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Is Derrida's View of Ideal Being Rationally Defensible?

"Certainly, there be that delight in giddiness; and count it a bondage to fix a belief; affecting freewill in thinking as well as in acting. And though the sects of philosophers of that kind be gone, yet there remain certain discoursing wits which are of the same veins, though there be not so much blood in them as was in those of the ancients."

(Of Truth, Francis Bacon)


"Promise me that all you say is true. That's all I ask of you."

(Phantom of the Opera)


In this paper I shall inquire to what extent there may be good reasons for holding (or rejecting) Derrida's view on the existence and nature of ideal being or universals. That is, is his view true or is it false? And are there considerations which can be stated in the form of propositions (indicative sentences) that can be known to be true and that logically entail, or render significantly probable, either the view of ideal being which Derrida maintains or its negation. What would be the results of an appraisal of Derrida's position on this matter from the viewpoint of standard logic? I share Newton Garver's "...worry... that Derrida may not have left himself any ground on which to stand and may be enticing us along a path to nowhere...."1

I do not mean to suggest that this is the only interesting question which might be raised about his views--on ideal being or on anything else. Conceivably there could be some justification for asserting what he asserts on various topics even if his assertions were not rationally defensible in terms of standard logic. But it must be of some interest to him, as well as to others, if we were to find that his views were not rationally defensible in the sense explained. And I cannot help thinking that to establish the rational indefensibility of his views on ideal being must have a significant effect on whatever roles they might have in the arenas of philosophical discourse, of life and of history.

I am aware that "standard logic" does not by any means coincide with "rationality." Yet it seems to me that a position which fails at the level of standard logic has significantly failed with regard to rationality, and that whatever aspirations it may have to be rational would then face a very heavy burden of proof. No position could be rational if, after careful examination, it doesn't have a logical leg to stand on, and especially if it turns out to be logically incoherent.

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What, exactly, is Derrida's position on the existence and nature of ideal beings or universals? I should the outset express my opinion that he does hold ideal beings or universals to exist and to have a specific nature, and that his view is, with relatively minor deviations, the view which, in Speech and Phenomena and elsewhere, he attributes to Edmund Husserl. Many of his readers will disagree with me about this, and it may be possible later on to see why they would. But a person's views have to be determined by what they say. Let us see what Derrida says.

To begin with, which are the ideal beings according to Derrida? He would, I believe, accept the re-identifiable correspondents to grammatical predicates and names as ideal beings. In terms of consciousness, any ob-ject of consciousness: anything singled out as an identity for the flow of consciousness will be an ideal being, precisely because of its repeatability in identity. The main element in "identity" for Derrida is reidentifiability, not some non-epistemic element that constitutes identity regardless of consciousness and language. (Similarly as Quine, in his slogan, "No entity without identity," is really referring with "identity" to criteria of identification, hence to re-identifiability, and not to some metaphysical "fact about" entities in themselves--which may be why pronouns (quantifiers) involving cross-references to the same object, and not nouns, bear existential commitment for him.)

A consequence of this general description of ideal beings for Derrida is that what are commonly regarded as individuals, as impredicable subjects of predicates, turn out to be ideal beings. Indeed he embraces the view that "The ideal object is the absolute model for any object whatever, for objects in general." (OG 66 and SP 99)2  This will not be surprising to anyone who has read her Bradley or Quine well, and perceives the profound kinship in fundamental ontology enjoyed by these three thinkers. However, in this paper we shall not pursue issues concerning individuals and their ideality. Rather we shall deal with those entities or objects classically understood to be universal, and with their being and ideality.

Cases of ideal being in this narrower sense will surely include the ones discussed in his first major publication, his lengthy "Introduction" to his French translation of Husserl's L'origine de la geometrie. These are the properties and relations dealt with in geometry, such as point, line, plane, angle, side, opposite, adjacent, intersection, triangle, and so forth. His discussions also suggest that numbers and their properties and relationships fall among ideal beings. And there can be no doubt from his later writings that non-mathematical properties and relations of all sorts, which can be singled out and asserted as the same in differing contexts, all fall among ideal beings in the narrower sense of universals. Properties such as red, vanilla, difficult, oviparous, and so forth, all fall here, though they may differ in characteristic ways among themselves as well as from mathematical properties.

