John Searle on Foucault and the Obscurantism in French Philosophy

It is sometimes noted–typically with admiration–that France is a place where a philosopher can still be a celebrity. It sounds laudable. But celebrity culture can be corrosive, both to the culture at large and to the celebrities themselves. So it’s worth asking:  What price have French philosophy and its devotees (on the European continent and elsewhere) paid for the glamour?

Perhaps one casualty is clarity. The writings of the French postmodernist philosophers (and those inspired by them) are notoriously abstruse. In a scathing critique of theorist Judith Butler, an American who writes in the French poststructuralist style, philosopher Martha Nussbaum of the University of Chicago suggests that the abstruseness is calculated to inspire admiration:

Some precincts of the continental philosophical tradition, though surely not all of them, have an unfortunate tendency to regard the philosopher as a star who fascinates, and frequently by obscurity, rather than as an arguer among equals. When ideas are stated clearly, after all, they may be detached from their author: one can take them away and pursue them on one’s own. When they remain mysterious (indeed, when they are not quite asserted), one remains dependent on the originating authority. The thinker is heeded only for his or her turgid charisma.

On Friday we posted an excerpt from an interview in which linguist Noam Chomsky (something of a political celebrity himself) excoriates Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan, along with Lacan’s superstar disciple, Slovenian theorist Slavoj Žižek, for using intentionally obscure and inflated language to pull the wool over their admirers’ eyes and make trivial “theories” seem profound. He calls Lacan a “total charlatan.” Lacan had a penchant for using trendy mathematical terms in curious ways. In a passage on castration anxiety, for example, he equates the phallus with the square root of minus one:

The erectile organ can be equated with the √-1, the symbol of the signification produced above, of the jouissance [ecstasy] it restores–by the coefficient of its statement–to the function of a missing signifier: (-1).

Chomsky’s criticism of Lacan and the others provoked a wide range of comments from our readers. Today we thought we would keep the conversation going with a fascinating audio clip (above) of philosopher John Searle of the University of California, Berkeley, describing how Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu–two eminent French thinkers whose abilities Searle obviously respected–told him that if they wrote clearly they wouldn’t be taken seriously in France.

Searle begins by reciting Paul Grice’s four Maxims of Manner: be clear, be brief, be orderly, and avoid obscurity of expression. These are systematically violated in France, Searle says, partly due to the influence of German philosophy. Searle translates Foucault’s admission to him this way: “In France, you gotta have ten percent incomprehensible, otherwise people won’t think it’s deep–they won’t think you’re a profound thinker.”

Searle has been careful to separate Foucault from Derrida, with whom Searle had an unfriendly debate in the 1970s over Speech Act theory. “Foucault was often lumped with Derrida,” Searle says in a 2000 interview with Reason magazine. “That’s very unfair to Foucault. He was a different caliber of thinker altogether.” Elsewhere in the interview, Searle says:

With Derrida, you can hardly misread him, because he’s so obscure. Every time you say, “He says so and so,” he always says, “You misunderstood me.” But if you try to figure out the correct interpretation, then that’s not so easy. I once said this to Michel Foucault, who was more hostile to Derrida even than I am, and Foucault said that Derrida practiced the method of obscurantisme terroriste (terrorism of obscurantism). We were speaking in French. And I said, “What the hell do you mean by that?” And he said, “He writes so obscurely you can’t tell what he’s saying. That’s the obscurantism part. And then when you criticize him, he can always say, ‘You didn’t understand me; you’re an idiot.’ That’s the terrorism part.” And I like that. So I wrote an article about Derrida. I asked Michel if it was OK if I quoted that passage, and he said yes.

NOTE: For more on John Searle, including links to his full Berkeley lectures on the philosophy of mind, language and society, see our post, “Philosophy with John Searle: Three Free Courses.”

Related Content:

Michel Foucault: Free Lectures on Truth, Discourse & The Self

Clash of the Titans: Noam Chomsky & Michel Foucault Debate Human Nature & Power on Dutch TV, 1971

90 Free Philosophy Courses

Philosopher Slavoj Zizek Interprets Hitchcock’s Vertigo in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006)


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  1. Jim says . . . | July 3, 2013 / 7:44 pm

    Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, and all those guys were one of the main reasons I left grad school. Particularly annoying were the wannabees clinging to this dying trend. I started out taking those readings seriously, wanting to give it my best shot, blaming myself for not understanding. But in the end I didn’t get much from my efforts. You can’t really say that in class though: you have pretend to engage with the ideas — whatever they are.

