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Derrida vs. the rationalists (newhumanist.org.uk)
43 points by Hooke on Feb 9, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 54 comments

Pain ...

Studied analytical Phil at Undergrad and struggled with what's well captured in this joke:

"To do maths you need pen, paper and a wastebasket. For philosophy, the pen and paper are enough."

There's just so much noise, even in it's supposedly distilled analytical form. The stuff worth a damn e.g ontology, possible world semantics, epistemological logic, etc quickly finds its way out into another field.

It's there, the value is there, it's just all that damned noise is too.

Noise is just music that hasn't yet been understood, codified and eventually commodified.

(I'm joking, but not entirely)

Noise is a sub-genere of music. (I'm serious, but not entirely)


It's also the name of a very influential book on the subject: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noise:_The_Political_Economy_o...

> Derrida’s famously difficult thought is often dismissed as “post-modern” nonsense. Is there more to it than might first appear?

TL;DR: No.

Well-written article, though. Unfortunately for the author, Derrida's philosophy is fundamentally self-defeating, so arguing for its value is an extremely expensive exercise in fighting against the nature of our universe.

So, 30 Rock is my go-to philosophical rebuttal for such displays of mind-numbing struggle: "Life finds a way. Did you learn NOTHING from Jurassic Park?"

>TL;DR: No.

Only according to those that have only been fed with analytic philosophy and its tradition.

Deconstructionists can, to quote Donnie Darko, go suck a fuck.

With insights like these from the other camp, who needs them anyway...

It seems like your interpretation of my words is deficient.

To expand a bit: How do we know what Derrida thought? Well, he wrote several papers, and he gave several talks. But if Derrida's view is correct, we can't be sure that we actually understood what he meant, either.

Worse, if Derrida really believed what he said, why write a paper or give a talk anyway? It's not like his readers or hearers were going to understand him, so why bother? (That is, Derrida, by writing the papers and giving the talks, demonstrates that on some level he doesn't believe his own position.)

The rationalists say that a major purpose of language is to communicate facts about the world.

The postmodernists say: "What are 'facts'? What is 'world'?"

So with facts gone and the real world gone, that leaves only one purpose for language, for saying anything at all: to get others to do what you want them to do. (This is a simplification of Wittgenstein's "language-games" of the form of e.g., the Builders' Game.)

I've always maintained that Derridean postmodernism is, in actuality, a form of long-form trolling whose main purpose was to provoke traditional philosophers by baffling them or getting them to fruitlessly debate the propositions. In this it's sort of a language-game: Derrida produced words, and the philosophers reacted in just the way he intended them to when he wrote the words. Whether it was for his own amusement, to show those stiff-necked rationalists that they're not immune to cognitive or deductive traps, or whatever -- who knows? But the interesting bit is that trolling survives as a valid intention for Derrida to produce the philosophy he did, whether or not he took his own propositions seriously (though if he did, he would have to consider whether the academics he was trolling existed just in his own head).

> So with facts gone and the real world gone, that leaves only one purpose for language, for saying anything at all: to get others to do what you want them to do.

And now we have a regime in the United States that has downright weaponized this posture.

Indeed. It's distressing how this tactic can be (and is) employed by all sorts of unhinged extremists, from radical postmodernists to Trump and his cronies.

Being an obscurantist is apparently a great strategy if you want to fool and exploit people. Would that it weren't so damn effective. :/

I upvoted you, but I also felt compelled to leave a more substantive response to your comment:


Since you seem keen on the idea of shining a light on liars and abusive pedagogues, you'll no doubt enjoy this (now-ancient, from 2005!) piece of criticism from the late Christopher Hitchens published in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/22/books/review/transgressing...

My word, do we need clever critics now more than ever. D:

Well, picking on Derrida's philosophy is like picking on Rob Liefeld's art, or the crazy 90s hair your wife had in her yearbook photos: everybody pretty much now agrees that it was bad, and that we were a little crazy when it was in fashion.

  > I've always maintained that Derridean postmodernism is,
  > in actuality, a form of long-form trolling […]
I disagree. I don't think it's coincidence that postmodernism arose where and when it did; it is precisely suited to exonerate France's ‘performance’ in WWII.

I am not sure that Derrida invented the form; I get the impression that he was responding to structuralists on their own terms.

