From the banal to the exciting to the banal again: intent and iterability in the Derrida/Searle Debate

Jacques Derrida and his beloved cat, Corporate Animal Trust, LLC.

Jacques Derrida and his beloved cat, Corporate Animal Trust, LLC.

John Searle and his beloved rifle.

John Searle and his beloved rifle.


"So far, I am tempted to conclude that I am dealing with two ravenous egomaniacs here, and I am looking forward to watching the sparks fly."

-Me (cut from my original paper)

I wrote this paper for John Kim's seminar in 2007.  John was extremely encouraging, and made me feel that it was safe for me to express my point of view.l will always be grateful to him for that.

One sometimes gets the impression that deconstruction is a kind of game that anyone can play.  One could, for example, invent a deconstruction of deconstructionism as follows: In the hierarchical opposition, deconstruction/logocentrism…the privileged term ‘deconstruction’ is in fact subordinate to the devalued term “logocentrism,” for, in order to establish the hierarchical superiority of deconstruction, the deconstructionist is forced to attempt to represent its superiority…by appealing to the logocentric values he tries to devalue…by an aporetical Aufhebung, deconstruction deconstructs itself.                     

–John Searle, The World Turned Upside Down (181)


One of the most notorious, foundation de-stabilizing events to occur in recent times within the humanities was the 1996 Sokal Affair.  The ploy was cleverly simple:

1) physicist Alan Sokal submits a paper for publication to the cultural studies journal Social Text entitled: “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,”

2) Sokal reveals that he wrote the article as a hoax, as a parody of post-modern cultural studies, after it has been accepted for publication. 

Sokal’s purpose in carrying out the hoax was to force specific departments within the humanities, Cultural Studies, English, and Comparative Literature departments in particular, to think twice about the current state of their disciplines.  Sokal’s experiment raised an important question: if a paper with such an inane premise is capable of being published by Duke University Press, if it is necessary only to speak meaningless jargon to be “recognized” by the field, how can anyone trust the integrity of post-modern and cultural studies? Yet the Sokal Affair has done little to change the current state of the humanities; other minor attempts to document the phenomenon have been made, most notably Sokal’s 1998 book Fashionable Nonsense, and Patai and Corral’s 2005 edited volume Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent.             

This is a manifestation of the silent, yet bitter rivalry seething beneath the surface within the humanities, one that has been documented and commented upon in shocking scarcity.  In short, many analytic philosophers tend to view post-structuralist theory (stemming from the continental tradition) as little more than nonsense, veiled only by intelligent sounding, elitist rhetoric.  On the other side, analytic philosophy is often viewed as logocentric, patriarchal and elitist in its own right.[1]  This rivalry began many years before the Sokal affair, most notably thirty years ago, in the particularly brutal debate between French philosopher Jacques Derrida and American philosopher John Searle, about the nature of intentionality in language.  It is my contention in this paper that, while Searle is clever in the way that he logically and methodically breaks down Derrida’s arguments, his words fall on deaf ears because Derrida is simply not interested in “playing by the rules.” Both philosophers speak to their own respective audiences more than they do to each other; Searle to philosophers on the analytic side and Derrida to critical theorists. 

I find Derrida to be guiltier of this sin; he addresses an audience that he assumes is already cheering him on, an audience that tends to accept his claims because they have already accepted the preliminary notions of deconstruction.  Undoubtedly, similar criticisms could be launched at Searle, but I, as a scholar of Comparative Literature, find myself in a difficult position because I cannot dispute Searle’s claims.  Derrida clearly makes the mistakes that Searle shows that he makes; he does not recognize certain basic distinctions that philosophers of language have taken for granted since the middle of this past century.  By going through the major points of the Derrida/Searle debate, I hope to show why I end up having no choice but to conclude that Derrida has fundamentally misunderstood Searle’s position.

In 1971, Jacques Derrida wrote an essay on the theme of “Communication” entitledSignature Event Context for a conference held by the Congrès international des Societés de philosophie de langue francaise in Montreal.  The essay was published in French one year later in Derrida’s Marges de la Philosophy, and then translated into English for the serial publication Glyph in 1977 (Graff viii).  In the essay, Derrida engages with and critiques particular aspects of J.L. Austin’s speech-act-theory, a quite specific approach to the philosophy of language, which I will be explained in further detail shortly.  In the same year of 1977, the editors of Glyph asked one of Austin’s former students, philosopher of language John Searle, to write a response to Derrida’s critique of Austin.  Searle’s essay Reiterating the Differences: A Response to Derrida(which was published in Glyph alongside Signature Event Context) is, to say the least, a scathing assessment of Derrida’s interpretation of Austin.  Never one to give up on a fight, Derrida replied to Searle in defense of his original publication, at times chiding his opponent, in a rather lengthy essay entitled Limited Inc.

