a question as to whether the picture is drawn as if there were
a (real) flying duck or as if there were a (real) walking duck of which it is the portrait.
To see, positively, what kinds of contrast the word ‘real suggests, we need to
advert to another feature of it which Austin oddly omits to mention, namely what may
be called its adverbialcharacter. That is, statements like ‘That is a real duck’ amount
to ‘That is really a duck’, or ‘It is (really) the case that that is a duck’, and the contrast
is with other adverbial insertions or prefixes, like ‘It looks as if it were, though it is not,
the case that that is a duck’. There are innumerable alternative adverbs and prefixes of
this sort, and the point of ‘really’ or ‘it is the case that’ is to assert that the thing is true
out any of these prefixes, and indeed without any prefixes or adverbs at all.
Most of what Austin has to say about ‘real’ follows from these considerations
(which are basically, of course, a re-hash and expansion of Ramsey on “True”). What
Up to the word ‘superfluous’ the material in this paragraph occurs immediately after the previous6
paragraph in our text. It is taken from VL1250.27, but has been crossed out there. The crossed out material
is clearly intended to lead in to VL1250.16, which begins with the word ‘superfluous’ and is not crossed
does not follow from them, however, and does not seem to me to be true, is Austin’s
view “there are no criteria to be laid down in general for distinguishing the real from
the not real”. “How this is to be done”, he says, “must depend on t ct
to which the problem arises in particular cases”. And “even for particular kinds of
things, there may be many different ways in which the distinction may be made (there
is not just one way of being ‘not a real pig’)”. (p. 76). Certainly there are innumerable
ways of being not a real pig; but there is only one way of being a real pig, namely being
a pig, simpliciteror, on this view of the matter, can there be any substance in
Austin’s conjecture that ‘the words “real after-image” have no application’. A real
after-image is simply an after-image; if there are no merely apparent after-images, or
pictures of after-images, etc. a real after-image would still be simply an after-image,
though the suggestion that there erely apparent after-images, i.e. nothing that
we might take for an after-image that wasn’t one, is an intriguing departure from
Austin’s general opposition to infallible ‘perceptions’, and in any case is clearly false.
What also follows from the considerations I have sketched is the very important
thing that Austin says about ‘looks’ and ‘looks like’ on p. 43. namely that “the way
things look is, in general, just as much a fact about the world, just as open to public
confirmation or challenge, as the way things are.” The reference to ‘public confirmation
or challenge’ is superfluous here, and the contrast between ‘the way things are’ could
be so real as to cancel out his main point, since the ‘facts about the world’ in a sense
constitute ‘the way things are’ — part of the way things are is that they are the sort of
things that look thus and thus. But the way things look is the way they ‘really’ look; if
they look thus and thus, it is the case (is a fact) that they look thus and thus; ‘really’, in
short, can be dispensed with, e inserted, before as well as after other
Austin’s next sentence, however, on its negative side, is more contentious, and
more doubtful. “I am not” he says, ”disclosing a fact about myself, but about petrol,
when I say that petrol looks like water”. This is not a genuine commentary on what
precedes it, for facts about oneself are as much about ‘the world’ as facts about petrol.
That petrol looks like water of course a fact about petrol; what is less clear is that it
is not obout himself and of course other normal human beings, and photographic
plates sensitive to the same range of light-rays. There may be — I have no idea what
the facts are about this — others which go through petrol and water differently, so that
petrol ldn’t look like water to organisms or plates sensitive to these. This is one of
the many points at which one wishes that Austin had not “omitted from consideration”
an “argument cited by both Price and Ayer, which makes play with the ‘causal
dependence’ of our ‘perceptions’ upon the conditions of observation and our own
‘physiological and psychological states’. ” (p. 46, note 2).
