Braver Reading Group: Chapter 8 – Derrida

[All of the posts related to Lee Braver’s book – A Thing of This World – are collected here.]

The chapter on Derrida is the last one in the book (there is a short conclusion as well) and I have to admit that even though we have only been reading this book for 8 weeks now, it seems as though it was at least a year or so, most likely because of the rich content and the amount of potential distractions and my own attempts to chase down some reference or a thought I found to be especially interesting.  I hope that if the time allows us to do so sometime this week or next week, it would be great if Jon and Lee could post their own impressions of this reading group in a sort of conclusive post.

1. Metaphysics of presence as a form of realism.

The first point of the chapter is, I think, easy to make and easy to see – what Derrida labels “metaphysics of presence” is a form of realism, that is, realism as a philosophical move that is premised on a view of reality that consists of things “out there” presencing and thoughts “in here” thinking about things immediately and through language:

“Words get their significance from the prior existence of things which are wholly different from and do not depend upon language.” [437]

“The existence of a referent wholly outside the circulation of signs enables a unique account of the world and a language with determinate meanings.” [438]

“If extra-linguistic reality (R1) secures a determinate meaning (R3) which can then be perfectly translated, then language is R5 Passive; it does not affect the meaning it contains, but allows them to be passed between sterile containers which do not affect their contents in any way.” [439]

For Derrida, all of these descriptions and many more similar observations are the stuff of philosophy, it’s what philosophy does, even if in most cases without paying much attention to it.  I think it’s difficult to explain for sure why, despite the abundance of material stating the above-mentioned formulations of “metaphysics of presence” in Derrida’s corpus, it seems that the insight itself did not produce as much real effect as one would hope.  Braver’s explanation of Derrida’s formula is clear and to the point, yet I wonder if resistance to Derrida’s insight has proved to be quite strong as the most one hears about it today is that it is “annoying” or “dangerous” – see all that discussion of how criticizing any position today without offering anything positive is bad bad bad.  But Derrida of course does not stop with his critique of most philosophy as “metaphysics of presence,” he goes further and this is where he seems to offend even more “serious” philosophers (like Quine), he talks about such silly things as “play” and “supplement” and “difference/defferance = différance” – you can almost hear the grumpy and the self-important scholars yell him off the proverbial philosophical lawn, shaking their thick CVs and albums of photos they took with their important books.

If “metaphysics of presence” is a sort of realism premised on the existence of mind-independent world that is in need of being described and understood, then speech as the most seemingly immediate interaction between things and words is a privileged form of interaction with writing being pushed aside as a copy of a copy and so forth – all of these things are common knowledge today a good half-century after Derrida came up with all of these ideas in the 1960s.  I wonder what role can Derrida play in the recent discussion of “speculative realism” or any sort of return to metaphysics (let’s call it “Back to Leibniz-Wolff!”)? Is a big Derrida revival still ahead or is it on the decline now that all the derridalogists are either retiring or found some other cool ideas to play with (Zizek’s?)? I think Braver’s inclusion of Derrida is quite interesting as it not only puts Derrida in the same group as Kant, Hegel, Heidegger and so on, but also shows how his thought relates to all the “traditional” philosophical issues (making him into a “real philosopher”).

2. Play of signification.

For Derrida, argues Braver, the move of deconstruction is not the move of destruction or any sort of negative attempt to discredit a specific text or a specific philosophical position (even Derrida’s “metaphysics of presence,” in this sense, is not a critique or a call to reject such position, I think this is an absolutely essential point) – to deconstruct here is not really a transitive verb (one cannot deconstruct anything, it deconstruct itself, it is deconstructing itself):

The deconstructed claims are not so much false as naive and insufficiently analyzed; when rigorously examined, the oppositions that structure the discourse cannot be maintained in any kind of pure mutual exclusivity.” [443]

Thus the famous “there is nothing outside the text” is just a restatement of what A1 Dependence is all about: we cannot get outside of ourselves and peek at the world (and ourselves) as if from the perspective of an observer (or “the absolutely exterior”).  This does not mean that there is no reality and Derrida is preaching some sort of idealist/anti-realist nonsense; it’s just that “our relation to any kind of reality is inevitably mediated by all kinds of interconnected influences such that we can never comprehend them in their entirety or correct for them.” [446]

This is where Derrida’s discussion of “play of signification” is such a royal pain in the ass for those who, possibly without knowing it or wanting to know it, assume the existence of some “full presence” and “univocal meaning” – our interaction with language is far from simple one- or two-way highway, but is rather something that always escapes being completely captured by any of the means of signification we so proudly display on our philosophical walls (“Here’s a meaning over there, yep, shot it in 1972 while at a conference, gave me quite a trouble, tracked it for days and then boom, gotcha.”)  In terms of Braver’s terminology, Derrida’s play embraces a new version of R5 Passive Knower:

…we are not the autonomous source of the organizing structures of experience but recipients of them, rendering us deeply dependent on what we have been “thrown” into. [448]

Braver has several interesting sections on Frege and how Derrida’s ideas help us understand Frege’s issues – not knowing a whole lot about Frege, I found those sections to be quite illuminating, but I cannot really comment due to the mentioned deficiency.  One image that I really liked however was that of the lack of “extra-semantic anchors” to keep us at bay – a sort of a need for foundation and certainty, whether we are doing some old-fashioned metaphysics or creating some cool and hip easily abbreviated philosophy.

