The Never-ending Paper, or the Problem of Entering Derrida

A talk for the Philosophy Society
in the University of Aberdeen February 22, 1994

On the contemporary philosophical scene, Derrida holds a remarkable posi­tion. Some people take him to be the most original thinker of our times. Others take him to be the greatest charlatan of 20th century philosophy. And maybe he is both. Or neither.

Whatever the various opinions that people have of Derrida, there is a problem concerning understanding him properly, or rather of entering his world of thinking and writ­ing. Every great philosopher has had a way of generating around his or her works a world of thinking into which he invites his readers and listeners. To understand a philosopher presupposes that you have already entered his world of thought. But although you have penetrated his world, this does not mean that you understand the philosopher properly. It only means that you now can move within his works and start putting things together, as you understand them, in your own world of thinking.

In this talk I am not going to discuss or present Derrida’s philosophy. Rather, I want to tell you something which might help you enter his world of thinking and writing. And then you may start trying to understand his philosophy, comparing him with others, criticizing his arguments and so on, within a tangible framework.

The reason for my approach is simple and I have already stated it indirectly. Derrida is a difficult writer and even, for many people, totally incomprehensible. Some people may blame themselves for not understanding him; others, of course, blame Derrida himself. In any case, Derrida is truly disturbing, and both those who admire him and those who despise him seem to have a tendency to resist him as if they feared he was leading them into an unidentified and insecure area.

I believe that such fears are justified and that it is quite natural to react to Derrida by resisting him or even rejecting him. I am going to talk about this resistance and this rejection in some of their manifestations. More precisely, I am going to talk about three reasons for the problem of entering Derrida. If I am lucky, this may help some of you to get into his work.

The first reason why it is difficult to enter Derrida’s worldhas to do with his personal style of writing and pre­senting his thought. The second reason concerns the background of his philosophy. The third reason concerns his objectives, the point of what he is doing in philosophy.

Each of these reasons would require an entire paper, so let me summarize these three possible, but unwritten papers:

(1)  Derrida’s style has, on my view, three characteristics. The first is that his writings constantly overflow with meanings and ideas, and are quite of­ten unbearable for that reason. He is saying too much, and explaining too little, to be what people call accessible or readable. The second is that he never expresses himself univocally; rather, it is as if many voices are talking to you at the same time. You are not at all sure where the voices are coming from, who is speaking, or to whom the speech is spo­ken. The third is that it is rarely obvious about what Derrida is talking; or, rather, his writings may seem to be, and even obviously are, about many things at once.

(2)  The second reason why it is difficult to enter the world of Derrida is the metaphysical tradition of European philosophy. Derrida’s writing and thinking is built upon this rich tradition of thought and makes constant use of various concepts, ideas and theories of the main writers of this tradition from Plato to Heidegger via Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche. Moreover, in dealing with this tradition and using it as raw material for his works and lectures, Derrida makes constant use of various other sources of thinking within European culture, namely theories from linguistics and psychoanalysis, and also literary works like those of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Joyce, Beckett and many, many others.

(3)  The third reason, which concerns Derrida’s objectives, is harder to summarize, because it is open to all kinds of speculation. Derrida is not responsible for this. Nobody really knows what a philosopher is up to or what he is do­ing. What was Plato really doing, or Hume, or Wittgenstein? We may pretend to know, but if we look at the history of interpretation of these philosophers we realize that we are likely to be in for some surprises. To take just one example, nobody knows what Plato was really doing when he wrote the Republic, and nobody even knows what it is about. (A good Plato specialist whom I know thinks that the Republic is in fact about love.) Nevertheless, in the case of Derrida many people seem to be disturbed by the fact that it is not clear what he is up to in his philosophy. And this seems to stop people from entering his world of thinking.

For those who have or think they have already entered Derrida all I have said so far may seem misleading. (1) Derrida’s style is not overflowing with meaning, rather it is extraordinarily rich and inspiring. (2) He has left the metaphysical tradition by explain­ing it away as logocentric or phonocentric. (3) What he is up to is the decon­struction of all conceptual and cultural theories and networks.

