The Unhinging of the American Mind--Derrida as Pretext
Published in European Philosophy and the American Academy, Ed. Barry Smith, Open Court Publishers, 1999, pp. 3-20.
This conference calls upon us to say something illuminating about the causes of the current condition of the university system in the United States. Social causation is a notoriously slippery topic. It is difficult to say anything with much confidence or even precision about it. But it is also too important to leave unexamined. So I shall simply state what considerable hard thinking and experience has brought me to believe about the matters at hand.
On the Nature of the Crisis
Almost everyone--left or right, up or down--who takes an interest in education agrees that the American university system is in some sort of crisis--and not just financially, or in the sense that it turns out multitudes of people who are uneducated. The heart of the university crisis is, in my view, the simple fact that its institutional structures and processes are no longer organized around knowledge. The life of knowledge is no longer their telos and substance. Knowledge and knowing is not what is had in view or consciously supported by them. The people in charge are in fact only very rarely thinking about knowledge. It is not what the place “is about” in the mental processes of those who determine, or think they determine, curriculum, program and personnel, what is to count as “good work” or bad, and who is to be rewarded in various ways or not.
At the other end of university life, the Freshmen are not, on the whole, leaping with joyful anticipation at the prospect of learning, of coming to know. Epistemic hunger and joy are not displacing social and athletic activities or TV watching in their heart. They have many other things on their mind and are only set to go through a process at the university which they believe, for often quite obscure reasons, to be necessary for their present or future well-being. And that is just as well, for they are invariably faced with a set of choices, in progressing toward their degree, which have no substantive (contential) or formal unity and at most is supposed to guarantee a certain “spread.” (It is amazing the degree to which curriculum committees and administrators are devoted to “spread.”)
The absolute disarray of the undergraduate curriculum--outside of the major and pre-professional subsections at least, and even within some of these--conclusively demonstrates that the university is not about knowledge. It is, of course, about granting degrees or certificates, but this is conditioned upon the accumulation of units, and has no necessary connection with the grantees becoming knowledge-able persons, which by and large they dutifully do not.
I am used to the reply that what I am describing has always been the case, that students and faculty have never been more serious about the life of knowledge than now, but that now they are just more honest, hence more virtuous. Here I can only say that such replies seem to me completely lacking in comprehension of the world of higher education in the pre-World War I era, for example, and for some time thereafter. The mere words written on the walls of college, university and even high school buildings then simply could not be written now. Imagine now writing on the walls of a new building at any educational institution the words: “Let only the eager, thoughtful and reverent enter here.” This is written on the entrance to Pomona College, one of the better private colleges in the country. Written when they were, these words are now excusable because quaint. Written now they would be a joke. Of course they simply could not be written now.
The point I have been making about knowledge cannot be stated by responsible university leaders, nor can it be happily received by them when made by others. Nevertheless, it makes its presence felt in various ways, and that frequently results in statements from university administrators about how knowledge has changed, e.g. as a result of computers, or the ethnic mix of populations, or the way research is arranged and funded, etc. etc. The Conseil des Universities of the government of Quebec, for example, even took the quite reasonable step of asking Jean-Francois Lyotard to write a report on the state of knowledge in the Western world. There is a general recognition among higher-level administrators that something fundamental has changed.
Lyotard began his report with the statement--or “working hypothesis,” as he calls it--that “the status of knowledge is altered as societies enter what is known as the postindustrial age and culture enters what is known as the postmodern age.“1 To the surprise of no one, he reports that “scientific knowledge is a kind of discourse”--a metaphysical truism of the late Twentieth Century which silently crouches at the heart of our situation--and he proceeds progressively to characterise the kind of social ferment that makes up the ‘knowledge’ interchange or condition within this discourse: always involving social acceptance, properly understood. (pp. 18-19, 35, 43)
To the surprise of some, perhaps, it emerges at the end of the report that “consensus has become an outmoded and suspect value.” (p. 66) Consensus is not the form that epistemic social acceptance now takes. What marks “good work” at present is fruitful antagonisms within the discourse group. Not stability, but instability, is valued, where the best players in the game of ‘knowledge’ are always requesting that new rules be introduced to govern the use of descriptive (denotive) language games; and “The only legitimation that can make this kind of request admissible is that it will generate ideas, in other words, new statements.”(p., 65)2
It is very easy to recognize current university reality in Lyotard’s report, and especially in its conclusion, where good work and “the best minds” are understood in terms of novelty and antagonism. There is almost no limit to how far cleverness, careful arranging and chutzpah can take one “career wise.” And, if we are prepared to adjust our use of the term “knowledge” to conform to his implicit recommendation, we could then say that the university is after all concerned with knowledge and knowing, for it is concerned to be a place where “discourse” of the type discussed by Lyotard goes on.