A very special class among universal ideal beings, for Derrida, is constituted by meanings, significations, or senses. At this point we need not, as later, go into the question of how significations or senses are related to universal ideal beings which are not significations: whether the signification is or is not the same as the ideal being which it is 'of', whether there are any ideal beings which aren't significations or senses, and so forth. For now it suffices that both triangularity (as the property of a certain figure or thing), and the sense, signification or concept of triangularity (as a determination or component of a given act of speech or consciousness), are ideal beings on Derrida's view.

With this indication of what ideal beings are in extension, let us now turn to some of Derrida's essential characterizations of ideal beings, and especially to his view of what it is for a being to be ideal.

1. Ideal objects do not exist in self-contained completeness in a topos ouranios. (OG 75, SP 6, WD 157-158)3

2. Ideal objects are "free," and therefore can be normative, with regard to all "factual subjectivity." That is, the cessation of an individual act cognizing them does not destroy them, for they can be cognized in other, perhaps infinitely repeated, acts, which also can be criticized in terms of how they cognize them and therefore must be developed in terms of what those objects are. (WD 158)

3. 1 and 2 imply that ideal objects derive from "a transcendental subjectivity," that is, a mind-like producing and reproducing of objects/senses which is, however, not any particular mind, but expresses itself through particular minds. (WD 158, SP 82)

4. It also follows that ideal objects are essentially and intrinsically historical. (WD 158, SP 85)

5. Ideal entities are essentially and only objects of consciousness. They depend for their existence or being upon being cognized. "The mathematical only what it appears to already reduced...and its being is, from the outset, to be an object for a pure consciousness." (OG 27) "The sense of sense in general is here determined as object: as something that is accessible and available in general and first for a regard or gaze." (OG 64) "To constitute an ideal object is to put it at the permanent disposition of a pure gaze." (OG 78) "Ideality...does not exist in the world and does not come from another world." (SP 6, 52)

6. The being of ideal entities (universal or particular) is presence: "...the absolute proximity of self-identity, the being-in-front of the object available for repetition, the maintenance of the temporal present, whose ideal form is the self-presence of transcendental life, whose ideal identity allows idealiter of infinite repetition. (SP 99; cf. 6) By contrast, differance is the mark of the non-ideal. Differance does not exist (MP 21)4 and has no essence (p. 25). Likewise for the trace. (G 167, MP 25)5

7. The origin of an ideal object "will always be the possible repetition of a productive act." (SP 6) The ideal object "depends entirely on the possibility of acts of repetition. It is constituted by this possibility." (SP 52)

8. Repeatability of the ideal is possible " the identity of its presence because of the very fact that it does not exist, is not real or is irreal--not in the sense of being a fiction, but in another sense,...whose possibility will permit us to speak of nonreality and essential necessity, the noema, the intelligible object, and in general the non-worldly." (SP 6; cf 55 & 74-75)

9. Language is the medium in which transcendental subjectivity produces objects, ideal objects, senses. (SP 73-75 & 80) "Is it not language itself that might seem to unify life and ideality." (SP 10) Without language there would be no ideal beings.

10. Absolute objectivity, repeatability in its highest degree, is only achieved in the written language and symbolisms of science. (SP 0, 80)

* * *

To provide a contrast with the above, we consider Edmund Husserl's views on being and ideal being. This is especially important in view of the fact that many now regard the view of being and ideality expressed in the previous paragraphs as Husserl's view. But for Husserl, to exist or have being (which are one and the same thing) is simply to possess qualities or relations. In the case of specific types of beings, certain qualitative structures must come together in joint predication for beings of those types to exist, or for things which exist to be things of those types. Such qualitative structures are the essences of the relevant entities, and, considered from the standpoint of how the entities are to be given if "they themselves" are present, they determine the 'Sinnsein', the sense of the being, of those entities. (Ideas I, subsection 142 [p. 396])6 But what it is for them to be, the being of such beings, is the same in every case: a univocity extending across all ontological chasms, including the real and ideal, the reelle and the irreelle.

