Continental Philosophy Review 35: 117–133, 2002. © 2002 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.



Language, philosophy and the risk of failure: rereading the debate between Searle and Derrida
Department of Philosophy, Tel-Aviv University, Ramat Aviv 69978, Israel (E-mail:

Abstract. In this paper I return to one of the central points of contention in the renowned debate between John Searle and Jacques Derrida with the aim of rethinking the role of success and the place of failure in communication. What is the philosophical significance of Austin’s decision to exclude from his investigation (in How to Do Things with Words) certain utterances that cannot qualify as successful? Examining the conflicting ways in which Searle and Derrida understand and respond to Austin, I try to flesh out Derrida’s call to grant failure (or the “negative”) the important place it deserves in our understanding of speech. Yet, whereas for Derrida, the call to recognize failure as an “internal and positive condition” ultimately leads to a structural – albeit a deconstructive – critique of language’s conditions of possibility, I focus instead on the implications which this insight may have for our understanding of the actuality of language. Consequently, I argue that while Derrida’s critique subverts the hegemony of success, it ironically remains, like Searle, distant from and external to the actual reverberation of spoken language.

1. Introduction The debate between Searle and Derrida testifies, after more than two decades, to the depth of the breach between Continental and Anglo-American philosophies of language. In this paper I wish to return to one of the central points of contention in this debate, and to reread the disagreement between Searle and Derrida in a manner that will allow us to revise our thinking about one of the assumptions underlying the philosophical study of speech in the Anglo-American, pragmatic-linguistic tradition. According to this common yet tacit assumption, the essential explanandum of communication theory is successful communication, or, in other words, the successful communicative act is the paradigm – the standard – for philosophical models and accounts of communication. This common-sense assumption is so obvious1 that it may not seem worth mentioning. And yet, I believe that it needs to be unpacked further, precisely in order to escape its apparent obviousness, and to call attention to itself as operative in the philosophical (re)construction of the phenomenon of speech.



I believe that the debate between Searle and Derrida over the significance of a certain methodological move undertaken by J.L. Austin at the beginning of How to Do Things with Words is very relevant here. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words has been canonized as a founding text of the pragmaticlinguistic philosophical tradition, a text whose pragmatic insights – and, in particular, whose discovery of the “performative” – have been explicitly embraced and developed by Searle (e.g., in his renowned Speech Acts). Searle has not only been inspired by and committed himself to the agenda Austin seems to have prescribed, but is also widely recognized as supplying Austin’s intuitions with the theoretical backbone – the solid post-facto framework – they seemed to need.2 It is not surprising, then, that Searle objects as he does to Derrida’s reading of Austin, a reading which, in Searle’s view, neglects the most important aspects of Austin philosophical contribution. And, in fact, Derrida does pay very little attention to Austin’s analysis of successful speech acts, critically focusing instead on Austin’s decision to exclude from his discussion certain utterances that cannot qualify as successful or felicitous, or which are “hollow or void” in other particular ways. I shall not deal here with Austin himself but, rather, with the conflicting ways in which Searle and Derrida understand and respond to this exclusion of his. Whereas for Searle Austin’s decision is clearly a simple “matter of research strategy,” for Derrida it is a sign of a deeply problematic metaphysical standpoint.3 As we turn to Derrida, however, it must be said in advance that his reading of Austin is not careful,4 and that his exact position on the issue of success remains rather vague despite its suggestiveness. Although I consider Searle’s blunt rejection of Derrida to be philosophically naïve I think his criticism puts sufficient pressure on the Derridian insight to force us to develop this insight in a way that is critically tenable. In this respect, my reading of the debate attempts to explicate the sense in which a re-evaluation of the notion of “success” is important for the philosophical study of communication. 2. Language and the risk of failure Let us turn now to Derrida and Searle as they read Austin, and first, to Derrida’s criticism of the way in which “Austin examines the possibility and origin of failures or infelicities.” Derrida writes: Austin’s procedure is rather remarkable and typical of that philosophical tradition with which he would like to have so few ties. It consists in recog-



