Derrida was involved in a number of high-profile disagreements with prominent philosophers, including Michel Foucault, John Searle, Willard Van Orman Quine, Peter Kreeft, and Jürgen Habermas. Most of the criticism of deconstruction were first articulated by these philosophers then repeated elsewhere.
In the early 1970s, Searle had a brief exchange with Jacques Derrida regarding speech-act theory. The exchange was characterized by a degree of mutual hostility between the philosophers, each of whom accused the other of having misunderstood his basic points. Searle was particularly hostile to Derrida’s deconstructionist framework and much later refused to let his response to Derrida be printed along with Derrida’s papers in the 1988 collection Limited Inc. Searle did not consider Derrida’s approach to be legitimate philosophy or even intelligible writing, and argued that he did not want to legitimize the deconstructionist point of view by paying any attention to it. Consequently, some critics have considered the exchange to be a series of elaborate misunderstandings rather than a debate, while others have seen either Derrida or Searle gaining the upper hand. The level of hostility can be seen from Searle’s statement that ‘It would be a mistake to regard Derrida’s discussion of Austin as a confrontation between two prominent philosophical traditions, to which Derrida replied that that sentence was ‘the only sentence of the ‘reply’ to which I can subscribe”. Commentators have frequently interpreted the exchange as a prominent example of a confrontation between analytic and continental philosophies.
The debate began in 1972, when, in his paper ‘Signature Event Context’, Derrida analyzed J. L. Austin’s theory of the illocutionary act. While sympathetic to Austin’s departure from a purely denotational account of language to one that includes ‘force’, Derrida was skeptical of the framework of normativity employed by Austin. Derrida argued that Austin had missed the fact that any speech event is framed by a ‘structure of absence’ (the words that are left unsaid due to contextual constraints) and by ‘iterability’ (the constraints on what can be said, imposed by what has been said in the past). Derrida argued that the focus on intentionality in speech-act theory was misguided because intentionality is restricted to that which is already established as a possible intention. He also took issue with the way Austin had excluded the study of fiction, non-serious, or ‘parasitic’ speech, wondering whether this exclusion was because Austin had considered these speech genres as governed by different structures of meaning, or hadn’t considered them due to a lack of interest. In his brief reply to Derrida, ‘Reiterating the Differences: A Reply to Derrida, Searle argued that Derrida’s critique was unwarranted because it assumed that Austin’s theory attempted to give a full account of language and meaning when its aim was much narrower. Searle considered the omission of parasitic discourse forms to be justified by the narrow scope of Austin’s inquiry. Searle agreed with Derrida’s proposal that intentionality presupposes iterability, but did not apply the same concept of intentionality used by Derrida, being unable or unwilling to engage with the continental conceptual apparatus. This, in turn, caused Derrida to criticize Searle for not being sufficiently familiar with phenomenological perspectives on intentionality. Searle also argued that Derrida’s disagreement with Austin turned on Derrida’s having misunderstood Austin’s type-token distinction and having failed to understand Austin’s concept of failure in relation to performativity. Some critics have suggested that Searle, by being so grounded in the analytical tradition that he was unable to engage with Derrida’s continental phenomenological tradition, was at fault for the unsuccessful nature of the exchange.
Derrida, in his response to Searle (a b c …’ in Limited Inc), ridiculed Searle’s positions. Claiming that a clear sender of Searle’s message could not be established, Derrida suggested that Searle had formed with Austin a société à responsabilité limitée (a ‘limited liability company) due to the ways in which the ambiguities of authorship within Searle’s reply circumvented the very speech act of his reply. Searle did not reply. Later in 1988, Derrida tried to review his position and his critiques of Austin and Searle, reiterating that he found the constant appeal to ‘normality’ in the analytical tradition to be problematic.
