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The futile search for the non-mental: Derrida’s critique of metaphysics (The Return of Metaphysics)

Reading | Metaphysics

Peter Salmon | 2022-04-04

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Peter Salmon discusses Jacques Derrida’s critique of metaphysics: the argument that finding some objective, ‘uncontaminated,’ pure presence of being or reality in the world is impossible, for all of our experiences of the world are determined by our own mental contexts, our conceptual dictionaries, memories and expectations. However, the attentive reader will notice that, in criticizing metaphysics this way, far from refuting it, Derrida may actually make a case for idealism: the recognition that our reality isn’t just contaminated by the mental, but is mental in essence and being; for “the distinction between essence and existence, and between the ideal and the real (‘whatness’ and ‘thatness’) are illusions.” This essay is part of our The Return of Metaphysics series, produced in collaboration with the Institute of Art and Ideas (IAI). It was first published by the IAI on the 30th of March, 2022.

In January 1954, the philosopher Jacques Derrida, then 24 and just back from a summer in his Algerian home, visited the Husserl Archives in Louvain, Belgium. The archive had been founded in 1938, shortly after Husserl’s death, in order to protect his corpus from the Nazi authorities. Smuggled out by the Franciscan Father Herman Leo van Breda, the archive contains more than 45,000 shorthand pages, Husserl’s complete research library and 10,000 pages of typescripts.

But it was a small paper of no more than 30 pages, working title The Origin of Geometry, which was to spur a revolution in Derrida’s thinking. It would inform, with astonishing consistency, his work for the rest of his life, across a vast range of subjects – from traditional philosophical subjects such as meaning, language, ethics and religion, to issues such as gender, colonialism, film and hospitality. His first book was a translation of Husserl’s paper, its 30 pages ‘supplemented’ – to use a Derridean term – with an introduction of over 100 pages. In this introduction lay the seeds of all his later philosophy, and the terms forever associated with his name – deconstruction, différance, iteration and, crucially ‘the metaphysics of presence’ – Derrida’s vital contribution to the calling into question of the whole basis of Western metaphysics.

 

Husserl, phenomenology and the metaphysics of presence

How do we know stuff about the world? Husserl wrote in a letter to the mathematician Gottlob Frege that he was ‘tormented by those incredibly strange realms: the world of the purely logical and the world of actual consciousness… I had no idea how to unite them, and yet they had to interrelate and form an intrinsic unity.’ His first attempts had been via mathematics. By analyzing what a number is – something that ‘exists’ or something humans ‘create’ – he thought he would be able to establish a relationship between consciousness and the world. It was Frege’s criticism of this attempt due to its ‘psychologism’ – that is, its dependence on the internal mental states of the subject, rather than the logical relations at hand – which spurred Husserl to his subsequent investigations.

What if, Husserl argued, we put aside the question of ‘the world’ entirely, and look simply at consciousness? Whether something exists or not is both moot and distracting. Husserl introduced the concept of the ‘epoché’ – from the ancient Greek, meaning ‘suspension of judgement’. We ‘bracket’ the world; what is important is not whether this tree exists, but how we encounter it, how it affects us. The job of philosophy is to describe these affects and to build concepts from them, which we can later extend outwards.

Crucial here is the idea of ‘intentionality’: as Franz Brentano had pointed out, we don’t pace Descartes, or merely ‘think’; we ‘think about.’ All consciousness has a content, and in analyzing this content, Husserl wanted to unite the strange realms of thought and world. He called this method ‘phenomenology’ – the study of phenomena – and by the time Derrida arrived at Louvain it was one of the dominant strands of twentieth century philosophy, spurred on by students of Husserl such as Emmanuel Levinas and, crucially, Martin Heidegger.

The Origin of Geometry is a late unpublished work, but it grapples with the same problems as his early work. Geometrical objects are, for Husserl, the perfect example of ‘ideal’ objects: they are defined precisely by their non-spatiotemporal nature (there are no perfect circles in the world) and are thus purely ‘transcendental.’ How do we – humans – think them and use them? How do we – finite beings – create transcendental things? What is their origin? This is not a historical question – Husserl is not looking for the person to whom the first geometrical object occurred. It is a question of meaning.

While Derrida would always acknowledge his debt to Husserl – ‘Even in moments where I had to question certain presuppositions of Husserl, I tried to do so while keeping to phenomenological discipline’ – his critique of The Origin is wide-ranging and multi-stranded. One strand catches Husserl out for asserting that ideal objects require writing down in order to establish their existence – contrary to Husserl’s usual assertion, shared with most philosophers, that writing is a secondary activity compared to speech, indeed a parasitic derivation of it. This bias, which Derrida would later term ‘phonocentrism,’ would expand into his great work Of Grammatology.