nizing that the possibility of the negative (in this case, of infelicities) is in fact a structural possibility, that failure is an essential risk of the operations under consideration; then, in a move which is almost immediately simultaneous, in the name of a kind of ideal regulation, it excludes that risk as accidental, exterior, one which teaches us nothing about the phenomenon being considered.5 What triggers Derrida’s criticism are remarks Austin makes when he specifically brackets from consideration two kinds of “unhappiness,” two “dimensions of unsatisfactoriness” to which utterances might be subject. The first has to do with what Austin calls “extenuating circumstances,” circumstances in which the speaker’s responsibility over the communicative outcome is reduced or abrogated, e.g., utterances made “under duress, or by accident, or owing to this or that variety of mistakes . . . or otherwise unintentionally.” The second kind of “voidness” excluded by Austin is manifest in instances in which language is used “in ways which are parasitic upon its normal use,” e.g., when it is not used seriously, is spoken by an actor on the stage, in soliloquy, etc. As Derrida recognizes, Austin’s decision not to include in his investigation the aforementioned kinds of “void” is not unaware – Austin would probably be the last person to be unaware – of the extent to which speech acts are generally susceptible to these kinds of default. And, indeed, in indicating that he is “not including this kind of unhappiness,” that “all this we are excluding from consideration,” Austin not only emphasizes that “features of this sort can and do constantly obtrude into any particular case we are discussing,” but even evokes the future possibility of integrating the cases he has chosen to exclude into a more comprehensive theory: “I suppose some very general high-level doctrine might embrace both what we have called infelicities and these other ‘unhappy’ features of the doing of actions.”6 According to Derrida, however, this methodological deferral of treatment is still problematic in that “Austin does not ponder the consequences issuing from the fact that a possibility – a possible risk – is always possible, and is in some sense a necessary possibility.” In his view, Austin’s methodological bracketing of failure is, in fact, a bracketing of the question of “whether – once such a necessary possibility of infelicity is recognized – infelicity still constitutes an accident.” The question arises: “What is a success when the possibility of infelicity continues to constitute its structure?”7 As is implied by Derrida’s rhetoric, Austin’s methodological gesture brackets more than it wants to admit – it covers up a fundamental dimension of language constituted by the possibility of failure. Or to put things in a way that more directly ties them to the question concerning us, Derrida is suggesting that communication’s standard of “success” is sustained by a paradigmatic



disregard for the status of failure. If we were, on the other hand, to grant failure (or the “negative”) the place it deserves, we could problematize communication’s paradigm of “success”. What it means to recognize the constitutive role of failure and how this should affect our understanding of success – Derrida does not say. He himself avoids the questions he expects Austin to address, and the main glimpse into his own position is provided – again, indirectly – by the series of questions with which he concludes: I would therefore pose the following question: is this general possibility necessarily one of a failure or trap into which language may fall or lose itself as in an abyss situated outside of or in front of itself? What is the status of this parasitism? In other words, does the quality of risk admitted by Austin surround language like a kind of ditch or external place of perdition. . . . Or, on the contrary, is this risk rather its internal and positive condition of possibility? Is that outside its inside, the very force and law of its emergence?8 But despite their suggestiveness, or perhaps precisely because they are so suggestive, Derrida’s rhetorical questions fail to resonate with Searle. Searle does “not find his [Derrida’s] arguments very clear.” He even acknowledges that he may be “profoundly” misinterpreting Derrida.9 But acknowledging this possible misunderstanding on his part does not prevent Searle from a total (and uncharitable) dismissal of Derrida’s position. Searle shows no interest in achieving a better understanding of what Derrida is trying to say before rejecting Derrida’s position as fundamentally flawed. (The logic here being that what is unclear must ultimately be flawed, or as Wittgenstein puts it in the Tractatus: “Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be said can be said clearly.”)10 Derrida, according to Searle, “has a distressing penchant for saying things that are obviously false.”11 And this is clearly manifested in his reading of Austin, a reading which “has misunderstood and mistated Austin’s position” in such an extreme way that “Derrida’s Austin is unrecognizable. He bears almost no relation to the original.”12 According to Searle, Derrida is particularly mistaken – “completely mistaken” – in his interpretation of the status of Austin’s exclusion because the Austinian move is in full conformity with the idea that an understanding of failure is essential to a complete understanding of communication. Austin’s approach is thus, in spite of Derrida’s inferences, “perfectly straightforward,” having absolutely no metaphysical bearing. Austin’s reason for the exclusion “is simply this: if we want to know what it is to make a promise or make a statement we had better not start our investigation” with hollow, void, or unserious utterances, “because in a fairly obvious way such utterances are not standard cases of promises and statements.”13 What Derrida has failed to see



