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).

Derrida is one of the very few philosophers, perhaps the only one so far, to go along enthusiastically and whole-heartedly with Heidegger’s criticism of ‘onto-theology’ while still resisting the old wizard’s spell. After learning all that Heidegger had to teach, he still manages to look Heidegger in the eye and stare him down. Heidegger’s own writing combined enormous respect for such predecessors as Plato and Nietzsche with a fierce will to be free of them. Derrida has the same filial relation to Heidegger himself. Having done to Heidegger what Heidegger did to Nietzsche is the negative achievement which, after all the chatter about ‘deconstruction’ is over, will give Derrida a place in the history of philosophy. By the year 2034, after a new generation of ‘irrationalists’ has made Heidegger and Derrida look like pussycats, the genealogical charts for the philosophers of our century are likely to show Derrida as standing to Heidegger as Wittgenstein stands to Russell. What Russell did to Mill, Wittgenstein did to Russell by finding something right in Mill after all – the empirical character of the a priori. What Heidegger did to Nietzsche, Derrida has done to Heidegger by recovering Nietzsche’s slaphappy je-m’en foutisme, his refusal to be ‘serious’ and concentrated and Thoughtful.

Nobody on our side of the Channel has as yet managed to face down the later Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein has as yet had no brave, strong, parricidal sons. But even though we have not struggled with him properly, we Anglo-Saxon philosophers know Wittgenstein better than Heidegger: so, because much of what Derrida says about language sounds pretty much like what the Philosophical Investigations said, we may conclude that in France they are just now catching up with what we learned as students. We were raised to sneer at Hegelian absolute knowledge, Marxist certainty about the direction of history, Husserlian apodicticity, Russellian logical form, positivist ‘meaning-analysis’, and the rest of the bag of onto-theological tricks. We learned while still young that logic was not something sublime, that philosophy consisted in ‘assembling reminders for a particular purpose’ rather than constructing ‘theories of meaning’, and that our aim was to show ourselves the way out of the fly-bottle. We were taught to be suspicious of the kinds of cuts between good and bad language suggested by Russell and Ayer, and to be equally suspicious of the Tractatus’s concluding injunction to sacred silence. To a philosophical generation raised on Wittgenstein’s advice to think of language as a tool rather than a medium, and urged by Quine to be as holistic and behaviouristic as possible in our account of how language works, a climb to the top of a hierarchy of language-games has little appeal. Such philosophers find Derrida more fervid than necessary. His advice not to capitalise Language, to let it sprawl, seems unneeded.

This is one reason for resistance to Derrida. There are at least two others. One is that he has become a fad among students of literature, who have mastered a gimmick called ‘deconstructive reading’, one which rivals ‘psychoanalytic reading’ as a formula for producing lots of seemingly original articles very quickly. This gimmick should not be confused with anything Derrida himself does (nor with ‘Yale’ – the diverse things which a remarkable constellation of original critics, Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, J. Hillis Miller and the late Paul de Man, were already doing before Derrida came along to join them). Derrida did write some things which encouraged the belief that he had discovered a brand-new whiz-bang method of finding out what texts ‘were really about’. But, mercifully, he did not write many of them. He should not get more blame for his blithe and brutal young followers than Freud gets for his.

Another, less accidental reason Derrida is distrusted is that he occasionally assumes an analytic, argumentative stance which is entirely inappropriate to what he is doing. There are passages (especially in his earlier, more ‘academic’ work, some of which is translated in the volume under review) in which he seems to be saying that other philosophers’ views of Language can be shown to be wrong by appealing to some commonly recognised criteria. But, in the first place, it betrays Derrida’s own project to suggest that there is something out there – Language – to get right or wrong. In the second place, there are no criteria of the sort which he seems to invoke.

Consider, as a sample of Derridean argument, the last essay in this volume – ‘Signature Event Context’. This begins with the question: ‘Is it certain that there corresponds to the word communication a unique, univocal concept, a concept that can be rigorously grasped and transmitted, a communicable concept?’ It proceeds to show that this is not certain, for there is no ‘rigorous and scientific conception of context’ which one can invoke to ‘reduce the field of equivocity covered by the word communication’. Derrida writes as if we could all tell a ‘rigorous scientific conception’ or a ‘univocal concept’ when we see one, and as if he were going to show us that our criteria for univocity or rigour have, alas, not been fulfilled.