  2. Connor Syrewicz says . . . | July 11, 2013 / 9:43 pm

    I think it’s unfortunate how many philosophers are overlooked in the analytic hegemony of the Anglo-Saxon world due to the unfair claim of obscruitanism that is levied against them. Read Richard Rorty’s ‘Philosophy as a Kind of Writing: An Essay on Derrida’ for a very clear, well-considered (if at times over-generalized and outright wrong) explanation of how Derrida and linguistic philosophy are actually complementary rather than opposed and how Derrida’s actual language, difficult as it was, complemented his philosophy rather than obscured it.

    Likewise, Deleuze (who was attacked as obscuritanist by Alan Sokal and Richard Dawkins) was doing something very specific and deliberate with his work. On the one hand, he was deliberately and intentionally using, misusing, and abusing concepts and wanted to leave his own work open for others to use, misuse, and abuse (this is a big part of his theory of repetition, see: Difference and Repition). On the other, he was concerned with “speed of thought” and didn’t want to be slowed down by having to make sure that his theories were perfectly penetrable and accessible to all. (For an extremely accessible intro to Deleuze’s thought, look up Manuel Delanda’s lectures freely available on youtube. Likewise consider reading the essay by Paul Patton “Concept in Deleuze and Derrida.”)

    Let me quote Bourdieu’s Preface to the English Language edition of Distinctions: “Likewise, the style of the book, whose long, complex sentences may offend–constructed as they are with a view to reconstituting the complexity of the social world in a language capable of holding together the most diverse things while setting them in a rigorous perspective–stems partly from the endeavor to mobilize all resources of the traditional modes of expression, literary, philosophical or scientific, so as to say things that were de facto or de jure excluded from them, and to prevent the reading from slipping back into the simplicities of the smart essay or the political polemic.” Sadly, I would charge Searle of such a simplistic rhetorical polemic! A line of Judith Butler (who I think can be far too obscuritanist!) adequately sums up a lot of these thoughts; simply: “What does transparency obscure?”

    Perhaps Searle is right, that Foucault was subject, in part, to the codifications of French/ German philosophy and academia. But then he cannot escape the fact that he is subject to similar codifications which simply takes something (clarity of expression) as its object and only happens to be opposed to some forms of French/ German expression. If anything, Searle’s theories, as he explains them here, are far more dangerous than any obscuritanism could be insofar as he considers his presuppositions universal and perhaps even morally right. My advice, do not confuse “I do not understand” with “This is too obscure.” “I do not understand” might lead to the conclusion that “This is too obscure” but I promise you, you will pick up a lot of beautiful knowledge along the way.

  3. jkop says . . . | July 12, 2013 / 7:36 am

    What way? The reason some texts are deemed obscure is just because they lack ways from which one could make conclusions, or achieve knowledge.

    The meaning of a published text has little to do with the individual reader’s capacity to understand it. Nor is it determined by other reader’s interpretations, or the author’s intent but by the language in which it is expressed. The primary function of words or sentences is to identify meanings. Clarity helps identification while obscurity prevents it. So why publish or interpret anything obscurely?

    Writers or interpreters may claim they see or understand “meanings” which are not open to view, and by doing so they might gain an undeserved intellectual authority similar to priests or gurus who claim to have had revelations. They merely claim our submission.

  4. Connor Syrewicz says . . . | July 12, 2013 / 8:18 am

    I understand your desire for clarity of expression jkop, but what then is literature and poetry? By your estimation, since poetry specifically puts clarity of expression on the backburner, is it language which is using a “secondary function” of language? Is it fair for me to assume that this is an implication that, by your estimation, this secondary function is “less useful” or even “worse”? Why then can so many of the obscurantists (Butler, Lacan, Nancy, Ranciere, some of Agamben, perhaps even Spivak and Bhaba) write so beautifully? Would they be better considered poets than philosophers?

    Much of Derrida’s, Foucault’s, Nietzche’s and a number of other continental philosophers’ point is that identifying a “primary function” of anything is always far more arbitrary and interpretive than the identifier is willing to admit. Identifying a “primary function” of anything is an interpretive choice (although not necessarily a conscious choice), one which is consider ‘justified.’ Justified by what? Derrida asks. Derrida, in many ways, only wanted to challenge the linguistic philosopher’s claim of being “first philosophy” or “primary philosophy.” He saw them as writers which really didn’t want to write, who wanted to reduce the distance between a reader and the represented object to zero if possible. He saw them as ashamed of themselves. Writers who hated language.

