Baroque Specialization and the Irresponsibility of Analytical Philosophers.

by Harry on April 18, 2006

There’s a very interesting conversation going on at Leiter’s site (post by Jason Stanley) about the purpose of the academic discipline of Philosophy. The title is a giveaway (In Defence of Baroque Specialization). Jason says:

a university’s primary mission should be to advance the disciplines it represents. In short, a university should seek to promote work that will give that university prestige in the future and not in the present. So, a university’s mission with regard to its philosophy department should be to support those who are attempting to formulate new positions and arguments, rather than those who seek contemporary relevance.

I agree that this is part of the university’s mission. A good university wants to promote work of lasting importance. But that is only part of what it does, or should do. Very few scholars are going to contribute in a discernable way to that part of the mission (not me, not most of the people who think of themselves as at or somewhere near the top of their disciplines at any given time), and in the long run we’re all dead anyway. Furthermore, we have no reason at all to want Universities to promote their own, individual, reputations, except in so far as some sort of reputational competition helps to advance the other fundamental goals of the institution of academia.

Another part of the University’s mission is to contribute, right now and in the near future, to the intellectual life of the larger community; if universities don’t do that, who will?

It does this by fostering good teaching and by contributing to conversations in the wider culture. Now, in order to do this, the scholars and teachers involved have to be connected in the right way to work of lasting importance and the people producing it. Personally, I do a mix of quite abstract work in political philosophy, and much more widely accessible work concerning education which I hope will have some influence on education scholars, teachers, and sometimes policymakers in the world of K-12 education; I don’t think I would have learned how to do the latter as well as I do it (however well that is) if I hadn’t done the former, and I don’t think I’d continue to do it that well if I didn’t continue to do the former. Careful and thoughtful reflection on the work of lastingly important philosophers is really valuable in the here and now, because it contributes (or would contribute if people did it) to producing better, more thoughtful, contemporary public conversations.

So administrators who have the richer vision of the mission of the university in mind (as including, but not being limited to, the wider public and contemporary mission) are right to seek philosophers (and historians, and sociologists, etc) who act as mediums between a wider public and the core of their discipline, seeking “contemporary relevance”. Not to the exclusion of baroque specialists, but certainly a good mix.

Perhaps this is not the place to say this, and I don’t mean to attack Jason’s post in particular (despite the inflammatory title), but I have long been uneasy about the behaviour of analytical philosophers in the 1980’s and 1990’s, during which time the kind of ideas associated with Judith Butler and Jacques Derrida (names he mentions) had enormous influence within the humanities and social sciences. With some very honorable exceptions, my sense was that we kept our heads down, identified ourselves in some way with the hard sciences and mathematics, and allowed those ideas to do their worst; all the time maintaining a sense of our own superiority because we weren’t fooled by that nonsense. I think that was, frankly, irresponsible, and that part of our mission as a discipline should have been to attempt to counter that influence. To do so required some people to divert their time from the “baroque” work they were doing and to train themselves up in the disciplines that were being influenced sufficiently well to be able to debate those ideas in ways that were meaningful to those potential audiences. That’s hard work, and I personally admire those unusual people who bothered to do it. I think the rest of us, as a discipline (or, since it is analytical philosophers in particular I am accusing, as a faction within a discipline (just to make it clear, a faction to which I belong if it’ll have me, and with which I identify strongly)) we could at least have acted better.



Russell 04.18.06 at 8:51 pm

While I fully agree with the notion that there is a strong synergy between work aimed at colleagues in a discipline, and work that fosters a better public discussion, I am leary of blaming analytic philosophers for the popularity of Derrida. There was plenty of criticism of Derrida, and that criticism didn’t require any great depth.

I would posit something different. Academia has its own fads and politics whose forces sometimes override the purely intellectual arguments. Derrida fomented and rode such a fad. That some departments and schools succombed to that fad than others wasn’t due to the intellectual arguments then available, but in spite of them.


Dan Kervick 04.18.06 at 8:53 pm

I was in graduate school during the mid-80s, in a very analytically oriented program, and then taught philosophy throughout the 90’s.

It simply never would have occurred to during my graduate school years to attempt to write anything about Derrida or Judith Butler, or research them in any serious way. Intellectually they seemed to inhabit a remote foreign country, and spoke a language I couldn’t even begin to understand. When I did make half-hearted efforts to read them, I would quickly convince myself that there was nothing of value to be derived from them. Occasionally I would meet some traveler who had visited these savages himself, and who also spoke my own language. None of the sojurners were ever able to persuade me that I was missing anything important.

The metaphor of “keeping one’s head down” doesn’t seem to me to capture the attitude. I studied what I studied, in the way I wanted to study it, not because of of some sort of decision or determination not to study that other stuff, or any sort of desire to stay out of the “fray”. I enjoyed a good fray. It just wasn’t what I was interested in learning. I was studying philosophy to improve my own mind, not to make the world a better place, and I sought out those areas of knowledge that seemed to me to lead in that direction. Maybe that was a selfish and irresponsible thing to do, but that’s all I wanted out of philosophy at the time. There were certain things about the world I was trying to figure out, and I pursued paths that seemed to me to hold some promise of leading to what I was after.


rea 04.18.06 at 9:25 pm

“I pursued paths that seemed to me to hold some promise of leading to what I was after.”

Nothing wrong with that. At some point, though, don’t events in the outside world impose on us a duty to set aside our own affairs and act for the greater good? An earlier generation was conscripted to fight Tojo and Hitler–would it have been too much to ask you to take on Butler and Derrida? :)


kirk adler malone 04.18.06 at 10:00 pm

I am frankly flabbergasted. Why should a philosopher aspire to anything other than being a good philosopher? If you think the humanities were fooled by nonsense, then why think they would be swayed by better arguments? (Which is to say, it is probably not the strength of argument that was persuasive so much as the political and cultural concerns that that work expressed.) And if you don’t think you are contributing to philosophy then why on earth are you publishing. Thank goodness that I am not an editor of a major journal. Oh wait, I am. Troll.


DrPedanticus 04.18.06 at 10:11 pm

John Searle took on Derrida, and what did he get for his pains? A text by Derrida composed without one row of the keyboard!
Philosophy outside the analytical tradition is no more likely to be worthless than work inside it is to be worthy. In tourism through the latest modiste miasma shrouded in Gauloises smoke, we should hold our noses and open our ears. But if “analytics” (as I have heard Thomists say) are going to stay home and Speak English, Damn It, I’d steal Ronald Dworkin’s phrase: we should stick to our knitting. If the wider culture needs therapy, modest, piecemeal, meticulous work is indispensable — all the more when it is untendentious and does not engage the pressing issues of a tendentious age.


mark kalderon 04.18.06 at 10:30 pm

Why equate Universities advancing the disciplines they represent with advancing their reputations? That’s only plausible if you doubt that the advancement of these disciplines is intrinsically valuable and hence must serve some other, instrumental, purpose.


Dan Kervick 04.18.06 at 10:47 pm

Nothing wrong with that. At some point, though, don’t events in the outside world impose on us a duty to set aside our own affairs and act for the greater good?

Sure. First, once I got out of graduate school and started teaching, it quickly became obvious to me that my job wasn’t just to pursue my own desires, but to do some sort of good for my students. I took that responsibility seriously, and I think I eventually became a pretty good teacher. But strange though it may sound, it had hardly even occured to me during my entire time in graduate school that I was preparing myself for a career in teaching. I went to graduate school because that’s where people were studying and talking about the things I loved to study and talk about. The pursuit of my own pleasure evolved into a career. I was rather carefree in those days.

Then after 9/11 I got all political, and started to feel that I had an obligation to use my brain to influence political discussion in what seemed to me a positive direction – even though I had no real expertise in political affairs. As a concrete example of what was influencing me, about three days after 9/11 an Army recruiting van pulled up and parked itself right in front of the building in which I taught. Since some of the guys in class were quite fired up and thinking of signing up, I thought that we should really discuss some of the relevant political issues in class before they made that decision. That began a major change in intellectual direction and pretty much wrecked my ability to devote my mind to the kind of philosophy I most prefer doing. I don’t really regret this, becuase the times called for it. But I can tell you that I look forward to a time when I can just go back to doing what I love, and leave the political world in the hands of others.

But I also tend to agree with russell in comment #1 that taking up arms against Derrida and Butler would have been futile. I once had a conversation with another graduate student who was studying Nietzsche and a variety of 20th century continental thinkers. At some point I thought that he had contradicted something he had said a few moments later. When I mentioned this, he said “You see … ? You see how the dialectic turns back on itself?!!” I realized that that person was simply in an intellectual place that was inaccessible to any persuasive tools I had at my disposal. No matter what difficulties I purported to uncover in his views, he would have been determined to view those difficulties as expressions of the self-negating majesty of the Dialectic, and would have gloried in them. His outlook was impervious to improvement through argument.


Jason Stanley 04.18.06 at 10:56 pm


As you can imagine, I there isn’t much in your post with which I disagree. When I was at Cornell, I would teach Derrida’s *Of Grammatology* in my undergraduate philosophy of language classes, to explain the problems with some of the premises in his arguments for meaning skepticism.

Nor do I think that it’s bad to have academics who act as mediums to the wider public (I think I say this in the original post). I just think that priority should be given to the baroque specialist (or at least *as much* priority as to the mediums).

Mark is right to complain about the equation of advancing disciplines (good) with advancing institutional reputations (I guess, neither good nor bad). I didn’t mean to argue for that equation. Administrators are, however, often in the position of having to advance the reputations of their institutions. So I was putting the point in the language of the market (as in, ‘here is how to present the value of advancing the disciplines you represent to people concerned about advancing the reputation of your institution’). Of course, the real aim is the intrinsic value of the disciplines.


Pat 04.18.06 at 11:45 pm

Dan, your final sentence is incomplete. What you meant to say was “…impervious to improvement through arguments that I find persuasive.” My guess is that he would say the same of you, in French, of course. Plato would say it in Greek. Nietzsche would say it in German. (I believe he’d have far and away the most entertaining comment, but it wouldn’t be written to satisfy the disciplinary strictures of an American philosophy department’s dissertation requirements.)

One of the problems with this whole line is the facile way in which opposing Butler and Derrida can be likened to opposing Tojo and Hitler. I would submit that anyone who can do that does not understand Butler, Derrida, Tojo, Hitler, and, most important for this particular discussion, analogy and metaphor. (One example: Judith Butler and Derrida proceed in different ways, out of different traditions, with different methods, to different ends. If the use of philosophical rigor is to make rigorous meaningful distinctions for the purpose of sustained, engaged analysis, then analytic philosophy’s engagement with deconstruction, gender studies, queer theory, post-colonialism, Foucault and Lacanian psychoanalysis can only be described as pathetic philosophy.)

When I took my BA in Philosophy and English, and decided to go to grad school in literary studies, one of the reasons that I decided to go with literature is that literary study opens itself up to the world in ways that philosophy programmatically (and at least partly out of professional self-interest and institutional turf building) closes itself off. Grad students in literary theory say deeply stupid, shallow, callow things. So do grad students in philsophy. (As the logic text used to say, “I will leave the rest of the proof as an exercise for the reader.”) So what? Just because Nietzsche is a more interesting writer than 99% of American philosophy grad students doesn’t mean that he’s right and John Searle is wrong.

Personally, I don’t think that American philosophers–as professional philosophers–have any obligation to say anything about Derrida and other continental theorists except maybe, “Those guys call it philosophy. We do something different. We don’t call what they do philosophy.” And the rest of us don’t have any obligation to take that statement as a good reason not to read Derrida, or Lacan, or Butler, engage their ideas, try to make sense out what they’re trying to do, and maybe deploy productive ideas to do what we’re trying to do.

How come no one has mentioned Richard Rorty?


joel turnipseed 04.18.06 at 11:51 pm

A lot to chew on, so I’ll try to be brief and see if this thread has enough legs to elaborate (or if I’m embarrassed out of further comment).

1) “Popularizers”–I was an undergraduate at Minnesota when Arthur Kaplan was there and I don’t seem to recall that he was held in high esteem as a philosopher. Sure, he was on CNN, Nightline, etc, a great deal: but I think there was a general feeling that he was doing “journalism” and not philosophy. Maybe I’m wrong (but I don’t think so: I recall one professor telling me, when I expressed my admiration for Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach, that it was “a good piece of journalism.”)

2) “Philosophers as Public Intellectuals”–I think this is a tough one, too: as all fields have become both much deeper and much broader in the 20th century. There are whole cottage industries around, say, “the Gettier Problem” or deontic logics or what have you. The 20th century has, for the better, developed a much greater sense of what I’ll call, for lack of a better idea at the moment, “the difficulty of implementation details.” There are many differences between the political philosophy of Mill and Rawls, but surely the latter requires a tremendous amount of theoretical background owing to Rawls’ having spent twenty-odd years struggling with the known difficulties of political liberalism before publishing A Theory of Justice. It’s not insurmountable (you can teach Arrow’s Theorem to someone who’s had Logic 1001 taught from a good text like Jeffery’s Formal Logic), but a much-broader segment of the general public could read Mill than could Rawls. It’s not clear to me what philosophers, qua philosophers or university members, would add should they reject the known difficulties in favor of (over) simplifications (and analytic philosophy has done nothing if not elaborated to the smallest detail the minefield of these that stands before the seemingly-plainest of statements). And as for that, there are a few heavy-hitters in philosophy who do play a public intellectual role quite well–probably as many as there is room for in our publishing world: Nussbaum, Searle, Dennett, Walzer, to name just a few off the top of my head, all publish regularly in general circulation magazines (and who can forget Nussbaum,’s testimony in the Colorado Gay Rights case?).

3) “Taking on Derrida”–like many at Leiter’s site, and here, I have never once been able to read Derrida without wincing. But… a) maybe there’s something there and b) if English professors find something valuable in it, isn’t that their business? I mean, I find Dennett’s definition of “Lacanthropy” as funny as anything else in his lexicon (“lacanthropy, n. The transformation, under the influence of the full moon, of a dubious psychological theory into a dubious social theory via a dubious linguistic theory.”), but it does smack somewhat of arrogance.


T. Scrivener 04.19.06 at 12:14 am


If the English professors were doing plain old literary criticism it wouldn’t be a job for philosophers to point out contradictions, absurdities and non sequiturs in their work but they are not, they are trying to do philosophy.


mark kalderon 04.19.06 at 12:20 am

I sympathize with most of what Pat says except for two (minor) points.

Derrida was not a literary theorist who appropriated the term ‘philosophy’ for his own purposes. Like Rorty, he was a professional philosopher. There is less of an equivocation here than a substantive disagreement.

Despite its politically charged rhetoric, I don’t see literary and cultural studies, broadly construed, to be any less insular than analytic philosophy. Was it politically useful for Baudrilliard to deny that the Gulf War took place? Is there any concrete political change linked to the work of Lacan or Deleuze? Cheap shots, I know, but the main point is that it is easy to mistake politcal rhetoric for political relevance, and this can exaggerate one’s sense of relative insularity.


Seth Edenbaum 04.19.06 at 12:23 am

The absurdity of analytic philosophy as philosophical act is that it operates under the illusion that one can analyze language and experience seemingly from outside of both. It may be possible for computers to describe computation, but consciousness can not describe consciousness apart from acting it. We are creatures of sense before logic, and we must try each day, without ever succeeding, to pick one apart from the other. Analytic philosophy does not teach self-awareness, claiming it is unnecessary. It is the philosophy of autism.

