Derrida and the Metaphysics of Reading Over Books
Funny enough, letters are undefinable: we cannot define a letter, only recognize a sound. Until letters come together into words, no meaning can be located: the gap between the “signifier” and the “signified” doesn’t appear. This “gap” is what Derrida believed metaphysics constructed its home in, and if the “gap” could be deconstructed, metaphysics in general could be deconstructed too. Derrida successfully argued that signifiers eternally “defer” the signified, that the signified is never arrived at; thus, metaphysics never “captures” its subjects or reaches its goals. Since this was the case, Derrida believed metaphysics was basically meaningless. But I believe Derrida only deconstructed “the metaphysics of the book,” which is the metaphysics of “gaps” and Platonism: I do not think Derrida deconstructed “the metaphysics of reading,” which is the metaphysics of “meaning” and Aristotle. Now, I have come to adjust my views on Plato, and I no longer see Plato’s work as necessarily supporting the finding of capital-P-“Perfections.” My thoughts on “forms” in Plato are found in “Geometry, Astronomy, and Platonic Forms As Ordering Principles,” but at the same time I do think Platonism is traditionally a pursuit of “perfect forms,” and so this in mind, I will discuss in this essay “Platonism” more than Plato. I hesitate to apply my thinking to Plato himself and ask readers forgive me if I create that impression.
According to Derrida, unwilling to accept “the in-completability of philosophical gaps,” philosophers constantly hid their philosophies in books while paradoxically privileging the spoken word, claiming that the truth of their ideas could never be captured in writing. And yet when philosophers were asked to explain their ideas, they wrote books, books which the philosophers then claimed couldn’t fully explain their ideas. Derrida was right to find all this suspicious, and Derrida convincingly argued that many philosophical systems could be pulled apart with a little tug on a key idea that — though presenting itself as self-evident and unassailable — quickly proved weak and powerless. No, it wasn’t always easy to find these “unassailable weak points,” for they blended in with the text and acted as innocent and unassuming as all the other included sentences, but Derrida held the conviction that, more often than not, the “weak points” had to be present. Philosophers hid them in the books and footnotes they claimed never did their philosophies justice, perhaps believing they could always claim, if the weak points were found, that the medium of books themselves were to blame. But Derrida knew better: philosophers were simply fleeing from the problem of “essential incompleteness,” and Derrida wouldn’t let them run. He’d wanted them to face the problem, and when he did, by deconstructing the “gaps” which the “weak points” of books tended to conceal, Derrida deconstructed the systems of philosophers right in front of their eyes. The act of finding “weak points” and deconstructing “gaps” was part of the same project for Derrida, and arguably it is still the project of deconstructionists today.
A fan of Gödel, I can’t disagree with Derrida on the point that philosophical systems must always entail “essential incompleteness,” but I wouldn’t be so quick to say that an “incomplete system” must be “entirely wrong.” Still, leaving that point aside for now (until “(Re)construction” by O.G. Rose), I would also say that Derrida is right about the classic move of philosophers to hide “weak points” in books (notably footnotes). Furthermore, I appreciate how Derrida deconstructs “Platonic gaps,” but I think Derrida overestimates what his project accomplished. Sure, Platonic metaphysics may no longer be with us (as popularly understood), but as long as we are able to read, Aristotle shall remain alive. Why? Well, an investigation of typography instead of grammatology may help explain the case, an investigation I would have never undertook without Thomas Jockin. This paper, which incorporates typography, exists thanks to him.
Derrida named his most famous book On Grammatology, and the word “grammatology” basically means “the study of writing.” Derrida argues that metaphysics is often structured like writing (even while philosophers disown writing), and this contributes to metaphysics centering on “gaps” like the gap between words and what they mean (signifiers and the signified). Consider the philosophy of Kant, which draws a distinction between “things” and “things in themselves,” or Platonism which stresses “our world” versus “the world of forms” — both of these philosophies orbit primarily around a kind of “divide,” and it is this “gap” which Derrida believes defined Western metaphysics. For Derrida, if the “gaps” could be delegitimated, the entire project of metaphysics could be taken out with it. But Derrida should have explored a little further, for though “grammatology” can indeed be used to deconstruct Platonism and systems erected upon “ontological gaps,” “typography” can be used to justify Aristotle.