    This is why Derrida is really complementary to linguistic philosophy (philosophy of clarity) rather than in any way opposed to it. If I can quote Richard Rorty: “Derrida’s polemic against the notion that speech is prior to writing [aka logocentrism] should be seen as a polemic against what Sartre calls “bad faith”–the attempt to divinize oneself by seeing in advance the terms in which all possible problems are to be set, and the criteria for their resolution. If the “logocentric” Platonic notion of speech as prior to writing were right, there might be a last Word. Derrida’s point is that no one can make sense of the notion of a last commentary, a last discussion note, a good piece of writing which is not an occasion for a better piece.”

    Derrida would agree that the speech act does have communication as it’s primary function. But he considers writing as qualitatively different than speech and not just its bastard derivative as many linguists like to think of language. I would consider Roman Jakobson’s work. He puts all writing on a spectrum from transcendent (language serving the purpose of representing some object) to immanent (language as language, poetry for example). There is no hierarchy here. No arbitrary primary function. This is truly objective. I like to think of Derrida as somewhere very close to the middle. And this is why he frustrates so many people.

  5. jkop says . . . | July 12, 2013 / 3:37 pm

    Derrida’s polemic against “the notion” (who’s notion?) that speech is prior to writing is just weird. How would differences between speech and writing matter for the meaning of the expressions?

    We can use many different expressions for one and the same meaning. The written “cat” and the said “cat” both refer to cats. Differences between inscriptions, utterances, gestures etc. are irrelevant for the reference to cats.

    It is not an “interpretive choice” but a trivially true condition that identification of cats as being the meaning of the written or said “cat” is necessary for those expressions to refer to cats. Without identifying “cat” with cats it wouldn’t refer to cats.

    Complience to such basic conditions might be a choice but hardly what you describe as an “attempt to divinize oneself by seeing in advance the terms in which all possible problems are to be set, and the criteria for their resolution.”. Call it “logocentricm” if you like, but reason is not just an ism.

  6. Connor Syrewicz says . . . | July 13, 2013 / 8:00 am

    You are absolutely right. Neither I nor Derrida would disagree. Derrida is simply adding in a few points which expand the theory beyond the extremely narrow confines of “reason.” (Consider the post-Tractatus work of Wittgenstein to see only part of this point of view is so narrow.)

    The point is that “cat” is in a vacuum. Derrida considers language in relation. For example, add only one word “cool cat” and we have an entirely different meaning. This is called deferring meaning. When do we ever use just the word cat? Do we walk around pointing at things, naming them, and then moving on? Language is always in relation to other language. Therefore, meaning is constantly deferred. Yes sometimes cat means cat. Other times it means something other than cat in the strict sense. Derrida wanted to legitimize both meanings.

    The point about logocentrism is this: in the speech act, we always speak for the Other(‘s understanding), i.e. clarity of expression, proper reference, all that good stuff that you love so much. Western thought since Plato has always said “First we spoke, then we wrote.” In Of Grammartology, Derrida gives a very convincing argument that the speech-act and the written-act grew together. Why does Derrida care? Because the written-act (through poetry) has the capacity to speak but not necessarily for the Other. And, as I said before, Derrida doesn’t want to consider this function of language as a bastard or secondary of language for this, as I also said before, is language as language. Language which is pushing through to be considered as simply language. It is language which loves itself. It is language which affirms itself instead of denying itself. It doesn’t have to point at anything except itself.

    Writing has the capacity to defer meaning infinitely. Consider even Chomsky’s line about Foucault’s clear spoken language in the article above for a good example of the disjunctive relationship that can arise between the spoken and written word.

    Derrida loved our misunderstandings. He felt that these were moments of originality and beauty. He wanted to constantly prove language’s capacity to defer meaning. Because he could be constantly misunderstood, I would say he did a pretty good job.

    Sorry if this offends your “reason.” But if reason really is reason then I do not see why it needs defending. It will overcome my “weirdness” in the end. If it can’t of its own accord, then it isn’t reason, it is preference. And if it’s preference, it is an -ism insofar as we can get dogmatic about -isms. Is there anything that we cannot become dogmatic about?

  7. jkop says . . . | July 16, 2013 / 4:09 am

    Language and reason enable us to construct representations of an infinite amount of meanings. So why would anyone claim reason would be ”confined” or ”narrow”? If anyone claims to ”expand” reason, which is already infinite, then it is obviously an empty gesture That’s probably why many people feel offended by Derrida & Co: not because of their weirdness but because of what they publish is percieved as insincere or just bad philosophy. Of course some may enjoy the puzzle-solving, or mistake incomprehensibility as a sign of advanced thinking.

