Interrogation, Dialectic, and Storytelling

The Boyhood of Raleigh by John Everett Millais

As far as I can tell, “deconstruction” is a word that simply means “academic trolling,” at least when it is performed by the man who coined it—Jacques Derrida.

This can clearly be seen in his deconstruction of speech act theorist J. L. Austin, which Jonathan Culler provides an account of in On Deconstruction.

Austin was arguing, against his predecessors, that language is not simply about making descriptive statements. He pointed out that fitting language into that straightjacket meant treating as exceptional what in fact was characteristic of huge amounts of discourse. As an alternative, he proposed the idea of language as including both constative statements, those which are true or false, and performative statements, those which have some consequence within the social reality in which they are stated. The canonical case of the latter would be the making of a promise.

Derrida’s issue is not with this division per se but with Austin’s characterization of “unserious” versions of performative statements as being parasitic on the serious. Thus, our understanding of an actor making a promise as a character in a play is parasitic on our understanding of real promises in real life.

Cullen characterizes the background of Derrida’s criticism:

To set aside as parasitic certain uses of language in order to base one’s theory on other, “ordinary” uses of language is to beg precisely those questions about the essential nature of language that a theory of language ought to answer. Austin objected to such an exclusion by his predecessors: in assuming that the ordinary use of language was to make true or false statements, they excluded precisely those cases that enable him to conclude that statements are a particular class of performative. When Austin then performs a similar exclusion, his own example prompts us to ask whether it is not equally illicit, especially since both he and Searle, by putting “serious” in quotation marks, suggest the dubiousness of the hierarchical opposition, serious/ nonserious. The fact that Austin’s own writing is often highly playful and seductive, or that he does not hesitate to undermine distinctions that he proposes, only emphasizes the inappropriateness of excluding nonserious discourse from consideration.

But Derrida goes much further than this.

“Could a performative utterance succeed,” Derrida asks or pretends to ask, “if its formulation did not repeat a ‘coded’ or iterable utterance, or in other words, if the formula I pronounce in order to open a meeting, to launch a ship or a marriage were not identifiable as conforming with an iterable model, if it were not thus identifiable in some way as ‘citation’?” (Marges, p. 389/ SEC, pp. 191– 92). For the “standard case” of promising to occur, it must be recognizable as the repetition of a conventional procedure, and the actor’s performance on the stage is an excellent model of such repetition. The possibility of “serious” performatives depends upon the possibility of performances, because performatives depend upon the iterability that is most explicitly manifested in performances.  Just as Austin reversed his predecessors’ hierarchical opposition by showing that constatives were a special case of performatives, so we can reverse Austin’s opposition between the serious and the parasitic by showing that his so-called “serious” performatives are only a special case of performances.

This is a principle of considerable breadth. Something can be a signifying sequence only if it is iterable, only if it can be repeated in various serious and nonserious contexts, cited, and parodied. Imitation is not an accident that befalls an original but its condition of possibility.

Truly, this is trolling at its finest. And it may even be correct.

Serious People and Serious Problems

John Searle, in his reply to Derrida, seems to have misunderstood the latter’s argument. For this he can probably be forgiven, as Derrida was famously both a bad writer and often intentionally opaque. But the tone of Searle’s reply is that of a serious person confronting an unserious person.

This issue of seriousness, which Derrida focuses on in his deconstruction of Austin, has much deeper roots than its place in Austin’s specific theory.

Philosophy and its intellectual children, the social sciences, are full of Serious People who believe they are tackling Serious Problems.

The exception that proves the rule is Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit. Everyone I know who has read or heard of this book was delighted by the idea of someone doing philosophy on a silly subject. It becomes, in a way, even more enjoyable when you open the book and discover that he is playing it straight, so to speak. It really is a philosophical investigation of bullshit.

But that’s just it, of course. The fundamental stance of philosophy as it has been practiced for centuries is one of interrogation. Frankfurt’s treatise charms us because he engages in a serious interrogation of something that seems fundamentally unserious. But you don’t have to make it far into the work before it becomes clear that he does not consider it something unserious. In fact, the pervasiveness of bullshit is, to him, a very serious problem.

The stance of interrogation is not a bad one. It has yielded many useful insights. Some of my very favorite works are interrogations—Daniel Russell’s Practical Intelligence and the Virtues and Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Dignity come to mind here. But the best thinkers, in my view, are able to adopt other stances as well, and avoid some of the traps of the stance of interrogation.

