Dissing Derrida

I thoroughly enjoy Anthony Kenny's complete disrespect for Jacques Derrida, and his lack of any attempt to hide it in his Philosophy in the Modern World (2008), the 4th and final volume of his A New History of Western Philosophy. Kenny had my inner nerd in outward stitches several times during his treatment of Derrida in the chronological portion of the book (pp. 90-96). Kenny introduces Derrida at the end of his discussion of the Continental tradition, tracing the conversation from Husserl to Heidegger to Sartre, before finally ending at Derrida. He contrasts Derrida to Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin, Derrida's obvious early influence, and the very different ways the two approach the same topic, the philosophy of language.

Austin's speech act theory introduced numerous technical terms in order to make helpful distinctions in aid of our understanding of the way we "do things with words." His terms are illuminated by helpful examples to further clarify Austin's claims. While Derrida is also famous for introducing technical terms, Kenny complains that he seems reticent to offer lucid definitions, "and often seems to reject the very request for a definition as somehow improper" (91).

Austin isn't terribly interested in the distinction between spoken and written language. Derrida, on the other hand, complains incessantly about 'phonocentrism', a coined term for Western culture's alleged over-obsession with the spoken word over and against the written one. Kenny counter-complains: "Given the emphasis placed by both law and business on getting things in writing, and the enormous efforts modern societies have put into making their citizens literate, Derrida's charge of phonocentrism has to be based on a number of eccentric texts starting with an ironic passage in Plato's Phaedrus" (92).

Austin and Derrida were both interested in the nature of promises as linguistic acts, but while Austin is interested in exploring the different kinds of ways a promise can be broken, Derrida is most obsessed with the fact that one might die before fulfilling a promise. Kenny: "But, pace Derrida, since we are all, always, mortal, the possibility of death tells us nothing about performatives in particular." Indeed, many things other than promises can be interrupted by death, and for that matter promises can actually consider death, as in the standard wedding's "till death do us part", a kind of promise that is in fact not broken due to death at all.

Kenny proceeds from contrasting Derrida and Austin to discuss some of Derrida's later development. Where philosophers have always been concerned to draw distinctions between concepts in order to avoid confusion, Derrida shows a knack for inventing terms that create confusion between ideas that are perfectly distinct. The most famous of these is differance, a term combining the ideas of deference (as in putting off till later) and difference (as in being different or distinct). After considering some of Derrida's attempts to combine the two ideas, Kenny concludes: "The various paraphrases we find of 'deferrence' in his texts are perhaps themselves an instance of deferrence: IOUs that are quite distinct from a definition and which put off to an indefinite future an actual conferment of sense" (94).

Next Kenny makes the claim that the later Derrida essentially stopped doing philosophy, reverting instead to a kind of slippery rhetoric, especially utilizing the shock-topics of sex and death. The two examples of Derrida's unnecessary and ill advised references to sexuality are particularly hilarious, including a comparison of talking to oneself to masturbation, and a near chuckling-school-boy interpretation of Revelation 22:17 ("The Spirit and the bride say, 'Come!' And let those who hear say, 'Come!' Let those who are thirsty come; and let all who wish take the free gift of the water of life." TNIV) in terms of sexual climax, a sense found both in Derrida's French as well as the English word "come". But Kenny: "If one were churlish enough to point out that the Greek word translated 'come' cannot possibly have the sense of 'achieve orgasm', one would no doubt be told that one had missed the whole thrust of the exercise" (95).

Kenny concludes by answering the potential objection of his including Derrida in this account of the history of philosophy at all. Indeed, Derrida not only implicitly spurns the traditional tasks of philosophy in favor of the clever turn of phrase, rejecting that his work might have actual theses with which one might critically interact, but he also at times explicitly even denies wanting to be thought of as a philosopher at all. So what is he doing in this book? Kenny:

Is it not unfair, then, to include Derrida, whether for blame or praise in a history such as this? I think not. Whatever he himself may say, he has been taken by many people to be a serious philosopher, and he should be evaluated as such. But it is unsurprising that his fame has been less in philosophy departments than in departments of literature, whose members have had less practice in discerning genuine from counterfeit philosophy. (96)

For my own part, I've never quite understood people's interest in Derrida. His writing too often seems like it's trying hard to be opaque so that it doesn't have to say much that's actually substantive, a suspicion that I feel was confirmed by Kenny, who unlike me is actually a philosopher - and a particularly well respected one at that. It was for sections like this one that I decided to read Kenny's 4 volume history as opposed to someone else's history - as admittedly little as I know about philosophy, I've become convinced that an honest and humble pursuit of truth in the 21st century will be more fruitful if it takes as its conversation partners 20th century minds like Wittgenstein and Austin, rather than figures like Derrida and Deleuze. And in particular, for theology the analytic tradition seems to have more helpful tools for a renewed and positive interest in the faithful proclamation of the Word of God in and for the church than does either the 'postmodern' Continental tradition of Derrida and his ilk, or a clinging to other, older post Enlightenment traditions of inquiry.

Because in the end, it's Word that matters, and for all the letters on all the pages, Derrida the counterfeit philosopher seems to have failed to 'do' much that is interesting with words.