Special questions about being in Husserl have been raised by what he says about the noema. The noema was introduced by Husserl to account for those differences between acts of consciousness which fall in the dimension of appearance. Concretely considered, the noematic consists of certain "nonindependent" particulars, the noematic "moments," which, "idealiter gefasst," are universals (qualities, relations) that make up the qualitative structures of, precisely, appearances. Thus, Husserl introduces the noematic as a distinctive domain of entities on the basis of characters, qualities, 'predicates' which belong to "the object as such" and nothing else, by means of which it uniquely is to be described. (Ideas I, pp. 258, 260, 283-284, 289) He remarks: "These predicates ...are evidently not given through such reflection acts of consciousness>. We grasp what concerns the correlate as such through the glance being turned directly on the correlate itself. We grasp the negated, the affirmed, the possible, the questionable, and so forth, as directly qualifying the appearing object as such." (p. 305) "These are characters which we find as inseparable features of the perceived, fancied, remembered, etc., as such." (p. 266) They can belong, as properties, neither to the real object nor to the reelle act, and hence must be part of another domain, that of the irreelle. Yet for the irreele, the noematic, as well as for all else that is, to be is simply to be subject to, to actually have, relevant properties or relations.

This view of the being of beings, of the univocity of being, is essentially the same as that of Hermann Lotze, from whom Husserl most likely learned it.7 In the Twentieth Century essentially the same view has been held by Bertrand Russell and C. J. Ducasse. It is the indispensible keystone to a viable ontology, in my view. It correctly preserves the ancient dictum: Diversum est esse et id quod est. That which exists is not identified with its own being. But, on the other hand, the having of qualities remains "something" in its own right, a characteristic type of relational structure. Moreover it can (indeed must!) be discussed in its own right--as the "Being of beings" will in any case most certainly be, as is proven by who better than Heidegger and Sartre and Derrida--without endless caveats, through "X'd out" terms and otherwise, to the effect that one can't really do what one is doing.

More importantly, the being of beings is regarded, on Husserl's view, as logically independent of independence, as well as of "thinglikeness" generally. That an entity is dependent or non-thinglike has no implication for its being or not-being as such, or for the 'degree' to which it is or is not. This includes dependence upon consciousness. Whatever is dependent on consciousness exists--though that does not settle any of the difficult questions as to what does or does not depend on consciousness (or language, if that is not the same thing)--and there is no reason in the nature of being, as Husserl understands it, that requires all that exists to be known or cognized or mentally intended. Objects of all kinds are, for him, "relative" to knowledge or consciousness, in the sense that their essences include how they are to be known, if they are known, whereas there is no similar relativity of consciousness to the world or to realms of non-worldly objectivities such as numbers. But, except for the obvious exceptions in the cultural or 'spiritual' realm, the world and other realms of which we are conscious might well be, and be what we know them to be, if consciousness were in fact totally eliminated from reality or being.

For our present discussion it is most important to say that being as Husserl understands it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with presence. Neither spatial, temporal nor intentional ('mental') presence is required for being in general--though in the specific case of noematic moments (not their qualities, however) Husserl does hold that to be is to be perceived, which is yet not the same as saying that the being of the noematic moment is identical with its being perceived. For Husserl, something can be and yet be present in none of these senses. It may be that all entities are present in some or several senses, but that will not follow from what it is for them to be.

The famous Husserlian "Principle of all Principles" has to do with the knowledge of being and beings, not with being; and the Heidegger/Derrida interpretation of it as a principle of being merely reflects their own commitments with regard to intentionality and being, and possibly their own confusions. But it has nothing essentially to do with being as Husserl himself understood it. (While the being of X is for Husserl [Ideas I, subsections 142 & 144] equivalent with the possibility of evident judgments about X, the possibility of evident judgments involves much more and other than the being of X, which of course (partially) grounds that possibility, but not conversely. The possibility of evident judgments does not ground the being of the relevant objects.)

If "presence" means simply identity, then the discussion with regard to Husserl becomes more difficult, but I suspect that Husserl's view of being can accommodate what Derrida has to say on this point also. (See SP 99 on the meanings of "presence.") I have not yet been able to work my way through these issues on this point, and will not comment further.