In simplified terms, this is how the Derrida/Searle debate begins, but there is still quite a bit of background information to be uncovered.  For instance, what were the attitudes of the people involved?  In his article Taking It Personally: Reading Derrida’s Responses, Reed Way Dasenbrock suggests that Derrida was in some sense proud of his ability to stir up controversy; that he specifically intended to keep debates with his opponents alive and that he enjoyed calling attention to himself.  Dasenbrock states that, contrary to someone like Foucault who attempted to avoid controversy, “Derrida has reveled in it” and furthermore he claims: “it is not just that Derrida has been willing to address and contest others’ reading of his work; he has also been willing to keep those exchanges in print and therefore keep them in the public eye” (263).  Derrida’s biographer Jason Powell (if he is to be believed) attests that Searle, contrary to Derrida, was quite shocked and hurt by his exchanges with the French philosopher, mostly because he was not accustomed to such blatant personal attacks (Powell 124). 

However, putting aside anecdotal evidence, one can glean a large amount of information about the contrasting attitudes and methods of Derrida and Searle merely from their written responses to each other.  There are many aspects to this debate, and so I have chosen to focus mainly on Derrida’s concept of iterability in contrast with Searle’s ideas about intentionality in speech acts.  It is my contention in this paper that, while Searle is clever in the way that he logically and methodically breaks down Derrida’s arguments, his words fall on deaf ears because Derrida is simply not interested in “playing by the rules.” Both philosophers speak to their own respective audiences more than they do to each other; Searle to philosophers on the analytic side and Derrida to the post-structural or continental side.  But I believe that Derrida is guiltier of this sin; he addresses an audience that he assumes is already cheering him on, an audience that will blindly accept everything that he says because they have already accepted the preliminary notions of deconstruction.  Derrida reaches the height of arrogance in “Limited Inc,” when he refuses to refer to Searle as a living person, and instead renames him “Societé à responsabilité limitée” or “Sarl” for short (Derrida 36).               

speech act theory

But in order to place Derrida’s controversial stance within any intelligible framework, we need to go back to the origin of the debate: J.L. Austin’s 1955 William James lectures at Harvard, published in book form as How to Do Things with Words.  Austin originally developed speech-act-theory in reaction to certain assumptions about language that can be attributed to the logical positivists.[2] The central assumptions (in simplified form) of the logical positivists are as follows:

(1) that the basic type of sentence used in language is declarative; in other words, it is either a statement or an assertion

(2) that language is principally used in order to describe a state of affairs using these declarative statements, and

(3) that the meaning of statements (or utterances) can be described by their levels of truth or falsity (Saeed 1). 

What Austin wants to show is that language can do much more than simply make statements, and more importantly, that many statements cannot be described in terms of true/false categories.  Thus, he makes a distinction between “performative” utterances such as “you’re fired!” and “constative” utterances which are statements potentially containing truth or falsity, such as “the cat is on the mat.” Later on in his career, however, Austin reaches the conclusion that “constative” utterances are actually just a type of “perfomative” utterance because making a statement is equivalent to performing an assertion (Bach 2). 

In his entry on speech acts in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Ken Bach clearly articulates one of the major concerns of speech-act-theory: “The theory of speech acts aims to do justice to the fact that even though words (phrases, sentences) encode information, people do more things with words than convey information, and that when people do convey information, they often convey more than their words encode” (Bach 2).  In Bach’s account, speech-act-theory is a taxonomic and explanatory system because it attempts to classify speech acts into ways in which they can either succeed or fail.  He explains furthermore that for Austin, speech acts areintentional actions which can be classified as (1) locutionary, “the act of saying something,” (2) illocutionary, “what the speaker does in saying it,” and (3) perlocutionary, “what one does by saying it” (Bach 3, his emphasis).     