Derrida wanted to argue the primacy of craft and of description- as a novelist would- while maintaining the authorial certainty of the man of ideas. His works fail as philosphy because they fail as literature (and “do as I say not as I do” is no longer accepted as a valid argument) Judith Butler is a student of the moral success of his intellectual failure, but she doesn’t get the point. Still, to say that a university “should seek to promote work that will give that university prestige” either now or in the future sounds so ridiculously anti-modern that I don’t know what anyone has to complain about with either of them.

We separate science and law. We defend the rule of law over the rule of ideas [without thinking!] and then turn around and defend the rule of “truth” and science over the absurdity of “fiction”.
Derrida’s mistake was clumsiness, but what he represented in his clumsy way was a return [in the academy, and years behind the culture at large] to premodern now post-modern acceptance of the primacy of description.

The rule of law is the rule of language not of truth; and narrative is the order of the day, and will be for the forseable future.


radek 04.19.06 at 12:48 am

“you can teach Arrow’s Theorem who’s had Logic 1001 taught from a good text”

Proof and all or just the basic insight?. Actually I still don’t think I quite understand what that theorem really implies, so never mind on the basic insight. You can’t.


joel turnipseed 04.19.06 at 1:00 am

Seth… it’s a bad joke, but “what do you mean?” Do you really assert that analytic philosophers on the whole are incapable of distinguishing first-order from second-order statements? Or that one must take into account all aspects of the former to talk sensibly about the latter? If so, how is it possible to talk at all?

For that matter, several prominent analytic (I’m using this in its broadest “20th century anglophone philosophy” sense) philosophers have taken the psychologically rich descriptions of literature very seriously: Cavell, Nussbaum, and Williams being the three most prominent.


John Quiggin 04.19.06 at 1:35 am

One point that Jason makes in the thread is that fairly abstract analytical philosophy (eg Lewis on causality) may be applied in other fields surprisingly rapidly. He mentions Joe Halpern and Judea Pearl in computer science, and my work in the economics of uncertainty draws heavily on these guys (I’ve also dipped my toe into the philosophy of causality as a result).

The case of mathematics is comparable here. Not many mathematicians speak to the general public but there’s a spectrum from pure to applied.


joel turnipseed 04.19.06 at 1:36 am

radek —

I meant basic idea (with Condorcet as introduction), but even a fairly sophisticated presentation (such as this) isn’t beyond someone who can get through Jeffrey’s text (a standard accomplishment for a Philosophy freshman/sophomore).

This is an altogether different question from that of whether or not they (or I!) can get their heads around its full implications/restrictions. But then: much as with Arrow you’d have to deal with Sen’s limitations to Arrow, etcetera, with Godel you’d have to do with the exclusions for, e.g., arithmetic without multiplication–but in both cases, the basic result can be understood in the context of an undergraduate education in philosophy where logic is taught & meantime much nonsense ensues from lack of basic exposure.

Moreover, I would argue that both these cases (Arrow/Godel and their various complications) only point up the gist of my post: there are tremendous difficulties in saying what we mean/understanding what follows from what we say–and teaching that should be the focus of undergraduate philosophy education (as this was, to a great extent, the purpose behind Socrates’ aporetic dialogues). That was, at any rate, the way I was taught & I’d like to think I’ve made a fair hash of it (started and sold a software company; published a successful book).


Doctor Slack 04.19.06 at 4:09 am

I tend to agree with Pat.

In general, I don’t think much worthwhile could have come from analytical philosophers trying to “take the field” against Butler and Derrida, in large part because I don’t think many analytical philosophers made a serious effort (then or now) to actually understand what was going on or what people were finding attractive about their thought — at least not without an initial, deeply defensive “it’s all Continental nonsense and these people are all morons” frame to their engagement. On the whole, most of what we could have expected was yet further additions to the mostly puerile and uninteresting running battles between the acolytes and detractors of so-called “postmodernism,” the kind of scholarly “debate” in which the participants were barely even going through the motions of reading each other and in which neither side seemed interested in grasping the work of the thinkers they were ostensibly on about. Pass.

There is, of course, plenty of quackery to be found in lit and cultural studies — Kroker’s anointment of Baudrillard as the “High Priest of Post-Modernism” being one of the great cases in point (although given Baudrillard’s general contempt for all things “post-modern” it almost seems a case of poetic justice) — but analytic philosophy has enough such logs in its own eye that the conceit that the Continentals must somehow be the philosophical equivalent of “Hitler and Tojo” rather falls on its face.


T. Scrivener 04.19.06 at 4:26 am

John Quiggin makes a real point. Claims of the irrelevancy of analytic philosophy to things other than analytic philosophy are often seen as truisms even by analytic philosophers. But when we reflect on 20th century psychology, on battles over intelligent design, on computer science, on disputes over abortion, personhood and the nature of mind, on fundamentalism, on disputes over methodology in the social sciences, on the philosophy of law, on the history of mathematics in the 20th century, on the interpretation of quantum physics, on the debates over knowledge which are so central to modern times, on determinism and responsibility and so on and on and on and on I think a very strong case can be made that analytic philosophy is of all styles the most relevant to external intellectual and cultural concerns. And with analytic philosophies growing attachment to the sciences it’s only going to get more so. I think computer science and bio-technology especially will make it more and more relevant.


zdenek 04.19.06 at 4:42 am

My experience from grad. school with fairly analytical outlook ( Michigan in late 80s ) was rather like Harry’s : complete focus on analytic philosophy with mixture of amusement and pity when one came across ‘the continental stuff’. That was then Now I think the sort of ‘quietism’ most of us subscribed to was seriously mistaken and ‘Sokal Affair’ is just a tip of the iceberg ( but then look at the earlier generation of analytical philosphers who had little to say about Marxist bullshit ).
I think that it is probably futile to engage those who have already taken on board doctrines that see rational persuasion as mere power grabs for instance , but what about making sure that students who enter universities are a bit better prepared to evaluate the postmodernist and Marxist bullshit and hence be a bit more immune to it ?


rea 04.19.06 at 5:53 am

“the facile way in which opposing Butler and Derrida can be likened to opposing Tojo and Hitler.”

Dude, my point was that they were NOT the same . . .


soru 04.19.06 at 6:00 am

If duelling returned to universities, and it came to be the case that matters of pretige, grade and tenure were decided by a fight to first blood, would it be the responsibility of analytic philosophers to strap on a sword?


Matt 04.19.06 at 7:39 am

One thing that’s funny about Judith Butler is that she’s completly capable of writing perfectly straight-forward and more or less normal prose when she wants to. I first encountered this when she wrote some article for The Nation several years ago. For some time I was sure it could not be the same person, but it was. She does this from time to time when she doesn’t see her self as addressing her specifically “academic” audience. I’m told that she’s perfectly clear and straight forward in personal disucssion, too, though I can’t say if that’s true from experience. When accussed by Martha Nussbaum of wilful obscurantism some years ago Butler appealed to Adorno, claiming that one had to use obscure language to subvert the dominant paradigm of thinking or something like that. This seems like an unlikely method to me, but who knows? As for Derrida, it’s worth recalling that it was Foucault that said that Derrida was the sort of philosopher who gave bull-shit a bad name. (This is often attributed to Searle, but Searle attributes it to Foucault in a review of a book on deconstruction.) Foucault, apparently, got along quite well with the philosophers at Berkeley in the late 70’s. So, it’s overly facile to say that analytic philsophers just blow off “continental” types. Some do, but some just find Derrida to be a bad philosopher.


Juan 04.19.06 at 8:16 am


You missed a closing parenthesis.

Juan (your baroque-specialist-in-training colleague)


Seth Edenbaum 04.19.06 at 8:22 am

Harry B: “With some very honorable exceptions, my sense was that we kept our heads down, identified ourselves in some way with the hard sciences and mathematics, and allowed those ideas to do their worst; all the time maintaining a sense of our own superiority because we weren’t fooled by that nonsense.

Joel, those honorable exceptions would include Nussbaum, right? But I don’t think of her as a major intellectual figure, I think of her as a respected academic and a humanist (no more no less) and not an ‘analytic’ philosopher (and I no longer associate science with humanism.)

Derrida was trying to “perform” language while analyzing it.
If my lawyer ever tried to be a legal philsopher while defending my case, I’d fire him. You can’t be an actor and a theater critic at the same time. Given the faiure of modern criticism, theatrical, literary, political, philosophical etc. it’s no wonder he field has thinned out.

Literarature (as practice, as philosophical act, as description!) now trumps philosophy just as law (as practice, as philosophy)
trumps the academic philosophy of law.


harry b 04.19.06 at 9:37 am


yes, I thought (hoped) you’d agree with what I say. I definitely think that the baroqueists should get at least as much priority as the mediums; without the baroquists there’s no mediums, and no discipline for that matter. I am gobsmacked that you taught Derrida in phil of lang, and admire you for it. It makes me feel that I should be a good deal more daring in my teaching.

Without responding to each and every comment, maybe I should say a word about my own experiences. I got very interested in the issues in political philosophy which touch on education, both because they turn out to reach into quite hard questions at the core of the field, and because I already had an abiding interest in education policy. So I naturally started reading widely in the dsiciplines in educational studies — phil of ed, ed policy, sociology of ed, and to a lesser extent economics of ed (this is in the mid-90’s). What I discovered was that where normative assumptions were made explicitly authors frequently depended on deep misunderstandings of the related debates in political philosophy and ethics that I knew pretty well. What made matters worse was that often the work I was reading was, in other ways, very good and valuable; but wrongheaded in its engagement with normative questions, and obscurantist in a way that made it hard for me to access, let alone for policymakers, administrators and teachers who ought to be part fo the audience at least for some of the findings. At first I blamed the people I was reading. But the truth is that, although there are very good introductions to political philosophy and ethics, there’s very little in the way of work in analtyical normative philosophy that engages the issues that interest these educational scholars in a way that “translates” and makes accessible what is going on on my side of the fence. So I gradually began to take on the mission of doing exactly that; but in order to do it one has to engage in a genuine conversation, one in which you take seriously the disciplinary concerns of your interlocutors. I’m absolutely not saying that everyone ought to be doing this sort of thing; emphatically they shouldn’t (and anyway, I don’t want the competition). But more of us should have been engaging with the wrongheaded work influencing the rest of the humanities and the social sciences when it was doing real damage. Sure I’m an analytical philosopher, but that’s not all I am, I’m a member of a fractious and fragmented community of scholars, and a teacher of students. I think my faction of my discipline had something useful to contribute to the broader academic community at that time, and we didn’t do what we could have. As zdenek points out, we could at least have provided a bit more immunisation (which is, I presume, what jason was doing in the Phil of Lang course). But we could also have provided an alternative way of thinking for those people who are, effectively, consumers of this sort of stuff. As several comments point out, there is much more of what I am describing going on now, and it gets more respect within our faction of our discipline…

I think, btw, that some thinkers usually associated with the kind of thinking we’re describing are very well respected by analyitcal philosophers; the outstanding example being Nietzsche.


ingrid 04.19.06 at 9:46 am

Seth, if Nussbaum is not an ‘analytic’ philosopher (among other identities), then what is she? How should we understand her work on Rawls, her work on the capabilities approach? As journalism? As work in the humanities (or the social sciences??) outside philosophy?

I agree with those who see analytical philosophy as having a spectrum from the most ‘pure’ to the most ‘applied’ – and while Nussbaum does indeed write much more on ‘applied’ issues, that doesn’t mean she should no longer qualify as an analytical philosopher.
The problem with looking at scholarly work in terms of ‘pure’ versus ‘applied’ is that the ‘pure’ always wins out in terms of prestige etc., while in fact to do the applied work *well* might perhaps be much harder.


zdenek 04.19.06 at 10:27 am

seth#24– it is unclear to me why you say Nussbaum is not an analytic philosopher ( maybe you mean something different by ‘analytic philosophy’ ). Her approach ( style , her method , her theoretical commitments and what she considers constitutes difficulties ) are that of an analytic philosopher , so you would have to explain.

Your Derrida point is interesting but as an *argument against Derrida’s approach* it beggs the question at issue which is precisely what is the appropriate way of doing philosophy ( this is settled with issues like law but not philosophy and that is why your examples just begg the question against Derrida and co.) at any rate that is how Derrida would want to reply .
It seems though that Derrida should not be allowed to make this move because without providing an sound argument first ( and only in this way can he be allowed to shift the burden of proof )he cannot help himself to the criticism which says that you are begging the question against him. This kind of reply may be philosophically though.


zdenek vajdak 04.19.06 at 10:54 am

Paul Boghossian ( his Sokal Hoax paper )makes a good point about analytic philosophers being affraid to get too heavy with the bullshitification of social sciences : they are afraid to be perceived as too right wing .

The idea is that since most postmodernist aproaches are perceived as emancipatory and involve ‘criticism’ of the hegemony of the status quo and analytic philosophers are simply too intimidated and affraid to be called fascists.( think of Roger Scruton ok he goes lot futher but he is essentially hounded out of his teaching position ).


SteveG 04.19.06 at 11:06 am

The absurdity of analytic philosophy as philosophical act is that it operates under the illusion that one can analyze language and experience seemingly from outside of both. It may be possible for computers to describe computation, but consciousness can not describe consciousness apart from acting it. We are creatures of sense before logic, and we must try each day, without ever succeeding, to pick one apart from the other. Analytic philosophy does not teach self-awareness, claiming it is unnecessary. It is the philosophy of autism.

Maybe it’s because I’m teaching at an undergraduate institution where intro level critical thinking classes are more often taught than Derrida or Kripke seminars, or maybe it’s because I’m right down the road from Dover, PA with its wonderful intelligent design proponents, but this notion of the alienation of analytic philosophy from the real world, political or otherwise, cannot be meant seriously.

There is nothing wrong with praising the intellectual masturbation side of our game, but surely there is more to our work than that. Look at the work of so many on-line analytics with their daily blogs and the thought that these people are socially autistic is absurd.

Analytic philosophy was a political act from day one — take a look back at Neurath, Carnap, and Reichenbach’s early works. Indeed, one could argue that the anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, pro-clerical sentiment of Germany and Austria at that time is somewhat reminiscent of today (Carnap and Reichnbach’s daughters have made such comments to me when I interviewed them recently). Just as it was the Vienna and Berlin circles that stood up to defend Einstein’s Jewish science in the times of Weimar, I see analytics stepping to the plate today. Is it necessarily with our techincal research? No. But then the question,

Why should a philosopher aspire to anything other than being a good philosopher?

strikes me as strange also. Because a philosopher is also a citizen in a society that requires a division of intellectual labor and we need to give back in ways that are relevant. But to think that analytic philosophy is bankrupt in this category is bizarre.


Jonathan 04.19.06 at 11:18 am

I admire the catholicity of many of these perspectives, one of the many things that make these discussions so pleasant to read.


