The Derrida Industry…

…has been working overtime to salvage the reputation of their man. Things are so bad that Joan Scott–who I’m told is a substantial historian, but apparently not much of a philosopher–actually wrote the following to The New York Times:

[Your obituary writer] is embarrassingly illiterate in the history of philosophy. His obituary is also terribly one sided. I thought the Times was committed to balance. Where are the appreciative quotes from American philosophers and literary critics? From those (and there are many) who have used his work to great effect and taught whole generations of students how to read [sic] differently [i.e., badly]?

The obituary author may, indeed, be ignorant of the history of philosophy, but certainly no more so than Professor Scott, whose ignorance extends to the present: there are no “appreciative quotes” from “American philosophers,” because American philosophers thought he was a fraud, a betrayal to philosophy’s grand history. Consider this letter from philosopher Bryan Frances (Philosophy, Leeds), who reports he sent his own letter to The New York Times; there is no doubt he speaks for most philosophers here:

To the Editor:

Re ‘Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74’ (obituary, Oct. 9):

What if philosophy was baseball and Jacques Derrida a baseball player? Judging by your obituary of Derrida, the reader would get the impression that Derrida was a superstar, with a lifetime .330 batting average and over 500 home runs. In reality, he was a substitute second baseman, hitting about .255 over his career with no more than 100 homers or any other baseball accomplishments. He was a particularly flamboyant and outspoken baseball player, for certain, but one who failed to earn respect for his baseball skills.

Contrary to your obituary, Derrida’s influence in philosophy is very slim indeed in the US, UK, and Australia. In literature and other areas he might have held some respect, but in virtually all the world’s English-speaking philosophy departments, in which you’ll find attempts to formulate relatively precise views accompanied by rigorous supporting arguments, he is viewed as more a charlatan than a philosopher.

Tough language, but certainly well-supported by the biggest coup for the Derrida Industry, the opinion piece by Mark Taylor (yet another non-philosopher) in The New York Times proclaiming Derrida one of the three great philosophers of the 20th-century, along with Wittgenstein and Heidegger. Of course, even Wittgenstein and Heidegger are controversial choices, though in terms of sheer impact, they are plainly in a wholly different league from Derrida, so much so that anyone knowledgeable about 20th-century European and Anglophone philosophy and intellectual culture must laugh out loud at Professor Taylor’s dishonest hyperbole. (Why do those in literary studies think the intellectual world revolves around their once proud discipline, now enfeebled by three decades of bad philosophy, bad history, and bad social science?)

Far more interesting, though, is the quality of argumentation offered in support of Derrida’s importance. Let’s take a few representative paragraphs, to see what it is that accounts for Derrida’s importance according to this PR man for intellectual charlatancy:

Taylor: “Most of his infamously demanding texts consist of careful interpretations of canonical writers in the Western philosophical, literary and artistic traditions – from Plato to Joyce. By reading familiar works against the grain, he disclosed concealed meanings that created new possibilities for imaginative expression.”

Leiter: It is impossible in the abstract to assess this proposition, but surely it bears noting that a primary reason for skepticism about Derrida is that overwhelmingly those who engage in philosophical scholarship on figures like Plato and Nietzsche and Husserl find that Derrida misreads the texts, in careless and often intentionally flippant ways, inventing meanings, lifting passages out of context, misunderstanding philosophical arguments, and on and on. Derrida was the bad reader par excellence, who had the gall to conceal his scholarly recklessness within a theoretical framework. He was the figure who did more violence than any other to what Nietzsche had aptly called “the great, the incomparable art of reading well,” “of reading facts without falsifying them by interpretation, without losing caution, patience, delicacy, in the desire to understand” (The Antichrist, sections 59 and 52).

Taylor: “When responsibly understood, the implications of deconstruction are quite different from the misleading clich├ęs often used to describe a process of dismantling or taking things apart. The guiding insight of deconstruction is that every structure – be it literary, psychological, social, economic, political or religious – that organizes our experience is constituted and maintained through acts of exclusion. In the process of creating something, something else inevitably gets left out.”

