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Jacques Derrida on Husserl: Speech and Phenomena

This passage comes from one of Derrida’s earlier works, a short treatise dismissing Husserl’s phenomenology as hopeless due to the nature of language. Ultimately I don’t think it has much to do with Husserl; Derrida is just looking for a place on which to hang his theory of différance, deferrals of meaning, and traces. This is not to say that language doesn’t pose a problem for Husserl, but Derrida’s argument is far more tenuous than it needs to be if you are actually interested in how Husserl’s phenomenology relates to language.

The ideal form of a written signifier, for example, is not in the world, and the distinction between the grapheme and the empirical body of the corresponding graphic sign separates an inside from an outside, phenomenological consciousness from the world. And this is true for every visual or spatial signifier. And yet every non-phonic signifier involves a spatial reference in its very “phenomenon,” in the phenomenological (nonworldly) sphere of experience in which it is given. The sense of being “outside,” “in the world,” is an essential component of its phenomenon. Apparently there is nothing like this in the phenomenon of speech. In phenomenological interiority, hearing oneself and seeing oneself are two radically different orders of self-relation. Even before a description of this difference is sketched out, we can understand why the hypothesis of the “monologue” could have sanctioned the distinction between indication and expression only by presupposing an essential tie between expression and phone. Between the phonic element (in the phenomenological sense and not that of a real sound) and expression, taken as the logical character of a signifier that is animatedin view of the ideal presence of a Bedeutung (itself related to an object), there must be a necessary bond. Husserl is unable to bracket what in glossamatics is called the “substance of expression” without menacing his whole enterprise. The appeal to this substance thus plays a major philosophical role.

Speech and Phenomena VI, “The Voice that Keeps Silence”

Derrida is talking about two aspects of language that Husserl identifies: expression (Ausdruck) and indication (Anzeichen). Expression denotes the aspect of meaning that we give to a linguistic sign. Indication denotes the way in which it empirically points to something else, as well as any contextual and conventional role it may have. When I speak to others, words serve as an indication of my meaning. Husserl believes that within the realm of thought and phenomenology, indication does not have a role to play, and so phenomenology only needs to deal with expression. For me, the meaning is prior to the words, and so I don’t need to worry about what my words indicate. This approach renders language “transparent,” and indeed, Husserl doesn’t talk much about language.

Derrida starts by discussing how, since the mind uses signs that have an indicative role, indication and expression cannot be separated. This is not a new point (Wittgenstein, amongst others, had spent much time here). But he then says, in passages such as the above, that in fact, expression is dependent on indication and in fact expression is nothing more than indication. (The arguments here are fairly arcane and I will not go into them because I’m prepared to grant this point for the sake of my greater argument.) We now have a problem, because indication is incomplete: a sign points to something else, rather than containing any sort of meaning in itself. In other words, all mental relations must also be ones of indication and not of any other type. And since indication can only point to something else rather than contain innate meaning, that meaning is endlessly deferred. Cue Derrida’s larger project and the attack on what Derrida terms “presence,” which seems to be whatever may lie underneath the endless map of signs pointing to one another. And of course Husserl’s project is invalid because the sort of phenomenological bracketing of meaning that Husserl wants is impossible.

But Derrida has cheated. He’s gone from an atomic relation of sign to sign and assumed that because a single signification is bereft of meaning, the entire system must be. This is a negative claim–that no meaning is possible–and he’s achieved it by narrowing the gap on both sides. First, he’s abandoned consideration of the holistic view in which a system of significations could have a meaning which is not contained in isolation in any single signification. (This is basically Quine’s argument in “Two Dogmas of Empiricism“: “The unit of empirical significance is the whole of science.”) Second, he’s insisted that a particular type of meaning, Husserl’s, is the only one possible, so any problem with Husserl’s admittedly naive theory extends to language in general.

So Derrida silently assumes logical atomism and a naive theory of reference, then posits that position as one side of a dichotomy and his endless deferral of meaning as the other, with no middle ground. That tons of philosophers had already discussed exactly that middle ground seems to be of little concern to him. He has used Husserl as a straw man, he has ignored stronger arguments against his position, and he has employed false dichotomies so as to prove himself correct by contradiction. Anything other than pure indication is suddenly “presence” and is automatically invalid. This is pretty lame, especially when it later becomes a trapdoor to transcendence in which you can only get past the endless deferral through “radical” means of some form or another.

