Wednesday, July 26, 2006

by Kenneth Kierans (link)


Deconstruction is usually and rightly linked to the philosophical and literary writings of Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man. These writings have come under sharp attack in recent years. I would refer you, for example, to David Lehman's discussion of Paul de Man. Deconstruction, it is argued, stands outside of reason and affirms only an endless, undisciplined, even wild freedom of commentary.(1) Now there is much to be said for this assessment of deconstruction. Geoffrey Hartman's 'Criticism in the Wilderness' is a good indication (I think) of just how arbitrary deconstruction can be. Here, at the extreme point of interpretation, the critic is certain of himself alone and so determined to undermine every specific claim to truth which a text may make.(2)
But there is another and more interesting side to deconstruction, and this has to do with its continuing relation to traditional philosophical ideas of truth. I want in what follows to bring out this other side - the beyond of deconstruction - particularly as it can be found in the thought of Derrida. I see in Derrida's free play of interpretation not only criticism of older forms and a longing for the new, but insight into the substantial truth of philosophy and a talent for speculative thought. To be sure, Derrida believes that the traditional metaphysical hierarchies between idealism and realism, good and evil, beauty and ugliness, substance and subject, and so on, are one-sided and must be overturned. But he also argues that the undervalued terms of these hierarchies can only be affirmed in relation to, or as another form of, the 'higher' ones. Thus, for example, the notion of reality as something given and independent of the ideal world is dogmatic and, like all reversals, a prisoner of the metaphysical hierarchy it seeks to overthrow. In this perspective, metaphysical forms can be seen in even the most naturalistic attempts to escape the constraints of Western thought.(3)
I want to argue that deconstruction in this sense amounts to a rediscovery of traditional philosophical ideas, and a reaffirmation of their truth, even if in one respect in a distorted way. In fact, Derrida from an early date was inspired to consider Western thought in Hegelian fashion; he learned from Hegel to see in the tradition an overarching demand for reconciliation, and thereby to distinguish himself from that kind of superficial criticism which sees the idea of metaphysics as something one-sided and abstract, cut off from reality and hostile to all sense and existence. For Hegel always and everywhere attacked the view that the 'Idea' is a mere logical form: "It is ... false to imagine the Idea to be mere abstraction. It is abstract certainly, insofar as everything untrue is consumed in it: but in its own self it is essentially concrete, because it is the free concept [Begriff] giving character to itself, and that character, reality." The Idea is not the idea of some external thing, or the concept held by this or that individual person. The Idea is the concept which gives itself the form of external existence, comprehends this form ideally, and establishes itself in it. "Every individual being is some one aspect of the Idea."(4)
Hegel's concept of philosophy is determined according to an idea of which all reality is the expression. In grasping this idea, Hegel's consciousness of himself and others necessarily becomes "absolute knowledge", that is, the knowledge of "all essentiality and all existence", the knowledge of the unity of "subject" and its "substance".(5) Now Derrida wants very much to speak from outside Hegel's concept of philosophy, and everyone else's for that matter. Yet despite his critical intent, he has, with great energy and insight, put himself near the standpoint of Hegel's absolute knowledge. For it is relative to Hegel that he has been able to run through the history of philosophy, set forth the various dimensions of the whole - essence and existence, substance and subject - and relate them to one another. And it is relative to Hegel that he has tried to bring this history to a close, and introduce a new standard of judgement and new points of view. Derrida states: "we believe, quite simply and literally, in absolute knowledge as the closure if not the end of history...As for what 'begins' then - 'beyond' absolute knowledge - unheard-of thoughts are required, sought for across the memory of old signs."(6) Derrida then seeks a new beginning beyond the absolute knowledge of Hegel, beyond the metaphysical determinations of substance and subject, of thought and being, and yet looks for this new beginning in these determinations, "across the memory of old signs". He leads us from Hegel to something new and then back again.