In other words like a good troll. A good troll knows their audience and is intimately familiar with that audience's strongly-held beliefs, so they can refute them with arguments that may or may not be sound, but seem plausible enough at first glance, so that the audience will get good and mad when the troll seemingly yanks the rug out from under them.

Surely the purpose of language is to get published?

>Worse, if Derrida really believed what he said, why write a paper or give a talk anyway? It's not like his readers or hearers were going to understand him, so why bother?

All of those being things Derrida himself has answered in his work.

So it's kind of like when a new scientific paper is posted on Reddit and within ten minutes somebody with no relation to the field at all (and who haven't even read the paper, at least not carefully) is sure to have spotted some trivial errors that he is sure the 10 PhDs that have studied the field for ages haven't thought of.

But has he answered them? Or has he merely written down some syntactical symbols in order?

It's a tough one.

Well, you'll have to make your own interpretation of them.

But this also holds for anything you write as well.

It's not like laughing at it makes it any less true.

I'm not really laughing at it. I'm pointing out that it's self-contradictory. Or if you prefer, applied to itself, it destroys itself. I prefer that things I think are true not refute themselves.

[Edit: coldtea (or anyone else), if you think I'm wrong, feel free to try to state Derrida's position in a way that does not destroy itself, and we can argue about it.]

Based on past experience, we are not likely to see any enlightenment from that source, merely more insinuations that we are too dumb to appreciate the Emperor's wardrobe, with, perhaps, some vacuous tautologies.

Actually, there is an idea that has been floating around other threads here, that Derrida sought to destroy structuralism by turning its own methods on it, thereby exposing its self-contradictions. If so, then he only speaks to those who are already engaged with structuralism - hence my comment elsewhere about closed self-referentiality. I have no idea whether this was his intent, but the thing is, it works anyway.

Thank you. When going to the source (Derrida, et al), one gets the sense that deconstructionists have absolutely no desire to enlighten, educate, edify, or indeed provide any value at all to the reader/student.

Quite the opposite, in fact. The disdain and desire to confound oozes right off the page.

>one gets the sense that deconstructionists have absolutely no desire to enlighten, educate, edify, or indeed provide any value at all to the reader/student.

That's because they are not supposed to be mentors and they don't deal with students (except nominally, in their academic capacity). They deal with adults.

I haven't yet used this Unicode codepoint, standardized in Unicode 9, but I don't think a better opportunity will present itself for a premiere, so:

EDIT: oh my god, HN filters out emoji codepoints, how utterly barbaric.

Anyway, it was going to be this dude: http://emojipedia.org/rolling-on-the-floor-laughing/

I, for one, find your position here to be inarguable, but Marazan's comment is nevertheless trenchantly amusing.

The only good thing about post-modernism is the fact that it illustrates the vacuous nature of academic philosophy. If the field had anything worthwhile in it, it would have built up some kind of institutional immune response to that kind of bullshit. And no, I don't mean an endless stream of convoluted rebuttals. I mean post-modernism just wouldn't enter any sensible conversation in the first place.

I find it amusing that fsmoud scientists from Feynman to Dawkins often jab at philosohers in their works, probably thanks to post-modernism.

You realize that most academic philosophers in the US and other English-speaking countries share your attitude toward post-modernism, right? TFA even points out the divide. You must have gone to a program with a "traditional" philosophy department, perhaps in Europe?

Most university philosophy departments in the US focus on logic, analytic philosophy, philosophy of science, cognitive science, etc, etc. I can't even think of a single philosopher at my university's department who would have done anything but chuckle at post-modernism. In fact, it was a philosophy prof who told me about the book "Fashionable Nonsense".

From the article:

"Outside France, the dominant philosophical school was analytic philosophy. A broad church, its foundations had initially been articulated by, among others, Bertrand Russell, GE Moore and the early works of Wittgenstein. Founded on the notion of conceptual clarity, analytic philosophy (in its crudest form) regards philosophy as a branch of the sciences, often subservient to the natural sciences, or at best continuous with them. It proposes that through the logical analysis of philosophical propositions, the basic questions of existence can be clarified, and possibly solved."

So why would you generalize all philosophers into the bucket of post-modernism? Many of the founders of modern analytic philosophy were mathematicians: Russell, Frege, Whitehead, Peirce, etc.

The mathematician Michael Harris wrote a very good even-handed review of Fashionable Nonsense.

He finds possible value in the philosophy that it mocks, and points out the general crudeness of the authors' attitude and approach. I think his review is well worth reading.


