Here again, some readers will be feeling itchy, as if they were being dragged against their will into the thickets of phenomenology. It is all very well, they might say, to talk in this high-toned way about authority, but the mundane reality is quite different — in Chicago, say; or in a small city that has suddenly found itself bankrupted by unsustainable pension commitments; or in Washington, D.C. And it’s not only political authority that is frequently corrupt or incompetent or both: “Epistemic authority,” as Austin calls it, is often flawed, as is ecclesial authority — authority of all kinds, in fact.
Yes, Austin acknowledges: “That authority is necessary for human flourishing is no guarantee that authority will be exercised wisely.” He devotes a chapter to authority and error. Because he is writing to counter a pervasive distrust, he errs slightly, I think, in the direction of deference to authority. But his account is in no way naïve. Indeed, his reflections on how “we live with fallible authority,” which would always be in season, are particularly timely just now.