Before discussing this, let me delve a little more deeply into what I have now summarized and explain why and how these are the reasons for the problem of entering Derrida and of our resistance to do so.

I mentioned three characteristics of Derrida’s style: overflow of meaning, polyphony and cryptic aims. We have a natural tendency, if I may say so, to reject philosophy presented in such a style as meaningless, or, if we are polite, to put it aside as mere rhetoric or as an example of poetic expression of some kind – in other words, we reject considering it as a serious piece of philo­sophical work.

Is this reaction in its various forms well founded? Should we refuse to enter Derrida’s world of writing because his style does not fit or does not seem to be in accordance with the tradition of philosophical writing which began with Plato and Aristotle?

Let us first think about the origin of this unwillingness or rejection. I believe it is to be found in Plato’s turning away from the poets and in the subsequent circumscription of philo­sophical discourse as the primary vehicle of knowledge or of the truth of the intelligible world beyond the world of our senses (and philosophical dialogue is, in this light, an instrument for freeing ourselves from our bodily, earthly condition). To understand in the philosophical sense then means to grasp the truth of some­thing; philosophical discourse should serve the truth and the meaning of all and every word and sentence should be directed towards that aim. Since the time of the Greeks, we have developed all kinds of criteria by which to criticize discourses that do not respect this basic desire for the truth.

Derrida apparently presents a clear example of a dis­course which does not succumb to this philosophical imperative of trying to grasp, present and make us understand the truth. This philosophical imperative tells us to stick to one meaning at a time, to speak on behalf of the mind that seeks to understand the truth and nothing but the truth, and to be absolutely clear. In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates constantly reminds us of these rules. And as you can see, they are directly opposed to the three characteristics of Derrida’s style that I mentioned earlier: overflow of meaning, polyphony and indefinite subject matter.

Here we seem to have developed solid reasons for resisting or rejecting Derrida. His writings are not, or so it seems, written in a serious philosophical style and should rather be considered as poetic or rhetorical ways of playing with words and ideas. This playfulness with terms does not obey the laws of logic which define the conditions for a properly philosophical discourse. In short, Derrida’s writings clearly do not pass the test of elementary propositional logic and thus they fully deserve to be rejected as non-philosophical, if not anti-philosophical.

Should we accept this Platonic argument against Derrida? Is our resistance, our unwillingness to enter his world and to take his work seriously, well-founded? So it seems, if we take for granted that the Platonic move against the poets, against rhetorical and poetic discourse that is not aimed at the truth, was entirely justified. But there are serious reasons for doubting the validity of this move.

The main reason, I believe, is that the Platonic move is itself of a poetic and rhetorical nature. It may even be considered as a violent and irra­tional attack on innocent people: poets, sophists and orators. I say innocent because there is no proof that they were against truth or reason, or against the philo­sophy which Socrates and Plato cared so much for. In fact, it is Plato or Socrates (or both) who denounce these people as enemies of truth, reason and philosophy, because of what Socrates and Plato take to be tricks, power-games and rhetorical devices.

Here comes the second reason to doubt Plato’s move against poetic and rhetori­cal language (and this doubt concerns, in a way, his entire philosophy). Not only was Plato’s argument not founded on pure reason, but his dialogues, all of them, are full of rhetorical, poetic and power-oriented concepts and distinctions which often make him hard to understand.[1]And this view of Plato ought to be extended to the philosophical tradition taken as a whole: the works of Aristotle, Plotinus, St. Augustin, St. Thomas, of Descartes, Spinoza, Hume and Kant, of Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Quine are full of rhetorical and poetic expressions, and are created by writers who were not pure rational minds, but living beings with their heads full of fantasies and quite often out of their minds, at least in their writings.[2]

In this regard, then, the conclusion is that if we are to resist or refuse to enter Derrida’s world of writing because of his style, I think we will have to adopt the same attitude vis-à-vis many other philosophers. All classical philosophical works may be rejected as unphilo­sophical or anti-philosophical by the very same criteria by which some present-day philosophers try to justify their resistance to or rejection of Derrida’s writings.

