Sunday, October 10, 2004

What is Philosophy? A Few Thoughts from a Non-expert on the Passing of Derrida and Reactions to It

Deleuze famously wrote that this is a question for the old philospher. I'm not old (though I did have a birthday yesterday, so I am older than I was), but the recent death of the old Derrida, and the responses to his death, have led me to wonder what the answer to this question is. Brian Leiter wrote of Derrida:

Alas, he is being referred to as a philosopher.

I think this captures the sentiment of analytic philosophers (which Leiter further elaborates in the subsequent paragraph) toward Derrida fairly well. In contrast, Clark of Mormon Philosophy & Theology writes:

To read Derrida was to see things in a new light. From a purely literary perspective, it was a joy to read. It was like nothing I had seen before.

And shaviro of The Pinocchio Theory wrote

Derrida was important to me because, when I first read his early writings, my understanding of the world changed. I was never able to see things the same way again.

I think Clark and shaviro capture what I want in philosopher: an individual whose own ideas force me to view the world in a different way. Is it so wrong, then, to refer to Derrida as a philosopher? If not, then why do some, especially those within the analytic tradition, take such offense at his being referred to as a philosopher, as one of them?

I think the answer is that analytic philosphers are offended by the conservativism of Derrida. Yes, I said the conservativism of Derrida. By this, I don't mean political conservativism, but historical conservativism. Derrida, far more than most analytic philosophers, is working within, and with, a philosophical tradition that is much older than the largely ahistorical analytic tradition. He is working in and with the tradition of thought that began with the pre-Socratics, especially Heraclitus and Parmenides, and continues through the Scholastics, modernists, and on the post-modernists. It is the tradition of philosophy that is concerned with man's (and woman's) place in the world as it is today, and how he (or she) can, should, and will come to know and live it.

This tradition has not been co-opted by analytic philosophy; it has, in the minds of analytic philosophers, been transcended by it. We no longer live in a world in which "idle" speculation, playing with ideas, words, intuitions, and introspections, counts as philosophy. To do philosophy, under the analytic view, one must write and think in a certain way. One must bend one's will, and one's philosophy, to the transcendence of scientific truth, and one's primary aim should be to capture the world, and man (or woman) as he (or she) is beneath the parachute of scientific knowledge. Scientific truth is not (only) in the findings of science, which, as often than not, are transitory, but in its methods. Thus the methods of philosophy must, by their very nature within this new conception, conform to the methods of science. Writing philosophy should consist of presenting a thesis, followed by arguments from evidence, followed by a conclusion in which it is determined that the thesis is or is not true by the weight of that evidence. Even "experiments" can and must be used, often in the form of "thought experiments," or better still, counterfactual reasoning, which embodies the form of scientific experiments1.

While some philosophers in the tradition within which Derrida works, and therefore outside of the tradition within which analytic philosophers works, might decry this bending of the philosopher's will to the goals and meta-theoretical direction of science and technology, I think almost everyone would admit that the goals and methods of analytic philosophy are important and useful. But are they the only methods? Are they the only way of doing philosophy? Historically, the answer is obviously no. This is not how philosophy, even the philosophy that has ultimately influenced the analytic tradition, has been done. Even the analytic insistence on fidelity in philosphical reading (which Leiter alludes to when he notes that Derrida was a bad reader) is a fairly new thing2. Still, in the age of science, has it become the only way to do philosophy, as I think analytic philosophers would contend? The fact that those working outside of the analytic tradition, and therefore outside what they view as philosophy, have ultimately come to recognize the same problems, and even arrived at some of the same conclusions, as analytic philosophy implies that it is not. Even more, the relatively recent recognition that ideas from outside the analytic tradition may provide insight into some of the problems with which analytic philosophers struggle (e.g., Dreyfus' use of the ideas of Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty as a compliment to analytic approaches to mind) demonstrates that analytic philosophers are not doing philosophy in the only way that it can be done.

