SECTION THREE OF A PHILOSOPHY OF GLIMPSES
Why Didn’t Derrida Deconstruct All Metaphysics?
Any effort to establish a “New Metaphysics” will have to defend itself against Derrida, who seems to have deconstructed all metaphysics with his masterpiece On Grammatology. Why I think Derrida failed is elaborated on extensively in “On Typography” and “(Re)construction,” both by O.G. Rose, but here I will present the outline of the case.
1. Derrida deconstructed metaphysical systems which rely on “ontological gaps” but not metaphysics focused on phenomenological experiences of apprehension.
2. Derrida deconstructed metaphysical efforts to say what things are like “in of themselves” (across the noumenon, per se), but Derrida did not deconstruct metaphysical efforts which focus on what things are “like” in their “unfolding.”
3. Derrida deconstructed “metaphysics of judgment” but not “metaphysics of apprehension,” “metaphysics of gaps” but not “metaphysics of reading.”
4. Derrida deconstructed metaphysics which open “gaps” between surfaces and depths, parts and wholes, etc.
Derrida deconstructed “metaphysics of gaps and judgment” but not “metaphysics of experience and apprehension” (in other papers, I say that Derrida deconstructed “the metaphysics of the book” but not “the metaphysics of reading”). By basing a “New Metaphysics” on phenomenology versus (idealistic) systematizing, we can justify engaging in the practice of metaphysics again.
Derrida can be generally seen as deconstructing “ontological gaps,” with a primary focus on the divide between “signifiers” and the “signified” in order to make bigger points about all similar divides (say between “our justice” and “the Platonic form of justice,” our world and what lies across the noumenon, and so on). If there is a divide or “gap,” Derrida deconstructs it.
The opening paragraph from “(Re)construction” by O.G. Rose provides an overview of Derrida’s thinking:
For Derrida, all metaphysics was a ‘metaphysics of presence,’ and ‘any science of presence’ was metaphysics.¹ By “presence,” Derrida means “that which a given sign points to,” and for Derrida most things if not everything was a sign. For books, Derrida argued that there was ‘no authorial presence outside the text, signified by an appended proper name, which [could] absolutely control the text’s meaning’ (and considering this, there was ‘in fact no such thing as a book’, only texts, since ‘all writing […] resists totalization’).² ³ For religion, Derrida argued that God, the ‘possibility of determinate meaning,’ was impossible, or at least God as a being that totalized systems and offered a final interpretation of being that could be known as the interpretation.⁴
There are benefits to this project, no doubt. First, systems and totalization can oppress and exclude minorities, and in resisting them Derrida hopes to increase justice (as I think the work of James K.A. Smith on Derrida highlights well). Also, Derrida thinks certainty can entail a lot of unintended consequences, and I agree with him that we need to resist the temptations of certainty in favor of a more “open” way of life that breeds creativity and dynamism. To continue on Derrida’s project:
A goal of Derrida was to point out that everything is a sign and that each ‘sign’s failure is structurally determined,’ and thus nothing is a sign, for no sign makes “present” to what it “points” (and thus cannot be meaningfully called “a sign”).⁵ Like Kurt Gödel, Derrida was not wrong: all systems (of signs) rely on transcendentals not present in those systems for those systems to be held together (as a totality), and since those transcendentals can never be signs in their systems, the systems aren’t complete and so arguably aren’t really even systems. In Christianity, Christ is a ‘transcendental signified,’ but for the systems of the world, even if Christ exists, Christ cannot enter a house without tearing it down.⁶
In my view, the quickest way to grasp Derrida’s project is to see him as the “Kurt Gödel of philosophy.” That might not be technically correct, but I think it gets the point across. Derrida shows that efforts for “complete philosophical systems” will prove erroneous, and also that metaphysics that believe “ontological gaps” can be crossed or filled will also prove problematic. As argued in “(Re)construction” though, Derrida does not end all metaphysics, and though certainty might be impossible, confidence is still with us.
While Derrida does perhaps end the possibility for “positive metaphysics” (meaning “metaphysics that makes ‘present’ signified entities”), Derrida does not end “negative metaphysics,” per se (from which “positive metaphysics” can be postulated indirectly). In other words, the end of “a metaphysics of presence” is not the end of “a metaphysics of lacks” (to use the language of Thomas Jockin).
As already stated, phenomenology is primarily an act of apprehension and “moments” versus an act of judgment and consistency. Aristotle can be associated with phenomenology, while Plato can be associated with systematizing.
Plato wants us to judge our efforts for a just society against the “form” of a just society and for us to try to align our efforts with the Platonic ideal. Aristotle is not so interested in aligning x with X, per se; rather, Aristotle is interested in the fact that we “apprehend” x (being) at all. Certainly, there are some “ontological gaps” to be found in Aristotle, but they are not central to Aristotelian metaphysics. Sure, perhaps Aristotle’s belief that language corresponds in its structure to reality has been deconstructed by nominalism — I’m not enough of an expert to judge this debate — but even if this is true, I don’t believe Aristotle’s entire metaphysical system hinges on this dispute in the same way as does Plato’s. Why? Hopefully this section of “On Typography” by O.G. Rose captures the spirit of the argument:
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).