is that the “original” Austin, Searle’s Austin, is simply taking the most commonsensical route available. He begins where one ought to begin, that is, where the standard lies – in the beginning. Derrida, according to Searle, overinterprets Austin’s gesture of exclusion, a gesture which indicates that Austin has got his priorities right. Austin has no intention of neglecting the dimension of failure to which speech acts are subject, but he knows that this dimension can properly be addressed only after the standard act of communication is explicated. Only once the paradigm case is clear does it make sense to consider the more complicated, derivative, non-standard instances of speech. (Analogically, if you want to know – or to explain to others – what a tree, a guitar, or a watch is, you better not start by looking at trees with hollow trunks, untuned guitars, or watches with broken springs, etc.)14 Hence, Searle concludes: Austin’s exclusion of these parasitic forms from consideration in his preliminary discussion is a matter of research strategy; he is, in his words, excluding them “at present”; but it is not a metaphysical exclusion: he is not casting them into a ditch or perdition, to use Derrida’s words. Derrida seems to think that Austin’s exclusion is a matter of great moment, a source of deep metaphysical difficulties, and that the analysis of parasitic discourse might create some insuperable difficulties for the theory of speech acts. But the history of the subject has proved otherwise. Once one has a general theory of speech acts – a theory which Austin did not live long enough to develop himself – it is one of the relatively simpler problems to analyze the status of parasitic discourse, that is, to meet the challenge contained in Derrida’s question. . . . Writings subsequent to Austin’s have answered this question [i.e., Searle’s own work]. But the terms in which the question can intelligibly be posed and answered already presuppose a general theory of speech acts. Austin correctly saw that it was necessary to hold in abeyance one set of questions . . . until one has answered a logically prior set of questions about “serious” discourse. But the temporary exclusion of these questions within the development of the theory of speech acts, proved to be just that – temporary.15 For Searle, then, Derrida’s attempt to problematize the status granted to linguistic failure is based on a simple misunderstanding which can be easily located and corrected. Derrida has simply got a few facts wrong. He mistakenly thinks that Austin’s exclusion is intended as permanent, and he fails to notice that the philosophy of language – and Searle in particular – has since managed to systematize the results of Austin’s experimental work and provide a theory that accounts for the “infelicities” which Austin did not live long enough to deal with.16 Having such a theory, “it is one of the relatively simpler problems . . . to meet the challenge contained in Derrida’s questions.”



What this means is that if Derrida had read Austin properly and had been up to date on speech act theory, he would have had no reason to raise his objections. Indeed, the problem Derrida raises is not really a problem at all. In other words, according to Searle, Derrida is barking up the wrong tree. But if we return to Derrida’s questions about the status of communicative failure we see that Searle does not satisfactorily answer them. This is not because he fails to provide sufficient evidence for his case but because the case he makes is ultimately irrelevant to the problem Derrida raises. When Derrida asks, “Does the quality of risk admitted by Austin surround language like a kind of ditch . . . Or, on the contrary, is this risk rather its internal and positive condition of possibility?” Searle replies, “He [Austin] is . . . excluding them ‘at present’; but it is not a metaphysical exclusion: he is not casting them into a ditch.” That is, in reply to Derrida’s question of where the risk of failure is located, Searle tells him when it will be addressed. Whereas Derrida challenges philosophy’s (e.g., Austin’s) inability to embrace failure as language’s “internal and positive condition of possibility,” Searle takes him to be saying that philosophy must recognize the fact that communication is always susceptible to failure. Yet, because Searle considers such a claim to be so obvious that, in his view, no one would really want to deny it, he does not understand why Derrida uses it as a critique of – of all people – Austin. In other words, Searle understands Derrida to be arguing that since Austin did not acknowledge the intrinsic susceptibility of communication to failure he excluded failure from his analysis. This, in his view, is an inexcusable reading which can only be understood in terms of Derrida’s “distressing penchant for saying things that are obviously false.” How else can Derrida be read on this point? We may begin by noting that what primarily concerns Derrida are not the consequences of excluding from discussion certain cases of failure, but, rather, the presuppositions on which such an exclusion rests. The target of Derrida’s criticism is not the way philosophy – or philosophy’s progressive representative, Austin17 – handles nonstandard cases of communication, but the metaphysical framework that initially enables philosophy to make use of (or depend on) a substantial distinction between standard and non-standard, between success and failure, in communication. Derrida suggests that the negative be granted an essential place in the communication framework. He does not ask that we make sure to supplement accounts of standard speech with accounts of non-standard cases. His intent is to call into question the legitimacy of a philosophical principle which, disguised in the form of a truism, determines what standard speech is – what the standard for our investigation of the phenomenon should be.



