What’s the Point If We Can’t Be Perfect? Research Time, 10/05/2018

I want to pick up on the point I was talking about on Monday’s post. Aporias – the endpoint of Jacques Derrida’s greatest works. Those moments where, as you examine a concept or work through an argument, the idea itself escapes from you. And it escapes because you know it so well.

It’s a very profound idea. Paul Patton writes about aporia very well, delivering a critique of the idea that equally implicates the main trend among Jacques Derrida’s work. In the words of Canada’s most famous and equally annoying scholar, post-modernism.

A lot about Derrida was erased in his popular
uptake. His most famous books are his early ones,
the ones that made the biggest shocks when they
dropped. I've met a few Derrida fans who don't
know what to make of his later work, who don't
understand why he would have made such a
puzzling turn to ethics. They're always the
ones who have to be reminded where Derrida
came from – that he was a black Algerian Jew.
I mean post-modernism in its popular reception – among barely original academics, and many in areas of real life who were familiar with only a vague outline of the major messages of Derrida’s work. It was the notion that we aren’t even able to express truth in language.

This is the general reception of the aporia in Derrida’s work. He took many different approaches to the same concept throughout his career – absolute truth. Derrida followed through on one of Nietzsche’s central projects – he wanted to develop a way of thinking that followed atheism to its logical endpoint.

No matter how limited human reason might be in the world – goes the traditional Western idea – there still is an absolute truth about the nature and order of the world. That’s God’s truth, the word that expresses being itself.

So here’s Derrida thinking through whether truth is possible when God is truly dead to you. When there is no Word. His later work considered that idea in an ethical context – How does absolute truth emerge from our ordinary experience with other people?* From our ordinary experience with other people – love, friendship, being asked for help.

* And the answer was already in ancient Jewish teachings. Please never forget that Derrida was Jewish, a religion with a long-running culture of mystical scholarship that is both pantheist, atheist, and monotheist.

I think the philosophical tradition among its keepers in the university sector – at least that sub-section called Continentals – would have been better off if this end of Derrida’s career came first. As it is, it was his nature as an academic – a historian of philosophy as well as a philosopher – messed with the reception of his idea.

The first half of Derrida’s career focussed on the history of philosophy – so he was examining all the traditional arguments and works where the godly concept of absolute truth appeared as a serious aim. He brought those concepts to aporia to demonstrate the real untenability of absolute truth without some point in your thinking where you take it as given.

So you made all the traditional arguments trying to arrive at the truth of some philosophical concept like justice or knowledge as going nowhere by their nature. Derrida wasn’t a nihilist – he was a phenomenologist, an atheist, a Jew, a historian, and a deeply ethical person.

But when you reveal the emptiness of absolute truth without also giving people at least a clue to where it actually occurs in the material world, you end up with nihilists. Your sequel came too late.

That’s the heart of Paul Patton’s critique of Derrida – his big argument at the start of his most purely philosophical book. It was the interpretation that he used to shock other academic philosophers out of their thrall to Derrida and onto Deleuze.

Deleuze makes aporia – the most unsettled but most profound state of philosophical thinking – into his starting point. Aporia is a particularly solemn way of catching hold of that total chaos where there’s no reliable truth or fact – chaos.

Derrida’s early philosophy was about revealing how our comforting and dogmatic truths reduce themselves to chaos. Deleuze starts his philosophy crafting order from chaos.

A very oversimplified story. But all polemics are.

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