Dasein, Red Elephant.

Rorty on Deconstruction-Pragmatism


Remarks on Deconstruction and Pragmatism

Richard Rorty

Derrida is read, by conservative know-nothings in the United States and Britain, as a frivolous and cynical despiser of common sense and traditional democratic values. Many of my colleagues in the Anglophone philosophical community support this reading, and attempt to excommunicate Derrida from the philosophical profession.

Derrida is read by his fans in American departments of literature, on the other hand, as the philosopher who has transformed our notions of language and the self. They think of him as having demonstrated the truth of certain important propositions, propositions the recognition of which undermines our traditional ways of understanding ourselves, and understanding the books we read. They also take him to have given us a method-the deconstructive method-of reading texts: a method which helps us see what these texts are really about, what is really going on in them.

I find both these ways of reading Derrida equally dubious, and I shall discuss them in turn.

I think that the first misreading has been made easier by the fact that, due to an accident of timing and the necessities of popular journalism, Derrida and Foucault have been bracketed together, and labelled 'French post-structuralism'. These two original thinkers seem to me to have very little in common, apart from their shared Nietzschean suspicions about the tradition of Western philosophy-suspicions which they share with the American pragmatists.

The big difference between Foucault and Derrida is that Derrida is a sentimental, hopeful, romantically idealistic writer. Foucault, on the other hand, often seems to be doing his best to have no social hope and no human feelings. One cannot imagine Derrida hoping to write 'so as to have no face', any more than one can imagine Nietzsche doing so. Despite his prediction that 'the Book' will be replaced by 'the text', Derrida intensely admires the great authors who stand behind the texts he glosses; he has no doubts about his or their authorship. Although he of course has doubts about metaphysical accounts of the nature of the self and of writing, he has no interest in dissolving the books in which great human imaginations have been most fully themselves into anonymous, rootless, free-floating 'discourses'.

Whereas Foucault cultivates aloofness, Derrida throws himself into the arms of the texts he writes about. Cynical detachment is not the whole story about Foucault, but it is an irreplaceable part of that story. Yet it has no part in any plausible story about Derrida-any more than does frivolity. When, in the past, I have described Derrida as 'playful', this has sometimes been read as a dismissive epithet-suggesting that there is something lightweight about him. But I would use the same adjective of Plato and Nietzsche, and in the same sense. There is a difference between 'play' in the approbative sense in which Schiller used it-to say, for example, that man is fully human only when he plays-and what the know-nothings mean by 'frivolity'.

I turn now to the misreading of Derrida by his Anglophone fans. I think it very unfortunate that Derrida's fans describe him as criticizing humanism. 'Humanism' can mean a certain Platonic-Cartesian-Kantian account of what it is to be human. But it can also mean, and to the untutored it typically conveys, participation in the hopes of the Enlightenment-and specifically the hope that human beings, once they have set God and the various surrogates for God to one side, may learn to rely on their own romantic imagination, and their own ability to cooperate with each other for the common good.

In this latter sense, Derrida seems to me as good a humanist as Mill or Dewey. When Derrida talks about deconstruction as prophetic of 'the democracy that is to come', he seems to me to be expressing the same utopian social hope as was felt by these earlier dreamers. When he says that he yearns for a time when man and woman can be friends-a time when we have got beyond the 'virile homosexuality' which is entwined with phallogocentric metaphysics-he seems to me to be expressing the same sort of utopian hope. The interweaving of these two themes in his essay 'The Politics of Friendship' makes that very moving text one of my own favourites.

His Anglophone fans typically use Derrida for the same purposes as Marx and Freud have long been used by literary critics. They think of him as providing new, improved tools for unmasking books and authors-showing what is really going on behind a false front. I do not think that a critic of metaphysics, in the tradition of Nietzsche and Heidegger, should be read in this way. For without the traditional concepts of metaphysics one cannot make sense of the appearance-reality distinction, and without that distinction one cannot make sense of the notion of 'what is really going on'. No more metaphysics, no more unmasking.

