European Philosophy – Post-Modernism


For this lecture, read the first 5 chapters of Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition.

Postmodernism is a movement in philosophy, the humanities and the arts which rose in the 1970s, spreading from French philosophers influenced by Poststructuralism such as Lyotard, Deleuze, Baudrillard and Derrida.  Some have called Nietzsche the first Postmodernist, and some say that we are still living in Postmodern times, unlike Latour who argued as an Antimodernist that ‘modernity’ never happened.  Postmodernism is characterized by a free play of ideas, forms and influences in the wake of Poststructuralism’s criticism of universal structures and systems.  Like Nietzsche, Postmodernism embraces self-contradiction, often in the form of hybridization, mixing and matching formerly opposed forms, ideas and cultures, embracing the Hegelian Other as Sartre would have wanted.  Recall that for Nietzsche creativity was not outright rejection of morality and culture but free interpretation and use of everything.

Kruger You Are Not Yourself

Postmodernism reverses conceptions that arose with the European Enlightenment and modernity about the progress of reason and the exclusive identity of Western culture.  Recall that Hegel, Marx and Comte saw history as a necessary unfolding of European progress through reason without the possibility of regression.  The accelerating development of science and technology which originally supported exclusive understandings of Western identity is also undermining the distinction via counterculture.  In the 1980s, this included the use of video technology, and then in the 1990s it was extended considerably by the explosion of the internet.  The Bay Area, one of the most diverse places in America, is a major center of fusion culture as well as internet innovation.  While there are countless interesting examples of Postmodern art, particularly architecture and literature, we will focus on the major influential Postmodern philosophers and their core ideas.

Jean-Francois Lyotard

Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924 – 1998), pronounced “leo-TAR”, is often mentioned with Postmodernism because he was centrally concerned with the impact it was having on thought and culture.  He is of the same family as the famous trapeze artist known for his one-piece gymnastic garb, for whom the song The Man on the Flying Trapeze was composed and from whom the gymnastic wear gets its name.  Lyotard taught in Algeria, Brazil and California before settling in Paris in 1968, the year of the New Left student protests in Paris, an event that had a major impact on all four of the French Postmodernists we will study today.  Lyotard was a Post-Marxist socialist who was critical of the Soviet Union and Stalin.  Like other Postmodernists, Lyotard argued that there will be no grand revolution that paves the way to utopia, so the best political strategy for progressives is to offer alternatives to the dominant culture and system that do not seek to become dominant.

Wittgenstein Blackboard

Unlike Saussure and Lacan, Lyotard was critical of the idea that thought is structured as a language.  Like Wittgenstein, Lyotard argued that our thinking is very much structured by and often incorporates language, but that our mind can picture reality in various complex ways that do not have an underlying consistent structure like language or grammar.  This is very notable in dreams, which not only show us the power of the mind to create worlds of experience but also the fragmented and discontinuous manner of thought and reason.

lyotard-postmodern condition

Lyotard’s most famous work, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979), is regarded as one of the central works of Postmodernism.  Much like Levi-Strauss, Latour and Barthes, who argue that all cultures engage in symbolic mythology, Lyotard argues that all cultures legitimate themselves through the telling and retelling of narratives, stories that give each culture purpose and meaning.  At a time when computer technology was just beginning to bring vast changes to communication, thought and culture, Lyotard argues that the training of critical minds is being eclipsed by storage of data and governments are being replaced by multinational corporations.  All of this must be legitimated by a narrative, and so the story of the European Enlightenment and the Age of Reason separating the West from the rest becomes central to the creation of meaning, a metanarrative.  The heroic West, it is said, brings freedom to the world through democracy and reason to the world through science.  Lyotard compares this story of salvation to similar metanarratives found in Christianity and Marxism.  Without the faithful retelling and circulation of this metanarrative, Moderns, as Latour would say, would have little idea what their culture means.