As has already been suggested, Derrida is not very helpful in explaining what we lose when we accept success as communication’s standard. He does, however, deconstruct the very notion of an ordinary standard for language, and the crux of his critique seems to be based on the idea of iterability. Iterability is a mark for the absence of origins. The promise I make to a friend cannot be said to be more original than the promise made by an actor on stage because my language always necessarily takes the form of a citation: I promise as I’ve seen one promise. Presenting the condition of iterability as constitutive of the possibility of language, Derrida argues that the distinction between standard and non-standard (parasitic) speech is groundless; there is simply no original or rudimentary domain of speech that can ground this distinction. I am less interested here, however, in Derrida’s argument concerning iterability. I think that even if we find the argument convincing – and I personally do not – then it still leaves us in the dark as to what it means to integrate into the picture of communication a principle of failure or negativity. What would it mean to overcome the rule of success? Moreover, can the move beyond success reveal to us anything new about the phenomenon of speech? In what follows I shall try to answer these questions. 3. The prioritization of success In fleshing out the “positive” implication of Derrida’s insight it would first be helpful to clarify the asymmetrical roles played by success and failure in the conceptualization of communication. We need, in particular, to see that the systematic prioritization of success (over and against failure) is typically obscured once we focus, as Searle does, on the apparent openness of the communicative act to both success and failure. The susceptibility of communication to failure is, of course, a commonplace, and in framing the study of communication the philosophy of language is typically prepared to also address instances of communicative failure. Nevertheless, on a deeper and more fundamental level, the philosophy of language disavows the significance of failure and embraces the standard of success. To appreciate this we need to note how the possibility of failure is dependent on a context in which the fully constituted communicative act is already present. Failure is understood as a possibility into which the communicative act may eventually fall or deteriorate. This means that failure is not constitutive of what a speech act is but, rather, only functions as a “trap into which language may fall or lose itself as in an abyss situated outside of or in front of itself.”18 In other words, although failure is taken to be a condition that constantly haunts the communicative



act, a condition into which specific communicative acts regularly fall, it is nevertheless not understood as intrinsic but as always exterior to the essence of the phenomenon. Likewise, the conceptualization of the communicative act is, at heart, independent of any possible failure that may (or may not) turn out to be its fate. At the same time, the communicative act must always be structurally open to the possibility of failure (or success). What allows particular speech acts to fail (or succeed) is that their internal structure is success-directed. Success is a structural condition of speech. Unlike failure, it not only belongs to the contingent circumstances that color specific speech acts, but is understood as belonging to the essence of communication. To put this differently, we may say that for the philosophy of language success is intrinsic to the idea of communication: one can be said to communicate only when one communicates successfully. What underlies this common sense is the predominant conception that communication is an intrinsically purposeful or aim-directed phenomenon. Indeed, the communicative act is typically understood as an intentional act essentially directed at the aim of successful communication.19 It is an act that fully becomes what it is only when it fulfils its intrinsic purpose, only when it is successful. And it is successful, realizing its essential goal, only when it communicates.20 Why shouldn’t this framework be considered so natural that philosophers simply adopt it? Does the standard of success really deserve to be called a prejudice, one that needs to be called into question? Alternatively, in what sense is this framework a misleading one, or an unsatisfying one? 4. The construction of speech There are a few matters worthy of notice here, and we may begin by pointing out that the internalization of the success standard is not in itself a philosophically innocuous move. It is a consequential move that preemptively qualifies and ultimately distorts the character of the field of speech. As the rule of success is already operative at the preliminary stage when philosophy construes the setting for its discussion of communication, the phenomena of speech are inevitably forced into a reductive dualistic structure: as instances of communication, they can either succeed or not succeed, i.e., fail. They either accomplish their intrinsic aim, becoming what they should be, or fall short of that standard. Their purposiveness allows no other option. Moreover, these two possibilities open to speech are not only antithetical, but are also hierarchically ordered. Whereas the possibility of success is posited as essential to the nature of speech, failure is thematized as accidental; success serves as the



paradigm while failure is merely an exception (albeit a common one) to the rule. This means that those instances of speech in the communication framework that cannot be labeled “successful” have no autonomous standing. Not only are they posited as secondary, but they are construed as derivative, as conceptually dependent on the framework’s standard of success. Speech phenomena that do not meet the standard of success can only be defined negatively: they are substandard, irregular, defective, etc. They are what they are precisely because they are not what they should be. Intrinsic to the purposiveness of communication, success governs the thematization of these speech phenomena from the moment they’re introduced into the framework. Given the standard of success, the communication model preemptively fits the character of the phenomena under consideration into the binary structure implied by the standard. In applying a determinate rule to the phenomena it appropriates, the model (re)constructs a phenomenological field that consists of two – and only two – mutually exclusive and complementary domains: the domain of communicative acts that are true to and that reflect their essence; and the domain encompassing all the rest, namely, deformations of the rule, or failures. In other words, communication is construed as a phenomenon which necessarily adopts one of two opposing values. It either meets or fails to meet its predetermined standard (What standard? The standard of success). The first major problem with this binary construction of communication has to do with the fact that the equation of non-success with failure covers up a wide intermediate spectrum – an intricate phenomenological landscape lying between absolute success and failure – in which the actual life of language takes place. In this context, I think that Derrida’s suggestion to think of the risk of failure as communication’s “internal and positive condition” may be understood as a call for reclaiming this intermediate spectrum of phenomena. Ascribing to failure an “internal” role in (the constitution of) communication implies that success no longer has an exclusive monopoly over the phenomenological field. Ascribing to it a “positive” role means that failure is an autonomous factor and not just the negative derivation of success. And as success ceases to be the only organizing principle of speech phenomena, the binary structure that it dictates also loses its force. The introduction of failure as a second constitutive principle means that the rule of success can no longer bifurcate the phenomenological field under consideration. The field no longer presents itself only through the opposition of success/failure, but unfolds as a spectrum in which success and failure are but the end points. But, we might now ask, what is the significance of uncovering this spectrum? What does this phenomenological spectrum consist of?