The definitive passage on Husserl's view of being occurs in the IInd "Logical Investigation," which, I must say, seems to be sedulously avoided by the now triumphant historicist/nominalist interpretation of his views--to which, no doubt, it is an acute embarassment. In subsection 8 of that Investigation he is contrasting ideal being with (both mental and extramental) real being, for which "temporality is a sufficient mark" (p. 351), and with fictive being, which "does not exist at all." (p. 352)9 In contrast, "Ideal objects...exist genuinely. Evidently there is not merely a good sense in speaking of such objects (e.g. of the number 2, the quality of redness, of the principle of contradiction, etc.) and in conceiving them as sustaining predicates: we also have insight into certain categorical truths that relate to such ideal objects. If these truths hold, everything presupposed as an object by their holding must have being. If I see the truth that 4 is an even number, that the predicate of my assertion actually pertains to the ideal object 4, then this object cannot be a mere fiction, a mere facon de parler, a mere nothing in reality." (pp. 352-353)

In the immediately following paragraph Husserl allows "the possibility that the sense of this being, and the sense also of this predication, does not coincide exactly with their sense in cases where a real (reales) predicate, a property is asserted or denied of a real subject. "We do not deny, but in fact emphasize, that there is a fundamental categorial split in our unified conception of being (or, what is the same, in our conception of an object as such); we take account of this split when we distinguish between ideal being and real being; between being as Species and being as what is individual. The conceptual unity of predication likewise splits into two essentially different sub-species according as we affirm or deny properties of individuals, or affirm or deny general determinations of Species. This difference does not, however, do away with a supreme unity in the concept of an object, nor with the correlated concept of a categorial propositional unity. In either case something (a predicate) pertains or does not pertain to an object (a subject), and the sense of this most universal pertinence, together with the laws governing it, also determines the most universal sense of being, or of an object, as such; exactly as the more special sense of generic predication, with its governing laws, determines (or presupposes) the sense of an ideal object." (p. 353)

This point is carried over to Ideas I and elsewhere where object, in the sense of an entity or being, is "defined as anything whatsoever, e.g., a subject of a true (categorical, affirmative) statement" (subsection 22), and where the view that ideal, "non-temporal," beings such as the number 2 are "mental constructs" is starkly branded as "an absurdity, an offence against the perfectly clear meaning of arithmetical speech which can at any time be perceived as valid and precedes all theories concerning it. If concepts are mental constructs, then such things as pure numbers are no concepts. But if they are concepts, then concepts are no mental constructs." (Ideas I, p. 90) There can be no doubt whatsoever that Husserl would still make this claim if we were to replace "mental constructs" with "constructs of transcendental historicity." The being of ideal, non-temporal, objects has essentially nothing to do with being made or developed in time, but rather is presupposed in all temporal making and development.

It was this view of ideal being as simply a subject of appropriate predicates, also provided by Lotze, that opened the way to Husserl's resolution of what I have elsewhere10 called the "Paradox of Logical Psychologism"--the oddity that the laws of logic govern mental events in certain respects, but are not justified by facts about mental events. This resolution was achieved through the integration of the Bolzanian concepts and propositions "an sich" into his own theory of logic. As he tells us in his 1903 review of a book by Palagyi, "concepts and propositions merely have the ideal being or validity of general objects..., not the real being of things...of temporal particulars"11, a point repeated in chapter II of Ideas I.

This same point is strongly made in subsection 32 of the first "Logical Investigation": "Meanings constitute, we may say further, a class of concepts in the sense of 'universal objects'. They are not for that reason objects which, though existing nowhere in the world, have being in a or in a divine mind, for such metaphysical hypostatization would be absurd. If one has accustomed oneself to understand by 'being' only real being, and by 'objects' only real objects, then talk of universal objects and of their being may seem basically wrong; no offence will, however, be given to one who has first used such talk merely to assert the validity of certain judgments, such in fact as concern numbers, propositions, geometrical forms, etc., and who now asks whether he is not evidently obliged, here as elsewhere, to affix the label 'genuinely existent object' to the correlate of his judgment's validity, to what it judges about. In sober truth, the seven regular solids are, logically speaking, seven objects precisely as the seven sages are: the principle of the parallelogram of forces is as much a single object as the city of Paris." (p. 330)

