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The following letter to Skeptic magazine is a response to an article by L. Kirk Hagen published in 2005 (Skeptic, Vol. 11, #4). The parts of my letter in brackets [ ] were omitted by the Skeptic editors—but these parts were not crucial to the thrust of the letter. For those who would like to read Hagen’s article, the full text is included following my letter. Using red brackets [ ] and font, I have embedded within Hagen’s text my commentary and “corrections.”

Letter to the Editor of Skeptic
Published in Volume 12, #2, 2006, page 17

In his dismissal of Derrida (“The Death of Philosophy,” Skeptic, Vol. 11, #4, 2005) L. Kirk Hagen demonstrates a thorough and ironic misunderstanding of deconstruction—thorough in the sense that it could hardly be more wrong and ironic in the sense that as a scientist Hagen is especially well-equipped to understand deconstruction. Hagen claims that deconstruction is the antithesis of the scientific attitude and the tradition of Enlightenment rationality and its spirit of inquiry (sometimes referred to as “modernism”). Nothing could be further from the truth.

In an article in The Quarterly Journal of Speech (Vol. 85, #4, 1999, available at this site; click herefor link), I argue that the difference between modernism and postmodernism (particularly deconstruction) is one of degree and that postmodernism is a logical and thorough extension of the modern breakthrough insight, prominent in Newton’s work, consisting of a new approach to understanding oppositional relation. Stephen Hawking points out that Newton’s laws of motion imply, contrary to Aristotle, that there can be no point of absolute rest (an implication Newton himself could not accept) thereby altering the discrete oppositional division between motion and rest. Einstein’s work brilliantly confirms and extends this understanding of motion and leads to a similar alteration of the discrete oppositions between space and time, wave and particle, and matter and energy.

Derrida’s views of language constitute an analogous alteration of oppositional relations, oppositions implicit in the modernism of structuralism, that led to new ways of seeing the tension between signifier and signified, text and context, sameness and difference (in relation to meaning). Derrida’s work also leads to the formulation of laws of language, one of which he refers to as “the law of iterability,” (see Derrida, Glyph 2: Johns Hopkins Textual Studies, 1977, 234; for a full account of these laws see Cult of the Kill, Chapter Five). These laws serve in relation to language much as Newton’s and Einstein’s laws serve in relation to the world of macro and micro physics. They enable predictions and they are capable of falsification by one contrary piece of empirical evidence. But, so far, no one has been able to offer any contrary evidence in relation to Derrida’s laws of language, and, as a consequence, his view of language stands as the most viable and the most complete to date in terms of accounting for all the empirical evidence offered in the various modes of interpretation, communication, and miscommunication language presents through endless textual examples.

[Similar to Hagen’s case, it is even more surprising that a trained physicist such as Alan Sokal should also fail to see the similarity in the approach to oppositional relations evident between contemporary physics and postmodern language theory in the form of deconstruction. In fact, after presenting the evidence, I claim in the QJS essay that Derrida’s method and views are “as much in keeping with the tenor of scientific tradition since the Enlightenment as anything that can be imagined” and that “Derrida is in this sense more a keeper of the scientific tradition than Sokal.” Furthermore, “given the understanding of opposites implicit in his arguments, Sokal belongs more to the Aristotelian tradition.” The same can be said of Hagen.]

[Both] Hagen [and Sokal] appear[s] to be almost hysterically overwrought about the assault on objectivity and “the real world” believed to be presented in the challenges of deconstruction. If so, this hysteria is groundless and represents an appalling misunderstanding. [In one of numerous attempts to set the record straight on such misunderstandings Derrida had this to say: “… the emergence of the value of objectivity…belongs to a context. We can call ‘context’ the entire ‘real-history-of-the-world,’ if you like, in which this value of objectivity and, even more broadly, that of truth (etc.) have taken on meaning and impose themselves. That does not in the slightest discredit them. In the name of what, of which other ‘truth,’ moreover, would it?” To accuse Derrida of more extreme versions of relativism such as implicit in the “anything goes” form of interpretive license and notions such as “physical reality is at bottom a linguistic construct” is to be grossly unfair and inaccurate. In light of Derrida’s efforts to put such confusions to rest, the kind of blindness Hagen and Sokal show toward deconstruction, despite their academic qualifications and scientific training, is difficult to understand.]

Derrida does not discredit “truth” nor abandon “objectivity.” He does not do so any more than does Einstein—the author of the theories of special and general relativity. Why is it so easy for scientists to accept a form of relativity in the realm of physics but remain stubbornly opposed to any analogous relevance of a form of relativity in the realm of semiotics?