But we could not say that the university is now concerned with knowledge “as always.” For knowledge in this sense of a sub-species of social ferment is not traditionally what has been the focus of university life. In fact, what Lyotard describes is simply the social side of the life of research or inquiry as manifested today, largely in a university setting. He does a quite adequate job of stating “what goes on.” Many, perhaps most, do now accept the view that ‘research’ is the function of the university, not knowing or the preservation, extension and communication of knowledge. We have “research universities,” but no “universities of knowledge.” This latter phrase is not just quaint or strange, but is strongly repugnant. Knowledge talk leaves university people with a vague but powerful uneasiness nowadays. Knowledge finds itself dismissed with various platitudes, such as that what you ‘learn’ in school is obsolete by the time you graduate. “Knowledge” is suspect, slightly delusional. In any case it is conditional, transitory, temporal. But research is eternal. In the way things have developed it often seems you could have research going on--possibly by “top” researchers--without involving knowledge at all, except under a Lyotardian definition.
This only confirms what I have just said, that university life is no longer organized around knowing and knowledge. If it were, and if, in particular, research were subordinated to that, the academic scene would be very different from what it now is. Among other things, teaching would have a completely different value and position from what it has. But Lessing’s statement, that if God stood before him and offered truth in one hand and pursuit of truth in the other, he would take the pursuit, expresses an attitude that has simply won in the university context. It has won with such force that it no longer requires expression, and perhaps cannot be expressed. “Truth” sounds like dogmatism. It threatens self-expression, which is perhaps the primary right and value in contemporary America.
(At dog races the dogs chase a device which simulates game to them, and which they never catch. They are judged successful by their place in the pack, and by a finish line that has nothing to do with what they are chasing. They are unable to tell that what they are chasing is not what they think it is, and that this makes no difference to the masters of the game--or to them. All that matters to the masters is how fast they are running in relation to the others, or in seconds if they are running against a clock.)
Now what is the knowing and knowledge around which, I am claiming, the university system is no longer organized? We shall not try to put too fine a point on this matter here, where, indeed, we step into an area fraught with genuine philosophical difficulties. But the idea of knowledge that guided the universities for almost a millenium--the same idea which inspired both classical thought and the rise and development of modern science--is one according to which to know is to be able to think of things as they are, as distinct from how they only seem or are taken to be, and to be able to do so on an appropriate basis of experience or thought. To learn is to pass from a state of inability so to think of things to a corresponding state of ability. To inquire--or “do research,” when it is subordinate to knowing--is to try to learn or “find out” how things are in some determinate respect.
Now, all hairsplitting and hare-starting aside, anyone who has read the literature of Epistemology from Plato to Bertrand Russell will surely recognize that it is concerned with knowledge in the sense just delineated, even where skeptical conclusions are reached. Moreover, if you speak to the ordinary person about knowledge, and explain it in this manner, you will nearly always elicit immediate recognition--at least if they are far enough removed from the university classes that taught them that “No one knows nothin’ nohow.” In their lives they are constantly dealing with people who know and those who don’t--sometimes it is themselves--and they have a fair understanding of what this distinction is. (Of course university people do too, when not defending a position or when they are dealing with their fringe benefits.)
Associated with this view of knowledge is the idea that there are bodies of knowledge, which are made up of a content and a method and which impose a discipline upon those who would master them, learn them, and thus become knowledge-able in the respective fields. Geography, for example, while expressing itself in a social and historical group of human beings and their cognitive products, is a body of knowledge about the earth and sundry processes near its surface. To master geography is not to ‘master’ this social group, but to master the body of knowledge for the sake of which and in subjection to which the group exists. The body of knowledge is a human achievement to be sure. All of the true propositions, the ‘truths’, that go into Geography (or whatever field) do not constitute it as a body of knowledge. They (or some significant subsection of them) must become known, and be in the possession of social institutions, along with the methods of knowing relevant to them, before they constitute a body of knowledge or a discipline. But there is a level of content and methodology for any field, which remains the same and provides the field’s continuity through often wide-ranging changes, extensions and transformations that occur, e.g. from Aristotelian to Einsteinian physics, or from Euclid to analytic geometry and beyond. This in turn is anchored in the fact that knowledge, on the model here suggested, is knowledge of how things really are, as contrasted with how they seem or are taken to be.