Keeping these definitions in mind, let us turn to Derrida’s reading of Austin, which can be found in the second half of Signature Event Context.  It will also be helpful to refer to the second chapter of Jonathan Culler’s book On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism, because it is in this chapter that Culler analyzes and defends Derrida’s interpretation of Austin.  It becomes clear from the outset of the discussion that while Derrida respects Austin’s attempt to liberate performative statements from the true/false dichotomy, he still believes that Austin relies too heavily on the notions of intention, context, and convention (Dasenbrock 264).  More specifically, Derrida disapproves of Austin’s use of the success/failure opposition in his categorization of performative utterances:

“[Austin] defines six indispensable—if not sufficient—conditions of success.  Through the values of ‘conventional procedure,’ ‘correctness,’ and ‘completeness,’ which occur in the definition, we necessarily find once more those of an exhaustively definable context, of a free consciousness present to the totality of the operation, and of absolutely meaningful speech…master of itself: the teleological jurisdiction of an entire field whose organizing center remains intention” (Derrida 15, his emphasis)           

In this quote Derrida articulates one of the major reservations he has with Austin’s approach; namely, that Austin’s definition of successful or failed performative utterances are too dependent on bounded contexts and rigid categories.  Furthermore, Derrida seems to think that Austin should be careful in assuming that the “consciousness” or speaker of the utterance is the source of meaning, or that intentionis necessarily involved in the operation. 


Now the question could be asked: if Derrida is criticizing Austin for being too concerned with conventional rules, what does Derrida believe about performative utterances? This brings us to Derrida’s concept of iterability (or repetition) in language.  There is a section in Signature Event Context in which Derrida argues that an utterance can only “succeed” if its formulation conforms to an iterable model, or if it can be identified as a “citation” (18). 

For example, how would we be able to identify a toast at a wedding ceremony if we had not heard similar speeches, conforming to a predictable structure, at some point in the past? Derrida extends this concept of iterability to written texts, and gives signatures as an example.  He claims that in order for a signature to be valid, it must contain the qualities of being repeatable and imitable, but it is irrelevant what the signatory’s intentions are in that moment.  Culler explains Derrida’s denial of intentionality in speech acts more fully.  For Derrida, in the moment of utterance there is “a structural intentionality which is never anywhere present and which includes implications that never, as we say, entered my mind.  [This] notion of intention, marked by what Derrida calls an essential cleft or division, is indeed quite common” (Culler 127).  

On face value, this idea hardly seems controversial, since it would be difficult to disagree that a speaker can be understood or that a check can be cashed regardless of any underlying intention.  After all, a signature will continue to have meaning long after the signatory has died.  But it is precisely this point (among others) that Searle wants to contest in Reiterating the Differences: A Reply to Derrida, and he does so with clarity and, ironically, clear intent.  Searle’s argument is as follows: first of all, is the fact that words are repeatable or iterable enough to account for distinctions in meaning among linguistic elements? No, says Searle, because all linguistic elements, either written or spoken, are rule-governed elements that fit into a larger system of representation. 

In order for the rules of a language to have any scope of application, the linguistic elements must be repeatable.  Searle states: “Without this feature of iterability there could not be the possibility of producing an infinite number of sentences with a finite list of elements; and this, as philosophers since Frege have recognized, is one of the crucial features of any language” (199).  On this point I do not disagree with Searle, considering the fact that Derrida is not even willing to acknowledge that speech acts have any significant performative effect, or that they are in any way marked by intention (Derrida 19).  However, I would add that Searle does not fully acknowledge Derrida’s reasons for bringing up iterability, even if those reasons might be slightly disingenuous.    

Searle believes furthermore that Derrida confuses iterability with permanence.  He finds it faulty to suggest, as Derrida does, that because writing can exist in the absence of both the author and the reader, the written words cannot be said to convey meaning or intention.  Towards the end of his essay, Derrida does in fact attempt to argue that by its very definition: “a written signature implies the actual or empirical nonpresence of the signer (20).” Derrida’s further implication is that, because the author of a signature is often absent when the reader receives it, the signature must rely on iterability in order to function as an exchange between author and reader. 

Searle does not deny that there are many possible ways to differentiate between writing and spoken utterances, but he does argue that the central distinguishing feature of written language is its relative permanence.  He argues as follows: it is not the repeatability of an author’s text that allow us to read it, but rather the survival of the text itself, its function as the record of a large accumulation of linguistic acts.  In his words: “One and the same text…can be read by many different readers long after the death of the author, and it is this phenomenon of the permanence of the text that makes it possible to separate the utterance from its origin, and distinguishes the written from the spoken word” (Searle 200, my emphasis). 

