His account of Derrida’s rather bad-tempered exchange in the late 1970s with the American John Searle nicely captures the former’s complicated relationship with philosophers from the anglophone world. Their dispute turned on the correct interpretation of JL Austin’s theory of “performative” utterances (statements in which we do something — make a promise, for instance — rather than describe a state of affairs). One is struck first by the extent of Derrida’s agreement with Austin, the doyen of Oxford philosophy in the 1950s. He regarded the latter’s insight into the nature of performatives as “powerful and correct”, Salmon observes. Equally striking, though, is the dismissive tone Searle took with his opponent. And this encounter, Salmon suggests, set a template for Derrida’s subsequent encounters with English-speaking philosophers, who tended to regard him with intense suspicion.
An Event, Perhaps is certainly timely. It appears in an era when, not for the first time, varieties of critical thought are being accused of a contradictory array of culture-war crimes and political upheavals. As Salmon reminds us, Derrida was among those the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik blamed, in 2011, for “indoctrinating this new generation in feminist interpretation, Marxist philosophy and the so-called ‘queer theory’.” But deconstruction, sometimes blithely conflated with postmodernism (a subject that interested Derrida not at all), is also accused of having no beliefs or principles whatever at its core, other than the actual destruction of any idea of truth. The critic Michiko Kakutani, in her 2018 book The Death of Truth, went so far as to link the academic ascent of French theory – now somewhat antique a reference, surely, as well as arcane – to the rise of Donald Trump.