Oh dear God, I read only 1/4 of the review and I feel like I've lost several IQ points. Yes, perhaps they were crude, but unlike Dr. Harris, I find no value in the philosophy mocked by Fashionable Nonsense. Even reading about that kind of postmodern philosophical claptrap is pretty devoid of value (which is probably why I never managed to read all of Fashionable Nonsense).

But yes, he's a mathematician, I agree.

Harris has, I think, a really good prose style and a refreshing "all's grist to my mill" attitude to the topic.

Sorry for the damage to your IQ.

A fair point, but the persistence of the divide is, itself, telling (or interesting. Or both.)

Postmodernism has its occasional brilliant insights. Most important is its constant skepticism, its refusal to believe someone who says, "trust me."

Constant skepticism ultimately becomes self-referential.

As it should be.

Until it leads (as it inevitably tends to) to closed, and therefore irrelevant, universes of discourse, as appears to have happened in this corner of philosophy.

Pruning branches is an important part of growing a decision tree. Don't cut down the tree if some branches went in the wrong direction.

I suppose that is OK if you already know in what direction your preferred answer lies, but it does not seem to be in the spirit of self-referential skepticism.

Probably thanks to unmitigated baseless arrogance.

"No man thoroughly understands a truth until he has contended against it."

Many identities, lifes, careers, organizations have been built around the assumption that objective and absolute knowledge is possible, truth can be defined, reality must have a solid core at its foundation. We're talking countless man-centuries of emotional, intellectual and social investment.

No one wants to shake the branch they're sitting on. And yet, the way I see it if someone claims to be engaged in science or philosophy, that is precisely what they must do, rather than summarily discard anything they have been conditioned to consider ridiculous.

Between "we don't know anything about anything, might as well drop the whole science thing" and "we know with absolute certainty that <something>" there is this huge grey area, where we seem to know enough about what seems to be reality that we can often predict it, shape it to our liking and build cool things.

To me, the most interesting question of this whole postmodernism vs scientific inquiry/analytic philosophy debate is why so many are so incredibly uncomfortable in that area (where, one might argue, life actually happens), that they must either, with an almost religious zeal, insist on having found absolute truth (despite no evidence having ever been produced to that effect and, allowing for the existence of objective reality, tons of evidence of having been wrong in the past) or altogether deny the obvious usefulness of the scientific method.

It seems that more often than not we can only engage with reality while pretending that we can know, understand and control it with absolute certainty and if/when disavowed of that illusion, are ready to immediately fall into some form of nihilism, denying any objective approach to anything.

What I'm saying is that there's nothing wrong with using an analytic/scientific approach to make good things happen and generally have a good time while at the same time not being quite as trigger happy with the "pseudoscience", "ridiculous" and "impossible" labels when something doesn't fit our ideas of how the world is supposed to be.

Let's not forget there was a time when one could get locked up for suggesting the earth was orbiting the sun.

Come on, as technologists, hn readers cant seriously favor structuralism over post modern thinking.

To put it in CS terms: structuralists would think that general AI would be obtained by coding expert systems. Structuralists were the ones who believed the semantic web would work. That as engineers, we could write a structure, a schema, a program, that would underlie all things and ideas in the universe.

This of course has been quite a failure. The bottom up approach to AI, which appeared with neural networks, is deeply postmodern. It assumes that all experience is relative and that human intelligence grasps with reality in a reflexive way. reacting to stimuli rather than building a unique model of the world that would fit all situations.

You may say that post modern philosophy is written in a hard way, but it cant be denied that there are a lot of people here who are postmodern without knowing it!

That's about as vacuous as saying that neural networks require every constituent to work in harmony with each other and thus show the value of Confucian ideology over Platonic pursuit of objective truth.

It's not really just Derrida, is it?

I find the most powerful anecdote of the whole bunch is that of Wittgenstein. The article mentions him -- Outside France, the dominant philosophical school was analytic philosophy. A broad church, its foundations had initially been articulated by, among others, Bertrand Russell, GE Moore and the early works of Wittgenstein. -- but just mentioning "the early works" offhand is misleading, since it goes a lot deeper than that.

Wittgenstein wasn't just "a part of the church". After the Tractatus, he was hailed by many of them, especially among the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle that most closely resemble "skeptics" and techie-technocrats today, as their Jesus. And with Philosophical Investigations, later on, he criticized the climax of his earlier work, and became an apostate of sorts.