Doctor Slack 04.19.06 at 11:18 am

they are afraid to be perceived as too right wing

Seems rather implausible — much of the angst over Continental philosophy came from a common perception that figures like Baudrillard, Derrida and Foucault were unacceptably non- or anti-leftist! Hence the widespread satisfaction among the anti-“postmodernism” polemicists at the discovery of Paul de Man’s flirtation with Nazism, and various attempts to claim that all that differentiated Derrida from Heidegger was stylistic conceit.


zdenek vajdak 04.19.06 at 12:29 pm

doctor slack– the connection I was thinking of is the general desire of the progressive thought to find intellectual resourses for showing that oppresed cultures do not hold false beliefs. Post modernism supplies just such tools : relativism ( starting with Huhn and Feyerabend perhaps ), claim that there is nothing outside language and so on.

This seems also to link nicely with the old Marxist view of ideology. That is postmodernism extends the Marxist idea that morality is just rationalization of class interest to science and reason in general. Reason ( central to west’s self identity the story goes ) can now be unmasked and exposed.
The point is challange this and you are defending the hegemonic fascist forces and so on down the line.


Dan K 04.19.06 at 1:41 pm

So, still no Rorty, eh? And no pragmatism, and no Wittgenstein. And what about Foucault, possibly the most influential philosopher ever, at least in social science? Derrida may perhaps demand some basic understanding of Heideggerian phenomenology, but Foucault is generally accessible, apart from some of his work on epistemology. What is this, the Vienna circle 2.0? Otherwise, what Pat said in #9.


zdenek vajdak 04.19.06 at 2:25 pm

Michel Foucault and Richard Rorty owe their fame not to their arguments ( No interesting new powerful arguments we see in Plato , Hume or Kant for example )but the fact that they give their authority to the rejection of authority. Each tells us that truth , value , objectivity are illusions .
Therefore it should be obvious that one cannot *argue* with such “philosophers” because they put their faith in kind of religious faith in the relativity of all opinions including this one.


Dan K 04.19.06 at 2:47 pm

No, it was actually Nietzsche who told us that truth, value and objectivity are illusions, and he did so with regret. So, Zdenek, when are you willing to enter the 21st century?


zdenek vajdak 04.19.06 at 3:02 pm

ja well I would say that that is why Rorty is not interesting ( it has been done before ). Observe that Rorty takes literary criticism to be a paradigm example of intellectual enterprise.

According to this uninteresting line of thought ( uninteresting because it is obviously incoherent ) there is never a right way to read a particular text ; meaning is made up by particular readers as they go along . Note that he is saying that physics or chemistry or philosophy is essentially like literary criticism .

Observe that on this view the notion of discovery makes no sense and this an obvious reductio of this thought.


Commenter 04.19.06 at 3:18 pm

The reason that so many on the English lit./humanities/Theory side of things get so huffy and dismissive when Analytics “take on” Derrida is on ample display in this post and thread. Take, for example, the claim, thrown about a number of times here, that Derrida was simply part of some intellectual fad that gripped the humanities in the 90s. Oh, yes, if only the Analytics had torn themselves away from Naming and Necessity long enough to smack some sense back into lit. crits… right? Please, that’s ridiculous. The assumption lying behind your post, Harry, is that Analytics, with their careful, near-scientific analyses of language, have something to teach the lit. crits, something better than what Derrida had to say. Here’s what I want to know: What can they teach lit. crits? If I’m reading Emily Dickinson, what can Kripke do for me? What does Quine have to say about lyric poetry?

All of which is to say: One of the reasons Derrida in particular had “enormous influence” in the humanities wasn’t so much because of his perceived radicality but rather because of the familiarity of what he was doing: here was a tried-and-true method — explication de texte, close reading — that nevertheless veered off into startling directions and came to some interesting conclusions. Say what you want about Derrida’s method, influence, whatever, but he had a real interest in literature, in literary language and how it was different and similar to philosophy. What analytic philosophers — besides for perhaps Davidson — can you say that about?


Jacob T. Levy 04.19.06 at 3:23 pm

Foucault, possibly the most influential philosopher ever, at least in social science

All right, without wading any deeper into this thread, I sure want to single this claim out for disagreement. The list of most-influential philosophers overall surely starts with, y’know, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hume. The list of most-influential in the social sciences (as currently demarcated) might not include Kant but would probably icnlude the other three, plus, say, Hobbes, Locke, Smith, Bentham, Hegel, Marx… Within the social sciences, as distinct from the humanities, I’d be hard-pressed to say that Foucault had been more influential than, say, Habermas…

And I say this as someone who finds a lot to learn from in Foucault.


zdenek vajdak 04.19.06 at 3:25 pm

regarding Rorty — his idea involving comparing philosophy or physics to literary criticism actually turns on a fallacy : this is the bad idea that if something is a form of discourse , the only standard it answers to is some sort of internal conformity what a linguistic community holds. And that assessment of its content is *reducible* to that. This is just false if it is intended as a general description of all forms of discourse. Because although for instance rules about spelling work like that science is not like that because agreement here is achieved by evidence and reasoning and not the other way around.


harry b 04.19.06 at 3:45 pm


maybe I’m wrong, but my sense is that whatever the benefits of derrida et al for literary critics in doing their literary criticism, they have led them to endorse quite mistaken beliefs about the nature of reality and to veer into, as many commenters have said, doing “theory” or “philosophy” with mistaken views about what counts as a good argument. These filter into the student population and beyond. I believe that they have had particularly unfortunate consequences for the terms of political debate on and around university campuses too (but, of course, I am only citing one among many factors, but one which philosophers are particularly well suited to addressing). Telling people they are wrong and explaining why is not “smacking some sense” into them: these are often smart people, and it is far more disrespectful to snootily disengage. And, anyone who enters a debate with the assumption they have nothing to learn will be met with a cold reception. I’m entirely willing to believe that the analytic philosophers would have learned soemthing valuable from the experience; as I have learned a great deal from people in education whose philosophical presuppositions I believe are entirely wrong. It would be wrong to suggest, by the way, that the contempt anayltical philosophers sometimes evince for some of what goes on elsewhere is all one way; I have frequently heard the work of analytical philosophers dismissed by people elsewhere in the academy who have not taken any time to read or think about what they are dismissing.

Oh, if I were criticising literature, I’d read Grice, over and over again. And (but not over and over again) Williams. And Nagel. And Anscombe. And Davidson (is that who you meant by Davison?). And Foot.


polphil grad student 04.19.06 at 4:00 pm

zdenek vajdak, have you ever actually read the people that you claim are making the arguments that you’re reciting? You say Derrida claims that “there is never a right way to read a particular text,” but he is quite explicit about rejecting exactly this view.

He rejects it in the course of his essay against Searle, in which he objects precisely to what he claims is Searle’s MISreading of him. Derrida’s claim is much closer to the view that statements mean different things in different contexts; he is not an idiot, and is perfectly aware that some contexts are more relevant than others for some statements. What he thinks is philosophically interesting — me, I’m not so convinced — is that, in principle, statements can be contextualized in infinite ways; he thinks this reveals something interesting about the structure of communication. But he never, ever said that all contexts are equally relevant and therefore nothing is true. He simply never did that.

As it happens, I’m not much of a Derrida fan myself, but it’s just astonishing to me how willfully people misread him (Rorty, on the other hand, actually seems to make most of the stupid arguments attributed to him). I personally find Derrida’s polemics with Searle extremely informative. The “Limited Inc” essay strikes me as exceptionally clear, punctuated with vitriol, and above all, hilarious — yet virtually every analytic philosopher I’ve spoken with about the essay calls it an embarrassment to Derrida.

Now, Derrida has plenty of texts that come much closer to conforming to the parodic view of him as an obscurantist bloviator, but I don’t understand why the Searle polemics always get such a bad rap (as the above commenters who dismiss them). Can anyone — anyone who’s actually read this material — enlighten me?


Doctor Slack 04.19.06 at 4:46 pm

the connection I was thinking of is the general desire of the progressive thought to find intellectual resourses for showing that oppresed cultures do not hold false beliefs.

And you would like to connect this simplified construction of a “general desire of progressive thought” both to “postmodernists” and to Marxism in virtually the same step, via the bromide of “relativism.” Well, that might be of interest if we accept your definition of “relativism” and your claims that this or that thinker subscribes to it, your characterizations of “post-modernism,” your claims about the “general desires of progressive thought,” your speculations about how this supposed “general desire” ties into Marxism and, for that matter, your apparent belief that Marxism per se remains particularly relevant in lit or cult stud theoretical circles. You’re asking for quite a few leaps, there, especially since your initial claim runs foul of the simple fact that many of “post-modernism’s” bitterest opponents were and are on the very same progressive left that you imagine to be so dedicated to the “relativist” project of “post-modernism.”

And that sort of thing is exactly why the whole polemic is beyond tiresome.

And, anyone who enters a debate with the assumption they have nothing to learn will be met with a cold reception.

No doubt. Yet experience teaches us that this has often not stopped Derrida’s avowed opponents, in particular, and polemicists contra “post-modernism” / post-structuralism / Continental philosophy more generally, from proceeding precisely as though they had nothing to learn. The idea that this or that Continental thinker might be both flawed and interesting, worth reading as long as you don’t make a religion out of them, has a way of quickly getting lost in the acrimonious assumption that one is rescuing the very pillars of Western civilization from the intellectual equivalent of the Visigoths. (Historians are arguably just as bad for this as philosophers, cf. Keith Windschuttle.) I’ve seen little in analytical philosophy’s sporadic attempts to engage with post-structuralism more generally that leads me to believe anything different would have happened, on the whole, had the analytics been more “responsible.” (And yes, the reverse is often also true; one half of the generally uninteresting “post-modernism” polemic is the often-clueless acolytes.)


Doctor Slack 04.19.06 at 4:53 pm

Agree with 42.


harry b 04.19.06 at 5:05 pm

polphil graduate student,

well, its some 15 or so years since I read them, but what came across very strongly was that derrida was entirely uninterested in responding to Searle’s arguments; he willfully misreads and makes fun of Searle, but in an embarrassingly discourteous way. So, unless you already buy into the view you are left thinking that he is a very clever jerk.

I witnessed him doing exactly the same to Marshall Cohen at an “event” where Cohen engaged with him (from the audience) on some of the issues Searle raised. About 300 people were packed into the room almost all of them apparently fans, and Cohen’s questions were accompanied by dark and insulting mutterings from all round the room; Derrida responded by ridiculing Cohen and showing off; but failed to provide anything that was recognisable as a reason or argument in favour of his own positions. A sort of dance. Clearly understood the questions, clearly clever enough to see their significance, but more fun to try and humiliate the interlocutor in front of one’s fans than to present arguments or reasons. Of course, if you reject the basic tenets of conversation (see Grice) this is fine. To the rest of us it seems deeply direspectful, complacent, and downright rude. That experience is one very strong piece of evidence in support of my critics like doctor slack who think it that what I recommend would have made no difference. We’ll never know now.


Matt 04.19.06 at 7:12 pm

It’s been a long time since I read _Limited INC_ (or the original volume, which I also read) but my impression at the time was that Derrida made a hash out of Austin in a way that could not be called a creative mis-reading. He seemed either woefully unable to understand what was going on in Austin (which seemed unlikely) or to just be playing in a way that I found both uninteresting and unedifying. Between that and Foucault’s opinion of him I figured I’d had enough. One only has so much time and energy, after all, and I decided mine was best spent elsewhere.


T. Scrivener 04.19.06 at 8:37 pm

Start of rant.

Quine can’t really inform discussions of lyric poetry but if he think he can’t inform discussions of literary criticism your not using your imagination. The indeterminacy of translation, the inscrutability of reference and the whole program of naturalism are all relevant to criticism. The thing about analytic philosophy is that it can be made relevant to literature but there are no short cuts, you have to think, hard. Unlike a lot of ( but not all) continental philosophy ( especially the bastardised kind that’s often used by literary theorists) analytic philosophy isn’t a mail order hermuntic with a free set of politically relevant steak knives included, if you want it to be relevant to the interpretation of literature, politics and society you have to do an awful lot of conceptual legwork. Analytic philosophy isn’t irrelevant, it takes effort and in today’s academic marketplace not everyone is willing to put that in.

End of rant.


r.f 04.19.06 at 9:10 pm

If one can interrupt the orgies of righteous indignation I would just say that I feel the analytic/continental distinction is ideologically real but philosophical specious. In my experience those who protest most have most to hide. As someone educated in both styles I find that charlatans exist in about equal numbers on both sides of the divide. It is merely a device used to try and avoid what are perceived to be difficult philosophical questions. Nothing more.


Commenter 04.19.06 at 9:34 pm

To both Harry and scrivener —

Fair enough. I like analytic philosophy. Seriously. I even spelled Davidson’s name correctly (unless I didn’t and it was corrected after the fact). Scrivener, I would actually agree with you that Quine can (and in fact has been) made applicable to lit. crit. I shouldn’t have worded my above post in the way I did. What I wanted to get at was the fact that people in literary studies didn’t turn to Derrida out of some faddish need to be cool and cutting edge, as so many seem to think, but rather because he’s saying stuff about literary language and interpretation that’s important to their field. So, yes, Quine is applicable, but, again yes, you need to apply him. But, here’s the strange thing: “indeterminacy of translation” … “inscrubality of reference” … this sounds exactly like the kind of stuff that Derrida and co. have being going on about (cf. Benjamin, de Man, etc., also check out this for more Davidson-centric stuff if you want: Now, surely, they’re not saying the same thing, right? I mean, unless Rorty’s right, and Derrida is just a post-Wittgenstein, Quinean who’s having some fun at the expense of Hegel’s and Heidegger’s ghosts. If that’s the case, then what are we arguing about? Argumentative style? Nothing?

That’s where I get off the agreeing-with-you train though, Scrivener, because all this stuff about not having to think hard about continental philosophy and it being a pre-packaged “hermuntic” [sic] is just a bunch of tendentious crap, worded in such a way as to raise the ire of the other side without actually moving along the conversation in any way (and you know it, too).

Harry, yes, you’re right too. Derrida has led some to say batshit crazy things about reality in batshit crazy prose, but that’s easily cured with some Strunk & White and a more careful reading of what Derrida is actually saying. Anyway, I think the risks are worth the reward, and I’d be willing to argue that position further. I also think that the world would be a better place if everybody calmed down and had a conversation, as you noted. And, yes, both “sides” are guilty of this. Derrida got catty with Cohen? Fine. But, hell, I can cite examples of Searle acting dismissive toward Derrida-ites. Anyway, my original post was as much an example of this cattiness as anything else, and for that I’m sorry. Maybe you’d consider going back to Limited Inc. and having another look. I too haven’t read it in a while, but remember thinking at the time that it wasn’t Derrida at his best, although he made some good points. I did just read this though, and thought it made some good points:


Seth Edenbaum 04.19.06 at 9:55 pm

Going back aways in this thread:
I was first introduced to modern analytical philosophy in the mid 1980’s when a friend who worked at the Journal of Philosophy gave me a subscription. I remember an article on “morality and self-other asymmetry” that relied entirely, and seemingly as a point of ideology, on absract logic unaided by empiricism.
Why is it permissible to sacrifice one’s own life to save others but not to sacrifice another person’s to obtain the same result? The next question might have been: “why is the militry an exception?” but it was never asked. Questions as to anthropology or history were deemed irrelevent. More recently, on this site, I’ve run into discussions of Donald Davidson and references to his ‘On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme’

The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Simon Blackburn writes this about Donald Davidson:

“Davidson has also known for rejection of the idea of s conceptual scheme, thought of as something peculiar to one language or one way of looking at the world, arguing that where the possibility of translation stops so does the coherence of the idea that there is something to translate.”