It is part of Ayer’s thesis that there are two ‘correct & familiar’ uses of the word
‘perceive’, and also, correspondingly, of particular perception-words such as ‘see’. In
one sense, ‘it is necessary that what is seen should really exist, but not necessary that
it should have the qualities that it appears to have’, but in the other sense ‘it is not
possible that anything should seem to have qualities that it does not really have, but also
not necessary that what is seen should really exist’. Austin emphatically denies that
there is any ‘correct or familiar’ sense of ‘see’ or ‘perceive’ but the first one. In lecture
IX, in discussing the examples adduced by Ayer to the contrary, Austin takes rather
different lines in different cases, none of them entirely satisfactory.
Ayer and Price distinguish a sense of “see”, and of “perceive” generally, in
which “I see (perceive) an X” entails that there really is an X which I am seeing
(perceiving) and another sense in which “I see (perceive) an X” has no such
consequence. Austin says that, on the contrary, there is only one sense of “see” (and
similarly of “perceive”), namely the first one, in which “it is necessary that what is seen
should really exist”. Ayer’s particular examples of the alleged other use, he deals with
— characteristically — in a variety of ways, but only in one case, so far as I can see,
quite successfully. This is where Ayer says, “If I say that I am seeing a stick which
looks crooked, I do not imply that anything really is crooked”. But what fails here, as
Austin rightly points out, is not the step from “I am seeing an X” to “There is an X” but
that from “X looks crooked” to “X is crooked”. (1) “I am seeing a crooked stick” would
normally be understood as implying that (2) a crooked stick is really there, and (3) “I
am seeing a stick that looks crooked” as implying that (4) a stick that looks crooked is
really there, but (4) doesn’t imply (2). Nor does (3) imply (1); nor on Austin’s view of
“seeing”, ought they to.
Austin applies the same recipe — “look for the trouble, not with the
perception-word, but elsewhere in the sentence” — to the case of the phantom limb.
Ayer:If I say that someone is feeling pressure on his leg, I do not necessarily
exclude the possibility that his leg has been amputated.
Austin:But why explain this by invoking a sense of ‘feel’? Why not say instead
... that the expression “pressure on his leg” can sometimes be used to
specify what someone feels, even if his leg has actually been
“Feeling pressure”, in other words, always implies that the pressure exists, but there
being pressure on one’s leg does not imply that one has a leg. It is hard to see this as
anything but an exchange of one paradox for a worse one. Austin’s talk, however, of
“using” the phrase “pressure on one’s leg” to “specify what is felt, half suggests a rather
different solution, namely the exploitation of an ambiguity in ‘feel” which he himself
would surely have admitted, and to which there is no parallel in the case of “see” or
“perceive”. For in one sense “feel” has no object, strictly speaking, at all, but only an
adjectival complement “feeling lonely”, “feeling tired”, etc. — and one might in this
sense feel “pressured-on-the-leg” even when one didn’t actually have a leg. However
this isn’t Austin’s explicit solution; and in any case I’m not sure that it will really do.
Ayer’s third example, double vision, Austin himself admits is “less easily dealt
with”. “We may agree that in saying “I am perceiving two pieces of paper”, I may not
mean — since I may know it to be untrue — that there really are two pieces of paper
before me”. And so, he candidly asks, “since it is undeniable that these words may also
be so used as to imply that there really e two pieces of paper, do we not have to agree
that there are two different senses of ‘perceive’?” But to this he answers, astonishingly,
“Well, no, we don’t”. And by way of an excuse he adverts to begin with, to a
consideration which, if taken seriously, would overturn his whole position.