In this same paragraph, Searle reminds us that even in the age of voice-recording devices, society still relies on the printed word to preserve linguistic acts.  Again, Searle will argue that this is because a written text is generally viewed as more permanent than the spoken word (200).  Consider the court stenographer, whose job is to type transcripts of lengthy legal proceedings.  It is the duty of the court stenographer to catch every word that is spoken, and to record those words so that the transcripts can be preserved and made permanent.  Even previously taped speech that is presented in a courtroom setting must be documented by the stenographer.  In light of this example, it would seem that Searle’s assessment is at least partially correct; namely, that writing is often differentiated from (and preferred over) speech because it is the most accurate method to record a complicated series of linguistic acts.  Perhaps Derrida’s concept of iterability, or the idea that writing is produced in the absence of the receiver will cause us to consider attributes of writing that we might not have otherwise considered, but I am in agreement with Searle that these are not important distinguishing factors.        

meaning and intent

Derrida’s most controversial claim in Signature Event Context comes at the conclusion of the essay.  Derrida states: “…writing, communication, if we retain that word, is not the means of transference of meaning, the exchange of intentions and meanings [vouloir-dire], discourse and the ‘communication of consciousness (20).’” He believes furthermore that “meaning” and “truth” should be analyzed as “effects,” and that he has elsewhere defined the “exposure” of these effects as logocentrism (20).  Can we agree with Derrida on his point that a writer (or a speaker for that matter) does not intend to transfer meaning to a potential receiver, and that “meaning” itself is a logocentric premise? Can we really stand by him when he says that a receiver gleans meaning from a text purely because the linguistic acts within it are repeatable, or is there some sort of intention involved in the transference as Searle will argue?

If Culler’s generous interpretation of Derrida in On Deconstruction is to be believed, it might be possible to acknowledge some of Derrida’s controversial claims at least temporarily.  Culler explains what Derrida has attempted to argue: that the meaning of a text or an utterance is determined by placing a frame or context around it.  When someone states a meaningless sentence, the listener can usually imagine that sentence in a meaningful context, and hence endow it with significance.  Culler adds: “This aspect of the functioning of language, the possibility of grafting a sequence onto a context that alters its functioning, is also at work in the case of performatives” (122).  Because the idea that any text or utterance can be grafted upon any context sounds so incredibly daunting when stated in plain terms, Culler attempts to “soften the blow.” He argues that the possibility of grafting only confirms Austin’s original idea that illocutionary force is determined by context, but he is still adamant about the fact that it is in no way determined by intention.  To summarize one of Derrida’s main ideas, he states: “Meaning is context-bound, but context is boundless” (Culler 123).

Although Searle does respond to Derrida’s claim that language is not a vehicle for intentionality in his original Reply to Derrida, Searle gives a more precise and clear summary of his overall attack on Derrida in an article he published in 1994 entitledLiterary Theory and Its Discontents.  Searle’s tone in this article is so damning and cutting, and his points are so accurate, that I believe it would be difficult for anyone willing to accept the basic tenets of the philosophy of language, even for a moment, to walk away unconvinced. 

Searle’s central thesis in this article is that Derrida is either confused about or ignorant of certain fundamental linguistic principles that are taken for granted by current philosophers of language.  He further maintains that this ignorance marks Derrida as “pre-Wittgensteinian” and “traditional,” in the derogatory sense.  In his own words, Searle wants to argue the following: “…that if you get certain fundamental principles and distinctions about language right, then many of the issues in literary theory that look terribly deep, profound, and mysterious have rather simple and clear solutions” (639).  If you can grasp the foundations, says Searle, then you can solve most of the problems laid out by literary theorists such as Derrida.

In order to grasp Searle’s conception of how language functions, (and how he thinks intentionality fits into the equation), we need to look at a few of his “golden” principles.  I will delve into specifics in a moment, but here are the crucial notions that he lists:

(1) The Background of Interpretation,

(2) The Distinction between Types and Tokens,

(3) The Distinction between Sentences and Utterances,

(4) The Distinction between Use and Mention,

(5) Compositionality,

(6) The Distinction between Sentence Meaning and Speaker Meaning, and

(7) The Distinction between Ontology and Epistemology (Searle 640-648).[3]

Starting with the first principle, Searle argues that neither the explicit semantic content of a sentence nor a speaker’s intentions when uttering that sentence can give a sufficient account of that particular speech act, because:

…all meaning and understanding goes on within a network of intentionality and against a background of capacities that are not themselves part of the content that is meant or understood, but which is essential for the functioning of the content.  I call this network of intentional phenomena, “The Network,” and the set of background capacities, “The Background” (640, his emphasis).

