What Is Postmodernism? Part II: Derrida
In a previous post I asked and attempted to partially answer the question of what postmodernism is. This seems to have been of interest to some people, and so here I will describe some of the central themes of perhaps the most notorious post-modernist philosopher, Jacques Derrida, whom I didn’t discuss in the previous post for lack of space.
He’s a useful person to discuss, because he’s the object of many people’s ire. Here’s Jordan Peterson:
[Jacques Derrida] is head trickster for the postmodernist movement, and he regarded Western culture — let’s call it the patriarchy — as phallogocentric. Phallo comes from phallus, and so that’s the insistence that what you see in Western culture is the consequence of the male-dominated oppressive self-serving society. [and that’s bad] … here’s what the postmodernists believe: They don’t believe in the individual. That’s the logos. Remember, Western culture is Phallogocentric. Logo is logos. That’s partly the Christian word, but is also partly the root word of logic.
By the end of this post, you’ll be able to understand, kind of, what the hell this means, and also where Peterson goes wrong. But you’ll also see the weakness in Derridean thought.
The Metaphysics Of Presence
To start, consider the following quotation from Derrida:
“[T]he history of (the only) metaphysics, which has, in spite of all differences, not only from Plato to Hegel (even including Leibniz) but also, beyond these apparent limits, from the pre-Socratics, to Heidegger, always assigned the original of truth in general to the logos: the history of truth, of the truth of truth, has always been … the debasement of writing”
(from Of Grammatology, excerpted in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, p1824)
The editors of the anthology helpfully gloss logos on the same page in a footnote: ‘Derrida applies the term to knowledge assumed to be organized around a central truth (e.g. Being, Presence, the Living Voice, or the Word of God).’
Here, then, is the first important plank of Derridean thought: that Western philosophy has based itself on some central truth. One particular manifestation of this that was prevalent in the 20th century was the idea of presence, and is known by Derrida as the metaphysics of presence.
Let’s expand on that, bearing in mind that we’re going to want to contrast it with the writing which has supposedly been debased with regards to it.
Two of the philosophers with whom Derrida is most often in dialogue are Husserl and Heidegger, and, indeed, they both privileged presence. They are both roughly phenomenologists: thinkers concerned with attending to what experience gives them and describing it. The phenomenologists’ motto was Zur Sachen Selbst! — ‘to the things themselves’. Husserl, for example, wanted to give analyses of, say, the experience of time by concentrating on how the passage of time actually appears (‘phenomenology’ just being a Greek-rooted coinage for the study of how things appear) to us, rather than by saying what it must be like to make sense of how the world appears to us (as one might, roughly, think Kant was concerned to do). Here we already see the notion of presence: of getting the thing right there in front of you to analyse it.
The same goes for Heidegger. He was interested in the Greeks and liked to draw conclusions with somewhat tortuous etymologies of Greek words. So, for example, he pointed out that the Greek word for truth was aletheia, which has the sense of ‘uncoveredness’. And, pertinently given the above quote, he drew attention to the fact that the verbal form of the noun logos, legein means, in addition to say or speak, to lay out or collect or present (as in the English ‘anthology’ which means literally a collection of flowers). So logos was intimately connected again in Heidegger, and through Heidegger with the Greeks, with a sense of presence: one was to try to get a presentation of being to say what it’s like, the goal of his masterwork Being and Time as well as some of his more dubious later work.
So here is point one: logocentrism, as exemplified in the above Derrida passage, is a reasonable theory about at least some of the central works of philosophy, according to which they privilege presence. You might query it, and wonder what these German slogans and fancy Greek words really amount to, but it at least seems that Derrida is here interested in pretty traditional, somewhat technical philosophical questions.
And what about ‘phallogocentrism’ from the Peterson quote? My sense is that this is more of a joke or pun than something to be taken seriously as a central concept of his thought— Derrida’s core interests were with the above questions, and Peterson is wrong in what he thinks they amount to. His philosophy is not some conspiracy against Western culture, it’s some arcane philosophical criticisms of some arcane philosophical views to be found in Western philosophy. Let’s now turn to one of Derrida’s most notorious concepts, différance.
