The legendary exchange between Derrida and Searle on the nature of language remains a symbol of the chasm between the so-called Analytic and Continental traditions of philosophy. But beyond highlighting the blind spots of an understanding of language that excludes literature, irony, jokes, and the subconscious, the exchange also underlines the refusal of analytic philosophers to seriously engage with the other side, writes Peter Salmon.
“With Derrida, you can hardly misread him, because he’s so obscure. Every time you say, “He says so and so,” he always says, “You misunderstood me.” But if you try to figure out the correct interpretation, then that’s not so easy. – John Searle
Jacques Derrida was and is one of the most controversial philosophers of all time. To many, particularly in the ‘analytic’ tradition of philosophy, he remains a charlatan. To others, those in the ‘continental’ tradition, he is one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century, whose insights, on language in particular, are both deeply thought out and represent a deep shift in the way we think about not only philosophy but literature, film, politics, even identity.
That the terms ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ even exist is, in some ways, to operate as a bulwark by British analytical philosophers against the ‘nonsense’ coming from ‘over there’ – predominantly France. In reality, the analytic tradition, as thinkers like Christoph Schuringa have pointed out, only becomes dominant in the mid-twentieth century, while ‘continental’ philosophy is an exonym – no French thinker would describe themselves as ‘continental’. In fact, Derrida called ‘his lot’ traditional philosophers, dealing as they did with things like love, death, ethics and literature, rather than the narrow field of logic.
This argument rumbles on, despite the efforts of philosophers such as Richard Rorty and Brian Leiter to bridge the divide. Some of the battles have become legendary, perhaps none more so than the dispute between Derrida and the American philosopher John Searle. Nearly fifty years on, it is the foremost example of the confrontation between the two schools, even if both philosophers refused to see it as such.
Derrida was an admirer of Austin, and felt that he had made a fundamental breakthrough by calling into question a view of language that argues the only true sentences are those that ‘correspond’ in some way to reality.
Derrida and the limits of what J.L. Austin could do with words
In 1977, Derrida’s 1972 essay ‘Signature Event Context’ appeared in English for the first time. It is one of his most challenging texts, and begins with a provocative question. ‘Is it certain that the word communication corresponds a concept that is unique, univocal, rigorously controllable, and transmittable: in a word, communicable?’ That is, does language, when spoken between people, act in the way that had become one of the shibboleths of analytic philosophy – with clarity and precision.
In his sights was the late philosopher J. L. Austin, whose How to Do Things With Words had become a key text in the philosophy of language. Derrida was an admirer of Austin, and felt that he had made a fundamental breakthrough by calling into question a view of language that argues the only true sentences are those that ‘correspond’ in some way to reality.
Austin had introduced the concept of ‘performatives’. These are sentences which perform a function simply by dint of their utterance – the classic example being ‘I will’ when asked if you will marry this man or woman. The utterance both describes a given reality and changes it. It is not, in the classic analytic sense, an utterance with a truth value – it cannot be said to be true or false like a sentence such as ‘it is raining’ but it is nonetheless valid, and cannot be dismissed in the way that an extreme version of, say, logical positivism would have it.
So far, so good felt Derrida – of course not all of our utterances can be measured against reality to check if they are valid. However, it was Austin’s next move he fundamentally disagreed with. Austin was alive to an objection – there are situations where being asked if you will marry someone and responding ‘I will’ is not in fact a performative in his sense. It might be said on stage, or in a book of fiction, by children playing, or just in jest. Alternatively, the celebrant may not have the requisite qualifications, or one of the party might be a bigamist.
It seemed astonishing to Derrida that all of fiction, all of poetry, all the ways we ‘play’ with language, including jokes, should be ignored in our search for how language works.
Austin attempted to resolve the problem of what he called ‘infelicities’ in two ways – the second set he called unhappy performatives – they fail to carry out the performance they attempted. The former he called parasitical – pieces of communication which are in some way abnormal. When studying language, the philosopher can bracket these off as inessential to their work, as, in his words, only statements ‘said in earnest’ are ‘normal speech acts’.
It is the concept of parasitical utterances that ‘Signature Event Context’ hones in on. It seemed astonishing to Derrida that all of fiction, all of poetry, all the ways we ‘play’ with language, including jokes, should be ignored in our search for how language works. Even if we allowed this – and Derrida even in his most generous of moods never would – where do we draw the line? The barrier between fiction and non-fiction is notoriously porous. Should we take a statement seriously until the utterer says ‘I’m only joking?’ And how do we know, even then, that the speaker is being earnest?