Gregory Desilet
Longmont, Colorado




Jacques Derrida 1930-2004

L. Kirk Hagen

When Philosopher Jacques Derrida died in Paris at the age of 74 last year, French President Chirac said “France has given the world one of its greatest contemporary philosophers, one of the major figures of intellectual life of our time.” On this side of the Atlantic, Time magazine called Derrida “an intellectual demigod” whose influence on Western thought had been “immeasurable.” Similarly lofty eulogies appeared around the world, all paying homage to Derrida’s best-known invention, a concept called “deconstruction” that became popular in the 1970s, part of the Holy Trinity of postmodern philosophy, alongside Marxism and psychoanalysis. Postmodernism is notorious for its brash assertion that all accounts of the world--scientific, historical, folkloric, you name it--can never be objectively true because they are all just examples of discourse, or “competing vocabularies,” as the arch-postmodernist Stanley Fish one said.1 To this day, the “postmodern turn” retains near-monopoly status in some segments of academia. “It lies like an incubus over the entire humanities curriculum,” is how philosopher Raymond Tallis put it.2 Derrida had even been rumored to be a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature.

For those who declined a ride on the deconstruction bandwagon, Derrida’s legacy is rather different from what President Chirac would have us believe. Traditional scholars in the humanities have felt all along that deconstruction was to philosophy what professional wrestling was to athletics. Its devotees spent a quarter of a century beating their chest and boasting that their radical epistemology would make short work of received ideas in philosophy, literary criticism, and even the natural sciences. English professor Frank Lentricchia had boldly announced a paradigm shift as early as 1980, when he spoke of Derrida’s work as “the end of an era” and a time for “summing up, listing debits and credits, for a casting out the old and welcoming the new.”3 The very name post-modern was intended to denote an epoch that would right all the misconceptions of the modern era for which Descartes, Bacon, Galileo and their ilk were responsible. In the end, however, the traditionalists were vindicated. The postmodern revolution degenerated into one of the most embarrassing episodes in the history of the humanities; an episode from which it will not soon recover, and for which Derrida must bear a large share of responsibility.

[The end of deconstruction has been trumpeted by many “traditionalists” in academe since the late 1980s. See for example Peter Shaw’s prediction in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol. 27, #13, November 28, 1990. Nevertheless, the popularity of Derrida and deconstruction continued to increase to the point that in 2002 a feature-length documentary on his life and work, filmed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman, achieved commercial success in the United States as well as internationally. And one of Derrida’s last public speaking appearances—in Campbell Hall at the University of California at Santa Barbara (late October, 2003)—produced attendance exceeding the seating capacity of the hall (900). The continuing stream of books on Derrida—over 150 titles since 2000 versus about 25 for John Searle and about 40 for Richard Rorty—indicates no abatement in the popularity of deconstruction in relation to “traditionalists” and other competing popular trends.]

Speech Degree Zero

Derrida’s fortunes started to go south in early 1990 when a 600-word column on deconstruction titled “Construction Site--It May Not Mean What It Was Meant to Mean, and It May Not Mean Anything at All” appeared in the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times.4 The author, columnist Jack Smith, normally wrote about less airy topics like bird watching and high school football. His contribution to the debate over things Derridean was little more than a sharp elbow to the ribs of a pretentious academic movement whose love of obfuscation seemed to know no bounds. Smith’s brie critique of deconstruction is not memorable for what it said so much as for the incandescently vitriolic responses it incited. “Childish, irresponsible, and ideologically dangerous,” fumed one of Smith’s readers. “Anti-intellectual rot,” wrote another. One reader ranted about an “attack on deconstruction by a man who glories in his own purposeful ignorance.” Another went so far as to compare the column to the “assaults on the intelligentsia made by Stalin in the 20s, or Hitler in the 30s.”

Nearly everyone who defended deconstruction invoked intellectual privilege of some sort. It was said that Derrida’s work was too difficult for people like Smith because “it relies on an in-depth knowledge of Western philosophy from Parmenides to Husserl, a set of theoretical gambits that are at odds with those implicit in this same Western culture, a use of language that is intentionally metaphoric, and no desire to lower his rhetorical or discursive ‘level’ to please an audience which has not done its ‘homework.’” Deconstruction, an angry Los Angeles Times reader insisted, was the literary equivalent of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem. Without a thorough background in Marx, Hegel, Freud, and Heidegger, it was said, trying to come to grips with deconstruction would be as futile as trying to understand nuclear physics.

