February 18, 2008

Limited Inc Redux

Filed under: Philosophy — duncan @ 9:18 pm

[Not Roger’s site, the Derrida book]

Jumping right in, because we’re all bored to tears by this controversy:

1) Searle’s critique of Derrida is obviously filled with gross misreadings.
2) But one of Searle’s misreadings is more interesting than the others.
3) Searle says that Derrida confuses permanence with iterability.
4) Derrida doesn’t confuse permanence with iterability. He assimilates permanence to iterability.
5) And that’s because Derrida’s working out of a phenomenological framework that is, fundamentally, idealist.
6) That’s to say: it’s based on the classical philosophical subordination of matter to form.
7) Derrida’s critique of Austin is largely based on Derrida’s claim that Austin’s work belongs to that philosophical tradition.
8 ) But it’s not clear to me that this claim is justified, in the strong form in which Derrida makes it.

I think this is why the whole Derrida/Searle debate gives the impression of two people talking past each other. Searle misreads Derrida because he totally misses the metaphysical level at which Derrida’s argument is pitched. But Derrida can’t quite come out and clarify that metaphysical level, because it’s a bit of a stretch to see Austin’s work as subordinate to the metaphysics of presence in the strong way Derrida needs it to be if his argument’s going to work.

I’m not all that settled in my opinions, here. My big leap above is obviously (8), which amounts to a rejection of the Austin-related argument of Signature Event Context. I need to justify that. I’ve been reading Austin today, and Derrida’s critique is mostly on the money, IMO. Nonetheless, I worry about the speed and, as it were, casualness, with which Derrida assimilates Austin to a philosophical tradition Austin mostly repudiates. The issue, I think – or one important issue – is ‘ordinary language’, and the extent to which Austin’s programmatic refusal of standard philosophical discourse locates him outside the game of transcendental necessary conditions, etc, that Derrida still plays, however sceptically. Austin certainly can’t be wholly exempted from metaphysical discourse – but his work is perhaps more distant from it that Derrida wants to acknowledge.

But that’s not putting it very well; I’ve got a lot of thinking to do.


  1. I don’t believe this observation has any pertinence to Derrida’s or your own position, but for me the problem with Austin and Searle, aside from the choice of action rather than activity as the adequate characterization for pragmatics, is that you don’t need speech to perform the acts they analyze.

    Comment by Chuckie K — February 21, 2008 @ 4:42 am

  2. Absolutely! ‘Speech Act Theory’ is a real misnomer. And, of course, that’s grist for the Derridean mill – Speech Act Theory exemplifying philosophy’s tendency to privilege speech as the true locus of meaning (outside of the mind itself).

    You mention “the choice of action rather than activity as the adequate characterization for pragmatics”. I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean, or what the distinction between action and activity signifies here. Clearly I’m not up to speed – I don’t know much about Speech Act Theory, or critiques of it beyond the deconstructionist. Would you be able to expand?

    Comment by praxisblog — February 21, 2008 @ 6:02 pm

  3. The notions ‘action’ and ‘activity’ originated in psychology. I know them through discussions of linguistic pragmatics, and my knowledge is quite dated.

    The distinction between the two approaches is fairly straightforward. Action attributes the meaning of behavior to intention. It explains acts, including speech acts, in terms of the individual and of the mental states of the individual. Activity locates the meaning of behavior in collaboration between individuals. Originally a Soviet school of psychology, its Western reception, most prominently in educational psychology, has concentrated almost exclusively on its first theorist Vygotsky, but there was much subsequent work associated with Leontiev. In this model, meaning becomes intersubjective and arises over the course of and through interaction.

    I have to confess, it took me one extended and one brief engagement with Searle’s version of speech acts before I decided that you could in fact congratulate someone with a high five, a pat on the buttocks or a hug, and that the congratulee felt themselves congratulated without a word being said. At that point, every single component of the model had dissolved.

    Comment by Chuckie K — February 21, 2008 @ 10:30 pm

  4. Very interesting – thank you. This is all really beyond my meagre areas of knowledge. My Wittgensteinian instincts totally make me want to side with ‘activity’ over ‘action’. I wonder whether ‘speech act theory’ need be destroyed by that approach – my sense from reading Austin this week is that most of his ideas would be compatible with it. But that doesn’t mean his emphases are right – perhaps they’re wrong enough to make his approach unhelpful.

    Thanks for the info, anyway. I congratulate you with the following group of symbols – ^$*%& – which, through individual intention alone, I decree play the role of a high five.

    Comment by praxisblog — February 24, 2008 @ 6:22 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: