A belated post for the new year, this post covers the second part of our Derrida-Searle reading. To recapitulate, we had worked through:
J K Austin, “How to do Things with Words”, 1962
J Derrida, “Signature Event Context”, 1971
J Searle, “Reiterating the Differences”, 1977
And now follow on with:
J Derrida, “Limited a b c”, 1977
J Derrida, “Afterword”, 1987
Unlike the previous post, which (somewhat tediously) laboured through the arguments presented by Derrida and Searle respectively, I will be taking a more cursory look at the argument in total. An aspect of this which interested our group was the structure of the argument, which I will abbreviate as:
a. Austin makes a case, albeit with some caution and reluctance, for a theory of speech acts.
b. Derrida performs a deconstructive reading of Austin, via Corneille and Husserl, highlighting the exclusion of particular speech acts on the basis of a characteristic (paracitism, citationality) which turns out to exemplify communication in general (iterability).
c. Searle replies briefly and dismissively, seeking to rebut a number of Derrida’s criticisms, and demonstrate Derrida’s own argument is incoherent under its own terms.
d. Derrida replies in turn with a long, point-by-point and equally dismissive repudiation of all of Searle’s rebuttals.
e. A decade on, Derrida, through a series of responses to readers’ questions, clarifies and reinforces aspects of his reply, places this in the broader context of the history of deconstructive writings, and further discusses, among other things, the question of an ethics of discussion.
The latter two texts are long, and by turns, amusing, defensive, elliptical, pointed, aggressive and tedious. It is hard not to agree that in large part Searle has misread Derrida – a point in which the reading group, following Derrida, were unanimously agreed upon – and Derrida employs considerable rhetorical force and legal defence in Limited Inc to demonstrate a) Searle frequently misphrases Derrida; b) rebuts by unwittingly using Derrida’s own arguments from “Signature Event Context”; and c) contradicts his own positions expressed in “Speech Acts” and other places. Whether a line-by-line reading would find points of difference to Derrida’s critique becomes progressively less relevant; the two questions that were raised by my reading were: “Why would Searle, elsewhere a more considered and polite interlocutor (though not always), not only misinterpret Derrida’s essay, not even doing an obligatory undergraduate level of research into Derrida’s ‘tradition’, and yet employ such dismissive and contemptuous language?”; and in turn, given this, “Why would Derrida expend so many words in a protracted self-defence?”. The strangeness of Derrida’s style merely serves to emphasize, at least to the casual reader, what great care is invested in defending and attacking argumentative positions, when there is no possibility of any dialectical resolution being realised. Strangely perhaps, given the extreme scepticism often imputed to Derrida, of the two his texts veer far closer close to desiring, if not resolution, then at least clarification, elucidation and insight.
I had thought to bemoan the fact that here was an opportunity for “two prominent philosophical traditions” to engage in fruitful debate, and quite clearly, the opportunity was lost. But with this loss (which assume that Searle and Derrida could speak for these traditions), possibly there is a gain of quite a different sort. Rather than seeing these texts expound various positions in relation to a given theme (for instance, the methodological correctness of excluding a given class of citational speech acts), or as contrastive styles of particular traditions, I found this instead to be an instance of a particular type of dialogue. No doubt skewed by the nature of the academic debates our reading group has been following (Chomsky/Whorf, Pinker/Lakoff, Searle/Chomsky, Pinker/Chomsky), which to greater or lesser degrees have involved significant theoreticians talking past each other, this debate exemplifies the kind of dialogue in which positions are taken, argued for, enforced and defended – but never vacated. What is common in the structure of these debates in general is that the possibility of dialectic is foreclosed by the very nature of the debates. This is not a matter of two thinkers failing to find agreement, but of failing to engage in the kind of dialogue – dialectic or otherwise – which might find agreement. What might motivate this kind of dialogue? Certainly it would be possible to impute all kinds of psychological motives (career advancement, jealousy, a phlegmatic temperament). But I think such imputation misses the point: that in certain kinds of positions, there is a necessary antipathy to other kinds of positions, brought about by both the context of the debate and the goals of the speaker. Having struck such a position – which I think Searle does, for example – it then becomes impossible to find conciliatory ‘moves’ in the course of the dialogue. This in turn ensures the kind of vituperative, perhaps justified, reaction Derrida supplies. Of course this is not to say that a speech act theorist must be antithetical to a deconstructionist (although there may be the sorts of obstacles Derrida finds to reconciling deconstruction with speech act theory). But it may be to say that when one founds, or continues the founding, of a particular theoretical movement; when one competes against other theories, not only for recognition, but prestige, funding, space in the academy; when one finds in other kinds of discourse the sort of criticism which seems ephemeral, beside the point and, most critically, failing to follow the rules one has assiduously applied oneself – then in these circumstances the tactically correct ‘move’ in a dialogue is not one of conciliation, but open and hostile attack. While a focus on context, rules and goals – in short, a focus on describing dialogue as a form of game – might seem to be reducible to psychologism of sorts, it is possible under this model for the same speaker to occupy different positions, no less determined, in other debates, with the same or other interlocutors.
