Searle vs. Derrida, Round 1

Here’s something entertaining. A book on Derrida, reviewed by Searle in the NYRB? I find Searle’s philosophy, um, poor, and the bits I know of Derrida to be both obscurantisme terroriste and, well, poor. But I don’t want to be all omgtheorylol like people enjoy these days. So with all those qualifications, I still found that this review gave me something to think about.

But Derrida also emerges as much more superficial than he is. He emerges as the instigator of various gimmicks for dealing with texts, and Culler doesn’t seem to understand the really deep problems that led Derrida into this. Culler seems unaware that Derrida is responding to certain specific theses in Husserl and is using weapons derived in large part from Heidegger to do it (Culler’s bibliography contains no references to Husserl and only one to Heidegger). I believe that Derrida’s work, at least those portions I have read, is not just a series of muddles and gimmicks. There is in fact a large issue being addressed and a large mistake being made. The philosophical tradition that goes from Descartes to Husserl, and indeed a large part of the philosophical tradition that goes back to Plato, involves a search for foundations: metaphysically certain foundations of knowledge, foundations of language and meaning, foundations of mathematics, foundations of morality, etc. Husserl, for example, sought such foundations by examining the content of his conscious experiences while suspending or “bracketing” the assumption that they referred to an external world. By doing so he hoped to isolate and describe pure and indubitable structures of experience.

Now, in the twentieth century, mostly under the influence of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, we have come to believe that this general search for these sorts of foundations is misguided. There aren’t in the way classical metaphysicians supposed any foundations for ethics or knowledge. For example, we can’t in the traditional sense found language and knowledge on “sense data” because our sense data are already infused with our linguistic and social practices. Derrida correctly sees that there aren’t any such foundations, but he then makes the mistake that marks him as a classical metaphysician. The real mistake of the classical metaphysician was not the belief that there were metaphysical foundations, but rather the belief that somehow or other such foundations were necessary, the belief that unless there are foundations something is lost or threatened or undermined or put in question.

It is this belief that Derrida shares with the tradition he seeks to deconstruct. Derrida sees that the Husserlian project of a transcendental grounding for science, language, and common sense is a failure. But what he fails to see is that this doesn’t threaten science, language, or common sense in the least. As Wittgenstein says, it leaves everything exactly as it is. The only “foundation,” for example, that language has or needs is that people are biologically, psychologically, and socially constituted so that they succeed in using it to state truths, to give and obey orders, to express their feelings and attitudes, to thank, apologize, warn, congratulate, etc.

I need to try to read Derrida one of these days, though I’m really dreading it.

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