We’ve been pondering the headline of the NYT’s Derrida obituary. The headline describes him as an “abstruse theorist” in an obvious and spiteful attempt not to describe him as a philosopher. No surprise that petty malice infected even the headline writer. But it did surprise me somewhat that nowhere on the web, at least that I’ve seen, has there been any attempt to improve on the ‘abstruse’ label. That Derrida’s writings are difficult is well known. Kant’s writings are difficult too. But by now any first year philosophy textbook can simplify Kant into a picture general enough to be taught without too much difficulty.

Surely it isn’t that hard to do the same for Derrida.

If one were to start, the effort would look something like this.

A. Begin where Derrida begins. At the turn of the twentieth century, there was a programmatic turn against the naive positivistic account of the human sciences. In the nineteenth century, it was recognized that history, sociology, linguistics, and philosophy resisted the scientific models produced by the positive sciences – especially physics. Although there were candidates put forward to fill the role of the ‘laws of history’ or the ‘laws of psychology’, there was no agreement on how to find these laws, or if history, psychology, and language were even the kind of things that could be described in terms of laws. This is what Husserl would latter describe as the crisis of the sciences. In addition, there was a distinct tendency towards psychologism – as for instance Mill’s idea that numbers ‘derive’ from from empirical sense data.

There are three figures in the turn against naïve positivism who are symptomatic of what was to come to dominate 20th century philosophy: Frege, Husserl, and Saussure. Interestingly, Frege – whose influence on the development of Anglo philosophy is huge – never attracted Derrida’s attention. But Husserl and Saussure did. Why?

Because Husserl and Saussure advocate treating language as an autonomous entity. By which they meant bracketing psychological and social ‘influences” on language, and examining it as a self contained system.

Why is language important? Because it seems like language, as distinct from history or the mind (with its notorious observation problems), is the closest thing, in the human sciences, to a traditional object of the positive sciences. You can easily make the case that language was law-bound. You can find, seemingly, universals in language. And, with the development of mathematical logic around 1900, it suddenly seemed that logic could actually absorb mathematics. This was exciting insofar as logic itself was recast as the rules for a given formal language. If you consider that physics could just be considered the systematic attempt to mathematize nature, then you see the possibilities. Perhaps the positive sciences and the human sciences spring from one root.

Saussure’s program, then, treated language as autonomous. It depended on a set of strict categorical differences – the two most important of which were those between the synchronic state of language and the diachronic, and between the signifier and the signified – in order so show that language isn’t dependent for its internal workings upon an external referential context.

B. Derrida’s most important move – the one that resonates throughout his philosophy – was to examine Saussure’s set of assumptions. The assumption that, for instance, the synchronic plane of language could be absolutely separated from the diachronic invalidated a whole tradition of philosophical thinking – the Cratylian school, so to speak – which examined the etymology of words in an effort to reconstruct their essences. Derrida did not advocate returning to this school, but questioned those presuppositions by which, in one gesture, Saussure reduced the lexe to a series of distinct, unconnected-but-connected entities. Similarly, Derrida questioned the distinction between the signified and the signifier. There’s an interesting treatment of a Frege’s similar distinction, between concept and object, in an article in Ratio in 2000, by Adrian Moore. Moore has seen what Derrida was doing, and applies his critical stance, although not his method, to Frege.

C. What is the latent metaphysics that Derrida finds behind Saussure? This is a long story, but it is hinted at by the notion that the signifying unit persists as a signifying unity from one synchronic plane to the other. In other words, it constructs an ideal present. Derrida’s skepticism about the ideal present leads him to ask whether the ideal present isn’t an integral part of the code of Western metaphysics. If that Metaphysics is forced to do without it, would it lose its coherence? Now, of course at this point one could ask whether there is such a thing as one Western metaphysics. Derrida essentially accepts Heidegger’s theory that there is – that behind all the metaphysical schools there exists one common program.

D. At this point, Derrida does something interesting – and something that we can recognize, at this point in time, as consonant with the moves made by other skeptics in the Modernist tradition, like Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. He does not assume that proving the falsity of an idea is the extent to which the philosopher can go. Rather, he wants to ask whether the falsity actually has a use value. Assuming, for the moment, that the metaphysics of presence clings to a falsely construed idea of the present. Then why didn’t that falsity collapse the metaphysics from the very beginning? Derrida, like M,N, and F. thinks that one shouldn’t confuse truth with use. In a sense, this is a criticism of the coherence theory of truth from within – which is why, for certain philosophers, it is so hard to understand. That is because a certain notion of the truth is the one supreme philosophic bias. That notion identifies the true with the good. That a system could be coherent and functional by eliding the truth values of its fundamental assumptions – could be set up to systematically protect them from any real investigation – is alien to the philosopher’s self image.

There now. Notice this account doesn’t use the word deconstruction once. Although eventually I would say something about deconstruction – and many other things – if I were giving a full blown account of Derrida, the more important word is “text.” That Derrida repeated uses the word text, and that it is repeatedly transformed into the word language (as, for instance, in the NYT obituary), is all about the underlying metaphysical bias Derrida is exposing.

If LI’s readers want to know why, write and ask me. I’ll then write another post about it. But you know – I haven’t done Derrida for a decade, and I don’t want to do a lot of color by numbers explanations of the guy.

PS- After I wrote this, I received an email from my friend T. in New York, who referred me to a decent obituary of Derrida in the Independent that actually mentions the text/language distinction forever lost in the NYT obituary.