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.
For some reason, I can’t shake a certain cloudiness about this debate… I think my sense – and you’ll remember that this points back to our first reading group discussion of the exchange – is that there is something slightly… ajar, slightly out of kilter, about the way in which the concept of “intention” structures aspects of this discussion. But I can’t quite get to the bottom of my discomfort – which has the effect of leaving me with the sense that I’m not ready to summarise this debate… As a consequence, I’ve procrastinated terribly in writing this reply – and yet still don’t have anything terribly meaningful to add to your comments… ;-P
I’ll start with something unrelated to the Derrida-Searle exchange: by all means do – whether in the comments or, as would probably be more appropriate, in a separate post – elaborate on your concept of a “theory of dialogic acts”. The issue of polemic within academic (and, more broadly, political) discourse has been so much in the air recently – pointing, as you suggest, to broader issues with how we grasp the conditions of possibility for discourse more generally. There’s something extremely interesting and important about all the theoretical energies poured into understanding communication – and then the contrast between various theories and how communicative acts unfold… By all means don’t let’s limit ourselves to the interpretation of received texts – please feel absolutely free to take the discussion in new directions – and to start a new thread for this purpose, if you need the space.
The points you raise about, in a sense, the “necessity” for polemical discourse, particularly for “foundational” moments in new theoretical movements, have obviously preoccupied the reading group since the beginning. It’s a very difficult issue – with, as I take it, you occupying one end of a spectrum (tending to think that polemic and, in a sense, willful (or, at the very least, heavily structurally overdetermined) – rather than accidental – miscommunication and misinterpretation of other positions might be inevitable in order for an intellectual movement to succeed), and GGollings occupying the other (tending to think, as I understand it, that a kind of radical openness to conflicting views is, in a sense, ethically definitive of academic communication). I’m probably mischaracterising both of you (and, in any event, I haven’t necessarily assumed that the positions you’ve articulated within the reading group have necessarily been “your” positions, to which you are committed in any strong sense – they’ve seemed more to be intellectual positions whose potentials and merits you are trying to explore in a systematic way??).
I sit strangely in relation to this debate – empirically, I suspect you may be right – certainly right to the extent that one can make a case for strong structural incentives for a level of willful disregard for opposing positions. At the same time, there are at least some positions whose content is about the form in which communication takes place – in which the substantive position being put forward relates specifically to the potential to achieve (with hard work and inevitable missteps along the way – and with an always partial and incomplete result) a substantially greater level of shared understanding than existed prior to the debate. Some of the theorists articulating this kind of position – Habermas, for example – would actually embed an element within your argument above, in order to strengthen their own point. You mention:
Habermas would then pick up from here, and argue that the capacity to switch between positions – and our practical experience of doing so on a regular basis in post-traditional historical contexts – itself gives us the basis to understand an alternative set of ideals for communicative practice. This is how he derives his counter-factual ideals, and tries to ground the notion that everyone does share a common ethical framework, at least at a very abstract level. (I should perhaps flag – more for other readers than for you, since you’ve heard me speak on this issue… – that I don’t share Habermas’ theoretical framework, but do believe – as you’ve noted – that he’s right to focus his attention on counter-factual ideals…)
There’s a strange meta-level where the folks focussed on shared counter-factuals – and I’ll include myself here – and the folks focussed on how often communication breaks down in actual practice, are often also talking past one another – in a funny “glass half empty-glass half full” sort of way.
So, for example, I’ll be running around trying to show that the fact that communication breaks down so often in practice doesn’t reflect, say, the ontological incommensurability of diverse human communities – I’ll be trying to show that the conditions of possibility for achieving some level of shared understanding exist.
I’m always conscious, though, that this is, in effect, a “leading the horse to water” argument – I’m not trying to suggest that necessary conditions are in any way sufficient – only that we shouldn’t regard even quite fundamental communicative breakdowns as evidence for the lack of any kind of meaningful shared frame of reference… And of course I’m very aware that people can (willfully or otherwise) find all sorts of ways to misunderstand one another… I’m just trying to contextualise communicative failures within a theoretical framework that can also account for things like (1) specific types of communicative failure that appear particularly common (so, instead of talking about communication and its breakdown at some very abstract ontological level, we can begin to talk about the problem more specifically in relation to our own historical experience), and (2) the occasional communicative success (sometimes so tacit and complete that it goes unrecognised – which also, I think, points us back to the issue of shared historical experiences that are sufficiently common that they tend to find expression in a wide variety of superficially conflictual forms of perception and thought).
