Derrida on Intentionality
November 16, 2004

Over at Maverick Philosophy Bill Vallicella has an other edition of his attacks on Continental Philosophy. Actually he had one on Tillich I didn't comment on because, well frankly I don't like Tillich. Anyway this one, composed as a response to an email, is largely against Derrida. There are a few other asides on figures like Levinas, but Vallicella surprisingly defends both Levinas and Heidegger. (I should say, as an aside, that I find the greatest difficulty with Levinas to be his fairly rabbinical style of language and metaphor) Anyway I bring this up not to comment on Vallicella's polemics of certain figures, but to use them as an opportunity to link to a very good thesis I found on the whole Searle and Derrida debate. I've mentioned that debate, largely found within the pages of Limited Inc. concerns speech act, and indirectly the whole issue of intentionality. The thesis, Deconstruction and Speech Act Theory really is one of the better overviews I've found. (Although I should hasten to add that I've not read the whole thing yet - but have enjoyed what I've read thus far)

One critique of Derrida that constantly gets on my nerves is the claim that he rejects intentionality entirely. Vallicella's comments on intentionality (actually relative to Dennett) were what brought this all to my mind. Clearly Derrida doesn't reject intentionality. However he does reject the kind of intentionality we find in Husserl, and perhaps similar approaches in the analytic tradition. I've long though that his critique of Husserl in Writing and Difference is a must read prerequisite to some of his latter works - especially his Levinasean turn.

I should add though, that critiquing of Husserl's notion of intentionality can be found among most Continental figures. Indeed in one sense that is what characterizes many, if not most Continental figures. Heidegger famously broke with Husserl by pointing out that our original understanding isn't purely theoretical but is grounded by our being in the world. That is the beginnings of his present-at-hand vs. ready-at-hand distinction. Intentionality then becomes transformed (or at least reworked) into transcendence. Levinas too works from Husserl's intentionality, and like Heidegger transforms it. Some would say that despite what Levinas thought, that he transformed it in very similar ways. Levinas sees Husserl's notion of intentionality tied to representations whereas Levinas tries to go behind this "face" to the other as other. In my opinion it ends up being a kind of Heideggerian transcendence, although there are some differences we can point towards.

Derrida, as I understand him, also follows this kind of critique of Husserlian intentionality. Indeed his later thought is most markedly Levinasian in formulation. (Although one should also recognize his critiques of Levinas in "Violence and Metaphysics" and the fact that Levinas took these critiques to heart.) One of the many ways in which Derrida approaches the issue of intentionality, is to say that the intentionality is not separate from the total context of any text or utterance. Rather it is part of the total context. Put an other way, there is nothing outside the text (or, as he later clarified in the interview at the end of Limited Inc., there is nothing outside of context). The afore mentioned thesis gets at this view of Derrida's quite well.


Posted By: Chris | November 16, 2004 11:42 PM

You didn't mention Merleau-Ponty! He too transformed Husserl's intentionality, and did so in a way that's similar to Heidegger's, and leads to his own concept of transcendence. It's not really a problem, but as a Merleau-Ponty fan (almost at the level of your love for Pierce), I wanted to throw in his name.

Posted By: Clark | November 17, 2004 12:57 AM

I actually had a few sentences on Merleau-Ponty, but then deleted them as I wasn't 100% sure if I had his view of intentionality right. What I'd originally written was that Merleau-Ponty moved in the same direction as Derrida in Limited Inc regarding total context. But my distant memory thought that Merleau-Ponty may have been a little more critical of Husserlian intentionality than that.

So I'd be interested in your brief summary of Merleau-Ponty, since I confess that he's a Continental figure I ought to know far better than I do.

Kierkegaard, Merleau-Ponty, and Hegel. (Well I'd probably throw Schelling in as well) Then in the Analytic tradition I really ought to read more on Wittgenstein and Kripke. In ancient philosophy, I need to read more Aristotle. Actually outside of Aristotle I've probably read more ancient philosophy than most. I think far too many give a short shift to the Stoics and the late pagan neoPlatonists. In early modern it is definitely Spinoza, although I'm told that the differences between Spinoza and Leibniz isn't that big. I've read tons of Leibniz and a little Spinoza. Oh, and Kant. But I really don't like reading Kant anymore than I like reading Hegel. There's something about German philosophers that I really don't like. I'm always amazed that I enjoy Heidegger as well as I do.

Does Leibniz have to count as German?

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