The Virtues of Breaking One's Word: Derrida, Metaphor, and The Philosophy of Language
In “White Mythology,” Jacques Derrida claims that the structure of metaphor reveals the impossibility of constructing complete theories of meaning. He targets two metaphors—the metaphor of metaphor, and the metaphor of theory—as sources of this problem. These metaphors organize “the classical model of communication.” As long thinkers rely on this model, the meaning of metaphor will always present an insoluble problem for philosophy. Using these claims as a hypothesis, I investigate the work of several of Derrida’s contemporaries: Max Black, Donald Davidson, Paul Ricoeur, and John Searle. I conclude that Derrida’s assessment is correct. I explore evidence for this by identifying the effects that Derrida’s chosen metaphors have in these thinkers’ work. I then address the central role that dead metaphor plays in these theories, arguing that this metaphor masks the uncertainty of the foundational literal/metaphorical distinction. That this most fundamental distinction is uncertain, renders lexical and semantic theories of meaning are untenable. I then present speech-act theory as a solution to these problems. In this, I explain and clarify the debate between John Searle and Jacques Derrida concerning the nature of J.L. Austin’s work. Both thinkers misjudge the importance of the concept of perlocution for Austin. They therefore mischaracterize the role that locutionary force plays in his work. This is noteworthy, I argue, because the connection between perlocution and force is central to understanding metaphor. Likewise, understanding perlocution and force requires understanding the role that embodiment plays in discourse. Finally, I forward a theory of metaphor that is attentive to perlocution, embodiment, and the social origins of force. This theory enables me to address some persistent background concerns of the overall project: 1) the motivation for a complete theory of meaning, 2) the rhetoric of regulation and mastery that pervades such theories, and 3) the odd centrality of the metaphor of death. Using my theory of metaphor, I interpret these background concerns, showing that the metaphorical structure of the classical model of communication shares and reiterates the metaphorical structure of masters and slaves.