Derrida and the TS: Derridian Background to the TS Argument

Part 1

Jasque Derrida about mid life

This is a summary of Derrida on the Transcendental Signifier and why it "proves" the existence of God (in my special sense of "proof" that I use as "for practical purposes").

Derrida was from French North Africa, 1930-2004. here are two articles on him that will give you a basic run down:

Derrida on Wiki

Derrida in Philosophical Encyclopedia

Derrida was a student of Martin Heidegger. Derrida is the best known philosopher of recent times. Heidegger was an existentialist, then dropped that and began to call himself a "phenomenologist." Everything Derrida says came from Heidegger. Every move of decontracution is found in Heidegger, but Derrida put it together in a different package than Heidegger's.

"Deconstruction" was Derrida's babby. He invented it although one can find it's roots all over Western letters. He's plugging in elements from Heidegger, Sartre, Brintano, Nicholas of Cuza, Charles Sanders Pierce and all over the place.This is the run down on [B][I]Deconstruction.[/I][/B] I was taught Derrida by someone who had been his student in Paris in the late 60s before he moved to Yale.

Phenomenology is an attempt to place the observer at the center of awareness to allow sense data to be understood in ways that are not predetermined by preconceived categories. The idea is that the data will form its own categories. Attempts to gather sense data and heard it all into pre selected categories biases reality. In vernacular one might say "don't pigeon hole but remain open to possibilities for everything no matter how familiar or or obvious we think it might be. This attempt to pre select categories of knowledge is what Heidegger calls "Metaphysics." In this sense even science is metaphysics!

Derrida wants to explicate the end of western metaphysics,(his phrase). What does this mean? It means he, and most postmoderns, believe that the paths along which western metaphics have led us are dead ends. We have run out of metaphysics. We haven't run out of science, in the sense that there plenty of facts to look at, but in a way we have because reductionism has lowered our expectations about what we will find. But Derrida's beef is not with science. A Major segment of of postmodernists tried to attack modern science, but they were swept aside with the Alan Sokal stuff. Derrida was never one of them.

Derrida argues that Western metaphysics has always been predicated upon an organizing principal that orders reality and organizes sense data. William James Sums it up well in his Gilford Lectures:

"Plato gave so brilliant and impressive a defense of this common human feeling, that the doctrine of the reality of abstract objects has been known as the platonic theory of ideas ever since. Abstract Beauty, for example, is for Plato a perfectly definite individual being, of which the intellect is aware as of something additional to all the perishing beauties of the earth. "The true order of going," he says, in the often quoted passage in his 'Banquet,' "is to use the beauties of earth as steps along which one mounts upwards for the sake of that other Beauty, going from one to two, and from two to all fair forms, and from fair forms to fair actions, and from fair actions to fair notions, until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute Beauty, and at last knows what the essence of Beauty is." 2 In our last lecture we had a glimpse of the way in which a platonizing writer like Emerson may treat the abstract divineness of things, the moral structure of the universe, as a fact worthy of worship. In those various churches without a God which to-day are spreading through the world under the name of ethical societies, we have a similar worship of the abstract divine, the moral law believed in as an ultimate object."

Derrida begins with Plato's theory of knowledge, this is the basis of Western metaphysics. Plato says that prior to birth we are in contact with the forms, thus knowledge is a matter of remembering, no learning for the first time. But then the question arises is speech closer to what we remember, or is writing? Socrates says the spoken word is closer to the ideas inside us, the memory of the forms, thus spoken word is better (more true, closer to reality) than written word. As he puts it "a writer dies his written words are like orphans since he is not there to defend them." This supremacy of the spoken word sets up a hierarchy of meaning and importance in western culture. We have come to value reason as the organizing principle of truth, as the "natural light" because it's an extension of the concept of this true Platonic knowledge. Reason becomes this overarching truth regime (Faucault's word) that organizes all reality. Everything is paired up into hierarchies, little hierarchies that fit into the big over all hierarchy, these are called "binary opossitions." They they take the form of couplets, consisting of the "true" or "correct" term and it's supplement; the false term or the unimportant addition to the "real thing." Examples are: up/down, black/white/ true/false/ male/female. Reason is construed as male and this resutls in "phalologocentrism."

Derrida's goal is to destroy hierarchies, to show that there is no truth, there is no meaning. We can't know anything. Derridian postmodernism is like archaeologists who try to piece together fragments of a broken vase. Some say "there is a vase here, we just have to fin out how the peices fit." Another says "there may be two vases." The postmodernist says "we don't have all the pieces, they may not have been a vase, it may be 16 vases, we can't know, there is no final answer, it's always going to be a jumble. The Deridian position is a good philosophical justification for nihilism. The difference being a nihilism takes too much effort.. The logical conclusion of Derridianism if one were consist would be to sit in a chair and say nothing until one starves to death. Of course Derrida himself was not consistent. He was one of the most prolific writers. His overall project was to tear down hierarchy and destroy the concept of the TS. Here is his argument against reason:

He asks "does reason ground itself?" Can we use reason to prove reason?

"Are we obeying the principle of reason when we ask what grounds this principle [reason] which is itself a principle of grounding? We are not--which does not mean that we are disobeying it either. Are we dealing here with a circle or with an abyss? The circle would consist in seeking to account for reason by reason, to reason to the principle of reason, appealing to the principle to make it speak of itself at the very point where, according to Heidegger, the prinicple of reason says nothing about reason itself. The abyss, the hole, ..., the empty gorge would be the impossibility for a principle of grounding to ground itself...Are we to use reason to account for the principle of reason? Is the reason for reason rational?"(Derrida in Criticism and Culture, Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schlefflier, Longman 1991, 20.)

