Jacques Derrida: duality, hierarchy, priority
Derrida is not the first or only philosopher to think that language sets limits and conditions on thought (or for discourse, which is the exchange of ideas). What is unique about Derrida is what he did about it. He produced a variety of techniques for working from within the conditions of language to transgress the limits imposed by it. Whether these efforts are successful remains open to consideration.
A range of aspects of language that set conditions for discourse are polarities (also called binaries, dichotomies, or dualisms). Polarities are pairs of opposing concepts. To state one is to imply the other. People often say that each side of a polarity requires the other (e.g. that good can only exist if evil does). Whether such terms really are co-dependent is an interesting question [I tend against that assumption], but we can easily demonstrate that many people's thought is easily led to one side of the duality by communicating its opposite term. Here are some examples;
Derrida focused much of his attention on polarities, especially the implicit or hidden instances in a text. He notes that the polarities on which a text relies are seldom (if ever) neutral. There is typically an asymmetry between the terms, such that by just presenting the terms, we maintain an immediate value judgment. Derrida looks for features in a text that expose the hidden polarities and the value judgments, or "priorities", that place one term over the other. Since texts are usually written as efforts to persuade the reader to a point of view or to establish an authority of certain claims, the operation of value-laden polarities throughout the text is a way that the text seeks its end, even without the author having to make the explicit statement. Indeed, what is not said in a text may be as, or even more, important to its power as what is said. For example, the letter of protest of Derrida's Cambridge honorary doctorate (signed by twenty prominent philosophers) asserts that he does not deserve the academic honor because his writing "does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigor." Granted this is only a fragment of the letter, yet the role of polarities here is already potent.
Clear is opposed to opaque: the priority on clarity over opacity presumes that the author should seek to transcend language and technique to provide direct access to thought.
Rigid is opposed to loose: the priority on rigor puts conditions on what counts as relevant and what may be included.
Accepted is opposed to illegitimate: giving the priority to social agreement over idiosyncratic expression.
Standard is opposed to unorthodox: giving priority to tradition and submission to a given way of proceeding.
Derrida does not address these dualities from the fragment of the letter and I do so here merely to make the point that our language is permeated by such polarities. We take them for granted all the time, though they make up a major part of our understanding and evaluation. Just pointing out such dualities does not stand as an argument or objection against them. One may well say that such polarities are precisely what are needed and that being on the wrong side of them is good enough reason to be denied an honorary doctorate.
Derrida's frequent technique with a text is to point out the polarities and the hierarchy of values that is implied in them. Rather than deny or reject a polarity, he inverts the hierarchy of it by showing how the lower level term actually holds the key position in the text. Having turned the hierarchy upside down, he then transforms the polarity by changing one of the terms. Sometimes he invents a new term that combines opposing parts of the polarity and which cannot be determinately placed at one pole or the other. He calls such indeterminate terms "undecidables." Such terms carry complex meanings and signify both sides of the polarity.
Derrida's transformative technique is bound to break with accepted standards. It is deliberately changeable (loose) and indeterminate (unclear). So the charge that Derrida's writing "does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigor" may well be correct in some ways. He violates those conditions on purpose. The important question then is; is he justified in violating those conditions? For having called our fundamental conditions of reason and honor into question, Derrida deserves at least some thoughtful study.
End of this philosophical portrait
Giovanna Borradori. 2001. Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with
Kristine McKenna. 2002. The Three Ages of Jacques Derrida
|2004 © Jon Dorbolo|