Jan 13, 2016
Speech acts debate
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Probably one of the best titles of any book in rhetorical history is J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words. In fact, this is often what I tell people is what rhetoric is all about: doing things with words. But actually, Austen had something more in mind when he prepared these 12 lectures for Harvard Universitiy in 1955. All words do something—encourage, persuade, shame— but this philosopher points out that some words are what he calls “performative”—their utterance does something. Think, for example of the phrase “I now declare you man and wife,” which creates a marriage in the utterance, or “I knight you Sir Patrick Stewart” or “We christen this ship the USS Lollipop” which do similar sorts of things through the words themselves.
Now Austin doesn’t think that words themselves are the only things that create whatever these performative speech acts create: after all, the state says that only certain people with certain qualifications are allowed to go around to marry or knight or christen. Austin says that speech acts can be “misfired” when the procedure is done incorrectly, under the incorrect circumstances or by incorrect people. If I try to knight you, the act wasn’t false—the words still make sense because there is such a thing as knighting, and they grammatically hang together—but you don’t get to call yourself a knight of the rhelm because the act misfired. The other way that these speech acts can fail to get off the ground is if they’re done insincerely or without the right internal condition. Think of marriages performed in plays or movies, or quoting someone else or any comment you’ve made that you’ve followed up with a “just kidding!” So although Austin is far more complex than that in practice, the crux of his lectures are this: words can do things, unless the authority isn’t right and unless the act was done insincerely. It’s a nice little book—not too big and with a good deal of the wry Britsh academic humor which the 1950s, along with tweed and horne glasses, brimmed with.
But it started something more.
Speech act theory, as Austin’s ideas became more developed, became the arena of one of the greatest debates in language philosophy: John Searle on the one and hand J. Derrida on the other.
Derrida, as you can imagine, was fascinated by much of this, including Austin’s rakish suggestion that we might not know when someone IS being sincere, so how do we know when the act has gone off? If I say, “just kidding” afterwards, does that undo the snide comment? For Derrida, jokes, sarcasm, or fiction don’t invalidate speech acts, because such non-serious or "parasitic" speech are in no way distinquishable from any other speech act: how do we know when someone is being insincere?
Searle wrote a short response to Derrida "Reiterating the Differences: A Reply to Derrida", saying that Austin wasn’t including those types of speech as performative speech acts because they were beyond the scope of his argument.
In “Limited Inc a b c …” Derrida claims that “no intention can ever be fully conscious” to an author(s) (73). This author(s), so decentralized and unoriginal, is not even necessary to their writing because “writing […] must be able to function in the absence of the sender, the receiver, the context of production, etc.” (48 These insincere utterances, are not simple mistakes of the serious. Derrida states that, “A corruption that is ‘always possible’ cannot be a mere extrinsic accident” (77). In this sense, Derrida reads Austin as viewing “the parasite [as] part of so-called ordinary language, and it is part of it as a parasite” (97); however, before he is done, Derrida will “reverse the order of dependence” and assert that this “so-called ordinary language” is, in fact, a subspecies of the parasite (104).
Anyway, they go back and forth like that for a while, which is not surprising, because Searle, as a analytic philosopher has a radically different view on the purpose of philosophy than Derrida the deconstructionist does. Mostly the argument involves the two of them complaining that the other doesn’t understand what they’re trying to do, as well as Searle saying that Derrida isn’t a serious enough philosopher who and Derrida saying Searle needs to remove a stick from his orifice. Enlightening stuff like that.
But both of them wanted some claim on Austin’s speech acts. Early in “Limited Inc a,b,c…” Derrida derisively referred to Sarl and (their) ilk as “self-made, auto-authorized heirs of Austin”—those who take themselves as the defenders of a created Austin orthodoxy (37). While Derrida did spend a lot of time talking about copyright, he didn’t spend too much of his limited ink (ha) talking about the implications of claiming and owning the speech act philosophy. He did criticize, heavily, though, the idea that his claim on Austin’s ideas were somehow illegitimate. He chaffed at the title of Sarl’s second chapter—“Derrida’s Austin”—and the claim that “Derrida’s Austin is unrecognizable” (qt in Limited 88, italics in original). Much of what he does in “Limited Inc” is to assert that his (mis?) interpretation of Austin is just as valid a continuing of the tradition as Sarl’s. In fact, there is a Sarl’s Austin as clearly as there is a Derrida’s.
And there is also a Sarl’s Derrida and Derrida’s Searle, with caused both philosophers a lot of frustration, often claiming that words and concepts attributed to them were not in the original and making frequent pleas that his interlocutors just read again his original piece and see what was actually there.
In some ways, it’s not surprising that an analytic philosopher and a deconstructionist would have a hard time understanding each other’s positions on something as crucial for each of them as whether there is a distinction between serious and non-serious language. But despite the frustration and often pettiness of the debate, I kind of love that it happened. It created some of Derrida and Searle’s best work, as they both engaged the opposition and found news ways to describe their positions on what Austin wrote. When you think about all the pages that Derrida and Searle produced in this particular controversy, it seems like the engagement was fruitful.
I don’t wan to editorialize too much, but it seems like sometimes we just disengage with theorists or thinkers we don’t agree with, instead of wrestling with them. Not that I think Searle and Derrida were always scholarly about their disagreement, but I rather like that they took each other seriously enough to engage. So me, for my part, I declare this a Very Fruitful Debate, for which speech act I have absolute authority.