Everyone with a passing interest in this topic should check out Ray Monk's biography of Wittgenstein, "Duty of Genius". It's very well told.

Wittgenstein is interesting in the history of philosophy as the guy who ruined it twice.

Had he lived longer there's no doubt he would have done it again.

And Monk wrote that biography at the age of 26. I've wasted my life.

It was in my early 20s that I was most active with philosophy. Let's not forget that many (most?) philosophers first lived their lives and then wrote about it in their end years. I'm betting my story will be similar.


I must point out that Wittgenstein should not be considered a messiah to logical positivists, because while they saw his Tractatus as the holy grail — the ultimate philosophical weapon, the end of the line for those vacuous, angst-ridden, mysticism-indulging continentalists — they grossly misunderstood Wittgenstein's point.

I have found the following quote by F. H. Bradley to capture the folly of the Vienna Circle:

"The man who is ready to prove that metaphysical knowledge is wholly impossible... is a brother metaphysician with a rival theory of first principles." (F.H. Bradley, Appearance and Reality)

(I typically whip this quote out whenever conversing with a peer in the overtly cynical industry of software development. Many of my peers over the years have been quite convinced that philosophy is nonsense, but this is already a philosophical stance.)

Suffice it to say that Wittgenstein despised the logical positivists, audacious and hasty as they were to presume that his Tractatus was little more than a weapon against continental philosophy and metaphysics, and an answer to all philosophical problems. I think anyone who perceives Wittgenstein as a logical positivist or a champion of theirs has only read or only understood the final statement of the book: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent" (or something like that).

This does not mean that the continental philosopher should not speak, for two reasons:

1. if you have understood continental philosopher's work, he typically is not attempting to speak from a privileged, metaphysical position, but rather from a wholly anthropic and internal perspective;

2. Wittgenstein was not trying to tell metaphysically minded philosophers to shut up, but rather that their efforts were doomed by virtue of being without any meaning w.r.t. the real world.

Wittgenstein all but condemns his own book to Hume's philosophical fire in the preface to the Tractatus, stating that he who understands what Wittgenstein came to understand, and recorded in the book, will realise that to grok the book is to ascend a ladder and kick the ladder away beneath you.

This is because the book itself is without meaningfulness by its own standards. In a similarly unsettling (for logical positivists) vein, Wittgenstein bundled mathematical propositions in with those nasty, problematic metaphysical ones, because for Wittgenstein, both are tautologies, or truisms.

Think about this statement: 'God is an omnipotent being'. Using a typical definition of the word 'God', this is a truism, because the word God lacks a reference to a real world object and is instead intended to signify something with the following properties:

- existence - omnipotence - omniscience - omnipresence

So the statement 'God is an omnipotent being' is equivalent to 'an omnipotent being is an omnipotent being'. Which is the same as saying '2+2 = 4', because 2+2 is the definition of 4, and can be considered an alias to 4, just as 4 is the definition of 2+2 and so on.

Mathematics is an infinite set of truisms, and the only reason we don't have a total understanding of mathematics is that we are not omniscient and because there are, as has been proven, propositions in mathematics that cannot be proven.

Taken out of context, Wittgenstein's Tractatus is nothing more than its conclusion: that there can be no meaningful conversations about topics like deities and ethics because they are beyond the epistemology of humans — or as I like to phrase it, out of scope.

Yet he arrived at this conclusion by being rather more similar to a continental philosopher in his thinking than any analytic philosopher. His work has not stopped nearly every human from discussing such topics in the years after his work was published, and while Wittgenstein was mostly careful to avoid such discussions, this was simply because he considered it a waste of energy and time.

Postmodernists deny the reality of shared, objective truths, then try to begin a dialogue requiring what's just been denied.

Worse: Presenting their view as the shared, objective truth.

I think the short answer to deconstruction is that meaning comes from the regularities of the human body and the world in which it lives. However, contrary to much (but certainly not all) Western philosophy, this meaning cannot be fully described in a single set of precise concepts.

I think the key to understanding deconstruction is that is is what the French left became when it lost its faith in the Communist movement, but still wanted to maintain a hope in bringing about a radical new world that would overcome all the problems of the modern liberal industrial era.

The early internet was a Derridian playground.

There was, literally, nothing beyond the text at 9600 baud. Identity and purpose and intention of content generators were permanently undecipherable in those days. You could only take things as they were presented to maintain sanity and causality.

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