My sense from the feedback I’ve received when trying to talk about these things, is that it’s very difficult for me to communicate the strategic intent of the approach – the problems it’s trying to solve – and so in practice I find myself fielding a lot of questions about whether I’m being overly optimistic or placing too much faith in people, etc. (Comments that, I have to admit, I find amusing on autobiographical grounds… ;-P) My sense is that my approach, and approaches that focus more pragmatically on how communication breaks down – whether for psychologistic reasons, or for the sorts of game theoretic reasons you mention above, or for more “structural” reasons – are actually quite complementary with one another: ultimately, we need to understand all of these things. In practice, though, I suspect that my ontological and epistemological starting points might make me a bit more open to the possibility for this kind of intellectual synergy than, say, positions that focus very heavily on the incommensurability of discursive communities – mainly because my starting point, theoretically, is that it is very likely that there are some homologous experiences often finding expression even in conflicting views…
I’m not suggesting that you would disagree (or agree ;-P) with anything I’m saying here – just outlining my own reasons for being very interested in what you have to say on the issue, if you’d like to sketch your own position more comprehensively in a separate post…
I feel like I should actually say something about Derrida and Searle… ;-P I also feel that I’ve written such a lengthy comment that I shouldn’t say… much about them… ;-P
Just riffing a bit on the outline you provide above: Derrida’s initial response was of course quite devastating – Searle, having missed that Derrida had been speaking about the potential for misunderstandings and miscommunications – as a structural possibility inscribed in communication, and made more visible via our engagement with the practice of writing – effectively made Derrida’s point for him, by misunderstanding him so completely…
The core issue, of course, is that the phenomena to which Derrida is pointing – the existence of miscommunication, willfull or otherwise – are not themselves intended to be controversial – they are, instead, intended to be quite prosaic: Derrida doesn’t perceive himself as pointing to anything profound or contentious, when he gestures to their existence. Where the analysis becomes profound is in trying to tease out implications of such phenomena – implications that then Derrida argues necessarily react back on an entire philosophical tradition oriented to seeking conceptual and communicative clarity (and I tend to agree that, in drawing out these implications, Derrida is a more “legitimate” heir in many respects to Austin, than is Searle – within this exchange, at least…).
I mentioned above that I have some concerns about the category of “intentionality”, which I haven’t teased out clearly as of this writing. I also have some concerns about the historical indeterminacy of Derrida’s argument: he tries to ground a level of ontological fluidity – which is fine, but which itself may not give us much grasp on the specific vulnerabilities and strengths of the forms of perception and thought specific to our own time. Basically, I think we can do more – and that failing to do more, ironically, risks naturalising some elements of perception and thought that can more accurately be perceived as quite socially and historical specific…
But this comment has grown truly cancerous… Time, I think, to stop…
Time, I think, to stop
When I first followed the link (from the Responses to “Socratic Methods”) to the first entry in this series of posts, I was looking forward to having the chance to throw in some words of wisdom of my own, since Derrida — and the Searle debate in particular — is very dear to me.
Unfortunately, the commentary from lmagee and yourself has, by being exemplary, frustrated my anticipation (ambition?) by leaving me nothing to disagree with and very, very little to add. For the most part, all I have to add (fittingly?) is iteration. For instance, I think you’re right to stress that Derrida is pointing at “a structural possibility inscribed in communication”. Far too many readings of Derrida’s argument (and of deconstruction generally) approach it as though it were determined by an utterly specifiable methodology entailing a “critique” of “oppositions”, etc, when virtually everything in SEC (certainly everything in the reading of Austin) comes down to identifying and pointing out the implications of Austin’s move — “for methodological reasons” — to exclude an essential or structural trait from the analysis of the concept. In other words, Derrida insists here on little more than on than philosophical rigour in the formation of a concept. Of course, the implications of that insistence in this particular case turn out to be far more devastating than one might have anticipated.
