Sunteți pe pagina 1din 16

Hum Stud (2011) 34:277–292

DOI 10.1007/s10746-011-9189-6


Understanding Each Other: The Case

of the Derrida-Searle Debate

Stanley Raffel

Published online: 28 July 2011

 Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Abstract This paper revisits the Derrida-Searle debate, an exchange that, unfor-
tunately, did not lead to much, if any, mutual understanding. I will suggest that this
failure can be traced back to key features of their respective theories. In that Searle
and Derrida use their own theories of speech as resources in trying to understand
each other, their unsuccessful communication can be used to reveal a great deal
about the limitations of both their theories. My paper tries to draw out these limi-
tations by analyzing specific moments in the debate. I also suggest concrete pro-
posals for overcoming defects in each of the theories, proposals that, arguably,
would make some mutual understanding more possible.

Keywords Derrida  Searle  Austin  Wittgenstein  Communication  Signifiers 



If nothing else, the first issue of the Journal Glyph must have convinced the
relatively young Derrida what he was up against. In it, he published an article
(Derrida 1977) that, among other things, ‘deconstructed’ Austin’s How To Do
Things With Words (Austin 1975). The editors of the journal, perhaps unwisely,
asked Austin’s student, Searle, to write a reply. What Searle produced could not
have been more critical (Searle 1977). Far from letting things lie, Derrida attempted
a comprehensive rebuttal. The entire exchange (except that Searle’s reply is only
summarized because he refused permission for it to be reprinted) makes up
Derrida’s book, Limited, Inc. (Derrida 1988).

S. Raffel (&)
University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

278 S. Raffel

Even those such as myself much more sympathetic to the theories of Derrida than
those of Searle should be willing to concede that this famous debate has generated
more heat than light. Neither seems to have learned anything from the other. Both
end up as they began. Searle thinking that Derrida simply does not understand
Austin, and is hopelessly overrated as a thinker; Derrida convinced that Searle is
little more than a brute.
Furthermore, while there has been no shortage of commentaries by third parties
on the debate, none have managed to change the situation much. Searle’s point of
view has just been dismissed out of hand by those sympathetic to Derrida. Thus,
Spivak is content merely to reiterate Derrida’s arguments and reach the sanguine
conclusion that:
Derrida exposes Searle’s critique to be off the mark in every way. (Spivak
1980: 29)
And, even though Culler recognizes the need to ‘proceed more slowly than
Derrida does,’ his aim is not some level of mutual understanding or even an attempt
to clarify the basis of the disagreement. Rather he offers a polemic designed to
convince readers that Searle is guilty of ‘egregious misunderstanding’ (Culler 1983:
112). There would certainly be an irony if Searle, of all people, can be convicted of
this charge since, as we shall see, the overriding claim of his theory is that it tells us
how it is possible to understand persons’ speech acts. If so, why not Derrida’s?
Other commentators have been much more willing to lay all the blame on
Derrida. Thus, Norris accuses him of not even wanting to reach any understanding
of Searle’s position:
…Derrida made it plain that his intent was to baffle and provoke, rather than
reach any common ground of discourse. (Norris 1982: 108)
It is the contention of this paper that Searle’s and Derrida’s inability to understand
each other can be employed in another, much more productive way than taking sides
on who is right and who is wrong. Instead, I shall try to show that their troubles in
understanding one another can be illuminating because, instead of being produced by
personal failings, they are either made necessary or facilitated by the core assumptions
of their respective theories. The unsatisfactory results of the debate stem from flaws in
their theories of meaning which are reproduced in their flawed attempts to see what
each other mean. Revisiting aspect of the debate can be worthwhile, then, because it
can give us insight into problems with the two theories, problems that need to be faced
if speakers are to achieve more understanding of one another than do Searle and
Derrida. Furthermore, we may also be able to move from seeing some problems in
their theories to offering some suggestions for resolving them.

Outline of Searle’s Theory

I begin with a summary of Searle’s approach. Searle wonders:

How is it possible that when a speaker stands before a hearer and emits an
acoustic blast…the hearer understood what is meant. (Searle 1969: 3)