It must be emphasized that the view asserted here is no mere in rebus or post rem doctrine of universals. To deny that universals exist in some place apart from their instances--which would be to treat them as peculiar sorts of individuals or realities, and thus to commit a "metaphysical hypostatization" (see above) or a "Platonic hypostatization" (Ideas I, subsection 22 [p. 88])--is not at all to hold that they exist only (or at all) in their instances or in minds which have beheld their instances in the appropriate fashion. Nor is it to say that they in any way depend, for their being or being known, upon their instances--though that would be left open as a possibility. It is simply to point out as irrelevant certain problems about how universals relate to their instances or to knowledge thereof, problems based on 'distance'. To be, entities do not, in general, have to be some where.

Accordingly, the inference repeatedly drawn by Derrida (OG 75 and elsewhere) that, for Husserl, ideal objects must be created and developed in history, since they do not "descend from heaven" (from a ) is just an astonishing faux pas. Like certain other of his claims, e.g. that the being of the ideal methematical object is, "from the outset, to be an object [etre-objet] for a pure consciousness" (OG 27; cf. SP 53 & 76), or that "the ideal is always thought by Husserl in the form of an Idea in the Kantian sense" (SP 100), it is simply never brought over against Husserl's explicit arguments and denials (all of the IInd "Investigation," in the former case, and subsection 32 of the Ist "Investigation," in the latter). Perhaps what operates here in order to, supposedly, make such a confrontation unnecessary, is the image of Husserl the chameleon, whose last and therefore (?) genuine position was that of a quasi-Hegelian historicist; or perhaps it is the idea that any text can be "deconstructed" to make it say the exact opposite of what it explicitly says.

Concepts and propositions--and significations (which are but concepts and propositions expressed in language)--are simply one sub-class of universals. (Ist "Logical Investigation," subsection 33) They are no more created or developed by thought or language than are other universals. All universals alike share the independence from time that marks ideal being, as noted. There are many 'meanings' (concepts, propositions) which never find expression in consciousness or language. "We cannot therefore say that all ideal unities of this sort are expressed meanings. Wherever a new concept is formed, we see how a meaning becomes realized that was previously unrealized. As numbers--in the ideal sense that arithmetic presupposes--neither spring forth nor vanish with the act of enumeration, and as the endless number-series thus consists in an objectively fixed set of general objects, sharply delimited by an ideal law, which no one can either add to or take away from, so it is with the ideal unities of pure logic: the concepts, propositions, truths, and hence the "meanings," which make up its subject matter. They are an ideally closed set of general objects, to which being thought or being expressed are alike contingent. There are therefore countless meanings which, in the common, relational sense, are merely possible ones, since they are never expressed, and since they can, owing to the limits of man's cognitive powers, never be expressed." (Ist "Logical Investigation," subsection 35, p. 333) But as concepts they really are, have being, and are "possible" only as linguistic significations.

In reflecting upon the viability of the historicist/nominalist interpretation of Husserl, we at least will have to acknowledge that he never explicitly discusses to reject his own earlier realist version of ideal being or universals (including significations) and the arguments and analyses upon which he based it. We then have to ask ourselves: If Husserl forsook his realism, how did he do it? Could he have overlooked this change? That seems highly unlikely, since it would require him to be incredibly dense as a philosopher. But if not, are we to believe him to be the sort of thinker who could, in advancing his catastrophically modified theory, just ignore the task of refuting the arguments, previously validated at such excruciating lengths, which were earlier taken to refute, with such utter decisiveness, the new view now, allegedly, adopted? Again, it seems highly unlikely. Or did he just pass over the change in silence, hoping it wouldn't be noticed, perhaps? Preposterous idea! But then surely the burden of explaining how Husserl underwent the transition from Realist to Nominalist, given the fact that he nowhere explicitly works it through, would lead one to suspect that it never occurred, as far as he was concerned--no matter what might be done to "deconstruct" his texts. If the intentions of an author has no authority over the meaning of a text, the deconstruction of a text has no authority over the views of the author.