Thus, as indicated by the very term, a “discipline” imposes norms as to what “good work” in its domain must be. Good work must significantly conform--dread word!--to the discipline. For if it does not, it departs (on the traditional view) from the reality that is presented and dealt with through the respective body of knowledge; and the consequences for human life, which depends upon successful accomodation to how things really stand, will be unpredictable at least, and at worst disasterous. Such, I submit, is the picture of knowledge and reality that gave rise to “higher” education and nourished it through the millenia.3
And this brings us to the point where the “sense of crisis” that many feel when looking at the current university scene can perhaps be understood. For the felt “attack” on the university at present takes the form of the claim that there is something pervasively and totally wrong with the disciplines, the bodies of knowledge, which collectively make up the intellectual /artistic, and hence the academic, world.
This claim or attitude rests upon two sub-claims: First, that these “bodies of knowledge,” and the practices based thereon, do not, never did, and in the nature of the case cannot, represent or present what they purport to deal with “as it is, in distinction from how it seems or is taken to be.” Knowledge, and hence the knowledge business, is not governed by an independent reality; and “good work” and who gets the university (and resultant social) rewards is not measured or dictated by something outside the assignment process or distinct from the persons who manage the process.4Second, that the process of reward assignment is on the whole controlled, not even by the conscious self-interest or other motivations of individual administrators, publishers, colleagues, etc., though these may on occasion play some part. What such people think they are doing is not necessarily what is happening at all, and in any case does not much matter. For they, and we all, are but the playthings of more encompassing powers, such as transcendental historicity, the dominant episteme, or some other pervasive and impersonal structure--class structure and dialectics have been big in the recent past, but less so now--that can only be discerned by something called “theory.”
And this, of course, is where “those Frenchmen” come in. For they present themselves as, and are widely taken to be, masters of theory. They hold that, FOR REASONS REVEALED BY THEIR THEORY, there is something pervasively and totally ‘wrong’ with the traditional disciplines--as currently practised, not necessarily in the past, but certainly in the present--and with how they have been conceptualized as the basis for institutions of higher education (and human existence) in the Western world. This was the Marxist view, but it survives on the Rousseauism that has always been powerfully attractive to Americans--whether they know his name or not--and also was central to the Marxist vision.5
The main point where this all forcefully comes home in the current university setting is in the treatment of “texts.” The undermining of the normative power of the disciplines seems at the popular level to open the way to saying that any reading of a text by anybody has a certain legitimacy to it--and this can be rationalized in various ways--or to saying that the reading of the text that is socially sustainable at present is the right one, as long as it is socially sustainable. I do not attribute such views to any of our Gallic theorists, but they certainly are held by people who claim to be influenced by them. And the intellectual atmosphere at the teacher/student nexus is thick with such views, coming from both of its sides. This goes along with the view, commonly defended or assumed, that all texts are “as good,” or can be as good, as any other, since there is no objective ordering of texts as to their value, and no ‘canon’ other than what is politically enforced.
Now “texts” and the instrumentalities of their interpretation are the primary means through which humanity in its developed forms passes on its ideas and learnings about life and preserves its identity through time. Concern about how texts and the disciplines in which they are interwoven are treated in the university thus becomes a concern for those concrete forms of humanity (e.g. American society now) in which the university stands as the authority center: that is, the center of right to say how things are, and indirectly to determine what may or shall be done.
If these centers come under the control of those who hold such “open” views of the meanings of texts, what limits would there be to what, in the Lyotardian ferment, might present itself as ‘knowledge’? And knowledge always presents itself in human life as what ought to be conformed to, or at least may be conformed to, in action. It is determinative of the boundaries of the obligatory and the permissable. If the texts are “open,” what standards could then be sustained against desire and will, either at the level of the individual, or in social institutions and practices? Will not, as Plato feared, the belly capture the heart and break its subordination to the head? Will not brute force--call it ‘reason’ in society or history if you will--become what determines law and propriety, as social processes come to be managed by people who simply know how to get their way among a mass of those who no longer believe that they can, with the aid of their culture’s texts and the traditional disciplines, determine how things are in nature, art or morality, regardless of how anyone wishes them to be or how people with social authority present them? Will not knowledge itself, as traditionally understood and looked to as the guide to life, simply be lost--or at least be degraded and devalued as a bulwark against desire embodied in political and social objectives? Is this not happening now?
Basic Causes of the Displacement of Knowledge as Telos of the American University
What are the main causal factors back of the current crisis in higher education in the United States? I shall briefly consider the three which I regard as most influential, though several others will be mentioned in the process.