So if it is impossible to translate the finer points in Mallarmé, then no finer points exist.

There is a form of intellectual life that is indebted to people and to forms that are not strictly speaking intellectual, even more than it is those that are. Mozart was not a philosopher, and he is more important than most of those who were.
I prefer craftsmen to philosophs as I prefer lawyers to philosophers of law (and defense attorneys to prosecutors). But if the main question of philosophy remains the relation of action to reflection, I’ll still think it my right to demand of those who call themselves intellectuals that they have an understanding of the importance of craft, action and performance to their ‘intellectual’ preoccupations.


john c. halasz 04.19.06 at 11:27 pm


“Woran man nicht sprechen kann, muess man schweigen.” But does that mean one can’t whistle it either?

All this opposition between Analytic philosophy and continental is old news, indeed. Newsflash: Hegel contradicts himself! But then his very notion of contradiction is based on an ultimate “identity”, a teleology of non-contradiction. (He was attempting/claiming to generate the very categories upon with the claims of any formal logic must be based, but which it can not provide of itself.) Analytic philosophy bases itself on the project of a complete determinacy, which it is ever progressing toward. (And not just Analytic philosophy, but most of the philosophical tradition, including Hegel.) But what if that is not how language, meaning and communication actually work? And if every claim is embedded in the projection/differentiation of a perspective, including scientific ones, then how is communication between perspectives to be established and conducted, if not through a questioning/digging out of their presuppositions to see what lies beneath them and what needs and interests accompany them? I fail to see why reflection on the needs and interests of human beings (and their materially and socially embedded circumstances) and their claims to “truth” need be contradictory concerns. Equally, I fail to see how a “complete” clarification of concepts and procedures would, of itself, amount to a “complete” attainment of reality. And why should such an illusion of “progress” be identified with socio-political progress, if, indeed, any such thing is at all likely? It’s not a question of abandoning or certifying reference, but rather of recognizing the complexity of reference and the differences between more or less complex referential frameworks. It seems to me that much of the brouhaha between Analytics and continentals involves a failure to assess different philosophical and explanatory purposes.


T. Scrivener 04.20.06 at 12:06 am

Commentator, it’s rather ironic of you to accuse me of “tendentious crap”:

” because all this stuff about not having to think hard about continental philosophy and it being a pre-packaged “hermuntic” [sic] is just a bunch of tendentious crap”

When you so dreadfully misquote me. what I actually said was:

“UNLIKE A LOT OF ( BUT NOT ALL) continental philosophy ( especially the bastardised kind that’s often used by literary theorists) analytic philosophy isn’t a mail order hermuntic with a free set of politically relevant steak knives included” ( capitals added.)

Qualifiers are important. I think even a lot of theorists would concede my point about the danger of pre-packaged interpretative schemes and their distressing frequency. I remember Berube conceding this point in post on his blog. I’ll admit my tone is a little polemical, but it’s pretty tame comparatively. A little spice in the rhetoric doesn’t hurt anyone so long as it is kept under control.


Commenter 04.20.06 at 12:24 am

But a pre-packaged interpretative scheme is a pre-packaged interpretative scheme is a… you get the point. Anyway, seems to me you can find these schemes just about anywhere. For a while before continental philosophy even rolled around, a fair amount of literary critics spent their tenure hunting down ever elusive ambiguities and ironies in metaphysical poetry. Today the bad ones spend their time ferreting out gender/race inequalities.

My problem with your post was that you were letting analytical philosophy off easy in this respect. Certainly the use of tired interpretative paradigms applies to both sides, indeed to any academic discipline? Here, I’ll make a deal with you, for every “here’s a binary, let’s deconstruct it” argument you can dig up, I’ll trade you a “let’s imagine a twin earth exactly like our own, but water is purple.” It doesn’t seem fair to judge any discipline by its weakest links.


T. Scrivener 04.20.06 at 1:51 am

“Certainly the use of tired interpretative paradigms applies to both sides, indeed to any academic discipline?”

My point isn’t that theory can be old and boring, truth can be old and boring. The difference between the sort of Theory I am deploring and Twin Earth thought experiments is that Twin Earth thought experiments don’t involve enormous key to the universe and all mythologies style explanations. It is the tendency to go the way of Casaubon that I was satirizing with my comment about pre-packaged interpretative paradigms.


Dabodius 04.20.06 at 2:12 am

The descrption of the lamentable Cohen-Derrida encounter in #42 reminds me in a perverse way of a story about Gabriel Marcel’s visit to Oxford, recounted IIRC in George Pitcher’s memoir in the J.L. Austin volume edited by Isaiah Berlin. Marcel, usually tagged as a Christian existentialist, needed translation even in English, and Austin questioned him politely and patiently to clarify his views, eventually drawing out an acceptable paraphrase. As the memoirist put it (again IIRC), “many of Marcel’s darker sayings were revealed to be platitudinous,” as when Marcel had begun by saying “Freedom is the ontological counterweight to death,” but finally assented to Austin’s reformulation that although we know we are all doomed to die and that can make everything of ours seem worthless, we nevertheless invest some things with value as an act of free will. Platitudinous or not, it strikes me as worth saying (though what Marcel made of it in his original idiom I don’t know, having nver read Marcel.) If Continental philsophy could be rewritten in prose like Ryle’s or Quine’s, we would be better able to appreciate and argue with it. OTOH, if analytic philosophy relied more on prose and less on formalism and apparatus, it might gain in its own way in intelligibilty.


Alex Gregory 04.20.06 at 2:17 am

No. 48: “here’s the strange thing: “indeterminacy of translation” … “inscrubality of reference” … this sounds exactly like the kind of stuff that Derrida and co. have being going on about”

In my (admitedly limited) experience, continental philosophy breaks into about 3 categories:
1) Simply incoherant
2) Completely trivial
3) Old news

I’m sure some of analytic philosophy falls into (1) and (2) as well (as with any discipline, not every practitioner is perfect). However, I would guess that it happens less than in continental for the reason that analytic philosophy forces you to lay out what you’re saying clearly, so you can’t write things so ambiguously/crytically that they look brilliant.

Its not that stuff in (3) is totally useless – there might even be some interesting insights in there. But the problem is that the same point can usually found in some analytic work, and whereas analytic philosophers aspire to clarity, continentals aspire to looking intellectually superior. If I’ve a choice between digging my way through Deridda, or striding through Quine, I know what I’ll take.


T. Scrivener 04.20.06 at 2:31 am

Alex, it’s a little over the top to assign continental philosophy to the flames like you did isn’t it? I’m no fan but even I find it hard to believe that there is not something in there. It’s hard to take the M&E seriously but the best of continental philosophy gives us conceptual tools to examine life.


Brian Artese 04.20.06 at 3:39 am

Well, we have a perfect site for debating the merits of “analytic” vs. “continental,” and that is precisely the Glyph debates between Searle and Derrida, which are reproduced essentially verbatim in Derrida’s “Limited, Inc.”

Personally, I find it hard to believe that there is any serious thinker who can’t see that Derrida simply wipes Searle out from every direction. But then again, I rarely encounter people who have actually read the debate — especially among those in the anti-Derrida industry.

Let’s start here: Despite what you hear from people who haven’t actually read the “SEC” article that ignited the whole thing, Derrida had a great respect for Austin — if not for Searle — and was focusing on the specific problem in “speech act” theory: a problem that requires it to posit, at the outset, an impossible world where the “citational” status of a given utterance could be absolutely and finally determined. Speech act theory, in other words, doesn’t work unless you presume that such a final determination is possible in the real world — a fantasy that is equivalent to the fantasy that the intention “behind” an utterance (oh, what a sweet metaphysical universe must be that space “behind” an utterance!) could ever be determined, in the strict sense required by speech act theory.

Please note, for the ensuing discussion, that Derrida does not deny the existence of intent (as Searle sometimes would doltishly assert) — and for precisely the same reason that any science does not and cannot depend on a denial or affirmation of God. Derrida was trying to take the metaphysics out of speech act theory, and people like Searle naturally reacted strongly when it reflected badly on some of their favorite metaphysical fantasies.

In any case, I fail to see in Derrida’s argument any obscurity at all. If you’re in the habit of reading philosophy, it’s perfectly straightforward — especially “Limited, Inc.”, which goes out of its way to articulate itself in the peculiar Anglo-American argot that it’s adherents naturally call “clear writing”.


zdenek 04.20.06 at 3:48 am

polphil grad student –

please note that I am talking about Rorty and not Derrida ( ‘no right way to read the text’ view ). On the reading question yes I have read some of Derrida’s work including the Searle exchange ( plus some interviews as most people in philosophy would ). What struck me was the philosophical crudity and unoriginality of his more philosophical writings . I always thought that they had a sort of undergraduate feel about them.

Add to this his misreading of texts ( leaving bits out and adding bits in ,lifting passages out of context , misunderstanding philosophical arguments etc.)and unwillingness to take his intellocutor seriouly and you have a picture of an intellectual wichdoctor and worse because what we see is bad scholarship *concealed* by theoretical framework.

Surely this comes pretty close to Harry Frankfurt’s definition of a bullshiter : someone who is disinterested in truth ( and hence is not interested in inquiry ) ?


mc 04.20.06 at 4:18 am

Harry – re your comment about discovering “that where normative assumptions were made explicitly authors frequently depended on deep misunderstandings of the related debates in political philosophy and ethics that I knew pretty well”

Isn’t this in part a function of increasing professionalisation, specialisation, and the proliferation of literature? I can’t remember of whom it used to said, that he was the last person to have read ‘everything’, but I’m sure it was a long time ago – was it Macaulay? Of course it was not meant literally even then. But I can see how even when, say, Rawls was starting out, it would have been significantly easier than now for a professional political philosopher to keep up with interesting papers in, say, moral philosophy, metaphysics, economics, rational choice theory, social choice theory, and sociology. He would have been better placed than his modern equivalent both to avoid, and correct in others, the kind of mistake you describe above.

A recent example I came across – though quite different from the subject of this thread – was Richard Layard writing about happiness.

His brief explanation of why utilitarianism was rejected (purely because of measurement problems) is one which anyone who has studied moral philosophy for a few months (and remembered any of it) would find inadequate. But it made it to publication in a work by a distinguished economist and commenter on public policy.


vivian 04.20.06 at 10:03 am

(What a great conversation this is!)

part of the problem may be that in both Continental and Analytic circles there are great-to-read articles, and there are more slog-through-the-details-and-jargon ones. We’re not so good at identifying the ones from the other camp that would be most helpful to read, and we’re even worse at recommending some of our own to the other camp. We need the equivalent of good review articles, or good generalist ones. I wouldn’t hand “On the very idea of a conceptual scheme” to a student without ensuring a companion discussion (because I needed that once). “What it is like to be a bat” is both evocative and accessible, but not current.

Maybe a seminar or conference, something to bring both groups to the same table, talking about common interests but different approaches.


harry b 04.20.06 at 10:37 am

mc, yes, I agree with that (and the Layard example is quite remarkable, no? his response to the experience machine example is the part of his book that dumbfounded me).

But that’s not all that is going on. The people (on all sides) who have said that analytical philosophy is hard to access are right, and that is why I felt after a while that I had been blaming the victim; we (on the normative side) have not done a good job of demonstrating the relevance of our work to people in cognate fields (other than health policy!) and we should have done.

Still, as you say, it is just going to get harder and harder with more intense specialisation. I would say, though, that education is an unusual case because it very explicitly composes itself of parts of many other disciplines, so should be more open and less specialised.


Russell 04.20.06 at 11:16 am

I never, never thought I would see Derrida juxtapositioned with Strunk & White, except perhaps on my bookshelf, in purposeful humor. Commenter writes that “Derrida has led some to say batshit crazy things about reality in batshit crazy prose, but that’s easily cured with some Strunk & White and a more careful reading of what Derrida is actually saying.”

But if Derrida intends to do anything as an author, it seems to be an end-run around the kind of writing that Strunk & White prescribe. One of the common forms of dialogue about Derrida between the analytics and the continentals begins when the former ask, “what precisely is Derrida trying to say here?” It is the wide variety of answers from his defenders, including meta-answers about play vis-a-vis elucidation, that partly leads the analytics to conclude that really there isn’t much in Derrida that has to do with philosophy.

Given an essay by Quine, I can distill it into a few terse points, expand on what they mean, teach them to a class. The exercise is partly redundant, since Quine, who wrote in the spirit of Strunk & White, already did this in the essay itself, likely explaining his own ideas more clearly than can I. Of course, not fully redundant, indeterminacy and all that. Still and all, if for some reason I were forbidden from using Quine’s own work, I could teach from my own restatement of them, and the students having learned the ideas, could proceed to other academic venues where they could intelligently discuss those ideas and their origin and their implication. Quine’s essays, like Euclid’s geometry and Einstein’s physics, have content that can be lifted from their original expression, if not with perfect fidelity, still well enough.

Dare anyone here say the same for Derrida? Does anyone here think they can rewrite Derrida’s views, a la Strunk and White?


harry b 04.20.06 at 11:28 am

Is no-one going to comment on my colleague’s joke? Did you all laugh?


Commenter 04.20.06 at 11:56 am

I never, never thought I would see Derrida juxtapositioned with Strunk & White, except perhaps on my bookshelf, in purposeful humor.

First of all, before you ascend the high horse of prose clarity and correctness, try to remember that the past tense of “juxtapose” is “juxtaposed,” not “juxtapositioned” — “juxtaposition” is a noun, not a verb.

Second: Perhaps this wasn’t clear but I had intended to say that Strunk & White should be used as a cure for those who would too closely emulate Derrida’s prose style. In other words, I agree with you that Derrida’s writing can be dense, allusive, difficult. Others — i.e., Seth Edenbaum — have already talked a little bit about the purpose of this style. I assume you’ve ignored them just as I assume you’ll ignore me if I more or less repeat what they’ve already said, so I won’t bother.

As far as your challenge goes: needless to say there are countless books, papers, comic books, interviews, etc., all aimed to elucidate Derrida’s thought in clear, straightforward terms. If you’re looking for a more local example, Brian Artese in comment 58 seems to have given a good summary of Derrida’s side of the Searle/Derrida debate, although I don’t think Derrida’s victory is as cut and dry as he makes it out to be. Moreover, in my last post, I gave a link to a paper that also explained Derrida’s side of the debate in straightforward, clear prose.


Brian Artese 04.20.06 at 12:01 pm

Russell: Yes. Just ask me about any of Derrida’s books or essays and I can give you a nice, friendly paraphrase of it.

The idea that nobody understands Derrida and nobody knows what he’s talking about is a fun but ridiculous yarn that circulates only among undergraduates and those who don’t actually read much beyond the analytic Anglo-American tradition.

So: fire away!


Doctor Slack 04.20.06 at 12:24 pm

R.F. puts it very well, above.

I would add that, as a point in favour of lit and cultural studies, it’s quite mistaken to imagine that students of either have not necessarily been exposed to thinkers like Quine — though of course the degree to which this is true will very widely between departments.

56. whereas analytic philosophers aspire to clarity, continentals aspire to looking intellectually superior.

Meh. The accusation of merely trying to “look intellectually superior” is routinely levelled at all forms of philosophy — and academic philosophy in general — from one quarter or another. Obviously there will be cases in which it is true, but acknowledging this is a far cry from complacently dismissing a whole range of philosophers with that complaint. And you’re going to miss out on a hell of a lot if you’re only willing to wade through those texts that seem “clear” to you — Peirce, for example, is easily as difficult and dense a read as any of the “continentals” but well repays the effort.