Derrida’s point, at least as Cullen characterizes it, is that both Austin and Searle have fallen into one such trap—the trap of seriousness. Austin feels that unserious statements, such as a promise made by a character in a play, cannot be treated as primary in a serious theory of language. His discomfort is evidenced, as Cullen points out, in the fact that he always puts “serious” in quotations—as if the very idea of a serious and unserious opposition is, itself, not appropriate to a serious theory.

I was reminded of this when, on Sweet Talker Sam Hammond’s recommendation, I read Joseph Heath’s “Rebooting Discourse Ethics” recently. Especially this part of his summary of Habermas’ work:

From this perspective, there are three fundamental things that one can “do” with words – three ways of deploying communication in order to alter the outcome of an interaction. One can either state facts about the world, announce an intention to act in a particular way, or else instruct someone else to act in a particular way. Thus there are three primitive classes of speech act, corresponding to these fundamental pragmatic categories: assertions, imperatives, and avowals.

It seems to me that there’s a rather obvious option missing here: storytelling. Storytelling is usually not literal description or “facts about the world,” nor an announcement of intention, nor instruction for someone else to do something. All of these “classes of speech” may be implied by a story, depending on the context of the telling. But stories are more than that—they are a form of play and entertainment that inspire delight, but they are also the primary means of conveying capital-W Wisdom.

Why would Habermas and Heath overlook storytelling, which is by far the most primitive class of speech that exists? I suspect it is because stories do not seem very serious. It’s easy to see how assertions, imperatives, and avowals are means of “deploying communication in order to alter the outcome of an interaction.” Storytelling is much more squishy a thing; “The Zebra Storyteller” famously casts it in a specifically functional role, but the very absurdity of the scenario subverts (I should think intentionally) the plausibility of this straight reading. Stories may indeed prepare us for specific scenarios, but it seems unlikely that that is the only reason they exist, given the delight we take in particularly fantastical and imaginative stories.

Storytelling, in short, doesn’t seem very serious. Communication is much easier to wrestle with if we boil it down to mere mutual coordination through descriptive statements, announced intentions, and instruction. But storytelling seems to go well beyond all that—both the telling and the listening are something we enjoy, it’s fun! And fun is the very antithesis of serious.

Two Rival Claims to Dialectic

The place of dialectic between the interrogator and the storyteller can help illuminate what I am trying to get at here.

From one point of view, dialectic belongs firmly in the interrogator’s camp. Who was more of an interrogator than Socrates? No one could say anything around that guy without being grilled on the deeper meaning of what they were saying, and whether they were correct. From this perspective, philosophy took on the stance of interrogation back in the day of Socrates and Plato, and the modern stance is merely a continuation of that.

And indeed, Socrates and Plato had an open hostility to the storytellers of their day—the poets and dramatists, who were perceived by most at the time as being rivals to the philosophers as sources of wisdom.

But something’s not quite right here. Plato’s work owes its persistence in no small part due to the mastery of his storytelling. He sets a scene in specific places and moments in history, in which characters based on specific individuals encounter one another and enter into conversation. Their conversations are often immensely sophisticated—there’s a reason philosophy is said to be a footnote to Plato—but at the same time, they are invariably open-ended. Rarely is an answer conclusively found. Rarely does the conversation end in a place that the people involved could have predicted from where it began. If this is an interrogation, it’s a fairly scattered, disorganized one.

In fact, philosophers such as Leo Strauss and Hans-Georg Gadamer, who have attempted to overcome the dominance of the stance of interrogation within philosophy, have largely turned back to Plato and to dialectic.

For Gadamer, the key characteristic of dialectic is its openness. The questions that Socrates asks are not an interrogation, but like the questions of his interlocutors, emerge as part of the open-ended process that is the conversation they are participating in. The participants themselves must have an openness to these questions, however they may challenge their cherished opinions.

To conduct a conversation means to allow oneself to be conducted by the subject matter to which the partners in the dialogue are oriented.

He adds:

To reach an understanding in a dialogue is not merely a matter of putting oneself forward and successfully asserting one’s own point of view, but being transformed into a communion in which we do not remain what we were.

Dialectic is not a means of squeezing information out of someone or on some subject. It is a process bigger than the questioner and interlocutor, one that, beyond acquiring new knowledge, leaves each of them changed.