Understanding Each Other 279

Exemplifying the puzzle with an example, he asks how the word ‘hello,’ one
such acoustic blast, manages to be understood as an act of ‘courteous recognition’
(Searle 1969: 67). A first prerequisite for understanding what is meant is the fact
In speaking I attempt to communicate certain things to my hearer by getting
him to recognize my intention to communicate just those things. (Searle 1969:
To communicate courteous recognition, for example, I would need to get my
hearer to recognize my intention to communicate that. However, he uses
Wittgenstein’s example of how difficult it is to: ‘Say it is cold here and mean it’s
warm here’ (Searle 1969: 45 referencing Wittgenstein 1958: § 510, 140) to
demonstrate that:
Meaning is more than a matter of intention, it is also at least sometimes a
matter of convention. (Searle 1969: 45)
We cannot get others to understand that we mean X just by intending to mean X.
We must also follow the established conventions by which we can mean X in our
society. So he writes that:
The hypothesis, then, of this work is that speaking a language is a rule-
governed form of behaviour. (Searle 1969: 22)
The key to being understood is compliance with all the relevant rules:
Speaking a language is engaging in a (highly complex) rule-governed form of
behavior. To learn and master a language is (inter alia) to learn to have
mastered these rules. (Searle 1969: 12)
One thing that rules supply is the shared meaning of each acoustic blast. Just as
one cannot mean it is warm here by saying it is cold here, one also must learn the
right word to express courteous recognition.
By suggesting that the rules are highly complex, one thing Searle has in mind is
that there are additional rules governing the appropriate conditions—the context—
for doing particular speech acts. For example, one cannot achieve courteous
recognition just by saying ‘hello’ to anyone whenever and wherever one pleases.
The rule Searle formulates in this case is that S must say ‘hello’ only when S has
‘just encountered (or been introduced to, etc. H)’ (Searle 1969: 67).1
Another aspect of understanding what is meant in the case of many speech acts
forces Searle to further elaborate his theory. Understanding the meaning of
innumerable utterances requires understanding what is implied by the speaker if he/
she utters X. For example managing to make a promise whose meaning will be clear
involves more than just knowing the right sound blast for that speech act and also
more than knowing rules for when making a promise is most appropriate, e.g. when

But note Garfinkel’s point that the use of ‘etc.’ may mask the fact that, actually, there is no clear-cut
rule: ‘Whenever a member is required to demonstrate that an account analyzes an actual situation, he
invariably makes use of the practice of ‘etcetera’’ (Garfinkel 1967: 3).

280 S. Raffel

‘it is not obvious to both S and H that S will do A in the normal course of events.’
(Searle 1969: 59) If one promises A, the meaning that will be understood includes
the idea that ‘S intends to do A’ (Searle 1969: 60). Similarly, if one requests, it will
be given to be understood that ‘S wants H to do A’ (Searle 1969: 66). If one asserts,
it will be understood that ‘S believes P’ (Searle 1969: 66). The way Searle handles
this additional fact that saying something can mean certain commitments on the part
of the sayer is that, besides all the other rules that must be followed, there is also for
innumerable speech acts the rule that the speaker must be sincere if other people are
to understand the meaning of what is uttered (Searle 1969: 66–67).

Outline of Derrida’s Theory

I now turn to a summary of Derrida’s approach. As we shall see, he has a very

different sense of how meaning is achieved. Where Searle speaks of an acoustic
blast, Derrida speaks of an ‘instituted trace’ (Derrida 1998: 46). The choice of term
is meant to indicate that, contrary to what Searle assumes, the meaning of anything
is never fully available in whatever is said or written. Meaning is never present.
Derrida articulates this fact as the: ‘destruction of…the metaphysics of presence’
(Derrida 1998: 50). Nor is the meaning available merely by identifying, as Searle
assumes, either the intentions of even a sincere speaker or writer or any context
dictating a proper occasion when a trace was instituted.
For Derrida, such attempts to determine meaning either by intention or context
are examples of looking for an origin. They are then two ways of belying the idea
that all we ever have are traces:
If all begins with the trace, there is above all no originary trace. (Derrida
1998: 61)
While rejecting the view that meaning is ever present or determined by the
speaker’s intention or a trace’s context, Derrida is certainly not saying that instituted
traces are therefore meaningless. How then does he suggest we extract meaning from
traces? He begins to help us here by giving guidance as to what we should not do:
To produce this signifying structure obviously cannot consist of reproducing,
by the effaced and respectful doubling of commentary, the conscious,
voluntary, intentional relationship that the writer institutes. (Derrida 1998:
The meaning cannot consist in merely repeating what an author consciously
intended. On the other hand, the obvious alternative is not acceptable either:
Yet if reading must not be content with doubling the text, it cannot
legitimately transgress the text toward something other than it…Our reading
must be intrinsic and remain within the text (Derrida 1998: 158)
As to what positive form or forms such readings could take, a later essay by
Derrida is more informative. Citing Friedrich Nietzsche as an influence for the
version of reading he is arguing for, Derrida writes of:

Understanding Each Other 281

The joyous affirmation of the play of the world and of the innocence of
becoming, the affirmation of a world of signs without fault, without truth, and
without origin which is offered to an active interpretation. (Derrida 1997: 292)
In that signs—traces—offer no definite truth or origin, instead of being upset by
this, we can affirm such a state of affairs by embracing what it offers, namely the
opportunity to engage in active interpretation.2 There would necessarily not be only
one such possible interpretation because to think that would be to introduce a notion
of the truth. At the same time, there would still be the limit that one should not
transgress the text, say, by ignoring it completely or producing an interpretation that
cannot credibly be derived from it.