To appreciate why Derrida’s supporters went ballistic over such a trifling column, one has to go back half a millennium, to the birth of modernism. Philosophy has steadily lost turf since then, as many of the lines of inquiry once firmly in its grasp have been taken over by other disciplines. In the 17th century, Galileo irrevocably moved cosmology out of Aristotelean metaphysics and into the arena of scientific inquiry. In the 19th century, Darwin moved human origins--and therefore human nature--from the Book of Genesis to the theory of evolution. By the 1960s, there was widespread concern in the humanities that the hard sciences were moving towards epistemological hegemony. In 1971, Edward G. Ballard even raised the possibility that philosophy had completed its service to humanity: “Has philosophy only a few last remaining tasks of analysis and clarification to perform before its career is ended and the sciences and technology take over the whole responsibility for formulating and solving human problems?”5 He compared science to Zeus; an opportunist who emasculated his old parent philosophy and seized control of the kingdom of knowledge.

Especially painful was the transformation that came about in the study of language, the subject Derrida cherished above all others. Noam Chomsky had moved all of linguistics into the adversary’s camp in the late 1950s. Daniel Dennett’s reminiscences vividly capture the reaction this provoked: “Many of those who hated (theoretical linguistics) condemned it as dreadful, philistine scientism, a clanking assault by technocratic vandals on the beautiful, unanalyzable, unformalizable subtleties of language.” The anti-Chomsky hostility was most conspicuous in the language departments of American universities, Dennett notes. These were the very places where deconstruction would later become sacred. “Chomsky’s work was science,” recalls Dennett, “and science was the Enemy--as every card-carrying humanist knows.”6

And then, a savior. The Algerian-born Derrida matriculated at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris in the post-war 1950s and began studying Husserlian phenomenology. A decade later he was contributing to the left-wing journal Tel Quel. Derrida’s work there led to the 1967 publication of Grammatology, his magnum opus. The objective in Grammatology was the establishment of a “science of writing” which, Derrida boasted, “shows signs of liberation all over the world, as a result of decisive efforts.”7 Derrida was about to assemble an army of humanist rebels to engage the evil philistine scientism. They would attack the core of Western metaphysics--its “logocentrism.” A text is not an oracle devoid of preconception, the argument went. Rather, any text (and “there is nothing outside of text,” Derrida famously proclaimed) is a sort of multidimensional mosaic of ideologies, presuppositions and biases that a reader approaches from an equally biased perspective. The reader and text are like two galaxies passing through one another, each one affected by the force of the other. Any objective correspondence between text and reality is thus necessarily subverted. Such are the forces that the science of writing studies. 

[Again, as indicated in the above letter, why is it so hard for Hagen to imagine an interweaving context of influences may be as important in textual studies as it is in the study of astronomical bodies under the theory of general relativity? Does this form of “relativity” destroy all sense of “objectivity”? Einstein did not think so while nevertheless understanding his view altered the simple objectivity of Aristotelian cosmology.]

And how does one become a scientist of writing? Presumably by mastering the methods spelled out in Grammatology, though it is not a good idea to set expectations too high. Much of Derrida’s masterpiece is devoted to an analysis of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 18th century Essay on the Origins of Language.8 There could hardly be a worse piece of classical literature to use as a springboard for a revolution in our understanding of thought and language. Although Rousseau showed the undeniable signs of genius throughout his life--his “Profession de Foi du Vicaire Savoyard” is among the most sublime defenses of religious tolerance ever set to paper--his essay on the origins of language is little more than a compendium of 18th century European prejudices. It includes nothing any contemporary linguist would call insightful. 

[Derrida acknowledges his attention to Rousseau’s essay my appear “exorbitant” and provides a thorough explanation for this attention and a justification for his “method” in approaching the study of language. Apparently Hagen did not bother to read this passage (pp. 157-164).] 

In his discussion of the formation of “languages of the north,” for instance, Rousseau wrote that “as long as an Asian has women and rest, he is content,” while people from Northern climes, where the soil is raw and the labor demanding, “are easily irritated,” which predisposes them to “strong articulations which make them harsh and noisy.”9

Few people in the 20th century ever read this strange essay, and fewer still wrote about it. What is surprising, as John Ellis pointed out in one of the earliest and strongest critiques of Derrida’s work is that Derrida actually appeared to take some of Rousseau’s ruminations seriously.10 Ellis won’t say for sure that he does, however, because it is usually unclear in Grammatology when Derrida is serious, when he is speaking metaphorically, and when he is simply word-smithing with no real objective in mind.

[At least part of the “objective” Derrida had in mind in Of Grammatology was to show the difficulty in clearly separating these modes of speaking from what is often referred to as “literal” modes of speaking.] 