To explain what I mean, let us ask ourselves: Can we find meaning in a misspelled word? Depends on how misspelled the word is, correct? What about a random jumbling of letters? Or a word put in a strange and unreadable font? Probably not, but this suggests that in order for us to find meaning in a word (thereby creating a “gap” between a signifier and the signified), there are certain conditions that first have to be met, and it’s also the case that how well these conditions are met will impact our ability to read (as elaborated on in the paper “Notes Toward Conditionalism” by O.G. Rose). The “gap” appears after the letters are readable: the ink can’t be too splotchy; the letters have to be rightly spaced; the language the letters are in must be a language we recognize; and so on. If the elements and “parts” don’t come together correctly, we won’t read the words, and no “gap” will emerge.
Hence, an incredibly fast and instantaneous “act of judgment” (or evaluation) occurs which “opens up” the ontological “gap” which concerns Derrida, and I believe it is from out of this evaluation which Aristotle’s metaphysical system emerges. Platonic metaphysics, however, arises out of “the gap” which the Aristotelian “act of judgment” creates, and Platonic metaphysics tries to explain that “gap,” but Platonic thinking doesn’t explain the initial “act of judgment” (it skips over it, in a hurry to examine the “gap”). Furthermore, since “philosophies of the gap” don’t explain the evaluations which generate the gaps, in Derrida showing those philosophies lacking, he doesn’t show Aristotle lacking (or any metaphysics primarily constructed on Aristotle). Ultimately, what this means is that even if Derrida proved that metaphysics seeking to explain “gaps” always ultimately failed (doomed to perpetually “defer” their conclusions and subjects), it didn’t follow that Derrida proved misguided the metaphysics which tried to explain the initial “act of judgment.” Better yet, there’s even reason to say that there’s still imperative for Aristotelian metaphysics, not mere permission to let the systems keep minding their own business.¹
Letter combinations influence our ability to derive meaning: consider the experiential differences between “e, d,” “edqgg,” and “egg” — notice how meaning suddenly and instantly appears when the letters fall into “a right/recognizable order” (a certain condition). We learn from typography that very slight changes in the formation, size, etc. of letters can radically impact our ability to read them and find meaning. Thomas Jockin is outstanding on this topic, and please check out his work for more.
Consider these examples:
The main word doesn’t change, but based on the size, spacing, and font of the letters, our ability to (quickly) determine/judge the meaning of the word changes. Hence, it’s not enough just to have all the right letters in the right order: presentation and “precision” (of form) matters when it comes to deriving meaning. Yes, presentation and precision entail a certain level of relativity (for we have to ask, “Precise relative to who?”), but the overall point stands: meaning is relative to what we can “read,” and what we can read is relative to the presentation of what we try to read. If certain elements and conditions don’t come together “in the right way,” we won’t be able to derive meaning from those elements and their summation(s). Similarly, for Aristotle, if form, essence, and substance don’t “come together in the right way,” we cannot “meaningfully” recognize/read a thing. Considering this, the logic outlined here on typography can apply to our ability to derive and/or “read” meaning as a whole (which suggests that, as Derrida used grammatology, typography could provide us with clues on how best to approach metaphysics and ontology).²
Let’s approach the problem from another angle: Imagine we saw a giant blob of black paint. Pretty meaningless, right? But imagine we picked up an eraser and gradually erased away the blob. Suddenly the letter “f” appeared, and we could start hearing a sound in our heads that we recognized. And if we then erased more, and “erased out” the shapes “r,” “o,” and “g.” We could suddenly experience meaning: “frog.” In one sense, the word “frog” was potentially in the black blob the whole time, and yet it wasn’t until the blob was “rightly shaped” that we could arrive at a word and corresponding meaning. In other words, because the blob wasn’t precise enough in its form(ation), even if “frog” was always in it (and in a sense, it was), we couldn’t derive that meaning from the blob.