First there is egalitarianism, than which nothing is more dear to the American heart. As the idea that all people should receive equal treatment before the law, it is a moral ideal necessary for a good society and state. However, such equality is not what is commonly understood in the American context where ‘equality’ is exhalted. What is understood is that one person is just as good as another. In particular, I am just as good as you are--whoever you may be.
This deep set of American personality wells up spontaneously in the arts. James Dickey’s epic poem, “Sermon,” now in stage production, tells the females in its audience: “We should feel as free and correct as the animals feel. They may be penned up, but they strain toward sex wherever they are. You’re entitled to sex, to freedom--freedom from male and religious dominance. We are whole and should treat ourselves accordingly.“6 The basic point here is not really about women or “women’s issues,” but about what people are just in virtue of being human. They are all equal and all wonderful and therefore entitled to do what they want. The drive to be thought in no way deficient often takes amazing forms, such as a recent insistence that deafness be regarded, “not as a deprivation of sound, but an enhancement of vision.”
But how does this effect the situation in American universities? In particular, how does it deflect away from knowing and knowledge as the telos of the institutions of higher learning? Very simply: by filling them with people to whom knowledge and knowing in themselves mean little or nothing, and who think of themselves as just as good as anyone else and having a perfect right to occupy a university position nonetheless.
If we take the education system as a whole, from the early grades on, the most obvious thing about it is that most of the students and much of the staff are not there to learn or teach the disciplines, and in any case are not really engaged in doing so during most of their time. This then carries over to the system of higher education, which has passed from being an opportunity for those who love and revere knowledge, art and scholarship to live in their element, to an obligation which people who care nothing for such things must endure in order to achieve security, respectability and a pleasant life. The overwhelming percentage of those who are present in the university are people who do not feel diminished by an almost total ignorance of mathematics, the history and nature of the sciences, literature or art and its function in life, the ideas which have governed the great civilizations, or...you name it. This is because they do not regard knowledge as a fundamental value in its own right. They would never miss it but for extrinsic reasons.
Now equality in this vague but powerful social sense was “on paper” in America long before it had any significant impact on the university situation. This was mainly because university training was seen, generally, as having little connection with money or success, and usually--as in my own childhood--was actually regarded as a move in the opposite direction. It had a vague superiority about it, which was a kind of “consolation” prize for having lost in the race for the things that really matter in life. But this all begin to change rapidly when hundreds of thousands of GI’s begin to flood into academia after the Second World War on “The GI Bill of Rights” (more precisely, “The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act” of 1944).
Then, the government began to pour money into university research, in response to needs of the economy, industry and the military, and also into the construction of university property. The university became associated with vast amounts of money. In the 50s and 60s huge, totally new universities sprouted in empty spaces previously frequented by rabbits. As space became available for masses of students for whom there previously was just no place available in higher education, government and government supported scholarships were abundantly provided. The challenges of the 60s to the university itself, as anti-egalitarian, was predicated upon the presence in the universities of a huge mass of people who were not there for knowledge but for “opportunity.” The effects of these challenges have been widely studied by now. College/university education was simply forced to become something of which all with a right to admittance were capable, given their interests and talents.
To say that “the mass,”--as Ortega y Gasset has studied it in his crucial book, The Revolt of the Masses,7--has now occupied the universities, and that this is a major causal factor in the crisis described above, is not to say that the students or faculty of the current university are either malicious, lazy, or stupid. In fact, I believe them with very few exceptions to be just the opposite--though some of my acquaintances who are university administrators find this laughable. It is to say that they do not live for knowledge, knowing, learning, and teaching. We have to add that there is no reason why all people should live for these. Probably a relatively small percentage of humanity should. But American society ‘tells’ its citizens that the way to security, respect and pleasure lies through higher education, and cites statistics that tie potential employment and income to the level of schooling attained. This forces masses of people into a system that makes little of knowing, but everything of ‘research’ and ‘getting credits’. Then the call to displace knowledge and make other objectives--top-flight research, efficiency in the work place (“competing in world markets”), rectification of social structures, service to society, getting a good job or position, etc. etc.--the telos of higher education takes firm root in the minds of those for whom knowledge and knowing has little or no intrinsic value anyway.
A second major factor leading to the current state of the university in this country is empiricism. By this term I refer to the tendency to limit reality, knowledge and value to the sense perceptible, including the ‘feelable’. Here, as with egalitarianism, we are not dealing with a philosophical conclusion so much as with a social reality, historically developed and developing. Pitkim Sorokin’s book, The Crisis of Our Age, is an indispensible resource for understanding empiricism as a cultural reality.