I disagreed with Harry’s argument as formulated only because it seemed to assume that the analytical philosophers he had in mind were equipped to do what he was suggesting. It’s the common complaints that “the continentals are too hard to read” and “I have better things to do with my time” that suggest to me that isn’t the case — that, in short, the people who were supposed to “take the field” against the pernicious ideas of Derrida would be reacting more to that time they saw him be rude to someone instead of providing a competent dissection of his ideas. In the larger sense, I do think it befits philosophers to engage with ideas that are exerting significant influence in their day, even if they don’t like the ideas in question and even if it means reading stuff they wouldn’t normally read.


zdenek 04.20.06 at 12:27 pm

Harry– your position seems roughly to be this: analytic philosophy has produced some very good results ( in the form of insights into issues : language , morality , metaphysics , phil. of mind you name it ) that have relevance across disciplines. And such insights will likely endure and so they are broadly relevant/important. Second thought you have is that we have failed to promote these insights properly. Sort of advertising failure.
This strikes me as little bit naive. What seems clear from much of the postmodernist work is that some sort of rejection of the methods and presuppositions on which analytic philosophy is relying on is taking place. If this is the case what we see as enduring insights into issues may seem illusory to people who reject methodological presuppositions of analytic phil.( so the ‘failure to advertise ‘ picture is too simple )

Of course you can try to show that the repudiation itself is a result of the advertising failure but I am not sure if this will work.


zdenek 04.20.06 at 12:44 pm

doctor slack– I think you misunderstand the problem we have with work of people like Derrida. It is not that his ideas like that there is nothing outside the text or the various relativist consequences follow from his views on epistemology. It is normal for philosophers to advance contraversial views about the nature of truth , meaning etc.( Berkeley for instance argues for similar position that Derrida does ). So Derrida is welcomed to do the same .

The problem is that he offers either no argument or patently bad arguments unlike philosophers like Plato , Berkeley or Kant. So it is the ‘bad scholarship ‘ problem that people fret about and not the claims the guy advances.


Commenter 04.20.06 at 1:13 pm

zdenek — An honest question: what do you think Derrida means by “there is nothing outside the text”?


zdenek 04.20.06 at 1:50 pm

commenter– two ways to understand this idea ( ‘Il n’y a pas de hors texte ‘)
1) he is making a point about meaning more specifically it is a sceptical view obout the possibility of stable reference
2) point about truth viz that correspondence theory of truth is false, roughly.
Both though I take Derrida to use to argue against realism ( that there is an independent world outside our minds which can be known and which we can talk about meaningfully ). Part of the background we take for granted ( common sense presupposition which is a sort of default position ) is that words like ‘dog ‘ have clear meaning and because of this reasonably clear meaning such words can be used to talk about real items in the world in this case dogs. I take it that Derrida wants to call this into question .


zdenek 04.20.06 at 2:18 pm

commenter– suppose that the characterization I have given is roughly correct and we agree that we have pinned Derrida’s view down . The question is how good is this view philosophically ? Can it stand up as a defencible view ? Here is a reason why Derrida has a reall problem : if it is true that meaning is inherently unstable and reference is impossible then Derrida’s own characterization of language expressed in second order theory ( metalanguage ) will have the same problem with stability and reference. ( so there is nothing outside metalanguage ? do you see the problem ?)

But this means that Derrida cannot say anything useful about language proper ( object of his Sassurian linguistics ). In otherwords we have incoherence infecting the whole scheme and it will not work as a theory of anything.

Therefore such a view cannot be used to put pressure on anything. Anyway the view needs to be defended against just such criticisms and Derrida never mounts serious defence of his views .


Doctor Slack 04.20.06 at 2:45 pm

Zdenek: No, actually, my problem is that I’m constantly being told that [X continental philosopher] “has no arguments” by people whose objections to them involve strawman arguments, enormous leaps in logic (from “instability of reference” to “total uselessness of reference” or “denial of an external world,” for example) and question-begging bromides (“relativism,” “nihilism” etc). This rather calls into question such people’s sweeping claims about what a terrible crude, “undergraduate” thinker [X philosopher] is supposed to be. But it’s all par for the course in the “postmodernism” polemic, as I’ve already noted.


Brian Artese 04.20.06 at 3:31 pm

Ah, the old “there is nothing outside the text” thing. I’m always amused that people will spill gallons of ink on that entirely mis-tranlated sentence without ever even referring — or indeed ever having read — the sentences or paragraphs that surround it and which explain its meaning. It’s astonishing that most of the people who leap on this phrase don’t even know which book it comes from — and these people still sincerely feel that they’re operating at the highest and most rigorous level of scholarship and intellectual honesty.

Maybe in a later post I’ll trace the amusing history of the rhetorical abuse of this invented phrase — which begins, strangely enough, with Foucault, who can’t hide behind the excuse of mis-translation: When he hauled out this old canard against Derrida, he simply altered the text for his own purposes, changing (in French) “there is no ‘outside-text'” into “there is nothing outside the text.” The alteration, of course, coincides perfectly with the alarming “relativism” and nihilism that people like zdenek would like to think Derrida is writing about — because that belief is much easier than simply reading the relevant chapter that the phrase appears in (in of Grammatology)

Here’s one of the briefer ways of giving a context for “il n’y a pas de hors texte” in OG, if you don’t want to read it: One of the things Derrida needs to keep in view, for purposes that I won’t get into here, is the use and abuse of “inside” and “outside” metaphors in traditional philosophical discussions of writing. When various philosophers have spoken about the meaning to be found “inside” a text, they have not consistently kept in view the purely metaphorical nature of that conception; and indeed entire philosophical “positions” on writing have been predicated on an unexamined assumption that there really is an “inside” to any given text where “meaning” (or its allied concepts) resides.

The material fact, of course, is that there is no such thing as an “inside” of a text. A grapheme “works” entirely through a “flat” differential system of marks and backgrounds. (As does the vocalization that allows speech) But the fact that there is no “inside” of a text also means that there is no “outside” of a text either. And that frequently unexamined metaphor has also been, problematically, at the core of certain philosophical assumptions about writing, and Derrida (in this strain of thought) is simply challenging those discourses which implicitly treat these “inside” and “outside” metaphors as if they correspond to a real feature of the grapheme.

One could elaborate, of course, but I’m losing faith that anyone is still reading at this point…


Clark 04.20.06 at 3:37 pm

Zdenek, I think Derrida is very much a realist, probably more of the old medieval style. As to what “nothing outside of the text” means, Derrida himself answered this in the interview at the end of Limited Inc..

as I understand it (and I have explained why), the text is not the book, it is not confined in a volume itself confined to the library. It does not suspend reference– to history, to the world, to reality, to being, and especially not to the other, since to say of history, of the world, of reality, that they always appear in an experience, hence in a movement of interpretation which contextualizes them according to a network of differences and hence of referral to the other, is surely to recall that alterity (difference) is irreducible. (ibid)

This idea of “nothing outside the text” or nothing outside context is essentially this idea that form always is immanent in a world. Signs aren’t preceded by a transcendent meaning but rather signs constitute meaning and transcendence.

As others have said, one can see this sort of thing (albeit not quite the same way) in Davidson and also in the pragmatists. (I think there parallels to Peirce in some ways, for instance)


Clark 04.20.06 at 3:55 pm

Brian (#74), one might also compare the discussion to the consideration of Externalism in analytic thought. (Obviously Heidegger is an externalist and Derrida is largely following him here) Externalism of the sort most know is typically just the narrow sense of semantic externalism that Putnam and others have argued for. But clearly there are stronger senses, both among the classic pragmatists, but also in figures like Davidson and more recently in Timothy Williams well known text, Knowledge and Its Limits. That’s not to say this is all Derrida is doing. But clearly reading him without understanding the Externalism entailed by Heidegger’s notion of Dasein is to misread him.


Brian 04.20.06 at 4:32 pm

Clark — I think you’re probably right, and to Derrida it would certainly have worked its way through Heidegger if nothing else. If Derrida were to use a concept of Externalism, of course, he would have to end up mounting the term with a line through it, lest the false internal/external dichotomy escape intact…


Adam Kotsko 04.20.06 at 4:32 pm

This thread is a good example of the way threads like this tend to go.


novakant 04.20.06 at 4:48 pm

It’s been a while, but I’m pretty sure both Quine and Davidson, two preeminent figures of analytic philosophy, were semantic holists. Well, so was Hegel – so there. Anybody trying to paint analytic philosophy as some kind of clear-cut, down-to-earth, no-funny-stuff enterprise might have missed a few important points here and there. And a little knowledge of “continental philosophy” makes the Two Dogmas seem a lot less earth-shattering.


Seth Edenbaum 04.20.06 at 10:42 pm

Just to wind this up on my end…
john halasz,
My argument is not with analytic or continental philosophy but philosophy itself. The continentals, unlike the analytics, refer to literature as a model but they undermine it by rationalizing it, dealing in a conceptualization of thought that in this country has been used to academicize the arts in ways that I think are absurd.
The question is still: how does one act ‘within’ or through a philosphy? What is the relation of action to reflection?
Academic philosphy is defined by the culture of academe, and exists inside it; but what is the relation of a lawyer in a courtroom, to law, and to society? That relation is not the same as that of a speaker to a language, but a lawyer acts within law in a similar way. A lawyer acts, must act, within a system only as a part; he/she is required not to be fully conscious. But the system itself is considered philosophically valid. Again: the rule of law is not the rule of science. but I’ve gone through this before.

I defend the arts (my chosen field) as a function of culture that similarly is philosphically valid, in that each form is simultaneously a questioning and a documentation of itself and its surroundings, both formal and reflective. Continental philosophy values the arts for this even as it undermines them [artists and critics etc.] Analytic philosophy in it’s latent or not so latent positivism, thinks this is all bunk or otherwise hides from it, and therefore from the most important questions of philosophy.


john c. halasz 04.20.06 at 11:20 pm


Wittgenstein was making something of the point that you seem to wish to convey, even in his early “positivistic” phase. To state the facts and only the facts (a la Joe Friday), to say only and precisely what one can say and no more, amounts, from a certain modernistic, if rather positivistic, point-of-view, to a form of authenticity. But that does not mean that such concerns can be said otherwise: the arts “mean” modally rather than propositionally. (Derrida would seem to want to indicate that the “propositional” claims of philosophy “suffer” a similar dependency).

The very idea of philosophy has always involved estrangement. Even Poor Richard Rorty, in some of his more blathering pronouncements, seems to want to convey such an effect. Why is this forgotten? Is such estrangement intolerably elitist or a violation of commom sense? Or is it (an exploration of) what we all have in common?


Brian 04.21.06 at 12:17 am

Even as I “defend” the continentals, I agree with seth’s nicely-put wrap-up:

My argument is not with analytic or continental philosophy but philosophy itself. The continentals, unlike the analytics, refer to literature as a model but they undermine it by rationalizing it, dealing in a conceptualization of thought that in this country has been used to academicize the arts in ways that I think are absurd.

To use john’s terms in the post after yours, the influence of philosophy on the arts has tended to make it rely on its “propositional” as opposed to its modal consequences. But is the philosopher at fault for this, over and above the artist?


KC Sheehan 04.21.06 at 1:23 am

Coming very late to this stimulating discussion, I’d like to look back at russell’s #63:
But if Derrida intends to do anything as an author, it seems to be an end-run around the kind of writing that Strunk & White prescribe. One of the common forms of dialogue about Derrida between the analytics and the continentals begins when the former ask, “what precisely is Derrida trying to say here?”
Perhaps this will just be another unsatisfactory answer, but Derrida’s work is very much about the violence demanded by such a question. (The still more common example of a “simple” question the “answers” to which drive interlocutors round the bend is “What is deconstruction?”) Derrida says what he says and his utterance has whatever meaning can be gleaned from it. The demand to know “what precisely” he is “trying to say” is really a demand to know which of the meanings that might be taken from his utterance is not the meaning of that text. It is patently false that a text, even the most Strunked and Whited text, can have no more than one meaning. Unless we can distinguish the real or primary or intended or true meaning(s) from the other possibilities, however, we cannot “understand” the text so as to make use of it, so we must ignore some of the meanings a text will support and exclude others as accidental or “wrong.” But the crucial question for Derrida is: by what what authority are meanings to be ruled out of order, wrong, frivolous? Derrida’s most absurd “misreadings” of texts are all rigorously supported by the arrangement of words on the page: they are “misreadings” only because Derrida refuses to assume the legitimacy of the authority that rules them out. That is not to say that such rules do not exist, or that we can do without them, but that nothing in the text itself authorizes their use (and, of course, the text has no outside). When we must decide what a text means, we must take responsibility for our choice to disregard some of its meanings, and not pretend that either the text or some accessible truth beyond it is dictating this choice.
I am a law professor and former litigator. For me, Derrida’s work has great practical significance as an attitude toward common law adjudication–the reduction of a unique dispute into an exemplar of a more general rule so as to pronounce judgment on it. That judgment, like the choice of which meanings to exclude, is ultimately an exercise of power, not logic or law, for which the judge must take responsibility.


zdenek 04.21.06 at 1:53 am

brian artese– ‘there is nothing outside the text’ claim is discussed on p 158 of ‘Of Grammatology’ ( John Hopkins UP 1976 ).


zdenek 04.21.06 at 2:22 am

#74- “relativism that people like Zdenek would like to think Derrida is writing about”.
As I said above I ( and people I know in phil.) dont have a problem with the doctrines ( ralativism , nihilism , that there is no truth or value etc )themselves . It is perfectly normal in philosophy to put forward strong contraversial views ( sophists, Plato, Berkeley, Kant , Wittgenstein etc.) . So this is a red herring.
The problem with Derrida is that he offers either no argument or bad arguments for his views. And connectedly he is a sort of bad reader par excellence who has the nerve to disguise his recklessness with theory. So the problem is his sharlatanism and not his doctrines as such.


Doctor Slack 04.21.06 at 3:22 am

85: As I said above I . . . dont have a problem with the doctrines ( ralativism , nihilism , that there is no truth or value etc )

You do, however, have an evident problem making any sort of coherent case for Derrida having advocated any such views. Which thus far makes your attempts to talk about his “charlatanism” entirely laughable.

For example, nice though it is that you can locate the page of Of Grammatology that Brian alleges to be commonly mistranslated, misinterpreted and misquoted, it doesn’t even seem to occur to you that the bare citation is in itself non-responsive to anything Brian said. And you want to go on from this to talk about “bad readers” and failure to offer good arguments, or arguments of any kind?

