Tag Archives: Derrida

Maybe it was that moment, in a conversation, where I said to a relatively new friend, that I had four friends in philosophy: Jesus, Nietzsche, Spinoza and Derrida. It was an intellectual conversation, in which humor and reflection naturally mixed. After I went home I thought back to that confession, and realized – of course – I had mentioned no women. Why? I noticed something else – that Nietzsche was the only non-Jew in the group. Well, now my mind was looking for all kinds of secondary things, of course, free-wheeling, whereas the joking remark in fact was meant to say something about me – to give some fragments from which to build my portrait: the shamanistic, zen-riddle loving, nature metaphysic, deconstructive playing, strongheaded woman-girl. One can build that portrait not because I am like them. Not because they are like me. Because I like to be with them, my mind likes to play with theirs. They are my friends.

Now two days later I woke up very early, from a dream, in which I was meeting Derrida. I finally had the chance to check some things about his philosophy with him, while we were having a short conversation, so I did. And he answered seriously and very much to the point. I realized I had to remember what he said, what I said, as this conversation was giving me these unique pieces of understanding I had been looking for. But when the dream ended, and I immediately tried to recover it, I found it was already gone! In the dream, the conversation was also not long. There were many women, some of whom he had a relationship with, maybe his wife was there amongst them. Everybody wanted to talk to him, because it was so unique that he had returned from the dead just for this one evening. In fact we were all gathered at a party to celebrate this and be with him and enjoy the evening.

We went up, in a lift/elevator, and I was told we were going to the 50th floor or so, the top of the building. I was a bit scared, as it was so high, and far below us was the ground. On the top of this building was a tropical garden, planted on both sides of this completely square walking path, and it was a gorgeous summer evening with a pinkish honey-fluid sky and the palm trees softly rustling. Waiters were walking around with drinks, the gathered friends were finding their way after coming out of the lift, in the lush garden, and there I spoke briefly and philosophically with him, before he was claimed by someone else who wanted to use this brief moment that he was amongst us again. Before returning to the other world once more. He would be there just for this one evening. For this return/farewell party.

So I spoke too short with my philosophical friend, he would vanish once more, and on his/our friend-party he was soon mingling with too many people. On top I forgot the important checked aspects of his philosophy. Still I felt remarkably satisfied and at peace, finally, to have spoken with him and touched on these open spaces in his work or in my understanding or in whatever web we were in, weaving along with all the others before and after us. Almost established their meaning. And forgotten. And enjoyed. If you can still follow me, that is the kind of philosophical friendship that characterizes me, and that is me.

This was the weirdest blog post of them all, I guess. that means, considering style. The content is clear, of course. For who understands. Interpretations are welcome. Deconstructive ones please. Or shamanistic ones. Or zen ones. Or nature metaphysic ones. No theological, Freudian, or Jungian ones – they won’t do.

An impression? In this direction? New York-ish?

No credits defined, photo taken from this website

What is ethics? Teaching the introduction to ethics for years and years, to students in philosophy as well as in theology, I have often wondered what I was doing – where I was introducing them to: to a separate discipline with its own theories and methods of argumentation or to a systematic version of universal human reflections on good and bad. Or is ethics still something else? Viewing, and choosing from, available textbooks, one notices first a strong, if not hegemonic, presence of more or less analytic approaches. And second, an a-historical temper. One of the reasons for this last characteristic could be that ethics has tried to demarcate itself, in the twentieth century, as a distinct discipline, not as a branch of philosophy or of theology, but as something newer and more vital, a new ‘science’ of deciding what to be done in cases of moral dilemma. The trained ethicist should be able to be part of ethical committees and advise doctors, companies, governmental representatives and all kinds of other societal parties on morality and how it comes about by way of the right techniques of argumentation.

Thus, much of the reflexive nature of ethical questioning has gone lost. Many ethicists have forgotten about the experiences that induced human beings to reflect on good and bad in the first place. Like the experience of deteriorating political circumstances, for instance, for Plato, and the even more decisive experience that this could be repaired by searching for the original good that informs being. Or the experience, for a Christian philosopher like Aquinas, that the human being seems to be a creature in between – in between heaven and earth, having some idea of the divine origin of knowledge, and also feeling the need to comply with earthly desires and urges. A creature between angel and animal, seeing what should be, and what is, as different spheres, and having been endowed with knowledge of this – knowledge of good and bad. Also that great moral philosopher Nietzsche hardly has a place in the ethical canon, for his experiences, that the Christian view of humanity blinded human beings for their radically impulsive nature, and for the fact that no value has ever been found but as an answer to a need. Every good is a good for a will, and even going beyond good and evil is just the result of a bold, inquisitive nature, that of Nietzsche and his likes, who venture into radical moral insecurity.