Unfortunately, Lyotard argues, the metanarrative was unmasked for many by the horrors of WWII, particularly the highly mechanized genocide at Auschwitz, which spawned the countercultural attacks on the metanarrative of the fifties, sixties and seventies.  While all can agree that Western culture engages in the practices of science and democracy, counterculturals begin wondering aloud if the story of progress is merely a mask for brutality and whether the West is merely like the rest, wallowing in ignorance and authoritarianism.  Consider Jack Kerouac, who wrote of the “beat generation”, the beatnik youth of the fifties who turned from American conformity, tired and disillusioned after WWII and unfaithful to the Korean War and consumerism.  Consider the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties, that called for revolutionary changes to the American practice of democracy which openly excluded and oppressed many Americans who were seen as Other due to ethnicity and gender.

lyotard dissensus

Lyotard argues that Postmodernism is a playful engagement with multiple conflicting micro-narratives that have emerged in the space created by the questioning of the grand metanarrative.  He was predictably attacked by critics who argued that Postmodernism and the end of the metanarrative was itself a new metanarrative.  Lyotard countered that the metanarrative of the progress of the West is not dead, but actively contradicted by some countercultures.  For many, the dominance of First World, the environmental impact of technology and the supremacist nature of the metanarrative is unquestioned, either out of ignorance or with regret that has no faith in an alternative.  Our obsession with precision limits the scope of our vision.  It is this limitation that Postmodern thought and art hope to counteract by disturbing the dominant forms of cultural coherence.  Critics of Lyotard and Postmodernism continue to ask whether this is a cure for the condition or merely another symptom.  Is Postmodernism, like the narrative of modernity, genuine liberation, or is it merely a safety valve to accommodate scholars and gallery goers who are disenchanted but still require entertainment?


Gilles Deleuze (1925 – 1995), pronounced “duh-LUZE”, wrote his first books on Hume and Nietzsche, and then several with Felix Guattari, pronounced “ga-ta-REE”, including Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Anti-Oedipus (1972) and A Thousand Plateaus (1980).  Between these periods of early work and later collaborations, Deleuze wrote his central work, Difference and Repetition (1968) a year before he was recommended for a professorship by Foucault.  In the book, Deleuze argues that identity has always been considered in contrast to difference, much like Hegel’s opposition of self and other.  Recall that Lacan, who attended Kojeve’s lectures on Hegel, said that we cling to a stable self image and develop paranoid narcissistic obsessions.  Deleuze argues that there is no identity apart from or prior to difference, a point he shares very much with his friend Derrida.  The self is only itself in terms of its difference from the other, as it is never entirely self-consistent.  Just as there are no absolute gaps between things, there are no pure identities, each identity itself a gathering of differentiation.  Identity and difference are absolute ideals that are only relatively present.


Deleuze argues that all claims to objectivity requires repetition, which gives the appearance of coherent concepts and practice.  Consider the example of tribal narratives chanted in song, religious rituals and Positivists continuously using the terms ‘reason’ and ‘science’.  The Dada manifesto writer Tristan Tzara wrote, “If I cry out: Ideal, ideal, ideal, Knowledge, knowledge, knowledge, Boomboom, boomboom, boomboom, I have given a pretty faithful version of progress, law, morality, and all other fine qualities that various highly intelligent men have discussed in so many books, only to conclude that after all everyone dances to his own personal boomboom, and that the writer is entitled to his boomboom”.

gilles_deleuze mirrors

Following Nietzsche, also a favorite of Tzara, Deleuze says that all great thinking is a dangerous rupture of repetition and consistent coherent categories, a painful birth of the formerly impossible into the world of possibility.  Philosophy is not the discovery of universal truth that Plato, Descartes and Kant sought, but the creation of new concepts.  This is much like late Wittgenstein, who said that description must take the place of explanation.  Reason is not entirely consistent with itself, universal or objective, and it need not be to create useful ideas.  Philosophy, science and art are different cultures of the creation of concepts and meaning.  Deleuze discusses the speed of light and absolute zero, useful in science but also conceived as practically unattainable ideals.


