Wednesday, July 26, 2006

by Kenneth Kierans (link)


Husserl had elevated all questions of truth and meaning to the consciousness of the free ego, referring us at the same time to the intuition of a world, to a power independent of rational cognition which makes itself felt in sensible reality. In a manner reminiscent of Hegel's critique of Kant and Fichte, the early Derrida discovered a discrepancy between this intuited world and the endless investigations which Husserl conducted into the ego and the inward reflection that characterizes it.(47) The conjunction of intuition and consciousness in Husserl's philosophy implies, as Derrida says, "an immediate eidetic", a purely formal activity of thought which inevitably tends to annihilate the content of intuition.(48) This dialectic, which challenges all given beliefs and convictions, unsettling everything that is external to it, works so that nothing remains at the end but the action of the ego itself, the bare abstraction of thought - consciousness without an object.
In Hegel's philosophy the endlessly critical and destructive aspect of the dialectic is conditioned by "absolute" truth, the "positive Idea that being is strictly nothing outside of the infinite, or apart from ego and thought. Both being and thought are one".(49) The actual content of the world, the substantial totality of things, is not separate and distinct from thought, but absolutely present to it. This is not Derrida's view. He denies that the unity of thought with its object can be clearly or even implicitly present, that the ego can penetrate into and beyond diverse forms of being and calmly contemplate them, that the 'Idea' can be the basis at once of the ego and the external and natural. For this reason Derrida remains tied to the transcendental standpoint he finds so empty of content. He cannot escape the discrepancy he discovers at every stage of Husserl's philosophical development: that which is distinct from the ego still presents itself as an other, an alien and unintelligible affair. Still, there is the other perspective in which Derrida's infinitely critical thinking is closer to Hegel's absolute philosophy than Husserl's finite philosophy is.(50)
Derrida recognizes that Hegel's philosophy brings together opposite tendencies in philosophy. Both objectivity and consciousness, being and thought, tradition and critique, have a place in his system. Hegel's philosophy is profoundly traditional, for it is only the "presence or presentation" of what is already known - i.e., the "truth of man" as it appears to him in his consciousness of the "past". At the same time Hegel's philosophy is essentially critical, for it announces the "death" of the "finite man", the disappearance of "man past".(51) Hegel wants to affirm all past philosophy and religion, but makes no effort to limit modern freedom and self-consciousness. His aim is not only to relate these forces to each other, but to demonstrate their fundamental unity and coherence.
Derrida seems to grasp the unity of Hegel's work and to avoid any one-sided interpretation of his thought. He acknowledges that tradition and critique, positivity and negativity, come together as one in Hegel's philosophy to form a "profound, systematic truth". Yet he does not at all believe that the opposed directions or tendencies of Hegel's thought can be fused in one system. On the contrary, he holds that Hegel's critical self-consciousness, his "very necessary" preoccupation with "negativity", can be separated from the metaphysical notion of "presence".(52) He looks back on Hegel's philosophy as the final truth of its tradition, and thus as the first indication of a new kind of thinking. This thinking overcomes the traditional categories of Western thought precisely because it is free of the "dialectics of truth and negativity".(53)
Derrida portrays Hegel's philosophy as a monumental - and successful - effort to bring together metaphysical thought and modern freedom, traditional belief and critical reflection. Hegel's driving ambition was to enter into the thought of the past and appropriate it, to understand the tradition and make it his own. In realizing this ambition, however, his philosophy inevitably points beyond itself. Derrida agrees with Georges Bataille: "He [Hegel] did not know to what extent he was right".(54) To the extent that Hegel knows the totality of tradition he knows the openness and indeterminacy of the future. This relation of past and future to each other allows Hegel both to recognize and to transcend the "passage" of time, the "vanishing" of the present.(55) It also allows Derrida to explore the possibility of something new and different, that is, a "rigorous critical" questioning which cannot be subordinated to any traditional "law" or philosophical "tribunal".(56)
Derrida develops his position out of a close reading of Hegel's philosophy. In a very fine example of textual analysis, he shows how Hegel distinguishes 'eternity' from the succession of moments presenting itself to consciousness as the process of 'time'. Insofar as the single moment, the "now" (Jetzt), comes and goes, arises and vanishes, it is limited and thus a "finite" expression of the "present" (Gegenwart).(57) Hegel, as a traditional philosopher, makes this point in order to criticize the limited and finite aspect of the "temporal form" of consciousness. He moves from one moment of consciousness to another with a view to arriving at an "eternal" present, but there is a difficulty: every expression of "infinite" presence is as much in time as outside of it. The concept of eternity necessarily manifests itself in time, and in so doing "loses in difference the unity of its beginning and its end".(58) This is really Derrida's last word on Hegel. What he finds acceptable is not the result but the process of Hegel's philosophy. He is certain that Hegel's method yields no real result, that his argument reveals no final truth, because the law under which it operates requires that every concept be turned by an immanent critique into its own opposite. The critique is utterly destructive: everything both true and untrue is consumed in it.(59)
