Signposts along the way that Reason went

Richard Rorty

  • Margins of Philosophy by Jacques Derrida, translated by Alan Bass
    Harvester, 330 pp, £25.00, May 1983, ISBN 0 7108 0454 7

If you want to know what the common sense of the bookish will be like fifty years from now, read the philosophers currently being attacked as ‘irrationalist’. Then discount the constructive part of what they are saying. Concentrate on the negative things, the criticisms they make of the tradition. That dismissal of the common sense of the past will be the enduring achievement of the long-dead ‘irrationalist’. His or her suggestions about what to do next will look merely quaint, but the criticisms of his or her predecessors will seem obvious.

For example, everybody has doubts about the superman and the Oedipus complex, but nobody wants to revive the moral psychology which Nietzsche and Freud found in place. Everybody has doubts that truth is just ‘what works’, but nobody (well, almost nobody) wants to revive the ‘copy theory of ideas’ which James and Dewey criticised. Fifty years from now, nobody will want to listen to the Voice of Being, or to deconstruct texts, but nobody will take seriously the ways of distinguishing between science, philosophy and art which Heidegger and Derrida criticise. Nowadays both men look like eccentrics, an impression they do their best to encourage. Their writings are filled with explanations of how very marginal, how very different and unlike all other philosophers they are. But in time they will be seen as central to the philosophical tradition, as having overcome certain ways of thinking which were ‘mythic’ or ‘self-deceptive’ or ‘culture-bound’ (or whatever near-synonym of ‘irrational’ is then in fashion). ‘Reason’ is always being redefined in order to accommodate the irrationalists of the preceding generation.

Heidegger and Derrida get called ‘irrationalist’ because they want us to stop looking for a final resting-place for thought – the sort of thing which Being or Mind or Reason were once thought to be. Capitalised words of this sort were thought to name things such that, if one knew enough about them, one would be in a better (perhaps the best possible) position to know about everything else. If one knew about Being as such, maybe everything else would seem merely a special case. If one knew what Mind or Reason was, maybe one could tell when one’s mind had done its job, or gauge one’s own rationality better. If one knew the nature of Language, perhaps one would have a standpoint from which to choose among all those competing languages – the Christian, the liberal, the Marxist, the Freudian, the sociobiological etc – which claim to ‘place’ all other jargons, to supply the meta-instruments which will test out every new-fangled conceptual instrument.

The suggestion that Language might be the Archimedean point sought by the philosophical tradition was explored by analytic philosophy – a movement which was fascinated by the idea that ‘logic’ or ‘conceptual analysis’ named instruments by which all the rest of culture could be held at arm’s length, seen in a clear cold light. From Heidegger’s and Derrida’s point of view, that movement was just one more effort at ‘metaphysics’ or ‘totalisation’ – one more attempt to give the perturbed spirit rest. It was also bound to be short-lived, for Language is simply not as plausible a candidate for a resting-place as its predecessors. What Heidegger called ‘the onto-theological tradition’ made it possible to think of ‘Being’ or ‘Mind’ as names for a causal force, a power with which it would be desirable to stand well, something big and strong enough to put everything else in its place. But ‘Language’ doesn’t sound like the name of a thing, a locus of causal power. It is not a suitable sobriquet for Omniscience. ‘Language’ suggests something sprawling, something which dissipates its forces by rambling on. That is why, in the philosophical tradition, language has usually been something to be avoided – sometimes by replacing lots of little words with one big Word, sometimes by concentrating on ‘logic’, envisaged as a sort of concentrated essence of language, all the language the philosopher really needs to know.

Derrida’s principal theme in these essays is the attempt of the tradition to make language look less sprawling by trimming off unwanted growth. This is done by making invidious distinctions between true (e.g. ‘literal’ or ‘cognitively meaningful’) language and false (e.g. ‘metaphorical’ or ‘meaningless’) language. He is arguing that this attempt cannot succeed, because it is just the latest version of the onto-theological attempt to contrast the Great Good Resting-Place with the sprawling world of time and chance. He wants to convince us that there is no natural hierarchy of discourses or jargons, no structure topped off by the super-language which gives us a grip on all the others, the words which classify all the other words. There is no privileged language in which to state invidious distinctions between true and false language. There is no linguistic material out of which we can forge clippers with which to snip off unfruitful linguistic suckers. He thinks Heidegger betrayed his own project by trying to separate ‘real’ language (the Call of Being, the kind of language which ‘is what it says’) from ‘inauthentic’ language (words used as means to technocratic ends, chatter, the jargon of this or that disciplinary matrix).

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