Wednesday, July 26, 2006

by Kenneth Kierans (link)


To begin with the immediate intellectual background to the theory of deconstruction, the early Derrida, as is well known, worked out a detailed critique of the philosophy of Edmund Husserl. Derrida, like others of his generation, started from Husserl's standpoint and developed it, but then went beyond it altogether. From the perspective of a radical critique of reason, he showed that Husserl's philosophy contradicted its own presuppositions and could not be sustained. The way in which he did this will help us to clarify the connection between his position and Hegel's.(14)
Now so far as Derrida's critique of Husserl's philosophy is concerned, we need stress only the following points. First, Husserl aimed to found a science - a "rigorous science" - called "phenomenology", and with that to satisfy the highest theoretical and practical needs of philosophy. To this end, and in conformity with the whole movement of modern philosophy, he made the ego the fundament of all knowledge and consciousness. This ego, as he understands it, is utterly abstract and formal, and every object, every content, is freely constituted by it and rendered transparent.(15) Second, the ego is not only this conscious freedom and activity, but an existing, living individual, and its life presupposes a world that is prior to consciousness and its reflective operations. Phenomenology, in this sense, seeks the origin of truth and consciousness, and finds it in the immediacy of feeling or intuition. According to Husserl, "whatever presents itself in 'intuition' in primordial form (as it were in its bodily reality) is simply to be accepted as it gives itself out to be, though only within the limits in which it then presents itself ". The origin of the judgement of a thing is to be found in the intuition of the thing as it is present in bodily experience. This "principle of principles" is for Husserl in every instance "a source of authority (Rechtsquelle) for knowledge."(16)
One element in Husserl's philosophy is his vision of an absolute science, of a transcendental knowledge or consciousness. A second element is his insistence that the origin of truth is to be found in intuition, in the simple certainty that there is being and life - that is, a world by virtue of which every particular experience is experienced. But then there is no logical priority of consciousness, or of the categories by which the thinking subject posits its objects; on the contrary, since the origin of truth lies in intuition, we exist before we think.(17) Thus, as Husserl argues in Experience and Judgement, it is necessary to return to this origin of truth, to make contact with the world that lies behind our judgements and the categories they embody, to seek the primal experience where reflective distinctions have yet to be made. Husserl speaks here of a "simple believing consciousness", and notes that this involves the perception of a "preliminary presence", a "passive pregivenness", which is "always already there" before any discovery of meaning or "awakening of interest".(18) He explores this perception in a discussion of the preliminary and pregiven experience which grounds all our articulate and explicit knowledge of things. Such experience includes the apprehension of an "original present", a present which contains both past and future, an eternal now, a fully explicit and present object.(19)
This inquiry into the origin of truth which points us to the fulness of experience inspired Derrida to write his first major published essay, his Introduction to Husserl's Origin of Geometry.(20) But already in this early essay one can see a difference between Husserl and Derrida which is of considerable importance for Derrida's later work. For, as Husserl himself had pointed out, the present is never merely present, but always already past and still to come. This is the chief lesson of the famous lectures on the internal time-consciousness which Husserl gave between 1904 and 1910. The present in its immediacy, the 'now', appears as unstable, ever changing, continually 'running-off ' into the past. "Since a new now is always presenting itself, each now is changed into a past, and thus the entire continuity of the running-off of the pasts of the preceding points moves uniformly 'downward' into the depths of the past."(21) The present is the immanently negative and destructive moment which vanishes as quickly as it arises. Every purely intellectual or speculative science, according to Husserl, has as its origin this difference or non-coincidence of the present with itself. But then there arises a question the full force of which Derrida thinks Husserl failed to appreciate: is anything ever altogether present, or does the present itself actually take place?(22)