More important, however, is the non-analytic philosophers' focus on real-world problems, and not only the real-world problems of scientists who are doing science. However much we may disagree with their conclusions about various social, ethical, and everday issues, their focus on these things is valuable, particularly in the face of analytic philosophy's increasing attention to problems and issues that are too far removed from everyday life to be of much immediate value. By analogy, in my field, reductionists and neuroscientists often argue that their way of doing things is the right way, and should be the only way. Yet neuroscience, and reductionist approaches to mind are in their infancy, and are therefore bogged down in foundational issues that will not provide global insight into the ways in which humans think and reason for many years to come. For this reason, less reductionist, more cocomputational or algorithmic3 analyses are productive because they advance our understanding of the human mind now, in real time. Nelson Goodman once observed that there are two kinds of people in philosophy, those who are drawn to big problems about which their can be little certainty, and those who are drawn to little problems that admit a great deal of certainty. Neuroscientists generally come from the latter crowd, while those using more algorithmic or computational forms of analyses into the former. The same two categories can (at least roughly) be applied to philosophers like Derrida and analytic philosophers. Analytic philosophers focus on small, manegable problems, and continental philosophers on large, complex and unmanageable ones. Philosophers like Derrida are valuable in the same way that the computational analysis is valuable: while the analytic philosopher struggles with the minutiae that may one day provide the foundations for global theories of human knowledge, ethics, and social life, Derrida and his ilk use the insights of today to try to understand these things today, for the benefit of those in the here and now.

In this way, Derrida and others whom analytic philosophers would not deign to call philosophers, are philosophers in the vein of Hegel, and in Hegel's view, the entire history of western philosophy. They are individuals who use the concepts of their time to understand their own experiences, and the state of the world aound them, and when necessary, create new concepts to better understand these things. Thus Derrida is a conservative philosopher, one who, even in his critique of tradition, embeds himself within it through the direction in which he points his ship. If he works outside of the boundaries analytic philosophers have given to philosophy, it is to is credit. These historically narrow boundaries unnecessarily limit philosophy in its attempt to understand life. Philosophers like Derrida are important, and necessary, even when we disagree with them, because they help us to see the world today, and the big problems within it, in new lights, while analytic philosophy gives us mostly primosory notes.

It is for Derrida's courage, then, to be conservative, and tackle the here and now with the full force of his being, that I respect him. Perhaps he was not a great philosopher in the sense that Plato, Kant, or Hegel were great philosophers. Who knows whether he will be read five hundred, or even one hundred years from now? He may no longer be relevant. That is the risk that a philosopher takes when he takes as his object the problems of his day. It's a risk that takes an uncommon strength, uncommon even among philosophers, and for that strength, I think Derrida is and will remain memorable. I think, then, that a fitting tribute to Derrida might be to use the words with which Nietzsche spoke of Schopenhauer, to describe him:

His strength rises straight and calmly upwards like a flame when there is no wind, imperturbably, without restless wavering. He finds his way every time before we have so much noticed that he has been seeking it; as though compelled by a law of gravity he runs on ahead, so firm and agile, so inevitably.4

Inevitably. Yes, because philosophers like Derrida are inevitable, no matter how much analytic philosophers protest. As livers of life, we are compelled to try to understand it, and philosophers like Derrida will continue to help us to do so.

1 Scientific experiments are similar in form to counterfactual reasoning in that they set up alternative worlds (e.g., control and experimental conditions) and compare the outcomes of certain processes in those worlds. Even competing hypotheses (e.g., the null and experimental hypotheses) can be considered to be competing worlds.
2 Who would accuse Hegel, for instance, of being true to Plato or Aristotle, or even of Kant, in the analytic sense of truth in reading? Yet his readings of Plato and Aristotle were valuable, if only because they furthered his own thought, and his exposition of it.
3 From David Marr's
levels of analysis.
4 From "
Schopenhauer as Educator." Another compliment Nietzsche pays to Schopenhauer in that essay, through a comparison to Montaigne, might also be appropriate from those of us who have enjoyed Derrida's work: "That such a man wrote has truly augmented the joy of living on this earth."

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great comments. I do think that you are right. If anything Continental philosophy is not something "new" but a return to something old which was repressed or excluded by certain movements. I don't just see this in Derrida either. Peirce was somewhat unique in the 19th century for turning so carefully to the ancients and even medieval philosophy and finding in their approaches and questioning something applicable for today and the questions we raise. Peirce was often fond of calling rival philosophies "nominalists" as a kind of pejorative term arising out of the old debates between Duns Scotus and others.

I think what these philosophers do is bring back to focus something excluded from focus. Unfortunately some see this as a threat. I don't understand why. Heidegger, for instance, was constantly interested in the sciences and found them inherently valuable. He just worried that we were missing something important by considering everything from within theory. 