    According to that audio clip Foucault wrote partly incomprehensibly to comply to some audiences in France who are impressed by it, yet he spoke clearly to Searle or in contexts where complience to comprehensibility is expected. You seem to make the claim that this would have something to do with writing and speech. Yet one might as well speak incomprehensibly to impress such audiences. Reference to an alleged relevance of the relation between writing and saying is yet another empty gesture promising insights without delivering any.

    Finally, my ”cat” is not in a ”vacuum”, it has a semantic externalist background. The literal ”cat” and the metaphorical ”cool cat” are not deferred or stuck in language games but preserved by our continuous interaction with their extensions (actual cats and cat-metaphors). Salva veritate.

  8. Terence Blake says . . . | July 17, 2013 / 5:11 am

    I think it strange that Foucault told Searle precisely what he wanted to hear, if we are to believe Searle. I think that he didn’t realise the degree of humour present in Foucault’s rather uncharacteristic remark. Foucault was probably sending him up, given the equation he establishes between clarity and childishness. Clarity is not the same when you have an ontology of multplicity and incommensurabilty and when you don’t. My reply to Searle is here: http://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2013/07/17/was-foucault-a-closet-gricean-notes-on-the-obscurity-of-contnental-philosophy/

  9. Barbara Todish says . . . | July 20, 2013 / 3:36 am

    I intend to google Roman Jakobson!It is something to consider, namely that transcendent involves identity, as I was considering transcendent as freedom from identity. . Now I will consider immanency as presentness before and after communications’ “capturing” of meaning so that instead “it” is freeing from the limitations of meaning. Perhaps this is what Chiamus attempts to “do”?

    Perhaps Chiasmus is an example of “IMMANENT POETRY”: language that loves itself “so much” that it names itself twice as both (incomprehensible) subject and object: limitless identity, deferring meaning.
    I also love “…(R)eal reason is free from needing defending…because it is a (relative, constructed) preference, it is an ‘ism'”. Please advise.

  10. Barbara Todish says . . . | July 20, 2013 / 3:41 am

    Once a philosophy major, always a philosophy major! Philosophy resulted in my often being obscure even to myself, but now I realize that philosophy was trying to show me how to be free from all, especially communication and/or consciousness limitations.

  11. Ben Walker says . . . | July 21, 2013 / 11:31 pm

    Thank you, jkop and Conner syrewicz, for a great discussion.

    If I might ask, jkop: what differentiates your notion of a semantic externalist background – one that is maintained by a community’s continuous interaction and employment of its lexicon – from the concepts you dismiss, namely diférrence and language game? It seems to me that the conversation has only just begun when this point has been raised. The prospect of pragmatics and contextualism (and here I’m thinking of Dan Sperber, Francoise Recanati, Charles Travis, etc.) has far reaching implications for your position. Unless, of course, you are something of a semantic minimalist – which you do not strike me as, considering some of your remarks.

    In short, I’m not sure how your appeal to languages’ external background secures you any kind of Archimedean ground. Instead, it allows the deployment of some of the strongest arguments for the complication of those functions that underpin so much of analytic tradition – truth, meaning and naming.

  12. jkop says . . . | July 22, 2013 / 7:06 pm

    @Ben: I find semantic externalism (originally suggested by Putnam in the 1970s) to be a plausible ground. Differences or resemblances refer to appearances of language use, and disregard conditions for it. I’m not familiar with the authors you name, sorry. So what are the alleged “..strongest arguments for the complication of…truth, meaning, naming”?

  13. Connor Syrewicz says . . . | July 22, 2013 / 9:01 pm

    @jkop: Let me start off by apologizing for the toxicity of my final remark in my last post. There was a sarcastic/ sardonic tone there I didn’t intend. I am very much enjoying our conversation and am very impressed by your knowledge of analytic/ linguistic philosophy. It is really wonderful to be put on my toes the way that I am. I view continental philosophy (for me) as an exercise in challenging my own base and a priori assumptions and beliefs (as these are always based out of feelings and emotions rather than intellect) and having to defend a point which I have come to believe, is an opportunity to change and eventually overturn it (or at least lose my dogmatism about it) so thank you for your informed responses and for taking the time to reply.

    ‘Language and reason enable us to construct representations of an infinite amount of meanings. So why would anyone claim reason would be ”confined” or ”narrow”?’

