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Derrida vs. the Ordinary Language Philosophers

Breck: The French philosopher Michel Foucault called Jacques Derrida an “obscurantisme terroriste” because he felt that Derrida’s writings on philosophy were intentionally obscure. Derrida and Foucault are postmodern philosophers. Derrida is somewhat infamous for his concept called “deconstruction,” which briefly stated, holds that it is impossible to come up with any definition of truth that people can agree on because “…a systematic approach (to perhaps anything) is broached/ruptured/held incomplete by that element which the system must exclude in order to find closure as a system and yet is necessary for the functioning of the system.”* You can kind of see what Foucault means about obscurantism by this short explanation of Derrida’s idea.


Jaques Derrida


Stephania: Can you explain deconstruction a little better for me?


Breck: It has to do with textual analysis. Derrida was writing about texts and what he felt was the impossibility of any agreement on what a text can mean. Derrida said that in any text the meaning of any words within that text are dependent upon other words -- within the text as well as in other texts. However, the meanings of the words being analyzed is going to be constantly shifting and changing, hence it is going to be impossible to come up with an agreed upon meaning for them. This process of breaking apart the language and analyzing it is called deconstruction.


Of Grammatology introduced the majority of ideas influential within deconstruction.


Stephania: So is it sort of like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle? If you measure something, you change it? Or in this case, if you try to define a word, the meaning is constantly changing so you can’t measure it?


Breck: Yes. It’s also like taking a clock apart to see how it works. But once you have taken the clock apart, it is no longer able to function as a clock.


Now the ordinary language philosophers, by contrast, believe that philosophy has gotten in trouble because it takes words like truth or meaning and uses them in contexts other than those for which they were originally intended. For example, I once read a book by Heidegger called Being and Time, and in that book (granted, it was a translation), “being” was a major subject. Ordinary language philosophers would argue that “being” is a word that we would use in a sentence like, “Tom is being selfish,” rather than a word we should use to try to define existence. John Searle, Gilbert Ryle, J. L. Austin, and Ludwig Wittgenstein all use ordinary language philosophy. Because of this, it can seem like ordinary language philosophers spend a lot of time taking apart the logic of other philosophers – which they do! They are just trying to show the difficulties involved in using words to talk about something like philosophy. In a way, this is what Derrida was also doing – he was just coming at it from another direction.


More directly, the ordinary language philosophers believe you can construct a sentence that has meaning, rather than having meaning be impossible to define (as Derrida and the deconstructionists say).


Derrida, on the other hand, is among the post-modern philosophers who took the relativism of the 60’s to an extreme, and probably took it to its most extreme.


I found a good compromise to these two positions in the 90s when I was reading Umberto Eco, a semiotician. Basically Eco says that a word or a sentence can have more than one meaning but there are certain things that a given word or sentence cannot and do not mean. For example, “We are writing on a wooden table.” The number of people who are writing is not specified. The writing could be symbolic for something else. The table could be symbolic for something else. (Such as, “We are writing on a wooden table” could be symbolic for how we are living our life, or the table could be symbolic for the Eucharist. The table is also wooden so it could be symbolic for impermanence.) But there are certain things that that sentence does not say, such as “The table is metal,” or “The table is plastic,” or “We are driving down the road.” So there are many things our sentence could mean but there are certain things our sentence cannot mean.


J.L. Austin


One piece of writing about ordinary language philosophy that impressed me was J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things With Words.


Stephania: What impressed you?



Breck: The title of the book gives a sort of explanation of what he is saying. J. L. Austin said that we can make statements that do things, not just say things. He developed a theory called “speech acts”. A speech act is something that not only presents information but performs an action as well. For example, “I would like the potatoes – would you please pass them here?” is a speech act. The ordinary language philosophers believe that making a statement like, “I promise to do xyz” is best understood as doing something rather than making an assertion. They use the phrase “performative utterance” (among others) for this. There are several types of speech acts and I am horribly oversimplifying this, but I think you get the broad picture.

* Cheatham, Robert. (1986). Prologue to an interview with Jacques Derrida by Jerry Cullum in Art Papers, Vol 10, No 1, Jan/Feb: p. 8

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