This great seminal work in deconstruction thus points to one of the most dumbfounding ironies of the postmodern age. One would think that the literati, whose job it was to understand, explain, and even teach the art of good writing, would have themselves excelled at self-expression.

Yet Derrida, the most revered figure in 20th century literary criticism, was unforgivably reckless in his exposition. He composed weird, almost surreal narratives that seemed intentionally unintelligible. He took familiar words and concepts hither and yon, and distorted them beyond recognition. In spite of all that, Derrida’s disciples continued to read his analysis of Rousseau, judging it to be one of history’s most profound works on language. They were often shocked to learn that Derrida was never taken seriously as a linguist outside of literary circles. In 1992, a group of philosophers including W.V.O. Quine and Ruth Barcan Marcus formally protested Derrida’s candidacy for an honorary doctorate at Cambridge, saying “many French philosophers see in Mr. Derrida only cause for embarrassment, his antics having contributed significantly to the widespread impression that contemporary French philosophy is little more than an object of ridicule.” Berkeley philosopher of language John Searle complained about Derrida’s “distressing penchant for saying things that are obviously false,” and Chomsky curtly dismissed Derrida’s work as “gibberish.” 

[Derrida was eventually granted the honorary doctorate by an overwhelming (nearly two-thirds) majority vote by the Cambridge faculty. As Christopher Norris points out (www.usm.maine.edu/~bcj/issues/one/norris_text.html), the “embarrassment” now lies clearly on the side of those who signed the letter of protest, all of whom obviously did not have even a basic understanding of Derrida’s work—not because his work is over their heads but because they could not be bothered to give his texts sufficient attention to achieve an adequate reading.]

There is good reason for such disrespect. Like the essay it analyzes, Derrida’s Grammatology is without merit. Among Derrida’s most fervent supporters, it is difficult to find any two individuals who can agree on what the book is supposed to be about. How could they? On page 7 Derrida explains that “the word ‘writing’ has ceased to designate the signifier of the signifier,” and adds that “strange as it may seem, the ‘signifier of the signifier’ no longer defines accidental doubling and fallen secondarity.” In other words, the ‘signifier of the signifier’ conceals and erases itself in its own production.” 

[Here Derrida is using the word “writing” as a signifier to indicate the text of “what is written”—itself a set of signifiers. Seen in this way, “writing” is the “signifier of the signifier” (where “what is written” also functions as the “signified”). In this passage Derrida is suggesting the word “writing” is “beginning to go beyond the extension of language” and must be understood to describe “the movement of language.” Derrida then explains what he means by this “movement”: “There the signified always already functions as a signifier. The secondarity that it seemed possible to ascribe to writing alone affects all signifieds in general, affects them always already, the moment they enter the game. There is not a single signified that escapes, even if recaptured, the play of signifying references that constitute language.” In Derrida’s account the word “writing” has become problematic, now signifying something more than the “simple supplement to the spoken word.” This “movement” or “play” suggests to Derrida the need for a reformulation of the oppositional tension between signifier and signified, and the ability—indeed, the unavoidable necessity in language—for the one to become the other.”]

On page 165, Derrida asserts that writing is like masturbation because both are dangerous in that they “transgress a prohibition and are experienced within culpability.” 

[Out of context, this association seems bizarre. But when placed in context it begins to make sense. Derrida discusses onanism as a form of auto-affection and then has this to say about auto-affection: “Within the general structure of auto-affection… the operation of touching-touched receives the other within the narrow gulf that separates doing from suffering…. Auto-affection is a universal structure of experience. All living things are capable of auto-affection. And only a being capable of symbolizing, that is to say of auto-affecting, may let itself be affected by the other in general. Auto-affection is the condition of an experience in general. This possibility—another name for ‘life’—is a general structure articulated by the history of life, and leading to complex and hierarchical operations.” The structure of reflexivity in auto-affection is also a precondition for consciousness which is also a necessary (but not sufficient) precondition for language]. 

He then tells us that language has “lost life and warmth” because “its accentuated features have been gnawed by consonants,” and that consonants are easier to write than vowels.11 

[Here Hagen engages in shameful misrepresentation. This is not Derrida speaking but rather Derrida rephrasing and explaining Rousseau in a passage previously cited from which the phrase “lost life and warmth” is taken.]