    This is an interesting interpretation of reason that I have never considered. While I do not like Kant and am not myself a Kantian, I would be remiss without mentioning Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” wherein Kant claims that reason cannot reasonably critique reason and is, therefore, limited, rather than infinite. And (this is where my use of Kant ends) insofar as reason is limited we would need another mode of thinking/ saying/ writing to treat all that reason cannot comprehend. Likewise the work of Derrida and Heidegger (work that I consider to be flimsy at best though interesting–and the flimsiness of it is kind of the point) is to find that of which nothing can be said. That which reason cannot comprehend. For Heidegger it is nothing itself. “The nothing noths,” as Heidegger once wrote. How do we say something of nothing? (To give a glimpse of the word-play that inevitably emerges from this kind of question, since, as Heidegger noted, nothing always has to be posed as a substantive which betrays the very nature of nothing itself– haha.) For Derrida it was “trace.” Trace is the simple fact that language must always be critiqued by language. For Derrida, this process (the endless critiques and transformations of language) would be never-ending as long as there is language. Therefore, there is no final word, no perfect way of saying/ writing/ representing. Language, upon its utterance, contains the necessity for its own transformation and destruction; therefore, the trace is an ontological “lack.” The inability for any language to be perfect or total. A kind of nothing, in the Heideggarean sense.

    ‘If anyone claims to ”expand” reason, which is already infinite, then it is obviously an empty gesture That’s probably why many people feel offended by Derrida & Co: not because of their weirdness but because of what they publish is percieved as insincere or just bad philosophy. Of course some may enjoy the puzzle-solving, or mistake incomprehensibility as a sign of advanced thinking.’

    Some do! (mistake incomprehensibility as a sign of advanced thinking). But who are we to correct them and why? And don’t think of this as a rhetorical question. My point is that if some are offended by “Derrida and Co.” it is probably because they are defending a (partial-)belief rather than an ultimate fact or truth (which will remain fact and truth regardless of what anyone “says”) and are, thus, challenged by him. If they are challenged by him, then he is serving his purpose because he wanted to be challenging. I will never consider reading him to be a walk in the park. Maybe I like “puzzle solving,” maybe I like being challenged. Is this a “waste of time” or confusing incomprehensibility for advanced thinking? Maybe (and I imagine that you will think “probably”). I am aware and don’t mind. How is it socially pragmatic? It is in the absence of any challenge that thoughts and theories become dogmatic and, in consequence, untrue. For all truths are probabilistic tendencies rather than constant and ultimate truths.

    ‘According to that audio clip Foucault wrote partly incomprehensibly to comply to some audiences in France who are impressed by it, yet he spoke clearly to Searle or in contexts where complience to comprehensibility is expected. You seem to make the claim that this would have something to do with writing and speech. Yet one might as well speak incomprehensibly to impress such audiences. Reference to an alleged relevance of the relation between writing and saying is yet another empty gesture promising insights without delivering any.’

    As I wrote in the first post, Foucault was obviously subject to the same codifications that led an audience to enjoy ‘obscurantist’ writing and, in another context, ‘clear’ speech. But if you consider them (clarity and obscurantist expression) free from any moralizing (in the broad sense of binaric qualifications such as right/ wrong, good/ bad) then it is easy to see how Searle was/ is subject to codifications as well, making such preferences neither necessarily right/ wrong and instead simply ‘appropriate’ or, as you wrote, ‘expected.’

    As for my reference to logocentrism being an “empty gesture.” My point still remains that writing is not always and necessarily for the Other’s clarity/ understanding, whereas speech is. An insane man or woman may speak to themselves but this is for his/her understanding. It is the splitting of the ego, the Other-ing of the self. The written act is able to bend this rather absolutist view of language. If we spoke to each other in poetry, there would be no understanding, no common threshold for use. That is why, in most cases, we write poetry rather than speak it in every day use. Why can’t an intellectual/ academic write poetically? It still seems to me as though you are claiming that poetry itself is an empty gesture. And, if poetry is language as language, then doesn’t it make sense that a writer who is writing about writing (or a linguist who is using language to talk about language) could legitimately incorporate poetry into their language as part of their rhetorical strategy/ basis for evidence, as Derrida has done?

    ‘Finally, my ”cat” is not in a ”vacuum”, it has a semantic externalist background. The literal ”cat” and the metaphorical ”cool cat” are not deferred or stuck in language games but preserved by our continuous interaction with their extensions (actual cats and cat-metaphors). Salva veritate.’