This is the sort of mystical-sounding talk that fuels the contempt on the analytic side of the analytic-continental divide. Mysticism is definitely Not Serious. And if they aren’t mystic, then Gadamer, Strauss, and their teacher Martin Heidegger, are at least dressing up their arguments in obscurantist language that makes them sound profound when they are not. Still Not Serious.

But Gadamer’s point is not mystical, any more than the commonly accepted idea of a speech act is mystical. Followers of Austin and Searle find nothing mystical in the notion that a few words uttered by the right person in the right situation change people’s social status from not married to married, and that this change is, in some sense, transformative. Even opponents of their theories find such arguments perfectly licit. Gadamer’s point is simply that a conversation is an event which is transformative in this sense, and dialectic is a particular sort of conversation.

This commonality between them aside, Austin and Searle are fundamentally interrogative philosophers, and Gadamer is not. Part of what makes Gadamer so hard to read (at least to my more interrogatively trained mind) is that Truth and Method reads like a conversation with a series of Gadamer’s predecessors, rather than a straightforward philosophical argument.

And Gadamer begins the book with an examination of truth in art. Gadamer is critical of the idea that art is nothing but pure aesthetic experience. He thinks that the understanding we’re able to come to through art is akin to the understanding we come to through dialectic.

A very different vision from the notion of Socrates as interrogator.


A theory is a story. An argument is a story. The interrogative stance, in short, depends upon a very particular subset of stories.

Dialectic is a conversational form in which we start with certain stories and pose certain questions with them. Often we end up with a different story than we began with—or with a set of unanswered questions about the stories we started with.

Conversation more broadly is often little more than sharing stories about ourselves, and others, and that we’ve heard, and then talking about them.

A theory of language that does not address storytelling is woefully incomplete.

How serious can such a theory be?

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3 thoughts on “Interrogation, Dialectic, and Storytelling

  1. But stories are made up of assertions, imperatives, avowals, and the other main parts of speech, like promises. Story telling may be a central part of being human, but that doesn’t mean it makes sense to call it a primitive of a language system. Primitive means the building blocks, which when put together can be used to tell stories, its own kind of communication. That’s probably why a lot of story telling is used for conveying imperatives, i.e. moral duties.

    Ultimately speech act theory is Kantian, in that it sources the basic meaningful parts of language in whole sentences, what Kant called judgments, rather than something like semotics, which suggests meaning requires a valid referent for every single world. That’s another way Kant inaugurated modern pragmatism, since judging is a kind of doing. This is a subject for debate, but to jump to stories as the unit of meaning is a step too far. Stories are composites of judgments.

    Lastly, seriousness and playfulness aren’t missing from the theory. They’re among the things such a theory actually helps to explain. There’s a non-trivial literature that uses speech act theory to explain humor, in particular as it relates to subverting sincerity claims. In a brief search I even found several that make explicit use of Habermas’ formulation. Here’s on example: I’m also reminded of Sakapultek speakers, who use indirect speech act, specifically irony, to express moral imperatives.

    1. I knew you wouldn’t let me get away with this post, which was no small part of what motivated me to write it 😀

      Thanks for the pointers on humor and indirect speech. Derrida’s complaint in the case of Austin was less that unserious speech was left unexplained than that it was relegated a secondary status, “parasitic” on serious speech. As your last example hints, often it is unserious speech which is the primary way of communicating even serious things.

      As for stories—you criticism is clarifying. Obviously it’s useful to think of parts. But I find it hard to believe that there are only those three parts (though I understand the pragmatic necessity of simplifying frameworks).

      Moreover, I think there’s an important relationship with the whole they add up to. Whether it’s an argument, or simply a model/theory one isn’t necessarily defending, or an anecdote or fable, are very different things. But I’ll grant that neither Heath not Habermas necessarily exclude the latter possibility; it just does not seem to be what they have in mind.

      1. Right, Habermas is trying to build a pragmatic theory of truth and justice, pragmatic both in the sense of being “non-metaphysical” and based on meaning as use. The three types of speech acts discussed in Rebooting Discourse Ethics is not exhaustive. But those are the core three in terms of corresponding validity claims, which then feed into his action theory. Searle I think has 5 main speech acts he talks about. But the number isn’t important. The main contention is meaning as use, which is what motivates the interpretation of language as a kind of doing, and concepts like “truth” not as an abstract floating ideal but as an expression that explicates something implicit in social practices.

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