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Was Derrida a pseudophilosopher or just a bad philosopher? (Part II)

In Part I I asked whether it’s more accurate to call Jacques Derrida the Tommy Wiseau of philosophy or the Milli Vanilli of philosophy, and quickly outlined an argument for the latter option. Quite a different view of what’s wrong with Derrida emerges from John Searle’s 1994 paper “Literary theory and its discontents”. Searle argues that the main problem is not Derrida’s dishonesty, but rather his ignorance. Derrida takes on genuine philosophical problems, however he knows very little about the theoretical framework that philosophers typically use to deal with them. As a result, he gets things badly wrong. And this is actually symptomatic of most of contemporary literary theory:

In what follows, I will argue that if you get certain fundamental principles and distinctions about language right, then many of the issues in literary theory that look terribly deep, profound, and mysterious have rather simple and clear solutions. Once you get the foundations right, many (though of course, not all) of the problems are solved. So what I am going to do, rather tediously I fear, is to state about half a dozen principles, all but one of which are taken for granted by people who work in linguistics and the philosophy of language, as well as in psychology, psycho-linguistics, and cognitive science generally; but which are not always well appreciated in literary studies.

Now let me say in advance that, of course, there is nothing sacred about these principles. Perhaps we can refute all of them. But I also have to tell you in advance that there are certain rules of the investigation. The first is this: If I say, for example, “There is a distinction between types and tokens,” it is not enough to say “I call that distinction into question.” You actually have to have an argument.

The principles are: “there is such a thing as the background of interpretation” (that’s the only controversial one), “there is a distinction between types and tokens”, “there is a distinction between sentences and utterances”, “there is a distinction between use and mention”, “language is compositional”, “there is a distinction between sentence meaning and speaker meaning”, “there is a distinction between ontology and epistemology” and “syntax is not intrinsic to physics”. Derrida doesn’t appear to be aware of, or in any case appreciate, any of them, which is what leads him astray. For example, when he writes about what he calls iterability, he conflates types with tokens, sentences with utterances and sentence meaning with speaker meaning. In consequence, what appears to be a new, groundbreaking theory of meaning is just a misunderstanding stemming from a certain ambiguity. And again, this is actually a part of a bigger problem with literary theory in general:

I have suggested that a good deal of confusion in literary theory derives from a lack of awareness of familiar principles and results. How is this possible? Well, partly it derives from the hyperspecialization of contemporary intellectual life. It is not easy for someone specializing in twentieth-century American literature, for example, to become knowledgeable about the invention of the predicate calculus by Gottlob Frege in Germany in the late nineteenth century, for example. But the normal ignorance due to disciplinary boundaries is aggravated by the fact that among the people in literary studies who have written on issues in linguistics and the philosophy of language and have been taken as authorities on these issues, there are some that don’t seem to know very much about these subjects. I earlier cited some mistakes that Derrida seems to be making, and I believe these are typical of deconstructionist authors. I believe the mistakes derive not only from neglect of the principles I have mentioned but also from a general lack of familiarity with the recent history of the philosophy of language, as well as recent linguistics. “The philosophy of language,” as we now use that expression, only begins in the late nineteenth century with Frege, and continues through the works of Russell, Moore, Wittgenstein, Carnap, Tarski, Quine, and others right up to the present day. Earlier philosophers often wrote about language, but their contribution to contemporary discussion in the philosophy of language is minimal, unlike their contribution to most other areas of philosophy. As far as I can tell, Derrida knows next to nothing of the works of Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, and so on; and one main reason for his incomprehension of Austin’s work, as well as of mine, is that he does not see how we are situated in, and responding to, that history from Frege to Wittgenstein. When Derrida writes about the philosophy of language he refers typically to Rousseau and Condillac, not to mention Plato. And his idea of a “modern linguist” is Benveniste or even Saussure. All of these are important and distinguished thinkers, and their work should certainly not be neglected, but you will not understand what is happening today if that is where your understanding stops. Derrida is himself a very traditional philosopher in a sense that one can state briefly but precisely by saying that his work proceeds from assumptions that are pre-Wittgensteinian.