    Your considering “cool cat” an extension of the original is exactly the point raised by logocentrism. Derrida simply wanted to legitimize both meanings, rather than consider one as the extension of the other or secondary. Let’s take another example, habeas corpus, which has a literal meaning in Greek, “(you should) have the person,” which assuredly could have been and was used outside a legal context in relation to a semantically external reference. So is the “habeas corpus” that we use today simply an impossibly long, extended metaphor of the original meaning? Let use return to cat. Let’s say cats become extinct and the reference is lost but the phrase “cool cat” remains in reference to a person who has a certain aesthetic/ demeanor that is considered “cool”, will this remain an extension or a cat-metaphor still?

    When it comes to semantic externalism, it is extremely hard to come to some consensual basis for meaning. Scientists (for whom legitimized-consent/ agreement means objectivity–and I don’t mean this pejoratively at all) need to do this as a result of having some existential measuring stick against which language needs to be measured for any work/ progress of refining the properties of the existential/ external object to be done.

    But not all language has some existential measuring stick or some “semantically external” reference. And, ironically, John Searle would be one of the first people to agree with me on this last point.

  14. Connor Syrewicz says . . . | July 22, 2013 / 10:05 pm

    @jkop: thinking a bit more about the semantic externalist approach to language and I thought that I should clarify that really, the last points are there to prove a bit more succinctly why Derrida and people like Putnam are more complementary than at odds (regardless of whether or not you or they consider him to be “bad” philosophy). Derrida is tracing (referring back to Derrida’s “trace”) the transformations of language as language (consider my examples of “cool cat” existing in a world without cats or “habeas corpus” existing in a world where Greek has become a dead language) whereas Putnam, Burge, et al. are tracing the generative grammar of linguistic apprehension and appropriation.

    Two different objects, both necessary for a full understanding of the subject, as far as I am concerned.

