Derrida Contra Searle – Part 1…


The three most essential features of writing for Derrida happen to be remainder, rupture and spacing, of which the first is mirrored in weaning of a text from its origin and the second finds its congruence in severance of expression from its meaning, and all of the three happen to be graphematic. Remainder could also be thought of as writing that absents itself from the original context, while rupture is to be seen primarily as the unlikelihood of a proper context that arrests it, or confines it. Even if weaning of a text from its origin fits the bill of being graphematic, Searle’s rejects rupture as being one. This implies that the status of permanence is accorded to writing, as unlike speech, it remains in its archival form even in the absence of speaker-writer. This position is non- Derridean, as it argues against all language use as characterized by the absence of the sender. Therefore, severance of meaning from the expression is denied any special status for writing by an advantageous denomination of quotability, which, even if, not a normal purpose of quotation1, could still be a possible one. Searle’s reading of severance of meaning from an expression or rupture goes for a tailspin here, for, rupture implies a signifier to be grafted onto innumerable contexts in which sense could be derived, rather than boundations imposed upon graphemes and phonemes as simple considerations of marks and sounds respectively, and alienated from any significations they might carry when considered as mere signifiers.

Derrida most patiently and appropriately, ironically launches into his own defense against these Searlean criticisms. Irony and/or mockery rules the roost in Limited Inc., for the style is a deliberate attempt to deal with the serious/non-serious distinction in response to Searle’s tone of high disdain. In the words of Spivak (Revolutions That As Yet Have No Model), Searle’s essay is brusque and all too brief, whereas, Derrida’s is long and parodistically courteous and painstaking.

Derrida in Signature Event Context thematically points out the exclusion of writing from speech act theory, and talks about the essential predicates that minimally determine the classical notion of writing. He does this through his reading of Husserl’s Logical Investigations and The Origin of Geometry, where Husserl had indicated a suspicion on speech as underlining certain of these predicates of writing, by supposing writing to imitate speech, but unable to share in the immediate link between speech and its context of production. Even if Signature Event Context considers every sign as cited without the quotation marks, a possibility of a break with every given context leading to illimitable new contexts cannot be ruled as a crisis ridden possibility in itself. Such a crisis has resolution in Husserl through his phenomenological reduction, and in Austin through a programmatic, initial, and initiating exclusion. For Searle, writing is nothing more than a transcription of speech, and his refutation of Derrida’s take on speech and writing is too quick a translation that finds its bottom in a standard and trivial idiom. For instance, Searle clearly misinterprets Derrida by noting some marks to be only iterable by citations exemplified in quotations. It is without any doubt that Derrida considers quotation as a form of iteration or citation, but is only one such form, since for him, use of any such mark is equally a case of/for citation and iteration.2

This is misinterpretation on Searle’s part primarily due to his treating/interpreting graphematic in the classical notion of writing.

When Searle reads Signature Event Context, he reads in it the absentia of intention from writing altogether, which he bases upon the mark as separated from its origin and context of production and is clearly stated in his reply to Derrida. He (Reiterating the Differences {linked in the footnotes}) says,

Intentionality plays exactly the same role in written as well as spoken communication. What differs in the two cases is not the intentions of the speaker but the role of the context of the utterance in the success of the communication.

So, if intentions are present in writing, and contexts differentiate themselves with respect to speech and writing, leading to speech as more implicit in its form as compared to writing that happens to be explicit, one can only adduce to the fact of Searle being caught up in the classical notion of writing, with writing relegated to a lower form of language vis-à-vis speech. This is despite the fact of classical notion holding writing as dependent on speech, with Searle breaking away from it marginally by holding this dependence to be a matter of contingency in the history of human languages, rather than construed as a logical matter, and simultaneously unsubscribing from the classical notion of intentions as somehow absent from writing. Derrida sees a problem with this particular take on intentions that have hitherto sought to actualize and totalize intentionality into self-presence and self-possession.3 One cannot miss the teleological overtones of classical notions of intentionality, and the resolution lies in problematizing this notion. One such solution lies in leveling the privileged status bestowed upon writer-reader’s presence brought about by deconstruction to call back to the center the necessary possibility of the absence of sender and receiver as the positive condition of possibility of communication.4 Such a critique should not be taken to mean in Searlean style that intentionality should be done away with, or effaced, but would only lay importance to its deployment as against disappearance. Intentions could very well themselves be the effects of a desire that lead to self-identical intentions in order to produce interpretations. A limit is imposed upon such desires to prevent it from being thought in terms of a fully intending subject. These limitations, however accentuate the very functionality of intentions, lest it should only focus on Derrida’s project as absurdly nihilist. According to Derrida (Limited Inc),

What is valid for intention, always differing, deferring, and without plenitude, is also valid correlatively, for the object (qua signified or referent) thus aimed at. However, this limit, I repeat (“without” plenitude), is also the (“positive”) condition of possibility of what is thus limited.

In short, in Derrida the originary self-division of intention “limits what it makes possible while rendering its rigor or purity impossible” (Revolutions that as yet have no model). Derrida sees intention as part of the total context5 that somehow carries the ability to intrinsically determine utterances, and is rigorously put forward, when he (Limited Inc) says,

Intention, itself marked by the context, is not foreign to the formation of the total context…to treat context as a factor from which one can abstract for the sake of refining one’s analysis, is to commit oneself to a description that cannot but miss the very contents and object it claims to isolate, for they are intrinsically determined by context.