If I hope to judge that “my cat” is like “a Platonic cat,” then we should turn to Derrida to realize this effort will prove fruitless. But while Derrida ends the possibility of judgement as such, Derrida does not draw to a close an inquiry into the apprehension described by Aristotle. Again, this argument is elaborated on in “(Re)construction” and “On Typography,” both by O.G. Rose, but assuming the point stands, we can begin to understand why a “New Metaphysics” must be phenomenological. For apprehension is a phenomenological experience, bound up in the “moment” in which it occurs, while judging if “a society” is like “the perfect society” requires countless hours of internal and speculative reflection. I must think extensively about questions such as “What is justice?” and “What is murder versus killing?” — significant philosophical reflection is required (“glances” sounds exactly like the wrong remedy). Please don’t mistake me as saying that these questions don’t matter: my point is only that, if we are to answer them, we must do so without creating any “gaps”; we must instead try answering them through phenomenology, “reading,” and apprehension.
Aristotle certainly inquires into what makes a good society, but his entire metaphysical project does not hinge on our ability to answer this question generally or universally (he frankly suggests a small polis and leaves such questions up to individual “readers”). Yes, Derrida may have indeed deconstructed metaphysical systems that attempt to create the world in light of ideal and mental visions, but we still need to address the strange occurrence of how we are able to look at a bookcase and recognize it as “that bookcase” (that moment when “form,” “substance,” and “essence” all align). In a sense, we could say that Derrida deconstructs “metaphysics of ideal construction” but not “metaphysics of mysterious moments”; to use language from “On Typography,” we could say that Derrida deconstructs “the metaphysics of the book” but not “the metaphysics of reading.” To borrow from that paper again:
Yes, when we “read” “cat,” a “gap” opens between “the word ‘cat’ ” and “the-thing cat,” but, to stress the point, the gap appears after the act of reading and doesn’t appear unless reading can occur (because a “right balance of elements” is struck). 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 [can] remain relevant […]
The metaphysical systems of perhaps Descartes or Kant, constructed primarily “in the head,” independent of experience (while in fact perhaps seemingly making an enemy of subjective experience), is not the business of the phenomenologist, who believes that our only hope of getting at what things “are” is by paying careful attention to how thing “unfold” (in other words, if we are to determine essence, it must be by believing attributes and characteristics “participate in and are extensions of essence,” versus think attributes and characteristics are “masks over essence,” hiding it dualistically). But even if we ultimately can’t get at what things “are” in of themselves, we can still get at “what they are in their unfolding,” and that by itself is worthy of philosophical effort.
The phenomenologist is in the business of glances, moments, apprehensions, and embracing mystery, while the “classical philosopher” is in the business of thinking in isolation, impermanence, judgments, and erasing mystery. The phenomenologist doesn’t disdain coming off as mystical, while mysticism can disgust the “classical philosopher.” And on this point, we can suggest a way that Derrida may have supported phenomenology if he only saw phenomenology as how it is outlined here.
(Moving forward, I personally associate “classical philosophers” with Plato, Descartes, Berkeley, the early Kant, and generally any philosophical effort seeking “autonomous rationality” (as concerned Hume). I associate phenomenology with Aristotle, the Scottish Enlightenment, the Kyoto School, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Martin Buber, Beauvoir, Charles W. Mills, and literary philosophers in general.)
Derrida wanted to make us all a little more uncertain about things, a little more open to differences, and a little more mystified by the world around us. All this for Derrida could help minorities and increase justice, and I personally greatly support this effort. For Derrida, metaphysical systems were too often used to oppress (say by defining the “essential nature” of one group of people as slaves and another as rulers), and I agree that this has occurred in the past and appreciate Derrida for providing us tools to stop such oppression from happening again. But that all said, phenomenological metaphysics is not a force of oppression, but rather it is a force which creates in people the very uncertainty, openness, and sense of wonder that Derrida hoped to engender. In this way, though I have critiqued Derrida, I also want to suggest that his noble intentions are continued in the phenomenology of the “New Metaphysics,” that Derrida is not left behind.
In review, Derrida did not deconstruct the metaphysics of apprehension or “reading”, only the metaphysics of judgment and systems. On grounds of apprehension, a “New Metaphysics” is justified. But what is it that a “New Metaphysics” primarily apprehends? Something phenomenological and experienced, yes? Well, are we so sure that Derrida’s critique doesn’t equally apply to experiences as it does to signifiers? Are not experiences “present?” This objection deserves significant consideration.
¹Hart, Kevin. The Trespass of the Sign. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1989: 5.
²Hart, Kevin. The Trespass of the Sign. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1989: 20.
³Hart, Kevin. The Trespass of the Sign. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1989: 25.
⁴Hart, Kevin. The Trespass of the Sign. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1989: 4.
⁵Hart, Kevin. The Trespass of the Sign. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1989: 12.
⁶Hart, Kevin. The Trespass of the Sign. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1989: 8.