Meaning is a matter of precision between concreteness and abstraction. The letter “f” is radically concrete — it’s just a sound — and yet it’s ultimately meaningless. At the same time, a black blob of ink is also meaningless, but more so because it’s abstract (there are no clear signals of what we’re supposed to “get” from the ink blob). If we are to experience meaning, a formal balance must be struck between “f” and a black ink blob: we must do the work of “erasing out” letters that, combined with “f,” generate a word. Which, do note, means we can’t “erase out” just any letters, but must focus on “realizing” particular letters that can be “ordered rightly” relative to me. Though letters are needed for words, just any letters in any order won’t do: a “right balance” must be struck.
Likewise, though according to Aristotle a thing needs both “essence” and “form” to be meaningfully identified, it’s not the case that just “any form” will suit. If I am to understand “a particular chair,” for example, I need the form or idea “of a chair,” not the idea of a bird or a car: again, it’s not the case that just any “form” will work. The right forms must be “lined up” with the right essences, as the right essences must be “lined up” with the right substances, and so on (to put it simply: particularities, generalities, and ideas must all be “rightly ordered”).³ If this is the case, despite Derrida, we are justified to explore the metaphysics which asks, “How do we determine what we should ‘line up?’ ” Likewise, metaphysics are justified that ask, “How do we judge and ‘line up’ at all?”⁴
But couldn’t I decide that “atacgt” signifies “the thing-cat,” which would mean that henceforth the experience of “atacgt” would open the “gap” which Derrida deconstructed? Yes, as it would be the case that if I was Chinese instead of American, the “marks on paper” that I would judge as meaning this or that would shift. But the fact that what is “the right balance” to me to experience “the meaning cat,” for example, would not mean “right balances” in general are ultimately an illusion or nonexistent. I personal cannot judge 猫 to mean “cat,” so relative to me, 猫 does not strike “the right balance” (even if it might relative to a Chinese person). The fact that there are different languages and the possibility of creating new words out of random letter assortments doesn’t negate the reality of the judgment from which meaning is derived. That judgment is universal even if the subjects of that judgment change, and it is on that “universal experience” that Aristotelian metaphysics is grounded to survive Derrida.
As balances must be struck in typography for words to arise out of which we can derive meaning, so the same logic applies ontologically regarding our relation with “being” and “lack” (as discussed in “Lacks Are Not Nothing” by O.G. Rose). Where there is too much being, it overwhelms us and feels like “a giant blob of things,” but if there is “too much lack,” it can become “like nothing.” If there is to be any meaning, in terms of typography, a balance must be struck between ink and the space between/around/etc. the ink, per se, in the same way that a balance must be struck between “being” and “nothing/lack.” As discussed in “On Thinking and Perceiving” by O.G. Rose, if thinking is what “divides” and “splits apart” being into terms we can understand, then thinking is needed for us to find meaning. Thinking creates “lacks” relative to what we perceive, and it is because of these “lacks” that we can find meaning. If there were no “lacks,” only nothing, then there would be nothing to divide being up, and being would be “one.” There’s a poetry and wonder to this, but when “the oneness of perception” is out of balance with thinking, that “oneness” becomes meaningless. Practically, it becomes like a giant blob of black paint. But if all that’s the case, “meaningful oneness” would be ultimately impossible. Indeed, but “meaningless oneness” can still play a crucial role in a dialectical relationship with “divisive thinking,” but what is meant by that will have to be expanded on in “The Dialectic Between ‘Meaningful Memories’ and ‘Pure Experiences’ ” by O.G. Rose.
Typography teaches us that we need to find a “balance” between the ink that makes up letters and the spaces around those letters, as typography teaches us that the “presentation” of the letters also matters. Similarly, a balance between essence, substance, and/or form is needed in Aristotle, and we can also conclude, based on daily experience itself, that balances must be struck between being and “lack” (we cannot look at a bookcase and handle experiencing “all of it,” all at once, for example — it would overwhelm us, which in turn would mean the experience was meaningless, practically like a giant blob of black paint). To allude to Cadell Last’s work on “the mind as absence” (as will be discussed), we likewise couldn’t handle looking at a person and experiencing their entire minds: the absence of the mind is what makes it possible for us to handle a person’s presence.
