Jacques Derrida was one of the most influential and also one of the most polarizing philosophers of the twentieth century. With his method of "deconstruction," Derrida provided critiques not only
This week our topic is Derrida and Deconstruction. Derrida was one of the most widely revered and widely reviled thinkers of the mid-to-late twentieth Century. Many people in a variety of disciplines – especially in the literary humanities -- regard him as an absolutely seminal figure. Mark Taylor recently called him one of the three most important philosophers of the 20th century -- right up there with Heidegger and Wittgenstein. On the other hand, many philosophers would strongly disagree with that assessment (including that assessment of Heidegger and, to a lesser extent, Wittgenstein) -- especially philosophers, like John and I, who belong to the Anglo-American tradition. In our circles, Derrida tends to be regarded as something of a fraud and a charlatan. Moreover, folks blame him for what they often see as the especially sorry state of literary studies. But we question everything here on Philosophy Talk. So in complete fairness to Derrida, we should ask ourselves whether it’s just prejudice that keeps us from appreciating Derrida’s profundity and importance.
My first reaction to that question is that it clearly isn’t just prejudice that causes him to be so reviled by so many. I mean for a man who was deeply concerned about the nature of written language and with the interpretation of written language, Derrida was awfully hard to read and interpret. Of course, you could ask whether he’s harder than Kant or harder than Hegel. Neither of those guys is easy to read or interpret, but nobody dismisses them as frauds or charlatans. Perhaps, though, that just shows the difference between German obscurity and French obscurity. German obscurity can seem profound, but French obscurity is just irritating and perplexing.
But all kidding aside – and I was just kidding – I think there’s a deeper reason why Anglo-American philosophers often find Derrida so off-putting. His work purports to undermine what he takes to be the very foundation of everything that we do. I’m talk here about the so-called logocentrism that Derrida perceives to be at the heart of Western Philosophy and his claim to have moved us decisively beyond it. Since analytic philosophy claims to be the continuation of the western philosophical tradition, it carries on the tradition of logocentrism. To speak a little bit of Derrida-ese, it might be said that like the logocentrics of old we anal-retentive, logo-phallo-centric philosophers privilege logos – that is, meaning, reason, spirit -- and we take speech to be prior, in the order of signification, to writing. And by privileging speech over writing, we privilege presence over absence. We hanker after transcendental signifieds -- signifieds that transcend all signifiers, meanings that transcends all signs. Now I’m not sure what all that means, but it sure sounds bad. And Derrida shows us how to get beyond all that. That is, how to get beyond an oppressive metaphysics of presence, that excludes, marginalizes and fails to acknowledge that which is absent, that which is different and other. Think, for example, of all the voices that were historically absent from the Western philosophical canon. The voices of women, blacks, gays, the poor, and on and on. Through the canon’s privileging of presence, it fails to acknowledge what is not there, what is absent.
It sort of astounds me, though, that through the seemingly apolitical and morally innocent act of taking the spoken word to be somehow prior to the written word, we do all that nasty stuff. I know, I know. There’s a long story about how that works. But thanks to Derrida there’s supposedly a way out of the mess that traditional western philosophy has gotten us into. We execute a sort of reversal. We privilege texts, that is, writing, over speech. The benefit of that move is that unlike speech the text is constituted as much by what it excludes as by what it includes, by absence as much as presence. Studying texts, even the texts of the canon with its oppressive metaphysics of presence, allows us to recognize and acknowledge what is absent.
The way we get at absence via the text is by deconstructing the text. Now that doesn’t mean tearing it down and ripping it apart, sort of like tearing down a building -- at least not exactly. Rather, to deconstruct a text is to expose the inevitable and ineliminable contradictions and oppositions upon which it is founded, which it disguises and refuses to acknowledge, to expose it as devoid of fixed and determinate meaning, as irreducibly complex, unstable, and, even, impossible.
That’s a mouthful. And I know I'm not up to making complete sense of it on my own. And I doubt John is either. We are definitely going to need some help with this one. Luckily for us, help is on the way in the form of Joshua Kates, author of Fielding Derrida: Philosophy, Literary Criticism. History, and the Work of Deconstruction.