Husserl's history of European science and philosophy, his vision of the past and the future, hangs on this question. His answer, as Derrida shows, falls in the opposition between fact and reason.(23) In fact, we can be confronted by something from the past, a past way of life, a past way of thinking, the significance of which escapes us. It can mean nothing to us. This is clearly a consideration of some importance for historians or for anybody presented with an artifact or a cultural object of some sort which no longer makes any sense. But by right, according to Husserl, the recovery of an object, the recollection of it, is always possible. We know a priori that a past object is not merely past, but also ideally present. It exists as much in our present consciousness of it, in the 'Living Present', as in material that is constantly changing or passing away: "the absolute primordiality of the Living Present permits the reduction, without negation, of all alterity. The Living Present constitutes the other as other in itself and the same as the same in the other."(24) In this way, in raising ourselves to the level of consciousness, we can attain the highest degree of certainty. By an act of consciousness we can make meaningless objects meaningful, and continue to think what we think despite the radical alterity of other moments and acts.(25)
Derrida observes that for Husserl history is always a "pure history" of "meaning".(26) History is never just haphazard, or violent, or treacherous. It is a series of conscious acts, a succession of meaningful forms, an intelligible pattern of beliefs established across time, from generation to generation. History - the only history that counts - is orderly, peaceful and rational. Behind all of this, of course, there lies Husserl's primary assumption, his most deeply-felt conviction, that being is identifiable with meaning, that the way of the world is no different from an act of consciousness. Still, as Derrida notes, the identity of being and meaning is never given here and now but must be thought within a present that includes past and future, i.e., "the world's infinite horizon".(27) Indeed, it is only because Husserl denies the actuality of reason that he can celebrate the "infinite tasks" of science.(28)
Husserl embraces an ideal, a truth, which is both identical with the world and disproportionate to it. Naturally, he is aware of the contradiction implied within this conception of truth and tries to remove it. He holds that the origin of truth is to be found in the intuition of something absolute which is given and present and that this is to be grasped and made meaningful by the ego in a free act of consciousness. The ego determines what is true and meaningful, but for this very reason is directed to an end which is infinitely remote. There can be no apprehension of this end in what is "factual and worldly", in the here and now, but by right only.(29) The idea of truth or meaning is therefore for Husserl bound up with the idea in a Kantian sense of infinite historical progress.(30)
The passages in Husserl which mention God are equally concerned with this contradiction in human existence, the contradiction between the idea or the ideal of truth and meaning and the reality of meaninglessness. If being is identical with my meaning then I must be one with God and share in eternal truth. Derrida makes this point in a discussion of the traditional metaphysical path which starts from the world and the human consciousness of it and leads to knowledge of God.(31) If the world and my consciousness of truth are to be the same, then I must be one with God. I must acquire, or rather already possess, the divine standpoint of a speculative metaphysics or an absolute idealism. Otherwise, my concept of truth would be no more than "the indefinite openness to truth and to phenomenality".(32)
But for both Husserl and Derrida our divinity is an illusion. We know in advance that right and fact will never coincide. This is what Derrida calls, even at this early stage in his career, the "primordial Difference" between fact and right, between being and meaning, between humanity and divinity.(33) We cannot pass from human consciousness ('I am conscious of being') to divine consciousness ('being is conscious of itself '). There can be no deification of humanity, no humanization of God.(34) But then we cannot say how being and meaning are related to one another. Being is given as it is, and consciousness is something separate and apart.
Phenomenology as we see it through Husserl has a positive though subordinate role to play within Derrida's thinking. This is clear from what Derrida himself has to say about "the hidden historical field" of phenomenology.(35) Husserl makes meaning into an infinite principle which for Derrida means that it is undermined by its opposition to the finite.(36) The problem in Husserl is that of a pure consciousness, an empty ego, which presupposes being but can neither overcome it nor make it intelligible. Husserl sets himself the task of rendering being intelligible, but this task can never be realized, is there simply in the form of "an infinite Idea", the content of which "can never immediately and as such present itself in an intuition".(37)
Derrida goes beyond this opposition in his meditation on language (langage). Language is the place in which Husserl's demand for absolute truth can appear. It is "the indispensable medium and condition of possibility for absolute ideal Objectivity, for truth itself ". Language in the form of speech dissolves the immediate givenness of things and continually shapes and reshapes our vision of the world. "Speech (parole) is no longer simply the expression (AĆ¼sserung) of what, without it, would already be an object: caught again in its primordial purity: speech constitutes the object, and is a concrete juridical condition of truth."(38) Speech is the pure nullification of the antithesis between object and subject, of finite being in its opposition to truth.