There are other problems in his thinking here, but these particular flaws stand out because they seem so representative of Derrida’s entire project and its tactics. He is not the first and will not be the last to commit these fallacies, but as houses of sand go, his is particularly egregious.

(For a more thorough examination of these issues, see Kevin Mulligan’s “How Not to Read.”)

Postscript: I read Martin Hagglund’s chapter on Derrida and Husserl in Radical Atheism, which is indeed a reasonably-written book. He says: “The decisive question for Derrida, however, is whether the structure of re-presentation is a condition for consciousness as such.” Hagglund ignores, however, the question of whether, even if it is a condition, it has the implications for meaning that Derrida claims it does. All this stuff about fundamental presence and ideality remains a strawman.

Update: In addition to NN’s helpful comment below examining a section of “Signature Event Context,” I just found that Jon Cogburn made a similar point in passing last year in the context of a much larger discussion of Derrida, Levinas, and Critchley:

[Derrida’s arguments] seem to constitutively involve the fallacy of false dichotomy at every stage of his career, starting with the ur-false dichotomy between some kind of radical holism and an Augustinian philosophy of language/mind, a false dichotomy no reader of Wittgenstein would make.

That about sums it up. Cogburn also cites the Kevin Mulligan article above while discussing Derrida’s responses to the sort of critique I give here:

A number of years Man and World (now Continental Philosophy Review) published an article where the author criticized Derrida’s interpretation of Husserl (note that every serious Husserl scholar I know agrees that Derrida is a terrible reader of Husserl, e.g. http://www.unige.ch/lettres/philo/enseignants/km/doc/HowNotRead1.pdf ). They invited a response from Derrida, but he just wrote a short note saying he disapproved of the spirit in which the author wrote the critique of Derrida. And this is a maneuver Derrida did again and again. Attacking the motives and personality of people much less powerful than him who had the audacity to suggest that he might be mistaken. And this is what bothers me the most.

Michael Rosen on Derrida

From Leiter’s blog, Michael Rosen (who wrote the excellent On Voluntary Servitude, a book I would write about if it weren’t so dense that it’d require a huge amount of time to treat it) talks about academic strategies:

Ephraim Kishon has a story called “Jewish Poker”. Jewish poker is played without cards so all you can do is bluff – and you have to bluff high. I think that this is the secret of Derridean post-modernism as currently practised in U.S. humanities departments: in the end, it’s all competitive hyperbole – who can be more radical?

Someone starts off with a huge unsupported generalization. For example, they write a book saying that the whole of Western thought is under the hegemony (good word) of (say) “logocentrism”, that its genealogy has to be exposed and deconstructed to reveal the Other that it “covers over and disavows”.

That’s a high bid, but you can top that. Why not write a review saying that this is to give “the Other” a “hegemonic status”, that this too needs to be deconstructed and given a genealogy? Say that the re-valuation of values hasn’t been radical enough, that “the Nietzschean trans-valuation is far from being complete: in its second stage, at the threshold of which we find ourselves today, it will necessitate a de-hierarchization of the already inverted values, so that alterity, too, would lose its newly acquired transcendental status, just as sameness and identity did in twentieth-century thought.”

Of course, tone and style matter. Although you’ve left banalities like “sameness and identity” (and hence, presumably, essence, cause and logical inference) far behind, don’t hesitate to use terms like “necessitate” for the ideas you are advocating, or (although you don’t believe in such fetishes as truth in interpretation) to describe others’ interpretations as “deeply flawed”. To think that once you’ve toppled the idols of objectivity you can’t write as if they were still standing is a sign of hopeless logocentrism.