More importantly, consider our own day to day utterances. When communicating with others we use a range of different conversational techniques, including jokes and what Nietzsche called an ‘army of metaphors’. Can a joke not be a performative, in the sense that I am attempting to out someone at their ease, regardless of the words used? Who judges whether I am being earnest? Austin’s concept seems to imply that I as the speaker can sort my utterances in this way, earnest and parasitical. Apart from anything else, anyone with even a brushing acquaintance with Freud, the broader field of psychology, and even the current science of mental states might find a problem here. There are times when the meaning of our utterances isn’t transparent to us, channelling our subconscious biases, beliefs and desires.
For Derrida it is writing that grounds speech, by enabling the transfer of words and therefore concepts.
‘Signature Event Context’ goes further and moves the debate to an area not touched on by Austin – writing. Elsewhere, Derrida had challenged the long asserted philosophical position that speech was somehow ‘truer’ than writing in that it had more access to the ideas/mind/soul of the utterer, than writing did. In ‘Signature Event Context’, Derrida introduces what will become a key term in his thinking – iterability. It is a structural necessity of writing that it can function without the writer being present – you can read this essay without, thankfully perhaps for both of us, me being there with you to ensure its validity, and to continually assure you I am writing in earnest. I may even be dead by the time you read it – and as Derrida puts it, ‘a writing that was not structurally legible – iterable – beyond the death of the addressee would not be writing.’
For Derrida it is writing that grounds speech, by enabling the transfer of words and therefore concepts. All language is iterable, any linguistic expression must be capable of being repeated, which introduces the possibility, or even the inevitability, of a deviation from its ‘intended meaning’ (supposing for the moment one could be assigned). This does not render utterances invalid or unmeaningful, as they all have significance within whatever contexts they find themselves. ‘Infelicities’ in fact constitute the very structure of language, as every statement can escape its context.
Derrida also raises the issue of ‘citationality’. All communication can be taken from its context by being quoted – again this is a structural necessity of language. ‘The possibility of extraction and citational grafting belongs to the structure of every mark, spoken or written.’ For Derrida, Austin claims for ‘normal speech acts’ cannot incorporate this essential aspect of language either.
Searle does not, he admits, find Derrida’s arguments ‘very clear and it is possible that I may have misinterpreted him’ but leaves little doubt in the reader’s mind he believes he has. A closer look though reveals significant misreading.
Searle strikes back
Searle had been a student of Austin’s, and his own 1969 book Speech Acts had attempted to build on the latter’s ideas of illocutionary acts. Broadly speaking, locutionary acts are what is said, such as ‘Is there any sugar?’ while illocutionary acts are about what is to be done – the sentence actually means ‘Please pass me the sugar.’ Meaning resides in the intention of the speaker.
His response to Derrida, ‘Reiterating the Differences: A Reply to Derrida’, was swift, vicious and assayed in a tone on contempt it never manages to throw off. Searle does not, he admits, find Derrida’s arguments ‘very clear and it is possible that I may have misinterpreted him’ but leaves little doubt in the reader’s mind he believes he has. A closer look though reveals significant misreading.
He begins by focussing on Derrida’s argument which sees iterability as fundamental to writing. His first move is an odd one – he argues that writing is not unique in this, it is the same for speech. This is, of course, exactly what Derrida argued, indeed that the speech/writing distinction is unsustainable.
He then argues that Derrida calls iterability is in fact, simply, permanence. The fact that my words can be read after my death shows only that they are permanent. Again this seems odd – Derrida would agree with the idea of permanence. However permanence is not a necessary aspect of writing, whereas iterability, the possibility of my absence, and the possibility of my communicating with an absent receiver (you), is.
Searle goes on. Yes, ‘writing makes it possible to communicate with an absent receiver, but it is not necessary for the receiver to be absent.’ He then gives two examples of writing occurring in the presence of a receiver – me making a shopping list for myself, or me passing a note to a companion ‘during a concert or lecture’. Again, Derrida’s argument is not this – it doesn’t matter if the receiver is there or not, just that they don’t have to be (leaving aside the fact that the ‘I’ who writes the shopping list is not the same ‘I’ as the one who shops – no list would be needed if they were!).
Derrida intentionally uses all the strategies of fictional discourse, from hyperbole to sarcasm to cliff-hangers, to set himself up, in some sense, as that anathema to any theory of transparent meaning – an unreliable narrator.
Regarding the obviousness of intentionality, Searle argues that when we read the words such as ‘On the twentieth of September 1793 I set out on a journey from London to Oxford’ we can say with total confidence, ‘The author intended to make a statement to the effect that on the twentieth of September 1793, he set out on a journey from London to Oxford,’ even if the author is dead.