5. Between understanding and misunderstanding Situated between the end points of success and failure, we immediately recognize the middle ground of partial understanding as a domain of varying degrees and types of combinations of success and failure. If you say to me, “I am going home now” and I don’t actually know where you live or what you call “home,” then my general understanding of what you are saying can envelop a deep misunderstanding of where you are actually headed once we say goodbye (“What? Are you actually leaving the country?”). In the philosophy of language this kind of example is typically analyzed in terms of the gaps between the meaning of sentences, the speaker’s intended meaning, and the meaning of utterances issued on particular occasions. But other kinds of gaps may also concern the force or mood of the utterance. Hence, for example, I may fully understand where you are heading when you talk of going home but, at the same time, fail to understand the expressive or performative aspects of your speech. That is, I might fail to grasp that your words not merely describe your intentions but express discontent or anger, or, alternatively, that they are uttered sarcastically, or meant as a joke, or are simply an indirect request to be offered a ride home. These kinds of combinations of understanding and misunderstanding have not become the center of philosophical discussion but they have not escaped the attention of philosophers of language. When they are discussed, however, they do not seem to provide a reason for questioning the paradigm of success. Partial communication is typically understood as a matter of a measured balance between the fundamentally successful mechanism of a communicative act and certain discrete disruptive points of failure. As the basic relation between success and failure remains external, however, the concept of “success” remains the rule in relation to which failure is a derivative substandard. But is partial understanding necessarily the result of discretely analyzable forms of failure? Is this the only way understanding and misunderstanding can meet? Are the depths of misunderstanding always definite or determinate? And, more specifically, are the gaps in our understanding always informational in character? I believe the answer to these questions is negative. However, I can also see how, by confining ourselves to the paradigmatic examples employed by the philosophy of language, we may easily be tempted to answer these questions in the affirmative. As long as the horizons of the philosophical study of speech are set (or governed) by such examples as “the cat is on the mat,” “Wulf is a dog,”21 or “the ball missed the hoop,”22 then no room indeed will be made for a consideration of the more tangled and complex – but not less common – ways in which misunderstanding dwells within understanding.



When the doctor says to A that she has no more than six months to live, A does not understand (she actually says she does not understand, and asks the doctor to repeat what he has just told her). She does not understand because she understands so well. A friend whom I haven’t seen for years comes for a visit. He tells me how happy he is with his new life – yes, it appears that he has made quite a few changes – and asks me if I understand. Do I understand? Can I understand? What would understanding him mean? Let us consider a completely different example. How is understanding and misunderstanding applicable to the debate between Searle and Derrida? On the one hand, we may have – commentators certainly have had – sufficient reason to regard this philosophical communication as unsuccessful. And yet, has the communication between the two thinkers simply failed? Has it not communicated? And even if we wish to speak of partial success here, can we explain that partiality in terms of specific points of failure without which this communication would have achieved success? Is it so easy to locate the misunderstanding that underlies Searle’s reply to Derrida? Was it Derrida’s smoke and mirrors and bravado that barred Searle from understanding? Or has Derrida simply failed to express his intentions properly? Perhaps Searle, lacking necessary background information, failed to grasp what Derrida was saying? Or does Searle refuse (or pretend not) to understand? Along these same lines, has Derrida simply failed on this or that point to understand Austin? Indeed, has Searle successfully understood Austin? Is Searle’s speech act theory informed by a successful understanding of Austin while Derrida’s sympathetic yet critical reading is driven by a simple misunderstanding? I think that the debate between Searle and Derrida is a good example – and in no way an unusual example – of a case of communication that does not lend itself to the strict opposition between success and failure, understanding and misunderstanding. It is a communication that withstands the question of success and that, as such, exemplifies the manner in which the success/failure dichotomy distorts the actual character of the speech phenomenon. More specifically, by considering the particular complexity of the communicative interaction between the two thinkers, we may learn not only about how irrelevant the measure of success is for understanding the character of the event, but how the application of this standard abolishes the intricate net of varying senses of success and failure, of understanding and misunderstanding, which are multivariously constitutive of the communicative event. The possibility of uncovering these other senses is tied, in my view, to yet another dimension of speech which is also abolished by the standard of success. This dimension may become clearer once we take a second look at that indeterminate field lying between success and failure.



