Monday, July 13, 2009

“By accident” and “by mistake”

In his “A plea for excuses”, J.L. Austin makes a distinction between “by accident" and “by mistake”. However, he does not elaborate this distinction and the only clear difference between mistake and accident that he makes in this article is this: “In an accident something befalls: by mistake you take the wrong one [i.e. wrong decision-btw]”. Nonetheless, it can also happen that a mistake results in an accident. J.A.C. Coady expresses the distinction by saying that a mistake is something that happens in your thought process or perceptions, while an accident happens because something went wrong in the outside world.
At first sight this distinction seems to be clear. However, if we dig deeper, “mistake” and “accident” appear to be more like shades of the same: some cases are clear mistakes and some cases are clear accidents and there is much in between. Actually this is expressed by Austin himself, when he writes: “If a mistake results in an accident, it will not do to ask whether ‘it’ was an accident or a mistake, or to demand some briefer description of ‘it’ ”. But why not? If a traffic accident is clearly the consequence of a miscalculation of one of the drivers, and we should see it only as an accident, why then ask the question of responsibility?
A building collapses by a miscalculation of the architect. Why do we call it an accident? Shouldn’t we call it a mistake? In a certain sense it is both.
I saw something black in the reed: “Look, a moorhen”. But when it came out I said: “I made a mistake, it is a coot”. Do we call it only a mistake and not an accident, because it does not have serious consequences?
I shoot at the bull’s eye and I miss. Is it an accident or a mistake? And makes the answer any difference, whether I am a beginner or a professional bowman?
By mistake, for example a slip of the tongue, I gave the wrong answer in the quiz, for I thought that I knew better, and I won the first prize. Is it an accident or is it a mistake that I won the first prize and I shouldn’t I have received it?

The upshot is that sometimes the distinction looks clear, and in his article Austin treats the mistake-accident distinction mainly like that. But often things aren’t that way, with all the consequences for the question of responsibility.


Helen said...

There's a way to read Austin so that he's not susceptible to your criticism (and, incidentally, I think that it's the right way to read Austin).

In a sentence you quoted, Austin writes, "If a mistake results in an accident, it will not do to ask whether 'it' was an accident or a mistake, or to demand some briefer description of 'it'." You then suggest that Austin intends for us to give a briefer description: to call it a mistake. But we might charitably read Austin as intending that we neither call 'it' a mistake or an accident. Instead, describe the situation in full, because 'it' is not simply one or the other. What happened was a mistake that resulted in an accident. To use your example of a traffic accident, I'm suggesting that Austin does *not* intend us to call it a simple accident and leave aside the question of responsibility. Rather, I think he would call this a "briefer description" that fails to capture the complexity of the situation.

Your point is a good one, but I think Austin would agree with you.

HbdW said...

Hello Helen,
It is often difficult to read an author in the right way. Therefore it is nice of you that you showed me another, if not better reading of Austin. Well, I’ll leave it here as I have written it. Let the reader of may blog make the choice. Anyway, thank you a lot for the effort to send me a comment, and to show me my possible mistake, even if I did it by accident.