It’s good too to write as if your native language isn’t English, or that, at least, your English has been saturated by what you’ve absorbed in your many years on the *rive gauche*. A nice Derridean-Althusserian touch here (see Judith Butler, *passim*) is the spurious use of the term “precisely” when you make an especially vague assertion (“The promise of deconstruction lies, precisely, in its ability to inspire this post-metaphysical thrust ‘beyond the same and the other.’”) Introducing your sentences with pompous phrases like “Let us note that …” may not add anything of substance to them but it does convey the impression that you are addressing your audience from a position of authority (a podium at the École Normale?). Above all, the secret is to convince people that you are further up the mountain than everyone else and looking down on them. Writing in this condescending way won’t make you popular, no doubt, but what the hell – oderint dum metuant!

Where will it all end? Presumably, this too can be out-bid – perhaps someone else will come along and offer a genealogy of deconstruction or a deconstruction of genealogy. There doesn’t seem to be any limit to how many iterations the transvaluation of valuations can go through. Yet there must – surely – come a point where the whole thing vanishes up its own …

But what to do until that happy day? Certainly, it is heart-breaking for those of us who would like Continental philosophy to be taken more seriously, but how do you argue with people for whom “reason” and “argument” (like “sameness” and “identity”) are simply terms in a “hegemonic discourse” they have left behind? And, if they can shrug off the Sokal hoax and take Alain Badiou seriously, they are obviously past being laughed back into sanity by a sense of the absurd. So I think that all the rest of us can do is to keep out of their way and leave them to patronize one another to their hearts’ content.

Michael Rosen

Rosen and Leiter edited the Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy, and seem to be part of a vague movement afoot among Anglo philosophers to write about Continental theorists in comparatively clear and methodical ways. I have a fair bit of sympathy with this movement. One of the ongoing debates, though, is which of the theorists are irredeemable. Here’s how the categories seem to be shaking out, from my perspective. (I could be wrong about any of these; this is just a general impression and not reflective of the views of any single person.)

Solid: Herder, Hegel, Marx, Peirce, Dilthey, Nietzsche, Husserl, Adorno, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Habermas

Sketchy: Heidegger, Gadamer, Foucault, Kuhn, Deleuze

Fraudulent: Derrida, Levinas, Althusser, Badiou, Zizek

Given this arrangement, I’m surprised there hasn’t been more attention paid to Vico, Cassirer, Ricoeur, and Apel, but perhaps in time, just as Herder seems just now to be having a renaissance.

I’ll have my own say on Derrida and phenomenology shortly….

Blumenberg and Husserl

Durkheim (not that one) wrote about my account of Blumenberg:

I think that Blumenberg is much more positive about the modern age than you suggest. Indeed, one might even compare his remarks on science – particularly its institutionalisation of method – with those of Popper. Popper of course would have no time for myth, but Blumenberg’s genius was to have shown that myth too can be defended in a similar way to science. The never ending variation that is the history of myth’s rewriting is comparable to the infinite progress that is the fate – and the triumph – of modern science.

I agree with this and I didn’t mean to give the impression that Blumenberg is a pessimist. In fact, Blumenberg’s ire seems reserved for those conservative pessimists like Schmitt, Loewith, or even Voltaire, who define the present moment as a crisis and look back to the past to try to find some point where we went wrong. He has even less patience for those, from Epicurus to the Gnostics to Kierkegaard, who ask that we should turn our back on the world and seek some private, otherworldly transcendence. And I do believe that Blumenberg’s endorsement of curiosity, science, and a secular interest in improving the world amounts to a prescription for a pragmatic progress: the right for humanity to explore, experiment, err, and positively evolve.

It is so optimistic, in fact, that it is difficult for me to accept enthusiastically. If I believe that a humanistic science offers the best way forward for the people on this planet, it’s only because I can’t think of any better ideas, not because I am filled with hope that things will work out. Blumenberg is more of a believer, and the faith he holds seems best portrayed in Blumenberg’s touching portrait of Husserl:

Scarcely a decade after theory, as mere gaping at what is ‘present at hand,’ had been, if not yet despised, still portrayed as a stale recapitulation of the content of living involvements, it was the greatness of the solitary, aged Edmund Husserl, academically exiled and silenced, that he held fast to the resolution to engage in theory as the initial act of European humanity and as a corrective for its most terrible deviation, and that he required of it a rigorous consistency, which is still, or once again, felt to be objectionable. Hermann Lübbe has described as the characteristic mark of this philosophizing, especially in the late works, the “rationalism of theory’s interest in what is without interest”: The existential problem of a scholar who in his old age was forbidden to set foot in the place where he carried on his research and teaching never shows through, and even the back of the official notice that informed him of this prohibition was covered by Husserl with philosophical notes. That is a case of ‘carrying on’ whose dignity equals that of the sentence, ‘Noli turbare circulos meos’ [Don’t disturb my circles].”

