Hume is probably dead too. But the more I think about it, the less likely it seems…

The following is from a piece by Rod Liddle via Brian Leiter:
Jacques Derrida, the famous French philosopher, is ‘dead’ (↓1). But as there is no straightforward, one-to-one relationship between the signifier (‘dead’) and the thing signified (the termination or otherwise of the actual person, M. Derrida), we cannot be entirely sure what has happened. We are faced instead with an endless multiplicity of truths, a string of infinite possibilities.
(There’s more, but anyone who has read Derrida on language can write the rest themselves.)
OK. Fair enough. Here are two more:
I don’t know how to tell you this, but Donald Davidson died last year. I don’t know how to tell you because according to Davidson, there’s no such thing as language.
My native informants tell me that a collection of undetached Quine parts passed away today. Or maybe it was a momentary Quine stage. Then again, they might have been saying something about Gödel numbers.
The bêtise here, or should I call it antiphilosophical philistinism, is this. It doesn’t take lengthy reflection or abstruse theory to become convinced that explaining how language hooks up to things is not going to be easy. Indeed it may seem so difficult as to induce doubt that the relation can be explained. Reference is inscrutable, meanings undecidable, language itself a myth. Any philosopher who reaches such conclusions can, of course, be mocked, and sturdy common sense thereby vindicated. —Why hello, Dr. Johnson, how’s your foot?
The jocular outrage here exhibited on behalf of common sense usefully reminds us that doubts about the relation of language or of thought to the world have, in modern philosophy, few or no consequences for practice. The philosopher, even after giving meaning, reference, and realism a good thrashing, does not cease to write, fail to answer when called by name, or ignore the advice of the senses (though Pyrrho had to be saved by his friends from being run over or falling off cliffs). Is the doubt, then, disingenuous? A vacant exercise of wit?
In Limited, Inc. Derrida attempts to show, with cheerful malice, that Searle (or “Sarl”, as Derrida calls him) needs, but cannot make good on, a distinction between “normal” and “deviant” uses of language. In Truth in painting, he exhibits the difficulties Kant has in maintaining a distinction between art & nature. Each member of the pair threatens to collapse into, or change places with, the other. Derrida is not, however, suggesting that we “eliminate” the distinctions thus called into question. On the contrary, he typically argues that we cannot do without them, at least not without radically changing the way we think about language or art. Nature is not art, and yet is beautiful, as Kant puts it, when it wears “the appearance of art” (Critique of judgment §45, Ak 306); art is not nature and yet is beautiful only when “clothed with the aspect of nature”—though not so much so that we cease to recognize it is art—: Derrida takes all that to indicate not that Kant is bumbling about & smudging lines he himself has drawn just a few pages before, but that we (that is, “we Western philosophers and everyone else who takes for granted that art & nature are distinct”) don’t quite know what we intend by those terms (which is evidenced by the quandaries they lead us into), or don’t take entirely seriously the distinctions we want to make with them.
Not taking seriously: when faced with difficulties of the sort Derrida raises, one might, for example, simply stamp one’s foot and say: “Is Derrida claiming we can’t distinguish a Cézanne from a bowl of fruit?” Of course he isn’t; he might even grant that there are “clear cases”. The difficulty he is raising is not the jejune observation that the terms are vague. It is rather that we can’t seem to stabilize their respective domains of application, and that there are systematic reasons, discernible in the longterm history of Western thought, for that instability.
One might then think that in an ideal or Antipodean language the distinction could be eliminated without depriving us of anything important, just as some people think that a psychology of the future could do nicely without talk of minds or intentions. Derrida, I think, would ask the interlocutor fully to flesh out the possibility. To do without a distinction between nature & art—which is to say, production “through an act of will that places reason at the basis of its actions” (Critique of judgment §43, Ak 303) would require adjustments at a great many points in our ways of thinking. He would also ask how we, with the concepts we presently have, and our apparently deep need for them, could reach the point of doing without the distinction. Not to try to answer those questions would be to fail to take seriously the fundamental role of the distinction in our thought. Mere possibilities are of no interest.