To this critical remark I would like to add some positive observations. If what I have just said is right, it means that philosophy or philosophical works should always be treated as literary constructions or works of fiction of a special kind, just as much as works of rational thinking. This does not mean that they should be treated lightly or that they may be dismissed as not worthy of serious consideration. On the contrary, Derrida would himself doubt, or even reject, the distinction I have been making between the rational and the fictional and would claim that philosophical thinking is both fictional and rational, and that one should not, in any case, take this distinction seriously. Derrida’s writ­ings are living proof of an effort to deliberately dismiss this distinction, and by doing so, he is knowingly or intentionally writing philosophical works that do not hide the fact that philosophy is not the creation of rational thought alone. And then you see that Derrida’s writings inevitably raise questions about the nature of philosophical thought itself, of its ways of expressing itself and of its relationship with reason and rationality.

Let us now turn to the second aspect of the problem of entering Derrida. This has to do with the metaphysical tradition of European philosophy. Derrida is an historian of philosophy, and if he can be said to be a specialist in any field, I believe that would be the history of metaphysics. Metaphysics here means the systematic effort to discover the first principles of thought, where one concen­trates on concepts like appearance and reality, time and eternity, being and non-being, substance and accident, and so on. These concepts, as you know, have been submitted to all kinds of analyses from Plato to contemporary philosophers like Heidegger and Quine.

When Derrida speaks, it is often in order to let the spirits of this great tradition come through, the ghosts, if you like, of the great metaphysicians of the past, especially Plato and Hegel. So, if you want to enter Derrida’s world you should become familiar with classical and modern metaphysics. But Derrida himself is of no great help in this regard. His writings are not in the least introductions to the metaphysical tradi­tion but rather a constant investigation of, and sometimes a vigorous attack upon, the works and the authors of this tradition, to which he himself belongs.

How should one make oneself familiar with the metaphysical tradition? A practical answer, of course, would come down to reading and studying the great works of metaphysical thinkers from Plato to Heidegger. But then it would be important not to do so by looking at these authors and works as belonging to the past, but rather as our contemporaries who invite us to participate in their endeavour. How do we do that? How do we become active members of the metaphysical endeavour of philosophical thought? More precisely, what is the main concern of this tradition that has to become our concern if we are to become its active members?

I am not sure whether I can describe this properly for you. In a way, each member of this tradition has his own way of describing it and to express it. The reason for this is that metaphysics is not only a universal endeavour, a project that everyone is invited to take part in, it is also a kind of personal challenge, or rather a personal calling, to which everybody must respond in his or her own personal manner. One way of naming the metaphysical concern would be to say that it is about the ultimate reasons or grounds for meaning and truth, or more accurately, about how the grounds for everything in the world and for the world itself can be articulated con­ceptually in such a way that nothing fundamental is left unsaid.

Now this endeavour – this verbal or theoretical longing for the ultimate ground, the Logos of all logic, of all reasons, of all meaningful discourse and discussions – has from its very beginning in Plato been considered by many critics not only as childish attempt which is doomed to fail, but as utterly meaningless, as not only hopeless but absurd, comparable to a madman constantly repeating the same act without seeing that it leads to nothing.

Of course, most philosophers today are not madmen; they do not believe in finding the ultimate Logos or the ground of all grounds. But for some philo­sophers this means that the metaphysical concern is no longer the business of phi­losophy and that philosophers should only worry about theories and concepts, not about the meaning of existence or of reality.

Derrida is not a madman and he does not believe, any more than most contemporary philoso­phers do, that we can find the true Logos of the world, but that does not mean that he denies the metaphysical concern. On the contrary, he sees this concern as the most urgent worry of all serious philosophy, as the concern that has dominated and still dominates all philosophy since Plato first advanced his extra­ordinary theory of ideas with the idea of the Good at the centre. The striving for the fundamental truth of all truths is for Derrida what has kept philosophy going, and still keeps it going, whether we recognise this or not. Moreover, Derrida has a theory about the main characteristics of this metaphysical striving in its various forms through the centuries. It is what he has called logocentrism or phonocentrism or even sometimes phallogocentrism. It means the tendency or the arrogance to think that philosophical discourse is able, in one way or another, to make the Logos of all things appear within its conceptual network. Or if you like, that reality, in its fundamental structures, will present itself to philosophical thought. The idea of reality as presence, as given to us in conceptual form which we can con­template in our minds or in our philosophical discussions is at the heart of this Pla­tonic way of thinking. And this way of thinking can be found not only in all classical metaphysics, but also in contemporary philosophical theories in vari­ous forms and disguises. One sign of it is the belief in essential distinctions like the one between the rational and the irrational, between a priori and a posteriori, be­tween the logical and the empirical, between the subjective and the objective, be­tween the idea and its content, and so on.

