Jacques Derrida’s treatment of the philosophy of language tries to say that meaning is never fixed in a way that allows us to effectively determine it. It also says that intentionality does not play quite the same role as is traditionally conceived in the philosophy of language; that is, our intention does not determine the meaning of what we are saying. Instead, the meaning of the words we use determines our intention when we speak. This does not mean that we do not mean what we are saying, or that we cannot have intentions in communicating. Because language is a social structure that developed long before and exists prior to our use of it as individuals, we have to learn to use it and tap into its web of meanings in order to communicate with others. Another area of interest for Derrida is the role of writing in language and communication. In his essay “Signature Event Context” (1972), Derrida studies all of these things, focusing on the importance of the written versus the importance of the spoken. At the outset, he questions the very nature of communication itself before working his way into the problems he sees with traditional Anglo-American philosophy of language. For the purposes of this paper, the two philosophers of this ilk that will be mentioned are John L. Austin and John Searle. “Signature Event Context” brings Austin’s book How To Do Things With Words (1962) into its argument, and John Searle, who wrote Speech Acts (1969), takes Derrida to task for what he thinks are faulty claims concerning language. In Speech Acts, John Searle identifies the speaking of language as “performing speech acts according to rules,”1 which is a point that Derrida finds contention with. First of all, the focus on spoken language is problematic for Derrida; also, he tries to claim that there are certain concepts in the philosophy that are given more privilege than they perhaps deserve. He does not imply that these concepts should be moved into a position where they are underprivileged. In his response to “Signature Event Context” (henceforth SEC), John Searle seems to me to make the mistake of thinking that Derrida is trying to do just that. Here I will have a look at what it is that Derrida is saying in SEC, and then try to see if it in fact stands up to Searle’s criticism.

Derrida asks first and foremost: what is communication? Its traditional conception seems to put an emphasis on simplicity, unity and solidity of meaning, but Derrida thinks that this may be flawed:

Is it certain that to the word "communication" corresponds a concept that is unique, univocal, rigorously controllable, and transmittable: in a word, communicable? Thus, in accordance with a strange figure of discourse, one must first of all ask oneself whether or not the signifier “communication” communicates a determinate content, an identifiable meaning, or a describable value. However, even to articulate and to propose this question I have had to anticipate the meaning of the word communication: I have been constrained to predetermine communication as a vehicle, a means of transport or transitional medium of a meaning, and moreover of a unified meaning. If communication possessed several meanings and if this plurality should prove to be irreducible, it would not be justifiable to define communication a priori as the transmission of a meaning2
Derrida is trying to say here that he believes there to be greater depth and more dimensions to the concept of communication than are acknowledged by normal philosophy of language and speech act theory. Speech act theory, of course, is the theory concerning actual effects that are incurred by utterance. These include, for instance, frightening somebody by saying something, or giving someone instructions. Traditional speech act theory focuses on meanings intended by speakers, success/failure parameters in communication, and what is or is not “legitimate” communication. Communication as the transmission of meaning requires that there be a person transmitting the message and a person receiving the message. So speech is generally given a position of greater importance than other forms of communication. Derrida, though, sees no good reason for adopting this stance, saying that by privileging speech, we are closing off a whole “semantic domain that precisely does not limit itself to semantics, semiotics and even less to linguistics.”3 Street signs, morse code and perhaps even body language can all be included in this polysemious interpretation of what communication is. The concept of language is here exposed as something much more ambiguous than it has often been conceived.

A very significant part of this new, pluralistic way of looking at communication is the possibility of reinterpretation and multiple meanings of words. When we consider that we refer to the side of the highway as the shoulder, for instance, this puts into the question the determinacy of meaning. The easiest answer to this problem of meaning is to say that we use words in different contexts or frames of references and that is how we find meaning. The problem with this, according to Derrida, is that contexts are so vague and indeterminate themselves that it is impossible to find a foundation for meaning there:

But are the conditions (les réquisits) of a context ever absolutely determined? This is, fundamentally, the most general question that I shall endeavor to elaborate. Is there a rigorous and scientific concept of context? Or does the notion of context not conceal, behind a certain confusion, philosophical presuppositions of a very determinate nature? Stating it in the most summary manner possible, I shall try to demonstrate why a context is never absolutely determinable, or rather, why its determination can never be entirely certain or saturated4
If even this basis for determinate meaning is called into question, then meaning itself is indeterminate. So, in his investigation of communication and meaning, Derrida pays attention to writing, because it is the underprivileged partner in the speaking/writing binary pair; in doing this, he opens up the hierarchy, questioning whether or not one really is more primary or important than the other. Writing, he says, does not depend on the same sort of configuration as speaking (the sender-receiver scheme); rather, it has absence as an important part of it. The written word is written by the author for people who are not usually there at the time of the writing. Also, when and if the text is read, the author is not always there at that time either; he or she may even be deceased. As a form of communication, writing steps outside the physical and temporal limitations that speaking places upon us. It is not subject to disappearing from memory in the same way as spoken messages, which can be preserved, and, through the use of hypertext (a form of computerized text that can link to other texts by clicking on words), it can provide lead us through discourse in a less linear and more undeterministic way. Intentionality also gets downplayed here. In written communication, the very absence of the author causes his or her intention in writing the text to become less important when we are reading and interpreting it. To quote Michel Foucault, the act of writing is the creation of a “space into which the writing subject constantly disappears.”5 If the author becomes insignificant, then the meaning of a text can shift and be reinterpreted, taken apart and examined for implied meanings. This capacity Derrida calls iterability; it is the possibility of repeating utterances, writings and other forms of communication over and over again in many different contexts, which allows them to have different meanings or at least to be interpreted differently. For Derrida, this is of great import because it shows that communication is fluid, and once again, indeterminate. The polysemious nature of communication thus brought to light seriously calls the traditional philosophy of language and meaning into question. Is the written word less “true” or “right” than the spoken word? Is it the fomenter of error? Derrida wants to argue that this is not the case, and that the primacy of spoken discourse is unfounded. John Searle, however, disagrees, and attacks Derrida’s position in his article “Reiterating the Differences: A Reply to Derrida” (1977).