So Searle sees Derrida primarily as a sort of out-of-date philosopher who makes embarrassing mistakes, but not as a fraud. On Searle’s account Derrida seems to genuinely believe he’s on to something deep and important. This is not to say what he does is entirely free of dodginess:

Derrida is notorious for the view that meanings are unstable. He even uses words such as “undecidable” and “relative indeterminacy” (LI 144-45) in these discussions. This view has the consequence, for example, that all readings are to some degree misreadings, that all understandings are misunderstandings, and so on. But when challenged he tells us that he did not mean any of that at all. Now he says that he meant to remark only 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” (LI 147). So the original daring thesis now amounts to the platitude that misunderstandings and infelicities are always possible. But this does not seem to prevent him or his followers from continuing to use the original formulations.

This, however, is more of a side issue. For Searle, Derrida’s cardinal sin is his unfamiliarity with contemporary philosophy and linguistics, which is why, I suspect, he calls Derrida a philosopher. For Smith et al. the main problem seems to be Derrida’s dishonesty, which may be why they call him “somebody who describes himself as a philosopher”. And this is what the whole difference between bad philosophy and pseudophilosophy seems to boil down to. Pseudophilosophers don’t really mean what they say, they don’t care about what’s true, what they care about is mostly creating the right impression. To use Harry Frankfurt’s technical term, they’re bullshitting.

But is it really all about lack of belief? Recently two articles touching upon this problem have been published: “Philosophy without belief” by Zach Barnett and “Publishing without belief” by Alexandra Plakias. Both conclude that you can be a perfectly legitimate philosopher without believing a word you say. I actually agree. However, I think it’s important to point out there are many different ways of not believing what you say in philosophy. For example:

(1) You don’t believe your premises are true, but you believe your conclusions follow from them.

(2) You believe your premises are true, but you don’t believe your conclusions follow from them.

(3) You don’t believe your premises are true and you don’t believe your conclusions follow from them.

(4) You don’t even know what your premises and conclusions are.

I think engaging in (2), (3) and especially (4) makes one more likely to be a pseudophilosopher than engaging in (1). Secondly, there is a question of sincerity, which is a separate issue. One can be completely open about one’s lack of belief, one can be completely deceptive about it, or one can land somewhere in between. I think the more deceptive you are, the more likely it is that what you produce is pseudophilosophy.

Here the objection might be: “Isn’t it still possible even for a full-fledged charlatan who doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about to accidentally come up with something philosophically valuable? Why not just judge arguments on their own merit? Who cares about their authors’ intentions and beliefs?” My reply would be: this is easier said than done. First, it’s far from clear to what extent it is possible to understand anything without ascribing beliefs to the speaker in one way or another. Secondly, even if it is somehow possible, adopting this approach would mean wasting a lot of time trying to make sense of things that don’t make any sense. After all, a charlatan can accidentally come up with something valuable only on rare occasions. This is why, from a practical point of view, finding out whether somebody is in fact a charlatan is a good idea.

I’m not denying that “accidentally good” philosophy is possible. I’m not sure though whether it’d count as pseudophilosophy. Perhaps not. Perhaps it’s more reasonable to say that pseudophilosophy arises from a combination of dishonesty and poor quality argumentation. On this account pseudophilosophy wouldn’t be the same as bad philosophy nor something separate from bad philosophy, but rather a kind of bad philosophy.

Here another objection pops up: “Isn’t this self-contradictory? If “pseudo-” means “fake”, aren’t you saying that something is and is not philosophy at the same time?” Well, I think it should be clear there are two different senses of “philosophy” at play here, broad and narrow. “Philosophy” in the broad sense is any kind of output that deals with philosophical problems. “Philosophy” in the narrow sense is a kind of output that is up to a certain standard. And “pseudo-” in “pseudophilosophy” applies to the latter, but not the former.