(Derrida inherits from Heidegger a sense that over Western culture—and perhaps all humanity—there rules a destiny we cannot merely throw off, no more than in political revolutions a people can merely throw off the habits and institutions of centuries. That sense has led Derrida occasionally to propose as an alternative nothing more than an obscure “something else”. Jacques Bouveresse (in Rationalité et cynisme) rightly criticizes the politics of the indefinite other that for a time was prominent among the leading lights of French philosophy. But unlike the later Heidegger Derrida did not abandon politics; he did not resign himself to saying “only a god can save us”. On the contrary, he became increasingly involved in the struggle for freedom of expression in Eastern Europe, in actions against apartheid, and in retaining for philosophy a prominent role in French secondary education.)
I hope I have said enough to show that Leiter’s lament (“Alas that people should call Derrida a philosopher…”) requires justification, that there is a good prima facie case for granting Derrida the august title of Philosopher. If saying silly or obnoxious things, or making arguments (Derrida does make them) that turn out to be fallacious, or writing philosophy in other than a straightforward assertive mode were grounds for withholding that title, then half the canon would be consigned to the flames—including quite a bit of Nietzsche, that posturing adolescent (but not only! I hasten to add).
For some people, Derrida(↓2) figures as the philosophical equivalent of a quack, offering pernicious nostrums in place of wholesome clear thinking. It is certainly true that among those who cite Derrida favorably or treat him as an authority, some or many have produced work that by anyone’s standards is lousy, and lousy in ways that analytic philosophers find especially obnoxious (↓2a). Well then: don’t read Derrida or Nancy or Lacoue-Labarthe or whoever. I’ve yet to hear of any regime, however evil, that included among its injustices the compulsory reading of deconstructionists. As the Band put it, you take what you need and you leave the rest.
What strikes me as odd is that some people not only would rather not read Derrida, but also would rather that no-one read him. Now I can see trying to convince someone that reading X is a waste of time better spent reading other things (↓3). If you haven’t read Kant, your time would be better spent reading him than some insipid rehash. (By that reasoning, your time would be better spent reading all those classics you’ve never touched than 95% of what’s being currently published.) Some of Derrida’s critics have read him & can presumably offer reasons for reading something else instead. Others, it seems to me, have decided either on a priori grounds (French, likes Heidegger; ergo trash) or merely on the basis of hearsay, that neither they nor anyone else should waste their time on Derrida. That is sheer prejudice, and Leiter, when he asserts without argument that Derrida’s philosophical work is “badly confused and pernicious”, is contributing to it.
(↑1) Derrida died of complications from pancreatic cancer, diagnosed last year. See the notice at République des lettres for a summary of his career. Don’t bother reading the Times obit or the AP obit. For an example showing that deep disagreement need not preclude respect, see Habermas’s tribute, “Présence de Derrida” in Libération. See also David Zerbib, “Derrida, L’impossible disparition” and Étienne Balibar, “À bientôt, Jacques Derrida”, both in L’Humanité, and an interview with Élisabeth Roudinesco (AFP).
(↑2) I saw Derrida speak several times at Hopkins. I never talked with him. Graduate students told me he was attentive and open in discussions with them. I have taught Truth in painting several times in conjunction with the Critique of judgment, and once gave a course on the “Heidegger case” that included On spirit. On the whole, I’d say that the danger of students being seduced into accepting pernicious nonsense by reading those works was slight.
(↑2a) Analytic philosophy, when it is lousy, is usually so by virtue of dullness or triviality or mistaking technical prowess in the handling of formal systems with philosophical insight. Sub-Derridean philosophy, when it is lousy, falls into obscurity, unsupported assertion, and unmotivated or inept reliance on devices like etymology and allusion to make its points. I suppose one might think that the first list includes only venial sins, and the second mostly mortal.
(↑3) Sometimes, of course, the question may be one of money. That may explain the rancor. But it doesn’t justify the prejudice.

LinkOctober 16, 2004 in Current Affairs · Philosophy of Philosophy