Understanding Derrida’s Reaction to Searle

Having summarized both theories, can we demonstrate how there are aspects of the
application of these theories to the debate that make it more difficult—even
sometimes impossible—for the theorists to make sense of one another? Turning first
to Searle, his theory would dictate that what Searle writes in his reply to Derrida
would be acoustic blasts, the meaning of which he thinks everyone shares with him,
so long as he also uses those blasts according to equally shared rules of proper use.
And yet Derrida never seems to understand what Searle writes in the way Searle
understands himself. Let’s examine one example of them differing. Searle writes:
Once one has a general theory of speech acts—a theory which Austin did not
live long enough to develop himself—it is one of the simpler problems to
analyse the status of parasitic discourse…. (Searle 1977: 205)
To which Derrida responds:
I sincerely regret that ‘‘Austin did not live long enough’’…. But through my
tears I still smile at the argument of a ‘‘development’’ that a longer life might
have led to a successful conclusion. (Derrida 1988: 94)
Like any complex paragraph, we could find more than one attempted speech act
in Searle’s statement here. But the one that Derrida picks up on and surely one that
Searle intends is the act of regretting someone’s death. The ‘acoustic blast’ that does
this work and that therefore, according to Searle’s theory, we would need to share
rules as to the meaning of would be ‘Austin did not live long enough.’ In this case,
in that the basis of regret would appear to be an intellectual loss, the conditions that
make the acoustic blast appropriate and so supposedly understandable to others such
as Derrida are first that, had he lived longer, he would have produced something
called a general theory and second, justifying regret at this lack, the invention of
such a theory by Austin would have made it simple to resolve various problems.
Finally, unless we are to conclude that Searle is some sort of monster, capable of
consciously not sincerely regretting the premature death of his apparently beloved
I am indebted to McHugh for a discussion of Derrida in which he, too, cites this passage (McHugh
1996: esp. 27–34).

282 S. Raffel

teacher, we must accept that he is also consciously adhering to the sincerity rule, as
that would presumably be an additional requirement for the correct performance of
this speech act. Searle can be said, then, to be adhering to the required shared rules
and so, according to his theory, Derrida should be able to understand that he regrets
Austin’s death.
But Derrida responds with a smile. We can imagine Searle being taken aback. He
consciously intends to regret something and he finds the person he expresses this to
laughing at him. It is impossible to conclude that Searle and Derrida share rules as to
the meaning of this sound blast and the conditions for its proper use when a speech
act apparently designed to regret a death is met with laughter.
What can Searle make of the utterances of anyone with whom he clearly does not
share rules? While he does recognize this possibility, he treats it as a case of failing
to comply with what understanding one another requires and suggests that, in
keeping with his theory, such a speaker is therefore doomed to produce utterances
We can describe by characterizing the utterances as being…false or
meaningless, stupid… (Searle 1969: 3)
It is certainly true that Searle often treats Derrida’s remarks as false and
sometimes so false as to be virtually meaningless, even stupid. For example, he
writes that one of Derrida’s points rests on ‘a simple confusion’ (Searle 1977: 201).
Another is: ‘Obviously false’ (Searle 1977: 203). Or:
I find so many confusions in this argument of Derrida that I hardly know
where to get started on it. (Searle 1977: 206)
But before we agree with his overall judgement of Derrida, we need to consider
whether the judgement could actually be a product of the core assumption of his
theory that it is only a willingness to share rules with someone that makes it possible
for them to be understood. We need to consider, then, whether, even in the absence
of shared rules, Derrida’s reaction to Searle is quite as meaningless and stupid as
Searle would have us believe.
As a start on this work, it is necessary to specify in more detail one requirement
of Searle’s theory. As Menke suggests (1998: 32–33), any theory that communi-
cation depends on shared rules will assume that we communicate by making signs.
In such theories, what are called signifiers produce shared understanding because
there are agreed upon rules as to what the signifier means, at least when it is uttered
in the context in which, according to additional rules, it is supposed to be uttered to
have a particular significance. So, Searle can claim that the reason why we can
understand that ‘hello’ signifies courteous recognition is because that is what that
signifier signifies at least when it is uttered at the proper (according to rules) time
and place. But what is required, even of an utterance as simple as ‘hello,’ to function
as such a clear-cut signifier? As Menke also suggests:
Even the term ‘‘signifier’’ underscores the difference between the meaning
related letter and its material facticity. Signifiers…are distinct from those
things of which they are materially composed by means of their relation to