Deleuze’s works with Guattari attempt to free French thought from its obsessions with Marx and Freud, two of the loves of Levi-Strauss and Structuralism.  Marx and Freud are useful, Deleuze argues, but as lenses and useful conceptions, not as an orthodox underlying system.  As a Post-Marxist, Deleuze argues that capitalism is useful in that it destroyed many old hierarchies, but now everything is dominated by the market, society becoming a vast, desire manufacturing machine.  Alternatives must be offered, but a final revolution is in fact undesirable.


Jean Baudrillard (1929 – 2007), pronounced “bo-dree-YAHR” was a French philosopher, sociologist and photographer.  Barthes and Bourdieu were both on his doctoral thesis committee.  In the seventies, after he became a professor, he made many trips to America and Japan, fascinated with consumerism, mass communication and advertising and the effect these were having on culture and the production and consumption of meaning.  Against Marx, Baudrillard argued that society is not ultimately about production, but consumption.  I often mention with Nietzsche that Baudrillard is much like Nietzsche, if Nietzsche had wandered through malls, Disneyland and Vegas until he had given up hope in individual creativity and given in to nihilism.  Baudrillard is known for being the most pessimistic of the major Postmodernists, and accepts that he is effectively a nihilist.  He acquired a following in the late eighties and nineties.

kruger gloves sex appeal

The Wachowski siblings, who wrote the Matrix, were influenced by Baudrillard, their Matrix an attempt to fuse the Deceiving Demon of Descartes and the simulated hyperreality of Baudrillard.  In one scene Neo, the protagonist, uses a book by Baudrillard to hide items on his desk.  For Baudrillard, cultures seek a full closure for meaning and truth which always escapes their grasp.  The meaning of the thing is never the thing itself, the sign and its significance always beyond its signification.  Following Nietzsche, Baudrillard argues that we are seduced by meaning, and that all acceptance of interpretation is seduction.

tvs snuggling

While seduction is not necessarily the worst of things, in modern commercial society the seduction has become a sickly, unfulfilling hypnosis, the dull lull offered by hours of television and endless consumption of manufactured products.  Baudrillard argues that we no longer live in what can be called simply reality, but rather in a simulation, a virtual reality, what he calls the Hyperreal.  Our manufactured hyperreality is reality, but mass produced, much like the art of Andy Warhol in the sixties, such as his screen prints of Marilyn Monroe and tomato soup cans, which Warhol displayed in galleries on shelves as consumer goods.

Warhol MarilynSet
baudrillard with grafitti

The more we try to manufacture reality to complete it and enclose it, the more hyperreal it becomes, both less than and more than real, and thus unreal.  Baudrillard says that pornography is hyper-sex.  Similarly, fast food can be called hyper-food, television can be called hyper-experience, and advertising can be called hyper-seduction, the mass production of desire as Lyotard argues.  Baudrillard calls these ‘simulacra’ (each a ‘simulacrum’ singularly), simulations or copies.

baudrillard copy

The copy is real, but it is also, in reality, a knock-off.  I cannot help but think of an experience I had in LA that I can still see quite clearly many years later.  I flew down to visit my friend who moved to LA for college, and on his TV I saw news coverage of the Laker Girl tryouts (Baudrillard would be amused to know that ‘Laker Girl’, is apparently in spell check!).  In a gymnasium, thousands of young women, all wearing the same outfit, did a side-stepping dance, forming a horrifying conveyor-belt of the beauty-image feminists discuss, fifty feet deep and with no end to length in sight, moving past the camera as if without end.  That is simulacra.

world trade center twin towers

For Baudrillard, there can be no Marxist revolution, and there is no possibility of change.  Even terrorism ceases to be symbolic of anything meaningful.  Baudrillard notes that the Twin Towers, notoriously felled on September 11th, were a duplication, the tallest buildings in one of the most significant cities in history, standing above all as a replicated pair, a monument to replication.  Baudrillard controversially argued that the First Gulf War never happened, in that the public saw little to nothing of it and the military massive bombing campaign was more of a ruse to convince itself and the public that there was a great enemy to oppose.  Some critics compared this to Berkeley’s idealism, a denial of the physical reality of the event, but Baudrillard responded that, insofar as reality is a social construct, more Hegelian than Berkeleyan, our reality is determined by mass media and the method of its concealing and revealing.  In contrast to the Gulf War, September 11th was for Baudrillard framed as an absolute confrontation between the West and Islam, between the hero and the villain, but this is actually globalization, unable to speak of itself, criticize itself or offer any alternative.

