INCENSE AND INSENSIBILITY: AUSTIN ON THE ‘NON-SERIOUSNESS’ OF POETRY

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Abstract

What is at stake when J. L. Austin calls poetry ‘non-serious’, and sidelines it in his speech act theory? (I). Standard explanations polarize sharply along party lines: poets (e.g. Geoffrey Hill) and critics (e.g. Christopher Ricks) are incensed, while philosophers (e.g. P. F. Strawson; John Searle) deny cause (II). Neither line is consistent with Austin's remarks, whose allusions to Plato, Aristotle and Frege are insufficiently noted (III). What Austin thinks is at stake is confusion, which he corrects apparently to the advantage of poets (IV). But what is actually at stake is the possibility of commitment and poetic integrity. We should reject what Austin offers (V).1

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