One of Searle’s central points is that we intend what we say insofar as we say what we mean, and hence the majority of our communications are successful precisely because we are able to do so.  Others are able to understand me not solely because of my own intentions, and not solely because of the actual words that come out of my mouth, but because the literal meaning of my words fits within a certain cultural context or Background.[4]  A speech act is able to function only within a Network of intentionality and against a Background of certain “capacities.” Searle is careful to note, however, that these terms should by no means be thought of as rigid or inflexible, because the way must always be cleared for marginal cases. 

At first, this idea that language can only be understood against a Background or within a certain cultural context might sound vaguely reminiscent of Derrida’s concept of iterability.  Derrida’s question: “Could a performative utterance succeed if its formulation did not repeat a ‘coded’ or iterable utterance…if it were not then identifiable in some way as a ‘citation?’”(18) suddenly begins to sound appropriate by Searle’s own account of how performative utterances work.  But here is why it is not: in the first place, the Background capacities have nothing to do with their repeatability because they are inextricably intertwined with the Network of intentionality.  Even if meaning and intention are necessarily context-bound, it does not follow that context is boundless.  As Searle himself points out, theorizing about meaning does not become impossible (or all relative) because of the existence of the Background; on the contrary, the Background is what makes theorizing about language possible (642).

Searle’s second principle, the distinction between types and tokens, is also important to understand if Derrida’s ideas about the nature of linguistic forms are to be “deconstructed.” In simplified terms, a token is the physical occurrence of type, which is an abstract concept.  The example that Searle gives is helpful in understanding the distinction: “If…I write the word ‘dog’ on the blackboard three times, have I written one word or three? Well, I have written one type word, but I have written three differenttoken instances of that word” (642).[5]

It is Searle’s contention that much of the confusion that arises within literary theory stems from its inability to recognize and apply this simple distinction.  Searle specifically criticizes Derrida’s notion of iterability as “ill-defined” because he does not think Derrida is able to answer the question: what entities get iterated exactly? Throughout his writings, Derrida often refers to “signs,” and in Signature Event Contexthe states that signs must be iterable in order for them to function in the absence of the receiver (7).  Searle’s point is that Derrida conception of a “sign” is vague and inexact, because insomuch as written signs are physical tokens, they cannot be iterable by definition.  Only a type can be reproduced, and it does so by using different tokens;this is one of the central qualities of any rule-governed language (Searle 643).  

Now the question might arise, is Searle’s criticism of Derrida fair here? After all, Searle does not mention the fact that Derrida’s usage of the word “sign” is at least partially derived from Ferdinand de Saussure’s notion of “the arbitrary nature of the sign” that is spelled out in his Course on General Linguistics.  Searle does not offer any explanation about why Derrida would use the word in the first place, and I think this point deserves attention: although Derrida was influenced by Saussure, he essentially borrows the term for his own purposes.  While Saussure wanted to emphasize the structuralist idea that language is made up of differential tokens, Derrida uses the term “sign” in order to support his ideas about language as a marker of absence and a system of differences.  In his entry on Derrida in The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism,Jean-Michel Rabaté explains: “By a kind of oversimplification…Derrida uses this theory of the sign…to criticize Husserl and Heidegger, while bringing the phenomenological inquiry to bear on the foundations…of structuralist scientism, thus forcing two very different traditions to grind ceaselessly against each other” (198).

Rabaté’s comment underlines the fact that Derrida’s theory of the sign rests heavily on both structuralism and phenomenology, two philosophical traditions that Searle finds more or less irrelevant as a “post-Wittgensteinian” philosopher.  What then, are the final five principles within the contemporary strain of the philosophy of language that Searle accuses Derrida of ignoring or conflating? I will give a brief summary of Searle’s further list of points, because I find them helpful in understanding some of the central problems that are inherent in Derrida’s work. 