This point of understanding intentionality is crucial here, for writer’s intending is bracketed by the same context as the actual production of graphemes, and Searle, who at times vehemently rejects any distinction between intention and context invokes it in his criticism of Derrida, thus exhibiting his own conflictual stance. To achieve explicitness, writing must be able to function without the presence of the writer, and the way this is attained is when something meaningful is being said, the intention behind it exhibits its non-presence. This helps clarifying the distinction between the intention to be meaningful and intention itself, or the intended meaning. The phrase “non-presence” is misleading however, and it is loaded with absence. In actuality, these are not to be employed synonymously.5 Non-presence entails intentions as never actualized, or made fully present in the language due to dissemination. Derrida (Limited Inc) explicitly never questions intentionality, but only its teleological aspirations through his text, since these aspirations orient the movements towards the possibility of fulfilling, realizing, and actualizing in a plenitude that would be present to and identical with itself. And this is precisely the reason why Derrida calls intention as not being present wholly. This position is bound to raise suspicion in Searle, when it is largely misinterpreted that radical absence of the receiver in general should connote the absence of trace of any sender. The confusion builds up around “radical absence”, as it is taken to mean the absence of intention, which, however, is not the case. What is really communicated here is the absence of consciousness of what one intended, as is clear from the fact that if a conscious act needs to be intentional, it does not assume intention as conscious.

Searle talks about the normal and the possible purpose of quotation in a note that follows his remark (Reiterating the Differences),

We can always consider words as just sounds and marks and we can always construe pictures as just material objects. But…this possibility of separating the sign from the signified is a feature of any system of representation whatever: there is nothing especially graphematic about it at all.

If every ark is iterable, then no mark belongs to language strictly speaking. Languages could be thought of as reifications, that for someone like Donald Davidson, help us construct theories of meaning, while at the same time engaging with consistent and idiomatic speech behaviors. This might seem like loose semantic conventions and habits, but nonetheless direct towards some sort of an engagement with the likes of Joyce and Mrs. Malaprop and inculcating in us the revisionary exercise towards the theory of what language our interlocutor is speaking in line with the principle of charity. 

This is one of the reasons why Derrida calls his critique as ethico-political in nature.

This is reviewed by Spivak (Revolutions that as yet have no model {linked above}), and she calls attention to an extensive quote attributed to Derrida on the same page, that I find very insightful and hence worth reproducing it here.

To affirm…that the receiver is present at the moment when I write a shopping list for myself, and , moreover, to turn this into an argument against the essential possibility of the receiver’s absence from every mark, is to settle for the shortest, most facile analysis. If both sender and receiver were entirely present when the mark was inscribed, and if they were thus present to themselves-since, by hypothesis, being present and being-present-to- oneself are here the same-how could they even be distinguished from one another? How could the message of the shopping list circulate among them? And the same hold force, a fortiori, for the other example, in which sender and receiver are hypothetically considered to be neighbors, it is true, but still as two separate persons occupying two different places, or seats…But these notes are only writable or legible to the extent that…these two possible absences construct the possibility of the message at the very instant of my writing or his reading.

This confusion is ameliorated when one sees non-presence as designating a less negated presence, rather than getting caught up in the principally binary presence/absence opposition that is usually interpreted.

Post-Foundationalism Versus Anti-Foundationalism. Thought of the Day 58.0


In the words of Judith Butler,

the point is not to do away with foundations, or even to champion a position which goes under the name of antifoundationalism: Both of these positions belong together as different versions of foundationalism and the sceptical problematic it engenders. Rather, the task is to interrogate what the theoretical move that establishes foundations authorizes, and what precisely it excludes or forecloses.

The notion of contingent foundations, proposed by Butler as an alternative framing, could best be described as an ontological weakening of the status of foundation without doing away with foundations entirely. It is on its account, that what came to be called post-foundationalism should not be confused with anti-foundationalism. What distinguishes the former from the latter is that it does not assume the absence of any ground; what it assumes is the absence of an ultimate ground, since it is only on the basis of such absence that grounds, in the plural, are possible. The problem is therefore posed not in terms of no foundations (the logic of all- or -nothing), but in terms of contingent foundations. Hence, post-foundationalism does not stop after having assumed the absence of a final ground and so it does not turn into anti-foundationalist nihilism, existentialism or pluralism, all of which would assume the absence of any ground and would result in complete meaninglessness, absolute freedom or total autonomy. Nor does it turn into a sort of post-modern pluralism for which all meta-narratives have equally melted into air, for what is still accepted by post-foundationalism is the necessity for some grounds.

What becomes problematic as a result is not the existence of foundations (in the plural) but their ontological status – which is seen now as necessarily contingent. This shift in the analysis from the ‘actually existing’ foundations to their status – that is to say, to their conditions of possibility – can be described as a quasi-transcendental move. Although implicitly present in Spivak’s notion of a ‘perpetually rehearsed critique’ as well as in Butler’s notion of ‘interrogation’, this quasi-transcendental turn is made explicit by Ernesto Laclau who, starting from the post-foundational premise that ‘the crisis of essentialist universalism as a self-asserted ground has led our attention to the contingent grounds (in the plural) of its emergence and to the complex process of construction’, comes to the conclusion that ‘[t]his operation is, sensu stricto, transcendental: it involves a retreat from an object to its conditions of possibility’.