Similarly, I completely agree with your reading of the “materialist” dimension to Derrida’s argument. You may remember my first uninvited interruption here, when I mentioned the third chapter from Of Grammatology, though the whole of Part I is worth reading in this respect, for one way of beginning to think about the historical yet transcendent — “quasi-transcendental” is probably the more appropriate term — conditions for critique; I think the two texts, when read together, help to elaborate the hypothesis you’ve begun to develop. In this vein, I would also stress Derrida’s early example of a “context” (the philosophical colloquium) as evidence of another dimension in which his “theory” is much more materialist than many care to concede. This early example, insofar as it leads on to the question of the limits of a context, also helps to think through one of the ways in which the quasi-transcendental may manifest itself: as a kind of non-positive excess to positive institutions, a non-positivity which could not be defined in terms of an original presence that positive institutions simply are not (yet) “up to”, but rather one which is conditioned by positivity.
And finally, I think lmagee’s questions regarding the nature of (this) dialogue are perfectly apt and beautifully formed. The only response I can give to them is to suggest that lmagee may be interested in reading a fabulous little book by Niall Lucy, called Debating Derrida (1995), which asks some similar questions in relation not only the Searle debate but also to some others Derrida has been drawn into.
So: having nothing but agreement to add here, I’d really like to hear a little more about the potential objections to SEC (and Limited Inc. generally). In the case of the following, for instance, would you care to elaborate on the potential objection (and on why it warrants the title of “objection”)?
And again, if you fancy indulging a serial pest, what are these “concerns about the category of ‘intentionality'” that you mention? and “about the historical indeterminacy of Derrida’s argument”? “historical indeterminacy” in what sense?
This topic is dated, I understand, and my questions are undoubtedly motivated by a certain kind of self-interest, so please don’t feel obliged to address them. If you choose to do so, though, I’ll certainly enjoy reading your response.
Nice small questions 🙂 Your revival of this discussion is actually timely, in the sense that LM has been nagging me behind the scenes to take a much closer look at Derrida, as LM, knowing my project a bit better than we we originally had this discussion, now sees some stronger parallels than were evident at the time. I’m not at all resistant to the concept of reflecting more on this – although, if I can ask for a bit of patience, I have a couple of other bits and pieces I’ve had queued up for the blog for some days now, while my work schedule hasn’t permitted me to write – and then I’d need to look at the material in a more serious way.
So I guess I’m asking whether you’re willing to hang around for a bit longer, while I sort through some other things and then get my head back into this space – it would be quite valuable for me to talk through these issues with someone who has a self-interest in the topic, as this would lead to some robust feedback. But it may be a bit before I can say anything at all useful…
In the meantime, if you have the inclination, I would myself be interested in hearing your thoughts on my gestural comments on Derrida’s materialism – although this seemed evident to me when I was reading the material, my sense at the time (LM can correct me on this) was that my reading struck others as quite odd, and I was a bit worried that this might be something I was carrying with me into the text…
I can at least very generically say that, by “historical indeterminacy”, it seemed to me that perhaps Derrida’s categories captured a very long historical register (the same could be said – in fact, I frequently have said it – about, say, Adorno’s work). I suspect it’s possible to identify some more historically specified potentials for the same forms of critical subjectivity – and, if such could be found, this might – but only might – react back on some dimensions of Derrida’s critique. But this is probably much too generic to be useful – I’m too far away from the text, and I wasn’t fully confident of my reading at the time.
Sorry to babble for so long without adding much other than an apology for further delay…
I too would like to comment more substantively on rob’s comments, and can only echo NP’s gentle exhortations towards patience… I am meaning to re-examine Derrida more substantively later in the year, including the more canonical works like Of Grammatology.
Thank you for the reference too. I’ll try to hunt it down. I am particularly interested in receptivity of Derrida across critical traditions, so this no doubt will be of great interest.