If being had nothing to do with nothing, “lacks” wouldn’t exist, only being and nothing, which would mean that only being existed. This would mean that our lives would practically take place within and according to “a giant blob of paint,” per se, a “pure perception” that we could never translate into meaningful terms (for that would require thinking, which would create “lacks”). Since this is the not the case, we can assume that being and nothing are always relating, which means that nothing is always actually (a) “lack(ing).” Similarly, if there was “no nothing” on a piece of paper, we couldn’t write any words: there would just be a “giant black blob,” per se. We can write because “nothing exists,” per se, and it appears “around” the letters we draw, which means the nothing exists in a relationship to the letter (the presence), which means the “nothing isn’t nothing” — it’s (a) “lack(ing).”⁵ All nothings that are “meaningfully there” are actually “lacks” (a “conditional nothing”), and what we could say is that while Derrida deconstructed metaphysics that took place “in trying to cross those lacks,” he missed metaphysical systems that centered around the initial act of writing and creating the “presence/lack” relationship in the first place. To erase the “opening” does not erase the pen.
Derrida was right to point out that there is a difference between how we relate to “speech” and “text,” and Derrida was also right to note that text can be a way that philosophers hide the incompleteness of their systems. But if philosophers really wanted to hide the incompleteness of their works, they would use an unreadable font, and yet philosophers haven’t gone that far, (perhaps subconsciously) aware that this would make it “too obvious” that they were trying to hide something in what they “(un)veiled.” Yes, I’m being tongue and cheek, but I think this comic point hints that Derrida missed something: for philosophers to successfully “(un)veil,” an effective balance must be struck between “hiding” and “concealing” in such a way that their work still proves comprehendible. This might seem like an obvious point, but it has implications for Derrida’s effort to finish off metaphysics.
Philosophers are like cooks: they must mix the right ingredients in “the right proportions” to get the right flavors. There is no hard formula for a new recipe: it’s more a result of intuition than a clear plan. Similarly, if philosophers are to do what Derrida accuses them of, they must find that right mixture of text that’s easy to read with text that’s perplexing, text that’s profound with text that’s perhaps too simplistic — the recipe isn’t easy to formalize. Regardless, the point is that philosophers are not merely in the business of hiding, as a cook is not merely in the business of sweetening or frying. Something more complex is going on.
If philosophers indeed are to hide the incompleteness of their models just like Derrida claimed, they can’t simply do it by making their work unreadable. Instead, philosophers must make their work readable while burying the weak points, but these weak points must still be readable. It must be the case that when we encounter the weak points, we can basically read the points just as well as any other sentences in the work, for otherwise “the weak points” would “stand out” and draw our suspicion. The weak points must “hide in the open,” per se. Derrida discussed the tendency of signifiers to “hide” the gap between them and the signified, and Derrida drew a parallel between this and the act of philosophers to “hide” the weak points of their systems in books (while those same philosophers downplayed writing). There’s perhaps validity to this, but we should also focus on typography and draw parallels between the need for “the right balance” of letters, form, spacing, etc. to be struct (in order to make meaning possible) with the need of thinkers to strike “the right mix” of hiding and unveiling to keep “weak points” unnoticed.
If the weak points of philosophies weren’t present at all — if they were “nothing,” per se — they couldn’t provide “an appearance” of holding the work together, and thus we would realize the work in fact didn’t hold together and deconstruct it. Instead, the weak points must be “present” in the text, which means philosophers must take risks, risks they then “(un)veil” in a manner that helps the risks work out in their favor. What Derrida wanted us to do was recognize, while reading, when something was “lacking” from a presence, which basically means that we should notice when a sentence, paragraph, etc. tries to “pass off” an explanation or “meaning” that would be unveiled was “lacking” upon examination (because the assumptions were too great, because the terms were ill-defined, etc.). If we found these weak points, which Derrida believed were present more often than not, we could find reason to doubt an entire philosophical system, and this sometimes increased justice and helped the marginalized, seeing as systems can oppress one group in favor of another. In this way, justice and Derrida can be associated, just as James K.A. Smith has pointed out.