Derrida’s mentioning of writing in the quotation above has a two-fold significance for us. For one, he was interested in writing because it seems like a paradigm example of a phenomenon that in some sense involves absence. Writing, one might think, is a record of former but now absent verbal speech, or something you resort to when you can’t be face-to-face with someone.
But it’s more important as revealing one of his core concepts, différance. Différance means both differing and deferring, and Derrida’s idea is that this is relevatory of the nature of language and destructive of the metaphysics of presence.
Here’s an intuitive way of understanding the relation between language and the world, in Derrida’s own words:
We ordinarily say that a sign is put in place of the thing itself,the present thing . .. Signs represent the present in its absence; they take the place of the present. When we cannot take hold of or show the thing, let us say the present, the being-present, when the present does not present itself, then we signify, we go through the detour of signs… The sign would thus be a differed presence.
(from ‘Différance’, p138 in Speech and Phenomena And Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs translated by David B. Allison. Northwestern University Press: Evanston)
But a key idea, which Derrida gets from the semiotician Ferdinand De Saussure, is that this picture is wrong. Words get their meaning not by standing for an object in their absence, but by the relation they stand in to other words. To use the example I always use the words when discussing this, the words ‘couch’, ‘sofa’, ‘chaise longue’, ‘settee’ etc. seem to derive their meaning more from their relation to and difference each other than through any meaning they may have when considered in isolation from other similar terms in the language. Moreover, when asking for the meaning of, say, ‘couch’, the process will always be deferred: if you say it’s “an item of soft furniture more than one person can sit on”, I can go on to ask you of the meaning of each of those words, and so on indefinitely. The buck always get passed, we never get a finished answer, and so the idea that a meaning can ever be entirely present is undetermined, and this can go in service of undetermining the idea that presence must be the source of philosophical truth.
What are we to make of this philosophy of language? Well, for one, note that again it’s perfectly respectable, philosophically. It makes sense and it’s coherent. I, as a matter of fact, think it’s wrong. I think that referential semantics, where we assign words an extra-linguistic meaning, works perfectly well thank you very much. Of course, I would say that, because my PhD is on the topic, but over 50 years of work in what’s known as formal semantics is on my side. On the other hand, the Saussure picture has advanced our understanding of how language actually works, as far as I can tell, very little. So I would say that this crucial plank of the Derridean theory fails. Let me finish by introducing one final key Derridean concept: deconstruction.
Deconstruction is a way of reading and engaging with texts and thinkers that attempts, perhaps by harnessing the idea of différance according to which what a writer means always slips away from them, to show up internal inconsistencies in those texts and thinkers.
Husserl provides a good example. He was concerned with the experience of the now, the present moment. What is it like, from a phenomenological perspective? And he had an interesting and suggestive answer. Crucial to the experience of the now is an experience of the recent past and the anticipation of the near future, which he calls respectively retentions and protentions.
This is intuitive: think of yourself now, reading the screen. Your experience of this now would be different if, a second ago, a loud bang had occurred: it would seep in and colour your current experience. In the same vein, if you think your alarm is going to go off in a second, you might be on edge in a way that also colours it. Perception of the now depends on recent and future perceptions.
But this is grist for Derrida’s mill. The now seems to depend, on this analysis, on the immediate past and future. The present seems not so present after all, depending on absent times. Whether or not this is an accurate analysis and criticism is somewhat beside the point; my simpler aim is to show, yet again, that this is reasonable philosophising. There’s no reason to be scared of deconstructionism; it doesn’t herald the end of the West. It maybe heralds the end of one phenomenologist’s theory of the experience of time.
I’ve weaved a selective and perhaps overly generous path through Derrida’s work. I haven’t focused on his awful style or his many silly pretentious books. I definitely don’t think he belongs in the philosophical pantheon. But I do think some of his ideas are suggestive and interesting, and most of them don’t deserve the scorn some are wont to heap on them.