Derrida also critiques the idea of the ahistorical, a strange state which contravenes, Derrida argues, all human experience. Derrida, in a method that would become familiar in his later works of deconstruction, seeks out moments in the text where history, as it were, sneaks back into Husserl’s analysis – slips of the pen which, like the example of writing, reveal aporias (irresolvable contradictions) in Husserl’s thinking, as surely as Freudian slips indicate the same in our thinking.

But his main focus is on the idea of origin, which – incorporating the two previous critiques – he uses as a lever to prise apart fundamental aspects of Husserl’s philosophy across his entire corpus, and from which he develops his critique of ‘the metaphysics of presence.’

Phenomenology, argues Derrida, posits a position from which we are able to study the affects of the world upon us, and from which we can investigate phenomena, including concepts. This position – the ‘now’ – is, somehow, pure, uncontaminated by anything that is not the now. And yet here, as in works such as The Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness, Husserl had very deliberately assessed that whatever the ‘now’ is, it isn’t pure.

We exist, as Husserl memorably puts it, in a ‘flowing thisness,’ from which we posit ‘now’s.’ But these ‘now’s’ are not independent entities, which can be extracted and analyzed. Rather, we are to think of them like notes in a piece of music. A particular note gets its meaning from its position in the overall piece – our memory of what has come before, our anticipation of what follows. Otherwise, we would have the same experience of hearing a C note whether it was part of a Beethoven symphony or a piece of death metal (not Husserl’s example). It is, in temporal terms, contextual.

Husserl calls what has come before ‘retention’ and what follows ‘protention’ and each ‘contaminates’ the now as surely as the notes before and after that C note. What Derrida highlights in his critique of phenomenology here is that, despite retention and protention always being already part of the now, Husserl retains an unexamined faith that there is still – sort of – a now, which retention and protention contaminate. A pure ‘now’ is still, in some sense, posited, even as its impossibility is asserted. ‘Contamination’ supposes something to be contaminated.

This is not, as can be seen, a case where, with greater knowledge, with greater effort dedicated to the question, we could get to the pure now. The pure now is impossible. This ‘fixed point’ on which phenomenology bases its claims is always impossible, can never not be ‘contaminated.’ The concept of the pure now is a hope.

Derrida’s crucial insight is that this ‘hope’ is not an idiosyncrasy of phenomenology, nor only of its analysis of time. Rather, it is endemic to philosophy itself. We exist in a ‘flowing thisness’ and philosophy, again and again, posits ideal, timeless, pure forms, which life somehow contaminates – as though there were a something ‘before’ or ‘outside’ of life. This is the structure of most religious philosophies – the ideal being God, the contamination being humanity. Platonic forms are ‘ideal’ examples of things like circles, to which no actual circle could aspire. The critique of temporal purity is as valid when applied to the spatial dimension.

The history of metaphysics, then, is a history of our hopes for presence – for a pure, central, present object of enquiry, from which we can derive our knowledge – the self included. Derrida’s critique of speech and writing captures this – unlike writing, speech is seen as ‘pure’ language, and thus an expression of our ‘true’ being – the religious might call it the soul, the non-religious some other term that really means soul. In fact, Husserl at one point goes further, arguing that even speaking words is a form of contamination, as we may be misunderstood. It is only the speech in our own head that is the pure self – an argument Derrida fully critiques in his Speech and Phenomena, perhaps his most thoroughgoing analysis of the metaphysics of presence.

 

There is no going “beyond” metaphysics

As Derrida recognized, Heidegger had, both directly and indirectly, made a similar critique of Husserl and of Western metaphysics. Husserl had attempted to arrive at pure phenomena and describe beings independent of any presuppositions – ‘to the things themselves’ as Husserl famously put it. But, as we have seen, pure phenomena do not exist. This, for Heidegger, was one of the ways in which the ‘question of the meaning of Being’ has been lost. In its search for a fundamentum absolutum, of an indubitable grounding for metaphysics, the openness of Being, as the Greeks understood it, has been occluded. In addition, the distinction between essence and existence, and between the ideal and the real (‘whatness’ and ‘thatness’) are illusions; Being precedes both. The mistake lies as far back as Plato – the birth of Western philosophy, with its categories, its hierarchies and taxonomies, wherein the moment Being is forgotten.

