by Scott McLemee on October 11, 2006

Off the top of my head, I can recall at least one passage each in which Derrida and Foucault say, more or less: “Okay, yes, it would be good to stop talking about Hegel, finally. It’s been a long time since we all agreed that dialectics was a dead end, in fact it seems like we’ve been at this point forever. But there I go, talking about Hegel again. Because he makes us do it, somehow. Damnit, this is really getting old.”

It sounds more impressive when they get that Ecole Normale Supérieure rhythm going, but that’s the rap, in paraphrase. It’s as if the first half of the twentieth century were spent rediscovering Hegel, and the second half trying to forget him.

All of this as prologue to what Adam Kotsko thinks is the present and future “Can we just shut up about this guy?” dynamic:

In fact, although it’s early yet, I will venture a prediction — the 21st century will have been little more than the century of Heidegger fatigue. There will be no great figure who arises to take his place. The recent half-hearted rise of Badiou is little more than a symptom of Heidegger fatigue, and — more to the point — Badiou’s own monumental arrogance can never be anything more than a feeble parody of Heidegger’s. Long after Being and Event has been forgotten (ca. 2009), we’ll all still be doing our painfully close readings of Being and Time, even though we hate it, even though we’ve forgotten why.

Is this sort of thing limited to people doing Continental philosophy and/or “capital-T to show we’re dead serious” Theory? Are there figures in poli sci or sociology — or elsewhere for that matter — who keep monopolizing the conversation for decades after their death?



Neil 10.11.06 at 10:24 pm

It’s a conti thing. Analytic philosophy doesn’t work like this at all. We don’t think it’s even necessary to read the greats of the recent past (Quine, Ayer, Russell, Chisholm….) If they had something worth saying, then its survived in the work of those who built on them. It affects other disciplines to the extent to which they take continental philosophy seriously. There are people working in political science depts, and cultural studies/english depts, who talk the same way. But the source is always the same.


xavier 10.11.06 at 10:33 pm

Marx in some parts of sociology?


Neil 10.11.06 at 10:50 pm

I thought of the influence of Marx in sociology. Once you could have cited Freud as well, maybe. But I don’t think that’s the way things look now – not for past 2 decades.


Kelly 10.11.06 at 10:54 pm

I’ll let you know just a soon as some of the bioethics folk start knocking off,… ;) Til then, I’m stuck repeating the Continental works. (Not that I really mind – I’m apparently one of the few who likes Heidegger.)


engels 10.11.06 at 10:54 pm



John Emerson 10.11.06 at 11:00 pm

What I remember Foucault saying was paraphrasable as “The Eternal Return of the Same another goddamn time”. That probably wasn’t Hegel though.

Was Neil’s post meant satirically?


john c. halasz 10.11.06 at 11:20 pm

I’m still waiting for “The Return of Wittgenstein”. Eeekk!


Timothy 10.11.06 at 11:32 pm

Neil, I think you are exaggerating the extent to which analytic philosophers don’t pay attention to the past. What you say about Ayer might be true, but Russell, Chisholm and Quine, get discussed all the time. Take Quine, I challenge you to find an article on naturalized epistemology which doesn’t mention him and his works or a discussion of the analytic synthetic distinction.


Neil 10.11.06 at 11:52 pm

Was Neil’s post meant satirically?

Not so far as he is able to tell.


Maurice Meilleur 10.12.06 at 12:24 am

Rawls will be one of these figures, speaking of political philosophers. He’s been dead only 4 years, and you wouldn’t really know it, from how others talk about him and his ideas.

I predict it will be the same 50 years from now. And assuming I’m around to see it, I’ll still find it irritating and awesome at the same time.


Brian 10.12.06 at 12:38 am

I think Derrida, actually, is the best writer on the subject of how and why we do (or do not) “inherit” philosophy and philosophers. Specters of Marx, especially.


Matt McIrvin 10.12.06 at 12:47 am

This doesn’t happen much in physics: there are names that dominate the conversation (everybody knows who they are) but people mostly don’t learn their work from their original publications many decades later, and when they do, the master’s work is just one text among many (and not necessarily a privileged one: it’s possible for someone else to understand certain fine points of Einstein’s theories better than Einstein did).

The closest person to this I can think of is Richard Feynman, because some of his lecture transcriptions are (a) still popular and (b) actually touch on his own major work. But it’s not as if, in 2006, legions of physicists are trying to understand quantum electrodynamics primarily by doing close textual analyses of Feynman. Also, his most popular lecture transcription is an undergraduate course on basic physics (and it’s settled into a peculiarly specialized role, not as a primary text for undergrads, but as the preferred undergraduate text for graduate students brushing up on what they missed or forgot).


sharon 10.12.06 at 1:11 am

We historians will probably never escape from that bloody fellow Leopold von Ranke. (Even though no one has probably read anything he wrote in decades. God knows I haven’t.) I’ll give him wie es eigentlich gewesen ist.


econgeek 10.12.06 at 1:48 am

Economists under von Newman, we dont even know we are discussing thngs that are a corollarry he needed to derive something or another in game theory (expected utility). I am sure dsquared has a good comment on this, and while he isnt dead, perhaps Samuelson? Optimization subject to some resource constraint anyone?


econgeek 10.12.06 at 1:52 am

#11; I have no idea what it is like in physics (I suspect much saner than over here) but for it is no so much that we read Samuelson, or von Newman (yes I am skipping over Morgensten) or (this one i skipped somehow) Arrow, but rather that the ideas, for better or worse, are so ingrained about how we think about problems we keep having conversations over them again and again…


josh 10.12.06 at 2:03 am

Yes, I think it’s clearly time to stop talking about Heidegger — and go back to talking about Hegel! (Though the philosophers where I am seem to just talk about Kant)
I’m not sure about ‘monopolising the conversation’ in poli sci — there are too many conversations going on, and I don’t think that there’s too much of a monopoly over any of them (though yes, Rawls looms large). In areas of poli sci other than my own — the more quantitative areas — it seems like Riker and Downs are pretty inescapable (at least that’s the impression I get from looking on from the sidelines); but Downs is still alive, and Riker’s not been dead that long, so they probably don’t count.
In political theory, of course, we keep talking about Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx — but none has an irresistable monopoly.


voyou 10.12.06 at 2:52 am

There is also, perhaps, the way in which many disciplines teach “canonical” figures at a lower level, but don’t really address them directly that much at the cutting edge. The poli sci intro course I’m currently TAing includes quite a bit of David Easton, but I don’t think anyone does serious work with systems theory these days (I hope not, anyway).

But in political theory and (some) philosophy, you read basically the same people from your first undergraduate course till you retire. Possibly this maps somehow to a humanities/sciences distinction (with analytic philosophy tending to model itself on science); the comment above about the absurdity of “close textual analyses of Feynam” may be related to this.


David Moles 10.12.06 at 3:16 am

Hayek, but only among libertarians without much real economics education.


Nick L 10.12.06 at 3:30 am

Parsons in sociology, surely? Or perhaps only in the sociology that I happen to read and not in the more empirical areas of research.