Understanding Each Other 283

meaning…so it is not the material occurrence of signifiers that can be

reproduced but only some of their selected aspects. (Menke 1998: 34–35)
As this applies to ‘hello,’ for there to be an agreed upon rule as to what ‘hello’
means, we must be able to reproduce ‘hello’ whenever we wish to successfully
indicate courteous recognition. But for this to be possible, we would certainly not
have to also be required to reproduce any and all of the material aspects which
would necessarily constitute any imaginable ‘hello,’ e.g. the same level of loudness
or softness, the same accent, the same length of time for all the sounds that compose
‘hello’ to be uttered. These and other material aspects would always be there but, for
the signifier to be able to have a clear-cut significance, they would have to be
considered irrelevant.
To the extent that the inevitably present material aspects that constitute any
signifier do seem relevant, the possibility of the signifier unambiguously conveying
just one clear-cut meaning disappears. Our general point is that there are such
relevant aspects to the material which Searle uses in his attempt to signify regret
and, once we attend to some of this material, we can begin to makes sense of
Derrida’s reaction. Derrida is smiling at the discrepancy between Searle’s attempt to
signify regret at Austin’s death and the possible meaning of some of the material out
of which that signifier is composed.
To be specific, even though Searle consciously tries to signify regret by
indicating that ‘Austin did not live long enough,’ the depth of the regret is undercut
by his claiming, as part of the very same sentence, that the general theory emerged
anyway. That is, the eventual achievement of the theory could lead us to understand
that Searle does not think Austin’s death was that great a loss. And when Searle also
goes on to claim that at least some of the problems his death left unresolved have
proved simple to solve, this could lead us to understand that Austin’s early death
was not even all that inconvenient. Then, most of all, when Searle claims (as he is in
effect doing here and does explicitly elsewhere) that the someone who produced the
theory that mitigates the effects of Austin’s death is none other than himself, we can
wonder even more how deeply he can be regretting a death that would seem to have
done him a personal favour.
What is the status of this mini-analysis? We can certainly not claim that we now
‘know’ whether Searle really regrets Austin’s death. That is, we cannot claim it is
right to conclude that his regret is consciously insincere, necessarily wrong of him
to believe, notwithstanding what we have said about possible meanings of some of
the material out of which he composes the signifier of regret, that he really misses
Austin. But we can say that there is a way of understanding why it is not necessarily
wrong of Derrida to find Searle’s statement that Austin did not live long enough
worthy of a smile. The reason is that much of the material out of which the
expressed regret is formed can be enjoyably parsed in a way that casts some doubt
on his credibility. Some of what Searle says, e.g. that the theory was produced
anyway and that he is the ‘one’ who produced it, does not sound—does not feel—
like the language of someone who is all that regretful. And cannot what we are
doing now-enjoying the feel of some of Searle’s signifiers, enjoying how they could
sound to Derrida- be seen as an alternative way of understanding them than needing

284 S. Raffel

to see and share some speech rule they may be seeking to adhere to? Finally, we can
note in passing that even our understanding of ‘hello’ sometimes makes use of this
alternative way to understand. Do not we sometimes listen for the feel of the
material out of which specific ‘hellos’ are formed if we are interested in a credible
understanding of quite how courteous a recognition they are really offering?
This alternative way of understanding the meaning of utterances can be
disconcerting because it requires appreciating that one is never the only judge and
may not even be the best judge of the meaning of one’s own speeches. At the same
time, it has the distinct advantage over Searle’s theory that one need no longer
assume that, just because others’ responses reveal that they do not share one’s rules
as to what one’s utterances mean, that necessarily demonstrates that their responses
are false, meaningless, or even stupid. In many cases, for example, these unexpected
responses could help one reflect more profoundly on the possible meaning of one’s
own actions. Thus, returning to the case we have been focusing on, even if the fact
that someone else finds his depiction of his relation to Austin worthy of a laugh
should not lead Searle to go so far as to worry about whether he really regrets
Austin’s death, it could still promote some worthwhile self-reflection. In particular,
as Derrida is implicitly suggesting not just by this laugh but throughout his response
to Searle, while there is no denying Searle’s respect for his teacher, the best way to
show that respect may not be to appoint oneself as, in effect, the one and only proper
inheritor of the dead man’s legacy.
What replaces shared rules dictating the meaning of utterances, as one seeks to
understand what oneself and others can be credibly seen as doing? One needs at
least a provisional grasp of all the various concepts, especially potentially
competing ones which share sufficient initial similarities so that they could be
confused with one another. Grasp here would be something like having a feel for
what signifiers the concept requires—demands—of those who would be engaged in
doing it, including what it does not demand of us. Such a grasp would inevitably
involve some clarity about what behavioural inclusions and omissions could
differentiate a concept from all the others with which it is most easily confused.
Grasping what a concept involves enables one to look for material indicators3 of
it in words and actions. For example, with a provisional grasp of what love is
including some grasp of how it is different from lust, affection, etc., one can do
some credible interpretations of whether love is present (or not) by interpreting all
the available possible indicators of it and its absence. The presence of some
indicators and the absence of others would make it, in the term used above, credibly
feel like love.
While we were not explicit about it, what has just been said depicts the method
being used so far in this paper. A grasp of the concept of regret including what other
concepts it might be confused with was used to decide whether the signifiers offered
by Searle can credibly be formulated as his experiencing exactly that or something
more nuanced. For example, does not regretting an event require not personally

In addition to Menke, a further relevant source for our analysis of how meaning is gathered is Didi-
Huberman’s depiction of how what he calls ‘symptoms’ are more informative than what he and others
including Searle intend by the term ‘signifier’. (Didi-Huberman 2005: esp. 19).

Understanding Each Other 285

benefiting much from it? We were trying to use our grasp of regret to interpret
whether, as we examined the material composing available signifiers, it credibly felt
as if Searle’s speech was an adequate expression of that.