Leiter: This isn’t an insight, it’s a tautology. Necessarily, every X excludes not-X, else it would not be X. As even Professor Taylor notes: “something else inevitably [i.e., necessarily] gets left out.” (Whether as an hypothesis about the fundamental workings of language–as Saussure originally conceived it–it is a more substantial hypothesis is a different question, not implicated in Taylor’s formulation.)

Taylor: These exclusive structures can become repressive – and that repression comes with consequences. In a manner reminiscent of Freud, Mr. Derrida insists that what is repressed does not disappear but always returns to unsettle every construction, no matter how secure it seems.

Leiter: Whether the “excluded” elements “return” depends on the plausiblity of Derridean readings of texts–and thus we are back at the first point, which can only be adjudicated by contrasting Derridean readings of texts with readings by other scholars. The resemblance to the Freudian conception of repression is superficial and misleading: Freud presents a scientific account of the psychic economy of the mind, according to which, necessarily, certain kinds of psychic energy and the ideas to which they were originally attached manifest themselves in human behavior long after their original occurrence. It is a straightforward empirical hypothesis, for which various kinds of empirical evidence have been offered, both for and against. There is nothing empirical about the Derridean claim, and no theoretical grounding for a claim that necessarily that which has been “excluded” from a text will return.

Taylor: To his critics, Mr. Derrida appeared to be a pernicious nihilist who threatened the very foundation of Western society and culture. By insisting that truth and absolute value cannot be known with certainty, his detractors argue, he undercut the very possibility of moral judgment. To follow Mr. Derrida, they maintain, is to start down the slippery slope of skepticism and relativism that inevitably leaves us powerless to act responsibly.

Leiter: Perhaps this is what has been at issue among anti-intellectual right-wingers, who generally rival Derrida for dialectical feebleness and scholarly shoddiness. But this has never been the philosophoical issue about Derrida–after all, skepticism about the existence of truth and/or absolute value, and our knowledge of either, has been a staple of Western philosophy in one form or another, from the Sophists to Hume to Michael Dummett. The problem with Derrida is that, unlike these other important philosophers, Derrida has no arguments that are both good and original; his case for skepticism is the stuff of bad sophomore-year philosophy papers.

Professor Taylor ends with an homage to Derrida’s personal kindness and consideration–something I’ve had confirmed by others who knew him. There seems no doubt that unlike, say, Heidegger, who was a personal and moral monster, Derrida really was a decent human being in his interpersonal dealings. But that, I’m afraid, is not what is at issue here. If he had become a football player as he had apparently hoped, or taken up honest work of some other kind, then we might simply remember him as a “good man.” But he devoted his professional life to obfuscation and increasing the amount of ignorance in the world: by “teaching” legions of earnest individuals how to read badly and think carelessly. He may have been a morally decent man, but he led a bad life, and his legacy is one of shame for the humanities.

Was it entirely an accident that at the same time that deconstruction became the rage in literary studies (namely, the 1980s), American politics went off the rails with the Great Prevaricator, Ronald Reagan? Is it simply coincidental that the total corruption of public discourse and language–which we may only hope has reached its peak at the present moment–coincided with the collapse of careful reading and the responsible use of language in one of the central humanities disciplines? These are important questions, and I wonder whether they have been, or will be, addressed.

UPDATE: A student at Yale Law School writes: “They are most certainly important questions, and one book that deals with them is a book by a Yale professor of English, David Bromwich; it’s entitled Politics by Other Means. It gives a good and thoughtful lashing both to academic identity politics and to the Reagan administration’s corruption of the public sphere. I commend it to your attention.”

[Ed.: See this In the Library for another recommendation of David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means.]

This article first appeared on The Leiter Report October 31 and is republished here by permission. Brian Leiter is Joseph D. Jamail Centennial Chair in Law, Professor of Philosophy, and Director of the Law & Philosophy Program
at the University of Texas at Austin. The Leiter Report is here.

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