Knowledge itself, and most of the things worth knowing, are not sense perceptible. This is well illustrated by the field of literature--or, more generally, by reference to texts of all sorts. Literature is not sense perceptible--though of course one can see and touch books and pages. Nor is the experience of literature or the powers and values interwoven with it, which is what literature as a field of knowledge really deals with. (It is hardly the physics of pages.) But if empiricism is correct, then what you ‘feel’ when you read a book or poem is the limit of its value. Admittedly, some theorists have toyed with such an idea. I. A. Richard’s seems to me to come close to it, at least. But literature as a discipline, creative or interpretative, simply can’t survive on such an approach, any more than logic as a discipline can survive if you try to treat validity or implication in terms of the feelings arguments give to people, or try to turn it into the physics of sentences.8 There is just nothing left that will permit logic to be a field of knowledge, and a similar point must be made for literary studies and all of the humanities and social sciences.9 Very few of the things in which human life has a knowledge interest, and very few of the things studied in the university, can be sensuously comprehended, though most involve some element of the sense perceptible. And least of all, perhaps, are knowledge and knowing themselves sense perceptible
So how can knowledge justify itself in the face of a society that is dominated by empiricism? It cannot. Thus we see once again why knowledge has had to be displaced as the Telos of the American university.
Empiricism has also adversely effected the status of knowledge in American culture by giving rise to a version of Representationalism in the theory of knowledge--though it is not the only way in which such a theory of knowledge can arise. This version is also sometimes called “epistemological dualism.“10 It is mainly responsible for the view that in consciousness of objects we never contact them but only our images or representations of them. Thus Hume in his way, and Kant in his, held that all of the identities dealt with cognitively and practically in the world around us are products of our mind (plus ‘something’ in Kant’s case). Stated in this general form, their philosophies come out at exactly the same result as Derrida’s, though the arguments and explanations are different. From the middle of the 20th Century on, “representations” became linguistic, on the Carnapian or the later Wittgensteinian model, and consciousness itself became a linguistic activity. The fact that two thousand years of close scrutiny of consciousness by some pretty bright people had not revealed that consciousness is linguistic suggests to me that the shift to the linguisticization of consciousness was not driven by a deeper insight into consciousness, but by the need to make consciousness a part of the physical, sense perceptible world, which words, sentences, and utterances arguably are. So today, as is well known, what stands “between” us and a world as it is apart from us is not “inner” representations--“ideas,”“images,”“impressions,”--but the language(s) we speak as a part of the culture that defines us. And this is a crucial move for the current university situation. It allows a new dimension of attack upon knowledge as traditionally conceived. The most austere of theories now become language, and this enables us to say such things as: “Theory, you know, is just another practice,” which means just another manifestation of culture. And there is thought to be no meta- or super-culture or language from which all other cultures can be comparatively judged. It is a later dictate of egalitarianism--and a university dogma today--that no culture can be judged superior to another. Here we see how ‘empiricism’ supports that position.
The final major causal factor which I shall mention here as leading to the current state of the university is the absolutizing of freedom. There are now only two unquestioned values or justifications for action in American culture. One is pleasure (which gets in under the empiricist wire) and the other is freedom or doing what you want (which is also commonly regarded as ‘feelable’). That something “feels good” or is “what you want to do” are unquestioned and strong prima facie reasons for action. People are regarded as right and rational if they act upon them, unless there is some strongly countervailing reason, which in turn will have to be spelled out ultimately in terms of longer-run pleasure or freedom. So-called “natural” rights--which Bentham, with genuine hedonistic insight, called “nonsense on stilts”--from time to time threaten this neat arrangement, but with little prospect of setting it aside in American culture, where natural and other rights are most commonly invoked only to shore up the pursuit of pleasure and freedom.
Freedom absolutized exists culturally in a sort of free-floating equation with individualism (“doing your own thing,”“being your own person”) and therethrough with egalitarianism. This complex of ideation and motivation arranges itself in opposition to authority, and opens the way to an automatic and painless triumph for the rebel and the sceptic. To question authority is a sign of intelligence and a sceptical pose can be made to pass for brilliance. Scepticism does not have to be earned through the attainment of knowledge.
Now knowledge, by contrast, is essentially the sort of thing that cannot be just any way you please. If you are to know you must painstakingly and even servilely submit yourself to the relevant subject matter and methodologies. The recent popularity of books written against method, or of books with titles such as “Truth and Method”--where truth is opposed, in a certain subtle but fundamental sense, to method--or of theories according to which the major scientific advances occur in certain cataclysmic leaps between incommensurable states of research history, is to be understood as a part of the drive to replace the traditional view of knowledge and knowing with an anti-realist, social process view of knowledge. The attacks on Positivistic and falsely Objectivistic interpretations of science have important points to make. But the widespread acceptance of the anti-method tendency is not, I think, based upon widespread insight into the nature of knowledge and reality, but upon “Representational” theories of knowledge plus that drive to absolutize will and freedom which constitutes Romantic Revolutionism, arising out of the Eighteenth Century, and which harmfully extends Individualism, deriving from the late Middle Ages.
