Derrida Contra Searle – Intentionality – Part 2…

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Part 1 is here

Another acerbic criticism by Searle concerns meaning as utterance meaning attributed to Derrida, where the positionality of intentions is confined to entities that are mysterious in nature and lying behind these utterances. The only way to smash this criticism is by showing that Derrida does respect the existence of distinction that mirrors Searle’s distinction between speaker’s utterance meaning and literal meaning. In accepting such a distinction, the seemingly apparent gulf becomes non-existent, and the irreducible polysemy or dissemination of Derrida lands on the same level as the literal ambiguity of Searle. Searle highlights the category mistake in underlying the supposition that the utterance of the token and the token are identical and the mistake only proliferates when the token acquires a different meaning from type in the case of utterance meaning as differing from sentence meaning. For him, excepting diachronic changes, special codes, and the like, the token’s meaning is always the same as the meaning of the type, and the only distinction worthy of name is the one between speaker’s utterance meaning from sentence meaning, type or token (John R. Searle – Expression and Meaning _ Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts). This can mean nothing more and nothing less than the fact that one’s use of token has no impact upon token’s type. Even if utterances and tokens are different from one another, utterances lose their existential status without tokens, implying that nothing rules out the possibility of utterances and token having different meanings, with the condition of utterance meaning as not affecting token’s literal meaning being strictly adhered to.1 In order to establish the nexus between literal meaning and the issue of intentionality, Searle takes a recourse to fungible intentionality that highlights the conventionality of intentionality when trying to connect to the notion of literal meaning. This introduces about-ness in intentions or intentional states. The word “fungible” is used to designate a literal meaning that can do the work of a state of mind that is about something. Searle’s vagaries are once again evident when he simply broaches this concept of fungible intentionality in his reply to Derrida, as the essay circulates around argument of the iterability of linguistic forms as facilitating a necessary condition for particular forms of intentionality as characterizing speech acts. This is so, primarily due to the status enjoyed by us human beings at mastering recursive rules that help in the proliferation of speech acts thus generating infinite number of new things, meanings in its wake. And this is true even in case of remainder or when the sentence gets alienated, weaned from its origin. As Searle points out,

There is no getting away from intentionality, because a meaningful sentence is just a standing possibility of the corresponding intentional speech act. To understand it, it is necessary to know that anyone who said it and meant it would be performing that speech act determined by the rules of the languages that give the sentence its meaning in the first place.

Another complication that surfaces in Searle is his insistence on the dissimilarity between utterance meaning’s context dependency vis-à-vis sentence meaning’s context dependency2, which incidentally is even accepted by Derrida. But, the problem lies in the non-clarity in Searle when he is trying his hand at distinguishing between meaning attached to the sentence and meaning attached to the utterance in his critique of Derrida in relation to Austin. To take an example, Derrida invokes a puzzling example from Nietzsche, “I forgot my umbrella”. This quote simply means ‘I forgot my umbrella’, even if one is unaware of the context underlying the remark. This quote also gives rise to a duality in that, on the one hand, one is aware of what is intended, whereas, on the other, one is not aware of the intention behind the statement. If this duality is considered, and if what Searle claims about intentionality as missing from writing holds true, then there is nothing that goes against Searle, for the consequence that a sentence would undergo would always be dictated by fungibility of intentions. But the point is missed for the thinker in question fails to apprehend what Derrida might have meant, that is, writer’s intention rather than fungible intention. The Derridean argument thereafter goes on to prove that intentions as such are never fully actualized. In a highly insightful passage, Derrida (Limited Inc 38) comments,

On the one hand, I am more or less in agreement with Sarl’s statement, “…there is no getting away from intentionality, because a meaningful statement is just a standing possibility of the corresponding intentional speech act”, I would, on the other hand, add, placing undue and artificial emphasis on -ful, that for reasons just stated, there cannot be a sentence that can be fully and actually meaningful and hence (or because) there can be no ‘corresponding (intentional) speech act’ that would be fulfilled, fully present, active and actual.

So, even if there are some traces of agreement between the two thinkers, Derrida rejects the thesis that intentions could be fully present within the text, thus proving his dissemination or irreducible polysemy as holding firm grounds. Moreover, his affirmation gets all the more strengthened because, iterability keeps account of dissemination, thus preventing intentions from ever getting actualized. Furthermore, if dissemination is to mark its presence, it is possible only with and within iterability. This goes on to prove the untenability of Searle’s “ideal hypothesis”, since the very structure of the mark excludes the hypothesis of idealization.

There is a nuance associated with irreducible polysemy, despite Searle’s thesis of vagueness and literal ambiguity that is no different than Derrida’s dissemination. Searle holds ambiguity to be finite, whereas, Derrida holds polysemy to be determinable, since irreducible polysemy never makes the arrogant claim on signs, words and sentences as having indeterminate meanings.3 Even a cursory look at the positions of the two thinkers  is enough to reach a conclusion that on the issue of meaning of sentences, these thinkers do not differ greatly, since both regard meaning as relatively contextual and meta- contextual, in addition to holding contexts as unchanging, and showing hardly any nuance amongst themselves in considering polysemy a characteristic feature of sentences. Well, this judgment appears to be slightly neutral laden or prejudiced with the usage of the word “nuance”, and could eventually mean as if the word is used rather strongly. But, this ain’t the sense in which it is employed here. There is a difference, and it lies in iterability, which, for Derrida, lends a polysemic status to sentential meanings, whereas the deviation wrought about by Searle lends legitimacy to the existence of univocal sentences.