Derrida therefore pits the negative side of Hegel's thought against the positive side. Hegel's concept of Aufhebung, the surpassing and conserving of one form of consciousness after another, is seen not as the point at which negativity is overcome, but the point from which negativity proceeds to undermine every possible system of truth. The Aufhebung is known, not as the appearance of the spirit, of the substantial self, but rather as the "empty form" of its own restless movement. "This displacement is paradigmatic: within a form of writing, an intraphilosophical concept, the speculative concept par excellence, is forced to designate a movement which properly constitutes the excess of every possible philosopheme."(60) This movement of thought subordinates Hegel to a position for which he had harsh words in his Encyclopaedia: "If the result - the realized Spirit in which all mediation has superseded itself - is taken in a merely formal, contentless sense, so that the spirit is not also at the same time known as implicitly existent and objectively self-unfolding; - then that infinite subjectivity is the merely formal self-consciousness, knowing itself in itself as absolute - Irony." The ironic self-consciousness declares that it has superseded all previous religion and philosophy, but in Hegel's view "falls back rather into the vanity of wilfulness". It can make everything "objective" empty and vain but is itself "emptiness and vanity", for it is only by "chance" and "its own good pleasure" that it gives itself content and direction.(61) This is how Hegel understands the "irony" of Fichte and Schlegel. Derrida would collapse Hegel into the ironical self-consciousness of Fichte and Schlegel.(62)
Derrida interprets Hegel against Hegel, but does not propose to offer a more coherent or more meaningful philosophy. Rather he affirms the negativity of time, the ambiguity of everything present, in a way which challenges all past religion and philosophy. We can see this in his account of the history of writing. Derrida finds that there is an entire tradition which subordinates the written to the spoken word. This tradition takes the oral sign to be the sign of something immediately and directly present: an individual's original gesture or action. Writing arises when one takes the oral sign to be insufficient, when one needs to reach others who are absent or incapable of seeing or hearing what has originally happened. The written sign is the sign of the oral sign, the sign of a sign. Writing in this sense fulfils a supplementary function. Indeed, for Derrida, "writing is the supplement par excellence since it marks the point where the supplement proposes itself as supplement of supplement, sign of sign, taking the place of a speech already significant".(63) But this formulation implies that the function of the written sign is really the function of every sign. Every sign is a 'signifier' whose 'signified' is always another signifier, never the object, the thing itself, present before us, in our field of vision.
At the origin of speech and writing there is no origin, no real presence at all, but only a supplement in the place of an origin that is always absent. This explains why, for Derrida, the metaphysical and theological idea of an "originary presence" is so deeply flawed. No system of thought can eliminate the ambiguity of the present, that is, its complicated relation to past and future (both of which are absent). What Derrida calls the "trace" is the present sign of something absent, an absent past or an absent future. Every sign is surrounded by this strange trace of something we can neither fully remember nor make absolutely manifest. It is therefore necessary to conceive of a past which never was present, and never will appear, a past which is no longer bound up with our sense of ourselves - an "absolute past". It is also necessary to speak of a "future", of a "cosmic time", which cannot be anticipated or envisaged within any "metaphysical" or "dialectical" system of thought.(64)
But there is an affinity between Derrida's 'trace' - the proposition that there is no origin which founds knowledge - and Hegel's 'absolute'. Derrida knows well enough that Hegel's philosophy incorporates into itself the 'infinite' movement, the 'negative' attitude which excludes everything that is, but which for that very reason stands in relation to 'totality' and is determined by it.(65) Hegel's philosophy is a vision of the whole that is active and eternally present to itself in everything that can be differentiated from it. There is for Hegel no consciousness without an object, but equally no object without a consciousness. Nothing is absolutely and immediately present from the beginning, everything is derived, to the point where the whole system of 'metaphysical' or 'dialectical' mediations is known as the only reality.(66) Derrida insists that his reflection on time and the present "differs" profoundly from Hegel's vision of these things. Yet he does not want us to see his position as a "break" with Hegel's standpoint.(67)