Danbye 10.12.06 at 3:44 am

In literary criticism Heidegger’s abovementioned shunners Foucault and Derrida still have a pretty tight stranglehold. Lots of English departments are to this day informally dubbed “Foucault Studies”. English twenty years behind philosophy? Twas ever thus, and ever thus shall be.


des von bladet 10.12.06 at 4:24 am

Chomsky in linguistics. (He actually died in 1964 and was replaced by a ‘bot, but you didn’t hear it from me.)


Chris Bertram 10.12.06 at 4:35 am

In teaching contemporary political philosophy, I’m sometimes struck by how much of the now-canonical literature came out in the ten years after TJ (1971). So, for example, I’m having my students read the first two Dworkin WiE papers (1981), this week.

As a point of comparison, I was born in 1958 and just about the only things I read as an undergrad (apart from the “classics” referred to by Josh above) were written since my birth. My own students, born c. 1985 are reading a lot of modern material produced before they came into the world. I rather expect it will stay that way for a while.


John Emerson 10.12.06 at 10:26 am

I guess I’m an analytic philosopher after all, but just thirty years ahead of the times, because I don’t read any of those suckers. Even the young, up-and-coming ones are dead to me, just as much as Quine and Chisholm are to them.


ogged 10.12.06 at 11:00 am

There’s this great bit in some Jonathan Ree essay.

There is no such thing as progress when it comes to contemplating the immense disproportion between our puny individual existences and the vastness of the natural and historical worlds in which they fleetingly take place. Nor is there any stockpiling of knowledge when it comes to wondering what place parenthood may have in your life, or pain or illness or indignation.

In disciplines whose job it is to try to articulate and sort out these problems, dialogue with the past will always be an essential part. And even if you know that you should “get past” one of the Great Minds, it’s not such an easy thing to do.


roger 10.12.06 at 11:02 am

In Fauxics, we’ve actually stopped reading anyone. In fact, we discourage all reading, since it interferes with doing true science. True science, as we have discovered, must refer to gauge-midget vectors in the 8th dimension, or it isn’t science at all. This is the consensus view. We frown on any mathematics done with symbols that you don’t invent yourself (and no telling anybody what they mean, either!), and as for experiments – well, rather pointless if nobody is going to read about them, aren’t they? Thus we’ve sloughed off the deadwood. Occasionally, however, somebody in Fauxics does mention reading Finman or Ensteen. So we blast him with a sawed off shot gun and have him stuffed in a toxic waste barrel and buried in a field in New Jersey. It is the only way to keep the field entirely scientific.


SamChevre 10.12.06 at 11:03 am

Ricardo in economics.


Eric 10.12.06 at 11:28 am

Babe Ruth in baseball.


SeanD 10.12.06 at 11:34 am

Ayer ought to be read more often then he is- Language, Truth, and Logic is a far more plausible and challenging work then it’s generally given credit for.

And, assuming that analytic political philosophy is analytic philosophy, I’d say it’s rather unthinkable to work in that area without being directly familiar (i.e., not just familiar by how ‘others build on’) with at least Rawls’s TJ, if not the later stuff.

In general, it seems to me that the history of analytic philosophy is making a comeback among analytic philosophers- navel-gazing spurred on, perhaps, by a vague sense that we don’t really know what it is that we’re doing (though we’re confident that it is, by and large, at any rate worth doing). The recent Soames books, books and journal article by, e.g., Michael Friedman on logical positivism, and the ongoing resurgence of Fregeanism (and upcoming if not ongoing resurgence of Carnapism [sp?]) all evidence this.


trane 10.12.06 at 11:55 am

One figure – of speech – that haunts all the social sciences is “we need to think beyond X” (where X is a person, a paradigm, a category, a dichotomy etc.). It allows people to act as though they are saying something terribly clever, while 90 per cent of the time nothing at all is said. In those instances it is put forth as a conclusion to an argument, rather than as an opening to it.

As ogged notes, it is not such an easy thing to ‘get past’ X without engaging with her/him/it.


Bonapart O Cunasa 10.12.06 at 11:57 am

Keynes, surely, and until the end of time.


aaron 10.12.06 at 12:15 pm

Chomsky in Linguistics.
Levi-Strauss in Anthropology (and related fields).
Marx in Sociology
I’d actually say Weber is almost as influential in sociologal theory as Marx, but he’s also more mainstream, so his impact is less noticable.


david 10.12.06 at 12:51 pm

About whether analytic philosophy is like this:

For better or worse, about half the papers I read have been written in the past few years, and almost all are under 40 years old. I’m pretty sure that this is typical.

People do read Quine, et al., but not in the same way that Continental philosophers read Hegel and Heidegger. The emphasis is not on interpretation and textual analysis, for example. With the possible exception of Wittgenstein, the great dead analytic philosophers are ususally just treated as ordinary participants in the conversation.


jacob 10.12.06 at 1:00 pm

In history–well, social history at least–it’s EP Thompson. Indeed, it seems as if there simply wasn’t any history written before Thompson for all we read it. I’m reading for prelims right now, and almost nothing I’m reading predates the late 70s, or late 60s at the latest. And all that new history is all coming from the post-Thompson realignment, whether or not people who don’t call themselves labor historians actually read Thompson.


Z 10.12.06 at 2:37 pm

In math, Grothendieck. Well, he is not dead but he has disappearde since avout 20 years.


burritoboy 10.12.06 at 4:18 pm

Gee, aren’t the analytics just so cute?

Of course, what they’re actually saying is equally rhetorical as continental philosophers. The reason that they think they don’t have to read their founders is largely PR – the analytics want to pretend to be modern natural scientists. But they lose gigantic things by this pretense, among which is their inability to examine analytic philosophy itself critically.


Jim Johnson 10.12.06 at 4:46 pm

Well, someone above mentined Ken Arrow as a thinker who will return again and again. Unfortunately, even now he returns in pre-digested textbook fashion. In other words, no one actually reads Arrow. Instead, you get some guy standing at the white board deriving “the proof” and annoucing on that basis that democracy is a a problem.

You never know (and the guy at the board surely does not) that the first sentence of Arrow’s books is “In a capitalist democracy …” and that the “proof” occupies a shortish chapter, that much of the discussion in the remainder of the book is of Rousseau and Kant etc., and actually is aimmed at exploring the reasons why “the proof” is not exactly so problematic for democrats.

all this allows folks in political sciene to delude themselves into the notin that they are doing “positive” theory; and it allows them to ignore the fact that the argument is normative through and through.

So, yes, people will still talk about Arrow. They just won’t know what they are talking about.


Brian 10.12.06 at 5:28 pm

Actually, the reason Derrida and Foucault are still popular in English departments is because a) Derrida still has the best, most rigorous conception of iteration, and b) Foucault’s history of subjectivity still makes perfect sense.