For Derrida – whose ‘deconstruction’ is deliberately based on Heidegger’s ‘destruktion,’ a method of taking apart while leaving intact – Heidegger, despite himself, is unable to go beyond metaphysics as he explicitly attempts to do. But then, as Derrida himself is aware, neither does Derrida. Firstly, we have no language to do so that is not already informed by metaphysical propositions:

There is no sense in doing without the concepts of metaphysics in order to shake metaphysics. We have no language – no syntax or lexicon – that is foreign to this history; we can pronounce not a single destructive proposition that has not already had to slip into the form, the logic and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest.

Secondly, there is not ‘going beyond’ metaphysics, as this is to repeat the gesture about which he warns – to posit an ‘entity’ outside of (before, beyond) the mess of life. To take the example of the ‘now’ again: any analysis of the ‘now’ can only deal with the ‘now’ we have to deal with, impure as it is.

What Derrida does do, in recognizing this urge to posit the pure based on the impure, is to open up the possibility of a metaphysics that recognizes absence as fundamental to its structure. Derrida has some big gestures for this, such as his idea of hauntology, a near homonym of ontology, which studies ‘what there isn’t’ instead of ‘what there is’ (while recognizing the distinction is ultimately as contested, and revealing, as all dichotomies); thus histories that did not occur, beings that do not exist, futures and existents that never come to be – including pure democracy, the pure gift, pure hospitality. These limit cases, always beyond what can actually be, disclose knowledge about what there actually is, including concepts.

But his critique is also more intrinsic than that. Where there is ‘essence’ and ‘identity,’ Derrida posits ‘alterity’ and ‘difference.’ More, he posits ‘différance,’ a word he first uses in Speech and Phenomena. Pronounced exactly the same way as ‘difference’ (this is Derrida forcing the written word to be more decisive than the spoken) it is a complicated term, which incorporates the idea of differing and deferring. Western metaphysics has, in Derrida’s reading, always been a history of trying, as it were, to secure the meaning of words  – ‘truth is…’, ‘beauty is…’.

However, as anyone who has picked up a dictionary knows, every word is defined by another word, which is defined by another word – the meaning of word x is both deferred as we move along the chain, and is an effect of difference – we get its meaning in contrast to other words. There is no ur-word at the end of the dictionary, both sufficient to itself (it needs no other word to define it) and generative of everything else (thus producing meaning).

This is not accidental – ‘différance’ is built into language, as it is built into all concepts. It precedes meaning – for Derrida, fixing a meaning is a form of violence, and we should look not only at the act of doing so, but what it means that we attempt to. Deconstruction is a form of suspicion – Derrida sometimes described it as a parasitical method; anything is open to being deconstructed. But, as he pointed out, it is not imposed from without. Any text deconstructs itself the moment it attempts to fix meaning.

One could call Derrida’s work a metaphysics of absence as opposed to a metaphysics of presence, but it is the ways in which they intertwine that is of interest. And the effort metaphysics has expended on suppressing the absent – the gaps between ideas, the ghosts and specters that are called up within its thinking, the things that stand outside its purview in one era and why they are excluded. We are used to the Freudian concept that our words are not to be taken at face value – the unconscious, that exemplary sort of absence, is playing its part. Like a psychoanalyst of metaphysics, Derrida wants to know what is really being said.

If Western metaphysics is a search for fixed meanings, Derrida is not against this search. The search for the pure end term of religion – God – creates religion, the search for such things as Truth, consciousness and the self, generates philosophy. For Derrida, these searches are ‘tasks’ in the sense that we always already find ourselves – to use a Heideggerian term – ‘thrown’ into them. Part of our impulse is and will always be to seek an origin, or a culmination, or at least solid ground. At the moment we do so – given we can actually experience none of those things – we are performing a gesture, attempting to renounce the equivocal, expressing a hope, be it finding an origin of geometry or overcoming metaphysics.

Where Heidegger argued that we are reaching the end of metaphysics, Derrida argued that metaphysics – philosophy – always already works in the shadow of this death. It is a structural component of metaphysics to imagine its own completion, present and correct. Or, as Hegel put it in 1820:

Only in the maturity of reality does the ideal appear as counterpart to the real, apprehends the real world in its substance, and shapes it into an intellectual kingdom. When philosophy paints its grey in grey, one form of life has become old, and by means of grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known. The owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.

Western metaphysics will always search for the ideal, and believe itself to be edging forward towards it. Perhaps one day presence will triumph. But as Derrida noted, “The end approaches, but the apocalypse is long lived.”

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