What has been lost in the making of ethics into a discipline is, finally, the experience that ethics is a critical tool, which can hammer to pieces complacent adherence to whatever is in fashion, morally – be it tragic resignation, or acceptance of a dualistic wordview which leaves no room for tragedy. Be it  the disappearance of the public sphere, or the belief that everything can be decided by rational argumentation. I have decided that I want to try to make for a change in this field. Ethics has to return to its reflective powers and its critical function. It has to remember the experiences that unhinge the factual world – those that make one silent first, and then brave. It has to renew its orientation, which does not mean that it will successfully solve dilemmas, or even understand them in a final manner. It has to dare to fail in the giving of reasons, while making room for pain and pleasure in a deeper sense than that of a rational individual. In this sense, there are quite a few moral philosophers who are not present in ethics textbooks: Jacques Derrida who dared to ask about justice in the present world, Hannah Arendt, who dared to expose the banality of evil in one of the biggest mass murderous experiments in history, Angela Davis, who dares to ask about the racist economy which underlies the prison system in the greatest country. This is all about pain – so what about pleasure? Pleasure could be given room in a reflection like that of Benedict de Spinoza on friendship, or in the research of the moral qualities of hermeneutics, like Hans-Georg Gadamer did. Or in the joyful visions of a deschooled society by Ivan Illich.

More than fourty years have passed since the publication of Derrida’s essay on ‘White Mythology’. I do not hear or see it discussed very often (I must confess that I do not frequent meetings of ‘Derrida-specialists’), but to my opinion it still offers some cutting-edge questioning of the practice of making and using universalistic language, which should be put to use still more in analyses of the role of language in science, literature, politics, advertisement, etc. etc.  What Derrida here writes of the practices of  ‘metaphysicians’, as the philosophers par excellence, observes critically the smart and effaced process of deculturalizing ‘white’ culture in order to be able to sell it for transcultural universal truth. What about his analysis?

He cites Anatole France where he compares metaphycisians to knife-grinders, who do not grind knives and scissors, but coins, effacing the images of the rulers of the countries which have put them into traffic. Although the coins without images are now useless in the real world, the grinders claim for them now to be of indefinite exchange-value! Thus they take words from local languages, and rub their original indicative power (transparency) from them, in order to declare them to be universally applicable. ‘[…] the first meaning and the first displacement are then forgotten. The metaphor is no longer noticed, and it is taken for the proper meaning. A double effacement.’

‘Metaphysics – the white mythology which reassembles and reflects the culture of the West: the white man takes his own mythology, Indo-European mythology, his own logos, that is the mythos of his idiom, for the universal form of that he must still wish to call Reason.’ As is fitting for someone who thinks absolute new beginnings to be only more effacing moves, and who therefore makes a plea for deconstructing what already is in place, Derrida would not want to try to dethrone the (silent) domination of white culture, but only tries to make it less silent, by asking for attention for its Indo-European mythological roots (the effaced faces on the coins), thereby making its users aware of the ‘limit[s] of its plasticity.’ Which is, of course, a subtle way to gnaw at its dominance.

The mentioned limits, and natural restrictions to the secret work of the shamans of white mythology (the philosophers) were always obviously active for Seventeenth century philosopher Spinoza. In his pragmatist view of language, the effacing of the local origins of philosophical language can never be total. His point: ‘[…] language is preserved by the learned and the unlearned alike, whereas books and the meaning of their content are preserved only by the learned. Therefore we can readily conceive that the learned may have altered or corrupted the meaning of some passage in a rare book […], but not the meaning of words.’ And ‘words acquire a fixed meaning solely from their use.’ As it remains bound to the practices and thus the needs of unlearned people, Spinoza could still be optimistic about the positive, edifying role of philosophy.

But isn’t there one tiny problem, which would bring us back to the necessary more pessimistic views of Derrida? The fact that literacy is spreading across the world (helped by metaphoric expressions like ‘the millenium goals’) makes the trust in the ‘unlearned’ as the keepers of semantic transparency rather imaginary. The goals of the millenium (what millenium?, of whom?) are about to suck up all human beings into complicity in the belief in universal language. Derrida, in his later work Spirits of Marx, descried opposition to the injustices of our age by ‘a new international’ of ‘sans papiers’, hackers, and other offenders of ‘white legality’ (not his, but my expression). Should he not have mentioned another category of offenders, the ‘sans diplomes’? Would they not be the only ones to effectively resist the universal ‘newspeak’ which spreads around the globe, while insisting on clarity and transparency? This thought might be empowering to all those who are not able, for any reasons whatsoever, to enter the universe of so-called universal meanings. But they won’t read it, I’m afraid…

Jacques Derrida lived from 1930-2004, Baruch Spinoza from 1632-1677.

I cited from Derrida’s Margins of Philosophy, The University of Chicago Press, 1982 [original French edition 1972], and from Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Brill Paperbacks 1991 [original Latin edition1670].