Physician, heal thyself.


zdenek 04.21.06 at 4:16 am

doctor slack–
you make two points : goodish one and a bad one . The bad point is to harp on the fact that my posts dont measure up to proper scholarship etc. This involves overlooking that posts of necessity will be sketches because we are involved in a conversation really and it is innapropriate ( its silly ) to apply standards designed for published work to a chat.
Your good point is that I should reply to brian .


benjamin 04.21.06 at 4:21 am

The problem is that he offers either no argument or patently bad arguments unlike philosophers like Plato , Berkeley or Kant. So it is the ‘bad scholarship ’ problem that people fret about and not the claims the guy advances.
Posted by zdenek · April 20th, 2006 at 12:44 pm

The problem with Derrida is that he offers either no argument or bad arguments for his views. And connectedly he is a sort of bad reader par excellence who has the nerve to disguise his recklessness with theory. So the problem is his sharlatanism and not his doctrines as such.
Posted by zdenek · April 21st, 2006 at 2:22 am

I find this rather odd – does anyone who reads Plato nowadays actually believe he has any ‘good’ (ie. convincing, plausible, etc) arguments for his views? Surely most of them strike us today as hideously question-begging? I think the same issue can be seen with many other ‘respected’ philosophers: is there such a thing as a ‘good, but obviously unconvincing/wrong’ argument? I’ve always found this categorisation rather puzzling; if an argument is (patently) flawed, how can it still be ‘good’? And how ‘flawed’ does a ‘good’ argument have to be before it becomes ‘bad’? Obviously we can’t just use right/wrong here. Perhaps you mean coherent? If so, what do you say to people who claim Derrida is in fact coherent, but that you’ve misunderstood his arguments? I’d be more inclined to put Derrida into the ‘good argument, but flawed/wrong’ category (along with Kant, for example), rather than the ‘rubbish argument, but possibly correct’ one, as various people above seem to (eg. on relativism, meaning scepticism, etc).
In this vein, I’ll try to give some sort of response to the ‘self-refuting meaning scepticism’ objection above (#72): There seems to be a fairly typical ‘anti-postmodernist’ mistake here. Derrida doesn’t have a problem with the idea that his own views are also (as a metalanguage) subject to contextual (mis?)interpretation. One rather simplistic solution to your problem is thus that Derrida simply isn’t an ‘absolute’ meaning skeptic – rather he simply denies that we can know with absolute certainty (ie. through it being ‘our’ intention) what we (or other people for that matter) mean. This is because he doesn’t think meaning is that sort of ‘entity’, not because he denies meaning altogether – he thus allows the possibility that, although we obviously will not know it, when we speak/write we can actually (yes, ‘really’, ‘in reality’, ‘in truth’) be meaning something different to what we think we mean. Hence the ‘externalism’ comments floating around here – does this sound like relativism? I suppose Derrida would take issue with your conception of what his relativism means: it doesn’t mean ‘anything goes’, such that, for example, I can simply ‘will/choose’ what I mean, but rather the precise opposite: when I speak I have to take account of the fact that my meaning is not simply dictated by ‘whatever I think I mean’ but rather refers essentially to an objective system of thought/language which I didn’t invent and do not have control over (including the possibility that this system will change in the future, and indeed may be changing as we speak). Perhaps you can see why some people (Simon Glendinning comes to mind) think that Derrida’s views converge to a certain extent with Wittgenstein’s rule-following arguments (I happen to think they’re both flawed, but that’s another story…).
On another note, what do people mean by a ‘bad reader’? I haven’t read the texts in the debate with Searle, but it seems to me that Derrida is a perfectly good/charitable (and often exemplary) reader of people like Levinas, Heidegger, Husserl, Hegel, etc. Of course these are his own distinctive readings, not simply expositions, but nonetheless he certainly has an excellent grasp of/eye for the important issues/problems. Presumably the idea is that, as various people have said earlier, Derrida simply chooses not to engage ‘honestly’ with Austin/Searle. Perhaps he does, and if so I see your point. But in that case, instead of reading these texts, why not try one where he’s writing ‘on his own turf’? I often think that people with no previous knowledge of Derrida would be much better served by beginning with one of the essays in Writing and Difference, rather than Of Grammatology, as its journal article style is much more accessible and argumentative (especially ‘Structure, Sign and Play’ and ‘Force and Signification’).


zdenek 04.21.06 at 9:29 am

#58– brian artese advances argument against speech act theory that he seems to think is a knock-down argument against Searle : speech act theory relies on an assumption which is implausible viz. that intentions (mental states that confer intentionality on words ) could be specified as he puts it “determined”. And of course they cannot be determined the claim goes and moreover ralying on such an assumption involves phantasy world etc.
He goes on to explain that Derrida by repudiating such problematic entities is merely repudiating unnecessary metaphysics.
Two observations about this. First it is not clear why we are supposed to accept that intentions cannot be ‘determined’ since intentions are mental entities with mental properties which can be characterised by appropriate theory.

Second even if we grant that such a characterization is not available right now it does not follow that we cannot come up with one in near future. So as it stands the scepticism about intentions that the argument is
advancing does not stand up.


zdenek 04.21.06 at 11:23 am

#88– benjamin first re good arguments what about Plato’s ‘Euthyphro argument’ which shows that God cannot be the source of moral goodness ? This is both very influencial, original , and and probably sound . And then there is Hume’s argument to show that ought cannot be derived from is. Again original and sound. And so on down the line.

Second your defence of Derrida involves a concession to the critic which really shows that Derrida does not have a defencible position.
I.E. to say that Derrida is not ‘absolute meaning sceptic’ is to concede that the interesting claim ( that we cannot fix or determine meaning at all ) is not true and that what Derrida has in mind is much *weaker* and much less interesting claim viz. that we cannot be absolutely certain about what we mean ( who holds that we have a priori knowledge of this sort ? ) .
This is philosophically uninteresting ( like saying that we cannot be absolutely certain that our perceptual experience is absolutely veridical ; no one thinks otherwise ).

If this is correct then Derrida is after all not saying anything interesting ; it of course looks interesting before you unpack it and because of the obscurity and jargon the relative banality of his view is not displayed . Another way of making the point I made above.


Kevin Winters 04.21.06 at 11:47 am

In reference to an earlier post (sorry, don’t recall where): I find analytic philosophy to be very hard to read; I sit down and try to read Quine and I have many problems. However, if I sit down and read Heidegger (even his more enigmatic ‘later’ works) I find it much easier to read. Why? Because his style/approach is what I’m used to reading: I’ve been literally ‘struggling’ with Heidegger’s thought for the last 3 years, taking an immense amount of time to understand what he is trying to say, his terminology, his exact disagreements with more ‘established’ views, etc. I’ve consulted numerous of his other works, commentaries, attempted to write some things on my own (which has helped immensely). In short, I’ve invested much into my attempts to understand Heidegger and I feel I’ve gained immensely from it.

I guess my point is this: the ‘ease’ with which we can understand a text–whether analytic or continental–is at least partially proportional with which style of philosophy we deal with on a consistent basis. This, of course, extends to other diciplines: I couldn’t give a ‘good’ reading of a text on political philosophy because 1) I’m not used to reading them and 2) I find it incredibly boring (sorry, it’s just not my thing). While I’m willing to grant that some texts are easier than others (within both traditions), it mostly depends on where you spend your time. If an analytic philosopher would spend as much time on Being and Time as they would, say, on anything by Quine (as I’m assuming that such philosophers require more than one reading), then perhaps it would start to make sense.


Kevin Winters 04.21.06 at 11:54 am


Second your defence of Derrida involves a concession to the critic which really shows that Derrida does not have a defencible position.
I.E. to say that Derrida is not ‘absolute meaning sceptic’ is to concede that the interesting claim ( that we cannot fix or determine meaning at all ) is not true and that what Derrida has in mind is much weaker and much less interesting claim viz. that we cannot be absolutely certain about what we mean ( who holds that we have a priori knowledge of this sort ? ) .

While the claim itself is not very interesting, the way that he approaches it is: anyone can say that a text has a number of possible meanings, but embedding that relativity is where the interesting facts come in. Do we reduce it to ignorance (as analytical philosophers might) or perhaps to the ‘surplus’ found in reality (as Heidegger/Derrida do)? If the latter, how can we discuss that ‘surplus’ since every explication brings the surplus to light (i.e. destroys the surplus as surplus)? This also ignores the broader hermeneutical question of how history and context influence meaning: what are the mechanisms or, perhaps, forms that influence our interpretations and how are they implemented? Are they ‘propositions’? How does the body influence them?

For me these deeper questions that are below the more explicit claim are the most fascinating things with Derrida/Heidegger’s thought.


aspazia 04.21.06 at 12:07 pm


zdenek 04.21.06 at 12:10 pm

benjamine- just a note on ‘good arguments’. Good arguments are sound i.e. have true premises and valid forms . Of course the best arguments are sound , have persuasive premises plus are original .

One thing I wouldnt say is that a good argument can be flawed : seems contradictory .( locusion like this requires explanation : maybe the argument is not original and so on )
So, patently flawed argument is unsound ( typically falsehood of the premises involved but could be a non sequitur ).


Kevin Winters 04.21.06 at 12:13 pm


What do we say, then, for inductive arguments that are not reducible to logical constructs? Most of philosophy is done through inductive arguments where ambiguity is almost certain (or, if Derrida is right, some ambiguity is certain).


Kevin Winters 04.21.06 at 12:14 pm

Oops, for some reason I thought that “April” in “april 21st, 2006” was the name. I meant zdenek…


zdenek 04.21.06 at 12:29 pm

kevin winters – yes we should not forget inductive arguments but I am not sure there is much use for them in philosophy ;you must be thinking science ?


Kevin Winters 04.21.06 at 12:39 pm


Are you sure? How many arguments given in books can be strictly formalized with well-defined terms? The number of premises in such a construct would be unwieldy, there will be a wide range of background assumptions that inform each premise (i.e. hidden premises), and there will always be too much ambiguity to give definite meaning to many (if not all) of its terms. Maybe my lack of experience with so-called ‘analytic’ philosophy is what is fueling a possible misunderstanding, but most of philosophy must be conducted through inductive argumentation: the complete transparency needed on every level for a deductive argument can rarely be achieved (or, again, if Derrida is right, it can never be achieved). If it were accomplished more often than we would have less argumentation even among ‘analytics’: the correctness (or at least validity) of a view would be readily apparent, whereas there are (I imagine) numerous disagreements on that every matter for various arguments.


Kevin Winters 04.21.06 at 12:41 pm

Correction: “numerous disagreements on that very matter for various arguments.”


Doctor Slack 04.21.06 at 2:07 pm

#90: Another classic entry in “postmodernism” polemic. Start by claiming that [X philosopher]’s claims are totally radical and self-undermining in some crucial way by virtue of their radicality. (Add some sauce on top: “though they’re totally incoherent, I usually wouldn’t object to their total incoherence, but they’re too flamboyant to boot! It’s charlatanry I tells ya!”) If unable to back up this claim, shift gears: okay, mayvbe their pronouncements aren’t all that radical… and [i]that’s[/i] exactly the problem! Either way, we’re all better off just ignoring them.

I’ll say this for Zdenek: he’s giving us a great demonstration of the rhetoric in action.

Now, obviously Derrida (like most modern philosophers of any school) is anticipated and paralleled by other thinkers. OTOH, if his thought is truly expendable and irrelevant because of this and the “analytics” had all the bases covered before he came along, it’s hard to see why there would be so many philosophers prone to misintepreting his emphasis on the instability of signifaction as an abrogation of “meaning” tout court to begin with. But admitting this would of course mean admitting that baldly declaiming about Derrida’s “bad arguments” and talking about his prose style or personal demeanour might not, after all, quite cut it as a response to his work. And we can’t have that!

I don’t mean to seem like too much of a Derrida partisan here (he is IMO overrated almost as often as he is underrated, and I think he does have some genuinely barmy notions, like the self-occlusion of the “trace”), it’s just that he in particular and the “postmodernism” polemic more generally really seem to bring out this sort of annoying pseudothink from otherwise smart people. And the interlocutors owe themselves a higher standard, if nothing else.

Anyway, enough ranting. It’s just repetition at this point. I’ll happily leave the last word to Zdenek if he wants it.


Doctor Slack 04.21.06 at 2:08 pm

Thinko: But admitting this would of course mean admitting


“But talking about this would of course mean admitting”


Doctor Slack 04.21.06 at 2:35 pm

Obligatory comment after vowing not to comment any further: just wanted to give some belated props to Clark’s comment #75, which is an interesting angle that hadn’t occurred to me previously. I’m not sure if I quite agree with it yet, but it’s food for though – thanks.


Clark 04.21.06 at 6:42 pm

Thanks. I’d just note that Derrida explicitly appeals to Peirce’s conception of signs and says Peirce comes closest to what Derrida calls deconstruction. There may be some differences between the two over repetition in type-token relations. But that’s a more technical discussion.

I’d also add that both Peirce and Derrida were influenced by the semiotics of the early neo-Platonists. (Thus the term “trace” – the logic of which in Derrida isn’t that far removed from the logic in the major schools in the ancient world) Now obviously neither are exactly neoPlatonists (although for both there is no shortage of papers going through the parallels). And this gets at your point about them not being that original.

One certainly can see certain trends in so-called post-modernism as not really post as in after modernism but as kinds of critiques of modernist assumptions in terms of what came before (whether scholasticism, the pre-socratics, or even Aristotle) So yes, one could argue that the basic stances aren’t that original. But that isn’t really much of a criticism. That’s akin to saying we should discount Davidson because he uses Plato’s third man argument in the context of his truth semantics.


Sid 04.21.06 at 6:58 pm

I’m kind of curious how the sharp, analytically schooled philosophers who either can’t make heads or tails of Derrida’s nonsense or who aren’t interested in studying enough Continental Philosophy in order to contextualize it properly – however you want to look at it – are going to do battle meaningfully when Derrida’s American accolytes from English and Social Studies have even less of a chance than they do of grasping deconstruction properly?

It seems to me Derrida should be put in brackets, and if there be a need for a frontal assult under the banner of truth and right-thinking, then the battle be raised against the ideas of those who posture ignorantly on our own soil.


Anibal 04.21.06 at 6:58 pm

Every generation must have its proper J. S. Mill, or in other words, its public intellectual. Actually in comtemporary philosophy the place is efficently occupied by people like D. C. Dennett (and not only locally in America), but as time goes by and knowledge (of distinct sorts) is multiplied and growth exponentially as the world becomes more interconected, that means that the combinatorial explosion of information is too vast to be managed by a single person. “Standing in the shoulders of giants” is no more a motto. Each activity of human enterprise for the quest of knoweledge is done by huge teams of research people doing a fair and well division of labor. Just take a look in any scientifc journal on topics such as genomics… you will see columns of co-authors (Perhaps in philosophy by tradition this always have been left out to the powress of philospher´s own reason and reasoning faculty, but now is impossible for one single person dominate all areas). Philosophy needs to challenge many issues, but know, i don´t think that one of those is its own identity. To clarify the things and not worrie us too much about the future of philosophy, we shall to think that philosophy is science, but with other means and other pace in achieving discoveries and findings than institutionally concieve “science”. We have not to dividing conceptually nor terminologically, science on one side and philosophy on the other. All we know that science emerge from philosophy. Although now institutionally, academicaly, administratively and socially speaking science and philosophy are distinct entities. But because philosophy is the repudiated mother´s science always will be philosophers talking about sicientific topics or working hand with hand with institutionals sicentists of diverse persuasions or viceversa (just think in the contemporary agenda in philosophy of mind or allied areas and other areas of philosophy. To be serious, actually i can´t imagine any area of philosophy that in one or other form not include science in their reflections, even ancient philosophy is fed by archeology!).
But what about with specialitation or generalization in knowledge, know about just one thing fantastically or know about too many things but poorly?. The solution is, create, yes create, a public intellectual. Philosophers must create,invent or launch a person for that purpose or in marketing terms “hype” someone with the required talents ( charisma, communicative skills, with philosphical knowledge of course…) but without being necessarely a giant or a baroque specialist nor loosely generalist. Becuase a Nobel Prize in phisiology or medicine is not give to the total of a lab, staff, technicians, collaborators during years, assistants, secretaries, postgraduates doing monkey job… but only to “one person”, the lead or principal investigator, (although probably the staff, technicians, colaborators… are worthy of it); in the philosophical community the respect and appreciation by the public opinion must to rely on one single person as well, but a person free of pressures characteristic of the commnity to gain acknowledgement to make a name. The problem is that that person probably never will be like Mill or Dennett anymore, but if each very expert peer and very general inclined peer and colleagues support him and the entire philosophical community confidentially would give him in advance the progress in their respective work; he could talk about societal and cultural relevant issues with rigor and deeply. How to do it? well, that is another story.