Nietzsche Warhol

While Nietzsche saw all great meaning as individual creation, Baudrillard argues that genuine individuality is increasingly impossible in a self-referential mass-produced culture.  Like Levi-Strauss and Mauss, as well as Bataille, Baudrillard argued that cultures are founded on exchange, and when everything exchanged is mass-produced, things are more symbolic than they are physical objects.  Drinking a Pepsi can be somewhat satisfying, but it is more about the signification that it satisfies than its actual satisfaction for the individual drinking it.  It signals to others that you are satisfied more than it satisfies.  Culture is driven by consumption, and the hyper-consumption of unnecessary products creates a reality and life experience that is more symbolic and mythological than real and significant.

Flag raising at iwo jima

Baudrillard agrees with Lyotard that without the metanarrative of Western progress many would not know what life means, but Baudrillard argues that this has already happened, and history, insofar as it is projected into the future, is over.  This does not mean nothing will happen, but that each event loses individual significance.  Much like Schopenhauer, Baudrillard has no faith in individuality, but advocates passive ecstatic acceptance of the spectacle, in all of its meaningless grandeur.


Donna Haraway (1944 – still alive, suckers), is today a professor at UC Santa Cruz in the History of Consciousness department along with Angela Davis.  She is famous for arguing that we are all cyborgs.  Recall that Heidegger saw technology as an intimate part of human existence and tools as genuine extension of self.  Haraway argues that we should create a modern myth to guide our lives in the age of computers, the myth that we are now cyborgs, half human and half machine.  While much of ancient and modern mythology is concerned with purity and coherence, Haraway suggests we substitute an understanding of hybridity, of the technological otherness of modern humanity.  Haraway, a third wave feminist, is also interested in the hybrid nature of humanity in terms of gender, female and male co-defining each other.

cyborg manifesto

Haraway’s new myth is often considered in light of Postmodern science fiction of the eighties.  Consider the film Blade Runner, in which androids are almost indistinguishable from humans, which inspired William Gibson’s famous classic Neuromancer, the book which coined the term ‘cyberspace’, the first of the cyberpunk genre.  Blade Runner and Neuromancer are central examples of Postmodern fiction.  It was at this time that Haraway argued that we are all cyborgs, infused with technology such that our lives and ideology are intertwined with it.


Jacques Derrida (1930 – 2004) is, much like Foucault, famous for his Poststructuralist take on the work of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Saussure, Levi-Strauss and many others we have studied, his philosophy known as Deconstruction.  Like Foucault, Derrida takes systems apart to show the complex workings of pieces that are not set in stone but maintained through binary divisions that are always somewhat arbitrary, but like Barthes, Derrida was more concerned with texts than with institutions.  Derrida grew up Jewish in French Algeria, an adolescence that helped him recognize marginalized perspectives, and he was expelled from high school on his first day for being Jewish while France was occupied by the Nazis.  Derrida decided not to attend the segregated Jewish high school and enjoyed reading Nietzsche, Rousseau, Camus and Sartre instead.  He completed his thesis on Husserl and came to America to study at Harvard.  He taught in France until 1986, when he came to California to teach at UC Irvine until his death.

johns hopkins university
cops guard the capital

In 1966, Derrida gained a following after giving a lecture at a conference on Structuralism at Johns Hopkins, where Peirce taught Dewey, with Lacan and many other prominent scholars in attendance.  In his lecture, called Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences, Derrida argued that systems must center and organize themselves to be coherent and limit “free-play”, but there is also freedom for substitution and exchange within the system itself.  The center of the structure is within yet also outside the structure, governing what is permissible within the structure but ungoverned by the structure itself.  The center is, paradoxically, the coherence of the structure, but the center is free to be incoherent.  We desire coherence and demand this of structures, but just like Wittgenstein’s child at the blackboard, we cannot center the center, cannot make the coherence itself coherent, as this results in an infinite regress.