Derrida’s Misunderstanding of Searle

Searle’s theory, by not recognizing the ambiguities that can be detected in the
material producing any signifier, makes it impossible for him to understand
Derrida’s reaction to him. I now want to consider the opposite issue, the effect of
Derrida’s theory on his ability to understand Searle’s comments in the debate.
However, there is a prior issue here. Whereas it is clear that Searle’s theory
presupposes a desire to understand and be understood, at least among those
willing to be, in his sense, sincere, does Derrida share that desire? In that the
very possibility of misunderstanding anyone would seem to involve misconstru-
ing their intentions, can the proponent of ‘active interpretation,’ given his
conviction that intentions do not determine meaning, even care what a speaker’s
intentions are? Norris for one, as cited above, believes that Derrida is not even
trying to understand and be understood. And Derrida himself wonders at one
If ‘‘understanding’’ is still a notion dominated by the allegedly constative
regime of theory or of philosophy. (Derrida 1988: 41)
Constative regimes are among the ones Derrida includes within the ‘metaphysics
of presence’ which his whole approach is designed to reject.
On the other hand, it is a fact that the accusation that Derrida defender Culler,
also quoted above, makes against Searle is that he is guilty of misunderstanding
him so at least one proponent of deconstruction sees misunderstanding as both
existing and undesirable. Even more telling, it is difficult to imagine how else to
interpret the level of energy Derrida himself puts into rebutting Searle if he does
not think misunderstandings can be both a possibility and a problem. My own
approach will be to find a case where Derrida’s mode of seeing meaning does
seem to lead to a misunderstanding. I will also suggest that it is defensible to treat
this misunderstanding as a problem, first because it leads to the debate taking an
unnecessarily acrimonious turn and, second, more importantly, because what is not
understood here by Derrida can, if developed, be a new resource for producing
some mutual understanding even among those as apparently incompatible as
Derrida and Searle.
At one point in his criticism, Searle suggests that Derrida suffers from:
The illusion that somehow illocutionary intentions if they really existed or
mattered would have to be something that lay behind the utterances, some
inner picture animating the visible signs. But of course in serious literal speech
the sentences are precisely the realizations of the intentions. There need be no
gulf at all between the illocutionary intention and its expression. (Searle 1977:

286 S. Raffel

To which Derrida responds:

The illusion thus unmasked,…namely that someone named Derrida suppos-
edly believes in…, this illusion belongs-and hence the terrifying severity of
the accusation-to the repertoire of a psychology of language (mechanistic,
associationist, substantialist, expressionist, representationalist, pre-Saussurian,
prephenomenological, etc.) more exactly to a pre-critical psychologism; one
can only wonder by means of what perverse or baroque regression Sec4 might
have succumbed to such psychologism. (Derrida 1988: 66)
As he is certainly entitled to do by his own theory, Derrida develops one possible
meaning for Searle’s speech. Searle appears to be referring to an illusion that would
be ‘terrifying’ if it did apply to Derrida. It would mean that he had regressed to a
‘pre-critical psychologism,’ something that his whole intellectual trajectory, steeped
as he is in phenomenology and De Saussure, has been at pains to reject. And so
Derrida manages to escape from this terror because he is convinced such an
accusation could not possibly apply to him.
But we wonder whether his (valid) assumption that whatever Searle’s intention
might be here cannot exhaust the possible meanings of his speech inclines Derrida
to not try hard enough to work out what on earth Searle could possibly mean. As a
start on this task, we certainly cannot agree that, while he is no doubt being serious
here, there is no gulf between Searle’s intention and its expression because even if
Derrida is wrong to identify the unmaskers of this particular illusion as figures he is
steeped in, Searle does not actually spell out-state in so many words-who he thinks
did do this unmasking work. Here, using two conventional tools with the potential to
not eliminate, that being impossible, but reduce ambiguity of meaning: knowledge
of someone’s biography, in this case Searle’s intellectual biography and my own
intellectual sources, in this case distinct from Derrida’s, I would guess that Searle
means to refer not to those who Derrida imagines but to his own most important
influence besides Austin, Wittgenstein.
But if this is Searle’s intent, why the gulf between intention and expression? Why
not directly state Wittgenstein’s name? An interpretation that I suggest is at least
credible can be developed if we notice and reflect on some of the additional material
that Searle is employing as part of his overall attempt to signify here. By his use of
the term ‘of course’ Searle could be intent on suggesting that Derrida has not just
made a mistake. He has made an obvious mistake. That this could be part of his
intention becomes much more plausible as it can be seen that Searle’s tone
throughout his reply, as we already noted, conveys the message that Derrida’s views
are so mistaken as to not even be taken seriously. For example:
Derrida has a distressing penchant for saying things that are obviously false.
(Searle 1977: 203)
Searle could be refraining from actually mentioning the word Wittgenstein
because it could undercut his general intent to show that it is a simple matter to

Sec is Derrida’s playful name for his article which occasioned Searle’s response.