6. Success and the homogenization of the ordinary Another look at this intermediate field reveals the presence of types of speech whose form defies the very applicability of the standard of success to begin with. A man, standing on a balcony on the thirty-sixth floor, is calling out the names and birthdays of all his previous lovers. In a cafe two young women are making funny, quick, but rather nonsensical remarks about the appearance of passers-by. As observed above, these cases are among the kinds of talk that Austin moves to exclude from consideration. Together with other, simpler, forms of infelicity, Austin regards the soliloquy, the actor’s address to his audience, slips of the tongue, poetic expressiveness, and delusional and nonserious talk as utterances that should all be bracketed until a more general theory of speech acts can accommodate them. Austin’s move is explicitly committed to what must methodologically come first, that is, to utterances “issued in ordinary circumstances.”23 In fact, with this methodological act of deferral Austin is setting the stage for his investigation – and for a whole philosophical paradigm – in a manner that takes for granted what ordinary speech is, or what the ordinary is for speech. More specifically, in this demarcation of a line between standard and marginal cases of speech Austin embraces and reaffirms a conception of ordinary speech whose parameters are determined by the rule of success. His gesture may indeed seem to have been made on an ad hoc basis. Nevertheless, it constitutes a point of no return. It irreversibly determines the status of those cases in which success is not an issue. Since they are no longer in a position to put any pressure on the rule, the status of these cases can no longer be called into question. What’s more, these cases pose no risk to the standard itself, having already been labeled exceptional deformations. (And this is precisely the logic behind Searle’s justification of Austin’s exclusion: since the excluded cases are non-standard they have no bearing on the standard; as such, they can be bracketed until the standard-theory is developed.) In this respect, saying that Austin’s exclusion marks a point of “no return” should not be understood to imply that speech theory has failed in becoming sufficiently general to account for the excluded cases. It means, rather, that once the theory was general enough to accommodate these cases, it no longer allowed for certain very important questions to be asked. Once the poetic, the non-serious, the fantastical or utterly imaginative, the uncontrollable, and the irresponsible are labeled as non-standard or marginal cases of speech, they are unavoidably bound to serve as a constant affirmation of the uniformity of the ordinary. That is to say, once defined as the exceptional substandard of speech, these cases can only uphold the view that ordinary speech is funda-



mentally unaffected – even if occasionally “infected” – by the “ill” to which they themselves are heir.24 But what can we hope to gain by rethinking the status of these allegedly marginal cases in which we speak to ourselves, or to no one in particular – cases in which we speak without knowing what we want to say, when our tongue gets the better of us? By rethinking these dimensions of speech which defy the standard of success we will be in a position to appreciate how they are not only typical of what Austin called “extenuating circumstances,” but that they belong to the essence of the language phenomenon, to the very heart of our life with language. By loosening the binary grip of the success standard we open up the possibility of releasing ourselves from the influence of a particular conception of communication which levels down and distorts – which prevents us from recognizing – the rich heterogeneous and complex nature of ordinary language. And thus, in resisting the rule of success we would be taking the first steps in recovering for ordinary language the roots it has in such dimensions of experience as the aesthetic, the ethical, the fantastical, the incoherent, irrational, artificial, non-serious, nonsensical, ironic, obsessed, fixated, symbiotic, incontinent, self-indulgent, self-deceptive, etc. We would, in other words, be on our way to showing that the essence of ordinary speech is not as ordinary as philosophers of language seem to believe. 7. Resisting the standard: toward a phenomenology of speech In this context, there remains another question we have not yet asked. What is it that makes the rule of success inapplicable to those cases of speech which, as we have seen, defy its standard? This is an important question. My first response is to suggest that the forms of speech of concern to us here are not regulated by that definitive telos which allows the philosophy of language to speak of success in the first place. At an earlier stage in this paper I made the connection between the standard of success and a teleological conception of communication. Indeed, the act of speech is typically conceptualized in terms of a regulative and constitutive telos which implies that the essential aim of speech is to communicate. In itself, this phrasing is underdetermined. More precisely, it is dependent on how one interprets or specifies what is meant by the term “to communicate.” In the Anglo-American linguistic tradition there is a general consensus about how we should understand this term. This consensus derives from the uniform manner in which the philosophy of language sets the stage for investigating



