Skip to main content

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.


Popular posts from this blog

A Story About Coleridge

This is a quote from a memoir by Dorothy Wordsworth, reflecting on a trip she took with two famous poets, her brother, William Wordsworth, and their similarly gifted companion, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

We sat upon a bench, placed for the sake of one of these views, whence we looked down upon the waterfall, and over the open country ... A lady and gentleman, more expeditious tourists than ourselves, came to the spot; they left us at the seat, and we found them again at another station above the Falls. Coleridge, who is always good-natured enough to enter into conversation with anybody whom he meets in his way, began to talk with the gentleman, who observed that it was a majestic waterfall. Coleridge was delighted with the accuracy of the epithet, particularly as he had been settling in his own mind the precise meaning of the words grand, majestic, sublime, etc., and had discussed the subject with William at some length the day before. “Yes, sir,” says Coleridge, “it is a majestic wate…

England as a Raft?

In a lecture delivered in 1880, William James asked rhetorically, "Would England ... be the drifting raft she is now in European affairs if a Frederic the Great had inherited her throne instead of a Victoria, and if Messrs Bentham, Mill, Cobden, and Bright had all been born in Prussia?"

Beneath that, in a collection of such lectures later published under James' direction, was placed the footnote, "The reader will remember when this was written."

The suggestion of the bit about Bentham, Mill, etc. is that the utilitarians as a school helped render England ineffective as a European power, a drifting raft.

The footnote was added in 1897. So either James is suggesting that the baleful influence of Bentham, Mill etc wore off in the meantime or that he had over-estimated it.

Let's unpack this a bit.  What was happening in the period before 1880 that made England seem a drifting raft in European affairs, to a friendly though foreign observer (to the older brother…

Cancer Breakthrough

Hopeful news in recent days about an old and dear desideratum: a cure for cancer. Or at least for a cancer, and a nasty one at that.

The news comes about because investors in GlaxoSmithKline are greedy for profits, and has already inspired a bit of deregulation to boot. 

The FDA has paved the road for a speedy review of a new BCMA drug for multiple myeloma, essentially cancer of the bone marrow. This means that the US govt has removed some of the hurdles that would otherwise (by decision of the same govt) face a company trying to proceed with these trials expeditiously. 

This has been done because the Phase I clinical trial results have been very promising. The report I've seen indicates that details of these results will be shared with the world on Dec. 11 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology. 

The European Medicines Agency has also given priority treatment to the drug in question. 

GSK's website identifies the drug at issue as "GSK2857916," althou…