John Austin on Excuses


Here, surely, is just the sort of situation where people will say 'almost anything', because they are so flurried, or so anxious to get off. 'It was a mistake,' 'It was an accident' -- how readily these can appear indifferent, and even be used together. Yet, a story or two, and everybody will not merely agree that they are completely different, but even discover for himself what the difference is and what each means.*


*You have a donkey, so have I, and they graze in the same field. The day comes when I conceive a dislike for mine. I go to shoot it, draw a bead on it, fire: the brute falls in its tracks. I inspect the victim , and find to my horror that it is your donkey. I appear on your doorstep with the remains and say -- what? 'I say, old sport, I’m awfully sorry, &c., I’ve shot your donkey by accident'? Or 'by mistake'? Then again, I go to shoot my donkey as before, draw a bead on it, fire -- but as I do so the beasts move, and to my horror yours falls. Again the scene on the doorstep -- what do I say? 'By mistake'? Or 'by accident'?




from "A Plea for Excuses," in John Austin, Philosophical Papers, 1970. London: Oxford University Press: 184-185.