speech. What serves as a backdrop for that stage is a limited, at times even dull, picture of human experience that allows and even encourages philosophers to interpret the telos of communication as the transmission of semantically structured, intended, content from one person to another. For the philosophy of language, the so-called speech situation is thus fundamentally equivalent to a functional, conventionally governed setting in which competent “language users,” or “language practitioners,” employ language in order to communicate and communicate in order to achieve specific – practical or theoretical – ends. This setting of sender (speaker), receiver (hearer), medium of transmission, and message transmitted25 ineluctably determines a narrow, instrumental telos that locates speech in between agents – not to speak of human beings – whose relation to themselves, to their language, and to each other is governed by the form “in order to.” Indeed, where language users can only say to one another such phrases as ”there’s the door,”26 “That bar is the standard meter stick,” 27 “Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals,”28 or “I’d like a gin and tonic, please,”29 it is not surprising that the standard of success reigns so completely. What would happen if we refuse to look at speech through such a narrow teleological prism? Will success remain a standard for our understanding? Think of a mother who speaks softly to her daughter while combing the child’s hair. Is she transmitting a message? Is success at all on the horizon of her speaking? And what about those things we uttered upon seeing that strikingly beautiful bird sitting up in a tree? Or when two brothers share a childhood memory they know so well? Is it the content they are trying to convey? No, for the content is already known. It is probably clear by now that my attempt to question the standard of success is ultimately tied to a more general concern with breaking out of a deeply entrenched understanding of communication that dominates much of our thinking about language. I cannot supply here a comprehensive critique of this influential conception of communication. What I have tried to do is examine how immanent the standard of success is to it, showing that this standard is not only a symptom but also a principal characteristic of the setting in which speech becomes – or is reconstructed, or staged as – a subject of the philosophy of language. This paper began as an attempt to rethink the relationship between success and failure in the context of the debate between Searle and Derrida, a debate which, itself a complex and unresolved case of communication, exemplifies the need to problematize the standard of success in communication. I have assumed the task of fleshing out answers to the central questions posed by Derrida: “Does the quality of risk admitted by Austin surround language like a kind of ditch or place of perdition which speech . . . can escape by remain-



ing ‘at home’ . . . in the shelter of its essence and telos? Or, on the contrary, is this risk rather its internal and positive condition of possibility?”30 Focusing on the significance of granting failure (or the “negative”) the important place it deserves in our understanding of speech, I have tried to show why, despite its apparent obviousness, the standard of success needs to be resisted. Yet, whereas for Derrida the call to recognize failure as an “internal and positive condition” ultimately leads to a structural – albeit a deconstructive – critique of language’s conditions of possibility, I have focused instead on the implications which this insight may have for our understanding of the actuality of language. My aim in this paper was not to demonstrate that failure is, in some sense, constitutive of the possibility of success, but to show how the very logic of success and failure prevents us from encountering fundamental dimensions of the phenomenon of speech that deserve philosophy’s attention. I have pursued this direction because I think that, while Derrida’s critique subverts the hegemony of success, it ironically remains, like Searle, distant from and external to the actual reverberation of spoken language. What needs to be asked, in other words, is not the binary structured question of whether the risk of failure is – or is not – language’s condition of possibility. The question is not simply about the tenability of a view of language that disregards the essential place of failure (I agree with Derrida that such a view is not tenable), but, rather, about what it can mean for us – what possibilities can open up for us – once our thinking about language learns to embrace the condition of failure. To put this more directly, I think that the attempt to problematize the hegemony of success can become genuinely significant only if it enables us to listen and hear the speaking of language in ways we haven’t heard it before. Notes
1. This assumption is so deeply rooted that it prevails in the whole spectrum of the literature, from textbooks on communication and linguistically-oriented treatments of the subject to the most sophisticated philosophical accounts. I quote just a few examples. Cf. A. Akmajian, R. Demers, and R. Harnish, Linguistics: An Introduction to Language and Communication (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987), pp. 391–392: “Linguistic communication is easily accomplished but, as it turns out, not so easily explained; any theory of linguistic communication worth the title must attempt to answer the following question: How does successful communication work?” A similar statement can be found in the introduction to the communication theory expounded by Kent Bach and Robert. M. Harnish in Linguistic Communication and Speech Acts (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1979), p. xiii. See also Katz’s account of the “communicative act” in The Philosophy of Language (New York: Harper and Row, 1966): pp. 103–104: “The Speaker . . . chooses






5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14.