Part 2

Derrida sought to destroy metaphysical hierarchy. How did he intend to do that? He did it by creating a method of reading a text, a critical tool that would allow him to dissect and destroy any hierarchy simply because it was a hierarchy. That tool was known as "deconstruction." To reconstruct one takes apart, in the sense of destroy; destruction = destruction.

Hierarchy is based upon the binary opposition. That means hierarchies are like stacks of couplets, each contianing a major term and suppolamental term:




the assumption is that the term on top is the "major term" the "real" thing, the one on the bottom is tacked on or er zots, or somehow inferior. A hierarchical metaphysics is constructed out of these binaries. These are among the categories we use to order our perception of sense data; and thus to order the world. We can see this in the atheist metaphysics of scientism:



Derrida inverts the couplets. The "inferior term" is taken as the superior term, and the assumption is made that the hierarchy is false. But what move allows this? He accomplishes this move by the realization of the principle of "differance." This is not my dyslexia at work. He spells it with an "a" in order to out over the point that there is more to it than just "difference" as we understand it. That is, difference is the basis of meaning in language. Meaning of signifier is based upon the difference in one signifier and another. That means we call a "tree" a "tree" not because it is intrinsically endowed with treeness, but because we don't call it a "frog," a "bat" or an "elephant." The meaning of these terms, what they refer to, is totally arbitrary. Thus meaning arises through difference. Derrida uses this point as the staging ground for a multiple assault on all of Western thought. He derives from it the notion that meaning derives from absence (difference is absence) rather than presence. So Plato is screwed, the Platonic theory is crap. This is so because the meaning of truth in Platonic terms is presence, the proximity to the forms, remember? So the presence of the forms in our thinking is our nearness to truth. The closer the ware to what we recall of the forms the closer we are to truth. He sets up a hierarchy of presence in which speaking is closer to truth than writing.

Derrida destroys this hierarchy of presence by demonstrating that derives from absence (difference = absence because there is no presence of meaning in the signifier). He finds that meaning is never present. Meaning is always absent and sought after, always different and differed. He makes a pun on differ and deffer. Meaning is differed in that language has multiple meanings (why he likes puns) and one can never be sure that the meaning of a statement is always off stage waiting to come on, and when it does it only refers to another meaning. Life a child who always asks "why" the answer is never available, it's always in the next question, and the next, and the next. It's flickering away always. He uses the phase "always already," meaning is already absent.

Deconstruction works by finding a contradiction in the thesis and using that to flip over all the meanings. The classic Derridian example is the distinction in Rousseau between nature and nurture, the natural and civilized. Rousseau says that we can have natural morality we can be naturally good and naturally happy by being spontaneous and rooted in nature. He also says, however, that civilization is good because it nurtures us and gives us a basis in education and understanding. This is an inherent contradiction and Derrida exploits it to show that all of Rousseau's ideas are meaningless. In fact he shows that all meaning is meaningless. Everything falls apart, there is no grand edifice of truth that can stand before the onslaught of deconstruction. If one takes deconstruction seriously one must, to be totally consistent, just wind up sitting in a corner and never speaking and never assuming anything.

I ended part 1 with his statement that logic cannot be secured by logical argument He undermines logic and reason in this way and reduces them to ashes. Thus the final step in deconstruction is to show that there is no meaning, there is no truth all lies in ruin. His main objective is to destroy the Transendetal signifier because that is the essence of Platonic meaning,t he big idea at the top of the hierarchy that secures meaning and makes sense of all other marks that make sense of the world.He is quite aware that the TS equals God, he says so himself. This is his ultimate triumph over Christianity. It's a supreme moment for atheism, but of course the American scientifically obsessed, philosophically challenged atheists could never appreciates it. Once you come to truly understand Derrida and your faith survives it, nothing in the nature of an intellectual argument can ever threaten your faith again.

How does one survive it? One of the major pastimes in graduate school for student just encountering Derrida is to sit around trying to deconstruct Derrida. Everyone does this and everyone thinks he's the first person to think of it. You can just tell when student's understanding is reaching critical mass and she/he is about to say "Hey, let's deconstruct him!" Derrida knew this, and he traded in it. Its' one of the features that assured that people wanted to study him more. But it doesn't matter if you deconstruct him because it only proves his point. Since he says there is no truth there is no ultimate reality there is no meaning, ti doesn't matter if what he says is untrue and not meaningful. Except for one thing: you don't have to make the final step. If you are to reverse Derrida then you don't want to prove that he has no ultimate meaning, you want to prove that he does have meaning and he's just wrong. This is can be done by using his method, but not using the final step. Don't conclusion there's no meaning, just show that his meaning is wrong.

Derrdia follows Heidegger in almost everything. Almost every step he makes can be seen in Heidegger's Parmenides book. Both thinkers say that metaphysics is undeniable. Derrida wants to explicate the end of metaphysics, but he also says there is no hope of escaping metaphysics. Even language itself is metaphysical. We cannot help but do metaphysics. That means metaphysical hierarchies are inescapable which means the TS is inescapable. Thus the choice we have is to assume there is a TS or to fall silent and never speak, never try to think coherently.But we cannot live with that choice. Because we have to assume it, we can't live without it, we should assume there is a Transcendental signifier, and as Derrida points out, that's just a truncated version of God.