Elsewhere in Grammatology he makes up terms like “consonantic chilling” and “speech-degree zero” that mean nothing to linguists. Analyzing Rousseau’s comments on languages and climates, Derrida concludes that “although the difference between south and north, passion and need, explains the origins of languages, it persists in the constituted languages, and at the extreme, the north amounts to the south of the south, which puts the south to the north of the north.”12

[Again, citing these passages without sufficient context does Derrida a great disservice. It is clear from the context that Derrida is using the terms “consonantic chilling” and “speech degree zero” (no hyphen) to help explain what he believes Rousseau is saying in the following passage: “It would be easy to construct a language consisting solely of consonants, which could be written clearly but not spoken. Algebra has something of such a language…. In those (languages) burdened with useless consonants, writing seems to have preceded speech; and who would doubt that such is the case with Polish?” Derrida’s comments explain Rousseau as suggesting that a language consisting only of consonants would be, metaphorically speaking, “frozen” in writing, a “dead” language, incapable of being spoken, incapable of being liberated in speech—thus “degree zero,” a point of freezing, the point of “consonantic chilling” in phonological gridlock (see page 303 in Derrida’s text).]

The whole book goes on in pretty much the same vein. Along the way, Derrida demonstrates almost complete ignorance of developments in linguistic theory that took place after about 1900. The overarching problem, then, is not that Derrida’s assertions are untestable, or that they are testable but observationally false. The problem is not even that Derrida’s claims are implausible. Rather, the problem is that Grammatology simply doesn’t mean anything. That’s a rather serious shortcoming in a work dedicated to understanding language.

[Here a fair reader will more likely conclude that Hagen’s discovery that the text “simply doesn’t mean anything” says more about his rather than Derrida’s “shortcomings.”]

The closest Derrida ever came to an intelligible hypothesis was his claim that writing is “prior” to speech. Now surely, you may be thinking, Derrida doesn’t mean that humans literally wrote before they spoke. Evidence to the contrary is so overwhelming that it is difficult to imagine anyone making such a statement and actually believing it.13 But if Derrida’s claim was not supposed to be taken literally, what other sense can be assigned to phrases like the one on page 14 of Grammatology (“there is no linguistic sign before writing”) or the one on page 238 (“writing had to appear even before there was a question of speech and its passional origin.”14)? Derrida qualified his thesis by saying that “writing precedes and follows speech, and comprehends it,” which is about as helpful as saying that language originated before, during and after the Upper Paleolithic Period.15 

[Hagen conveniently ignores the fact Derrida takes great pains to make clear in Of Grammatology that he is using the word “writing” in an extended sense, a sense he explains from the outset (from page 7 forward), the sense of “writing before the letter,” the sense of “writing” as it implies a structure and a logic of oppositional tension between signifier and signified to which every use of language, including what is commonly referred to as “speech,” conforms. Derrida shows the sense in which “speech” conforms to certain structural limitations (between signifier and signified) that previously had been thought to belong only to or primarily to “writing.” In this regard, the phoneme is no different in its structural limitations than the grapheme and it is in this sense both the phoneme and the grapheme are kinds of “writing.” In this broad understanding of “writing,” limitations and structures identified by Rousseau and thought to belong primarily or exclusively to writing are seen to apply to language and to the sign in general. From the perspective of Derrida’s critique of Rousseau, “writing,” as a word for the possibility (and possibilities) of sign systems, may be seen to be “prior to speech.” Along this line of reasoning “speech” becomes a species of “writing.”]

John Caputo, one of Derrida’s most ardent supporters, once chastised the “careless critics” for using this literal interpretation against Derrida. But while Caputo had no problem explaining what Derrida did not mean, he too found it excruciatingly difficult to explain what Derrida did mean. In typical postmodern style, Caputo defended Derrida by stumbling from one opaque metaphor to another. “Derrida does not mean that, historically, writing is older than speech,” insisted Caputo. “Différence is archi-writing,” he explained, and “you cannot ask what différence is, or for its meaning or truth.” 

[Here Hagen cites the passage incorrectly, apparently unaware that Caputo is explaining Derrida’s neologistic term “différance” not “différence.” This lapse in accuracy of citation and inattention to detail regarding the special significance of this term in Derrida’s work is an extraordinary lapse for someone who touts adherence to “empirical” and “scientific” rigor and only confirms Hagen’s superficial examination of deconstruction.] 

It is “the quasi-condition of possibility.” It is “a Buddhist finger at the moon of uncontainable effects.”16 Caputo pummels his readers with big words for two more pages, and then wisely moves on to a different topic.