some message he wants to convey to his listeners . . . this message is encoded in the form of a phonetic representation of an utterance by means of the system of linguistic rules with which the speaker is equipped. . . . Hence, because the hearer employs the same system of rules to decode what the speaker employs to encode, an instance of the successful communication occurs [my emphasis]. In the Language of Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975), Fodor puts the question of communication as follows: “The fundamental question that a theory of language seeks to answer is: How is it possible for speakers and hearers to communicate by the production of acoustic wave forms? To put it more precisely: under certain conditions the production by speaker S of an acoustic object U which is a token of a linguistic type . . . suffices to communicate a determinate message between S and any other suitably situated L-speaker. How is this fact possible?” p. 103. Further on (p. 106), Fodor explicitly presents successful communication as the “paradigm case” for his investigation. The fact that the terms “model of communication” and “model of successful communication” are typically, and uncritically, interchangeable in the literature is even evident in Gareth Evans’s renowned The Varieties of References (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 21. Introducing the Fregean “model of the communicative situation” which “serves as a clear and effective benchmark” for his investigation, Evans interchangeably speaks of the “Fregean model of successful communication.” See, for example, The Philosophy of Language, ed. A.P. Martinich (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 103: “Austin presented a tentative . . . theory of speech acts in How to Do Things with Words. John Searle substantially revised that theory and presented what has since become the standard theory in Speech Acts.” Jacques Derrida’s “Signature Event Context” and John Searle’s “Reiterating the Differences: A Reply to Derrida” first appeared in the form of a polemic in Glyph 1 (1977). Derrida’s reply to Searle, “Limited Inc abc,” appeared in Glyph 2 (1978). They were reprinted together with “Signature Event Context” in Limited Inc, ed. G. Graff (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988). For a critical discussion of “Derrida’s Austin” which resists the common temptation to reproduce the patterns of the debate, see Stanley Cavell, A Pitch of Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), pp. 55–127. Jacques Derrida, “Signature Event Context,” Glyph 1, (1977): 15. Hereafter, SEC. J.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, ed. J.O. Urmson and M. Sbisa (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962), p. 21. Derrida, SEC, p. 15. Derrida, SEC, p. 17. John Searle, “Reiterating the Differences: A Reply to Derrida,” Glyph 1 (1977): 198. Hereafter, Reply, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, tr. C.K. Ogden (London: Routledge, 1981), p. 78, 4.116. Searle, Reply, p. 203. Searle, Reply, p. 204. Searle, Reply, p. 204. As Searle points out, “parasite” utterances are not simply more complicated than standard cases but are, in fact, logically dependent on the standard. “The existence of the pretended form of the speech act is logically dependent on the possibility of the nonpretended speech act” (p. 205).



15. Searle, Reply, p. 205. 16. In A Pitch of Philosophy, Cavell provides an alternative reading of Austin’s “exclusion”: “It is hard to conceive that one who has read through Austin’s comparatively small quantity of writing will fail to recognize that the headings Austin suggests for what the doctrine he has just excluded is a doctrine or a theory of – ‘extenuating circumstances’ and ‘factors reducing or abrogating the agent’s responsibility’ (which Austin places in quotation marks as indicating, I assume, that he is quoting something he takes as well enough known to need no more than reminding of) – are headings that refer to Austin’s own work on excuses, summarized, as said earlier, in one of his thirteen collected papers. . . . I accordingly conclude that Austin has excluded this general doctrine only from explicit discussion in How to Do Things with Words (‘I am not going into the general doctrine here’), that in saying so he is implicitly including it, in his way, in asking us to ‘remember’ its pertinence” (p. 86). And thus, according to Cavell, one should read Derrida as having “iterated Austin’s views without knowing this piece of them.” 17. For Derrida, Austin is clearly the most interesting and radical philosopher in the AngloAmerican tradition of the philosophy of language (SEC, p. 13). In this respect, his critique of Austin is a fortiori a critique of the philosophical tradition to which Austin belongs. 18. SEC, p. 17. 19. Although a successful communicative outcome is in itself not always the sole purpose of communication – serving as a means for achieving other ends – it is nevertheless commonly regarded as communication’s principal aim among a series of objectives ordered by the relation of means to ends. 20. Indeed, it should not be surprising that the term “communication” serves to designate the act itself, its constitutive purpose, and the fulfillment of that purpose in the act’s successful outcome. 21. Robert B. Brandom, Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), p. 160. 22. Brandom, Making It Explicit, p. 259. 23. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, p. 22. 24. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, p. 22. 25. See, for example, how A.P. Martinich introduces the “elements of communication” in the opening of his Communication and Reference (Berlin and Hawthorne, NY: Walter de Gruyter, 1984): “At least three things are needed in an act of communication: a message, a sender, and a receiver . . . human beings however cannot communicate with one another except through some medium that carries the message from the sender to the receiver . . . for a philosophical treatment of communication in general, then, we need to consider four element: message, sender, receiver, and medium.” 26. William G. Lycan, Philosophy of Language: A Contemporary Introduction (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), p. 189. 27. Brandom, Making It Explicit, p. 469. 28. Brandom, Making It Explicit, p. 370. 29. Stephen Neale, “Context and Communication,” in Definite Descriptions, ed. Gary Ostertag (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), p. 321. 30. Derrida, SEC, p. 17.



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