Understanding Each Other 287

refute Derrida, as whatever Wittgenstein’s virtues, nothing that he purports to

unmask or proposes can credibly be depicted as simple.

Wittgenstein’s Concept of Intention

Thus far I have suggested that by trying to work harder to understand what Searle
actually intends, Derrida might have realized that Searle was pointing out, though
admittedly not in a particularly helpful way, that Derrida’s concept of intention
might be improved by attending to arguments available in Wittgenstein.5 My further
suggestion is that this advice is actually worth following because, if it can be
accepted that our interpretation here does increase our understanding of what Searle
is accusing Derrida of, it can now be noted that what I have learned from
Wittgenstein has been an essential resource in producing this interpretation.
In attempting to interpret Searle’s intention, I have been relying on Wittgen-
stein’s way of liberating us from a picture of intentions as inevitably hidden.
Sometimes, no doubt, intentions are hidden but if we are tempted to think of
intentions as inevitably hidden:
Look at a cat when it stalks a bird; or a beast when it wants to escape.
(Wittgenstein 1958: § 647, 158)
Watching a cat stalk a bird, we surely feel we know its intention. Its intention is
not invisible though it is not quite right to say it is visible, though it does feel that
way. Instead of being strictly visible, its intention appears—seems clear—because it
is a way, in this case perhaps the only way, to interpret what is visible: the single-
mindedness of the pursuit, the stealth, the moments of patience, etc. Intention here is
what all its movements and even non-movements (both primitive versions of
material indicators) seem intent on.
Searle is not so transparent as Wittgenstein’s cat but I have used a similar
procedure to try to work out his intention. We have been examining material
composed of the signifiers he offers us, including both what he mentions, e.g. that
there is an illusion, that the illusion is an inner picture (Wittgenstein often speaks of
pictures holding us captive), that it is all an ‘of course,’ and his significant
omissions, in particular the omission of the name of the unmasker. From all this we
tried to derive what his intent—aim—is (Wittgenstein: ‘One compares ‘‘meaning
him’’ with ‘‘aiming at him’’’ (Wittgenstein 1958: § 689, 171) to try to provide a
credible account of how the whole collection of material, however messy, might
have been produced. What credibly accounts for it all, in this case, we think, is
contradictory desires to dismiss Derrida as simplistic while needing to use
Wittgenstein to do so. We proposed this as a credible interpretation of his intention
in the sense of what he is intent on.

Coulter (1996) has also observed that Derrida’s thought could benefit from an engagement with
Wittgenstein. In addition, see Staten’s attempt to argue for the compatibility of the ideas of Derrida and
Wittgenstein (Staten 1984).

288 S. Raffel

Especially when an actor is, like Searle, attempting to do contradictory things,

what they are intent on, in Wittgenstein’s sense, can be distinct from what they
consciously intend. This lack of full awareness of what one is intent on-what one is
trying to accomplish-would be particularly likely when some of what one is intent
on is hard to admit, even to oneself. In the case under consideration, we can imagine
Searle as likely to be more conscious of the fact that he is intent on referencing
Wittgenstein than on the fact that he is simultaneously trying to accomplish a put
down of Derrida, the latter being the sort of motive no well meaning person would
be eager to face. Or, returning to our earlier example, the same logic would suggest
that he would be more aware of the fact that by his speech act he is intent on
respecting Austin than that by the same speech act he is intent on furthering his own
Given the desirability of attempting this work of understanding intent—and it
seems required when our interpretation diverges from theirs in so far as we wish the
other speaker not to believe that we simply do not understand them—we can see the
interpretation Derrida arrives at as relevant but just as a first step. It is informative
that he finds Searle’s accusation incredible but, instead of stopping there, he could
and should go on to try to work out if there is anything Searle could be meaning to
do (intending, aiming at, trying to accomplish) that could lend some credibility to
Searle’s speech after all. If he did such work, it would enable Derrida not to be so
dismissive and even incredulous in his reaction to Searle.
Even though Searle, like me, has utilized Wittgenstein to develop his version of
how intentions are not ‘some inner picture,’ it is still the case that the way he
interprets him is problematic. To argue, as I just have, that it may sometimes be
possible to work out a speaker’s intent is different from assuming that, ‘in serious
literal speech’ ‘there need be no gulf at all between the illocutionary intention and
its expression.’ Searle tries to make this argument with the following example:
Suppose you read the sentence, ‘‘On the twentieth of September 1793 I set out
on a journey from London to Oxford’’. Now how do you understand this
sentence? To the extent that the author said what he meant and you understand
what he said you will know that the author intended to make a statement to the
effect that on the twentieth of September 1793, he set out on a journey from
London to Oxford…(Searle 1977: 201)
Searle thinks that, so long as this author was being sincere, his intent is obvious,
namely to make a statement of fact. Whereas I (and it seems to me Wittgenstein)
would say that, even assuming sincerity, we have not at all yet addressed the
question of his intent since that is a question of his aim. That the two ideas of intent
are distinct can be seen from the fact that, among the myriad of credible
interpretations of what even a sincere speaker could be meaning by these words are
that, instead of stating a fact, he is trying to get us to understand that he is in a state
of excitement because commencing a university education, or in a state of resolve
about finally ending his marriage, or, on a whim, abandoning urban existence and so
on through many interpretations, any or all of which are credible and could, of
course, become more or less so to the extent that we gain access to additional
relevant material.