Posted by Clark Goble

Anonymous said...

Definitely. The value of science is obvious to anyone who cares to look. When I was writing this, I was thinking of Heidegger in his lectures on the principle of reason, and his discussion of science's focus on "reasons," which do not capture beings in their entirety. Reasons are great for prediction, but they are not always sufficient for description, and both are important when it comes to actionable understanding.

I think there are a lot of philosophers who are like Derrida in the ways I described. Some have even been within the "analytic tradition." Whitehead, for instance. 

Posted by Chris

Anonymous said...

I have found your post interesting, though not being an analytic philosopher, indeed not even knowing what "analytic" philosophy is (do you?), I am perplexed by that part of your comments. Derrida was a bad reader, the kind Nietzsche would have despised. You do not discuss any of his actual readings of philosophical texts, and perhaps without an engagement with those readings, it is hard to appreciate how much Derrida demeaned intellectual life over the past several decades.

Best wishes,
Brian Leiter
 

Posted by Brian Leiter

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Anonymous said...

Brian, I've heard the tradition itself as "Anglo-American" philosphy, but Australians might feel left out, and that would leave out the Austrian and now German philosophers who work within the tradition altogether. When I use the term, I just mean philosophy in the tradition of Frege and Russell, the positivists, and the critics of the positivists from the 1940s-60s like Quine, Goodman, Strawson, Davidson, and Chisolm. I would be hard pressed to provide a definition of analytic philosophy. It might be easier to identify themes common to most philosophies within the tradition, such as a focus on language and meaning, or a close alliance with science. Still, it's a farily loose classification. The one thing its proponents do have in common is an emphasis on clarity of argument, and method, in a way similar to (or at least analogous to) that of science, particularly with philosophy as a cumulative pursuit, with findings on top of findings, theories built and refuted by new and better theories, etc. There's also a focus on sub-areas of philosophy (philosoph of science, philosophy of mind, philosophy of law, etc.), with philosophers who specialize in that area, and who work on problems that may have little relevance outside of that area.

All that said, I think most people familiar with 20th century philosophy understand the reference, particular in the context of a contrast with Derrida and others like him (those in the tradition of Husserl, Heidegger, structuralism, and post-structuralism). I haven't read any of your work (save your blog, of course), so I can't say which of these traditions into which you yourself fall (or if its some other tradition altogether), though Bayes would make me guess analytic. I used your comments, because they are fairly typical of the people I would lump into the "analytic" category. It's not a sentiment exclusive to analytic philosophers (I recall reading similar sentiments from Jean Hyppolite.

As for his readings, it's probably true that Nietzsche would have despised him, but I don't think Nietzsche would have considered Hegel a good reader either (and strangely, he did seem to consider Schopenhauer one). I would try to defend Derrida's reading of Nietzsche, but I don't think I could pull it off. If I were to read Derrida, and subsequently Nietzsche, I would probably be surprised by what I found. Still, I have never been under the impression that Derrida's passages on Nietzsche (or even Heidegger) were meant as "faithful" exegeses. That wouldn't seem very much like Derrida, with all of his discussion of reading and authorship. Clark probably knows more about this than me, though, and could say more about it. (I don't recall Evans ever deriding Derrida's reading of Husserl to the extent that you criticize his reading of Nietzsche, by the way. If I recall, Evans is actually an admirer of Derrida's work, including his writings on Husserl.) So you're probably right, I don't see how Derrida has demeaned intellectual life in the way that you see it. If he were claiming to be a philosophical historian, I might see it, but as someone who was using the ideas of other thinkers, seen through the eyes of his own thought, I don't think the liberties he took with Nietzsche (or Husserl, or Heidegger, or whomever) could really be that harmful.
 

Posted by Chris

Anonymous said...

Sorry about the removed comment notices. Blogger was screwy, and I posted the same comment a few times. 

Posted by Chris

Anonymous said...

The question of reading is not at all obvious in how to take it. I think that Derrida is following in the Heideggarian tradition. And anyone who has read Heidegger's readings of Nietzsche, Leibniz, Heraclitus, Parmenides or others knows that they aren't readings in the traditional sense. So to critique Derrida for this seems to rather miss what he is after. I think Derrida is a very close reader, but he definitely isn't reading in the traditional sense.