The Science Wars

Derrida never made any effort to improve his prose. And yet, over the years hordes of converts took to aping his impenetrable rodomontades in article after article, dissertation after dissertation, book after book. A stellar example was Alan Sokal’s 1996 paper “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” which appeared in a special edition of the postmodern journal Social Text that was devoted to the postmodern “Science Wars.” It was in that article that Sokal first revealed to the world how Derrida’s observation about the “Einsteinian constant” relates to “the invariance of the Einstein field equation under nonlinear space-time diffeomorphisms.” Sokal was a bona fide physicist, and his paper a ringing endorsement of the postmodern program and its key tenet that “physical reality is at bottom a linguistic construct.”17 Here was the scientific cachet that the postmodernists felt they needed and deserved.

The only drawback was that it was a hoax. Sokal would soon admit that his paper was really just “a melange of truths, half-truths, quarter-truths, falsehoods, non sequiturs, and syntactically correct sentences that have no meaning whatsoever.” He wrote it, he said, not just for laughs (the traditionalists were rolling on the floor) but to expose the declining standards of intellectual rigor in the humanities. The knee-jerk defense from deconstructionists had always been that Derrida was misunderstood because his ideas were so deep that only the literati could get their minds around them. The fact that a thoroughly meaningless article could be published in a prestigious postmodern journal proved that Derrida’s aficionados did not themselves understand their ideas.18 

[Social Text was not a journal Derrida endorsed and its editors were never embraced by Derrida as his “aficionados” or as representative interpreters or exponents of his ideas. In fact, Derrida was very concerned about most American interpretations of and commentaries on his work.] 

If this were pro wrasslin’, then “Transgressing the Boundaries” would be the old Tombstone Piledriver; a move that leaves even the most belligerent combatant punch-drunk.

On May 18, 1996, the Sokal Hoax made the front page of the New York Times. Derrida himself had not been singled out in Sokal’s article, nor in the devastating sequel Fashionable Nonsense, which Sokal co-authored with Belgian physicist Jean Bricmont. 

[Derrida was not singled out for good reason. Neither Sokal nor Bricmont could find a single passage where Derrida had made a flawed or ill-informed reference to or use of science.] 

But Derrida was a proud man who felt he had been dissed, so he wrote a response for the French daily Le Monde. His letter, titled “Sokal and Bricmont are not serious,” is one of the few writing samples from Derrida that is actually comprehensible. Derrida tried to score points through condescension, referring to “le pauvre Sokal.”19 But he did not have anything with which to dispute Sokal. He simply defended his reputation by insisting “I am always economical and prudent in the use of scientific reference.” 

[Derrida says much more than this in Le Monde. He acknowledges that although he had not been the direct target of Sokal and Bricmont’s book he was, at the beginning of the hoax, among the “preferred targets” then removed from the direct list only to become an oblique target through many newspaper and magazine articles promoting the book and the hoax. As an oblique target, he was attacked for his supposed “relativism” and “anti-Enlightenment” stance against “reason.” In Le Monde he responded by saying: “These people (Sokal and Bricmont) are not serious. As for the ‘relativism’ which, it is said, would worry them, well, where this word has a rigorous philosophical meaning, there is no trace of it in my work. Neither of a critique of Reason and the Enlightenment. On the contrary” (Le Monde, November 20, 1997, p. 17).]

Alas, Derrida was no scientist. Time and time again in Grammatology he refers to the “science of linguistics,” the “modern science of language,” the “science of writing,” the “idea of science,” the “roots of scientificity,” the “science of the possibility of science,” the “scientificity of science,” the “science of science,” and so on ad nauseum, even though there is nothing in his book that is recognizably scientific. There are no experimental protocols, no empirically testable hypotheses or predictions, no account of language acquisition, no theory of mind or brain, no insights on universal grammar, no archaeological or anthropological data, or anything that even resembles science. 

[The article I refer the reader to in my letter above, available on this web site, thoroughly refutes the claim that Derrida “was no scientist.” With his view of the structure of oppositional tensions Derrida belongs more in the mainstream of scientific thinking since the Enlightenment than Sokal or Hagen.]


Although we are nearly a decade into the post-Sokal death throes of postmodernism, it remains difficult to gauge Derrida’s legacy. He wrote a slew of books on a slew of subjects during the 1980s and 1990s, none of which succeeded in rendering his core ideas transparent, or even translucent. He shocked quite a few people when, in a debate on international politics, he refused to call the 9/11 atrocities an act of international terrorism.20 

[Here Hagen gives his source as Julian Coman’s obituary on Derrida in The Telegraph. Coman cites Derrida as saying, “an act of ‘international terrorism’ is anything but a rigorous concept that would help us grasp the singularity of what we are trying to discuss.” Coman does not provide the source for this remark but it would appear to come from Giovanna Borradori’s interview of Derrida in Philosophy in a Time of Terror (2003). However, I can find no passage that corresponds precisely to this statement. Again, through second-hand sourcing and narrow context Hagen badly distorts what Derrida is saying. 

