John Searle on Derrida

Does anyone know which article Searle refers to here:

Searle: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 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.

That is, the paper where he quotes Foucault. We all know that Foucault and Derrida suffered a break in their friendship, and we know too that it was later resurrected, so it is important to put any such quote from Foucault in that context.


28 Responses

  1. See Derrida’s “Limited Inc”
    a response to Searle’s “Reply to Derrida: Reiterating the Differences”
    which takes issue with Derrida’s “Signature Event Context”
    itself a critique of Austin’s _How to Do Things with Words_

    Limited Inc is Derrida at full force – I miss him.

  2. The full citation (according to MLA Bibliography) is:

    Searle, John, “Reiterating the Differences: A Reply to Derrida,” _Glyph_ 1 (1977): 198-208. I’m pretty sure that Limited Inc republishes Derrida’s articles from Glyph 1 & 2.

    GSU should have it (P47 .G54)

  3. That particular quote is from an interview with Searle. It’s not in ‘Limited Inc.’ The interview was published online:

  4. Oh, and the particular article Searle is referring to is actually a review of Jonathan Cullers book on deconstruction. It’s here:

  5. Thanks, GSU has Limited Inc but it is checked out and renewed (bloody faculty). So I bought it in my local Borders anyway.

    I also read the Searle review, but it still sounds like a funny quote to me; Foucault calling someone a “terrorist” however mildly.

    Update @ Rodney above: Actually I did find it in Limited Inc (p. 139) where Derrida decries Searle’s “attempt in newspaper articles for instance to turn gossip into an argument in order to accuse me, and with me all those interested in my work, of ‘terrorist obscurantism’.” There follows further comments in a footnote in which he adds how a professor at Yale wrote to the French Minister in 1984 to protest again Derrida’s nomination to the Directorship of the International College of Philosophy, in which this professor (Ruth Barcan) cited the same phrase used by Searle. While this protest was rejected by the Minister, Derrida asks whether one “can always count on such lucidity and such respect for academic freedoms?” (Fn. 12, p. 159 of Limited Inc).

  6. But I also think Foucault dangerously dismissed a great thinker, not to his credit.
    Disappointing, from his direction.

  7. lol
    I think Searle took Foucault too seriously. And tragically twisted his words to make a really obscene attack and dismissal of a great thinker.

  8. I think Foucalt probably meant every word of it. “terrorist” has a much stronger connotation in this post-9/11 world than it did at the time he said it. Don’t you find Derrida’s lack of clarity troubling? I find his critique of rational thought spot on, but I think he took his concept of there being “no center” a little too far in his writing… Say what you will about Searle (whom I disagree with about many things), I know where he stands on the first read. With Derrida, I literally have to rewrite everything he writes so I can understand it. I swear, the man must never heard of a Subject-Verb- Predicate sentance structure.

  9. Absolutely. Foucault says in another place (a lecture in Japan: I believe I have this from the Carrette collection Foucault: Religion and Culture) that he dislikes obscurity because it merely hides the face of despotism. In that context, I took him to be referring to the humpty dumpty theory of language whereby I get to decide what words mean independently of how I am heard.
    Searly would definitely be sympathetic to that kind of critique, and I think it would mark their common ground. Before he died, Derrida regretted not having read more Wittgenstein: I think this is why. The private language argument is the most convincing attack on Humpty Dumpty that I know (apart from Carroll’s of course).

  10. alright I have to disagree with that vehemently.
    Its important for people to understand what you’re saying yes, but often times in philosophy, explicitness sometimes compromises more subtle forms of analysis. Sometimes, a level of difficulty is required. This is true not just of Derrida but of Heidegger, Hegel, Adorno, Lacan (even though he gets too dense at times) and yes, even Foucault and Wittgenstein.

    Derrida can be difficult yes but I don’t really see him as being any more or less difficult than a lot of other people. When he has to, I’ve noticed he can be explicit when he has to.

    Also another point to keep in mind is translation. French tends to be more wordy than English. As a French student, I’ve noticed this alot. With philosophy like Derrida’s and others, where exact wording creates needed nuance, translation tends to be as literal as possible, sometimes perhaps creating a redundancy in English that didn’t exist in French.

    • Well, i know this is an old comment but i came across this today so well…You’re being nice with Derrida when you say that the translation may explains some redundancies, bad writing etc. I’m french and i assure you, this is one of the worst writer i’ve ever read. I don’t know if there’s an english translation for this book but have a look to Bourdieu’s one on Heidegger (“l’ontologie politique de Martin Heidegger”), this a luminous analysis on heidegger’s tactics, it shows exactly how and why heidegger is a terrorist of obscurantism : i miss such a strong analysis of Derrida’s work…(well, some pages may very well apply to Derrida’s work.
      Sorry for any bad english grammar/syntax.