With presumption typical of our reading group, though without the nuance typical of this blog – and blithely ignoring prior theories of the dialogic – I’d like to graduate this suggestion to that of a tentative theory of dialogic acts. Under such a theory, it would be possible to create a set of types which contrast, for instance, the ideal of the dialectic from the all-too-common polemic; and perhaps encompass a broad range of other possible conversational acts as well. Notwithstanding the attractiveness of elaborating such a theory in full here, it would only be polite for the moment – as a guest on this blog – that this elaboration be deferred…
…On a more sedate note, using a game metaphor to describe this and similar debates naturally brings its own assumptions – chiefly, that one or more of the dialogue ‘players’ has a hidden motive which is masked by a superficial failure to obey the laws of good academic, which is to say dialectic, discourse. Of course this is easily denied. That a particular thinker uses an aggressive, argumentative style, which does not meet some standard of politeness, tolerance, etc., need not entail the thinker has something to hide. Or if it does – could not every argument be analysed in terms of some sort of similar hidden motives? Using background knowledge, that one does this or that due to some external circumstance that we, qua interpreters, have contingent knowledge of, might be arguably be itself an invalidation of the rules of engagement. Here it might also elicit the response: if Searle attempts (poorly?) to response to the Derrida of “Signature Event Context”, and not the Derrida of such and such a tradition, such and such a body of writing (Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference and so on), is he not simply conforming to the rules which bind a different game (perhaps that of a strain of analytic philosophy, which treats an argument as a logical series of propositions, without requisite reference to a context)? Might the requirement to understand the context, tradition and so on be a requirement only of a particular kind of argument, which, for example, suits the style, aims and orientation of Derrida, deconstruction and so-called ‘continental philosophy’ in general, tipping the hand towards the player with the preferred game? Finally: is it therefore a question of preferring one game, with its set of rules – recourse to context, literary effect, the implied knowledge of a lifetime of reading of particular “philosophical tradition” – over another? Even assuming Searle critically misreads Derrida, as he himself suggests – not quite sincerely – that indeed he might, might not he just have got it wrong, even under the terms of his own tradition?
However speculative this analysis – and that of the reading group was no less so, though conducted with greater sobriety – the enjoyment of following the threads of the Searle-Derrida argument is precisely that it elicits such open-ended questions. Some commentarists have assumed the argument resolves in favour one way or another; despite Derrida’s laying waste to the Searle critique, in my view, the lingering atmosphere of the argument is not one of victorious elation – it is instead one of irritation. Irritation of Searle with Derrida; irritation of Derrida with Searle; the explicitly acknowledged irritation of Derrida’s readership with his patient, step-by-step refutation in Limited Inc; Derrida’s subsequent irritation with the broader misreadings of deconstruction voice in the Afterword; and the irritation, mingled with the enjoyment, of pursuing a polemic which, without a common set of rules, fails to get off the ground, much less supply the sort of ideal dialectic resolution that is promised by “confrontation between two prominent philosophical traditions”. The answers, really non-answers, to the questions I pose above, are that in the game-theoretic model I follow, positions need to be elaborated by players for goals which may well be “outside the text”, outside the specific purposes we assume exist in the normative, that is to say dialectical, “confrontation” between theories, thinkers and the like. Of course, having no more than partial access to this context we as readers may continue to interpret imperfectly, take our own imperfect positions, conduct our own imperfect polemics, and so on. The dialectic remains, as the author of this blog likes to say, a counterfactual ideal towards which, however illusory, our arguments would like to tend.