But it’s quite ridiculous to say that English departments only read these fellows. Do I really need to enumerate a fifty-name list to prove it? You’ll find that the people who like to comment most on English departments are people who simply have never read the purported “stranglehold” books that they’re complaining about. ’twas ever thus…


Jacob T. Levy 10.12.06 at 7:15 pm

In the various fields in which I’ve got part of a foot planted, there’s Rawls, Pocock/Skinner, , and Hart– and none of them have that dynamic I recognize in the discussions of Hegel and Heidegger, the gravtitational pull they exert even when you’re trying to think about something else entirely or move on. Neither do, say, Berlin, Shklar, and Hayek, even though there ar esigned-up Berlinians, Shklarians, and Hayekians (and even though I’m somewhere at the intersection of those). Whereas, though I’m no Arendtian, I do sometimes feel her gravitational pull– but of courses she’s very much in the Hegel-Heidegger tradition.


Jonathan 10.12.06 at 7:43 pm

I’m in an English Dept., and I like the cut, etc., Brian, but I’d have to say that computer science is where you’d get the best account of iteration.


Jonathan 10.12.06 at 7:45 pm

Also, Chris, T. J. Hooker premiered in 1982, not 1971.


Timothy 10.13.06 at 3:05 am

“Gee, aren’t the analytics just so cute?

Of course, what they’re actually saying is equally rhetorical as continental philosophers. The reason that they think they don’t have to read their founders is largely PR – the analytics want to pretend to be modern natural scientists. But they lose gigantic things by this pretense, among which is their inability to examine analytic philosophy itself critically.”

Ever heard of the paradox of analysis? Debates over naturalism?


Dan Karreman 10.13.06 at 4:31 am

It is possible to see most organization analysis as a sort of on-going never-ending commentary on Weber. But that’s a really depressing thought, so we tend to try to see it differently.


Steve Sailer 10.13.06 at 4:41 am

Darwin, Galton, Fisher, Hamilton


Brian 10.13.06 at 6:42 am

jonathan: “I’m in an English Dept., and I like the cut, etc., Brian, but I’d have to say that computer science is where you’d get the best account of iteration.”

Undoubtedly true, at least for certain questions. I think many romanticisms about “communication” that the analytics still hold dear would evaporate with a better comp-sci understanding of iteration. They tend to squirm much less, in any case, when they receive such medicine from anybody other than the French.

In fact, when analytic philosophy finally accepts the necessary dismantling and reconfiguration of their “communication” models, they’re going to pretend to have discovered their insights in information theory or some other science.


Brian 10.13.06 at 8:16 am

Just to avoid any confusion, I wanted to add that the person posting here as ‘brian’, is not me, the occasional CT front-page poster, ‘brian’.

I do wish the other brian would say what exactly the ‘romanticisms about “communication”‘ are that we analytics hold onto. If it’s the need for more iterated models, we’ve probably already been there with Grice. (Or still are there.) And most of the formal models of iteration I know of trace their origins back through work in mathematical logic to Russell and Whitehead. So it isn’t like analytic philosophy hasn’t already played a role in this.

It really is tiring hearing one’s friends smeared like this without anything by way of detailed evidence to back things up.


Brian2 10.13.06 at 10:00 am

To avoid confusion, I’ll sign as brian2 from now on..

brian: “I do wish the other brian would say what exactly the ‘romanticisms about “communication”’ are that we analytics hold onto.”

Well, I base my presumptions largely on the fact that the analytic types still think Searle was right and Derrida wrong in their debate. They think, for instance, that iteration is not always already “citational,” and that you can, in fact, base a theory of language on establishing a “normal” iteration and “successful” communication — one that measures this success against the “infilicity” of citational utterances.

This not to mention the degree to which analytics measure “successful” communication according to some non-iterative (and therefore supernatural?) thing called “intent”.


Brian2 10.13.06 at 10:02 am

…sorry: “infelicity”


Jacob Christensen 10.13.06 at 10:58 am

@ #36: …Unfortunately, even now he [Arrow] returns in pre-digested textbook fashion…

I think you’ve pointed to a real curse of much higher education: The re-gurgitating of pre-digested introductions.

Earlier in my so called career, I have occasionally had to discuss Hegel for 45 minutes in Pol Theory 101s without having read a page (lines: yes, pages: no) actually written by the guy. It’s only if you have to deal with a really whacky textbook that you stand a chance of doing actual intellectual work.

But to try and answer the question: From my (geographically) Swedish point of view, I really can’t point out an author or a work which is treated as de rigoeur in political science.

On the other hand it is worth noticing that in a recent evaluation of political science education in Sweden carried out by the Swedish Board of Higher Education, the Danish (!) evaluators complained about the lack of rational choice litterature in the syllabuses.


david 10.13.06 at 12:57 pm


“They think, for instance, that iteration is not always already “citational,” and that you can, in fact, base a theory of language on establishing a “normal” iteration and “successful” communication—one that measures this success against the “infilicity” of citational utterances.”

I don’t think this is a thought that very many analytic philosophers have ever had. I for one have never considered citational utterances ‘infelicitous’! I do think that there’s a difference between talking about Boston, which contains millions of people, and talking about the word ‘Boston’ (or a particular token of it), which contains six letters. But I would hardly think of this distinction as the basis for a theory of communication.

“This not to mention the degree to which analytics measure “successful” communication according to some non-iterative (and therefore supernatural?) thing called “intent”.”

I’m just going to point this out: You have to be pretty deeply entrenched in a particular theory to think that the move from “non-iterative” to “supernatural” is an obvious one. For an example of an alternative view, maybe an intention is a neurological state of some kind.

You might not want to base your impression of analytic philosophy of language on what Derrida says in Limited, Inc. The ridiculous view that he’s criticizing is not one ever held by Searle, or Austin, or anybody else.


Brian2 10.13.06 at 3:26 pm

:: “They think, for instance, that iteration
:: is not always already “citational,” and
:: that you can, in fact, base a theory of
:: language on establishing a “normal” iteration
:: and “successful” communication—one that
:: measures this success against the “infilicity”
:: of citational utterances.”

: I don’t think this is a thought that very
: analytic philosophers have ever had.

Well, it certainly is a thought that John Austin explicitly and repeatedly makes, and one that Searle explicitly and repeatedly defends.

“You might not want to base your impression of analytic philosophy of language on what Derrida says in Limited, Inc. The ridiculous view that he’s criticizing is not one ever held by Searle, or Austin, or anybody else.

And I wouldn’t worry about Derrida’s ability to represent Searle and Austin’s arguments. Every point Derrida makes is based on what Searle explicitly writes. Limited, Inc. is so famously thorough in this regard that it ends up reproducing — from beginning to end, and without switching the order of the paragraphs — the entirety of Searle’s initial essay in Derrida’s “S.E.C.”


Brian 10.13.06 at 5:03 pm

I for one have never had a single thought about “infilicity” or citational utterances, at least as such. I do think a lot about intentions, but I don’t think that they are particularly supernatural. I think that they’re constituted by neural activity, or perhaps by relations between neural activity and the physical world.

More the point, I’m too busy trying to digest Grice and Austin and Lewis and Kripke and Kaplan and Stalnaker and Montague and everyone else to have much of an opinion on the Searle/Derrida debate. And in that respect I think I’m a pretty typical analytic.


david 10.13.06 at 5:11 pm


Maybe I can put this a different way. My point is that when you (and Derrida) describe the views of analytic philosophers, you’re speaking in a language which does not translate neatly into theirs. It’s not that Searle and Austin deny the views you attribute to them, it’s just that they would not put their views that way. And, judging by the objections that Derrida considered applicable to Searle’s view, there was an awful lot was being lost in translation.