Derrida's position is a "displacement" of Hegelian discourse as "infinitesimal" as it is "radical".(68) This displacement demands a certain playfulness which is foreign to Hegelian philosophy, but does no more than betray the discourse within discourse, the truth within truth. The displacement is not the experience of a full and present meaning establishing itself at the limit of difference, of negativity, of death. The experience of displacement is rather the experience of "absolute difference".(69) And yet there is a link between Hegel's thinking of difference - which is always in aid of truth and meaning - and Derrida's thinking of difference, which is beyond all identifying thought. Derrida's thinking is not opposed to Hegel's; nor is it a meditation on the negative absence of truth and meaning, a 'negative theology'.(70) Derrida presupposes truth in the Hegelian sense, truth which is active and fully present in the world, for without such truth he would never actually arrive at the point of non-presence, never really experience the displacement of truth and meaning. This is why he is always looking to subvert philosophical discourse, but admits that "philosophy, Hegelian speculation, absolute knowledge and everything that they govern...will govern endlessly in their closure".(71)
From Derrida's point of view both Hegel and the history of philosophy offer no more than a history of ordinary discourse about the external world, reason, and goodness. Philosophy is a speculative discourse, which sets out from a certain experience of thinking, and becomes at length a thinking of experience. Experience and thinking are continuously related to one another in this way through the more or less 'vulgar' concept of 'presence'. This presence is the basis on which 'absence' has traditionally been understood and interpreted. But Derrida does not propose that we now think this absence, make it our foundation, or bring it to light, as if it were some forgotten reality. Rather, we must accept that the history of philosophy cannot be replaced, that metaphysics is destined to govern our thinking. Only then, he says, will we be free of the ordinary or vulgar tendency to see things speculatively, to look around for a still 'hidden' truth: "it is the tie between truth and presence that must be thought, in a thought that henceforth may no longer need to be either true or present".(72)
Derrida's meditation on truth and presence is and is not compatible with the history of philosophy. His meditation is another thinking of truth, another experience of presence. It is a thinking that goes beyond the metaphysical moment toward a less restricted, more general experience of truth and presence. But this more general experience offers itself both in the texts of metaphysics and in Derrida's reading of these texts. Hence the ambiguity of his whole approach. Derrida will limit himself to an interpretation of a given metaphysical text, even as he seeks to uncover traces of "an entirely other text". He says that every text can be divided into two, but denies that there is any real opposition between them: "Two texts, two hands, two visions, two ways of listening. Together simultaneously and separately".(73) It is the metaphysical text which allows the other text to be deciphered, albeit in ways which the metaphysical mind can never grasp.
Derrida's thinking is always both philosophical and anti-philosophical, both inside and outside the truth of a text. Every metaphysical text from the beginning is compromised, fractured, divided into two. Between the text by Hegel and itself there passes in Derrida's words "a barely perceptible veil" separating Hegel's thought from itself.(74) A reading of Hegel's text, as of any metaphysical text, requires a double perspective in order to do justice to this inherent duplicity. This double perspective splits the metaphysical text into two. A slight displacement, a slight play on the meaning of the text, is enough to move from the first to the second. But it is always the duplicity of the first text which enables one to exceed or transgress in the direction of the second text. It is Hegel's text itself which makes Derrida's double reading of Hegel possible.(75)
This brings us back to Derrida's belief that Hegel's absolute knowledge marks the "closure", if not the "end", of history. Derrida distinguishes in Hegel a timeless system of thought, as "servile" as it is "full of meaning", and a critique of tradition, which points the way to something new. This critique of tradition, the "passage" from one form of "past" consciousness to the next, is what he thinks is promising in Hegel - the critique itself and the "play" of meaning and non-meaning it brings into view. Between this arbitrary play and Hegelian speculation there is obvious tension and difference. Derrida's absolute knowledge is not what Hegel thought it was, that is, the consciousness that continuously and forever completes the "circle" of meaning, "which is always where it comes from, and where it is going to". Derrida speaks rather of discontinuity, of the desire to emerge from the "tissue" of absolute knowledge, to break out in an "absolute rending". Such violent Nietzschean desire could not be farther from Hegelian speculation. At the same time, however, Derrida refers to an absolute knowledge "once more become 'solid' and servile in once more having been read".(76) Thus there is continuity between the desire to go beyond absolute knowledge and the need to affirm it. Absolute knowledge, in Derrida's view, is a two-way process of interaction between absolute meaning and absolute non-meaning, between absolute necessity and absolute contingency. Absolute knowledge is the constant oscillation between the timeless and the historical, reason and its other, which is nothing but the work of deconstruction itself.