Refusal to accept servitude to painful method is a reason why one of the most dismal aspects of university life in America is its pervasive incompetence in mathematics and in languages. And just think of what vast possibilities in the way of knowledge and knowing is lost to the individual because of this. Most everything worth doing is painful and undesirable in its early stages. On the bedrock foundation of egalitarianism, ‘empiricism’ and freedom, getting through to the “fun” part of languages and mathematics is more than most can manage.
Now, if I am right, egalitarianism, empiricism, and absolutized freedom, understood not as mere ‘philosophical’ views, but as ideational/motivational complexes developing historically and concretized in American society, are the three main factors leading to the displacement of knowledge and knowing as the “spirit,” substance or telos of the university system. Other things that currently play an important role in university life could be mentioned, but they are of secondary importance when compared to these three. For example, the influence of Pop Culture and ‘art’. Or the removal of logic from the liberal arts curriculum, often replaced by a strange amalgum called “critical thinking.” Logic, of course, has something to say about what is essential to knowledge. How could one even know what knowledge is without an understanding of logic. Yet you often find logic spoken of as in instrument of oppression today. And, in any case, it is a field of exact knowledge, where, as in mathematics, you either measure up or you don’t. On the other hand, the talk of many logics that is now so common, inside technical philosophical circles and out, both has the effect of making logic seem arbitrary (which fits right into the scene, of course), and of inviting people to find or invent ‘logics’ of their own, if they don’t like the conclusions that are coming down on them. This makes it very easy to judge work in terms of the “suitability” of its conclusion to social demands rather than in terms of the validity and soundness of the process itself. (“Judged by whom?” we hear in the background, as if this question were deep.)
The flight from logic leaves little recourse but to submit to “the best professional practice” in whatever academic field may be concerned, and opens the way to the faddishness that characterizes the social sciences and the humanities in particular, as this or that powerful personality or trend occupies the ground. Once logic as an objective discipline is set aside, the no doubt necessary pattern of “inference to the best explanation” too easily allows the “best explanation” to be determined socially or within the politics of the profession. Indeed, explanation itself may be given a social/historical interpretation.
What is Derrida et. al. To All of This?
So we and our universities exist in a society where what is widely taken to be best is cause of some of our worst problems. Our dearest social and personal ideals create a dominant mind-set in which a rich and socially powerful institution such as the university can hardly fail to be deflected from its historic mission of knowledge, and therefore is seen by many observers as threatened with the lost of its integrity. Now we turn to the question of whether the “deconstruction phenomenon,” as we might call it, is responsible for the threat. What I have said thus far surely makes it clear that I can accept no such simple account. But that is not the end of the story. ‘Deconstructionism’ does exercise an influence, and it really is, in my opinion, in the direction feared by those who resist it. However, it is more reasonable to think of the university crisis and the deconstruction phenomenon as joint effects of a common causation, than to think of one as, simply, the cause of the other--though, once established, they may each significantly influence the other. To suppose that deconstructionism and associated thought currents are the cause of our problems in academia would be a severe misdiagnosis. They may exacerbate a pre-existing bad situation. But the problem was here before them, and if you got rid of them you would still have the problem.
Why should we not hold Derrida et. al. more responsible than this? There are, I believe, grounds other than the streams of social causation which far preceded them. Looking at the specifically philosophical interpretations of thought (language) and reality that occupied the American scene before or independently of Heidegger, Habermas, Derrida, etc., we find that Quine and Wilfrid Sellars alone are enough to make Derrida’s announcements of “no transcendental signifieds,” no “original” data or conceptualizations, no access to the “real stuff” apart from the shapings imparted by language, a little late, to say the least. Anglo-American philosophy has had no first rate philosopher who was a coherent realist since C. S. Peirce. Russell is the closest we have come to it, but he could never shake the idea that metaphysics (ontology) can only be a shadow cast by logic--which with other confusions (especially those about ‘sense data’) prevented him from working out a view of the mind/object nexus that would accomodate knowledge in the sense explained above. In any case, from Dewey, through C. I. Lewis, and on through Quine and Sellars, the views of knowledge arrived at really differ very little--especially in outcome--from what the ‘deconstructionists’ hold, though the role of history, power, and mystical factors such as Derrida’s “living present,” are of less significance in the continuing American tradition. And the ride of Logical Positivism and Ordinary Language Philosophy through American thought certainly did nothing to blunt its basically anti-realist thrust.