(I know that some of the words you are using were quoted from Austin, but I get the feeling that even those words are being used to mean something he didn’t. For example, I remember Derrida carrying on about Austin’s use of ‘parasitic’ in way that made Austin out to be saying something really wacky about pretended speech acts being parasites.)

I’m not really sure how this thread turned into a philosophy turf war…


Clark 10.13.06 at 7:52 pm

There’s an interesting thesis available online that is precisely about the Searle/Derrida “debate.” I do think there was a bit of talking past one an other and I certainly do agree that Derrida isn’t well versed in post-positivist analytic thought. But the reverse is true as well.


Clark 10.13.06 at 7:53 pm

Thesis. For some reason the link didn’t work in the above. So let me try it again.


Brian2 10.13.06 at 9:44 pm

It’s not really difficult to reconstitute the various aspects of the Derrida/Searle/Austin discussion. One of the issues, for instance, has to do with Austin’s and Searle’s explicit assertion that one can determine a “normal” versus “parasitic” speech act by determining whether or not a given utterance is “citational” and which one is not. (These are Austin’s terms, not Derrida’s).

Derrida simply points out that all iteration is always-already “citational” — because if it weren’t, the utterance wouldn’t be intelligible in the first place.

In order to hang on to the normal/abnormal distinction, then, Searle has to appeal to “intention.” When an actor speaks his lines, the intention behind the utterance has, presumably, nothing to do with the intention that would otherwise seem to be associated with the utterance. The actor’s utterance is thus “merely citational,” and we know this by knowing the status of his intention.

This is where everything falls apart for the analytics, of course. As Derrida rightly points out, you can’t possibly pretend to be able to measure any iteration against something that does not and, by definition, can never exist as an iteration. Intent is supposedly something that is not the iteration in question itself; and it certainly doesn’t exist as some other iteration. Iteration is not any particular iteration. Now, Derrida’s position does not require us to claim there is not or cannot be some mechanism of human desire that originates a given speech — whether you want to call it “will” or “intent” or whatever — but whatever intent is, we could not possibly “read” it if we ever saw it, because it would have to exist outside the order of iterability.

Searle and the rest of the analytics — quite bewilderingly — ignore the small fact that this creature, this non-iterated “intent” has never been witnessed by anybody. More importantly, however, they don’t seem to understand that even if you produced such a thing, it would have no commensurability wiht anything on the order of iterability. You couldn’t “measure” an iteration against this thing — and therefore establish the iteration’s “sincerity,” “normalcy,” “citationality” or whatever — any more than you could use an orgasm to measure the wavelength of a laser’s light.


Brian2 10.13.06 at 9:49 pm

Sorry: that one bizarre sentence above should read: “Intention is not any particular iteration.”


david 10.14.06 at 1:40 pm


I’m afraid I don’t have time to get into a more detailed discussion of this, but here are a few comments about what you said:

“One of the issues, for instance, has to do with Austin’s and Searle’s explicit assertion that one can determine a “normal” versus “parasitic” speech act by determining whether or not a given utterance is “citational” and which one is not. (These are Austin’s terms, not Derrida’s).”

This is a good example of what I was getting at. From what I remember, Austin uses the term “parasitic” once in a side comment. It is not some central tenet of his theory that pretended speech acts are “parasitic” on “normal” ones. And “citational” speech acts are something else entirely, according to Austin.

“but whatever intent is, we could not possibly “read” it if we ever saw it, because it would have to exist outside the order of iterability.”

Is this just supposed to be obvious? You use phrases like “of course”, and you describe Derrida as simple “pointing out” claims that you then explain in terms of a highly articulated theory which many people do not share with you.

“Searle and the rest of the analytics—quite bewilderingly—ignore the small fact that this creature, this non-iterated “intent” has never been witnessed by anybody.”

Actually, there is a core branch of analytic philosophy (philosphy of mind) devoted to this. Searle is a prominent figure there. Your prior comment indicates that you disagree with some common views in that field, but it is wrong to say that the issue is being ignored.

Incidentally, not all analytic philosophers of language try to explain linguisitc meaning in terms of a prior notion of intention, as Searle does. Before you smear total strangers on the internet, you might want to have a better sense of what their views actually are.


Brian2 10.14.06 at 3:46 pm

hm, well I’m not sure where the “smearing” was in my rather dry little exegesis above. Not sure why this anxious defensiveness crops up. Because instead of speaking in generalities we can always just stick to the rather inoffensive terms of the debate.

For instance, am I wrong in my conclusion that “intent,” as Searle conceives it, could not exist as iteration? Do you disagree with the consequences that I draw from that? If so, why?


david 10.14.06 at 11:10 pm

“hm, well I’m not sure where the “smearing” was in my rather dry little exegesis above.”

I was referencing brian1’s comment about your earlier post. Iterating, even.

I don’t disagree because I do not understand what you are saying. You say that if intention is “outside the order of iterability,” then we could not “read” it. And that is supposed to show that it is not “commensurable” with things that “exist as iteration.” And that is supposed to show the intellectual bankruptcy of a field you seem to know pretty much nothing about?

Isn’t the concept of intention a pretty familiar one? I intend to go home in a few minutes–there’s an intention. Can you “read” that intention? Is it incommensurable with my going home in a few minutes? If I hit by a bus and don’t manage to make it home, can what happened be “measured against” my intention? How is this different from my intention to communicate, and my act of doing so? Please explain to me what I am not getting–without using the word “iteration” if possible.

And just some clarification about what Austin was saying:

If I say, “brian2, I challenge you to a duel,” then I am performing the speech act of challenging you to a duel.

If I say, “brian2, remember that time I challenged you to a duel?” then one of the things I’m doing is citing, or mentioning, my previous speech act.

If I laughingly say, “brian2, I challenge you to a duel,” then I have pretended to challenge you to a duel.

Austin thought that a number of factors distinguished between these cases. Context was one, and speaker intention was another.

In all of these cases, the words I use and conventions I employ are borrowed from previous speakers. If this means that non-citational and non-pretended speech acts are “iterations,” then they are iterations.

Also, there are probably borderline and ambiguous cases. There are boderline cases of baldness, but that doesn’t mean that there is no difference between someone who is bald and someone who has a full head of hair.

Finally, this is not the cornerstone of Austin’s or Searle’s theory of speech acts (at least, not as Austin and Searle saw things). And it certainly is not the cornerstone of all of analytic philosophy. As with any other field, the subject matter is broad, and the views on that subject matter vary widely.


Brian2 10.15.06 at 1:44 am

“I intend to go home in a few minutes—there’s an intention.”

You’re joking, right? Where is the intention? All I see is a declaration (an utterance, an iteration). The whole point about intention is that it is supposed to be something that originates the declaration, as well as being the thing that determines whether or not the utterance is “merely citational.”

Now, if you’re saying that the intention is identical to the utterance, then you agree with me that it’s an entirely superfluous term. Because then we would never have any question about the intent “behind” an utterance — since the reality of the intent would always-already be identical to the reality of the utterance.