In the beginning of his career as an historian of the metaphysical tradition, Derrida was very much, and still is, under the influence of Martin Heidegger and his ontological thinking. I will mention only two aspects of Heidegger’s ontology that are of great importance for Derrida’s vision of metaphysics and the development of his own metaphysical thought. One is Heidegger’s distinction between Being and beings, the so-called ontological difference. The second is Heidegger’s project of destruction of the conceptual structures of metaphysics in order to approach Being.

Before I explain how Derrida makes use of these Heideggerian ideas, it is im­portant to remark that Heidegger himself failed to realise the ontological theory which he initially thought would replace the outworn metaphysical con­structions of the past. Heidegger was the first to admit this failure and to see that his project was doomed to fail. At a certain point, he makes a distinction between his own philosophy and Jaspers’ philosophy of existence by saying that the gap be­tween them is like the one between a philosophy that fails and a philosophy which deals with failure as basic to human existence.

Of course, Heidegger did not see his failure as something that he himself was responsible for, but rather he thought that the very project of a metaphysical or ontological theory was doomed to fail because of its own nature. Such a theory would never attain its object; or rather the object, Being itself, would always withdraw from all philosophical attempts to grasp it. Heidegger also has another way of presenting the end of the metaphysical project, i.e. by saying that our age, our historical period, is the ultimate realisation of the metaphysical project of grasping reality itself. This reali­sation of metaphysics is technology in all its forms, especially cybernetics: the science which deals with control over everything.

The main characteristic of metaphysical theories, according to Heidegger, is precisely that they have always tried to gain theoretical control over what there is and thus they lose sight of Being itself which is different from everything there is. Finally, in our age of technology, this control has reached its ultimate stage and is affecting every­thing. In his later works Heidegger entirely abandons metaphysical vo­cabulary and tries to develop a non-metaphysical way of thinking about Being, one which would free us from the dream of theoretical or technological control.

Although Derrida is in many ways very close to Heidegger, he does not share Heidegger’s attachment to the idea of Being as that which is beyond all beings. But while he does not take up as fundamental the ontological difference between Being and beings, he accepts the idea of difference as basic to all our thinking and writing. But it is basic in a strange way, because at the same time as it tells us that it is fun­damental, it tells us that there is nothing fundamental, or rather that it is impossible to identify anything as the fundamental thing either in reality or in our thoughts about it. Therefore difference is not a concept in the ordinary sense, it does not have any content to be analysed or clarified. It designates, if you like, a gap, an abyss, which makes it possible for us to think about reality or anything whatsoever, but without the real possibility of getting hold of something absolutely fixed or stable.

As you can gather from this, the world of Derrida, if we ever enter it, may remind us of the Heraclitian reality where everything is changing, moving, never the same as it was a moment ago or will be in the next moment, where everything is different from what it is, where the différance, which also may mean delay, is letting “reality” appear anew as unknown or unidentified. Reality is an event, it is something happening, coming to us, as if the origin of all things, of reality itself were in the future which has not yet arrived but is always coming to be. The ending of everything is, so to speak, postponed, and you may start to worry that this paper will never end either!

To think in the Derridean world would mean, I believe, stop waiting for Godot, but waiting and listening all the same to what there is to come.

Let us now turn to the second Heideggerian concept, the destruction of metaphysical edifices, a concept which Derrida has made use of and changed in his own way, and which has come to be the name of his project, namely deconstruction. We arrive here at the third and last reason I wanted to talk about which may help us under­stand the problem of entering Derrida, namely what he is up to, what he is doing in his philosophy. Because of his idea about logocentrism as the style of philosophy from Plato to Heidegger, some people seem to think that Derrida is no longer doing philosophy, but is rather introducing a new way of thinking after the end of philosophy as based upon the metaphysical concern. And deconstruction would be the name of this new kind of writing and thinking.