So was Derrida a pseudophilosopher or just a bad philosopher in the end? If I’m roughly on the right track with my account of pseudophilosophy, I think it’s fair to say he was probably both.

5 replies on “Was Derrida a pseudophilosopher or just a bad philosopher? (Part II)”

Searle thinks Derrida is making a mistake by not using distinctions that have become canonical in analytic philosophy. I think it’s worth asking why or in what respect that, in particular, is a mistake. What standard is Derrida running afoul of? (Or: why are these distinctions good distinctions to draw? Or: why must one adhere to these distinctions?)
Truth? These a priori philosophical distinctions “cut reality at its joints?” Philosophy has continually progressed from its benighted beginnings up through at least the heights of analytic philosophy of language, which is closer to the truth than the medievals ever got — so one ignores the cutting edge of philosophy at one’s peril?
Or maybe fruitfulness? Ignoring the canonical analytic distinctions keeps you from generating any new ideas about or shedding any light on linguistic phenomena?
Rigor? If Derrida would’ve given arguments supporting his decision not to draw a distinction where analytic philosophy insisted drawing one, he would’ve been given a pass? But since he did not, he’s mistaken? Must a philosopher always justify his decisions not to accept a distinction? — No, but these distinctions are the cutting edge! — Well, now we’re back to assuming the truth-approximating, progressiveness of a priori analytic philosophy . . . .
Now, I’m deliberately exaggerating for effect, and I actually agree that there’s something wrong with Derrida’s philosophical endeavors (if “philosophical” they be). But there might be sociological, institutional, or professional reasons — that is, reasons beyond those articulating the goodness or rightness or correctness of the canonical distinctions — that the canonical distinctions invoked by Searle are canonical. Demonstrating that Derrida ignores them isn’t very convincing unless it’s shown why Derrida should.
And I’m not denying that there are good reasons Derrida should heed these distinctions. I’m just saying Searle hasn’t succeeded in providing those reasons.

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Sorry. The last sentence of the penultimate paragraph should read: “Demonstrating that Derrida ignores them isn’t very convincing unless it’s shown why Derrida SHOULDN’T ignore them.

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In order to tell “what standard is Derrida running afoul of” we must first ask what he’s trying to achieve. Derrida says he wants to show that all readings are misreadings, that every text “undermines itself”, that the author has no control over the meaning of their work, something along those lines. The problem is he doesn’t show any of that, unless what he means is some truism like “one can always misinterpret something”. And Searle’s point is that had Derrida known the distinctions, he would probably have realised why his arguments fail.
So Searle isn’t actually saying that Derrida should have used the distinctions in his work, nor that he should have justified the decision not to use them. Searle’s only saying that for anyone who knows the distinctions it’s relatively easy to understand why Derrida’s stuff is badly confused.

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Ah, I see. That makes more sense. It’s more of an “immanent” critique: the standard Searle is judging Derrida by is Derrida’s own, namely, the goal of showing that readings are misreadings, etc.
I misread this claim of yours: “So Searle sees Derrida primarily as a sort of out-of-date philosopher who makes embarrassing mistakes, but not as a fraud.” The mistakes mentioned here are not mistakes of not-meeting-someone-else’s goal (which I thought you were saying) but mistakes of not-meeting-one’s-own-goal (because of not knowing certain enshrined, up-to-date distinctions). Right?

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Yes, exactly. Of course the problem is that Derrida’s writing style is so unclear it’s extremely hard to pinpoint exactly what his goal is and how he goes about achieving it. And Derrida takes full advantage. In practice no matter how you portray it, Derrida, or his fans, are always going to reply by saying it’s actually not the goal, and anyway implying that Derrida has a goal is misguided as it has been revealed that the very idea of having a goal is logocentric, phallocentric, oppressive, bourgeois and whatnot. This is when rational discussion with these people typically ends.

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