In this interview Derrida does not refuse to call the events of 9/11 acts of “international terrorism” but instead questions the extent to which that label sheds adequate light on the complexity of these events. As Derrida points out, the expression has not been one clearly understood or agreed upon in the international community. Commenting on a televised session of the UN following the events of 9/11, Derrida explains, “For just as they were preparing to condemn ‘international terrorism,’ certain states expressed reservations about the clarity of the concept and the criteria used to identify it. As with so many other crucial juridical notions, what remains obscure, dogmatic, or precritical does not prevent the powers that be, the so-called legitimate powers, from making use of these notions when it seems opportune…. Semantic instability, irreducible trouble spots on the borders between concepts, indecision on the very concept of the border: all this must not only be analyzed as a speculative disorder, a conceptual chaos or zone of passing turbulence in public or political language. We must also recognize here strategies and relations of force…. Let’s look again at many of the phenomena that some are trying to identify and interpret as (national or international) ‘terrorist’ acts, acts of war, or peacekeeping interventions. They no longer aim at conquering or liberating a territory and at founding a nation-state. No one any longer aspires to this, not the United States or the (wealthy) so-called ‘northern’ states, which no longer exercise their hegemony through the colonial or imperial model of occupying a territory, and not the countries formerly subject to this colonialism or imperialism. The ‘terrorist/freedom fighter’ opposition also belongs to the categories of the past. Even when there is ‘state terrorism’ it is no longer a question of occupying a territory but of securing some technoeconomic power or political control that has but a minimal need for territory” (2003, 103-105). 

While desiring to step back from oversimplifications and crudely polarized thinking regarding “terror” and “terrorism” that followed the events of 9/11, Derrida nevertheless makes very clear he must not be confused in any way with those who would defend the perpetrators or the strategies of 9/11: 

“What appears to me unacceptable in the ‘strategy’ (in terms of weapons, practices, ideology, rhetoric, discourse, and so on) of the ‘bin Laden effect’ is not only the cruelty, the disregard for human life, the disrespect for law, for women, the use of what is worst in technocapitalist modernity for the purposes of religious fanaticism. No, it is, above all, the fact that such actions and such discourse open onto no future and, in my view, have no future. If we are to put any faith in the perfectibility of public space and of the world juridical-political scene, of the ‘world’ itself, then there is, it seems to me, nothing good to be hoped for from that quarter. What is being proposed, at least implicitly, is that all capitalist and modern technoscientific forces be put in the service of an interpretation, itself dogmatic, of the Islamic revelation of the One. Nothing of what has been so laboriously secularized in the forms of the ‘political,’ of ‘democracy,’ of ‘international law,’ and even in the nontheological form of sovereignty… none of this seems to have any place whatsoever in the discourse ‘bin Laden.’ That is why, in this unleashing of violence without name, if I had to take one of the two sides and choose in a binary situation, well, I would. Despite my very strong reservations about the American, indeed European, political posture, about the ‘international antiterrorist’ coalition, despite all the de facto betrayals, all the failures to live up to democracy, international law, and the very international institutions that the states of this ‘coalition’ themselves founded and supported up to a certain point, I would take the side of the camp that, in principle, by right of law, leaves a perspective open to perfectibility in the name of the ‘political,’ democracy, international law, international institutions, and so on. Even if the ‘in the name of’ is still merely an assertion and a purely verbal commitment. Even in this most cynical mode, such an assertion still lets resonate within it an invincible promise. I don’t hear any such promise coming from ‘bin Laden,’ at least not one for this world” (2003, 113-114)]. 

Even then his followers did not fold up their tents. Finally, in April 2003, the New York Times, covering a critical theory symposium at the University of Chicago, declared that “the era of big theory is over,” and the grand paradigms that swept through humanities departments in the 20th century--psychoanalysis, structuralism, Marxism, deconstruction, post-colonialism--have lost favor or been abandoned.”21

Musing on Ballard’s image of philosophy as a dying patient, one cannot help but recall the death of 17th century scientist Pierre Gassendi, who was subjected to nine purgative bleedings to remedy a fever. When his condition worsened, Gassendi begged for mercy. But a zealous physician ordered five more, and Gassendi finally died. At the end of the 20th century philosophy lay gravely ill, its lifeblood having been sucked out by other disciplines. Derrida and others like him tried to save the patient by purging it of logic, reason, and clear exposition. It was the worst treatment imaginable at such a critical juncture in philosophy’s history.