We have to have swallowed this suggestion that we want, and thought we had, a ‘univocal concept’ of communication if we are going to be impressed by Derrida’s (perfectly correct) claim that ‘every sign ... can be cited, put between quotation-marks; thereby it can break with every given context, and engender infinitely new contexts in an absolutely non-saturatable fashion.’ That fact does indeed show that ‘there are only contexts, without any centre of absolute anchoring,’ but few readers would have thought that communication required absolute anchors if Derrida hadn’t been so skilful at insinuating that this was a presupposition of ‘the entire history of philosophy’, that throughout this history it had been believed that ‘meaning, the content of the semantic message, is ... communicated ... within an homogeneous element across which the unity and integrity of meaning is not affected in an essential way.’ The reader is supposed to say to himself or herself: ‘Gee, I guess I had believed that; how credulous I have been.’ He or she then becomes a prospective customer for the ‘new logic, a graphematics of iterability’ which Derrida suggests we are going to have to develop. Why would anybody think that the fact that you can always create a new context (and thus a new meaning) for any given sign entails that you can’t communicate univocally, that you can’t get your message across without ‘the unity and integrity of meaning being affected in an essential way’? Does anyone really think of the meaning of a sign as being like the shape of a coin, rather than like its value (something which is different from year to year, and different for currency exchanges, scrap-metal dealers, numismatists etc)? There are certainly people who have to pretend to think in this way. ‘Would a reasonable man have taken the meaning of this letter to be ...?’ is a proper question to pose to a jury. But even people who invoke such professional pretences are quite aware that you can give any sign a new meaning by putting it in quotation-marks. They don’t think that they need ‘a rigorous scientific notion of context’, a way of drawing a neat line between sign and context, in order to say that quoting something provides a new context for it. They would regard this demand for rigorous demarcation as being like the demand for a distinction between a thing and its properties, or an artichoke and its leaves. Only a philosopher would want such a thing.

But maybe this is enough for Derrida? His essay was, after all, ‘a communication to the Congrès International des Sociétés de Philosophie de Langue Française’ (which was staging a colloquium on ‘Communication’). Maybe it is only ‘the entire history of philosophy’ which has believed all these silly things, while the laity have always been too sensible to do so? Actually, this is pretty close to what Derrida thinks. He does not think that all those French-speaking philosophers in his original audience were that dumb, but he does think that there is a useful definition of ‘philosophy’ according to which it names just that sort of belief – beliefs in clear and distinct ideas, in concepts so shiny that contexts roll right off them, in signs so sharp-edged that they cut right through attempts to use them equivocally, in thinking and writing whose clarity is intrinsic, not just a matter of familiarity to a readership.

Philosophy, so defined, is the subject – the only subject – of Margins of Philosophy. If read as essays on that subject, rather than on communication or meaning or metaphor or Language, this book makes admirable sense. But if one gets stuck on questions like ‘Has Derrida really demonstrated that our concept of communication is equivocal, our conception of metaphor internally inconsistent, our notion of sign in need of revision through the development of a graphematics of iterability?’ one will soon get disgusted with the book. Not only does he not demonstrate anything like this, he is not really trying to. He is continually pretending to play the professional game of searching for clear and distinct ideas, eliminating equivocity, being rigorous in some absolute way (not simply a way which is relative to a given readership). He is also continually giving you sly hints that he would not be caught dead doing anything of the sort. He plays this game of mirrors brilliantly, but it palls quickly. The way to avoid getting caught up in it is to not take questions like ‘What is Language?’ seriously enough to think that Derrida is going to give you some nice new answers to them. Do not read this book in search of contributions to an understanding of the nature of signs, or metaphors, or anything else. Avoid letting Derrida use you as a straight person. Do not let the weak and question-begging character of his arguments lead you to think that he has not made his case. When you hit something that looks like an argument, remember that an argument requires speaker and hearer to share a vocabulary and a set of beliefs, and that Derrida has no intention of sharing yours. If he seems to do so, he only does it to annoy, because he knows it teases. Distrust of Derridean argumentation is perfectly justified, but it is distrust of an unfortunate mannerism, one which Derrida dropped in his later work.

Do not, on the other hand, think that, since you have never (or at least not since reading Wittgenstein) taken clear and distinct ideas seriously, you need not read one more book debunking them. The onto-theological tradition is not shrugged off so easily. Anybody who thinks of himself as having some non-philosophical arguments with which to expose the silliness of the philosophers, or some position outside philosophy from which to view it, is already a philosopher within the meaning of Derrida’s redefinition. Derrida is aiming at the very idea of argument which is more than invocation of the implicit assumptions of a current vocabulary, of a position which is more than a bit of logical space carved out by such a vocabulary. He wants to make trouble for the very ideas of an ‘intellectual position’, of ‘a clear view of a subject’, or ‘a clear non-metaphorical presentation of the substantive issues’. Let him who can keep thinking without falling back on such ideas, without hoping for a resting-place which will bring his thinking to an end, cast the first blackball.

But what, since he does not argue, does Derrida do to make (or help) us give up our hopes of eternal rest? Roughly, he writes about the self-destructive character of the philosophical tradition and about the difficulty of finding a way out of that tradition: the difficulty of avoiding the self-referential absurdity of adopting a philosophical position which is opposed to the idea of philosophical positions. This could be a very boring subject, and in many philosophers’ hands it is. Derrida is saved by being a magnificent writer (and saved for us Anglo-Saxons by having found translators – notably Alan Bass – who are able to carry off a nearly impossible task). To see Derrida at his best, try the essay ‘White Mythology’. This is the most convincing piece in this volume (except perhaps for a remarkable essay on Heidegger, ‘Ousia and Grammé’, which is, however, impenetrable for those unfamiliar with Heidegger).

