Tuesday, October 19, 2004


The death of Jacques Derrida in Paris on October 7 has evoked a blitz of commentary, divided fairly evenly between supporters and skeptics. Although I would call myself more a skeptic than a believer, some of the negative responses are superficial, viz. “He is unnecessarily obscure” and (sotto voce) “He’s French; so how can he be good?”

In the 1960s, like many academics, I had great hopes for structuralism as a unifying method in the humanities, which seemed undertheorized. When I heard that Derrida had revised and (in considerable measure) overturned this trend, my interest was naturally piqued. I read some of his early, foundational books in French and English, but gradually lost interest, as his followers seemed to have conscripted his ideas into a kind of Church of Postmodernism. The fact that some of my students embraced a “lite” version, Derridada, did not serve to revive my enthusiasm.

Mark C. Taylor, an admirer, asserts in a NY Times op-ed (October 14) that Derrida ranks with Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein as one of the 20th century’s three most important philosophers. Reading this, I flashed back to my undergraduate days at UCLA half a century ago. How my friends in the philosophy department there would have been horrified by this outcome! They believed that what we now term the Analytic tradition, rooted in Frege and Russell and brought to maturity in the Logical Positivism of the Vienna Circle, had driven competitors from the field. They had only contempt for such “fuzzy-minded” continentals as Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre. Interestingly enough, at this stage the Analytic thinkers believed that they had created an advanced species of philosophy that condemned most of the earlier history of the field to obsolescence. Above all, out with metaphysics! Ethics and aesthetics were merely subjective, and as such extraphilosophical—in essence “meaningless.” Only the hard precision of logical statements would do.

Ironically, Derrida returned the favor, dismissing most previous philosophy, including the Analytic trend, as disastrously implicated in the “myth of presence.” Now there is an understandable yearning among the young—and not only there—to short-circuit the hard work of confronting the historical deposit, with all of its crabbed language and cunning twists and turns. We can skip the old rubbish, and join the Revolution! At all events, a mystery remains to be explained by historians of systems of thought as to why the Analytic trend, seemingly so triumphant, suffered the dismal fate of being so thoroughly supplanted. Many tenured old-fogeys in our philosophy departments still profess it, to be sure. But time has passed the Analytic preoccupation by. In that sense Taylor is basically correct.

And yet Derrida’s ideas are not as new as his admirers believe. More light is needed on the precursors of Derrida’s idea of the radical indeterminacy of all human utterance. Here are two suggestions.

1) In 1930 a young Englishman, William Empson, published his book Seven Types of Ambiguity. Impressed both by the complexities of 17th-century Metaphysical verse and the contemporary work of T. S. Eliot, Empson made a map, a tentative one it is true, of ways to detect verbal complexity and contradiction. Supported by the work of Empson's friend and mentor, I. A. Richards, these ideas flowed into the New Criticism of our English departments.

2) A generation later a more formidable contribution came from the political philosopher Leo Strauss. Working initially from Jewish and freethinking Muslim philosophers of the medieval Islamic world, Strauss found that the orthodox message--what they seemed to be saying on the surface--was belied by seeming asides in which they abjured these views. Close reading can smoke out these revealing contradictions. Yet those who are not Straussians wonder whether this method of detecting hidden truths may sometimes get out of hand.

Still Strauss and his followers emphasized careful parsing of texts, in the original if possible. Derrida seems less careful. His readings of Heidegger, for example, seem to reflect an inadequate knowledge of German. My German too may be inadequate for this daunting task—but I do not profess to offer authoritative criticism of the German magus. In other instances, as in Derrida’s brilliant detection of the ambiguity of a text by Mallarmé, the discovery remains on the level of an apercu. It cannot be generalized to explicate the whole body of the poet’s work.

Admirers speak of Derrida’s far-reaching influence on contemporary art, architecture, and politics. It is true that postmodern architects have often paid homage to him. However, when we visit a supposedly Derridan enterprise, such as Bernard Tschumi’s intriguing Parc de la Villette in Paris, it hard to detect any direct inspiration. It is not enough to point out that the architect sought the philosopher’s help, claiming that it was essential Was Derrida’s intervention in fact formative? If we had not heard this, how could we detect that source from the buildings? Perhaps Derrida's help was what some term a green umbrella, that is, something the creator thinks is essential but really isn't.

In his later years Derrida advanced meritorious political views, as on Czechoslovakia, the Balkans, and gay marriage. He was a person of admirable decency. But how were these positions products of his theory? One might say that they rather represent the triumph of common sense over theory.

Those who hold that Derrida was simply a charlatan are mistaken. However, there remains the key problem of the cost-benefit ratio. Extracting the yield from Derrida’s labored texts (some very much in need of editing) can be exasperating. Apart from making one qualified for certain academic posts, is the time justified? Given a choice, I think I’d rather watch a movie.

It is a commonplace that the reputation of major figures suffers a decline after their death. Some like Sartre recover, at least in part. Others like T. S. Eliot continue to sink beneath the weight of justified objections. It remains to be seen whether Derrida will share the fate of Sartre—or Eliot.