Derrida believed that metaphysics primarily grounded and justified itself on the divide between “the signifier” and “the signified”; similarly, Derrida showed how philosophers often created “gaps” in their texts between “presence” and “lack” to hold together systems that otherwise would have to “make present” their incompleteness and thus unveil themselves as “incomplete” (and/or possibly even failures). There is an interesting repetition in structure and form between the “ontological gap” in which philosophers can construct their systems and in the way philosophers can hide the “incompleteness” of those very systems in writing (the methods of concealment and “(gap) opening” are similar). Derrida seems to have believed that by describing both of these activities, he could shed light on the problematic ways that metaphysics managed to keep itself “on life support” for so long, simultaneously providing reasons why we should pull the plug.
But this brings us back to Derrida’s main mistake: at least regarding Aristotle, “gaps” are not the main foundation of metaphysics, but it is instead “the act of reading itself.” It is our capacity to make and see meaning when “the right elements come together” in those elements (not in a “gap” between those elements and something else) that demands explanation and requires metaphysics to explain. Yes, some metaphysicians have tried to make their stands in “gaps,” but not all of them: Derrida seems to totalize and go too far.
In my view, Derrida ends up overemphasizing an association between “(un)veiling” and metaphysics: there isn’t enough “balance” in his thought. To recognize, as we can from typography, that “a balance of elements” is the primary source of meaning (whereas the “gap” between “signifier” and “signified” is secondary) suggests that Derrida’s critique only deconstructs metaphysical systems that primarily depend on “gaps,” but his work does not deconstruct metaphysics trying to explain the strange and almost magical moment where meaning “appears,” suddenly and all at once, in those places where “the right balance of elements” is struck. Yes, a metaphysical system that focuses on “the act of reading” could be deconstructed at the point it switches to over-relying on “gaps,” but that would not take out the whole enterprise, only part of it.
To put it another way, Derrida’s critique might deconstruct “the metaphysics of books,” but it would not deconstruct “the metaphysics of reading.” And if this is true, it only further supports the claim that Derrida deconstructs Platonism but not Aristotle. Metaphysics isn’t merely about the “gap” between the signifier and the signified (let alone hiding that “gap”), but a more complex game around how the “striking of a precise balance” of elements causes meaning to appear suddenly and all at once, “as if” it was always there. Aristotle was interested in that strange moment and corresponding “balance” (thus his focus on “essence,” “form,” and “substance”), and so worked to figure out “the right interplay” between the elements to explain ontological realities (and corresponding meaning). This is primarily an investigation of “reading” (not “gaps”), of determining how we see, suddenly and all at once, a “cat” when we look at a certain phenomenon, in the same way we “suddenly and all at once” experience a meaning when we move from “asdfqwe” to “cat” (or cat to c a t to cat).
Yes, when we “read” “cat,” a “gap” opens between “the word ‘cat’ ” and “the-thing cat,” but the gap appears after the act of reading and doesn’t appear unless reading can occur (because there is a “right balance of elements”). This means that even if Derrida is correct that all “ontological gaps” must endlessly defer their subject(s) (and hence no metaphysical system can be complete), this insight alone doesn’t address why metaphysics focused on the question of “how reading works” should be equally disregarded and deconstructed. Even if Derrida is right in his effort to take out Platonic metaphysics, metaphysics remains relevant when it focuses on questions such as:
1. How is “reading’ possible?
2. What is “reading?”
3. What is a “right balance of elements” for x? (And why is that “balance” different than the “balance” for y?)
4. Why is x “a right balance” and not y? (In other words, why is x “readable” and not y?”)
5. Can all animals “read” or just humans?
6. If humans are unique in their capacity to “read,” what is it about us ontologically that makes it possible?”
And so on. Notice how different these questions are from questions which emerge out of a metaphysics of “ontological gaps”:
1. What is the difference between justice and “true justice?”
2. What is the difference between my “idea of a thing” and “the real thing?”
3. How do I know other minds exist?
4. How do I know there is anything on the other side of the “space between” me and others?
5. How do I recognize the truth? (How can I close the “gap” between subjectivity and objectivity?)
And so on. Now, I’m still of the opinion that Platonic metaphysics matter, and I’m not entirely convinced that Derrida successfully did away with Platonic concerns. Still, I think Derrida’s deconstruction of “gaps” entails some validity, and in this work, I’ve mostly talked as if Derrida succeeded. I’ve done this because I wanted to make the point that even if Derrida prevailed, on his own terms, he does not deconstruct Aristotle. Metaphysics is still with us.