And yet the forecast for the humanities is not all gloomy. In the pre-Derridean years, the humanities were a celebration of all forms of human intellectual enterprise; of science, literature, art, and music. Will and Ariel Durant’s encyclopedic Story of Civilization, for instance, is a lucid, engaging, and thoughtful treatise on our intellectual and cultural history. And contrary to rhetoric from the far left, traditional works like the Durants’ were not all Western-hegemonic in their outlook. The Durants portray Western Civilization warts and all, with forthright accounts of our shameful slave-trading past and our sad history of religious bigotry. The Durants also wrote extensive chapters on Islamic and Asian influences on our cultural development. Traditional scholarship is now making a comeback, “growing up in the cracks of the postmodern concrete,” as one critic has said, even as other writers explore new areas in which the sciences, or at least the scientific outlook, can inform research in the humanities.22 Steven Pinker, Joseph Carroll, and E. O. Wilson are among those on the vanguard of a movement that is, as Pinker writes, “consilient with the sciences and respectful of the minds and senses of human beings.”23

As yet this new school has no name (though “Reconstruction” has an undeniable appeal). Whatever it is eventually called, it will be none too kind to Derrida. That is a real shame, because while Derrida was no great shakes as a writer or philosopher, his work makes it clear that he was exceptionally well-read and well-educated in the Western tradition. His intellect certainly could have been put to better use. Sadly, having one’s name associated with the latest, greatest idea has always been irresistible to academics; the grander the claim, the grander the fame. Thus it often happens that talented scholars will manage to bedazzle a decent number of like-minded enthusiasts and sail off into murky waters. Changing course entails the loss of prestige, and bad ideas end up lingering way too long.

Deconstruction lingers on, as is evident from the accolades published after Derrida’s death. But it is time to start looking for a suitable epitaph, and the best candidate so far comes from the oft-cited “Letter to a Japanese Friend” that Derrida wrote to Professor Izutsu in 1983.24 “What deconstruction is not?” asks Derrida. “Everything of course! What is deconstruction? Nothing of course!” Derrida was right...of course. 

[To which, in conclusion, a fair reader can only add in bemused recoil from Hagen’s obtuse commentary: “…of course!” Derrida was never one to abjure provocative playfulness but, for those who care to read with an open mind, the answer to the enigma of “What is deconstruction?” is available in Derrida’s work in language any admirer of Enlightenment rationality can, with a little effort, readily decode.]



1. Fish, S. 1994.”The Empire Strikes Back.” There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech: And It’s a Good Thing Too. New York: Oxford University Press, 57.
2. Tallis, R. 1999. “Review of Impostures Intellectuelles.” P.N. Review, no. 128, June
3. Lentricchia, F. 1980. After the New Criticism. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
4. Op. cit., February 11, 1990.
5. Ballard, E.G. 1971. Philosophy at the Crossroads. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 3.
6. Dennett, Daniel. 1995. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 386.
7. Derrida, J. 1976. Of Grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 4.
8. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1990. Essay on the Origin of Language, Victor Gourevitch (trans.), New York: Harper and Row.
9. Op. cit., 274
10. Ellis, J. 1989. Against Deconstruction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 25.
11. Op. cit., 226, 303.
12. Derrida, Of Grammatology, 218
13. For example, many cultures speak but do not write, but there is no such thing as a culture that writes but does not speak. The archaeological record shows that humans were uniquely adapted for speech millennia before there was any evidence of writing.
14. The reference to “passional origin” has to do with Chapter 2 of Rousseau’s essay and its thesis that “the first invention of speech is not due to the needs but to the passions,” 245.
15. Derrida, Of Grammatology, 238.
16. Caputo, J. 1997. Deconstruction in a Nutshell. New York: Fordham University Press, 102.
17. Sokal, A. 1996. “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” Social Text 46/47, 217.
18. Sokal says he submitted this afterword to Social Text, only to have it rejected “on the grounds that it did not meet their intellectual standards.”
19. Derrida, J. 1997. Le Monde, 20 November, 20.
20. Coman, Julian. 2004. “Derrida, Philosophy’s Father of ‘Deconstruction’, Dies at 74,” The Telegraph 10 October. Available online http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml
21. Eakin, Emily 2003. “The Latest Theory is That Theory Doesn’t Matter.” New York Times 29 April, D, 9.
22. Turner, Frederic, cited in Wilson, E. O. 1998. Consilience, New York: Vintage, 235.
23. Pinker, S. 2003. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penquin Books, 416.
24. Wood and Bemasconi (ed). 1985. Derrida and Différence, Warwick: Parousia Press. 1-5.

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