We are desirous and anxious, as Heidegger argued, and so we play social games within systems seeking stability and coherence, placing ourselves at stake within the game and making the game a presence for ourselves.    Derrida argues that games and structures are constantly being re-centered, like a football game, re-centered sequentially at a series of locations.  The center is constantly being re-centered, the focus of activity always shifting to something else that was not the focus.  Just as a word or concept is substituted for the thing it signifies and metaphors substitute one thing for another, a new center and focus is always being substituted for the old.  Derrida claims that the history of metaphysics, science, structuralist anthropology and the West is a progression of substituting one metaphor for another, much like Kuhn’s paradigm shift.  For example, “the West” is identified and re-identified with reason, freedom and science to center its identity.

derrida with pipe

To ask about the center of the center, the structure of the structure, is to throw things into question and face anxiety, as the center is not permanently centered, the structure not permanently structured.  The structure is also paradoxically a rupture, a free-play of substitution that cannot limit its activity of limitation.  We cannot make the system a permanence, can never bring it fully into presence, as there is always absence, always the infinite regress of the horizon without end.  There is no focus that brings an end to our refocusing as we move along with the game in which our faith is at stake.  The meaning of a system of meaning is never absolute, as there is no sameness without difference and no presence without absence.  No structure, not even Structuralism, can fully be structured, as structures are systems of substitution and play.


Derrida names Nietzsche as the one who called metaphysics and morality into question, causing a great rupture and shift for those who seek the structure of structures, the thinking underneath thought.  Derrida also calls attention to the work of Freud, in which the self is not the self, and Heidegger, for whom being-there is both being-here and being-elsewhere, the presence that is life determined by the absence that is death.  These critical thinkers must circle themselves, using thought to criticize thought, using concepts to criticize conceptions, fashioning new systems to criticize system-building.  Similarly, Saussure and Semiology had to use the word and concept ‘sign’ to signify signs and signification.  Levi-Strauss’ Structuralism was thus an impossible task to complete, even though its work was significant and worth the effort.  As soon as we question human systems, we are engaging in systematization that can itself be questioned, but only when not engaging in it.  Each great thinker questions the last, as Heidegger did of Nietzsche and Derrida does of Heidegger.

Levi-Strauss with books

Derrida argues that the current questioning of metaphysics and meaning is bound up with the critique of ethnocentrism, of Europe establishing itself as the West and the questioning of this identity.  Levi-Strauss’ anthropology, which called all ethnic differences into question by seeking the underlying similarity, is a branch of philosophy and science, which call all differences into question by seeking the underlying universal patterns.

French Philosopher Jacques Derrida Holding His Cat

As philosophy questions metaphysics and science questions biological ethnicity, they simultaneously and paradoxically establish and pronounce the identity of philosophy, science and the West, to separate the philosophical from the unphilosophical, the scientific from the unscientific, and the West from the rest.  Derrida argues that we cannot escape this paradox, just as neither Nietzsche nor Heidegger could fully escape metaphysics or closed conceptions of truth, but we can be careful and critical, responsible for the strategies we employ in the game.  Clearly, Derrida is calling ethnocentrism into question as a strategy.  Philosophy, science and the ethnocentric West are all centers of systematic coherent activity, but at the center they are free to be paradoxical and incoherent, establishing distinctions and identities while seeking the similar and universal.