The ideality of cultural entities, as discussed in Formal and Transcendental Logic and elsewhere, is not in the least inconsistent with what we have just said, though they require a treatment in their own right. They have a certain 'ideality' in virtue of their repeatability as "the same," e.g., two performances of the same string quartet, two enunciations of the same English sentence, but they indeed are "real," not ideal, in terms of their temporal--and indeed historical--character, in Husserl's sense of the real.

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Having clarified Husserl's views on ideal being, and contrasted them with Derrida's, we now take up the question of whether or not Derrida's view of ideal being is based on good reasons or is rational. We will especially focus on his claim that ideal beings are 'products' of historical acts and processes.

First, we note that the reason given by him for saying that ideal objects originate and develop in history through acts of consciousness does not seem to imply this conclusion. That reason is that they do not exist elsewhere--in a heavenly place or divine mind. Curiously, it is Derrida, not Husserl, who seems to think that what exists must have a 'place' if it is to exist. Perhaps because of his own emphasis on "presence." Not there, so only here. That seems to be his inference. Presence (here or there) is not a requirement for existence if Husserl is correct. He clearly saw that existence does not require a repository, a place, for that which exists--unless, of course, the existent in question--e.g. a horse--is of a specific sort that does so. This is one of his most basic insights. Arriving at it, in his early study of Lotze, was an epoch-making event in his mental history. We have commented on this above and elsewhere.

Further, although I cannot find any explicitly stated argument, as we have in the case just cited, I am sure that Derrida considers his view of ideal objects as necessary in order to account for the historical development of scientific theories and techniques, as well as of other cultural/spiritual objects. He assumes "...the philosophical nonsense of a purely empirical history and the impotence of an ahistorical rationalism..." (OG 51) The latter is a term for the realist theory of ideal objects and concepts which, I maintain, Husserl held to the end. Derrida's view seems to be that if ideal objects do not originate in and are not transformed in "history" in his special non-fact sense, they cannot be active agents in history, and we are left only with logical deduction or empirical causality to account for or illuminate historical--therefore human--process and reality. Such alone cannot illuminate history--especially as sense history. Therefore ideal objects must originate in history and be transformed through history--a line of thought that we certainly find in earlier thinkers such as Merleau-Ponty.

But this line of thought seems to depend upon the same type of assumption as the previous one. Namely, that the 'effects' or powers of ideal objects on historical processes, including the conscious ones, depend upon those objects not existing 'apart' from the processes, meaning independently of the processes. As indicated above, however, location is irrelevant to ideal objects or universals on the Husserlian (and I think correct) alternative, both as to their effects and their existence. Proximity is relevant only to the efficaciousness of particulars; and to transfer such a condition to ideal objects is what Husserl marks as a "metaphysical" or as a "perverse 'Platonic hypostatization'," without in any sense surrendering his realism.

On Husserl's view, the terms and subjects of logical relations and predicates--concepts and propositions--are dynamic when instanced in conscious or linguistic acts (and hence in history), under the form of motivation, which he described as "the fundamental law-form in the mental life." (Ideen II, subsection 56) Of course motivation reaches far beyond logical relations, on the one hand, and beyond causation on the other. It is in terms of motivation that these and other ideal objects and components of consciousness actualize a coherent and developmental "sense history" such as we see discussed in Husserl's Origin of Geometry and Crisis. Motivation, in its manifold specific manifestations in consciousness and in history, provides the "third way" rightly insisted upon by Merleau-Ponty, Derrida and others, without in the least supporting the nominalist/historicist interpretation of ideal objects which Derrida maintains.

Perhaps there are other reasons which Derrida gives for his view of ideal objects, but I have been unable to find them. His mode of exposition does not make it easy to identify arguments he may be giving for his views.

