Rorty goes some heroic miles to save Derrida from the anal-lytic trash heap. Are they worth traveling with him?
If Derrida had limited himself to pointing out that choice and selective emphasis underlie all philosophical systems—as Rorty wants him to do; if he had limited himself to pointing out how the excluded concepts and/or assumptions required to make ‘the system work’ usually ‘return’ implicitly in the thinking that explicitly excludes them—as Rorty thinks he does: if these two things were true, then Derrida’s work would be of great value in reading the history of philosophy—as Rorty thinks it is. Readers would be brought to understand the choices philosophers have made when parsing what Dewey called “crude,” “ordinary experience”, i.e. that which one draws from when starting a philosophy.
But he did not. Instead Derrida developed a baroque mélange that was a system but not a “system”, one that required a master concept that was neither “master” nor “concept,” one carried out in a “grammatology” not involving grammar– one thing after another that did/did not include/exclude its contrary/same element. It just gets silly. Gasche does a commendable job of unpacking this silliness into something semi-sensible, and Norris defends the general idea. The net result, though, even after this charitable and impressively patient erudition: Derrida ends up wrapped up in a type of theoretical reflection trying to catch its own tail in the very act of reflecting and theorizing, resulting in an interpretive engine that only runs in one tight little circle, despite its ‘expansiveness’ into texts. What is this circle? What is his choice and selective emphasis from “crude”, “ordinary” experience, the supposition driving the engine of that circle? The interplay of presence and absence, particularly in communication via signs. Specifically, Derrida went from “sometimes the thing itself steals away”, as it does from time to time (and abstractly considered at least always can) to “the thing itself always steals away,” committing us with this emphasis to an array of signs endlessly deferring and differing to and from one another, with no veritable traction in principle in experience or on the things of the world. In other words, for the “metaphysics of presence” Derrida substitutes his own metaphysics of absence, one tyrannized by signs, one that he read back into the tradition, always already “finding” it there in the elements that thinkers of that tradition excluded in their selective emphasis. The con beneath this interpretative shell game he called “deconstruction”: philosophers must selectively emphasize, otherwise they never get off the ground; and they use words to do this. Thus deconstruction can always be made to ‘fit the facts’ of the text, even as it claims there are no facts to fit.
The whole enterprise is pointlessness. When reading philosophers, it is enough to point out and re-evaluate the choices and commitments they make without invoking a metaphysics of absence to justify the endeavor—an invocation that simply replaces intelligent criticism with a puerile game of self-referential bad faith played with narcissistic attachment to its own associations. Intelligently re-evaluating philosophical commitments is just what should be done from time to time, either with one’s own ideas, or when testing those of others against newly revealed features of “crude” “ordinary” experience, features in part revealed through the very ideas under review. In the process it’s good to keep some colloquial advice in mind: don’t become an maniacal inversion of whatever it is you love to hate.
But re-evaluate against what? How? To what end? Indeed, those are the questions. Just don’t beg them with the one trick pony ride that is differance.