  15. Hibrido says . . . | August 1, 2013 / 1:59 pm

    “I do not believe, as you suggest, that it is opportune to dissociate questions of “power relations” or of “rhetorical coercion” from questions of the determinacy or indeterminacy of “meaning.” Without play in and among these questions, there would be no space for conflicts of force. The imposition of a meaning supposes a certain play or latitude in its determination. I shall return to this in a moment.
    If I speak of great stability, it is in order to emphasize that this semantic level is neither originary, nor ahistorical, nor simple, nor self-identical in any of its elements, nor even entirely semantic or significant. Such stabilization is relative, even if it is sometimes so great as to seem immutable and permanent. It is the momentary result of a whole history of relations of force ( intra- and extrasemantic, intra- and extradiscursive, intra- and extraliterary or -philosophical, intra- and extraacademic, etc. ). In order for this history to have taken place, in its turbulence and in its stases, in order for relations of force, of tensions, or of wars to have taken place, in order for hegemonies to have imposed themselves during a determinate period, there must have been a certain play in all these structures, hence a certain instability or non-self-identity, nontransparency. Rhetorical equivocation and mobility, for instance, must have been able to work within “meaning. ” Differance must have been able to affect reference. In short, what I sought to designate under the title of “doubling commentary” is the “minimal” deciphering of the “first” pertinent or competent access to structures that are relatively stable (and hence destabilizable!), and from which the most venturesome questions and interpretations have to start: questions concerning conflicts, tensions, differences of force, hegemonies that have allowed such provisional installations to take place. Once again, that was possible only if a non-self-identity, a differance and a relative indeterminacy opened the space of this violent history. What has always interested me the most, what has always seemed to me the most rigorous (theoretically, scientifically, philosophically, but also for a writing that would no longer be only theoretical-scientific-philosophical), is not indeterminacy in itself, but the strictest possible determination of the figures of play, of oscillation, of undecidability, which is to say, of the differantial conditions of determinable history, etc. . . . On the other hand, if I have just prudently placed quotation marks around “minimal” and “first,” it is because I do not believe in the possibility of an absolute determination of the “minimal” and of the “first. ” According to contexts (according to this or that national culture, in the university or outside the university, in school or elsewhere, at one level of competence or at another, on television, in the press, or in a specialized colloquium), the conditions of minimal pertinence and of initial access will change. You know that I am thus alluding, in passing, to concrete problems of curriculum, for example, or to the level of requirements in our profession, whether we are talking of students or of teachers.
    Once that “minimal” and “first” are understood to have meaning only in determinate contexts, the concept that I was aiming at with the inadequate expression of “doubling commentary” is the concept of a reading-writing that, counting on a very strong probability of consensus concerning the intelligibility of a text, itself the result of the stabilized solidity of numerous contracts, seems only to paraphrase, unveil, reflect, reproduce a text, “commenting” on it without any other active or risky initiative. This is only an appearance, since this moment is already actively interpretive and can therefore open the way to all sorts of strategic ruses in order to have constructions pass as evidences or as constative observations. But I believe that no research is possible in a community (for example, academic) without the prior search for this minimal consensus and without discussion around this minimal consensus. Whatever the disagreements between Searle and myself may have been, for instance, no one doubted that I had understood at least the English grammar and vocabulary of his sentences. Without that no debate would have begun. Which does not amount to saying that all possibility of misunderstandings on my part is excluded a priori, but that they would have to be, one can hope at least, of another order. Inversely (to take only one example, which could be multiplied), if Searle had been familiar enough with the work of Descartes to recognize the parodic reference to a Cartesian title in my text (cf. what I say about this in it), he would have been led to complicate his reading considerably. Had he been attentive to the neological character of the French word restance-remains-which in my text does not signify permanence, he would have been on the right track and well on the way [sur la bonne voie] to reading me, etc. For of course there is a “right track” [une ‘bonne voie “] , a better way, and let it be said in passing how surprised I have often been, how amused or discouraged, depending on my humor, by the use or abuse of the following argument: Since the deconstructionist (which is to say, isn’t it, the skeptic- relativist-nihilist!) is supposed not to believe in truth, stability, or the unity of meaning, in intention or “meaning-to-say, ” how can he demand of us that we read him with pertinence, precision, rigor? How can he demand that his own text be interpreted correctly? How can he accuse anyone else of having misunderstood, simplified, deformed it, etc.? In other words, how can he discuss, and discuss the reading of what he writes? The answer is simple enough: this definition of the deconstructionist is false (that’s right: false, not true) and feeble; it supposes a bad (that’s right: bad, not good) and feeble reading of numerous texts, first of all mine, which therefore must finally be read or reread. Then perhaps it will be understood that the value of truth (and all those values associated with it) is never contested or destroyed in my writings, but only reinscribed in more powerful, larger, more stratified contexts. And that within interpretive contexts (that is, within relations of force that are always differential-for example, socio-political-institutional-but even beyond these determinations) that are relatively stable, sometimes apparently almost unshakeable, it should be possible to invoke rules of competence, criteria of discussion and of consensus, good faith, lucidity, rigor, criticism, and pedagogy. I should thus be able to claim and to demonstrate, without the slightest “pragmatic contradiction,” that Searle, for example, as I have already demonstrated, was not on the “right track” toward understanding what I wanted to say, etc. May I henceforth however be granted this: he could have been on the wrong track or may still be on it; I am making considerable pedagogical efforts here to correct his errors and that certainly proves that all the positive values to which I have just referred are contextual, essentially limited, unstable, and endangered. And therefore that the essential and irreducible possibility of misunderstanding or of “infelicity” must be taken into account in the description of those values said to be positive.
    In short, to cite you, not only, as you rightly say, “this process of intentions and meanings differing from themselves does not negate the possibility of ‘doubling commentary,’ ” but this “doubling commentary” and its “guardrails,” which are always constructed (and hence deconstructible), would themselves be neither possible nor necessary without this play of differance. And you are right in saying that these “practical implications for interpretation” are “not so threatening to conventional modes of reading,” since they seem to rejoin the minimal “requirements” of all culture, of all reading, of all research (academic or not). ”
    Derrida
    Limited Inc

  16. Hibrido says . . . | August 1, 2013 / 2:01 pm

    n 1988, Derrida wrote “Afterword: Toward An Ethic of Discussion”, to be published with the previous essays in the collection Limited Inc. Commenting this critics in a footnote he questioned:[105][106]
    “ I just want to raise the question of what precisely a philosopher is doing when, in a newspaper with a large circulation, he finds himself compelled to cite private and unverifiable insults of another philosopher in order to authorize himself to insult in turn and to practice what in French is called un jugement d’autorité, that is, the method and preferred practice of all dogmatism.

    I do not know whether the fact of citing in French suffices to guarantee the authenticity of a citation when it concerns a private opinion. I do not exclude the possibility that Foucault may have said such things, alas! That is a different question, which would have to be treated separately. But as he is dead, I will not in my turn cite the judgment which, as I have been told by those who were close to him, Foucault is supposed to have made concerning the practice of Searle in this case and on the act that consisted in making this use of an alleged citation. ”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Derrida#Dispute_with_John_Searle

  17. John Haglund says . . . | August 3, 2013 / 8:22 am

    First read Derrida’s “Signature Event Context”, then Searle’s “Reiterating the Differences” and finally indulge in Derridas “Limited Inc”. Seriously, laughed my ass off. I have never seen anyone get so meticulously ripped apart as Searle in that “debate”.