Brian 04.21.06 at 8:39 pm

zdenek writes

I.E. to say that Derrida is not ‘absolute’ meaning sceptic’ is to concede that the interesting claim ( that we cannot fix or determine meaning at all ) is not true and that what Derrida has in mind is much weaker and much less interesting claim viz. that we cannot be absolutely certain about what we mean ( who holds that we have a priori knowledge of this sort?)

There is only one way that meaning has ever been fixed: in an “explanatory” iteration that is subsequent to the iteration under question. This is how literary criticism works, which claims to be able to articulate the meaning of another text, and it’s how we use it every day. If I say something and somebody asks, “what do you mean?” I help clarify the matter by offering another, different iteration. If nobody asks for clarification of an iteration, then we leave that iteration alone and there exists no question of its “meaning.” “Meaning,” in fact, has no existence outside of this scenario: where one iteration is put “into question” by another.

If you happen to be satisfied with a given answer to your question “what does that mean?”, and nobody raises any other objectives, then, great, knock yourself out and call that answer the “fixed meaning” of the original statement. (But know, too, that it is possible that somebody else will come along and ask of that definitive statement: “But what does that mean? I don’t quite understand you…”)

The point is that the “meaning” of one iteration can only exist as another iteration. Otherwise, you have to imagine that there is some ghostly thing that hovers above every statement (its “fixed” meaning) — but which does not exist as an iteration. Because if “meaning” does not exist as an iteration at that point (even if you imagine it as an unspoken iteration), then it can’t magically become an iteration at any other point.

What Derrida is arguing against is not “meaning,” but rather the conception of meaning as some ghostly thing that somehow hovers above every iteration in some alternate universe (in synchrony with the letter, as Saussure would say), and is so fantastic as to not have the property of iterability. Again, it’s just an attempt to take the whacky metaphysics out of linguistic theory.


Clark 04.21.06 at 9:57 pm

Brian, it might be better to simply say Derrida argues against reifying meanings. The way that say Locke, Russell or Frege did. But of course he’s not alone in this. Davidson was, as I mentioned, a big proponent of this. Of course Derrida’s project is much broader than just meanings of sentences but is primarily about phenomenological meanings in Husserl.

I remain convinced that anyone reading Derrida who isn’t reasonably familiar with the positions and arguments of Husserl and Heidegger doesn’t understand Derrida.


Brian 04.22.06 at 3:25 am

Clark — yes: against reifying meanings, if by that you mean against anything that would imply the existence of a regime beyond that of the signifier. Again, to use the Saussurean terms that Derrida is working against, zdenek wants there to be a world of “signifieds” beyond iteration. Your basic Platonism, really…


zdenek 04.22.06 at 4:27 am

brian #106–if explaining meaning of a passage say involves ‘iteration’ and nothing else then how do we distinguish between good and bad interpretations ? Clearly at the common sense level we rely on the notions of accuracy of interpretation all the time and any decent theory should preserve this fact . It seems to me that if you cannot make sense of notions like ‘accuracy’ , ‘discovery’ then this counts heavily against Derrida’s approach.

What is going on, more broadly is that Derrida is a reductionist and an eliminatist about meaning. Observe that this is driven by specific view about what proper scientific explanation looks like and Derrida is clealy helping himself to that ( I am going to assume argumendo that there is no problem with metaphisical naturalism that Derrida is relying on ).

But secondly if you are going to reduce meaning to ‘iteration ‘ it must make sense and I am not sure it does . There are three problems :
1) it seems that Derrida is confusing semantic issues with epistemological issues.
2) the activity of interpretting language or texts is left without intelligible notion of normativity.
3) intentionality is not explained .


zdenek 04.22.06 at 5:21 am

#108 — no, one does not need Platonism in order to defend position Searl defends. Meaning of language ( both speaker and conventional meaning )is derived intentionality which comes from intentionality of mental states .These have content that can be captured as truth conditions and this is transferred to sentences principally as ‘speaker meaning’. No “whacko metaphysics” involved here and the approach has the advantage of making sense of both normativity and intentionality .

Now if the mental states in this case principally beliefs can be specified then the derived intentionality with content can be specified and it is easy to see how we are going to make sense of accuracy etc.
Second the criticism people at this stage make is that Derrida’s position is better because he is not relying on any metaphysics. This is not true : Derrida is probably a metaphysical naturalist which explains his commitment to the quasi-logical positivism of Sassure ; this is undefended and merely assumed so I would not press this angle too much if I was defending Derrida.


benjamin 04.22.06 at 6:40 am

#108—no, one does not need Platonism in order to defend position Searl defends. Meaning of language ( both speaker and conventional meaning )is derived intentionality which comes from intentionality of mental states .These have content that can be captured as truth conditions and this is transferred to sentences principally as ‘speaker meaning’. No “whacko metaphysics” involved here
Posted by zdenek · April 22nd, 2006 at 5:21 am

No, only a brute appeal to a concept (intentionality) which provides no explanatory value whatsoever. Sentences are about things in the world because thoughts are about things in the world – how does this tell us anything more about how this link between thought/language and the world actually works? It’s precisely this (question-begging) appeal to an external ‘signified/meaning’ which Derrida (along with many other philosophers) attempts to undermine.
Nonetheless, I’d like to take issue with the idea mentioned several times above that Derrida rejects any appeal to anything ‘outside the text/language’. I’m not sure this is true – it’s quite a contentious issue among Derrida scholars (or so I’m told) as to whether differance is simply a function of language (making Derrida some sort of linguistic idealist/relativist), or rather some sort of more general ‘metaphysical’ process. As I see it, part of the reason Derrida (and others; Deleuze, Foucault, Lacan, etc) are termed ‘post-structuralists’ is that they all reject precisely the sort of total linguistic idealism (allegedly) found in earlier structuralists like Saussure in favour of an understanding of the way in which sub- and un-conscious processes affect language in both its development and its use. Of course, Derrida would reject any brute appeal to these processes as a normative authority (like the appeal to ‘intentionality’).


benjamin 04.22.06 at 6:41 am

Apologies – I seem to have unintentionally used a Derridean writing technique in my previous post! :)


zdenek 04.22.06 at 7:59 am

benjamin– two points about intentionality: first even if we grant that the concept cannot at present ( because we lack fully developed theory of mind ; but also note that Searle does have theory involving conditions of satisfaction which aims to flesh it out )be characterised more precisely it is simply false that it has no explanatory value : methodological naturalism only demands that explanans be natural phenomena that can be characterised by some testable theory. Intentionality certaily meets that requirement.
Second and connected remark I would make is that intentionality can be conceived of along the lines of theoretical entities/properties such as ‘spin’, ‘colour’ or ‘flavour’ that are ascribed to elementary particles. No problem with explanatory power here.

Finally if you want to replace intentionality with something more plausible be my guest. Of course there is no broadly acceptable ,coherent account that works . What we get is poststructuralism with seriuos problems : how do you explain normativity for instance on your account ?


zdenek 04.22.06 at 8:28 am

Poststructuralist naturalistic fallacy — naturalistic theory like the one Derrida offers tries to explain meaning which has normative properties in terms of purely natural properties such as reiteration. Meaning is derived from such natural properties.

But this move commits a naturalistic fallacy . To avoid this problem the theory leans towards eliminativism and we can see even from the debate here that we are dealing with some sort of *error theory* a la Mackie ( in morality John Mackie famously proposes to explain normativity and objectivity by suggesting that when we make moral judgements we make an error in ascribing normativity to the physical world ).
As you can see what this aproach boils down to is if you cannot find an easy explanation for some phenomenon then just say that it does not exist . We see the same with poststructuralist antics ok but at what price what have they provided in terms of deepening our understanding of language ? If they cannot make sense of normativity then they cannot make sense of meaning I am afraid.


Brian 04.22.06 at 12:26 pm

zdenek writes

Meaning of language ( both speaker and conventional meaning )is derived intentionality which comes from intentionality of mental states.

Ah… so “meaning” exists as a “mental state” which is beyond iteration. Well, good luck with that. What is the actual, physical nature of this “mental state”? What is the mechanism, exactly, by which it holds in suspense this spiritual thing that gives birth to iteration, but is not iteration itself? This is fun: I feel like I’m conversing with a real alchemist or something!

Take the following scenario. Let’s say I have a computer program that randomly assembles words together in a series. Every day I walk into my favorite coffee shop and post a product of this computer program on the bulletin board. It’s usually nonsense: “cat mortage glisten,” or ” porky might friend,” etc. But let’s say that one day my computer spits out the phrase “charity never fails.” I go post that in the coffee shop; and then some new costomers come in, read that sentence posted on the bulletin board — and it fills them with hope and gladness. “Charity never fails!” How true! The phrase is clearly meaningful to these people, and it changes their lives. It strikes them as a very profound and meaningful truth.

Now: are we going to say that they’re wrong? That the phrase is actually “meaningless” simply because there was no “intention” that produced the sentence? It is clearly ridiculous to say that the exact same sentence suddenly does have meaning if we change the scenario to say that I wrote the phrase myself and then posted it on the bulletin board.

Clearly, “meaning” only exists as an effect of iteration. It is as pointless to worry about some pre-iterative “intent” when you’re studying how language works for exactly the same reason that it is pointless to worry about whether the universe was created by a God when you’re studying how nature works.

if explaining meaning of a passage say involves ‘iteration’ and nothing else then how do we distinguish between good and bad interpretations ?

Well, you do this exactly as it has been done for thousands of years: You produce more text that argues for this or that interpretation. It is a fond idea of the anti-Derrideans (who usually haven’t read any of his work) to claim that Derrida says that there is no way to adjudicate among interpretations. Of course you can adjudicate among interpretations: we tend to prefer, for good reasons, the interpretations that pay more rather than less attention to the peculiar features of the original iteration. If we’re interpreting the “to be or not to be speech,” we prefer the written interpretation that it’s a meditation about suicide over the written interpretation that it’s a screed against Tudor rule. Why? Because the objective textual features of the speech contains language that is more associatively relevant to the terms of the former interpretation than to the terms of the latter. The network of linguistic associations produced by the speech seems to have more points of contact with the network of linguistic associations produced by the text that articulates the suicide interpretation than with the text that produces the Tudor interpretation.

Now: does this mean that we will never encounter another written interpretation that will seem to have even more, and more relevant, points of contact with the original speech? Maybe, maybe not. Is the measure of a “point of contact” a purely objective one that is beyond debate? Probably not. You have to simply get used to the fact that there is no “meaning” God that could ever “fix” or “finally answer” those subtle local questions about whether this or that iteration is more “relevant” to the original text. But that doesn’t mean we can’t see the difference between that which is very relevant and that which is hardly relevant at all.


Brian 04.22.06 at 12:39 pm

By the way: As an addendum to the above, it is important to note that despite the fact that these arguments about intention and meaning are always the arguments that the anti-Derrideans dwell upon, they really have little to do with what Derrida actually writes about.

Derrida writes, for instance, on the concept of “spirit” from Aristotle to Heidegger, the concept of “place” from Plato to Husserl; he writes about Freud’s theories of how experience “imprints” itself on what Freud conceives as the smooth surface of brain matter; he famously argues against Saussurean linguistics (a fact apparently unknown to the poster above who claims Derrida agreed with Saussure!); he writes, perhaps most famously, about the history of the “speech” vs. “writing” distinction in philosophy. He writes about a whole array of subjects as they appear in dozens and dozens of influential philosophers since the Greeks. This is the case despite the repeated assertion of those who don’t actually read the books they like to hold forth about — including, say, the obituary writers at the New York Times! — that Derrida forwards no ideas except to say that reality isn’t real and that truth and meaning doesn’t exist! Of these latter “subjects,” I think it would surprise a lot of people to learn that Derrida has never even addressed such bizzare ideas…


Seth Edenbaum 04.22.06 at 1:06 pm

This whole thing reminds me of debates over constitutional interpretation. Scalia will argue that the constitution is dead and all you have to do to refute him is to point to the argument that he’s in the middle of. If we’re arguing about something, then the argument itself is part of the defintion of the thing.
What’s the form of mathematical argument?

That Donald Davidson could be so caught up in self-supporting abstraction that he could make the argument he did amazes me. It’s like constructing a perfect mathematical logic that can’t accomidate fractions. And this is supposed to model the world?
Is there any justification for such stupidity? Perhaps that things should be neat, rather than sloppy. He should talk to Nino.

“Baroque Specialization: Opus Dei, Scholasticism and Constitutional interpretation.” coming next month in First Things.
go read a novel.
I’m reading Elizabeth Bishop.



KC Sheehan 04.22.06 at 2:06 pm

Brian #106:

There is only one way that meaning has ever been fixed: in an “explanatory” iteration that is subsequent to the iteration under question. [. . .] If I say something and somebody asks, “what do you mean?” I help clarify the matter by offering another, different iteration. If nobody asks for clarification of an iteration, then we leave that iteration alone and there exists no question of its “meaning.” “Meaning,” in fact, has no existence outside of this scenario: where one iteration is put “into question” by another.

If you happen to be satisfied with a given answer to your question “what does that mean?”, and nobody raises any other objectives, then, great, knock yourself out and call that answer the “fixed meaning” of the original statement.

The question “what do you mean?” is not the same as “what does that mean”. “What do you mean?” seeks something like the author’s intent, which does not exhaust the possible meanings of any statement. The problems posed by repeating the question in response to each clarifying iteration, understood as “what do you mean by that?” are in part those of iterability–to “mean,” at all a signifier must already be associated with a recognized meaning before I use it for my own, so I have only limited control over what my words mean to you (or to me)–and in part those of the inaccessibility to me of the full spectrum of my own conscious, subconscious and unconscious “intent”. But those problems arise within a predefined task: to determine which of the possible meanings of my statement is the one I want you to receive.

Derrida is more often concerned with a second problem, that of determining what a text means when when “I” am not there to dictate rules for interpreting what “I” meant to say. Then the question is “what does that mean,” with no pre-agreed norm for identifying a correct answer. Without such a norm, the series of repeated questions results in the proliferation of meanings, not clarification narrowing meaning to an original intent. The problem is not the lack of meaning outside the text, it is the overabundance of meanings and sources of meaning with no way internal to the text itself to anchor it to any particular interpretation. “Fixing” the meaning can only be done by ruling out other possible meanings, but doing so requires application of a rule based not in meaning but in power or policy.