As to how Nietzsche would take him or any of the so-called French Nietzscheans is hard to discern. I'm not sure how Nietzsche would take Derrida and I tend to doubt any who claim to be able to tell. The famous aphorism of Nietzsche that seems best related to Heidegger's project is the following:

"The philosopher believes that the value of his philosophy lies in the whole, in the building: posterity discovers it in the bricks with which he built and which are then often used again for better building: in the fact, that is to say, that that building can be destroyed and nonetheless possess value as material."

In terms of Heidegger, the real issue of truth is to take up the questioning that the original philosopher took up. The idea, as I understand it, is that the topic or "for-the-sake-of" can't be captured within language and is a king of possibility that can never be made actual. It functions in a way as a kind of universal. Thus Heidegger's readings of famous philosophers isn't to represent their thought in the context of their overall thought and context. Rather it is to move beyond that context and take up the same issues in a new context. The readings are less readings than a kind of taking up and following through the stepping (rather than the steps) of the philosopher.

Whether one buys this or not is an other matter. And clearly it is controversial. Yet if one understands the background in phenomenology of Heidegger and Derrida, I think it makes a lot of sense. (Lawlor's book Derrida and Husserl is fairly appropriate here)

 

Posted by Clark Goble

Anonymous said...

Just to add to the above. I'm not sure how Dr. Leiter takes it, or if he has read it, but Ernst Behler's Confrontations: Derrida, Heidegger, Nietzsche is an excellent engagement and analysis of how the three figures are intertwined. (He also has a very good explanation of the Gadamer/Derrida debate that has confused a lot of people)

I'd say that Behler and Lawlor are must reads for people attempting to understand Derrida. They don't explain everything, by any means. But I think that the latter writings (those after the 80's) and most of the middle writings (the 70's and 80's) only make sense if you come to grips with his earlier writings and his engagement with phenomenology and Levinas.

BTW - Behler has an interesting postscript in his book regarding North American readings of Nietzsche which some might find interesting.  

Posted by Clark Goble

Anonymous said...

Clark, that's how I saw Derrida's readings of Nietzsche as well, though you expressed it much better than I did. I thought you might. If Heidegger approached philosophers of the past (especially Nietzsche, Leibniz, and Kant) as a means of understanding the history of how concepts have been approached, then Derrida's reading can be seen as an extension of that method, though with sometimes different aims.

I have heard the charge that Derrida read Nietzsche poorly before, but this charge seems to be based on a very "analytic" (I can't help but put that term in scare quotes now) view of how reading should be done: you look for a position that the author must have held in writing a particular work, and arguments for that position, and assess the position through the arguments. Under this view, Nietzsche should be read in the same way that we read Frege or Russell, or even Daniel Dennett. This can't be easy with Nietzsche, but it would certainly explain why there are English-speaking philosophers who believe that Nietzsche said X, and anyone who reads him differently hasn't read him correctly.

I'm willing to concede Brian's point that Derrida read Nietzsche poorly, if we take as the object of reading a philosopher getting into the head of that philosopher and determining what he thought, and what his reasons, in the form of rational explanation, were for thinking what he thought. Instead, I think Derrida (and this is what I tried to say in the previous comment) read Nietzsche, and everyone else (escept maybe Levinas) as being oriented in certain ways toward certain concepts, and Derrida takes it as his perogative to use these orientations as launching points for his own movements.

The most interesting part of Leiter's comment, to me, was that Derrida's readings (of Nietzsche, e.g.) have demeaned intellectual life, and it's there that I don't really follow him. It's not as if Derrida wasn't explicit (as explicit as one can be) in the purpose and direction of his readings. I don't recall him ever claiming to have read Nietzsche as Nietzsche would have read himself (which would be a hard thing to do, because Nietzsche's reading of himself seemed to change over time). Since Derrida's pretty explicit in his purpose, then Leiter may mean that Derrida's purpose demeans intellectual life. I would be interested in reading why he thinks that. As I said in the post itself, I think that what Derrida was doing was a good thing for intellectual life, and the fact that people can say that they saw the world differently after reading him tells me I'm right. 

Posted by Chris

Anonymous said...

Oh, and I've read Lawlor's book, and I think I benefited from it too. I haven't read Behler's book, but I will have to check it out now. Thanks for the recommendation.

Have you read Allan Megill's Prophets of Extremity? It was valuable, to me, in reading both Derrida and Heidegger, though I had already spent a lot of time reading Nietzsche prior to that, and I thought it focused too much on his earlier works, particularly The Birth of Tragedy.  