Levi-Strauss had sought to find the underlying universal rules of culture, his central example being the prohibition of incest, sexual relationships within the family.  Derrida argues that as soon as this is provided as a universal rule, it calls itself into question.  If incest is universally wrong, then how can it be a scandal?  The rule can be and is violated, possibly in all human cultures, and so it cannot be said to be a universal human rule.  If it could not be violated, it would not be a rule at all, would have no meaning or direction for human activity.  The violation of a rule is a condition of its possibility, and thus there can be no universal rules, neither in metaphysics nor cultural practice.  Levi-Strauss could not separate unchanging universal nature from various particular cultures, just as Wittgenstein could not separate logic from various contingent games.  Derrida notes that, in the later work of Levi-Strauss, he questioned his own Structuralism as mythology, a mythology of all mythologies.  This doubling back and reversal does not result in nothing, but like any questioning produces answers and further questioning of its answers.  Thinking continues to shift, and requires no permanent center.

Deconstruction a reader

The works of Derrida that followed this lecture, as well as the work of many Deconstructionists following Derrida, put free-play of meaning on display, showing that it can always double back and displace itself, showing that dominant meanings can be questioned and marginalized.  While this has angered many scientists such as Alan Sokal and Analytic philosophers such as John Searle, who see Deconstruction as a worthless and unproductive activity, Derrida argued that like Nietzsche we should be free to turn from stabilizing to destabilizing truth and culture as we see fit to give birth to new truths and cultures.  Rorty argued that Derrida’s work is genuine philosophy against other American philosophers.

Limited INC Derrida

The best of this debate is captured in Derrida’s book Limited INC, a collection of several texts that document the heated exchange between Derrida and Searle.  In 1972, Derrida deconstructed and criticized the work of Austin’s Speech Act theory, showing inherent tensions and contradictions within the Analytic Positivist conception of literal and objective meaning.  Derrida asks whether ‘communication’ as a word can have a set meaning as the vehicle for all meaning, and whether there is literal and objective meaning in communication, devoid of all metaphor.  Meaning depends on context, and context is never entirely determined.  Part of the context of any communication is the absence of the receiver, who is always at some distance from the communicator or communication would not be required.  One would only write a text if its readers were not present and did not already share its understanding.  This absence and distance allows for variation and iterability, which Derrida suggests comes from the Sanskrit root ‘itara’, or other, like the Other of Hegel.  This allows for the “death of the author” of Barthes, as the receiver can use the communication in various ways in the absence of the communicator.


Derrida argues that every act of communication is an act of force that changes, disturbs and breaks the context in which it is framed or it is meaningless and without purpose.  While I am rebinding these words for you now, making them mean what they meant before, I am also telling you something new, and thus changing the context of language and its use, or this would not be meaningful.  Thus, while communication can be meaningful, it cannot be objective, cannot be given a stable context which fully situates its meaning.  Consider that if we repeat something again to someone, this has a different meaning as a reiteration, as a retelling that had to be retold, which changes the context just as the context was changed by the initial telling.


Derrida argues that Austin is right to say that every speech act is a performance, much like the gender identity of Judith Butler who was influenced by both Austin and Derrida.  Derrida argues that Nietzsche and Austin are right that communication is an act of force, but unlike Nietzsche, Austin believes that the meaning of a speech act can be literal and others can objectively understand its entire intentional meaning, as if we can call all of consciousness before ourselves and know all of the intention and meaning in an act of communication.


What would it be to entirely understand what a speaker intends in an utterance?  Can the speaker herself entirely understand what they intend?  Freud and Nietzsche would say no.  Neither the intention of the speaker nor the context of the act can be exhaustively understood, nor need it be for the utterance to be meaningful as genuine communication.  Derrida criticizes Austin for insisting that when we use language “normally” and “seriously” we use it literally, and any abnormal use of language is “parasitic” on its normal use.  For Austin, puns and abstract poetry are abnormal uses of language that intend to use language as it is not normally intended.  Derrida argues that language and meaning are always abnormal, as is their context, writing,  “the intention animating the utterance will never be through and through present to itself and to its content.

william blake great architect demiurge gnostic

Derrida often compares the absence and presence of objectivity and absolute meaning to the absence and presence of God in Christian theology, accusing Analytic philosophers such as Austin and Searle of blind (and Sartre would say, bad) faith.  Just as Christian theologians argued that God teleologically created the world and established its true meaning with full knowledge, Austin argues that a speaker creates speech and thus fully knows its meaning as its author.  Derrida argues that Austin, like a theologian, has faith that the identity of the source is capable of omniscience.  Derrida, as could be expected, admires the skeptical visions of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic mysticism rather than the dogmatic teleology of orthodox theologians.