So, in fact, the deconstructionist phenomenon adds little to American thought at the more austerely philosophical level of analysis. But another reason why we should not hold Derrida and company heavily responsible for the current academic tempest that often swirls around their names is that few of those highly visible American figures, in literature and other fields, who claim to be under their influence really do understand the basic elements of ‘deconstructionist’ thought. They simply use Derrida and others as authorities within professional circles where their names carry weight.
Paul A. Bové, for example, has written a book called Destructive Poetics: Heidegger and Modern American Poetry.11 Armed with Heidegger’s attack on or interpretation of the “present to hand,” and the metaphysics of presence, Bové relentlessly goes after “reification,” opposing it to the “openness” of language (and life and reality, of course). The closed structures of “the reifying West” once set aside, he then provides a interesting and sophisticated reading of “openness” and “free play” in the poetry of Whitman, Stevens and Charles Olson. His is a book well worth reading. But it simply starts from a kind of extreme “process philosophy” that is not grounded in Heidegger’s work or much of anything else, and it does not take account of the fact, which Derrida recognizes, that Heidegger is much more of an essence philosopher than many of his hangers on would like. I really doubt that “the ongoing process of uncovering, of disclosing the new which occurs in Heidegger’s philosophical destruction” (p. 161) has much in common with the “openness” that Bové emphasizes and reads out of his poets.
A similar point is to be made with reference to Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s widely influential book, Contingencies of Value, already referred to. Basically, she has rediscovered variability in experiences of the same objects, and draws extreme relativist conclusions (especially about valuations of aesthetic objects), which she quite consistently declines to prove. But then she admits that she does“attempt to point the way quite energetically” only “because, since she cannot herself live any other way, she’s glad for a bit of company.” (pp. 183-184) That is the last sentence of her book. She’s kidding! Of course no publisher would have published the book to help her get some company, nor would she be appointed, paid or promoted just to help her in that regard. In fact, her career moves on the power of the deconstructionist phenomenon in her profession, where it--and therefore her book--is regarded by influential people as correct and justified in how it presents experience and its objects. But she herself does not detail the logic by which discovered relativities have the implications she claims, and she does not explicate the fundamental arguments and analyses of Derrida and others concerning language, consciousness and the world. He, along with the ‘deconstructive’ tendency in Modern and Contemporary thought, simply serves as a pretext by virtue of a system of authority that functions in her professional setting.
Bové and Smith are among the more careful workers who take Heidegger and Derrida as authority figures. Christopher Norris12 refers scathingly to “the Derridian camp followers,” and rejects the idea that “ ‘deconstruction’ is synonymous with a handful of overworked catch-words (‘textuality’, ‘freeplay’, ‘dissemination’ and the rest) whose promiscuous usage at the hands of literary critics bears no relation to the role they play in Derrida’s work.” (pp.137, 139) He insists that “deconstruction differs so markedly from the work of neo-pragmatist adepts like Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish” precisely because of Derrida’s concern with the coherence of ideas and his “refusal to accomodate ‘current beliefs and practices’.” (p. 139) Deconstruction properly understood respects and follows all legitimate canons of rigor in logic and methodology. So says Norris, whom I have chosen to quote because he represents the most mature and thoughtful development of the Derrida/Searle interchange.
Now I agree with the need to distance deconstruction from the excesses of the camp followers. That is a right which every creative thinker and every serious tendency of thought must reserve to itself. But Norris does not do justice to the extent in which Derrida, intentionally or not, both licenses the excesses of his devotees (though he might never commit them) and justifies the continuing attacks of people like John Searle and John Ellis upon himself as one who is not rigorous and logical in his own analyses and writings. Norris can insist all he wishes on Derrida’s allegiance to rigor, but, in fact, anything like standard logic, and the determinancy of concept and proposition which it presupposes, is indelibly tarred with the brush of logocentrism by Derrida. And if there is anything that you learn from Derrida (and Heidegger) it is that logocentrism just doesn’t “get it.” Logocentrism is precisely what is wrong with knowledge as traditionally conceived in the Western world. And if this is so, then as long as Derrida stays within logocentric boundaries he too isn’t “getting it.” Since we can, to the contrary, assume that he is“getting it,” we can assume that he is not operating within the confines of logic by any common conception.
