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Searle v. Derrida on Speech Acts

Image result for performative speech

I've referenced John Searle in this blog fairly often, I believe. But it has always been as the inventor of the "chinese room" thought experiment. Today I hope to describe another aspect of his life's work: his view of "speech acts," and the conflict with Jacques Derrida over same.

In 1972, Jacques Derrida wrote an essay about J.L. Austin's book, "How to do things with words," a work published in 1962 based on lectures delivered in 1955. Austin's over-riding point was that much of what one does with words is a performance, even if it masquerades as a description. For example, "I'm sorry," in the context in which an apology is socially appropriate.  This is an action, not a report on the degree of one's personal sorrow.

Derrida's essay, "Signature, Event, Context," expresses the view that, yes, Austin had a valid point. But Derrida devotes a lot of attention to the things Austin didn't say, questions he left undiscussed in those lectures -- about fiction, for example, or about symbolically significant silence -- and speculates about the significance of Austin's own silence on such matters.

Searle thought Derrida's essay was too much Gallic cleverness, too typical of Continental philosophy, and so tone deaf to Austin's real though limited goal.

Derrida replied that Searle and Austin had formed a limited liability company between them. That itself was presumably an effort at cleverness, and I won't try to decode it. Austin was dead by now -- in fact he had died before the book in question was published. Derrida also complained that English speaking analytical philosophers like these two distinguish between normality in the use of speech on the one hand and "infelicities" on the other.

Searle dismissed Derrida in The Construction of Social Reality (1995), recalling the now 20 years old feud only to say that Derrida had no argument to make, he only wanted to claim (absurdly, in Searle's view) that there is nothing outside a text.


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