* * * * *

On the other hand I think there are some substantial reasons for thinking that his view of ideal beings is false. One must mention, in the first place, those arguments stated and explained to exasperating lengths in Husserl's IInd "Logical Investigation," especially in Chapter One. Here we shall be able only to mention them, not examine them in detail, as I have done elsewhere.12 There is an argument from predication, one from similarity, one from the character of mental acts, and one from the unity of classes or extensions of concepts. Only the one from mental acts is peculiar to Husserl, so far as I know. The others have been advanced and criticized by many people throughout the history of philosophy. Husserl was convinced that each of the four was sufficient to establish his "realistic" view of ideal beings.

Now these arguments must all be wrong if Derrida's view of ideal being or universals is to be right. Yet he does not even attempt to criticize them. This is perhaps due to his assuming that Husserl himself "later" saw them to be wrong and deserted realism. Or possibly he assumes that all such arguments are unsound or somehow useless because based on logocentric pressuppositions, which are false, about the nature of being itself. There is no doubt that Derrida profoundly disagrees with Husserl (and all logocentricists) about the nature of being itself, what it is to be; and this disagreement well may be one which is so fundamental that they could never meet on the field of argument to settle questions of existence or of its independence or dependence upon consciousness and history, transcendental or otherwise. Reasoning for and against Derrida's view of ideal being would then seem to be irrelevant, and so might all evaluations in terms of rationality.

Still, I think that this is not the end of the question as to the rationality of Derrida's view of ideal objects. He does make statements about them, in large quantities. And in those statements there are certain claims made which, I suspect, are inherently incoherent if not incompatible. If that is so, then there remains an important sense in which his view cannot be regarded as rational. Mystical, perhaps, but not rational.

Derrida's central claim, with regard to ideal objects, is that they are made, or brought about. Moreover, that they are brought about by concrete acts of consciousness, though, to be sure, acts which presuppose activity on the part of transcendental historical subjectivity--whatever that really amounts to in the details. For every ideal object, there is a point in cosmic time when it does not exist, and then at some later point it does exist. It comes to exist as a result of specific acts of specific persons, both acts and persons formed somehow by transcendental subjectivity--which, I gather, itself has not always existed. (Or has it?) It also seems that, on Derrida's view, some ideal objects (perhaps all will) come to a point where they cease to exist, even if they do not cease at a point. Perhaps even by now many ideal objects have gone out of existence, but I am unable to determine under what precise conditions, according to him, they do so. Perhaps it is only a matter of a certain segment of language disappearing; and this, we know, certainly does happen.

(He holds that the phenomenological and eidetic reductions are impossible because essences--including those of mental acts, of course--have inherent in them the worldly reality of language.13 It would seem that a universe with no languages would be a universe with no ideal beings, and hence with no objects. According to the familiar scientific story, then, the universe for most of its 'history' (but we can't say that) was one with no kinds of things in it. How there could be now a scientific theory of such a world, or what it would mean for anything to happen in it, is surely very puzzling.)

But whatever we are to make of such things, I think it is entirely accurate and fair to say that Derrida gives us no information at all on exactly what goes on in the 'interchange' between transcendental subjectivity, the prior state of affairs, the individual person, that person's act, and the ideal object (to be refined in its ideality through the progression toward the written language of science) produced or 'made' as it emerges into history.

Are we to think of the object--say triangularity or vanilla or the proposition that 4 is an even number--as being produced ex nihilo by the act or historical sequence of acts? Exactly how, then, could an act of consciousness, being what it is, possibly produce ex nihilo vanilla or triangularity, being what they are. And not only so, but how could it produce the entire range, infinite no doubt, of ideal objects, while yet remaining the specific sort of thing it is as an act of consciousness or sequence of such acts? The supposition that it could do this is surely very close to rationally incoherent, especially when one realizes that the act of consciousness itself, as well as the individual subject, bears the essential marks of presence and therefore ideality?

I believe that the difficulty is partly hid by Derrida's failure or unwillingness to provide any detailed account of the contents and structures of the individual act of consciousness. It is at this point that his work most radically departs from phenomenology as Husserl so carefully developed it. A few things like signifier and signified, voice, differance and presence do not an analysis of the act of consciousness or language make. Rather, when that alone is offered, we should suspect that, instead of description of how things are, we are receiving von oben the results of an apriori ontological framework. This is rendered no less unhelpful, to me, if I am told that "the living presence" and its "movement" cannot be analyzed in terms of attributes. We are still left with the fact that Derrida provides no analysis or account of the act of consciousness, and hence not of how it could produce ex nihilo--even with the help of transcendental subjectivity, in the absence of details a mere deus ex machina--the ideal objects which there have been, are and will be.