Understanding Each Other 289

Derrida and Searle on Austin

The last two sections have been critical of Derrida for not paying sufficient attention
to intent. However, note that doing one’s best to interpret a speaker’s intent is an
additional task that, while it would increase the chances of persons understanding
one another, can be undertaken without undercutting Derrida’s main point. One can
try to work out what someone’s intentions are, even in the expanded sense of intent
derived from Wittgenstein, without in any way suggesting that exhausts the possible
significance of his or her speech. For example, even if Searle’s accusation makes a
lot more sense when it is seen as alluding to an argument and a positive proposal
developed by Wittgenstein, this more supplements than contradicts Derrida’s
reading of the accusation. That Searle would think that he can simply declare that
Derrida misconceives intention and suffers from an illusion without explaining how
his point can be distinguished from apparently similar ones made by Husserl and De
Saussure does credibly mean, among other things, that Searle must possess an
appalling degree of ignorance both of Derrida and the tradition he is steeped in.
The general point here is that, while it is essential to do one’s best to attempt to
discover other speakers’ intentions to have the hope of not misunderstanding them,
that does not mean it cannot also be highly relevant to develop other things that the
material out of which they compose their signifiers might accidentally indicate.
Returning to Searle, a further example of his exchanges with Derrida indicates this
is a lesson he in particular needs to learn. We have already quoted the passage
where, in excluding certain forms of discourse from his analysis, Austin labels them
‘parasitic’. Derrida, as part of his efforts to explain his reservations about Austin,
notes that:
It is as just such a ‘‘parasite’’ that writing has always been treated by the
philosophical tradition, and the connection in this case is by no means
coincidental. (Derrida 1988: 17)
With his usual complacent attitude that Derrida cannot possibly be saying
anything worthwhile, Searle replies that Derrida is suffering from:
A misunderstanding of the attitude Austin had to such discourse. Derrida
supposes that the term ‘‘parasitic’’ involves some kind of moral judgement;
that there is something bad or anomalous or not ‘‘ethical’’ about such
discourse…Nothing could be further from the truth…Such parasitism is a
relation of logical dependence; it does not imply any moral judgement and
certainly not that the parasite is somehow immorally sponging off the host.
(Does one really have to point this out?) (Searle 1977: 205)
It is a bit rich for Searle to be so dismissive of Derrida’s interpretation since, as
we have seen throughout, his theory of understanding states that we understand by
sharing rules as to what words mean. Don’t the rules we share for the word
‘parasite’ include that it means something like sponging off a host? Indeed,
whatever his theory says, apparently even Searle recognizes that, in practice,
determining meaning can sometimes require deciding not to follow at least the most
common rules dictating the meaning of particular words since he here refuses to

290 S. Raffel

apply the most obvious usage rule in interpreting what Austin means by the word
But to get a clearer idea as to what Austin is doing including whether Searle is
right as to what he is ‘certainly not implying’ when he uses the term ‘parasitic’, it is
worthwhile to look at how the term arises in Austin’s work. Having just introduced
his famous category of performatives, Austin sees a problematic implication that
could be drawn. If we can do things by saying things:
Can saying make it so? Are we then to say things like this: ‘To marry is to say
a few words’ or ‘Betting is simply saying something’. (Austin 1975: 7)
Austin tries to resist this implication by differentiating cases when saying
something does make it so from when it does not:
A performative utterance will, for example, be in a peculiar way hollow or
void if said by an actor on the stage or introduced in a poem. (Austin 1975: 22,
his italics)
An actor who says ‘I do’ in a play does not get married. It is here that the term
interpreted differently by Derrida and Searle is introduced:
Language in such circumstances is in special ways intelligibly used not
seriously, but in ways parasitic upon its normal use. (Austin 1975: 22)
Is Austin’s use of the term misplaced? Should he perhaps have substituted for it
Searle’s admittedly much more neutral term that this is ‘a relation of logical
dependence’? It is almost certainly true that Austin was not intending to make a
moral judgement about plays, poems, etc., even in Wittgenstein’s expanded sense of
intent. So Searle believes and to this extent his remarks do show an understanding of
Austin. However, at the same time, it can be seen that Austin does really believe and
want to convey that certain forms of discourse do in effect sponge off other forms,
i.e. they owe their entire existence to them and yet would seem to give these others
little or nothing in return. To call them parasitic conveys this much better than to say
they are logically dependent. But if this is the right signifier for what he wants to
say, it is not necessarily wrong for Derrida to pick up on some of the messy
additional significance that the use of that term can credibly convey. Austin’s
appropriate use of the term to depict the relation between various forms of
discourse can credibly be taken to mean that, if not exactly thinking of some types
of discourse as bad, he manages to grant them at best only a somehow inferior role.
Derrida here can be credited with illuminating an unwitting consequence of Austin’s
theory, some of the collateral damage, as it were, that results from what Austin is
intent on. Searle cannot give Derrida the credit he deserves for this discovery
because he is making the mistake of thinking that he can fully understand all the
possible significance of what someone chooses to say just by understanding what
they intend to say.
In this regard, it is instructive to examine how Culler tries to intervene at this
precise point in the Derrida-Searle debate. Responding to Searle’s attempt to
instruct Derrida as to Austin’s idea here, Culler objects:

Understanding Each Other 291

This may well have been ‘‘Austin’s idea,’’ but the appropriateness of such an
idea is precisely what is in question. (Culler 1983: 117)
Culler is conceding that Searle may understand Austin’s intention but wants
Searle to see that is not the point. However, such a response by Culler begs the
question that needs to be addressed to have any hope of getting Searle to understand
the criticism of him since what Searle does not grasp is how understanding
someone’s meaning can require anything more than understanding his or her


It does seem that we have been able to make more sense out of Derrida’s responses,
both to Searle and to Austin, than does Searle and more sense out of Searle’s critical
reaction to Derrida than does Derrida. I have argued that what they have used in
their attempts to make sense of one another are their respective theories of
understanding and that, therefore, in so far as they have failed to understand one
another, that can be very revealing of the key flaws in their theories. If serious
failings have indeed been revealed, they are relevant even for those who, with some
justification, may have lost interest in the details of the interchanges between Searle
and Derrida because these failings have implications, not just for their debate per se
but for speech act theory and deconstruction as a whole, both of which still have
many proponents.
It cannot be denied that, in pointing out flaws, my analysis has been more critical
of speech act theory and, especially, its core hypothesis that what makes it possible
to understand one another is the sharing of rules. We have shown both that the
shared rules theory requires that signifiers be unambiguous and that this assumption
that a speaker’s signifiers are unambiguous actually blocks understanding. It stops
an understanding both of what others may be hearing that one does not intend in
one’s speech and also of what, following Wittgenstein, one could, without fully
realizing it, be intent on.
Turning now to Derrida’s theory of meaning, it certainly does recognize the
ambiguity of signifiers and, as we would therefore expect, it is alert to some of the
possible meanings of utterances that speakers do not intend to convey. However, we
found that, in its eagerness to reveal unwitting meanings, it tended not to try hard
enough to work out what a speaker does mean, particularly when understanding that
required interpretive work. As such, the problem we discovered with the practice of
Derrida’s theory is that it can leave the speakers it ‘deconstructs’ or ‘actively
interprets’ feeling, rightly, that they are being misunderstood.
Speech act theorists such as Searle need to learn that it is much too limiting to
restrict understanding speakers to what speakers are trying to say. It is especially
limiting to limit understanding to what speakers are consciously trying to say.
Deconstructionists such as Derrida need to learn that, even the method of ‘active
interpretation’ should not free one from the task, which may not be a straightfor-
ward one, of working out what speakers intended as well as what their unintended

292 S. Raffel

meanings may be. What has enabled us to develop these lessons has been seeing
both what the consistent application by Searle of his theory to Derrida’s responses
has been making him misunderstand about Derrida and what the consistent
application by Derrida of his theory to Searle’s responses has been making him
misunderstand about Searle.

Acknowledgments What first stimulated this paper was some writing by Peter McHugh in which he
differentiated rule-based theories of understanding from what he called ‘aesthetic reasoning’. (McHugh
2009) I am also grateful to him and Alan Blum for their comments on previous drafts. Further thanks go
to all the participants at a Culture of Cities seminar in Toronto, Canada, April 2010, for a lively discussion
of an earlier version of this paper.


Austin, J. L. (1975). How to do things with words. Oxford: Clarendon.

Coulter, J. (1996). A logic for context. Journal of Pragmatics, 25, 441–445.
Culler, J. (1983). On deconstruction. London: Routledge.
Derrida, J. (1977). Signature event, context. Glyph Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.
Derrida, J. (1988). Limited Inc. Evanston: Northwestern.
Derrida, J. (1997). Writing and difference. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Derrida, J. (1998). Of grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.
Didi-Huberman, G. (2005). Confronting images. University Park, Pennsylvania: Penn State.
Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
McHugh, P. (1996). Insomnia and the T(error) of lost foundation in postmodernism. Human Studies, 28,
McHugh, P. (2009). Furthermores on the aesthetic. Unpublished.
Menke, C. (1998). The sovereignty of art. Cambridge: MIT.
Norris, C. (1982). Deconstruction: Theory and practice. London: Methuen.
Searle, J. (1969). Speech acts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Searle, J. (1977). A reply to Derrida. Glyph, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.
Spivak, G. (1980). Revolutions that as yet have no model. Diacritics, 10, 29–49.
Staten, H. (1984). Wittgenstein and Derrida. Oxford: Blackwell.
Wittgenstein, L. (1958). Philosophical investigations. London: Macmillan.