Hence, the third principle: a sentence is a formal structure that is defined syntactically, whereas an utterance is the intentional performance of a speech act (Searle 643).  The fourth principle: e.g. when I say “I go to UCR,” I am using the word “UCR” to refer to the school I attend, but when I say “‘UCR’ is an acronym,” I am only mentioning the word.  Searle thinks that Derrida’s notion of citationalité is a faulty re-articulation of the use-mention distinction; actors in a play use the words that they speak, they do not mention them or cite them, as Derrida would argue (644).  The fifth principle:compositionality allows us to utilize a finite set of words and a finite set of rules to create an infinite amount of possible sentences, and the meanings of those sentences are largely determined by syntax (645). 

The sixth principle: sentence meaning is the same as conventional meaning, and is based upon fundamental language rules.  Although speaker meaning can depart from conventional meaning through the use of irony, metaphor, and the like, it would be a mistake to say that communication can ever be completely separated from sentence meaning (647).  Finally, the seventh principle: language theorists should concerns themselves with the ontology of language (questions of what exists) and not epistemology (questions of how we know what exists) because such questions are irrelevant.  We can still look for evidence about meaning in a text without knowing an author’s intentions, but if we begin with the assumption that there is no way to determine the meaning of a text (as Derrida might do) then we are truly stuck (648).     

It seems to me that what Searle disapproves of most is Derrida’s lack of clarity and rigor in his usage of terminology and the oversimplifications he makes in an attempt to propagate his own agenda.  Of course, one could argue in reply that Searle commits a similar folly in that he relies just as heavily on his own terminology.  But I will have to conclude that Searle wins on this point, for the following reason: there is nothing inherently wrong with the fact that Derrida creates his own terms for the purposes of creating a new, deconstructionist theory of language.  The problem arises the moment that Derrida expects to carry on a legitimate conversation with current philosophers of language, because in order to “play the game,” it is necessary to know the rules. 

A further complication is that Derrida cannot and will not ever play by Searle’s rules, partially because he refuses to do so, and partially because he knows that he must pander to his own audience and defend his ideas at all costs.  Dasenbrock questions the hypocritical nature of Derrida’s tactics in this debate.  He argues that if Derrida can accuse Searle (and his others opponents) of reading his work in bad faith: “How can he demand to be read with lucidity and good faith if the possibility of reading in bad faith exists? What metalanguage can he rely on to insist that good faith has priority over bad faith as an interpretive protocol?” (Dasenbrock 272)

Limited Inc.

This brings us to Limited Inc, the essay in which Derrida responds to Searle’s original reply in a derisive style that certainly lacks “good faith.” Up until this point, I have been hesitant to dive into a heavy analysis of Derrida’s arguments, because they are, by their very nature, harder to accurately represent.  Yet this essay clearly demonstrates Derrida’s argumentation style or lack of style as the case may be, since he seems to be more interested in basing his response on theatrics than on logically structured arguments.  The entire essay is nearly eighty pages long, so I will focus only on certain relevant parts, such as the opening. 

Many important symbolic gestures occur within the first couple of pages.  First of all, it is evident that Derrida is deeply insulted by Searle’s earlier accusation that he has “a distressing penchant for saying things that are obviously false” (Searle 203) because he begins by sarcastically referencing this point: “I could have pretended to begin with a “false” beginning, my penchant for falsity [pour le faux] no longer requiring special demonstration” (29).  It is interesting that in this first sentence, Derrida uses an “indirect speech act” (saying one thing and meaning it, while at the same time meaning something else) and irony such that his speaker meaning differs from his sentence meaning. 

Derrida is blatantly taking a jab at Searle by twisting his words around, translating them into French, and using them to his own verbal advantage.  This is the method that Derrida uses again and again throughout this essay, and somehow Derrida manages to avoid addressing Searle directly, as one philosopher to another.  Instead, Derrida speaks of Searle as if he is an elusive ghost-figure that can never quite be communicated with or reached.  In doing so, he is attempting to make a point about authorship and the impossibility of claiming a text as one’s own.