      • Well, I just have this to add politely, just being a native speaker of French language would not give one such an authority or closeness to a ‘philosophical language’ to dismiss a text or an author as ‘worst’ with assurance. A text is written in ‘other’ languages too, philosophical, argumentative, private (the author’s signature) etc etc..

  11. There is indeed a level of difficulty required in reading philosophy per se and then drawing out its larger conclusions beyond the sphere of academia.

    Derrida is extremely difficult to read (look at “Writing and Difference”) however Foucault’s “Order of Things” is perhaps equally complexed though it was never meant to be published for a larger audience than that of academia.

    If one is to look at the spat between the two it is inevitably about Derrida’s attack on Madness and Civilization; which is one that violently disrupted their mentor/pupil discourse. As Derrida was taught by him.

    And, putting aside their professional jealousies, I’d suggest Derrida makes mistakes in his analysis of Descartes with respect to Foucault’s reading of him in terms of their exchanges on Madness and Civilization.

    In defence of Foucault, I do not think Derrida could feasibly put his “cards on the table” without resorting to “obscurantisme terroriste”. There was, at least, never a middle ground in this exchange anyway.

  12. I never denied that Derrida made mistakes in his analysis of Foucault’s books, I agree that he did. But is that enough to dismiss his entire oeuvre and widely recognized work simply on this piece alone? Even Foucault had his bad moments.

    Derrida’s initial piece wasn’t as particularly violent as you make it out to be (no matter how wrong it was). I read his response to Searle’s dismissal of him and that was probably violent, although much more correct than his piece on History of Madness.

    In further defense of JD, if one reads his later pieces directed to a wider public, such as the work in Rogues, Psyche and Negotiations, you can find that his style can be quite mellow if not surprisingly lucid. And also keep in mind my comment about French and its reading in English. Even if one takes Foucault’s comment as an example of French dissatisfaction with his style, that still doesn’t account for the many French intellectual contemporaries of Foucault who held Derrida in high esteem as one of the most groundbreaking philosophers of his time. These were the sentiments given by thinkers like Althusser, Barthes, and Foucault’s own teacher Georges Canguilhem. As for Foucault’s style, some of his books (excluding The Order of Things) written for the public also evoke a style that can be difficult to follow, such as The Birth of the Clinic and The Archaeology of Knowledge. This is not to criticize them but to show the double standards in Foucault’s critique of Derrida.

    I agree that Foucault had a right to respond to Derrida’s misguided critique of HM, but maybe he took it a bit too far beyond the terms of the debate.

    Maybe I’m wrong.

    • I do not agree that Derrida makes mistakes in his reading of Descartes apropos Foucault’s reading of him. There are possible arguments in support of this view, for example, in this book by Anirban Das (you can search in google books, the chapter on the Foucault-Derrida debate)

  13. Chomsky on Foucault

    The Dominion and The Intellectuals
    Noam Chomsky interviewed by an anonymous interviewer
    Antosofia, 2003

    (QUESTION: Yes, and the book arrives to the same conclusion as yours but through a more complicated, less readable way…

    CHOMSKY: If people get something out of it, it’s okay. What I understand seems to be pretty simple, and this is not a criticism. I don’t see any need to say in a complicated way what you can say in an easier way. You can make things look complicated, that’s part of the game that intellectuals play; things must look complicated. You might not be conscious about that, but it’s a way of gaining prestige, power and influence.)

    QUESTION: Do you look at Foucault’s work in this perspective?

    CHOMSKY: Foucault is an interesting case because I’m sure he honestly wants to undermine power but I think with his writings he reinforced it. The only way to understand Foucault is if you are a graduate student or you are attending a university and have been trained in this particular style of discourse. That’s a way of guaranteeing, it might not be his purpose, but that’s a way of guaranteeing that intellectuals will have power, prestige and influence. If something can be said simply, say it simply, so that the carpenter next door can understand you. Anything that is at all well understood about human affairs is pretty simple. I find Foucault really interesting but I remain skeptical of his mode of expression. I find that I have to decode him, and after I have decoded him, maybe I’m missing something. I don’t get the significance of what I am left with. I have never effectively understood what he was talking about. I mean, when I try to take the big words he uses and put them into words that I can understand and use, it is difficult for me to accomplish this task. It all strikes me as overly convoluted and very abstract. But what happens when you try to skip down to real cases? The trouble with Foucault, and with this certain kind of theory, arises when it tries to come down to earth. Really, nobody was able to explain to me the importance of his work…