This sentence is, of course, ripe for deconstruction. In this novel, who is speaking? The author? The character? What assumptions are contained in the sentence? Searle immediately assumes it is a ‘he’ (the author, the character). Why does Searle assume that? And so on. And, invoking ‘citationality’, could not this sentence be used in a cut-up poem, as a codeword, or in an essay against Derrida as an example of the ‘obvious’ transparency of intention?
Derrida’s own reply was equally swift and perhaps even more vicious – even Derrida would later read it ‘with a certain uneasiness’, calling it ‘not devoid of aggressivity’.
Titled ‘Limited Inc a b c...’, Derrida plays on the fact that Searle’s article carries the signature ‘Copyright © 1977 by John R. Searle’ – Searle claims he is saying things which are obviously true, so why the copyright? It is just the first shot across the bows of Searle’s position in what is a bravura performance.
Derrida intentionally uses all the strategies of fictional discourse, from hyperbole to sarcasm to cliff-hangers, to set himself up, in some sense, as that anathema to any theory of transparent meaning – an unreliable narrator. ‘I multiply statements, discursive gestures, forms of writing,’ he later wrote of the essay, providing instances of speech acts which in themselves invalidate Searle’s concept of ‘normal.’
At one point he accuses Searle’s paper of being an act of parricide against the father, Austin (hence Searle’s inability to acknowledge Derrida’s stated admiration of Austin – are they competing for affection?) in order to riff on Freud. Insofar as Searle argues that all intentions must be conscious, he must therefore exclude therefore the unconscious, must in fact treat the unconscious ‘as the great Parasite of every ideal model of a speech act.’
He is particularly amused by Searle’s statement regarding one of his arguments – ‘There are two obstacles to understanding this rather obvious point, one implicit in Derrida, the other explicit.’ Wait, writes Derrida, the essay here appears to be arguing that there is a meaning behind Derrida’s utterances, an implicit one. Something unconscious? Are, Derrida asks, ‘Derrida’s intentions’ not transparent here?
So obscure is Derrida, writes Searle, that he cannot even be misread, as this would imply that there is a clear argument that can be extracted.
Searle did not respond directly to the paper, and when, in 1988, Derrida published Limited Inc, collecting both ‘Signature Event Context’ and ‘Limited Inc a b c...’ together, he refused permission for ‘Reiterating the Differences’ to be included. Perhaps this is why his paper was copyrighted?
Searle did later share his opinion of Derrida in the New York Review of Books . In a 1983 article ‘The World Turned Upside Down’. Derrida and his followers are accused of obscurantism, obfuscation, banality, philosophical sloppiness, superficiality, breath-taking implausibility and a wilful ignorance of concepts basic to analytical philosophy. So obscure is Derrida, writes Searle, that he cannot even be misread, as this would imply that there is a clear argument that can be extracted.
The article seethes with rage, and, as with many of Derrida’s detractors it is hard not to reard them as showing little philosophical rigour in their accusations of Derrida lacking philosophical rigour. ‘Certain readers resented me when they could no longer recognize their territory, their institution,’ Derrida noted. They found his work threatening because it isn’t simply eccentric or strange, but competent, rigorously argued, and carrying conviction.’
On the Analytic – Continental divide
Was there any point of agreement between the pair? Yes, said Derrida, just the one. He agreed totally with Searle’s statement in ‘Reiterating the Differences’, ‘It would be a mistake to regard Derrida’s discussion of Austin as a confrontation between two prominent philosophical traditions’.
Even now, the Derrida–Searle debate inflames both sides. Noticeably however, it is the analytic side which seems to respond without reading the ‘other side’ – claiming something is obscure is an easy get out.
But perhaps even here they both misunderstood each other. There was a confrontation, and it continues to this day. When Derrida talked of ‘traditional philosophy’ he was advocating for thinking about the whole human domain, literature included. More than just included, in fact – literature was basic to Derrida’s thinking, and any ‘philosophy’ which excluded that realm was meaningless. Derrida’s tradition incorporated not only thinkers like Sartre and Heidegger, but Augustine and Rousseau, each of whom wrote confessions which were as much self-making through language as they were works of philosophy. Derrida would write his own version Circumfession, exploring ‘Jacques Derrida’ in ways that felt to him as much philosophy as any number of analytic textbooks.
Even now, the Derrida–Searle debate inflames both sides. Noticeably however, it is the analytic side which seems to respond without reading the ‘other side’ – claiming something is obscure is an easy get out. When Derrida was given an honorary doctorate by Cambridge University, a number of analytic philosophers wrote to the Times to protest. They said Derrida’s work resembled philosophy, but was not it. They accused him of using puns such as ‘logical phallusies’. Given that any one of them could have opened one of Derrida’s books and found something they would regard as gibberish, only shows that none of them had. Their letter was another interesting piece of fiction.