Before getting into the discussion on parasitic discourses that formed a real contentious issue between Searle and Derrida, on the latter’s reading of Austin, it is necessary to provide a brief recapitulation. The major criticisms provided by Searle on Derrida’s take on Austin’s parasitic/normal/abnormal discourse are,

  1. a misplaced conflation of iterability, citationality and parasitism that slides into a misplaced accusation of Austin as implicitly denying quotability,
  2. a misplaced conflation of non-fiction/fiction distinction with speech/writing distinction as attributed to Austin,
  3. a mistaken understanding of Austin’s exclusion of parasitic discourse and,
  4. attaching an ethical status to this exclusion.

What is confounding for Searle is his understanding of Derrida, who according to former denies Austin any possible expressibility of quotations, since, Austin analyses serious speech acts before undertaking studies on parasitic ones. So, if Searle thinks of parasitism as not a matter of quotability on the one hand, he also considers Derrida’s position of commitment to parasitism as citationality on the other. Thus nothing differentiates citationality from quotability for Searle, whereas, for Derrida, quotation is just one aspect of citation. This Searlean argument falls flat on face, and a further decimation of it occurs, when one notes that Derridean parasitism is only an utterance, or a citation of an utterance in contexts that happen to be extraordinary. If non-serious citations were “the determined modification” of general citationality, it could only imply for non-serious utterances as a certain type of utterance in general4. One of the themes of Signature Event Context is to show that Austin excludes the determined modification of citationality, and with this exclusion, a successful performative misses its mark. So, it appears that there is a trade-off of exclusion for one type of citationality in favor of the other, viz, serious citation. This is a clear case of Searle misinterpreting citationality as mere quotability. Now, if there is a suggestion to the effect of non-serious citations as determined modifications of citationality, this could only be deciphered on the basis of conventionality, in that, whenever, these features are noticed, they should always be taken as utterances of a certain kind. If this is where Searle’s criticism aims at, Derrida takes a recourse to counter it by an augmented track to hit straight at former’s notions of idealization and semantic rules. This is to be accomplished in order to prove whether a distinction that is not sharp enough is a legitimate conceptual distinction in the first place. Derrida carries no qualms in admitting that it is not, whereas Searle insists on it being a legitimate conceptual distinction. The questions concerning the legitimate conceptual distinction is again a deviated path for the thinkers in question, since, both of them at least agree upon the premiss that a normal speech act is only comprehensible as a fiction following an aporetic situation in which a sharp distinction between normal and parasitic speech acts is encountered, thus considering these distinctions as nothing short of idealizations.

1 Kevin Halion correctly summarizes this with his reading of Searle as delineating two fundamental and separate distinctions viz, sentence/utterance and type/token. Speaker’s utterance meaning and sentence meaning are both context dependent. Over and above the context dependence of the utterance of ‘The cat is on the mat’ (where its indexicals are only determined relative to the context of utterance which decides which cat it is and where the mat is), there is a contextuality of its literal meaning. This dependence on contextual or background assumptions is easily shown. For instance, it would be problematic to speak of a cat’s being on a mat outside some gravitational field. However it might still be said and Searle gives an example to show this: looking from a space-ship window, mats float past with cats near them in such a relation that, relative to the ship, it can be said that in some cases the cat is on the mat and in the others the mat is on the cat. And there are innumerable other contexts to which the statement about the cat is also relative.

2 For to understand this opposition and differing kinds of context dependencies, it is worthwhile to have a look at the quote by Searle (Expression and Meaning 133f, linked above) below,

A … skeptical conclusion that I explicitly renounce is that the thesis of the relativity of literal meaning destroys or is in some way inconsistent with the system of distinctions … that centers around the distinction between the literal sentence meaning and the speaker’s utterance meaning, where the utterance meaning may depart in various ways from literal sentence meaning. …The modification that the thesis of relativity of meaning forces on that system of distinctions is that in the account of how context plays a role in the production and comprehension of metaphorical utterances, indirect speech acts, ironical utterances, and conversational implications, we will need to distinguish the special role of the context of utterance in these cases from the role that background assumptions play in the interpretation of literal meanings.

This clearly indicates the distinction made by Searle between utterance meaning and sentence meaning, even if they are both determined by context.

3 A couple of quotations from ‘Afterword: Toward an ethic Discussion’ (Limited Inc 115) lends legitimacy to Derrida’s views here.

I never proposed ‘a kind of “all or nothing” choice between pure realization of self-presence and complete freeplay or undecidability.’ I never believed in this and I never spoke of ‘complete freeeplay or undecidability’.

And again on page 148,

From the point of view of semantics…’deconstruction’ should never lead either to relativism or to any sort of indeterminism.

The quotations within the above quotes are from Searle (Caution: Subscribers’ only), that were reproduced by Gerald Graff in putting across his questions.

4 So it is not true that Derrida held that ‘the phenomenon of citationality’ (with citationality understood as quotability in the sense of mention but not of use) was ‘the same as the phenomenon of parasitic discourse’.