And in fact he isn’t. The many stylistic and personal devices he uses in his writing and speaking to cause the logocentric boundaries and hierarchies and orders to “shudder” and to establish movements and connections associated with terms such as “differance” and “trace” and so forth: all of these are extra-logocentric or at least mainly so. If they are warranted (or not) in any epistemic sense, it is a sense that falls beyond logic. Norris speaks of how Derrida, in tearing Searle apart in their well-known encounter, was “activating latent or unlooked-for possibilities of sense which thus become the basis for a scrupulously literal reading which none the less goes clean against the intentional or manifest drift of Searle’s argument.” (p. 143; cf. 151) ------- Well of course, latent or (?) unlooked-for possibilities of sense which are then made the basis (?) for “a scrupulously literal reading” that flatly contradicts the “manifest drift” of an author’s argument! Neither Derrida nor Norris nor any other rigorous deconstructionists have ever made any sense of this contrast between manifest and latent sense. And no wonder, for some of the deepest of metaphysical issues are involved. (What is it to be or not be part of or necessary adjunct to a sense--manifest or otherwise? What kinds of entities are senses? Etc.) Yet this is precisely the boundary between logocentrism and whatever else there is to thought and its objectivities. You begin to “deconstruct” when you move across the boundary and out of “mere” logocentric analysis. Derrida has never tamed this area in such a way that his admirers could be held responsible in it and his critics could be satisfied that what he is doing is anything other than what the loosest “reader response” theory of texts and their meanings would allow.
What this all really comes down to, I think, is that “deconstruction” is not a method of thought. It is at best a set of claims about thought and discourse and their meanings. If you look at the most fundamental “result” in Derrida’s corpus, the ‘demonstration’ (if that is a proper term) in Speech and Phenomena“that nonpresence and otherness are internal to presence,“13 you will find many claims (about the “primordial structure of repetition” for example), stipulative definitions (“ideality”), plays on words (“re-presentation”), and stories, e.g. about how the experience of voice gives an illusion of presence. But you will not find a sound argument, or even anything put forward as such, for Derrida’s earth-shaking conclusion. And this in what Norris insists is “one of the finest achievements of modern analytical philosophy, taking that description to extend well beyond its current, strangely narrowed professional scope.” (p. 150)
Derrida is a brilliant and fascinating individual who has been able to make a personal style look like cognitive substance in a professional context where knowledge in the traditional sense has already been socially displaced. But deconstruction is no method, any more than was the “ordinary language analysis” that arose and dominated philosophical thought in the Anglo-American countries for a few decades. The latter sustained itself on the personal style of Wittgenstein, with Ryle and Austin as lesser lights. Recall the lengthy interchanges on the nature of logic between Strawson or Ryle, on the one hand, and Carnap or Quine on the other. It sustained itself on personalities for a time. Long enough to weed out or permanently disqualify a large number of graduate students and faculty who didn’t get “it,” and to professionally lionize others who did. These latter went on to careers as “Ordinary Language Philosophers” or “Wittgensteins.” Then suddenly everyone realize that there was just nothing there to get. A large number of people had to spend the last decade or so of their careers being tolerated while they kept getting what was not there to get. Wittgenstein himself was buried, and later resurrected as an outstanding “Continental” philosopher, where he is probably much happier.
Something similar will happen with Derrida, though I predict a less substantial afterlife in his case. Wittgenstein was after all, I think, one of the two or three greatest philosophical minds of this century. But Derrida only stepped into a pre-existing situation in the American academy that gave him an influence which his creative powers would otherwise not have produced. We need to keep his effects distinct from the deeper- lying causes of the current crisis in the American university, and not try to rectify the latter by attacking him. We also need to try to keep younger scholars from tying their career to him and the deconstruction phenomenon, and to prevent colleagues and students from being black-balled because they do not get his “it” that in truth is not there to get--no small task at present.
I should add in closing:
I am very happy to be a member of a university faculty, and I treasure my colleagues, students and administrators. I think it is a wonderful place to be, and can not readily come up with something I would like better or think of greater value.
Secondly, I have not tried to go deeply into particular points of philosophical analysis (especially of the mind /object nexus), and therefore have begged many crucial philosophical questions. This is regrettable, but otherwise it would have been impossible to cover the topics that I thought would be most relevant to the conference for which these remarks were prepared.
Thirdly, I have spoken of the “unhinging” of the American mind in purposive contrast to Alan Bloom’s idea of the “closing” of the American mind. I might as well have chosen “disarray.” Such language seems more appropriate because the “closing” which Bloom discusses is seen by him as the result of a resolute “openness” that he regards as the only accepted intellectual or artistic virtue of our age. Frankly, my experience leads me to think of the American mind as disabled, floundering, and incapable of such resolution as he suggests.