The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, III.Introduction

Let’s leave aside that Archimedes, in addition to being killed while working on theoretical math, had also designed warships and this claw:

The ideal here is that of a scholar who can retain his absorption in theory even as the surrounding chaos nearly envelops him. Here, for Blumenberg, it is theory that acts as the linking and growing mechanism of humanity. (And as commenter Durkheim suggests, theory is something of a halfway point between myth and science.) The danger is, of course, that theory turn into something as private as Gnosticism. What is it that gives Blumenberg and Husserl the assurance that they have not disappeared into a private fount of knowledge irrelevant to the greater world? This is a crucial question for Blumenberg to answer in the context of the book. I think that the answer, which is hinted at above, is that there needs to remain some sort of firm method, that “rigorous consistency” that Blumenberg mentions: the placing of the external world as authority and arbiter rather than one’s own self-certainty. (Here, Blumenberg separates from Hegel and moves back to Kant.) Again, I see this as a pragmatic methodology more than anything else, except that there was no such named tradition in Germany.

The other somewhat orthogonal point is how Blumenberg contrasts Husserl with Heidegger, who goes unnamed but is sniped at as the person who attacks Husserl’s theory as “gaping at what is ‘present at hand'”. Blumenberg implicitly connects Heidegger’s political beliefs with Heidegger’s priority of the “at hand” and activity over cognition and observation. Heidegger’s political associates bar Husserl from the library at which he studied. Heidegger removes the dedication to Husserl from Being and Time. Husserl stands back. He keeps working. And Husserl remains one of the least alluring, least sexy philosophers ever. He never cheats, he is never cheap, he is never glamorous. (Even his glamorous successors–Derrida and Sartre–did not put a shine on him.) He just keeps working things out.

I don’t want to enter that eternal debate on Heidegger, but I do sympathize with the emphasis Blumenberg places on detached observation, on the classical act of thinking and theorizing that still seems to have gone missing amidst unending talk of politics, subversion, performativity, and so on. (To those who say that detached observation is a luxury, the subsequent activities are no less luxuries.)

When I quoted Satie the other day (apparently an appropriate quote, thank you Dennis), it was this contrast between theory and action that I was thinking of: youth in action, old age in reflection. As every development in culture and technology (hello, the web) rushes to celebrate and analyze itself before it has barely begun to be anything at all, the nonstop circle of activity exhausts me, and I want to be the rigorous, consistent theorist myself:

Deeply lost in the night. Just as one sometimes lowers one’s head to reflect, thus to be utterly lost in the night. All around people are asleep. It’s just play acting, and innocent self-deception, that they sleep in houses, in safe beds, under a safe roof, stretched out or curled up on mattresses, in sheets, under blankets; in reality they have flocked together as they had once upon a time and again later in a deserted region, a camp in the open, a countless number of men, an army, a people, under a cold sky on cold earth, collapsed where once they had stood, forehead pressed on the arm, face to the ground, breathing quietly. And you are watching, are one of the watchmen, you find the next one by brandishing a burning stick from the brushwood pile beside you. Why are you watching? Someone must watch, it is said. Someone must be there.

Kafka, “At Night”

Richard Rorty, 1931-2007

Here I was about to write on Dante, and I hear that Rorty has passed away. Rorty is such a paradoxical and multifaceted figure that his death gives me cause to ponder my own philosophical orientations and biases. Even more than other analytic “slipstream” figures (my appropriated, tongue-in-cheek term for those analytics who headed, intentionally or unintentionally, towards an epistemological and hermeneutic rapprochement with continental developments: late Wittgenstein, Quine, Sellars, Goodman, Putnam, Davidson, McDowell, and Brandom, all of whom owe some kind of debt to the American pragmatists, particularly Peirce), Rorty let himself abandon the analytic style and rigor and embrace far more historicist positions. And I feel this pull myself. But complicating this is the seeming existence of three Rortys. In roughly chronological order:

  1. the analytic “linguistic turn” Rorty (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, etc.)
  2. the pragmatic deconstructionist Rorty (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, etc.)
  3. the liberal populist Rorty (Achieving Our Country, late essays, etc.)