Reading can’t occur if “the right balance” of elements isn’t struck, but why does reading require “a precise balance of elements?” Why can’t we “suddenly and all at once” read meaning out of anything? Sure, we can read “adsfwe” and add meaning to it (“it’s the name of my dog”), but that act is something we must think about: it isn’t instantaneous. And yes, theoretically, we could have been born in a different language and require a different set of elements to see “a right balance” that we can understand, but that changes nothing, because what has to be explained is why “the act of reading itself” can occur. The fact it occurs differently between people doesn’t change the mysteriousness of the act itself; in other words, the fact that what is “the right balance of elements” can be culturally conditioned doesn’t change the reality that we require a “right balance” at all (and that we somehow can automatically and instantly recognize that balance when we encounter it). Why and how does this happen? Why does “x arrangement of elements” translate into a balance for me and not y? How do our minds work to make all this possible?
These are the questions which Aristotelian metaphysics is primarily erected around for the sake of solving (which could easily have “physical” solutions), while Platonism is primarily interested in the “gap” between words and things, shadows and ideals. Yes, reading can “open up” that “gap,” but explaining that “gap” is not the primarily interest of Aristotle: the mystery and magic of reading is what interests him, something that feels more “down to earth” (seeing as we are “reading” reality everyday all the time). If Derrida finished off the possibility of a metaphysics that explains “Platonic gaps,” Derrida doesn’t finish off metaphysics that tries to explain “the act of reading.” Not all metaphysics are equal, and even if we have overcome “the metaphysics of gaps,” it often feels to me like “the metaphysics of reading” has hardly begun.
Reading creates “gaps,” and explaining “gaps” does not explain the act of reading which beget them. Even if everything concluded within “gaps” was erroneous, it is possible that “the existence of gaps themselves” (as a unit) could suggest something meaningful and true. Nothing may be able to traverse the space between one side of a “gap” to the other (as Derrida teaches us), but it would not follow from this that “the gap as a whole” or its very existence wouldn’t entail metaphysical consequences we shouldn’t take seriously. The very fact we can make “gaps” that can’t be “traversed” or completed may mean something, even if no definite meaning can be derived “from out of” the “gaps” themselves. No, perhaps nothing definite can be said about “what we read,” but perhaps something definite can be said about “the fact that we read.” Perhaps, in line with Derrida, every act of reading in the history of the world has been a misreading, but the fact that all we’ve ever done is misread would not mean reading never occurred: it would just mean that reading always missed its subject. But “hitting subjects” was seemingly secondary to Aristotle: what concerned him was how we took aim and ever fired at all.
In my view, the very ability of us to create “gaps” through reading has metaphysical consequences and is why metaphysics cannot be done away with as easily as Derrida thought. Yes, if we discuss “reading,” we’ll likely end up with “gaps” we might discuss, but even still Aristotelians tend to discuss “gaps” differently than Platonists. While Platonists tend to discuss judging things in light of their “forms” or even reaching “forms,” Aristotelians tend to discuss how elements like form and substance seem to constantly interplay in a mysterious way we probably can’t ever fully understand (the Aristotelian isn’t particularly interested in filling that “gap”). Rather, the Aristotelian is interested in the reality that “substance,” “form,” and “essence” must coexist if we are to ever (meaningfully) “recognize” a thing as “that thing”; also, the Aristotelian is mystified by how we can (usually successfully) recognize a thing as “that thing” even though we can’t explain how we (seemingly) align form, essence, and substance. The three just overlay, somehow and someway, instantly. How this occurs is not ultimately what really interests the Aristotelian, but that it occurs. What does the reality of this ability to “recognize’ say about us? What must the nature for our reality be if we can recognize a thing as “that thing?”
Platonism gives us “the metaphysics of the book,” while Aristotle gives us “the metaphysics of reading.” Platonism tries to pass judgment, while Aristotle “recognizes.” Platonism wants to argue for the existence of “gaps,” and certainly “gaps” are present in Aristotelian thought (because “reading” cannot help but produce them), but while Platonism then tries to explain how we can close these “gaps” (while even trying to convince us that we morally need to close them), Aristotle isn’t nearly as interested. Instead, Aristotle wants us to focus on the reality that we can “read.”⁶ ⁷ How do we live with this ability? How should politics organize around it? What kind of universe must we live in to contain a creature which can “read?”