3. Derrida as Kant (or Heidegger).

Braver has a couple of sections addressing the issue of Derrida’s “quasi-transcendental arguments” [464-69 and 484-95] – was Derrida, in fact, a kind of Kant dealing with conditions of possibility and impossibility and so on? I think that it’s interesting how the book ultimately loops back to Kant and Kantian Paradigm, as Braver labels it throughout, even though Heidegger does present a challenge to Kant, it seems that the ghost of Kant is very much close at hand which is of course also confirmed by the constant Kant-bashing in the blogosphere. However, Braver’s point is more subtle, it seems: on the one hand, différance could certainly be read as “quasi-transcendental” and a necessary condition for articulation [466], yet on the other hand, Derrida is very much aware “of the metaphysical and potential entanglements of transcendental arguments.” [467]  Does Derrida ultimately escape these metaphysical entanglements? Braver is not so sure, it seems.

Braver’s strategy in taking a closer look at Derrida’s transcendental arguments is to examine Derrida’s relation to Heidegger:

Here my guiding hypothesis is that Derrida’s relationship to Heidegger resembles the later Heidegger’s to Kant: Heidegger’s thought representes a deeply divided legacy for Derrida, as Kant’s was for Heidegger. For each, the predecessor’s work is inescapable in that it opened up the paths of thought that will be pursued, but at the same time the earlier thinker remained mired in some of the very problems that he identified and tried to escape. [470]

Derrida reads Heidegger as both making an advance and as being still caught up in some of the rejected metaphysical issues – oh, the tenacity of metaphysics! The paragraph on the bottom of page 472 (continuing to 473), I think, is one of the more concise formulations of the book’s intention to show that the history of continential anti-realism reveals a progressive erosion of realism – all of the thinkers discussed neatly fit in this narrative. The chapter ends with Braver’s detailed discussion of how Derrida can be seen as overcoming some of the Heideggerian Paradigm’s metaphysical difficulties.

The conclusion to the book deserves a separation post which I am still working on and will post tomorrow with some of my own observations about this novel experience of a reading group.

4 thoughts on “Braver Reading Group: Chapter 8 – Derrida

  1. Pingback: A Thing Of This World Reading Group. « Perverse Egalitarianism

  2. I’d like to add that I have been fairly busy in the last week or so, so I apologize for not giving this chapter the attention it deserves – my Fall semester begins in about two weeks, plus I’m trying to finish a couple of – date I say – projects, if someone feels that they would want to post more on this chapter, feel free to do so and I’ll link it here.

  3. I think some of Derrida’s criticisms of Heidegger as presented by Braver seem a bit misguided–I don’t have the book in front of me since I already returned it to the library, so this may not be as precise as I’d like. But the basic jist seems to be that Heiddegger’s commitment to Impersonal Conceptual Scheme and Historical Phenomenological Ontology lead him to posit a sytematic unity and coherence and to pinpoint historical transitions which are actually messy, overlapping, and impossible to schematize into epochs. Derrida wants to affirm the impossibility of these epochs as coherent systems, and show how there is never a top-down structuring of a unified conceptual scheme that describes a vertical slice of history.

    But Heidegger gives a symtomatic read of these IPOs and shows how they are always expresssing the trace of something which exceeds and unwinds them (the event, Being, Seyn) (condition of possibility/impossibility, in Derridean terms). Furthermore, he also acknowledges that the epochs overlap each other, there are always remnants of the previous scheme that still appear when an epoch shifts. Also, “epochs” are not as univocal as would seem; there is a single epoch we know of (“metaphysics,”) but within this epoch there are mini-epochs (characterized by being as, for instance, idea, ousia, transcendental subjectivity, will to power, among others). Furthermore, the list of principles itself is given in various ways and allows for various ways to divide history among ways of being in the world that organize themselves around the various principles in a way that is ultimately impossible to diegetically capture, and in which a rhizomatic relation is always maintained to the first beginning, i.e. the larger epoch of metaphysics which is characterized by being as constant presence.

    In all of this, it must be kept in mind that what Heidegger is describing with the epochs is metaphysics, the epoch of the withdrawal of being, and this is precisely what Heidegger is trying to deconstruct. A completed system unwinds itself as it founds itself for Heidegger just as much as for Derrida, although Heidegger thinks Western thinkers didn’t come to recognize this themselves until Schelling and Nietzsche (Schelling seems to diminish in H’s later stuff, though). Again, it’s unclear to what extent this goes against anything Derrida wants to do. A general economy of Ereignis is adumbrated in the later Heidegger in which history as epochal sendings comes to an end. In a sense, this is very consonant with the thinking of “differance.”