Derrida believes, as Michel Foucault did, that the concept of the author as a transcendental subject figure who is the proprietor of his or her text is problematic and should be deconstructed.  In fact, it seems that Derrida is borrowing many of his ideas here from Foucault, who expressed his thoughts on the subject a few years earlier in his article What is an Author? In this article, Foucault claims that there is no such thing as an “author” in the traditional sense, only an “author function,” and that it was the introduction of copyright laws in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century that helped solidify the image of a text as an object of appropriation.  He states:     

It was at the moment when a system of ownership and strict copyright rules were established…that the transgressive properties always intrinsic to the act of writing became the forceful imperative of literature.  It is as if the author, at the moment he was accepted into the social order of property which governs our culture, was compensating for his new status by reviving the older bipolar field of discourse in a systematic practice of transgression by restoring the danger of writing which on another side, had been conferred the benefits of property (124-127) 

Foucault points out that there is a certain danger associated with the act of writing, and that claiming ownership of a text has been both unnecessary and harmful for writers sthroughout various periods in human history.  For Foucault, the “author-function” is merely a consequence of cultural institutions and discursive practices.  There is no “original creator,” because the writer dies in a metaphorical sense as soon as the text has been created.  This is a post-structuralist way of saying that the text evades the writer’s control once it has been produced (Dasenbrock 262). 

Both Foucault and Derrida seem to agree that when an author copyrights a text, he or she is demanding that the text be named as “truth.” This is why, on the second page of his essay, Derrida makes fun of Searle’s usage of a copyright in Reiterating the Differences: A Reply to Derrida (the phrase “Copyright c 1977 by John R. Searle” appears on the first page in the lower left-hand corner). 

He critiques Searle in the following way: if a copyright is like a stamp or signature by the author, then it is certainly a type of performative act.  But what does Searle mean by such an act? Perhaps he is afraid that someone will steal his words and subvert his rights as an author, but, says Derrida, why should anyone be interested in re-appropriating his ideas in the first place? If in the very act of writing Searle is making a claim to truth, then the copyright becomes irrelevant and unnecessary.  Derrida thinks that after a text has been written it can be infinitely reproducible, and therefore is no longer, and never was the property of the author.  In this sense, both Searle’s words and his signature have already been stolen in advance (Derrida 30-31).

Reading this essay, one gets the sense that Derrida becomes more and more enraged as he continues to write a response to Searle; so enraged in fact that he arrives at a decision.  One can almost see the bulb going off in his head as he thinks to himself: “You know what? I’m not even going to give my opponent the benefit of referring to him by his name anymore, because that is clearly what he prizes most dearly.  If he wants to stamp his name and copyright all over his paper, then that is what I will throw right back at him.  I will hereby refer to Searle as the copyright entity itself, as a corporate body with no human characteristics: ‘Societé à responsabilité limitée,’ or ‘Sarl’ for short.  That should really infuriate him!”

Although I wish that this were an exaggeration of Derrida’s actual thoughts within the essay, I am afraid that this is a fairly accurate description of what actually occurs.  In his words: “…not to draw the body of his name into my language by subtracting one rand two e’s…I thus break Searle’s seal (itself already fragmented or divided)” (36). 

Derrida no doubt derides Searle in this way in order to demonstrate a point; namely, that Searle can no longer claim full ownership of his text.  However, I would argue that this tactic is equivalent to kicking someone in a boxing match; even if his opponent falls down as a result, he has automatically renounced his right to victory by subverting the rules.          

Derrida also confronts iterability and intentionality, arguing the following: given the nature of iterability as it has been described, how would it even be possible to establish a theory of speech acts? Derrida blatantly suggests that it is in fact impossibleas long as the “traditional model of theory” still holds.  He writes:

I agree with Sarl that the ‘confrontation’ here is not between two ‘prominent philosophical traditions’ but between the tradition and its other, an other that is not even ‘its’ other any longer (71). 

This is perhaps the most important statement that Derrida makes in this essay as it pertains to the entire debate, and for this reason, I will leave any of Derrida’s remaining arguments for my future self.

twenty years later

Towards the end of Literary Theory and its Discontents, Searle summarizes everything that is wrong with Derrida’s hypotheses, incorporating the seven principles he set up in the beginning.  In his view, there are not just a few minor things wrong with Derrida’s “argument,” but instead it is a “massive tissue of confusions” (659).  Because this essay was written a good twenty years after the debate had supposedly ended, Searle really does give himself the final word. 

Searle argues: if I make a simple, factual statement such as “it’s hot in here,” and I mean exactly what I say, what follows about the speaker meaning if this sentence type or token utterance could be said to be iterable? We are led into a dead end.  All communications function against the Background and within the Network intentionality, and the fact that someone other than myself might be able to use a different token of the same sentence type in a completely different way does not mean that I have lost control of my original speech act (660).