Derrida could not be more ironical: what he finds admirable in Hegel is the idea of history as a succession of diverse and disconnected forms of life. By contrast Hegel emphasized the idea that history is a connected series of forms, a progressive realization of a universal human freedom. Much could be said about this difference.(77) At the very least it is clear that Derrida has absorbed the Nietzschean and Heideggerian critique of humanism. His animus against Hegel (and Marx) is such that he will not allow the successive forms of spirit from ancient Greece to the present day to embody an uninterrupted history of humanity. What he takes from Hegel is the notion of "ruptures" and "discontinuities" in the continuum of history, "displacements" in the movement of concepts from period to period. "In order to mark effectively the displacements of the sites of conceptual inscription, one must articulate the systematic chains of the movement according to their proper generality and their proper period, according to their unevennesses, their inequalities of development, the complex figures of their inclusions, implications, exclusions, etc."(78) But Hegel says: "These forms of spirit are distinguished from the previous forms in that they are real spirits, proper actualities, and instead of being forms of consciousness only, are forms of a world".(79) Derrida so empties historical forms of worldly content that Hegel's concept of spirit appears to fade away into nothing, to lose all actuality. The identification with 'spirit' or with the history of 'humanity' seems impossible - a more or less naive attempt to secularize the idea of becoming one with God.
And yet what Derrida says about history is linked to a discussion of Plato and Christianity in which he appears to side with Hegel against Heidegger. I am thinking of his attempt to connect philosophy and religion with the development of freedom and self-consciousness in his little book on spirit. Like Heidegger, he finds in the "Platonic-Christian" tradition the origin of that "rational" and "intellectual" freedom which was fully realized only in "modern Idealism".(80) Unlike Heidegger, he does not imagine that the unity of the divine subject and the human subject which underlies this history can be forgotten or overcome. In fact, he argues that Heidegger was insufficiently aware of the continuing "power" of the Christian interpretation of history. "We have here a program and combinatory whose power remains abyssal."(81) But then Derrida at least implicitly acknowledges the integration of the divine and human in his view of history in that human subjectivity, aware in its purity of its own emptiness, is identical with the self-unfolding of the divine throughout the ages.(82) Hegel takes a similar view when he insists that the identity of the divine with the human - abstractly realized in the "Fate" of ancient Greece - is the basis and goal of the entire history of humanity.(83)
Derrida brings out the negative or restless aspect of Hegel's philosophical thought. In this light, the history of philosophy can be nothing but a contest between divergent philosophical positions, a struggle between irreconcilable aspects of the same intellectual tradition. Derrida's "double writing" is intended to reflect this endless shifting of emphasis between the "higher" and "lower" terms of the classical philosophical hierarchies that are forever re-establishing themselves. Certainly, Derrida also wants to be beyond the oppositions: "By means of this double, and precisely stratified, dislodged and dislodging, writing, we must also mark the interval between inversion, which brings low what was high, and the irruptive emergence of a new 'concept', a concept that can no longer be, and never could be, included in the previous regime."(84) But the desire for a "new" concept in this sense is driven by the kind of scepticism with which Hegel was familiar: "The scepticism that ends up with the bare abstraction of nothingness or emptiness cannot get any further from there, but must wait to see whether something new comes along and what it is, in order to throw it too into the same empty abyss."(85)
Derrida resists any suggestion that his position can be reduced to 'scepticism'.(86) He says of his critical standpoint that it is with "all the risks, but without the metaphysical or romantic pathos of negativity".(87) I take it that this is because he regards the critical consciousness as the point at which traditional forms of thought and life continuously come into view. But for this reason he tends to underestimate the risks in his debate with Hegel. Derrida warns us again and again that the opposition in Hegel between timeless thought and historical change, between traditional wisdom and radical critique, cannot be "immediately" overcome. He himself concedes that the opposition of philosophical and historical forms has a certain "necessity", and therefore that the debate with the traditional metaphysical account of history is "interminable".(88) The unbroken connection of the critical deconstructive consciousness with Hegel's account of philosophy and history is in fact everywhere assumed in Derrida's writings.
It would take a longer and more detailed argument to make such a connection clear. Here it is enough to say that it is the nature of Derrida's position to have its opposite within it, i.e. the metaphysical thought which grasps the fundamental unity and coherence of the tradition. Since deconstruction requires that its thinking shall be open and indeterminate it does not understand itself in conformity with its implicit nature. It tries to deny what is in it implicitly and to posit itself as a new and independent standpoint. But the truth is that deconstruction has never really stood on its own ground. Indeed, it has always acknowledged in itself the presence of the metaphysical idea it would refuse. I would argue that this has been the greatness of deconstruction from the beginning. What deconstruction helps us to do - its own intention notwithstanding - is to rediscover the continuity of history, to reaffirm the truth of our almost forgotten philosophical tradition. It does not do this by following feeling or intuition, or by looking to some truth beyond consciousness. It does this - in however tortured a way - by allowing itself to think in conformity with the structures of traditional metaphysical thought. The movement 'beyond deconstruction' can mean nothing other than this reduction of deconstruction to a moment in the history of philosophy. It is necessary only that we recognize deconstruction as the implicit essence of the very tradition it loves to despise.

(references): page footnotes


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