Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Jacques Derrida's Deconstructionist Philosophy

Jacques Derrida (pronounciation guide published in more than one place: "deh-ree-DAH") has died. Arts & Letters Daily provides a number of links to obits. I am, of course, not a philosopher and have never tried reading Derrida's work. The base material for my commentary in this short posting is based entirely on my reading of the obits. The description of deconstructionism provided by the Wall Street Journal is:

"But even if deconstruction cannot be defined, it can be described. For one thing, deconstruction comes with a lifetime guarantee to render discussion of any subject completely unintelligible. It does this by linguistic subterfuge. One of the central slogans of deconstruction is il n'y a pas de hors-texte, i.e., "there is nothing outside the text." (It sounds better in French.) In other words, deconstruction is an updated version of nominalism, the view that the meanings of words are completely arbitrary and that, at bottom, reality is unknowable."

If this is an accurate rendering of the theory, it would explain the widespread hostility toward the post-modernists in the conservative community: There would then be no absolute truths, meaning is meaningless, God is dead. But here's how the Washington Post described it:

"Language, he said, is inadequate to provide a clear and unambiguous view of reality. In other words, the fixed meaning of an essay, a book, a personal letter, a scientific treatise or a recipe dissolves when hidden ambiguities and contradictions are revealed. These contradictions, inevitable in every piece of writing, he said, reveal deep fissures in the foundation of the Western world's civilizations, cultures and creations."

Well, sure. Language is inadequate for precise description and analysis of concepts that are even a little more complex than Monday Night Football. That's why mathematicians are so careful to create a "language" that can more precisely describe what they are trying to say. But the trade-off is that only a few initiates, even among the fairly small body of those who are mathematicians, can understand what any particular researcher in their midst is doing. In contrast, languages used by most in the more familiar world - law, politics, commerce - are useless for the "hard" sciences. This is why, for example, we need the courts to interpret the constitution (and why they so often bungle the task). No one has successfully found a way to describe philosophy or social sciences or any of the other "soft" sciences using the English language. Some might argue that is why the soft sciences are useless and are practiced by third rate academics, even in first rate institutions. And why no one, absolutely no one, takes them seriously.

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