A Playful Philosopher
Published: 12 November 2004
Derrida made it possible for us to think of philosophy as, among other things, a symptom of obsessional neurosis. Heidegger had read the history of Western philosophy as a series of increasingly desperate attempts to achieve what Derrida called "a fundamental immobility and a reassuring certitude... beyond the reach of play". Freud had associated such yearnings with the compulsion to keep washing one's hands, or to inspect food for minute particles of forbidden substances, or to worry that the efficacy of a religious ritual might be impaired by the impure thoughts of the celebrant. Derrida wove Heidegger and Freud together. He referred to them as his "two grandfathers".
Most of the canonically great philosophers have shared an almost manic desire to achieve an impossible purity. When William James argued that the search for truth could not be disentangled from the attempt to fulfil human needs, and that therefore "the trail of the human serpent is over all", Bertrand Russell rejected the imputation of inevitable sliminess. "The free intellect," Russell said, "will see as God might see, without a here and now, without hopes and fears... calmly, dispassionately, in the sole and exclusive desire of knowledge - knowledge as impersonal, as purely contemplative, as it is possible for man to attain." Such attempts to imitate God were described by Heidegger as denials of human finitude.
Derrida, picking up on Freud, characterised them as expressions of phallogocentrism - of the conviction that the human intellect must stand proudly erect, towering above the squishy world of hope and fear, displaying the clean-cut, virile autonomy that is its birthright.
In a witty and brilliant essay called "White mythology", Derrida describes what happens when philosophers obsessed with purity turn their attention to language. They typically try to cleanse discourse of any trace of metaphor.
Derrida thought this ludicrous. His essay shows that the Western philosophical tradition itself was a tissue of imaginative metaphors, and none the worse for that. His larger point is that words gain their fluctuating meanings from the fluctuating contexts in which people put them. What matters are the relations between those contexts, not the relation of words to reality. Many of us read Derrida as echoing Wittgenstein's suggestion that we stop asking about meaning and start asking about use. As long as you can figure out how somebody is using a word, and how her use differs from yours, there is no point worrying about whether she is misusing it.
The philosopher Samuel Wheeler has pointed out the similarities between Derrida's critique of Husserl, Quine's critique of Russell and Davidson's critique of Quine. I have emphasised the similarities between Derrida's view and that of Robert Brandom. For Brandom, the fact that no two people have quite the same background beliefs means they never draw exactly the same inferences from the same assertion. We should conclude, he argues, that no two uses of a sentence ever have exactly the same import. Derrida would have agreed. This is not to say that rational discourse is impossible, or that the intention of the author of a text can never be discovered. But Derrida and Brandom think we can get along without the sort of fixity that philosophers have obsessed over. Analytic philosophers who insist on stability of meaning think that unless they can convict opponents of misusing words (and therefore of "conceptual confusion"), they will be unable to defend Truth and Reason against their cultured despisers. Those of us who agree with Derrida and Brandom, however, are content to say that complaints that words are "misused" or "used metaphorically" are just invitations to the participants in the conversation to try to reach agreement about which inferences should be drawn from which assertions. To ask that words be used literally is simply to ask that certain inferential relationships be held stable for the duration of the argument.
It is a pity that discussion of Derrida so often gets bogged down in attempts to answer the question: What is deconstruction? I have often wished that Derrida had just admitted that the word "deconstruction" had outlived whatever usefulness it might have had. It would be best to get rid of the idea of a "deconstructive method", for the last thing that philosophy needs is a new method to replace Kantian transcendental reflection, Husserlian eidetic reduction, Russellian logical analysis, and all the others that promised so much and delivered so little. But just as the first generation of Nietzsche's readers usually described him as "the philosopher of the superman", so the first generation of Derrida's insisted on thinking of him as "the philosopher of deconstruction".
The work of Nietzsche and Derrida was picked up initially by the wrong handle. Most contemporary readers of Nietzsche think that his importance does not lie in his occasional fantasies about Übermenschen, but rather in the story he told about the unfortunate effects of Plato's obsession with fixity and certainty, and in his description of Western philosophers as "ascetic priests" - people who invoke the form-matter, mind-body, objective-subjective, and reality-appearance distinctions to make other people feel impure and ashamed. Heidegger folded that story into his own larger account of the Western intellectual tradition, and Derrida folded Heidegger's into his still larger and more imaginative one. Though I find all three stories illuminating, I have never found either Heidegger's or Derrida's jargon helpful. I have not been able to make much use of expressions such as Ereignis, Wahrheit des Seins, différance or trace. Yet I feel greatly indebted to Heidegger and Derrida for enabling me to read the canonical works of Western philosophy with fresh eyes. Unlike the mean-spirited Nazi Heidegger, though, Derrida was not only a good social democrat, but a generous and tolerant man. Like Kierkegaard, he had a bubbling wit and the ability to make fun of himself.
Richard Rorty is professor of comparative literature and philosophy at Stanford University.
As published in The Higher Education Supplement.
There is also a somewhat less hospitable piece by Simon Blackburn. (Login: Johantorre, Johan)