Davidson and Derrida


Richard Marshall interviews Sam Wheeler III in 3:AM Magazine:

3:AM: So firstly, what are the similarities between Davidson and Derrida you find interesting? And how is Wittgenstein part of this ‘deconstruction’ mix you develop? You say it’s taken you longer to work out how Davidson and Derrida differ? Have you got it sorted now? What are the differences?

SW: The correspondences are between notions like indeterminacy of interpretation and Derrida’s “free play” and their shared denial that there is a given. Absent a language (the logoi, the language of thought, Fregean senses) whose words, by their very nature, refer to their referents, interpreting one system of signs in terms of another allows choices. That is, without a common thing that expressions from two systems express, there is nothing to go on but what people say when. So, there is slack.

Without a given domain of objects, another kind of fixity of meaning, “referring to the same object” is unavailable. Derrida in relation to Heidegger is somewhat akin to Davidson in relation to Quine, in dropping the remaining bit of realistic metaphysics.

Derrida and Davidson go in different directions. Davidson’s applications of his semantics and ontological views is largely on topics central to analytic philosophy, with some exceptions. Derrida, of course, primarily writes about topics in continental philosophy. He is interested in interpretations that go beyond the logical/truth-conditional. He takes the denial of logoi to mean that rhetorical features of a discourse can be just as important as what we would regard as “logical.” So, many of Derrida’s interpretations of, say Plato, rest on what we could regard as accidental features, for instance that “pharmakon” is both drug and poison.

The one figure I know they both thought about is J.L. Austin. Davidson spent several classes on Austin’s How to Do Things with Words in his 1967 class on philosophy of language. Derrida wrote Signature, Event, Context on the same text. They raise some of the same issues. Both Davidson and Derrida are suspicious of theories which ignore “marginal” cases. Davidson was particularly interested in arguing that what you can do with a sentence is not a good starting-point for semantics. Derrida and Davidson both point out that there is no way to fix a particular speech act to a sentence. Davidson’s notes that no sign can label something an assertion. Derrida makes a similar point about signatures.

Derrida may have read Davidson, since he did read my essay relating his views to indeterminacy of interpretation. I’m pretty sure Davidson never read Derrida. But Derrida would have very much admired Davidson’s essay on James Joyce, I think. Davidson would, if patient, have admired Derrida’s “White Mythology.”

More here.