Derrida's relation to Hegel - and through him to the whole of the Western metaphysical tradition - is ambiguous. He maintains that his position is beyond Hegel's, but still insists that he is working within the Hegelian philosophy. This would not be the result if anything in Hegel allowed us to separate what we know about the world from what we know about ourselves. But Derrida argues that Hegel makes any such separation impossible. He is no less insistent than Hegel himself that the order of reason is absolute. It is absolute not only because it can affirm everything existing in the world, but because it can endure every possible protest and criticism. Derrida says: "The unsurpassable, unique, and imperial grandeur of the order of that one cannot speak out against it except by being for it, that one can protest it only from within it; and within its domain, Reason leaves us only the recourse to stratagems and strategies."(7) All appeals and protests against reason can only use the language of reason. From this point of view there is no chance of defeating Hegel on his own ground. Derrida confirms this in what he has to say about Emmanuel Levinas, a French theologian and important commentator on Hegel: "as soon as he speaks against Hegel, Levinas can only confirm Hegel, has confirmed him already."(8) Hence Derrida's strategy: he adopts the language of metaphysics, of reason and critique, and works within it, but does so in order to renounce that language over and over again.
Derrida's connection with Hegel and the language of metaphysics is conditioned by the completeness of his critical attitude. On the one hand, he denies that philosophy can gather everything up into one point of view. This is a theme which surfaces again and again in his writings. As a critic of metaphysics, Derrida sees only deception in talk about a pure idea, a thought wholly clear to itself, a being fully present. On the other hand, he does not resist the language of metaphysics by somehow standing outside of it; he is certain that there can be no such standpoint. This explains why he is so critical of empiricism. Empiricism, he says, "destroys itself "; it lives in and from "the opposition of philosophy and nonphilosophy", but cannot sustain the opposition or make its own discourse intelligible. "The thought of this historical opposition between philosophy and empiricism is not simply empirical and it cannot be thus qualified without abuse and misunderstanding."(9)
Derrida would have the empirical world disappear into the language of metaphysics, even though this language in his view is utterly lacking in content. Here he draws on the Hegelian philosophy, or at least that part of it which reveals the naivety of any attempt to distinguish between existence (whether external or internal) and consciousness. Hegelian philosophy arises from the conviction that it is only in consciousness that 'the object' can appear to us, no matter how intuitive a sense we give to this expression. Any thought we may have of transcending consciousness is therefore futile. Even the object in its most limited and finite shape is existent for us only as something of which we are conscious. "Consciousness ... is something that goes beyond limits, and since these limits are its own, it is something that goes beyond itself. With the positing of a single particular the beyond is also established for consciousness, even if it is only alongside the limited object as in the case of spatial intuition."(10) Derrida agrees completely with Hegel on this point. Nevertheless, he says that Hegelian philosophy must be purged of that tendency which still holds it within the confines of metaphysics, the metaphysics of presence.
The connection between Derrida and Hegel emerges out of this reduction of all given phenomena to identity with consciousness. Of course, Derrida takes the appearance of pure consciousness in its abstraction to be a merely negative result. He moves from one thing to another, one way of thinking to the next, with a view to finding something new, and only ever sees nothingness or emptiness in what he encounters. Hegel thought that there was truth in the realm of appearances, of phenomena, and so did not collapse it all into a sceptical consciousness. And yet it is just this scepticism which binds deconstruction and Hegelian philosophy so closely together. "The scepticism that is directed against the whole range of phenomenal consciousness," Hegel writes, "renders the Spirit for the first time competent to examine what truth is."(11) When Derrida finds nothing true or stable in the way things appear to us he comes to the genuinely speculative moment in deconstruction. He comes to the point which Hegel called "absolute negativity", to the dissolution of all content in the abstract 'I' and the reconstitution of the content in a form made stable by knowledge of the substantial 'self' at work within it.(12) Derrida no doubt wants both truth and content to vanish, but the negation of everything existing is itself an element, an altogether necessary element, of the 'spirit' which Hegel wanted to capture whole and entire. This connection between Derrida and Hegel helps us to see the implications of Derrida's position more clearly. Deconstruction assumes that every claim to truth is null and void, but it also presupposes the nullity of its own standpoint and thus remains bound to the substantial content it is so determined to compromise.(13)

(references): page footnotes


Blogger crappy said...

or could it be that language is just language, a world of its own, constantly generating new worlds, new perspectives, ideologies, but ultimately having only the most tenuous connection with 'reality'.

3:41 PM  

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