Searle — and most others who worry about “intent” and think it is a concept that can help to explain how language works — thinks that “intent” is never merely identical to the utterance. If intent is never identical to the utterance that might be associated with it — even the most perfectly worded utterance that might ever be associated with that intent — it is therefore never identical to any utterance, past or future. Intention is never identical to any particular iteration.

Now, Searle, and everybody I have spoken to who takes Searle’s side in the debate, insists that the way you can determine whether or not an utterance is “serious” is by measuring the utterance against intent. But how do you measure an utterance against something that is not iterable? How indeed do you measure the utterance against something that has never been witnessed by anybody? How can we take seriously a theory of language that uses as a yardstick something that does not and cannot appear, objectively, in the real world?

That’s one issue. The second issue I’ve been referring to — and which, I think, we should separate, for now, from the former — has to do with the indissoluble relationship between citationality and iterability. I see now that I shouldn’t have tried to interlace those issues in this discussion.


Brian2 10.15.06 at 2:14 am

By the way: you had mentioned that “context” was another way to determine whether un utterance is “merely” citational. This reminds me of the primary reason the whole “speech act” theory simply doesn’t work. (This critique, by the way, has nothing to do with Derrida or Searle: it’s just me)

The theory claims, for instance, that the marriage vow is a perfect example of a “speech act,” because when you say “I do” at the right moment, it’s not just an utterance: it performs the act of instigating the reality of your marriage.

But let’s say that you say “I do” — and then later find out that your marriage certificate is invalid and the official who presided over your wedding was an intruder who is, in reality, only a busboy. You’ve said “I do,” but you are not married, and therefore the thing that determines the “act” of your speech act was never performed.

Now, let’s say that you obtained a real and official marriage certificate before the wedding, you had a real justice of the peace presiding over your wedding — but you get cold feet when the time comes to say “I do.” Let’s say you only mumble “I don’t know…” — But the official presumes that you did say “I do,” he pronounces you man and wife and your bride hustles you out of the building. You are married, but you never said “I do.”

These simply highlight the fact that the thing that determines the “act” and the reality of your marriage is — no more and no less — the simple fact of whether or not the state has registered your marriage. That, and only that, is the final and determining factor of whether or not you have been married.

If it were true that your utterance of “I do” were the determining factor in whether or not you were married, neither of the scenarios above should be possible. The fact that they are possible confirms that the utterance is not the determining factor in the “act.”

The same is true of all of the other “speech acts” Austin goes into. In every case, the determining factor that determines whether an “act” has been performed is not the utterance itself, but rather an external registry or consensus of one kind or another.

But if you probe even further, you’ll find that these “acts” we’re talking about are always provisional and contingent. For instance, you might be married to your third wife in Utah — but the status of your marriage as an “accompished act” depends entirely on the communal body that is willing to recognize the marriage in its registry.

Given that Austin makes much of the real-world effect supposedly accomplished by a speech act, one has to wonder about the status of this “reality” if it is something that exists in this jurisdiction, but not that one…


Timothy 10.15.06 at 4:08 am

Perhaps you are correct in your last post about “I do”, but how does it establish more than that saying “I do” is not a speech act. There are other examples to take it’s place, for instance “I promise.” Also just because a speech act sometimes fails because the relevant authorities don’t acknowledge it i.e randomly walking up to a ship, breaking a bottle of Champagne over it and dubbing it something doesn’t establish that it is not a speech act, all it establishes is that speech act’s, like real acts, sometimes don’t work. As to your mumbling example I’m not sure it might well prove that in today’s society saying “I do” is not really or not necessarily the speech act we typically take it to be, or not the kind of speech act we take it to be but maybe it’s an example of casual over determination?


Timothy 10.15.06 at 4:17 am

“How indeed do you measure the utterance against something that has never been witnessed by anybody.”

Rough analogy and one possible solution to your query, the intention is like atoms. You do not see intents ( to do so you’d have to have technology for monitoring brain activity far more advanced than our’s). But we never the less have empirical evidence that intention exists and when we view positing intention as making an empirical theory it becomes clear how it is possible to distinguish between “parasitic” and non “parasitic” statements.

We seem to have ample empirical evidence for a theory of mind involving intentions. It’s a spectacularly successful theory in explaining the behaviour of those around us . Using it you can predict a hell of a lot. Think of how often you use concept’s like intention to predict the actions of others.

Similar empirical evidence to that which allows us to posit intentions allows us to support theories like “if X laugh’s, X may not intend his previous comment seriously” or “If X takes a sarcastic tone, X may not intend his comment’s seriously” evidence for these theories might come from things like the fact that people frequently don’t act on statement’s made in a sarcastic tone etc. Based on this we can discern when a statement is intended to be “parasitic” by looking at relevant empirical evidence like are they laughing? what is their tone? ( both in terms of voice tone and tone in word choice), does my current knowledge about what this person believes and their personality lead me to think they would seriously assert this? We don’t have to “see” intention and it doesn’t have to be inside the text for us to know it’s there and to know what it is, just like we can know that there are atoms and what they are like based on seeing their effect’s rather than them.

That’s just one possible sketch of a solution I don’t really believe it myself in all it’s details. But it’s plausible and shows that Derrida’s objection ( as you describe it, I haven’t read the text) isn’t necessarily the knock down you proffer it as.


Brian2 10.15.06 at 2:12 pm

timothy — I agree with everything you say about intention above: but remember that Derrida’s “knock-down” argument never had anything to do with denying the existence of a desire or physiological impulse that might be called “intention.” The argument is about whether we can pretend to have determined anything about the “real status” of an utterance by measuring it against intention.

To put it in more positive terms: All of the effects you’re talking about that seem to require an appeal to “intention” — the question of irony, etc. — absolutely do not require any such appeal. All of the effects and problems you’re talking about can be explained and investigated at the level of the signifier — i.e., it can be explained without having to appeal to anything outside the order of iterability itself. The “brain states” that you’re talking about, in other words — although I’m sure they exist — have nothing to do with how irony and “the sense of citationality” are actually effected. The effects of irony, sarcasm, sincerity, seriousness, etc., are all created by signifiers visibile in the real world — and our determination of the status of these effects (insofor as they can be “determined,” which is never absolutely) is accomplished by reading such signifiers.

To give a convincing example, we have to talk about irony, since that’s the thing that most persistently makes people believe that “intention” created the ironic effect, not the text itself. Before we get into the strictly linguistic conception of irony, we gotta remember the general conception: A confident man walks along the street, a master of himself and his destiny — he trips on a crack and plasters his face in the sidewalk. Man, confident in his ability to guide his own destiny, is proven wrong by a falling piano. Irony thus conceived is that of a “divided consciousness” — or a consciousness aware simultaneously of a mystified and demystified state. The important thing to remember is that the doubled consciousness generated when we read about the fall of the confident man would be effected just as “completely” if we had watched an actual man in the street proclaim his invulnerability, then get hit by a bus.