I think it is right to say that Derrida is introducing or trying to introduce a differ­ent way of thinking under the name of deconstruction, but I do not see it as a way out of philosophy, but rather as an attempt at doing philosophy without being under the spell of logocentrism. It would then be a kind of philosophy that does not intend to enclose reality within a given theoretical framework, but aims at putting philoso­phy at the service of the reality which never has been and never will be submitted to the violence of our conceptual networks. And since whenever we start talking systemat­ically about reality we always encounter the various metaphysical constructions that have shaped our Western understanding of reality, what we have to do is to work our way through these constructions in order to be able to bear witness to the un­named, unidentified reality that no theory is capable of mastering. This means de­constructing the bounds of our thought, relinquishing the attempt to establish complete control over our ideas according to the rules of so-called rational thinking, and allowing the nameless reality to step forward and take hold of our thought.

How can this possibly be done? Are we not taking the risk of losing control altogether and of succumbing to pure fantasy without any connection with reality? Would this not be the complete opposite of what we set out to do, namely to testify to the reality beyond all theoretical construction?

I would like to end this talk by replying, by way of three remarks, to this challenge to Derrida’s project as I have presented it here. The first remark is that the risk of losing rational control by succumbing to pure fantasy should not be taken too seriously for the obvious reason that we have never gained and probably never will gain this rational control of reality. Rational control is by itself a kind of fantasy that undeni­ably has great importance in our culture and academic life, but, neverthe­less, it should not be overestimated. That rationality is a kind of fantasy can easily be seen if you try to nail it down and explain it in clear terms: You will never catch it! There is an in­definite number of rationalities. In fact, rationality should be seen as a marvellous fiction or as an ideal to be interpreted and vitalized with the help of images and sym­bols, for example from Ancient Greece or from the Enlightenment.

My second remark has to do with an important limitation upon meta­physical theories which Emmanuel Levinas, a Jewish and French philosopher who had a profound influence on Derrida, pointed out in a remarkable way. Levinas’ thought concerns first and foremost the other person and its meaning for me. And he thinks that no metaphysics can possibly make clear either the significance of the other person or the position of that person within reality. The other person is beyond all theories, and beyond the reality that can be appre­hended by theoretical thinking or by human thinking tout court. The other person cannot be made an object of thought, she is a reality beyond the reality of what can be thought. Like God himself.

Derrida has, it seems to me, extended this vision of reality. In his book Spectres de Marx, which was published in September 1993, he pays his respect to Marx as one of the great spirits or ghosts of our times. Marx is dead, but his ghost is here, looking at us, speaking to us. And we must answer. The other person, alive, dead, or unborn makes us responsible, more responsible than we can tolerate. It is perhaps this unbearable responsibil­ity for the reality of others that makes us sometimes want to flee from thought and hide in some rational construction or in the tremendous bustle of our capitalist society.

My final remark touches upon my own presentation of what I have called the problem of entering Derrida. My main concern has been to show that Derrida is working, as I believe philosophers should, at the edge of what can be thought and expressed. I must also add that I have no authority whatsoever to present his philosophy or his philosophical project. Nobody can speak for a philosopher. A philosopher always has to speak for himself. But since I began to study philosophy, many years ago, I have always felt that Derrida is sending out a message to other philosophers to be earnest and daring in their endeavour and that he has been reminding them that philosophy matters to the world outside the de­partments of philosophy.


University of Aberdeen

21 February 1994

[1]         One should refrain from looking for specific examples of this (examples that would show Plato stepping out of line with his own prin­ciples), but rather see Plato’s works as works of fiction as well as of rational thought.

[2]      One of the most shocking examples of this is to be found in the writings of the founding father of British empiricism, René Descartes. This great rationalist fantasized that animals did not feel pain, since they had no soul, and therefore, nothing was wrong with experimenting on them while they were still alive. They were machines. – If this does not give us a reason to doubt the rationality of Descartes’ writings, then I don’t know what reason means.

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