At the very end of the essay, Searle’s criticisms become truly malicious:

The way it works is this: Derrida advances some astounding thesis, for example, writing came before speaking, nothing exists outside of texts, meanings are undecidable.  When challenged, he says ‘You have misunderstood me, I only meant such and such,’ where such and such is some well-known platitude.  Then when the platitude is acknowledged, he assumes that its acknowledgement constitutes an acceptance of the original exciting thesis…from the exciting to the banal and back again (665)

Although this particular criticism is insulting to the point of comical, it is clear to me that Searle firmly believes, and I do not tend to disagree with him, that Derrida’s theory rests on an inexcusable confusion in terms.  He furthermore believes that philosophers such as himself and literary theorists such as Derrida are not competing to answer the same question, but rather that they are arguing about different questions that happen to be expressed with similar vocabulary.  He thus urges those literary theorists to either change their vocabulary or get it right; otherwise there can be no clear discussion, only muddled obscurity (662). 

Again, herein lies the heart of the issue, because this is essentially the same sentiment that Derrida expresses in Limited Inc! Derrida knows that there can never be a clear discussion between him and Searle because Derrida cuts himself out of the debate before it even begins.  As he himself expresses, these are not two different but equal philosophical traditions; literary theory is an “other” that has been (and always was) so radically separated from every other discourse, that it is without roots.  Despite the apparent obstacles, it is my hope for the future of comparative literature that these debates between discourses will remain possible, and that if some of these wounds can be healed, the roots will be replanted.  



I once presented this paper at a conference. After my talk, a French man, an older gentleman, approached me. "I liked your talk!" he said. I was flattered. "But..." Oh no, I thought. He continued: "But, I have to say zat, um, I disagree with you." "About what?"

He calmly explained his view on the matter: "You should give Derrida more credit because...[words that I was unable to comprehend in that moment]."

And yet, despite his objection, I felt good about the French man's complement. It felt good, even though he disagreed with me.


Works cited

Austin, J.L.  How to Do Things With Words: The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955.  (2nd Ed.) Ed. J.O. Urmson and Marina Sbisà.  Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1975.

Bach, Kent.  “Speech Acts.” The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  Edward Craig (ed.) London: Routledge, 1998.  

Culler, Jonathan.  On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982.

Dasenbrock, Reed Way.  “Taking It Personally: Reading Derrida’s Responses.”  College English 56.3 (1994): 261-279.

Derrida, Jacques.  “Signature Event Context.” “Limited Inc.” Limited Inc.  Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988.

Foucault, Michel.  “What is an Author?” Language, Counter-Memory, Practice.  Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon (eds.)  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977.

Groden, Michael and Kreiswirth (eds.)  The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Madison, Gary B. (ed.) Working Through Derrida.  Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1993.

Powell, Jason.  Jacques Derrida: A Bibliography.  London: Continuum, 2006.

Saeed, John I.  Semantics.  (2nd Ed.) Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Searle, John R.  “Literary Theory and Its Discontents.”  New Literary History 25 (1994): 637-667.

Searle, John R.  “Reiterating the Differences: A Reply to Derrida.” Glyph 1 (1977): 198-208.    



[1] These statements should be taken as generalizations.

[2] The term “logical positivists” was originally meant to refer to the specific mathematicians and philosophers who made up the Vienna Circle in the 1950s (Saeed).

[3] Searle in fact lists an eighth principle, Syntax is Not Intrinsic to Physics, but I chose not to include it because it is not particularly relevant to my discussion.

[4] Searle gives an amusing example about ordering a hamburger at a fast food place.  He says: 

when I order a hamburger medium rare, with ketchup and mustard, no relish, I have communicated literally what I meant to communicate.  It is taken for granted that I do not need to specify certain other things such as: don’t place the hamburger inside a concrete block, and don’t give me a three-thousand year old King Tut burger because the Background presuppositions are already in place.  It would be impossible, and furthermore it would be unnecessary to fit all these Background presuppositions into the original meaning of the sentence (641).

[5] Although it is tempting to conflate the type/token distinction with the signified/signifier distinction, they are not at all the same thing.  The former idea originated with the late nineteenth century pragmatists, specifically Charles Sanders Peirce, and the latter is based on Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory of linguistic signs.

[6] I should note that these points are not numbered in Derrida’s text and are by no means an exhaustive list; I have ordered them as such for my own organizational purposes.