In conclusion, Aristotle is the metaphysics of creating the signifier/signified “gap,” while Platonism is the metaphysics of that “gap.” Deconstructing Platonism does not deconstruct Aristotle, for even if every (ontological) “gap” in the cosmos is proven mistaken and unexplainable, it does not follow that the “reading” which produced these “gaps” is an illusion. “Reading” must be explained: if what is “in” (ontological) “gaps” is endlessly deferred, just as Derrida claims, it is still the case that “reading” defers nothing: it “recognizes” right then and there. Aristotle is the metaphysician of “recognition,” a father of phenomenology interested in the miraculous moment we identify “that is a cat,” not the “gap” that follows and that is summed up by the question, “Does my idea of the cat relate to the real cat?” Perhaps we have overlooked this miracle because we start with a word that is spelled rightly (like “cat”) and go from there into wondering to what extent the word captures the thing: it seems we have failed to start with a jumble of letters (like “tca”) that is gradually straightened out into “the right order” (“cat”), which instantly and miraculously causes a “recognition” out of which meaning arises. Generally, philosophy is supposed to be a return to fundamentals, but unsurprisingly, Aristotle explored further than us.
Derrida played a critical role in philosophy, and I have not meant to dim his constructive contributions. Admittedly though, to focus on typography versus grammatology can be seen as an effort to “deconstruct Derrida,” but I want to be clear that I think there is value in Derrida. Deconstruction perhaps ultimately falls apart, but not before doing important work (only God can do everything, after all). Why then did I care to write this paper? Well, after Derrida, I think we have generally lost a feeling of wonder when considering metaphysics, and, in my view, metaphysics has no lifespan if it is not sustained by wonder (which is arguably the birthplace of all philosophy). By refocusing on the miracle of “reading” though, perhaps that wonder can return; perhaps we can feel inspired to consider metaphysics anew.⁸
¹As discussed in “(Re)construction” by O.G. Rose, please note that Aristotelian metaphysics is not bound and forced to remain “mystical” or dependent upon transcendent dimensions: the word “metaphysics” means only “next to the physics section” in a library (much more boring than usually assumed). Hence, Aristotle’s thinking could easily be translated “into physical terms” and not lose any of its potency: a way to look at Aristotle is trying to “trace around” ideas that are likely “next to become physics.” For example, Aristotle argued that something like essence was needed for a thing to be itself, and today we know about DNA. Hence, if Aristotle was alive today, he might easily associate “DNA” and “essence,” but at the time he was alive, all Aristotle could do was argue to a conclusion that “something like” DNA was necessary. Unlike in Platonism, that “thing” didn’t ultimately have to be mystical: physical explanations to Aristotle’s metaphysical questions are completely acceptable. Still, it should be noted that even if essence is the same as DNA, it’s still strange that we’re able to recognize “a thing as that thing” without any knowledge of it’s DNA: even from within a state of scientific ignorance, we can be phenomenologically accurate.
²The way letters are presented and shaped can change our relationship to them. Considering this, though we might associate “abstraction” with thinking in general, it might instead be the way we think that makes something abstract to us. Abstraction might not be a result of the involvement of thinking alone, but instead a result of imprecise thinking, a case laid out more fully in “On the Problem of Saying ‘That’s Abstract’ ” by O.G. Rose.
³Though perhaps “essence” is needed for a thing to be “that particular thing,” without “form,” I won’t have any idea of “that particular thing” to experience it meaningfully.
⁴The answer may ultimately prove biological, neurological, etc., but, as discussed in “(Re)construction” by O.G. Rose, it’s a mistake to think that metaphysical questions can’t entail physical answers.
⁵Nothing, when meaningful, is always undergoing an instantaneous transformation into a “lack,” as if the nothing was never there (and in a sense, it couldn’t have been).
⁶Note that Aristotle’s politics is more interested in leaving people alone to “read what they will”: his polis does not assume a “Philosopher King” can “read across a gap” for everyone what everyone needs or what is teleologically best based on their forms.
