CLARITY DEPENDS ON ONTOLOGY: Foucault and Searle critics of Derrida

Far from being the nec plus ultra in clarity and cooperation, Grice’s maxims are quite ambiguous once you take into account exchanges between interlocutors possessing widely divergent ontologies and epistemologies. Clarity is not the same when you have an ontology of multplicity and incommensurabilty and when you don’t.

Deleuze and Guattari in WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? claim that consensual discussions are often animated by ressentiment, and we know that both  analytic Searle and Continental Foucault had disparaging remarks to make about Derrida as an example of “terrorist obscurantism”.Yet it would be a mistake to assume that they meant the same thing by this critical epithet.

Foucault distinguished the act of writing as a form of becoming, self-transforming, dissolving egoic subjectivity, from writing as contained in the author-function. In our society these are two faces of the act, and Foucault’s remarks concern the authorial function that he finds to be dominant in Derrida’s method. This diagnosis is a more pluralist one than Searle can imagine. Foucault’s criticism of Derrida is that this indefinite multiplicity of “écriture” is not pluralist enough, as it is confined to the form and content of the enunciation, and at the level of the subject of the enunciation a new spiritual unity dominates, imposing it’s terrorist dictates: you cannot use my texts in other ways, you cannot use them to criticise me, I alone can understand and explain them.

Foucault on the other hand wants to weaken or dissolve the author-function: he wants more multiplicity, more obscurity (conceptual change), more ambiguity (undoing the dominant significations), less brevity (liberating language from its limits), less order (freeing writing from conventional forms). He thinks that Derrida in fact strengthens the author-function. So when Searle and Foucault agree to criticise Derrida, they are doing so on the basis of very different background understandings. Derrida shares with Foucault a concept of “écriture” that is not conversational, and Foucault’s complaint is that Derrida betrays it for the author-function, i.e. that he does not go far enough.  Searle however thinks that this very concept of “écriture” should be replaced by that of a cooperative conversation – clear, univocal, brief and orderly, i.e. for him Derrida already goes too far. He does not see the double edge to Foucault’s remark: “If I wrote as clearly as you, people in Paris would think it’s childish and naïve.”

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