  18. William Large says . . . | August 14, 2013 / 5:24 am

    Is anyone arguing that obscurity is good thing in itself? I don’t think so. But what can be clear for someone can be obscure for another. In the end it’s whether you think the obscurity is worth it or not. A lot of the technical language of analytic philosophy can be very obscure if you don’t know it, just as a lot of the style of continental can be. You just have to ask yourself does this make me think or not. If no, don’t read it. Searle is being a bit of a clown really. Why would I let him tell me what I ought to and ought not to read? Also he was completely toasted in his debate with Derrida. For a start off it was clear he hadn’t read any Derrida (and probably hadn’t read any Foucault either), so he wasn’t too convincing.

    What worries me more is your obsession with clarity as a way of policing what is valid philosophically or not. It is a kind of fascism of the mind in the end.

  19. jkop says . . . | August 31, 2013 / 6:22 pm

    @William: the seeming obscurity of a technical expression is probably evoked by private unfamiliarity with its use than an actual indeterminacy of its meaning. One could probably look it up in a manual. A literary expression, however, whose meaning is indeterminate, is genuinely obscure.

    Obscure “theory” as no specific manual, and evidently provokes debate or discourse on how to interpret its expressions. This is what makes its readers “think”, as in trying to understand the contorted or misused language, before one could even start thinking about its application in meaningful use. It’s a confidence trick, which enables an endless chatter immune to criticism or truths.

  20. Nick Brittlebank says . . . | September 20, 2013 / 11:26 am

    “A lot of the technical language of analytic philosophy can be very obscure if you don’t know it.”nSurely the point isn’t how clear the language is to a given reader but rather whether or not there is a specific point being made, expressed as concisely and clearly as possible given the content. To an extent, crispness of prose is to be favoured over accessibility because it means more ideas can be delivered. The issue isn’t obscurity, it’s obscurity for obscurity’s sake. The argument being made is that some writers in the continental tradition are deliberately obscure out of vanity. n”Why would I let him tell me what I ought to and ought not to read?”nBecause he knows more about philosophy than you. That’s like asking why a you should let a doctor treat your skin cancer.. n”What worries me more is your obsession with clarity as a way of policing what is valid… it is a kind of fascism of the mind in the end.” nDon’t be silly. You’re perfectly entitled to your wrong ideas, just as you’re entitled to practice a lesser species of philosophy.

  21. Nle says . . . | September 25, 2013 / 10:41 am

    It’s been years since I read the exchange, but I do recall it as nbeing kinda excruciating. Sad in a way – Searle seems like a perfectly nnice guy, just wildly out of his depth. Derrida can perhaps be criticised (mildly, and with a wink) for indulging in an awful lot of unnecessary play (in general, not just in this exchange), but Searle just ends up looking like a grouchy buffoon.

  22. F. B. says . . . | October 7, 2013 / 5:25 am

    Jesus this is total bullshit. Foucault and Bourdieu wrote admirably well and clearly in French, which, if Searle was fluent in the language, he would know. Obviously he’s not. nnOf course they’re dead so Searle can say whatever the hell he wants about them, they can’t answer his ridiculous allegations. Just the idea that Bourdieu of all people would “confess” to willfully writing in an abstruse way is ridiculous.nnnAlso I call cultural imperialism in wanting the French language to be colonized by the rules of English writing. You can look at Proust to understand that is perfectly acceptable in French to have sentences that carry over several pages with a judicious use of punctuation. Or Balzac for that matter. nnOr any contemporary administrative French correspondence. nnThis is the way the French language is structured and operates, whether it is academic or not. I’m sorry it’s a difficult concept to grasp for some monolingual people.

  23. KeepToTheFacts says . . . | October 11, 2013 / 8:10 am

    As a French native I have to agree with Searle and Foucault. Just read their early work and it’s painfully obvious.

  24. as says . . . | October 12, 2013 / 1:45 am

    is the point not to be deliberately obscure but rather to make meaning fluid – so if you approach a text trying to determine its meaning the you’re bound to fail; the text is open so you make of it whatever you want

  25. hork says . . . | December 26, 2013 / 5:46 pm

    I would love to find what this audio clip is from so I can source it better than the 3 minute clip. If anyone knows, please help me out here.

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