Ayer, in presenting this example, had slipped into replacing “If I am perceiving
two pieces of paper’ ” by “if two pieces of paper really are perceived...”, and saying that
even in this case “it need not be true that there are two pieces of paper”. “This”, Austin
cannot resist observing, “is surely just wrong’. That “two pieces of paper really are
perceived” is just what we should not say in a case of double vision — just for the
reason that there must be two, if two ‘really are perceived’”. And he makes use of this
when resisting in the next paragraph, the suggestion that he is himself admitting two
senses of “perceive”. “Even if ‘I perceive two pieces’ needn’t mean that there e two
pieces, it seems that ‘two pieces really are perceived’ is notpatible with their being
really only one”, hence it looks as though “the implications of ‘perceive’ may differ in
different constructions”, without there being any need to suppose “two
In the whole argument sketched in the last paragraph, Austin seems to me
absolutely right, and Ayer to have made a bad slip. But this one sense of “perceive” that
is all that need be involved in this part of the discussion, is not the sense that Austin
says is the only one it ever bears, i.e. not the one in which “I perceive two pieces” does,
but the one in which it does not, imply that there really are two pieces. This latter
consequence, on Austin’s own account of the matter, follows not from this but from the
other construction, “Two pieces are being perceived”. In fact the two senses that Ayer
distinguishes might be characterised precisely as (a) one in which “I perceive two
papers” does, and (b) one in which it does not, imply “Two papers are perceived”, i.e.
as one in which Ayer’s second “construction” does, and one in which it does not, add
The authors referred to here are probably Frank B. Ebersole and Frederick Adrian Siegler. Our guess7
is that the Ebersole work Prior is referring to is: De Somniis, Mind, NS, Vol. 68, 1959, pp. 336-349.
Ebersole does not explicitly mention D.T.s, but what he says about dreaming seems to illustrate what Prior
attributes to Austin. Siegler’s Stanford PhD dissertation of 1960 was called, n examination of attempts
to find incorrigible knowledge.
something to his first.
The strange turn that this part of the argument takes illustrates at once Austin’s
candour (he will tell you anything he sees, without regard to what its place in the
general argument may turn out to be), his ferocity (he won’t miss a single chance of
making Ayer look foolish), his penetration in matters of detail, and his singular
blindness as to the actual bearing on the argument of the details he unearths. However,
while he doesn’t see this bit about different “constructions” as positively unhelpful
from his own point of view, he does seem in effect to admit that there is after all Ayer’s
second sense, only it isn’t a ‘correct and familiar’ one, and he refuses to call it a distinct
‘sense’, it being rather a ‘stretching’ of the one normal sense. The important thing here
is that “double vision is a quite tional case, so that we may have to stretch our
ordinary usage to accommodate it.”
Returning to this case further on, he says that double vision “does suggest that
in exceptional situations ordinary words may not be ant ay.”
(p. 97). It is the same with the D.T. sufferer who ‘sees pink rats’ — “we don’t mean
here (as would be meant in a normal situation) that there are real, live pink rats which
he sees”, but he insists again that “such stretchings of ordinary words in exceptional
situations — do not constitute special senses — of the words in question. It is hard to
see wherein the ‘stretching’ of a sense of use so far that what is ‘meant’ is different
from what is meant in the ordinary sense, differs from giving the word a different
(though of course connected) sense — how Austin ounts ‘senses’, in other words, is
obscure. But even if one agrees to count them in this way (whatever it is), why should
not Ayer simply rephrase his point and say that the words ‘perceive’, ‘see’, etc. may be
‘meant’ in different ways? Part of Austin’s point is of course that we only ‘mean’ these
special things by these words in special circumstances, or at any rate the words only
have application in these special circumstances — as some recent writers (Ebersole,
Siegler) have said explicitly, when there really are pink rats that we are seeing we are7
not (either ts or as well as this) doing anything of the same sort as
seeing-pink-rats in the D.T. patient’s way. But this is something which, whether true
or not (and I do not think it is), can be said, and in saying it we actually juxtapose the
two ‘meanings’ of ‘see’, the relation between which is in any case worth investigating,
especially if it is (as Austin contends) so very close that it is misleading to talk here of
different ‘senses’ at all. This is not, in a word, a real contradiction of Ayer’s main
position, but at most a removal of some blemishes in his presentation of it.
