Preposterous Universe

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Jacques Derrida, French philosopher and originator of deconstruction, passed away this Friday. Obituaries at the Guardian and the New York Times; blog posts by Michael Bérubé and Jack Balkin and Brian Leiter; comments at Crooked Timber; a nice encyclopedia article. A quick perusal is enough to give an impression of how controversial Derrida was!

Derrida is one of those intellectual figures who is arguably more important as a symbol than for his actual work. In Derrida's case, in the minds of many people he has come to represent a perspective that is deeply anti-intellectual, or at least anti-Enlightenment and anti-rationality. This is a completely misguided impression, but a persistent one nonetheless. Derrida enjoyed the project of undermining conventional Western metaphysics, emphasizing gaps and contradictions in the writings of major players of the philosophical tradition. More significantly (for the critics), he also enjoyed playful and elliptical language, especially in his own writings, although he could be quite straightforward in speech.

I am by no means an expert on Derrida's work, although I have read a couple of things and can vouch that he was not nearly as impenetrable as his reputation suggests. I couldn't tell you whether deconstruction will end up being counted as a productive moment in the history of philosophy, but the simple caricatures of his enemies tend to make me sympathetic to Derrida's side of the controversies. I take Derrida to be interested in highlighting the weak points and inconsistencies in grand meta-narrative systems. The question would be, do we do no more than delight in the failings of the system-builders, or do we try to nurture what remains valid, reconstructing after deconstructing? Derrida's critics would argue that he is nothing but a nihilist, while he prefers to place himself squarely in the Enlightenment tradition of questioning authority and dispelling mysteries. Consistent with this stance, his later writings and activities had become increasingly political; a recent book describes interviews with Derrida and Jurgen Habermas over the significance of the September 11th attacks.

You might think that scientists, who take a noisy pride in the self-critical techniques of their own disciplines, would be sympathetic to the search for weak points in philosophical theories, even if those theories were implicitly subscribed to by the scientists themselves. Okay, maybe you wouldn't; scientists have never been excessively fond of criticism from non-scientists. Derrida rarely addressed science directly (although his brother Bernard is a well-known condensed matter physicist), but his status as a symbol of anti-reason drew substantial attention from defenders of objective truth. A famous example was of course the Sokal affair, in which physicist Alan Sokal parodied postmodern jargon in an article he managed to get published in the journal Social Text. Just like it's more fun to attack the wingnuts at Little Green Footballs than it is to attack more respectable conservative thinkers, the critics would gleefully (and correctly) highlight the most ridiculous statements of self-described postmodernists, without bothering to engage carefully with the better thinkers on their own terms.

Time will tell what Derrida's legacy ultimately becomes. Deconstruction was a technique rather than a system, but not everyone needs to build a system. My guess is that, two hundred years from now, some of Derrida's writings will be ignored as misguided or silly, while some basic insights of deconstruction will be acknowledged as useful tools for probing the limitations of ideas. And everyone will wonder what all the fuss was about.

Update: Have to include a small joke that Ed Cohn noticed in the BBC obituary:
He was so influential that last year a film was made about his life - a biographical documentary.

At one point, wandering through Derrida's library, one of the filmmakers asks him: "Have you read all the books in here?"

"No," he replies impishly, "only four of them. But I read those very, very carefully".

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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