So, now, to utterance. A Jane Austen novel begins: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Most of us are confident that it is an ironic statement; but what are the steps that lead to that confidence? We chafe, for one thing, against the statement’s “universal truth” claim, against the idea that all rich single men’s desires would so conveniently agree with society’s expectations. The truth claimed by the statement is now confronted with “our” unspoken claim that that this “acknowledgment” is neither true, nor universally held (since we do not hold it). Note that we could also discern the possibility of this argument even if we do agree with the truth claim of the statement. Either way, this argument — the two sides of which create the double consciousness — is effected whether or not we come to any conclusion about whether the historical Jane Austen perceives this argument, this “problem” with the statement, (and then, obviously, whether or not she endorses one “side” or the other if she does acknowledge a problem).

Of course, we tend to be confident in our conclusion that she does endorse a critique of the statement’s “truth,” for many reasons; at the level of the sentence itself, for instance, there are rhetorical cues, including an insistence on sweeping categorical statements, that contextualize it within a specifically argumentative mode, one that an experienced English speaker has learned to associate with “sarcasm”. Perhaps more importantly, the sentence is always read within the context of her other works, where we know such irony is rife. It is also read in the context of the English novel, for which this double consciousness has long been a primary tool in its satire. The important point is: that all of the “signals” that draw our attention to the possibility of irony have come from objective, visible, iterable sources — not some unseen “intent”.

So the issue is not that the sentence, by itself, is “inherently” ironic. If we were perusing an early anthropological study of genteel rural English society by some cultural outsider, we might read that, in this society, “it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” This context encourages us to take it as a simple statement of fact about the social expectations of the tribe. But it is also possible that we readers, knowing “men” as we think we do, might also scoff at this “truth” claim, at this idea that all single men’s desires would so conveniently agree with society’s expectations. Nobody could assert that this scoffing is not precisely the skepticism Austen’s sentence “expects” — introducing as it does a somewhat anthropological novel. Yet the anthropologist’s “intentions” in the matter are presumably the opposite of Austen’s. And, still, those intentions are entirely irrelevant to our determination of whether the sentence is ironic. I’m not arguing that our conception of Austen’s or the anthropologist’s inentions are always irrelevant — obviously, if you’re writing a biography of either of them, such questions will be relevant — the point is that irony is never dependent on the concept or the status of intention in order to appear and “do its work.”

I realize it would sound odd to attribute “irony” to Austen’s sentence if we decided, for whatever reason, that she didn’t “endorse” the skepticism that the sentence generates against itself. But if we “correct” that oddity with a mandate that irony can exist only when the author endorses this skeptical possibility, then we’re simply forcing the concept of intention into our definition of irony, begging the question of their inextricable relationship in Austen’s sentence. The oddity is diffused anyway, I think, if one keeps in mind that the skepticism that the sentence generates against itself — the doubling that is the condition of irony — is always a possibility of that sentence; always, no matter who writes it, or to what end.


john c. halasz 10.15.06 at 9:36 pm

I don’t really have a pony in this race or a dog in this hunt. I’m not very familiar with Derrida and not enamored with Analytic philosophy; my predilictions are toward Wittgenstein and Gadamer. But I’ll chime in with some stray comments on this tail-end debate anyway.

An intention is not an item, an atomic entity. Rather an intention is a distinction that belongs together in a complex with other interrelated distinctions, such that there are acts, which may or may not correlate with movements, consequences, intentions, motives, and the like. “In principle”, it is conceivable that there could be a language-game of acts without there being one of intentions,- (but could there be a language-game of sheer movements?),- and a language-game of acts and intentions without there being any language game of motives,- (which are only ever “known” as sheer inferences anyway),- and so forth. (But how do we identify acts? Is it not through “naming” an intention?) We distinguish acts from intentions insofar as acts can have unintended consequences or intentions can be forgotten, confused or otherwise “unfulfilled” and the like. None of this need imply any self-subsistent interiority distinct from the exteriority of signs. “Intentions” are only ever mutual attributions coordinated through the grammar of first, second and third person perspectives.

But I have trouble with the notion that the sheer iterability of signs or the deployment of material signifiers in particular contexts can sufficiently account for the “effects” of meaning. That does successfully block of any Platonic or “essentialist” account of meaning/language/”mind”, but doesn’t suffice to explain how they actually interrelate and “work”. In fact, no material sign or token is the sign that and of what it is without the interpretation of the sign, which is not provided of itself. (There is no Being without the understanding of Being.) Two things seem to me to be left out of such an account. One is that a natural language is a rule-governed activity, the rules of which must at bottom be constitutive and impose their constraints of the possibilities of meaning generated: no such rules, no language. (This is not to deny that a background of practices and relations is also intricated with the meaning-generating capacities of a language and perhaps “essential” to it). The second point is that, though there is no speech without language and vice versa, those rules, or more exactly complex interactions of several different sets or systems of rules, do not just operate themselves, but I think their generation must ultimately be traced to interactions between speaking or communicating agents.

“Intentions” then would be gatherings or nodal points of complex interacting systems of underlying, implicit rules, which are at once more extensive, elaborate and impoverished than any thematic or focal intention, that are activated by interaction and mutual attribution between agents. “Intentions” would be neither purely interior, mental, or individual, nor would they be wholely exterior, “material” or collective. It is true that meaning can not be reduced to intentions and that intentions can not be independently identified separate from the conditions that generate or constitute meaning. But by the same token signs can not be interpreted as bearing meaning and thus be the signs that they putatively are without reference to the intensionality of meaning and thus to some connection, however potential or tangential, to agents that also and not quite coincidentally can bear intentions.

My upshot here is that there is a danger of being too unilateral in considering questions of meaning. Austin’s initial version of “speech acts”,- (and I’ve read at one time both Austin’s and Searle’s books, though only secondary accounts of the debate),- is tied to a robust conventionalism, appealing to ritual or institutional contexts to uncover the performative dimension of “illocutionary force”, such that he inadvertently seems to imply a kind of structuralism, whereby it is hard to understand how the individual deployment of a speech act can be distinguished from the deployment of the system of conventions and thus how the system of conventions could be generated in the first place. Searles’ methodological or pragmatic principle of explicitness, whereby anything not directly said in a speech act can be said explicitly otherwise, (with the implication that the contextual background can in principle be completely recuperated) tends to assimilate the dimension of “illocutionary force” (or, as I prefer to term it, the modal-relational dimension of meaning constitution) back into the logico-semantic status of a proposition, which is precisely what it is to be distinguished from. And I take it the the crux of the issue over Searles’ compulsion to reduplicate “speech acts” in terms of independently existing, originating mental intentions is that it carries a residue of metaphysics, insofar as it aims at a conception of the unity of “mind” and a theory of “mind” as separate from anything else. But “mind” is not something sheerly separate, individual and intra-cranial. Much of what we identify or designate as “mind” is an internalization of communicational processes across the exteriority of the world. (Call that a post-materialist, hence a forteriori post-idealist, version of Hegelian Geist, if you will). Further, there is no clear demarcation between the physiological, behavioral and mental, but rather the three interact in generating phenomena that we might be wont to call mental. And if communication always occurs across relationships, then “speech acts” are not discrete items, but are only “completed” through speech reception, such that “speech acts” are always intricated with other such acts and signs.