For now I will leave it in NP’s capable hands to respond in more depth…
Thanks for your responses, N Pepperell and L Magee. I’m more than happy to wait awhile for the chance to return to these texts and these questions, and I’m delighted that you’re both keen to pursue the topic.
Without wanting to pre-empt (too much) where the discussion might go, I should probably give you a little background to my interest. My doctoral research focused on Derrida and the question of discipline and touched on (albeit sometimes only obliquely) many of the questions raised in this discussion topic and in the ones on Hegel and on self-reflexivity. The main philosophical points of reference in that research were Derrida, Foucault and Hegel (but Kant, Marx and Nietzsche, among others, had their respective spectral influence).
I should also admit that it’s been a while since I’ve read the Grammatology and many other of D.’s books, so my questions or responses more often than not emerge from a kind of abstracted and internalised sense of the possibilties of “deconstruction” — of how it works, of its motivations, of the kinds of arguments that it, in a sense, takes for granted (to the extent, of course, that deconstruction can be said to have or to be a stable set of procedures, presuppositions, etc.) — than from particular texts.
In the case, for instance, of Derrida’s materialism, I was drawn to that depiction of his argument simply because it reproduces that “sense” of deconstruction to which I’ve habituated myself. Consequently, for me it’s less a case of whether the materialist point is “really” in SEC than of the fact that that reading is consistent with the “principles” of deconstruction. On the other hand, it’s perhaps not surprising that some (many?) people would find an emphasis on Derrida’s materialism rather strange, since word has gotten around that deconstruction is some kind of a-historical, formalist (i.e. idealist) theory of language, etc. This view is so commonplace that even sophisticated and sympathetic accounts Derrida’s work tend to present that work in terms that do not take it very far from a certain kind of formalism, a certain kind of Kantianism, a certain kind of language theory, etc. By contrast, I think I could probably count on one (maybe two) hands the number of commentaries that would depict Derrida’s work as a certain kind of genealogy, say.
But now I think I’ve said too much. I will stop now, and I will wait for what I am certain will amount to some very interesting discussion.
rob – just a quick comment that I was making an almost identical point to someone else recently, about my relationship to the theoretical traditions and theorists with whom I’m most familiar:
Although I read very closely to get myself into the thought-space of a tradition, this is more or less where I seem to end up – almost with a set of generative principles from which I rederive a sense of what the tradition or theorist “should” do. Sometimes – perhaps often – this isn’t quite what a particular text actually does. And I find that I can run into some difficulties when trying to defend my interpretations, as it can be difficult to pin points down to easily specifiable places in a text.
At any rate – nothing to do with the point you were trying to raise. I just hadn’t specifically heard anyone else describe their sense of a theoretical tradition in this way, and was struck by the comment.
More to your substantive point (but still without being ready to engage your questions in a useful way): I find very interesting your comment about it being uncommon to read Derrida’s work as a kind of genealogy – I’m in a terrible position to make any comments on Derrida’s work in a general sense, but certainly this element seemed to sing through this particular text…
It’s an interesting question how interpretations of a theorist can overtake the work, such that it then becomes very difficult to read against the interpretation…
I also realised after I posted yesterday that I could at least cast a bit of light on the passage you quoted above: it was more a question, really, than a critique – or a placeholder, perhaps, for a critique, depending on what the answer to the question might be. In terms of the text in front of us, it seemed (to me…) that Derrida was trying to talk about the conditions of possibility for the rise of a particular form of critical subjectivity. I understand this as one step (and the step, perhaps, most often overlooked) in grounding a critical standpoint. What I was asking in the passage you quote is whether Derrida also explains the conditions of possibility for the forms of subjectivity being criticised? How he understands the plausibility for these forms of thought, as well as the plausibility for the forms of thought that cast into relief their ideological character?
I had in mind the notion that Derrida seems to be engaging in a form of critique that wouldn’t (shouldn’t?) regard the forms of thought being criticsed as mere errors – but I couldn’t see in this specific text how he might try to develop this position? My point only becomes an “objection” if for some reason he wouldn’t or couldn’t recognise this as an issue…
Not sure if this is clear enough to make sense – and of course the answer may be perfectly obvious to anyone more familiar with the tradition…