Clark #107:

Brian, it might be better to simply say Derrida argues against reifying meanings.

and Brian #108:

Clark— yes: against reifying meanings, if by that you mean against anything that would imply the existence of a regime beyond that of the signifier. Again, to use the Saussurean terms that Derrida is working against, zdenek wants there to be a world of “signifieds” beyond iteration. Your basic Platonism, really…

It is not so much the existence of a regime beyond the signifier as the ability to rely on that regime to guarantee that a particular meaning is the correct one that is in question. Derrida shows over and over that texts support multiple, even contradictory readings. The “correct” meaning is determined by our use of the text: the reader does not impose meaning on the text but the reader does impose a rule for selecting among meanings based on the reader’s purpose in reading it. Deconstruction is an effort to read a text without a purpose.

This is the problem that drives much of Derrida’s later work after “Force of Law”–the ethical effort to welcome, remain open to all possible meanings, the impossibility of doing so, and the need to take responsibility for the choice to exclude some meaning when it must be made.


john c. halasz 04.22.06 at 4:10 pm


I’m not terribly familiar with Derrida, nor a big fan. (I’m more familiar with Heidegger and tend toward Wittgenstein). But it seems to me that what you are failing or refusing to grasp is that Derrida is not doing what you think philosophy should be doing, namely, to provide a foundation for rational normativity by means of careful logical argument,- (leaving aside that norms are a matter of enactment or application, such that having a theory of norms might be rather beside the point),- but something altogether different, whereby he does not have any affirmative philosophical “positions”, such as you wish to ascribe to him, (although he does pretty clearly hold the negative position that a logical foundation for normativity is not possible or a fulfillable project, nor an adequate conception of rationality, its scope, and its stakes). It’s doubtful that Derrida has or seeks to provide any theory of meaning or of the meaning of meaning. It also seems that to do what he does, he must presuppose at least some minimal intelligibility of meaning and does not necessarily deny semantic meaning, only the idealization of such meaning. Whatever else “deconstruction” might be, it is clearly parasitical on the text/position it interpretes/analyses. The close scrutiny of the text in its own terms to uncover its “hidden” inconsistencies aims to bring to light the unacknowledged presuppositions and blindspots entailed in the closure of establishing or projecting a “logocentric” position. The point is decidedly not the logic and rationality are reducible to rhetoric and the “play” of words. (Derrida does not so much “play” with words, but rather with aporias, such as, e.g. idealism vs. materialism, which is why his work seems so caught up in aporetic oscillations. Wittgenstein, by contrast, sought to dissolve aporias. He actually once said,” Enough with this transcentental twaddle, when everything is really as plain as a sock in the jaw”.) The claim the Derrida repeatedly makes rather is that any philosophical position contructed through the logical deployment of concepts will “secretly” and inevitably rely on rhetorical “strategies” that fill in its gaps and constitute its interiority and self-presence, the completeness and closure that render it, as it were, persuasive to itself. And those rhetorical moves will involve, in particular, the binary opposition and hierarchical subordination of concepts. In tracing out the rhetorical moves in the text and arriving at points of “undecidability”, of an unmastered and disavowed excess of meaning in the text that contradicts its ostensible claims, the point is not to simply invert the hierarchy or undo the opposition and thereby to proclaim one’s “liberation” from “logocentric” reason. Rather the point is that it is the rhetorical “supplement” itself that renders possible (“quasi-transcendentally”) the operations and self-regulations of the philosophical text/position, that render it successful. Hence after drawing out the rhetorical implications of the text, the next step in deconstructing it is to draw out the logical implications of that rhetoric. (That is presumably what you identify as bad argument, since the implications seem perverse, especially when “measured” against the self-mastering intentions of the author, but it’s really a parodic mode of criticism, based on a radicalized conception of mimesis that goes back, I think, to Nietzsche.)

The Saussurean notion of the sign, (which I’m no fan of), and its materiality is really not all that central to what Derrida is doing rather than something that was current in his initial environment. Its main function, I think, is to bring out the specificity of the contexts in which meaning is always deployed, just as his tremendously extended notion of the “text”, which has no “outside”, is making the point that any text is not an autonomous, self-constituting “object” that disposes sovereignly over the interiority of its meaning, but rather is always already something in the world. That is, Derrida is trying to get at and highlight the “external” pressures that any thinking/writing is subject to, which inflects and infects its “meaning”. But Derrida clearly can not be an “eliminationist” with respect to “meaning”, since that would render his whole project absolutely nonsensical, not just incoherent. Rather his basic point about the iterability of signs is that there can be no final and complete meaning, since other meaning will always be possible. Far from eliminating meaning, Derrida’s point is that there will always be an uneliminable excess in meaning, which can never be gathered together into the self-present interiority and closure of a philosophical system. To the contrary, “logocentric” or foundational philosophical reason, he claims, is itself founded upon this excess, such that it will always be founded and founder on something unthinkable that “grounds” thought, (e.g. Aristotle’s god as pure actuality in thought thinking itself, the final end of the cosmos, or Kant’s pure rational will which always wills itself). Further, it will always “complete” itself through appealing dogmatically to something that (dis)appears outside of its framework and the field of vision and conception that it allows, (such as “God” or “a complete theory of mind”). Derrida is concerned not so much with the history as the historicity of philosophy, (which would also involve its differentiation/delimitation from other formal-rational discourses, which is also its relation to them), and that historicity is always something embedded in and mediated by the world, not something purely autonomous and immanent. Hence the emphasis on the iterability and difference of signs is a focus on the differentiation, redifferentiation, and transformation of meanings/categories, since obviously meanings/categories do, in fact, change historically, (in ways which can’t be captured by an appeal to a timeless logical normativity), and, still more to the point, they are what “give” us the things of the world, in the sense that they render their perceptibility, intelligibility and recognizability possible, (not least, how human beings are recognizable to each other). And, of course, if they permit us to “see” things and distinguish them from each other, just as well, they might blind us to things, to the possibilities of seeing things otherwise. The upshot is that the process by which human beings are delivered up to the world and the things of the world are delivered up to them and the changes in it, as registered in categorial meanings, does not have a center and can not be metaphysically controlled for and mastered.

But the famously proclaimed absence of any center is not really the main point that Derrida is making. Rather, though there is no ultimate center, the desire for a center is inevitable, and thus “necessary”; in other words, the centering of our thinking is a necessary illusion, which renders it possible, a transcendental illusion. Which is why logocentric reason can not simply be done away with, but, so Derrida would seem to claim, can only be deconstructed endlessly from within. Derrida here is clearly in line with the progressive critique of metaphysics initiated by Kant, which, I think, has been the main line of post-Kantian continental philosophy since. (Since the dominant British tradition of logical empiricism sees itself as non-metaphysical, its adherents see themselves as immune from such criticism. But the continentals tend to detect the traits and traces of metaphysics there nonetheless, which accounts for the heatedness of the dispute. The exemplary case here would perhaps be that of the tense relation between Wittgenstein and the surrounding Analytics, since I see Wittgenstein as very much tied to the Kantian line of descent.) Derrida, in his later years, always insisted that he fully respected the standards, canons and logical rigor of philosophical rationality and that his work was aligned with the continuation of the Enlightenment tradition, and was not some sort of irrationalistic/nihilistic abandonment of reason. I think you can see something of what he was getting at, if you see his work as concerned with the relations and tensions between inclusion and exclusion underlying the workings of rational discourses, since there can be no completely inclusive disourse, open to all, nor are the boundaries, relations and applicabilities of rational discourses set once and for all. In that light what his mode of criticism is aimed at is, not crudely the deployment of rationality as a means of oppression, but the defensive (self-)repressions of rationality in the face of its exposure to and complicity with the world. Derrida’s work seems to be very much the opposite of Habermas’ conception of communicative rationality, with its formal-procedural “discourse ethics”, heavily indebted to Analytic philosophy, and obsessed with securing the “transparency” required for rational consensus, for political reasons. But perhaps, in its very rebarbativeness to communication, it amounts to the obverse side of the same aspirations, if not quite the same project. You might not like Derrida’s work, finding it irritating, tedious, noxious, polemically over-aggressive, obscurantistic, and/or overblown, but to simply dismiss it as irrational and/or incompetent is to simultaneously miss and make his point entirely.


zdenek 04.23.06 at 4:06 am

$115– brian your reaction to my talk of ‘intentions’ seems to involve :
(1) thinking that intentions require dualism and since dualism is false, a such commitment is useless if one wants to explain meaning.


(2) even if one takes physicalist approach ( in other words mental is physical ) intentions are too obscure and hence once again such notions are useless to unpacking meaning.

I would say that #1 is false : see how much work there has been done in past 30 years and none of it involves taking dualism seriously.
# 2 strikes me as implausible because you are essentially saying that we can know a priori that current work which tries to naturalise intentions and intentionality of the mental must be false ( as I said you are saing that we can know this apriori ). This is wildly implausible once again see work by Dretske, Block , Devitt, Stich , Dennett , Fodor and others.

So you dont seem to have good philosophical reasons to reject my position and your rejection seems to be ideological.


zdenek 04.23.06 at 4:58 am

# 115–
Brian to try to make sense of our practice of distinguishing bad interpretations from good once *only8 in terms of contextual considerations will obviosly not do . To see this suppose I use opportunity to make a speech at the wedding to make a political statement completely on the spur of the moment and I am not particularly politically active ; completely at odds with my useal behaviour.

And most important I disguise my political statement in such a way that I do not offend the guests. I dont tell anyone about my intention to do that nor does the introduction mention what I am about to do . The context is completely wedding.

Is my attack on the war in Iraq to be interpreted as my making remarks about the groom etc. ? Why because the context supports that interpretation best ? Yes it does but on this occasion it leads astray . The point I want to make is that you cannot make this distinction without bringing in speaker’s meaning which in this case grounds the claim that the interpretation which invokes speaker’s meaning is the correct interpretation.

Ps the point is not that reiteration is irrelevant or that context is irrelevant that would be too strong . I am making a weaker claim viz. that reiteration is not sufficient condition.


Tim 04.23.06 at 5:33 am

“The point I want to make is that you cannot make this distinction without bringing in speaker’s meaning which in this case grounds the claim that the interpretation which invokes speaker’s meaning is the correct interpretation.”

But this seems to invoke a completely mystical sort of intention. If your “political statement” makes no reference to any context of political terms, in what sense can it be said to be a political statement at all?


zdenek 04.23.06 at 5:46 am

John C Halasz– look if Derrida holds a view about how rationality cannot have a foundation and so on then this is a specific philosophical position. If he is a real philosopher as opposed to some sort of guru then he has to defend his position and he should do so in intelligible way.

You seem to think that all that a philosopher needs to do is to make few remarks on a topic like ‘meaning’ or ‘rationality’ and then he can just sit back .

It doesnt work like that, philosophy is not literature we do not rest content with figuring out what someone says because that is on its own irrelevant. We want to know whether some account of something like knowledge or justice is true ( i.e. can be defended; argument is a proxy for testing hypotheses ); whether our understanding of those concepts is deepened.

So thanks for your insightful exposition of Derrida’s views but I want to know why people think they are true ( I mean how well they can stand up to philosophical scrutiny ).


zdenek 04.23.06 at 6:01 am

Tim — I tell a story that can be read as just an amusing story but it can be also read as a criticism of the war . The context of the wedding will support the ‘just an amusing story ‘ interpretation but I do not want it to be understood that way . I intend that my audience understands the intention that it understands the story as a critique and not just a story . ( this intention that the story be understood in a specific way is what conffers meaning on the story and this is what the correct interepretation must capture )
Caveat context does provide constraint and so does sentence meaning but it constraints only )


Seth Edenbaum 04.23.06 at 11:10 am

Jason Stanley in comments on his post at Leiter:
“…even for those philosophers who hoped for broader impact (e.g. Descartes), I would claim that the philosophical impact of their work on subsequent generations of philosophers (and the evaluation of its quality) is independent of its original reception and intent.”
Outside of the hard sciences knowledge is historicized.
Dream on z.

And the only dualism in question is the dualism of knowledge as rationality and awareness as sense perception (and conditioned response). Qualia are the manifestations as shadows of the conflict between two mechanisms.


john c. halasz 04.23.06 at 1:42 pm


So there is singular, unified, timeless, complete, and final truth? And it is to be arrived at solely through logical argument? (What of evidence, experience- a point that has already been raised above? But is experience itself unconditioned, unmediated, unquestionable?) But if a logical argument is to be true and not just valid, its premises must be true. Is there a logically self-enclosed space of reasons wherein all premises can be found or derived? (If you refer back to Aristotle, “archai”, first principles or grounds, even and especially in “first philosophy”, could only be derived from dialectical syllogisms, “wherein the premises are merely probable”, rather than from analytic syllogisms, “wherein the premises are certain”.) These are precisely metaphysical beliefs, of the kind Derrida is contesting,- (and not just Derrida),- and it seems to me that if there really were an ultimate logical foundation, which predetermines, derives and justifies all knowledge, experience and normativity, the burden of proof does not fall on Derrida. But if there is not, then philosophy becomes a plural space in which quite different, perhaps incomensurable, projects, with differing aims and styles can be pursued. It’s true that Derrida “attacks” rather than “defends”, but, as I sought to make plain, he is recognizably focused on the philosophical question of premises and presuppositions and, in particular, the implicit, “hidden” presuppositions that subtend explicitly raise premises. It seems to me that if you want to criticize or “attack” Derrida’s arguments, or, perhaps better, what he is doing, you would need to make the effort to adequately interpret them, rather than simply dismissing them as defective solely on the grounds of their style of presentation or their contrary aims. (You might take note of the fact that Derrida’s work is partly rooted in the phenomenological tradition of continental philosophy, wherein “arguments” took the form of careful descriptions of expereince, though he began his career by severely criticizing Husserl’s notions of self-evidence and presuppositionless science.) In fact, the whole line of attack that you’ve been pursuing here, concerning iteration, context and intentionality, is itself a bit of a red herring, since Derrida is overwhelmingly concerned with issue of textuality and writing and their reading and interpretation, wherein the presence of a controlling, animating intention precisely can not be taken for granted.

No, philosophy is not literature,- (Derrida clearly and emphatically does not think so),- but it’s not science either. The universal laws of physics are perhaps not the best model for doing philosophy. (They are not even a good model for doing biology). I wouldn’t simply disparage Anaytic philosophy as a whole, (though, since the title of this thread mentioned “baroque specialization, the whole argument with Derrida has a “pot calling the kettle black” quality to it.) But it seems to me that much of it is taken up with a fairly traditional project of ontological naturalism/epistemological representationalism, or, in other words, with the elaboration of a systematically complete or consistent naturalism, and I fail to see why that project should be obligatory or the exclusively legitimate philosophical project. (I, for one, do not agree with it, since I am an inconsistent naturalist). But if you do not like the notion of a pluralistic philosophy, could you please provide me with some guarantee that we do not live in a plural universe. After all, philosophy must preserve some connection with the living and the meaning(s) of living and not just concern the attainment of timeless truth, else it ceases to exist in its very attainment.

I tried to explain that, on Derrida’s account, traditional philosophical thinking produces and runs up against unthinkable cruxes, philosopher’s stones, if you will, which are self-stultifiying and narrow and cripple the possibilities of further thinking; in a word, more is put into them that can be got out of them. Others here have spoken of Derrida criticizing the “reification of meaning”. It seems to me that in your insistence on “defending” the truth and the strict form of logical argument as its sole means of access, you are running the risk of doing the same.

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