With another example, namely the alleged ‘perception’ in the first sense of a
B lacks a conclusion, but the last paragraph of A would seem to sum up what Prior has been telling us.8
large and distant star and in the second sense of a ‘silvery speck’, Austin takes a
different line. When we speak of perceiving or seeing the silvery speck, he says, the
sense of ‘perceive’ or ‘see’ isn’t even a ‘stretched’ one, and the speck’s existence is as
much entailed as the star’s (p. 94); in fact the speck the star. He even insists upon this
when the speck is seen by reflection: “The image in the fourteenth mirror of the
telescope is a bright speck, this bright speck is ar, and the star is Sirius; I can say,
quite correctly, that I see any of these” (p. 99). And there is no question here of the
perception-word being used in different senses; “it is simply that what we “perceive”
can be described identified, classified, characterized, named in many different ways.’
I can say correctly both that I kicked a piece of painted wood and that I kicked Jones’s
front door, not because there is any subtle ambiguity in ‘kick’, but because “the piece
of wood in question was Jones’s front door” (p. 98).
There are no doubt cases in which ‘This X is a Y’ doesn’t entail ‘This Y is an
X’. Suppose, for example, that somebody asks me to show him something pink, and I
point to what is in fact a carnation and say ‘This rose is pink’. Or suppose he points to
the carnation and asks what colour it is, and I again say ‘This rose is pink’. There the
fact that I have misidentified the carnation as a rose is so completely irrelevant to the
actual point of the sentence that one could say that what I had said was true, or anyhow
not false, and a correct answer to the man’s question. But I cannot think of any
circumstances under which I would point to the same object and correctly or truly say
‘This pink thing is a rose’. In this case the inference from ‘This X is a Y’ to ‘This Y is
an X’ fails because, though the thing is a Y, it isn’t an X, and this doesn’t matter in the
premiss but does in the conclusion. But the cases which Austin lists as parallel to the
speck-star and dot-house cases are not like this at all. It is equally true to say ‘I kicked
a piece of painted wood’ and ‘I kicked Jones’s door’ because what I kicked is in fact
both of these things, and for this reason ‘That piece of painted wood is Jones’s door’
and ‘Jones’s door is a piece of painted wood’ are both true. But is the very large star
(really) a silvery speck, and is my house (really) a white dot? Austin doesn’t say, but
the failure of the inference-pattern, to which he adverts in his footnote, rather suggests
that the answer must be ‘No’; but if it ‘No’, then (by his rule that whatever I see must
be there) I cannot after all be really seeing a silvery speck or a white dot when I am
looking at the star or the house. Either that, or since he insists that in these cases we are
‘seeing a silvery speck’ or ‘seeing a white dot’ — there is after all a sense of ‘see’ for
which this rule doesn’t hold.8
VL1250.12-15. These pages are stapled together, and seem intended to be apart from the remaining9
C: The Strawson-Austin controversy9
The Strawson-Austin controversy was partly expressed as one about whether or not a
‘fact’ is ‘something in the world’. By insisting that it is not, Strawson seems to have
meant primarily that a fact is not a ‘thing’, except in the rather stretched sense of ‘thing’
in which a ‘proposition’ (‘what is believed’, ‘what is said’) is equally one. Austin’s
insistence that a fact is, almost par excellenceorld’, can be given a
good sense if we recall that ‘the world’ is one of a group of philosophical ‘box’
explanations — one says that something is or happens ‘in the world’ very much as one
says that something is or happens ‘in the mind’ or ‘in Greek mythology’.
All of these philosophers’ ‘boxes’ are to be taken seriously, but none of them
quite literally. To say that something is so ‘in the mind’ is just to say that
thinks that it is so; to say that something is so ‘in Joyce’s Ulysses’ is just to say that
is said in Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ t it is so. ‘The world’ differs from all these other ‘boxes’
in that to say that something is so ‘in the world’ is just to say that it is so, without any
qualifying prefix. (It is to say echs put the
statement that it is so into qua). And a ‘fact’ is par excellence ‘something
in the world’ in the sense that what is a fact is what simply is so as opposed to what is
merely thought to be so (‘is so merely in the mind’), or said to be so in a book. With the
phrase thus understood, the ‘correspondence’ between what is stated and what is ‘in the
world’, which Austin defended against Strawson’s variant of the ‘No-Truth’ theory, is
the simple being so (being so ‘in the world’ = simply being so) of what is stated to be
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