That much is at least clear enough to me. But also I don’t think claims or insinuations of the impossibility of communication or the inextricable and irrecuperable ambiguity of meaning are exactly the last word either. The self-dividedness or doubleness of the human self is in fact the very condition and “hinge”, as it were, of human sociality and relatedness. “The self is a relation which relates itself to itself”; well, not quite: the self is a relation that relates itself to itself through its relations with others. That misunderstanding or miscommunication are always possible is a trivial claim. That the communicative generation and understanding of meaning, however conflicted and mired in material conditions, does occur “for all intents and purposes” is the very condition for the emergence and existence of language and meaning in the first place. Claims that any sentence or utterance can be construed ironically or that the indeterminacy of meaning-potentials must result in a hyperbolic skepticism about meaning strike me as question begging. (It’s not that figurative meaning is non-literal meaning, but rather that literal meaning is non-figurative meaning; any meta-language must imply, without reducing to, an object-language and the same for the relation of meta-communication to communication). Constraints on meaning-interpretation are constitutive of the very possibility of such interpretation. It’s just that such constraints and their parameters are not “transcendental”, once and for all.


Brian2 10.16.06 at 2:04 pm

john — I enjoyed your very thoughtful post above. I won’t pretend to be able to address all of the issues you raise, but I think one of the more important nodes is here:

“But by the same token signs can not be interpreted as bearing meaning and thus be the signs that they putatively are without reference to the intensionality of meaning and thus to some connection, however potential or tangential, to agents that also and not quite coincidentally can bear intentions.”

It seems to me that this formulation puts us in danger of simply identifying “intention” with “meaning” — which does, in fact, correspond to a certain colloquial definition of “meaning,” e.g., “What do you mean to do tomorrow”? and “What did you mean by that”? — but that definition does not at all encompass everything we mean by “meaning”; it does not encompass, I suggest, precisely the larger questions of signification that we’re talking about.

The best way to explain my objection is with a thought experiment: Let’s say you created a computer program to generate three random words in the English language and string them together. Let’s say you also had the odd habit of printing out this random string once a day and posting it on the bulletin board in your local coffee shop.

Obviously, most of the “sentences” produced are nonsense: “Runs cradle over”; “Scare portch retinue,” etc. But one day the computer generates the words “Charity never fails”. As ususal, you post it in the coffee shop. And that day, some newcomers come into the shop, read the posting — and are extremely moved. The significance of the phrase bowls them over: Yes, yes — even where charity seems wasted, it ultimately contributes to a totality of good! It is a beautiful and profound statement.

Now, I think it is impossible to argue that these people did not see meaning in the sentence — and the meaningful significance they see in it would probably be very similar to the meaning we would see in it if we had read it in a book of wise sayings. So “meaning” unquestionably has been produced in this scenario — and it doesn’t matter where you think this “meaning” resides: in the sentence itself, or in the “minds” of the readers, or whatever — and yet there was absolutely no intention behind the signifiers that created this meaningful situation.

I hope this makes it clear why it simply begs the question to define “meaning,” at the outset, as intention. To me, the scenario above is all we need to establish that the production and the effect of “meaning” — in the properly broader sense of “signification,” and however you want to theorize its operation — is something that takes place without the intervention of any “intention.” This is not to say that intention doesn’t exist: It only means that once a signifier is “out there” — no matter its source — the fate of its significance and meaning in the world is entirely up to “external” matters, not least of which is the historical and linguistic environment that makes the signifier intelligible.


john c. halasz 10.16.06 at 5:15 pm


I didn’t misspell the word: I typed “the intensionality of meaning”, not its “intentionality”. That’s the distinction in logic between extensional and intensional, roughly, between the items that fall under a concept, the “external” scope of application of a concept, and the discrimination of concepts under which items can fall. The point I was trying to make was that for something to be a sign, let alone a sign that and of what it is, there must be at least some minimal reference to intensionality, to a capacity to discriminate and select between concepts, (which is not the same thing as thematic intentionality and doesn’t imply that a sign must somehow embody an identical or stable intention). (Consider the border-line case of ethological interpretations of animal behavior). That does not at all deny that signs are constantly being re-inscribed and are all-but-inevitably exposed to misreading or misunderstanding or contamination by other signs and their contexts. But that would count I think against the sort of Turing test that you propose: in that case, the interpreter ascribes or projects a meaning, based on some minimal assumption of intensionality, that is not “originally” there.

There is not a disagreement here between you and me- (or, for that matter, I think, between Derrida and Gadamer),- that meaning/language is a collective institution irreducible to the intentions of its bearers and is in some sense, for lack of a better word, “objective”, always bearing implications that exceed the intentions of its bearers or users. Similarly, both Derrida and Gadamer agree that texts can not be interpreted by reference to any independently existing intentions of their authors, if only because the ascription of such intentions would itself be just another interpretation of the text, and that the interpretation of a text is always a re-situation of that text that understands more and otherwise, if not “better”, that anything the author could have intended. But I suppose the main point or perhaps corrective I wanted to introduce into the “picture”, over against its potential or actual ellision or denial, was the role that the interactive/relational dimension of meaning constitution plays in the very emergence and existence of the “institution” of language and meaning. (I can well understand the point to non-humanistic perspectives, as well as how various humanisms can be deployed and criticized as ideologies, but I’ve never understood the enthusiasm for “anti-humanism”, with its paradoxical and possibly damaging seeming denial of human agency, “freedom”, however minimal the ascription of such may be in any given situation,- an enthusiasm that seems at the same time to be attached to a radical libertarianism. The course of Foucault’s work, which I have directly read and am much more familiar with, from contingent mutations of entire discourse-formations, to underlying, nonthematic practices of power to “the care for the self” has struck me as having something of the air of re-inventing the wheel.) To that end, I offered a rough-sketch account or “philosophical explanation” of intentionality, that neither takes the experience of focal intentionality as immediately given, irreducible, unsurpassable or foundational, but also does not reduce it to an epiphenomenal illusion rather than a real phenomenon, that emerges at a certain secondary level. The difference from internalist accounts of “mind” such as Searles’, which I think is badly missed, is how the capacity for intentional behavior emerges from relational interaction with others, together with the emergence, formation, or “folding” of a self that bears such agency. (And the formation of a self through its relations and conflicts with others is one of the “fundamental”, recurrent themes or preoccupations of literary works/productions, however much else is dragged along into the “picture”, n’est-ce pas?) In effect, we give ourselves to each other and our world(s). And in that process, language-games involving intentions and their ascriptions are not entirely dispensable, not because they are the primary and entire truth and not because they are somehow predetermined or inscribed in the nature of the universe, but because they are needful for sustaining aspects and activities of our collective form of life that we may find valuable, on pain of archaic regressions otherwise.


john c. halasz 10.16.06 at 5:31 pm

On review I botched an interpellation; the sentence in question should read:” In effect, we give ourselves and our world(s) to each other”.


