A lesson in bad taste
Boghossian takes bad arguments by Putnam, Goodman, and Rorty and refutes them. But what about the truly dreadful arguments in such authors as Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and other postmodernists that have been more influential during the last half-century? What about, for example, Derrida’s attempts to “prove” that meanings are inherently unstable and indeterminate, and that it is impossible to have any clear, determinate representations of reality? (He argues, for example, that there is no tenable distinction between writing and speech.) The atmosphere of Boghossian’s refutation is that of a Princeton seminar. And in fact Boghossian was a student of Rorty at Princeton. But he does not go into the swamp and wrestle with Derrida & Co.
I find this an example of very bad taste. Now, Searle’s hatred towards deconstruction and Derrida himself is quite well known (see an infamous debate) and his tone and general accusations have not changed much with time, as you can see comparing the previous quote with an 1984 article in the very same journal:
I believe that anyone who reads deconstructive texts with an open mind is likely to be struck by the same phenomena that initially surprised me: the low level of philosophical argumentation, the deliberate obscurantism of the prose, the wildly exaggerated claims, and the constant striving to give the appearance of profundity by making claims that seem paradoxical, but under analysis often turn out to be silly or trivial
Stated clearly, I think Searle was himself unfair and somewhat arrogantly superficial. (More generally in fact, I hardly ever agree with Searle, as for example when it comes to his debates around AI against Bert Dreyfus–for an essential bibliography regarding that see here).
But, of course, it is ok to disagree with someone. So what is the difference? Why do I find it shameful now? Simple, because Derrida is dead. How bitter and resentful a man must you be to keep on spitting venom on your deceased adversary (an adversary in the context of a philosophical debate), with subtle poking like ‘Derrida & Co.’ (mocking the title of Derrida’s own book ‘against’ Searle, Limited Inc.) and less subtle accusations of being someone who proposed nothing but ‘dreadful arguments’?
This actually made me think of some deliciously scathing remarks about Derrida’s enemies by Badiou, to be found in the ‘Notes, Commentaries and Digressions’ of Logic of Worlds, in a small, gentle note in homage to Derrida:
Since the writing of the aforementioned note [a note on his 'inexistent' and Derrida's différance] Jacques Derrida has died.
For two or three years, I had been in the process of patching up with him, after a very long period of semi-hostile distance and sundry incidents, the most pointed of which involved the colloquium Lacan avec les philosophes, in 1990. The documents relating to this quarrel can be found at the end of the proceedings published in 1991 by Albin Michel.
At the beginning of this new phase in our relations, Derrida told me ‘In any case, we have the same enemies’. And we all saw those enemies, especially in the United States, scurrying out of their rat-holes on the occasion of his death. Death, decidedly, always comes too soon. This is one of the forms taken by its terrifying logical power: the power to precipitate conclusions. I count on paying homage again, and often, to Jacques Derrida, rereading his oeuvre, otherwise, under this emblem: the passion of Inexistance.
(Logic of Worlds: 546)