Even worse, the earlier Rortys continued to coexist with the later ones, although the analytic Rorty disappears mostly from the picture post-Contingency. The reason for this vanishing is that Rorty wisely realized that the post-Sellarsian philosophy of language was neither useful nor supportive of the relativistic pragmatic liberalism that the other two Rortys wanted to promote. Between the first two Rortys is Rorty turning his back on the analytic tradition and collapsing the lessons of Sellars and Quine into a roughly deconstructionist stance that Rorty inherits from Derrida, as well as an explicit embrace of historicism. There is little talk of sensing, mind, or language as practice in his later work, though clearly Rorty maintained enough affinities with his analytic forefathers to acutely criticize post-Kripkean analytic metaphysics. I am in great sympathy when in that article, he observes, criticizing Kripke-worshiper Scott Soames:

To my mind, the story of 20th-century analytic philosophy (including the role of Kripke in that story) is best told by highlighting questions about whether truth is a matter of correspondence, about what is and is not ‘out there’ to be corresponded to, and about whether there is any sense in which thought makes ‘direct contact’ with reality. So I regret that Soames’s history shoves these issues into the background. But perhaps correspondence is just my hobbyhorse, as necessity is his.

Couple “language” with “thought” and “truth,” and this is indeed my view of modern analytic philosophy as well. But even as he says this, his later work makes it clear that Rorty had lost interest in this question in and of itself, and was far more concerned with its implications and utility in political and cultural frameworks. His leap to an embrace of continental traditions is not surprising in this light, and his status as a maverick seems to be mostly due to this leap alone. His actual positions fit squarely into a deconstructionist (or “post-structuralist,” if you will) mainstream, with a little American flavoring. With regard to his treatment of meaning and language, Rorty’s actual separation from Derrida lies less in his ideology and more in the comparative clarity of his writing, which did as much to offer analytics a bridge to deconstructionist thought as it did to antagonize them towards it.

Perhaps it was this clarity that caused the third Rorty to evolve, in which he popularized his style even further and, most notably, wrote a little book called Achieving Our Country, celebrating Emerson and Dewey as models for a pragmatic politics. No matter that much of what he advocates in this book is unsubstantiable by Rortys 1 and 2. It was clear that after having embraced a heterodox liberalism under the guise of “liberal ironism” in his second incarnation, he was ready to put that into practice and drop the theory to attempt a concrete politics in the tradition of Dewey. Yet while Habermas attempted to ground such a liberalism in a dense, coherent account of intersubjectivity, Rorty seemed to have lost interest in fighting with other philosophers, and wanted to speak to the people. The book was not popular, though it earned an amusing rebuke from George Will in Time, who must have seen it as some sort of threat, or as a convenient strawman for attacking academia. That last point is particularly ironic, as Rorty #3 did indeed drop (or at least obscure) all of the relativist baggage that David “Black Panthers and Blacklists” Horowitz thinks threatens our nation. Some good it did him. In the late essays published (by Penguin!) in Philosophy and Social Hope, he is attacking Marx and criticizing philosophical leftists like Derrida for embracing Marxism, in between celebrating Forster and (again) Dewey.

Ironically enough, I see something of a parallel development in Derrida, who begins as an unorthodox but traditional Husserlian phenomenologist, then develops an aggressive deconstructionism in contrast to preceding structuralist trends, and finally ends his life advocating for the EU and Enlightenment values and making nice with arch-enemy Habermas in the name of liberalism. But Derrida never quite abandoned his audiences the way that Rorty 1 and Rorty 2 did.