In the debate, Derrida praised Austin’s work but argued that Austin is wrong to banish what Austin calls ‘infelicities’ from the ‘normal’ operation of language. One ‘infelicity’, for instance, occurs when it cannot be known whether a given speech act is ‘sincere’ or ‘merely citational’ (and therefore possibly ironic). Derrida argues that every iteration is necessarily ‘citational’, due to the graphemic nature of speech and writing, and that language could not work at all without the ever-present and ineradicable possibility of such alternate readings. Derrida takes Searle to task for attempting to get around this issue by grounding final authority in the speaker’s inaccessible ‘intention’. Derrida argues that intention cannot possibly govern how an iteration signifies, once it becomes hearable or readable. All speech acts borrow from a language whose significance is determined by historical-linguistic context, and by the alternate possibilities that this context makes possible. This significance, Derrida argues, cannot be altered or governed by the whims of intention.
Derrida argued against the constant appeal to ‘normality’ in the analytical tradition of which Austin and Searle were paradigmatic examples.
In the description of the structure called ‘normal,’ ‘normative,’ ‘central,’ ‘ideal,’ this possibility must be integrated as an essential possibility. The possibility cannot be treated as though it were a simple accident–marginal or parasitic. It cannot be, and hence ought not to be, and this passage from can to ought reflects the entire difficulty. In the analysis of so-called normal cases, one neither can nor ought, in all theoretical rigor, to exclude the possibility of transgression. Not even provisionally, or out of allegedly methodological considerations. It would be a poor method since this possibility of transgression tells us immediately and indispensably about the structure of the act said to be normal as well as about the structure of law in general.
Derrida argued that it was problematic to establish the relation between ‘nonfiction or standard discourse’ and ‘fiction,’ defined as its ‘parasite,’ ‘for part of the most original essence of the latter is to allow fiction, the simulacrum, parasitism, to take place—and in so doing to ‘de-essentialize’ itself as it were”. He would finally argue that the indispensable question would then become:
what is ‘nonfiction standard discourse,’ what must it be, and what does this name evoke, once its fictionality or its fictionalization, its transgressive ‘parasitism,’ is always possible (and moreover by virtue of the very same words, the same phrases, the same grammar, etc.)? This question is all the more indispensable since the rules, and even the statements of the rules governing the relations of ‘nonfiction standard discourse and its fictional ‘parasites,’ are not things found in nature, but laws, symbolic inventions, conventions, institutions that, in their very normality as well as in their normativity, entail something of the fictional.
In 1995, Searle gave a brief reply to Derrida in The Construction of Social Reality. He called Derrida’s conclusion ‘preposterous’ and stated that ‘Derrida, as far as I can tell, does not have an argument. He simply declares that there is nothing outside of texts…’ Searle’s reference here is not to anything forwarded in the debate, but to a mistranslation of the phrase, ‘il n’y a pas dehors du texte,’ (‘There is no outside text) which appears in Derrida’s Of Grammatology.
In The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, Jürgen Habermas criticized what he considered Derrida’s opposition to rational discourse. Further, in an essay on religion and religious language, Habermas criticized Derrida’s emphasis on etymology and philology.
Walter A. Davis
The American philosopher Walter A. Davis, in Inwardness and Existence: Subjectivity in/and Hegel, Heidegger, Marx, and Freud, argues that both deconstruction and structuralism are prematurely arrested moments of a dialectical movement that issues from Hegelian ‘unhappy consciousness.
In popular media
A popular criticism of deconstruction intensified following the Sokal affair, which many people took as an indicator of the quality of deconstruction as a whole, despite the absence of Derrida from Sokal’s follow-up book Impostures intellectuelles.
Chip Morningstar holds a view critical of deconstruction, believing it to be ‘epistemologically challenged. He claims the humanities are subject to isolation and genetic drift due to their unaccountability to the world outside academia. During the Second International Conference on Cyberspace (Santa Cruz, California, 1991), he reportedly heckled deconstructionists off the stage. He subsequently presented his views in the article ‘How to Deconstruct Almost Anything’, where he stated, ‘Contrary to the report given in the ‘Hype List’ column of issue #1 of Wired (‘Po-Mo Gets Tek-No’, page 87), we did not shout down the postmodernists. We made fun of them.’