But speech is connected to writing which opens up the field of transcendental experience. In writing Derrida encounters the meaninglessness of the past, the stubborn lack of intelligibility in history. He refers to the "silence of prehistoric arcana and buried civilizations" as well as to "the entombment of lost intentions" and "the illegibility of the lapidary inscription". These things, he says, reveal not only that the "transcendental subject" is a failure but that at work within it is a "transcendental sense of death".(39) In other words, the quest for absolute truth is subverted by the very act of writing it depends upon. Writing both institutes and undermines truth and meaning.
All language tends towards meaninglessness, but writing sums up and completes the process. "The field of writing has its originality in its ability to dispense with, due to its sense, every present reading in general."(40) Here Derrida is being deliberately paradoxical. He is not just saying that both meaning and the lack of meaning are intrinsic to writing. He is saying that writing, as the place of truth and meaning, makes meaninglessness possible. Indeed, one could say that, for Derrida, writing is never more meaningful than when one fails to make any sense of it at all!
The activity of uncovering such systematic incoherence within a text or an object, a work of art, for example, is what the later Derrida calls 'deconstruction.' The term has a passive as well as an active sense. Derrida wants to undermine all fixed conceptions of truth, but operates entirely from within the language of truth that is given to him. The simple 'destruction' of truth and meaning is out of the question. "The movements of deconstruction do not destroy structures from the outside. They are not possible and effective, nor can they take accurate aim, except by inhabiting those structures."(41) The same spirit of resignation, of passive acceptance, can be found in another one of Derrida's terms of art, 'differance', which is not quite 'difference' (with an 'e'). It is purposely misspelt (with an 'a') in Derrida's text and refers to the 'deferral' of meaning in language. Any given structure of truth can be undermined not only because the critic can refer to different interpretive contexts, but because language 'defers itself'. Language refers us to "the entire configuration of its meanings", but the coherent and definitive truth of these meanings is always out of reach, i.e. deferred.(42)
Differance or deferral is at the same time a purely intellectual movement, the movement of that finite which turns out to be infinite, because it is forever negating itself. This is the most important result of Derrida's critique of Husserl's phenomenology. We find ourselves in a situation in which truth can arise only out of the negation of all things finite, as out of pure nothingness. "Certainly nothing has preceded this situation. Assuredly nothing will suspend it...And contrary to what phenomenology - which is always phenomenology of perception - has tried to make us believe, contrary to what our desire cannot fail to be tempted into believing, the thing itself always escapes."(43)
We can perhaps now see more clearly why Derrida was drawn to Husserl's phenomenology. Derrida finds that Husserl not only opposes finite being to consciousness, but points the way to a sceptical dissolution of the opposition. Husserl's great achievement on this view was to show that there is in fact endless discrepancy between our original intuition of reality and the intentions of consciousness, that there can be no reconciliation between our intuition and the free act of consciousness. There is an unbridgeable gulf between them, a gulf which takes the form of an infinite distance, a remote end, an abysmal task.
Derrida maintains that the division of an abstract ego from its content cannot be sustained, that from Husserl's own standpoint the finite is not grounded in reason and consequently cannot be justified. "Husserl describes, and in one and the same movement effaces, the emancipation of speech as nonknowing."(44) It is a small step from Husserl's position to Derrida's view that all the finite is simple nullity. All Derrida has to do is to eliminate the actual content of phenomenology. And he does so as soon as he makes language logically anterior to the conscious ego and to its intuition of existence.
In this way Derrida annuls the distinction between what is original and what is derived, between what is simply present to one and what is there by virtue of an act of consciousness. There is no doubt a certain arbitrariness in this view. Yet it gives us an insight into a whole theory of language. Derrida says, "the system of signs is constituted solely by the difference in terms, and not by their plenitude. The elements of signification function due not to the compact force of their nuclei but rather to the network of oppositions that distinguish them, and then relates them one to another."(45) Language has as its central feature the relation of words to one another, never the relationship of words to things, but always the relationship of words to one another, of discourse to other discourse, signs to other signs. No doubt the influence of Saussure's theory of linguistics can be discerned here. There is, as Derrida indicates, no connection in consciousness or in sensation between a sign and what it signifies. A 'signifier' relates only to other signifiers never to a 'signified.'(46) This is what Derrida emphasizes in his study of Husserl's phenomenology, and he intends thereby to go beyond all limits, to dissolve the apparent givenness of the finite world, and to move directly from this encounter with nothingness into a world of infinite interrelationships and substitutions among words.

(references): page footnotes


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home