'When You (Say You) Know, You Can't Be Wrong': J.L. Austin on 'I Know' Claims

Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy (forthcoming)
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In ‘Other Minds’, J.L. Austin advances a parallel between saying ‘I know’ and saying ‘I promise’: much as you are ‘prohibited’, he says, from saying ‘I promise I will, but I may fail’, you are also ‘prohibited’ from saying ‘I know it is so, but I may be wrong’. This treatment of ‘I know’ has been derided for nearly sixty years: while saying ‘I promise’ amounts to performing the act of promising, Austin seems to miss the fact that saying ‘I know’ fails to constitute a performance of the act of knowing. In this paper, I advance a defense of Austin’s position. I diagnose the principal objections to Austin’s account as stemming from detractors’ failure to acknowledge: (1) that Austin never characterizes ‘I know’ as a pure performative; (2) that saying ‘I know p’, unlike simply knowing p, occurs in specific interpersonal contexts in which others rely on our knowledge claims; (3) Austin’s considered account of the felicity conditions of performative utterance; (4) Austin’s ultimate repudiation of the performative/constative distinction. I conclude that Austin’s treatment of ‘I know’ rests on a more general commitment to the intrinsically normative nature of ordinary language.

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Sabina Vaccarino Bremner
University of Pennsylvania


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