J.L. Austin's How to Do Things with Words: An Archival Study

J.L. Austin’s posthumously published How to Do Things with Words is a ground-breaking philosophical text. This archival project investigates Austin's preparatory notes held at Bodleian Libraries (Oxford) to produce a description and analysis of the evolution of the final text. This will enable future studies to illuminate exegetical debates.

Department: Philosophy

Supervised by: Dr Michela Bariselli, Dr Leo Townsend and Prof Mark Nixon

The Placement Project

This project investigates the preparatory notes used for the posthumous publication of J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words in 1962. This publication is based on a series of lectures that Austin delivered in Harvard in 1955, developed from notes for his Oxford course ‘Words and Deeds’ (1952-1954). The project traces and reconstructs the preparation of Austin’s Harvard lectures from the initial notes, held at the Bodleian Libraries (Oxford). How to Do Things with Words played a seminal role in the development of contemporary philosophy of language by shifting philosophers’ attention from what we say to what we do with our words – to the performative aspect of language. Its pathbreaking influence is visible in current philosophical debates (especially on harmful and hateful speech) and within neighbouring disciplines such as gender studies and linguistics. Yet, How to Do Things with Words is notoriously challenging to interpret; scholars disagree about its goals and the main lines of argument. Among the challenges is the significance of a conceptual description of performative speech, first developed and then abandoned, and of the sidestepping of poetic and non-serious utterances. Besides a few notable exceptions (the most prominent being Marina Sbisá), Austin scholars haven’t resorted to his notes to ground their readings of How to Do Things with Words. This project aims to address this gap by analysing Austin’s preparatory notes and producing a description of the evolution of How to do Things with Words that can be used for illuminating contemporary debates in Austin scholarship.


Week 1. Familiarise with the published version of How to Do Things with Words. Dr Michela Bariselli and Dr Leo Townsend will provide guidance on How to Do Things with Words, its structure, its main lines of argument and the scholarship around it. Week 2 and 3. Archival research. Collection of pictures of the material available at the Bodleian Libraries (Oxford). Prof Mark Nixon will provide guidance on archival material collection. Week 4 and 5. Analysis of the material collected and visit to the archive If needed. Dr Michela Bariselli and Dr Leo Townsend will provide guidance on the analysis of Austin's notes, helping identify any material that could be relevant to Austin's scholarship. Prof Mark Nixon will provide guidance on how to analyse archival material. Week 6. Compilation of a report of the archival research, with the guidance of Dr Michela Bariselli, Dr Leo Townsend and Prof Mark Nixon.

Skills, knowledge and experience required

• Good written and spoken communication skills. • Time management and organisational skills. • The ability to carry out tasks independently

Skills which will be developed during the placement

The student will acquire: • a deep knowledge of a seminal and pathbreaking philosophical work; • knowledge and competence in conducting archival research, document handling and document analysis; • knowledge and competence in analysing and presenting research finding; • knowledge and competence in conducting close textual analysis of philosophical texts.

Place of Work

Weston Library (Bodleain Libraries), Oxford, for the collection of materials (week 2 and 3).Flexible place of work for other weeks.

Hours of Work

Hours and pattern of work can be flexible. However, the Bodleian Libraries opening times must be taken in account for accessing archival material.

Approximate Start and End Dates (not fixed)

Monday 10 June 2024 - Friday 13 September 2024

How to Apply

The deadline to apply for this project is 5pm on Friday 5th April 2024. To make an application, please go to the following link and complete the application form: To find this project in the application form, please filter ‘school of project applying to’ and select School of Humanities

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