Searle, Austin’s student and a proponent of Speech Act theory, fired back at Derrida in 1977 with his essay Reiterating the Differences, criticizing Derrida’s criticism as superficial and irrational.  Searle argues that understanding an utterance is recognizing the intention of the author when the author says what the author means in standard and serious cases.  Searle writes, “the speaker and hearers are masters of the sets of rules we call the rules of language, and these rules…allow for for the repeated application of the same rule”.  Searle assumes that there are set rules, they can be fully mastered, and can be identically repeated such that they are fully recognized and understood.  You may sense Derrida’s response as an absent presence.

derrida points with glee

Derrida replied to Searle with his essay Limited Inc a b c…, and he asked Searle if he could publish their three pieces together as a discussion.  Searle refused, and Derrida included a summary of Reiterating the Differences between his own two pieces and published these as Limited INC in 1988.  Derrida begins by saying that he cannot be sure if Searle will read his reply, or whether he will but will not take it seriously.  Derrida also notes that it is impossible to fully recreate his debate with Searle as all of its pieces cannot be gathered into any text, and Searle is unwilling to have his piece published because he is well aware that he cannot fix its meaning and significance.  Because Derrida is the one who is gathering the text, Searle fears its placement in a text and context that is not of Searle’s own choosing.

Hubert Dreyfus

Derrida notes his friendship and correspondence with Hubert Dreyfus, a major interpreter of Heidegger and Searle’s fellow professor at Berkeley, and that Derrida himself cannot know how much of Dreyfus or his communication with Searle is contained in Searle’s piece.  I myself, while an undergraduate at Berkeley, witnessed a joint talk by Dreyfus and Searle about the connection between Searle’s concept of the background and Heidegger’s flow, and was appalled when Searle began by saying that he had never read Heidegger and was simply going to explain his own work.  Dreyfus is renowned as America’s greatest expert on Heidegger, and Searle could have talked with him about Heidegger at any number of times before giving the talk, which he did not feel it important to do.


Derrida accuses Searle of misunderstanding and possibly never reading the work of Husserl on intentionality, nor understanding Derrida’s own criticism of Austin.  While Searle’s understanding is impressively limited, even Searle cannot fully limit the meaning of his own utterances, as anyone can use Searle’s own previous speech against him.  Derrida argues that Searle cannot give a coherent account of the separation of “serious” and “not serious” cases, and then proceeds through the rest of his essay to repeat again and again, “But let’s be serious”, showing that the more it is said the less it is serious. Apparently, Searle does not consider the work of Heidegger, Derrida, or even his colleague Dreyfus to be serious.

sock puppet Sarl

Derrida says that he is going to argue with “Sarl“, his own understanding of Searle’s intention and position.  Sarl, a new mythical being, argues that Derrida misunderstands Austin, misreading and misstating Austin’s work.  Derrida says that this is evidence that even Austin can be misunderstood and variously understood, something that Sarl denies of serious communication while holding Austin’s work to be the serious truth.  Derrida is merely attempting to show Sarl the unlimited and various uses one can make with “serious” communication.  It is always possible to use language and understand meaning differently.  Apparently, Sarl is in fact arguing with Derridarl, another mythical creature.  While some have accused Derrida, like Nietzsche, of being a nihilist, Derrida argues, like Foucault, that the binary dichotomies of true/false, intentional/unintentional, serious/playful and others can and should be overturned often, not to banish all meaning but to encourage its growth and renewal.