Brian2 10.16.06 at 6:10 pm

yes, right, sorry about reading your “intension” too quickly (!) I think your last post makes it clear that we don’t disagree, especially (and if I understand you correctly) insofar as the presumption and the attribution of intent clearly plays a crucial role in most discourses and dialogues, and inevitably shapes their “progression,” for lack of a better word.

But some of your vocabulary spurs me to yet another test case (forgive me) just to clarify a remaining point.

Years back, I was engaged in a Usenet discussion, and one of the participants used a “signature” in his posts that read: “You can always tell a pioneer by the arrows in his back.” After a while, one of the discussants — who was, apparently, partly of Native American descent — teased the other poster about the casual racism in his signature. To the second poster — and to many of the rest of us — the meaning or significance of the signature phrase is necessarily derived — at least in part — from a historical/linguistic context that refers to Native American peoples shooting European pioneers in the back.

The original poster insisted that the meaning of the phrase could not derive from that context because he had no intention of referring to any such thing. Now, I presume you would agree that the orignal poster’s “intent” cannot pretend to govern the meaning of that phrase. The meaning of the phrase necessarily and inevitably is bound to the historical and discursive context in which “pioneers” and “arrows” have always been found together: the context of European expansion in the United States.

So: when you acknowledge that “signs are constantly being re-inscribed and are all-but-inevitably exposed to misreading or misunderstanding or contamination by other signs and their contexts,” it seems that you may be presuming that intent has the power to establish whether or not a given interpretation is a “misreading” — as if intent somehow establishes the “proper” or “uncontaminated” interpretation of the phrase.

If we suppose (as we all did) that the original poster was being perfectly truthful that he did not intend to convey the slightly racist meaning I’ve been discussing — that has nothing to do with what the meaning of the phrase is. Even if we disagree about the interpretation, the only thing that can adjudicate the matter is the objective, extra-human network of historically-situated signifiers embedded in their complex web of associations — in addition to the various cues and contexts signalled in the original posting.

In other words, it is simply not true that the Native American’s interpretation constitutes a “misreading” of the phrase, even if we agreed that this reading is far from the poster’s original intent. If there has been “failure” in the system here, it is a failure that belongs entirely to the poster himself — it does not inhere in any “contamimation” or “misreading” external to his intent.

It is true that this picture of discourse portrays language as a kind of impersonal machine that we are all simply inserted into as we learn to speak and write. A machine that has nothing to do with the unarticulated desire that constitutes our oh-so-human intent. But that is the reality — the phoneme and grapheme are technological machines like any other. But I see no reason to worry that this is an “inhuman” state of affairs; just as there is no reason to presume that the widespread use of the wheel somehow plunged humanity into the “inhuman”.


john c. halasz 10.16.06 at 9:22 pm


I don’t think I have a problem with your last example. We agree that language/meaning is prior to intention and conditions it, that it is “subject transcendent”, -(though I don’t like the term “subject”, which is tied to the outmoded project of philosophical epistemology and means “ground/grounder of knowledge”, as if human beings, as “rational animals”, were to be defined exclusively in terms of possession of knowledge). The “joke” in your example is that a self-congratulatory phrase was reversed of itself and “unawares” into a perjorative one. And I do think the phrase carries the association you ascribe to it. But I don’t think its meaning need be “measured” in terms of its “original” or “proper” intent. Rather there is a situation of communicative exhange there, however technologically and textually mediated, and its “proper” meaning is to be assessed in terms of the communicative follow-through, rather than through some fixed predetermination. But we are all inextricably in-the-world and none of us can escape uncontaminated from what Adorno called its “context of delusion”.

I have no trouble with the fact that the world is not an entirely “human” place and that human beings are not always honorifically “human”, if that is indeed an honorific. Nor do I deny that language entails and immense dispersal and exteriority that is not the product of invention by anyone and far exceeds any intentional agency and consciousness, (though only a species with a highly differentiated neural consciousness system could have emerged into and developed language). (However, the extensiveness, complexity, and sheer improbability of language should be a source of wonder and defies perhaps not just our means of explanation, but the notion of explanation itself.) So, as I said, a non-humanistic perspective is not surprising to me and even something that I would hold necessary. But I do reject the structuralist, “neo-structuralist” or “post-structuralist” account of an “autonomous”, self-operating language that determines human beings entirely unawares, which itself partly derives from Heidegger’s “history of Being” as the self-moving destining of “man” by Being, itself an immense and insufficiently differentiated hypostatization. In fact, I think the Saussurian account of the sign, which the above-mentioned French thinkers expropriated, is far too thin to do the work that they want it to. I much prefer Wittgenstein’s PI account of natural language in terms of language-games, “grammar”, and rule-governed activity within a form of life, though he developed it only indirectly and non-thematically for peculiar philosophical purposes of his own. Saussure’s proposal that language consists in the “play” of differences without positive terms was originally intended as a methodological proposal in establishing a “science” of linguistics, serving to identify the digital constituents of any natural language, its phonemes and morphemes, and thus far it was a good proposal. But it is not an account of syntax, semantics, “pragmatics” or usage, or any other dimension of the meaning generating or carrying capacity of language. Further, it ignores the analog components of language, what linguists term somewhat dismissively “paralanguage”.

Two things are left glaringly out of account there. One is that language, words and sentences, are used and applied in communicative exchange across the world, such that the world emerges into language and language maps onto the world, with whatever degree of adequacy. The other is that language-usage aways implicates and is underpinned by a relation to an other, which modal-relational dimension is co-constitutive of meaning, of “the meaning of meaning”, and plays a role in the setting up of context, as a determinant of meaning, as well. The upshot here is to reject a dualistic opposition between “internalism” and “externalism”, between “subject” and “object”. The plane or field on which the modal-relational dimension is constituted is neither internal, nor external, neither objective, nor subjective, neither being, nor nothingness, neither objectifiable, nor subsumable in a subject, but it is in some measure really effective for all that. (I will leave aside the disrupted and abstractive mode of communication involved in textuality here as too complicated for now, but ask why textuality should be regarded as the primary, let alone exclusive, model or instance. Is the arbitrary fact of digital encoding really the point of contact between language and world?) At any rate, from my residually Hegelian-Marxist standpoint, the hypostatization of language as a machine, let alone a “technology”,- (and part of the Wittgensteinian point about the constitutive status of the basic rules of language is that it refutes and constrains any nominalistic-instrumentalistic account and manipulation of language),- and the ultra-transcendental, hyper-theoristic “view from outer space” that it entails strikes me as at once an extreme effect of reification and as contaminated with the ghost of theology.

Our respective interests and orientations are somewhat different. Just to cue you in, one of may basic philosophical interests, from a post-epistemological and meta-Marxist standpoint, is in the effort by Gadamer and Arendt to retrieve the pre-modern, basically Aristotelian notion of practical reason, as utterly distinct and separate from theoretical reason. Roughly, in a nutshell, the “fault” of modern thought lies in the occlusion of praxis by a theoria tied into the service of techne. That “overcoming” that “fault” is a tall order in late modern/post-modern conditions is indicated by Levinas, who figures here also and whose works attempt to retrieve a notion of agency, no matter how fractured, uprooted, and eroded, in the face of its multiple naturalistic dissolutions, in his hyperbolic notion of responsibility.

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