⁷Checking to see if I hid a “weak point” in the footnotes? A good follower of Derrida…
⁸I certainly think so, and, focused on the act of recognition, I believe a good place to start is with beauty, as will be explored in The Fate of Beauty.
1. “Gaps” are never exclusive but always accompanied by something; otherwise, they would be nothing.
2. “Aristotle’s Metaphysics: On Substance, Essence, and Substrate” by Johannes A. Niederhauser is a magnificent reflection that I think aligns well with the points expressed in this work. He brought to my attention though the possibility that I am incorrect in my use of the language regarding “essence,” “substance,” and “form,” but even if that is true, I think we align on the overall argument: both of us want to focus on Aristotle in terms of “reading” versus “crossing a gap” to determine some constant and always present substance. Yes, the act of “reading” gives us “reason to think” there is something unchanging and constant but determining what that is can be seen as secondary and optional.
3. As the magnificent Thomas Jockin points out, Aristotle believed language and reality shared a corresponding structure, and similarly thinkers like Frege and Bertrand Russel believed logic and reality shared a correspondence (and that the laws of language were the same as the laws of language, which were the same as the laws of mathematics, and so on). Nominalism is generally a denial of abstract entities, and in this could be seen as disproving the existence of abstract entities, and so it cannot be said that abstractions and reality share two “corresponding structures,” for there is no multiplicity which can correspond. If nominalism is true — and we can consider Derrida a descendent of that line of thought — then the metaphysics of Aristotle are finished.
Or are they? I am not sure if nominalism is true, but if it is, it does seem that Aristotle’s metaphysics could suffer for it. However, though it’s perhaps a “creative misreading,” at most, I think Derrida only takes down “nonessential elements” of Aristotle’s metaphysical system if Aristotle is understood as primarily a phenomenologist. Sure, Aristotle would love to believe that there is a correspondence between the logical necessity for “form” in language with the need for “form” in actually, but even if that does not hold, the fact that we recognize a thing (as itself), that what we experience “unfolds” to us a certain way, that we can ascribe a thing meaning at all — all of this can function as foundations for metaphysics. In sum, I suppose the perhaps controversial point I’m trying to make is that Aristotle can be understood as a phenomenologist, thus avoiding the nominalist debate entirely. If this follow, then Derrida does not deconstruct Aristotle.
4. Metaphysics can be concerned with things so basic that it’s hard to understand, and the language only makes it harder. The hope here is to provide a quick guide to help with key terms: “essence,” “substance,” and “form.” Different thinkers seem to use these terms in different ways, and someone like Aristotle strikes me as using them like similes one moment, only to use them like they are distinct the next. A true scholar of Aristotle could easily perceive distinctions I cannot, but my hope is still to prove a general guide. If it is useless or too incomplete to be of value, please disregard it.
So, for my take on the terms:
Essence is what makes a thing that particular thing. In other words, essence is what makes “that chair.”
Substance is what makes a thing a general thing. In other words, substance is what makes “a chair.”
Form is what makes the idea of a thing, without which the thing would not be intelligible. In other words, form is what makes “that idea of a/that chair.
These terms can be unified in one phenomenon and distinct in another, so there are times when the categories overlap, making them seem identical. Something with essence also has substance and form, and since everything is a particular thing in the world, everything in the world entails all three categories.
A thought experiment might help:
Imagine I am cloned. My clone will have my substance and form, but it will not have my essence. Now imagine my clone tells you that it is a clone; suddenly, the clone will have my substance, but not my form. Thus, my clone never has my essence, has my form contingently, and always has my substance.
And there we go! I hope this helps us get a grip on some famously confusing terms. That said, the brilliant Thomas Jockin pointed out a need for distinctions between “particular” and “individuated,” and also brought to my attention the useful scholastic term “haecceity,” which I encourage readers to investigate. Distinctions should also be made between “primary substances” and “secondary substances,” and in some metaphysical schemas, my clone and I share the same essence while being different primary substances. In my work, “essence” and “primary substance” are used similarly, and that could easily be a mistake. Still, I think the distinctions I laid out are useful (at least somewhat) even if incomplete, and perhaps I should just use the letters A, B, and C to signify the distinctions versus risk using metaphysically rich concepts wrongly. If I’ve erred, I ask for your forgiveness.