Derrida starts off this essay by quoting Anatole France: ‘the very metaphysicians who think to escape the world of appearances are constrained to live perpetually in allegory. A sorry lot of poets, they dim the colours of the ancient fables, and are themselves but gatherers of fables. They produce white mythology.’ He comments: ‘Metaphysics – the white mythology which reassembles and reflects the culture of the West: the white man takes his own mythology, Indo-European mythology, his own logos, that is to say the mythos of his idiom, for the universal form of that he must still wish to call Reason.’ In the Heideggerean sense in which Derrida is using ‘metaphysics’, it includes physical science – not physical science as an instrument for prediction and control, as a set of devices for synthesising antibiotics and bombs, but physical science as Archimedean point for thought, as the way the world really and truly is, as offering a language which gives us ‘matter of fact’ rather than one more jargon. Metaphysics, in this sense, is the belief that one has found a vocabulary that is not merely a metaphorics, a kind of language which is really and truly Language because somehow isomorphic with what it represents, literal language as opposed to one more ‘way of speaking’.

One could say that Derrida’s point in this essay is that we are never going to have a standpoint outside of language from which to judge that a given language is literal, from which to draw the metaphorical-literal distinction. Any language which pats itself on the back by declaring itself to be literal is just developing one more metaphor (that of ‘matter of fact’). Such a summary would be accurate enough, but would be like saying that Nabokov’s point in Lolita is that life never quite lives up to art. What counts is the detail in which the point is made. Derrida makes his by an unparaphrasable series of exhibition of the fact that ‘philosophy is incapable of dominating its general tropology and metaphorics. It could perceive its metaphorics only around a blind spot or central deafness.’ The central image of the essay is that of the heliotrope – the mind as plant which follows the motion of the sun (Plato’s super-sensible sun, that quasideity whose rays cut through all confusion, all obscurity, all metaphor). Derrida concludes the essay by saying that the heliotropic vision, the ‘dream at the heart of philosophy’, is to ‘reduce the play of metaphors to one “central” metaphor’. Then ‘there would be no more true metaphor, but only, through the one true metaphor, the assured legibility of the proper.’ As he says:

Metaphor, then, always carries its death within itself. And this death, surely, is also the death of philosophy. But the genitive is double. It is sometimes the death of philosophy, death of a genre belonging to philosophy, which is thought and summarised within it, recognising and fulfilling itself as philosophy; and sometimes the death of a philosophy which does not see itself die and is no longer to be found within philosophy.

The dream at the heart of Derrida’s writing is to achieve the second sort of death, to escape the self-referential predicament that anything you say against metaphysics is going to look like more metaphysics, that any metaphor you use for writing about metaphor will look like one more attempt to give the plain, literal facts about what metaphor is. In a sort of foreword to the volume called ‘Tympan’, he asks: ‘Can one violently penetrate philosophy’s field of listening without its immediately ... making the penetration resonate within itself, appropriating the emission for itself, familiarly communicating it to itself between the inner and middle ear ...? In other words, can one puncture the tympanum of a philosopher and still be heard and understood by him?’

The answer, so far, has been ‘no’. Only the first sort of death, the death of a particular genre of metaphysics (e.g. theological, idealistic) which is immediately succeeded by another (e.g. scientistic, positivistic, phenomenological), has been achieved. Derrida would like to find a kind of writing which is not one more such genre. The presence of such writing in the world would serve as a black hole, into which all future metaphysics which pretends to be scientific would disappear. Such a writing would be a new sort of philosopher’s stone, not one which locks within itself the whole light of the sun, but a sort of anti-heliotrope. Derrida ends ‘White Mythology’ by saying: ‘Heliotrope also names a stone, a precious stone, greenish and streaked with red veins, a kind of oriental jasper.’

Such a concluding gesture towards the East, away from the white man’s effort to characterise the dissemination of ‘the Greek miracle’ as the march of Reason through the world, is common to Derrida and Heidegger. I suggested at the outset that the gesture would fail, that when the bearers of the white man’s philosophical burden tire of denouncing these two as slackers they will proceed to marmorealise them, gestures and all – to set them up as signposts along the way that Reason went. But the more writers of this sort we have had (and Heidegger and Derrida are by no means the first), the less Greek, perhaps even the less white, we have become. Perhaps we are already closer than Derrida thinks to a point at which we can afford to fudge the distinctions between rationality and irrationality, and between philosophy, art and science – a point where all thinking and writing will become grist for a single mill. If this is so, then Derrida may be writing about metaphors which few people take seriously. Maybe it is only the philosophers ex professo who still dream of a non-metaphorical statement of the substantive issues, of ‘rigorous and scientific concepts’, unequivocal meanings. If so, the philosophers of the future may no longer be charting the march of Reason. They may find some other medium in which to freeze Derrida’s gesture. A cameo of curiously streaked blood-stone, suitable for wear as a protective amulet, would be more appropriate than the usual colossus of white marble.