Posted by Chris

Anonymous said...

I don't understand the whole demeaning comment either, truth be told. The whole "demeans philosophy" reminds me a tad too much of the charges against Socrates, truth be told.

I am very curious as to how (or if) Leiter responds. Actually I'm very interested in how Leiter reads Schacht as well, since that is a more "analytic" reading of Nietzsche. I rather enjoyed it a great deal. I still think it one of the better commentaries I've read. But many of my friends who are Nietzsche "experts" tell me that it is problematic for various reasons. It sometimes seems like with Nietzsche no one who is an expert actually agrees on what Nietzsche says, with different figures reading him quite differently depending upon what they find as most important in his thought. But I did like how Schacht tied Nietzsche into more "normal" ways of considering language, epistemology and so forth.  

Posted by Clark Goble

Anonymous said...

I've not read Megill. I'd say I will read it, but I must confess to having several hundred dollars of books on Amazon waiting to be purchased, not to mention about a half dozen here I have to finish reading. (I promised some friends I'd read up on the free will debate and then have been rereading some Heideggarian texts related to it, such as a reread of The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic.)

I'd say though, that what texts of Nietzsche are read seems to dramatically affect how people read him as well. For instance many of my friends were critical of Schacht for including many of the unpublished works, especially those in Will to Power. Now I tend to agree that some are important - especially with respect as to how to take his riff of eternal recurrence. But what texts are deemed most important really does appear to partially determine the way people read Nietzsche.

 

Posted by Clark Goble

Anonymous said...

I like Schact on Nietzsche, too, but I don't like to use Will to Power at all. That's a product of the fact that the graduate course I took on Nietzsche several years ago was taught by Dan Brezeal, who, at least at the time, refused to even read it. In fact, his interpretation has influenced mine a great deal. For this reason, I didn't even like Heidegger's Nietzsche for several years, because of the attention it pays both to the work and the concept of Will to Power. Since Will to Power is barely mentioned (maybe a dozen times) in the published works, I saw all interpretations of Nietzsche that viewed "Will to Power" as somehow his central metaphysical insight as misguided.

So clearly, both my own interpretation, and the interpretations I could find interesting, were influenced by the works of Nietzsche that I took as important (namely, the published works, and with the later works as more important than the earlier ones, especially considering the prefaces of 1886).  

Posted by Chris

Anonymous said...

Derrida's writing is to be viewed, I think, as either post-Heideggerian ontology (combined with some semiotic abstractions), or as a belle-lettrist experimentalist- surrealist ala Breton or Bataille. I think his writing stands up far better as surrealist bizarrie (check out "Glas") then as philosophy. He was not a linguist nor a philosopher of language; and some dupes take him to be a philosopher of science. Hah. His subversions of say Austin, or any genuine attempts at philosophy of language, are quite less important than the writings of Wittgenstein or Russell.

His project is not philosophy, either traditional or analytical, his project is a mockery of philosophy, starting with Plato (and perhaps philosophy, certainly that of the Platonic or Heideggerian type, could use some mocking). Of Grammatology is in some accessible parts quite amusing, and I think its a parody of figures such as Saussure and Peirce, as well as Nietzsche. Any real Nietzscheans do, however, have numerous reasons to detest Derrida and his distortions. I am not an expert in po-mo, nor do I care to be one, but I do think Foucault, regardless of personal failings or perversions, is a more authentic and important writer.

JD did late in life start writing on some religious topics which unfortunately does earn him any more respect....  

Posted by nemesis

Anonymous said...

NOT! there's a knot there, a naught:

JD did late in life start writing on some religious topics which unfortunately does NOT earn him any more respect...

 

Posted by nemesis

edge said...

I think that Leiter must be referring to "Nietzche's Spurs" which is an idiosyncratic reading, to say the least, but so dated.

I went to Leiter's site after yours and he looks ok. Very opinionated, which is fine, but he does not back up his crit of Derrida with any close reading either so there you go.

I often find Derrida annoying; he spends so much time setting up a discussion that you never get to the discussion, and his imitators, who are legion are worse.

He was so prolific, and he kept on writing book after book until the end.

His influence was so great that it is hard to gauge now. Can't remember Leiter long enough to forget Derrida.

Allan Bloom called Derrida a "cheerleader for Heidegger" which is one of the better one-liner critiques of D I have heard.