Searle states that Derrida has misunderstood the point of the philosophy of language as Austin has described it in How To Do Things With Words. Austin’s (like Searle’s) postulation says that language is made up of performative utterances, and seems to be based in “true/false” or “success/failure” parameters, and he does put importance on the inner state the person speaking utterances in determining the meaning of what has been said. For instance, a promise made in bad faith will have a different effect than one made in good faith, even though it may linguistically be identical to the true promise. This tradition also identifies utterances spoken as quotation, citation as being “parasitic”. Dialogues spoken in movies or plays, for example, are parasitic speech acts because they do not have the same effect upon those hearing it, as they would if the utterances were made seriously and with true intent. Searle takes great exception to the way Derrida approaches this theory. He writes that

according to Derrida, Austin excludes the possibility that performative utterances (and a priori every other utterance) can be quoted. Derrida makes this extraordinary charge on the grounds that Austin has excluded fictional discourse, utterances made by actors made on a stage, and other forms of what Austin called ‘parasitic’ or ‘etiolated’ speech from consideration when setting out the preliminary statement of his theory of speech acts6
Derrida himself wrote in SEC that Austin is excluding a possibility; his problem is that a philosophical tradition is trying to lay down specific limitations on what does and does not work in language. He says that Austin’s criteria for what performative utterances actually mean something are unnecessary and give a one sided account of meaning in language. What Austin calls “failure” or “infelicity”, Derrida sees as a “possibility” and thinks that it is inappropriate to marginalize such a wide field of communication:
I take things up here from the perspective of positive possibility and not simply as instances of failure or infelicity: would a performative utterance be possible if a citational doubling (doublure) did not come to split and dissociate from itself the pure singularity of the event?7
Here, Derrida points out how it is the very possibility of iterability that enables us to distinguish between particular speech acts. In other words, if we could not cite, quote, repeat or reinterpret the phrases we use every day, then we would not be able to understand what is being said in each instance. So what Austin calls “failure”, Derrida sees as a necessary aspect of the way we communicate because it represents the opposite of what we hope to achieve in serious discourse. By appearing as the opposite of “normal” speech acts, “parasitic” speech acts give the former a positive identity; the possibility might not even be considered if they did not exist.

I see Searle’s criticism as being weak because he does not recognize what Derrida is trying to do. When Searle writes that “Derrida supposes that the term ‘parasitic’ involves some kind of moral judgment; that Austin is claiming that there is something bad or anomalous or not ‘ethical’ about such discourse,”8 he is totally missing the point. As I see it, Derrida takes Austin’s theory as an example of what is wrong with the philosophical tradition which Austin and Searle are picking up. He is not calling for the destruction of that tradition, he is merely pointing out that the "right of philosophy to erect a wholesale theory of mind and language on the basis of commonsense notions that work well enough for all practical purpose but take on a different, more doctrinaire aspect when applied as a matter of philosophic principle"9 is questionable and perhaps insufficient. This means that if we can recognize a “parasitic” speech act for what it is just by using common sense and thereby comfortably insert it into our understanding of the language we use, and we can’t do the the same thing with philosophy, then there is something wrong. When John Searle says that a

leitmotif of Derrida’s entire discussion is the idea that somehow the iterability of linguistic forms (together with the citationality of linguistic forms and the existence of writing) militates against the idea that intention is at the heart of meaning and communication, that indeed, an understanding of iteration will show the ‘essential absence of intention to the actuality of the utterance,10
he is mistaken. Nowhere does Derrida say or even imply that he thinks intentionality plays no role in meaning and communication. He is only trying to say that they should not perhaps be accorded the degree of importance that they usually are. In saying that there is an “essential absence of intention” in the phrases we utter, he is only saying that. He does not say there is no intention on the speaker’s part; he is saying that when (especially in a form of communication like writing) the phrases are “thrown out there”, and their creator or transmitter has receded from the phrases themselves, then the intentions originally attached to them become obscured and irrelevant. Searle, however, does not recognize this and sees it as an attack on intentionality and speech act theory, which I believe it is not. “Derrida seems to think,” he writes, that iterability is “something in conflict with the intentionality of linguistic acts, spoken or written.”11 Derrida, however is not saying this anywhere in SEC. Rather, as in his other works, I think he is simply teasing open the cracks he finds in his object of investigation. Instead of destroying it, he wants to flesh it out, open it up, and question it. He is engaging a received view, and only hopes to broaden the view of meaning in the philosophy of language.
  1. John Searle, Speech Acts, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969) 198.
  2. Jacques Derrida, Limited Inc, (1988; Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2000) 1.
  3. Derrida, 1.
  4. Derrida, 3.
  5. Michel Foucault, The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 102.
  6. John Searle: “Reiterating the Differences: A Reply to Derrida” in the Philosophy 3660/5660W reader (Halifax: Dalhousie University, 2002) 152-3.
  7. Derrida, 17.
  8. Searle, “Reiterating ...” 153.
  9. Christopher Norris, “Home Thoughts from Abroad: Derrida, Austin, and the Oxford Connection”, in the Philosophy 3660/5660W reader (Halifax: Dalhousie University, 2002) 159-60.
  10. Searle, “Reiterating ...” 154.
  11. Searle, “Reiterating ...” 155.

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