The difficulties are hardly less severe if we take the act of consciousness (with transcendental historical aid) to make ideal objects from what already exists. Some of Derrida's language suggests that this is the way it happens. (See point #9 above)

If the process of 'production' is interpreted merely as one of disregarding associated objects or entities, then the point of making, or bringing into existence, is lost. But if the process really is one of 'carving out' or extracting or 'leaving out' (as suggested by the passage under #9), then that also suggests that the object pre-exists the 'carving' action, while it simultaneously raises the question of how the act of consciousness or language, being what it is, could do that. What would "carving" mean? How could the act (or history) produce vanilla or triangularity, being what they are, from pre-conceptualized being --the same question as emerged above.

Now it seems to me that Derrida's response to all of this really comes down to saying that what goes on between language, the subject, her conscious acts and ideal objects is ineffable: ineffable because the living present can't be presented in concepts and propositions, names and predications. But it is rationally incoherent to insist, as he surely does, that the living present is of such a nature that it, and its manifestations in history and consciousness (through differance and trace) are ineffable. Natures surely are not ineffable.

Derrida's fundamental ontology is heir to the problems of Bergson's fundamental ontology, which it so largely replicates. Bergson wanted to treat concepts (understood as indistinguishable from qualities and relations) as derivative from the movement of the elan vital. But 'movement', whether of that elan or of Derrida's differance, is always in a specific 'direction'. Its direction can only be understood in terms of the qualities and relations embedded in it, relating before to after. This shows, I believe, the fundamental incoherence of any effort to locate "force" prior to signification (to meaning or to ideal objects in general).

So I, tentatively, conclude that Derrida's view of ideal objects is not rationally defensible, and this in the three-fold sense that it is unsupported by true premisses, that the arguments against it (Husserl's) are conclusive, and that its main thesis ('production' of ideal beings by conscious acts or "history") is logically incoherent. Whether it has some importance other than as a rational position, I do not contest.



  1. In his "Preface" to the English edition of Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, translated by David B. Allison, (Evanston, IL.: Northwestern University Press, 1973), p. xxviii.  Return to text.
  2. "SP" refers to Speech and Phenomena (see note # 1), and "OG" to the English edition of J. Derrida, Edmund Husserl's Origin of Geometry: An Introduction, translated by John P. Leavey, Jr., (Stonybrook, NY: Nicolas Hays, Ltd, 1978).  Return to text.
  3. "WD" refers to the English version of J. Derrida, Writing and Difference, translated by Alan Bass, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).  Return to text.
  4. "MP" refers to the English edition of J. Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, translated by Alan Bass, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).  Return to text.
  5. "G" refers to the English edition of J. Derrida, Of Grammatology, translated by Gayatri C. Spivak, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1976).  Return to text.
  6. Page references to Ideas I are to the Boyce Gibson translation, (London: George Allen & Unwin LTD, 1931)  Return to text.
  7. See, for example, his Microcosmus, Part IX, chapter 1, subsection #3.  Return to text.
  8. On these issues see Martin Schwab's excellent paper, "The Rejection of Origin: Derrida's Interpretation of Husserl," Topoi, V, #2 (1986), p. 164.  Return to text.
  9. Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations, two volumes, translation by J. N. Findlay, (New York: Humanities Press, 1970). All page references are to this edition.  Return to text.
  10. My "The Paradox of Logical Psychologism: Husserl's Way Out," American Philosophical Quarterly, IX, #1 (January 1972), 94-100; and my Logic and the Objectivity of Knowledge, (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1984), pp. 143-166.  Return to text.
  11. Edmund Husserl, Aufsaetze und Rezensionen (1890-1910), "Husserliana" volume XXII, (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1979), pp. 156-157.  Return to text.
  12. See pp. 186-193 of my Logic and the Objectivity of Knowledge.  Return to text.
  13. OG 66ff.  Return to text.