  14. As far as I’m aware, the Discipline and Punish is widely read, and not only by intellectuals. Chomsky’s just getting full of himself because of his popular publications. Or maybe he hadn’t read very much Foucault: it’s very likely he restricted himself to the stuff like the Archeology of Knowledge, which certainly is in an academic register. Unlike many of the histories.
    Foucault was entirely comfortable with his intellectual reputation. He wasn’t the tortured, self-hating intellectual we are used to today. And as such, he wrote a large number of accessible articles and interviews. Concentrate on a tiny canon, and ignore the articles, interviews, and histories, and yeah, you’re gonna be dazzled by the complexity.
    And of course, “the masses” are different in France and the US…

  15. agreed with Andy.
    Obscurantism is often in the eye of the beholder.

  16. “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”

    Noam Chomsky

    Speaking of obscurantism…

    • To Six Stones:

      That was an example of a meaningless sentence that Chomsky put in one of his linguistics publications. It’s meant to show how a sentence can be grammatically correct without having meaning.

      • ‘That’ was an example of speech act of joculationary force… But you passed Introduction to Linguistics course, congratulations.

  17. […] 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 […]

  18. […] and here (“The Derrida Industry…”), and John Searle’s (quoted) opinion here. The author is dead, so let the reader decide (yes, I know that misquote’s from Barthes). […]

  19. Wikipedia theory gossip. I quite like the claim, that the root of Derrida’s conflict with Foucault, and Foucault’s conflict with Derrida, was over Madness and Civilization, because it’s improbable if one has read Madness and Civilization and impossible if one has read ‘Birth of the Clinic’ and ‘Archaeology’, but it’s really easy if one has read the Wikipedia article and two hermetic articles, which is all it takes these days to understand a thinker’s position.

  20. Regrading Derrida’s “obscurantisme terroriste” I am surprised no one has mentioned Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Before reading what follows it should be noted that Spivak translated Derrida’s “De la grammatologie” (“Of Grammatology”) to English. Try and keep that in mind.

    In a paper entitled “Ghostwriting” (Diacritics, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Summer, 1995), pp. 64-84) Spivak criticised Derrida’s understanding of Marx. In a paper entitled “Marx & Sons” (Sprinker (1999), Ghostly Demarctations: A Symposium on Jacques Derrida’s Specter of Marx) Derrida replied to Spivak’s criticism’s as follows:

    “Some of her errors stem from an outright inability to read, exacerbated here by the wounded resentment of her ‘proprietoriality about Marx’. Others are due to her unbridled manipulation of a rhetoric I shall, for lack of time and space, illustrate with only one example.” (p.223)

    Surely this is *the* exemplar of what Foucault described as the “obscurantisme terroriste” of Derrida. Is it plausible to suggest that one of his translators–and a distinguished scholar in her own right–is an incompetent reader? Derrida’s rhetorical technique–viz. manufacture abstruseness and then to your interlocutors rejoin “your criticism is based on your incompetent reading of my work”–has at least a semblance of authenticity when used against those outside of the post-structuralist school. But when Derrida attempts to use his well-rehearsed technique on those within post-structiralism–eg. Foucault, Spivak–the rhetorical ploy starts to look like what it is, i.e. a rhetorical ploy, because it is prima facie implausible.

  21. […] scientist to engage with, is reported to have labelled the famously difficult Jacques Derrida obscurantisme terroriste ­­– terrorist or terrorising obscurantism. Neuroskeptic seeks to extend that critique beyond […]

  22. Briefly, On Marx and sons I have the text in front of me. Derrida claims that “Defining the requisite conditions for the repoliticization that I would like to see come about, I wrote: “There will be no repoliticization, there will be no politics *otherwise* (Derrida uses italics here). In other words I was insisting on the fact that, in the absence of the conditions I define in this context, we will not succeed in repoliticization, something I obviously desire and which it plainly seems to me desirable to do.”

    What Spivak did according to Derrida was quote the passage and dropping the *otherwise* in ord

  23. in order to make the passage seem to mean the opposite of what it did: in other words to accuse Derrida of being opposed to politics or ‘anti-politics’. Apparently something of a theme amongst his critics.

    Terrorism or not it seems just to be allowed to point out that someone has misread you whatever their skills as translator or philosopher, whether deliberately or not. It strikes me anyway that the notion of perfect transparency behind the view that a particular set of linguistic or philosophical skills rule out the possibility of misreading is precisely the target of much of Derrida’s philosophy. Were this really true it might be argued that no such things as language or philosophy could really exist..

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