There have been countless accounts of analytic vs. continental personalities, and I only offer this one on the
grounds that it’s purely anecdotal. (I use “continental” here as shorthand for the poststructuralist mainstream that holds sway in America: Derrida, De Man, Foucault, Kristeva, Lacan, Agamben. No need to correct me on this point; I know.) But my experience has been that on assuming a position, analytics are far more likely to take it as truth to be put into practice, while continentals tend to embrace a position as justificatory rhetoric. For instance, the analytic incompatibilist determinists I know, who believe in no free will and no moral responsibility, seriously apply such beliefs in their daily lives: they picture people as robots to be corrected when they malfunction, and they have no patience with even the idea of revenge. Derek Parfit’s views on (lack of) personal identity, by his own admission, brought him great comfort in facing death. David Lewis, to cite an extreme example, truly believed in an infinite number of alternate worlds for modal purposes. (Indeed, another modern history of analytic thought could be the effect that rigidity can have in inflating pedantic disputes into highly unintuitive beliefs.) On the other hand, the continentals I’ve known have been far more likely to stick with what is, in effect, a foundationalist standpoint, and use philosophical works, appropriately or otherwise, to justify them. I have seen many continentals discourse on the indefinite postponement and deferral of truth and meaning, only then to proclaim the moral evil of the Enlightenment, capitalism, the United States, Europe, etc. One could blame Heidegger for being especially bad at this, but my unjustified suspicion is that the indifference to rhetoric falls out of the modern continental approach itself, just as the analytic approach produces its dogmatists. For whatever reason, Rorty’s “irony” came to dominate his view to the point that such a serious embrace of analytic metaphysical positions became anathema to him. Yet because he was in America or because he was outside the continental scene or because he just was like that, he failed to feel the urgency to dive into the continental pool.

Many of the figures mentioned above, despite my complaints, were brilliant and did remarkable work in analytic or continental philosophy. I think Rorty will be remembered for pursuing a more aggressive synthesis than most more than for espousing a particular position. I don’t necessarily see this as a fault, because I think his intent ultimately was not to stake out a singular philosophical position, but it does complicate how to assess his stature. Maybe because I am something of a philosopher, I can’t think of him as being as important as Habermas, Davidson, or even Derrida, even though I have problems with all three of them. If Rorty had had another fifty years, perhaps he would have produced a big book that would have been a liberal, anti-communitarian version of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue; more likely, though, he would have gotten involved in politics (as another of his spiritual compatriots, Charles Taylor, actually did). He would have made a good columnist for the New York Times, certainly a better one than the universally ridiculed Stanley Fish. (But there I go, shooting Fish in a barrel again….)

Note on Merleau-Ponty’s “Cogito”

But, it will be asked, if the unity of the world is not based on that of consciousness, and if the world is not the outcome of a constituting effort, how does it come about that appearances accord with each other and group themselves together into things, ideas and truths? And why do our random thoughts, the events of our life and those of collective history, at least at certain times assume common significance and direction, and allow themselves to be subsumed under one idea? Why does my life succeed in drawing itself together in order to project itself in words, intentions and acts? This is the problem of rationality.

Phenomenology of Perception (475)

(I’m using Merleau-Ponty here because he’s more lyrical and because Husserl is just too damn hard.)

The value of phenomenology for me is in the destruction of the subject-object construction. Descartes sets it up, then Hume and Kant and their compatriots develop it and refine it until there’s a nice movement from the world through the structure of the mind (the categories, the senses, whatever) to perception to mind. It’s that last jump, the most ethereal one, that the phenomenologists rip apart. They think about the little subjective pixie in the mind (aka, the “What-it-is-like-to-be” pixie) who just perceives all these perceptions, and the whole thing falls apart. The pixie gets smaller and smaller until it’s not capable of doing much of anything, and then you’re stuck figuring out (1) what it does, and (2) how it does it, both of which no longer have any positive answer.

By making the perceptual primary and denying any subjective unification beyond that perception, Merleau-Ponty and co. don’t necessarily solve this problem, but they at least avoid the contradiction. Perception is ego is subject. Then Merleau-Ponty specifically pushes the other way and connects experience back to into the world until our bodies are our minds reaching into the world and merging with it.

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