David Hoy

David Hoy is a professor of philosophy at Columbia University. His book on literary theory, The Critical Circle, will be issued in paperback in May by California University Press. Derrida’s book Dissemination will also be discussed in the next issue – by Stephen Bann, a literary theorist and a historian at the University of Kent.


David Hoy, 23 November 1989

Derrida likes to surprise, and the first surprise of this book is the title itself. The common assumption that the French Post-Structuralists abandoned the interest of their phenomenological predecessors in consciousness, subjectivity and the entire philosophical vocabulary including words like ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’ is challenged by the titles of the two recent books by Derrida, De l’esprit and Psyché, both published in France in 1987. Of Spirit reflects on whether this vocabulary can really be avoided, and it does so principally by asking whether Heidegger, whose intention in Being and Time was to avoid the notion of spirit, was successful in doing so. While this point may initially appear to be of interest only to Heidegger scholars, Derrida’s ruminations should intrigue anyone interested in Post-Structuralism, since it is Heidegger the Post-Structuralists are thought to be following in their break with the traditional subject-object split that modern philosophy inherits from Descartes and that culminates in Hegel’s conception of Geist. In Heidegger scholarship, however, ‘spirit’ appears to be forgotten, not only by those who agree with Heidegger but even by those who disagree. This forgetting seems to signify a complete shift in 20th-century philosophy away from a paradigmatic interest in spirit, to such an extent that in philosophy no one knows what it is any more.

Different Stories

David Hoy, 8 January 1987

In the Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche maintains that life and the world are justifiable only aesthetically. The world is to be understood the way an artwork is, and life can become an artwork. If life depends on art rather than art merely reflecting life, the claim is not merely that artists live the best life. The paradigm is the work of art and not the historical, biographical artist: Der Mensch, says Nietzsche in section one, ist nicht mehr Künstler, er ist Kunstwerk geworden. If Nietzsche later abandons the Schopenhauerian elements of his early view about the relation of art and life, he continues to think, according to Alexander Nehamas, that life can be fashioned into literature. The historical author is less important than the literary artwork, and the world is itself like a literary text. Texts demand interpretation, and we find out about anything, including ourselves and the world, the way we come to understand aesthetic texts: through interpretation. Interpretation is itself a form of literary self-fashioning.

After Foucault

David Hoy, 1 November 1984

With the death of Michel Foucault the end of another era of French philosophy suddenly seems imminent. Jean-Paul Sartre died long after the Existentialist era had dwindled, and that phase of his philosophical work had been absorbed. Like Jacques Lacan’s death, however, Foucault’s comes at a point where debate has not settled the question of either the viability of his vision or the importance of the Post-Structuralist period. Foucault’s life, like Merleau-Ponty’s, ended prematurely, before the completion of a final systematic statement of his conception of philosophy and too soon to see clearly what the influence of his thought would be. Just as French philosophy was once divided between Merleau-Ponty and Sartre, it recently seemed to be going in two different directions, one exemplified by Foucault and the other by Jacques Derrida. With Foucault’s absence the French scene may suddenly appear less vital, perhaps because the Parisian stage requires a dramatic confrontation between alternative philosophical methods.

Foucault’s Slalom

David Hoy, 4 November 1982

French philosophers become notorious when, deviating from Anglo-American ‘common sense’, they appear to cast aside respect for truth, tradition, reality and reason. Michel Foucault is a case in point, for his books typify the manoeuverings that result. There is a growing body of secondary literature explaining his vagarious development, and the best study so far is a joint effort by two Berkeley scholars, Hubert Dreyfus, a philosopher, and Paul Rabinow, an anthropologist. Foucault himself lends credence to the Dreyfus/Rabinow interpretation by allowing them to include some of his recent unpublished material. There must have been considerable interaction between Paris and California, since the authors frequently indicate points they discussed with him. The reader is given the sense of hearing an ongoing dialogue.

Deciding Derrida

David Hoy, 18 February 1982

Of the essays collected and excellently translated in Dissemination, the best example of Derrida’s own practice of the deconstructive criticism he fathered is ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’. Here he pursues his question why the metaphysical tradition from Plato to the present subordinates writing to speech. Derrida is not claiming to reverse Plato and to subordinate speech acts to écriture, intentions to texts. His suggestion is rather that the attempt throughout the history of philosophy to think about the relations of language, truth and reality is continually biased by the misguided oppositions between writing and speech, signifier and signified, the metaphorical and the literal, presence and absence, sense and intellect, nature and culture, or even male and female. For Derrida these dichotomies are set up not rationally, but with an implicit preference for one side or the other. His procedure for showing the prior exclusion of the other side is to study not the logic but the rhetoric used in such cases as Plato’s attack on writing, especially the metaphors and myths in the Phaedrus.

Je m’en Foucault

Vincent Descombes, 5 March 1987

In 1980, Le Monde published a series of interviews with French philosophers, one of whom only agreed to participate on condition that he remain anonymous. His interview appeared under the title...

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