  4. The penultimate chapter, on Derrida, is the most difficult to evaluate. It was, according to its author, the hardest to write. One of the problems is rhetorical. In a work written partly to urge analytic philosophers to take continental philosophy seriously, technical terms should be introduced only when the material for explaining what they are for has been introduced. Braver prematurely drops into his account terms like “differance,” “arche-writing” and the like.

    More importantly, the central difference that separates Derrida from the later Heidegger, Derrida’s anti-realism about trans-linguistic meanings, is not made clear. The “transcendental signifieds” that Derrida is rejecting are concepts, roughly Fregean senses or Husserlian meanings. Braver errs in claiming that Derrida denies that there are transcendental signifieds because he holds there is no privileged segmentation of the physical world. The denial that there are external natural kinds is independent of the denial that there are transcendental signifieds. Numerous analytic philosophers have denied privileged segmentation while remaining apparently committed to transcendental signifieds. The typical pre-Quinean analytic anti-realist, such as Carnap, is committed to transcendental signifieds while denying that there is a privileged segmentation of “reality” into natural kinds.

    Derrida’s denial of transcendental signifieds seems to have begun with reflections on Husserl’s theory of signs, as his early work suggests. An exposition of Derrida’s views that will make sense to an analytic philosopher would start with his arguments for semantic anti-realism. In the course of this exposition, the connection Derrida sees between phono-centrism and logo-centrism would emerge from his deconstruction of Husserl’s texts.

    Here is an example of Braver’s misconception about denying transcendental signifieds: On page 442, Braver explains that Fregean referents, being given, prevent senses from semantic drift. “Frege’s well-known distinction between sense and reference allows us to compensate for any slippage among diverse senses by calibrating them to unique referents.” Thus, according to Braver, the referents of terms, there being a given non-semantic reality outside the language and not depending on the language, grounds language. This gets Frege wrong, and its implication that non-semantic anti-realism motivates Derrida gets Derrida wrong. Frege posits senses as abstract entities such that the reference of any term is a function of the sense of that term, in the mathematical sense that exactly one referent is determined by a given sense. Senses don’t have slippage. The only slippage here is that what sense is expressed by a given word can vary. What Frege is talking about when he discusses how different people may have different senses associated with the name “Aristotle” is that this difference does not harm as long as the distinct sense all pick out Aristotle. It is never made clear that senses are transcendental signifieds, the logoi that are the mark of logocentrism.
    Other times, Braver’s explanations are prima facie inconsistent with Derrida’s semantic anti-realism. For instance, Braver says, “Like Hegel, Derrida believes that there is an intrinsic logic to these ideas, so that as soon as someone starts thinking this way [i.e. in terms of transcendental signifieds] he gets pulled into its gravitational field.” Hegel’s necessitations were conceptual, i.e. among transcendental signifieds. Thus Hegel could generalize about ideas and stages of consciousness leading to difficulties that would be resolved in more or less predictable ways. So Hegel could talk in abstractions about the Stoics, the Skeptics, and the Unhappy Consciousness, and map out the conceptual sequences, rather than talking about Epictetus’s and Pyrrho’s texts.

    Derrida, being an anti-realist about semantics, is committed to denying that there are any notions or concepts, i.e. transcendental signifieds, that transcend the particular language in which a line of thought occurs. Thus for Derrida, analysis of connections takes place at the level of particular texts. Every deconstruction is a deconstruction of a particular linguistic object, not of an alleged “train of logic” (logoi) that that text expresses or exemplifies. Derrida is of course a Hegelian, but a Hegelian of texts, not of the thought allegedly behind the text. That is why deconstruction works on particular texts and discourses.
    Now, of course Derrida himself has to talk this way, about the “logic” of a text and the necessity of the kinds of connections he draws. Strictly speaking, this talk is “under erasure,” that is, not really logic and not really necessity, as it has been understood. Among the complications of Derridean thought is that he must use a language whose implications his theory denies.

    Braver is aware of Derrida’s views about language, as he demonstrates in the later sections of the chapter, where the discussion of Saussure, groundless differing, and differance is quite clear. What is missing is the idea that these views about language are the fundamental ideas that motivate and explain the odd views of the first several sections of the chapter. The chapter would have been much improved if Braver had started with the reflections on language and sense and then moved on to the surprising and difficult consequences that Derrida develops from his Quine-like realization that, to be a thorough anti-realist, one has to be an anti-realist about the logos. It would then be clear to him that the specifically semantic anti-realism of Derrida is not a simple consequence of anti-realism about natural kinds of external objects.

    The last nine paragraphs have been quite critical. I have argued that the book is not perfect; that it makes some mistakes about one of the most difficult philosophers of the past century. In a work of this scope, scale and ambition, though, flawlessness would be miraculous. To summarize my view of Braver’s book: This is an important and great book, with some substantial flaws in its penultimate chapter. Anyone interested in the topic of what contribution we fluid subjects make towards our conceptions of the world will profit from reading it. In particular, those who hope to connect the “analytic” tradition with the “continental” tradition will find this book a great starting-point for that project.

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