These fans also think that there is a method called 'deconstruction' which one can apply to texts and teach to students. I have never been able to figure out what this method is, nor what was being taught to students except some such maxim like 'Find something that can be made to look self-contradictory, claim that that contradiction is the central message of the text, and ring some changes on it.' Application of this maxim produced, in the 1970s and 1980s, tens of thousands of 'deconstructive readings' of texts by American and British professors-readings which were as formulaic and as boring as the tens of thousands of readings which resulted from dutifully applying the maxim 'Find something that can be made to sound like a symptom of an unresolved Oedipus complex.'

This flurry of deconstructive activity seems to me to have added little to our understanding of literature and to have done little for leftist politics. On the contrary, by diverting attention from real politics, it has helped create a self-satisfied and insular academic left which-like the left of the 1960s-prides itself on not being co-opted by the system and thereby renders itself less able to improve the system. Irving Howe's much-quoted jibe-'These people don't want to take over the government; they just want to take over the English Department'-seems to me to remain an important criticism of this academic left.

I see no real connection between what Derrida is up to and the activity which is called 'deconstruction', and I wish that the latter word had never taken hold as a description of Derrida's work. I have never found, or been able to invent, a satisfactory definition of that word. I often use it as shorthand for 'the sort of thing Derrida does', but I do so faute de mieux, and with a self-exculpatory shrug. In an article called 'Deconstruction' (published in volume 8 of The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism), I claim that there are deep differences between Derrida's own motives and interests and those of Paul de Man, the founder of the school of literary criticism which was briefly (before the advent of 'cultural studies') dominant in the US. I argue that the de Manian way of reading texts-as testifying to 'the presence of a nothingness'-is very different from Derrida's approach to texts.

So much for the opposed misreadings of Derrida which I mentioned at the outset. I turn now to the relation of the sort of thing that Derrida does to pragmatism.

Pragmatism starts out from Darwinian naturalism-from a picture of human beings as chance products of evolution. This starting-point leads pragmatists to be as suspicious of the great binary oppositions of Western metaphysics as are Heidegger and Derrida. Darwinians share Nietzschean suspicions of Platonic other-worldliness, and the Nietzschean conviction that distinctions like mind-vs.-body and objective-vs.-subjective need to be reformulated in order to cleanse them of Platonic presuppositions and give them a firmly naturalistic sense. Naturalists, like Derrideans, have no use for what Derrida calls 'a full presence which is beyond play', and they distrust, as much as he does, the various God-surrogates which have been proposed for the role of such a full presence. Both kinds of philosophers see everything as constituted by its relations to other things, and as having no intrinsic, ineluctable nature. What it is depends on what it is being related to (or, if you like, what it differs from).

When it comes to language, pragmatists see the later Wittgenstein, Quine and Davidson as having got rid of the dualistic, Fregean ways of thinking which dominated the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and early analytic philosophy. They read Derrida on language as making pretty much the same criticisms of the Cartesian/Lockean/Husserlian view of 'language as the expression of thought' which Wittgenstein made in his Philosophical Investigations. They read both Derrida and Wittgenstein not as having discovered the essential nature of language, or of anything else, but simply as having helped get rid of a misleading, and useless, picture-the one which Quine called the myth of the museum: the image of there being an object, the meaning, and next to it its label, the word.

What pragmatists find most foreign in Derrida is his suspicion of empiricism, and naturalism-his assumption that these are forms of metaphysics, rather than replacements for metaphysics. To put it another way: they cannot understand why Derrida wants to sound transcendental, why he persists in taking the project of finding conditions of possibility seriously. So when pragmatists are told by 'deconstructionists' that Derrida has 'demonstrated' that Y, the condition of the possibility of X, is also the condition of the impossibility of X, they feel that this is an unnecessarily high-faluting way of putting a point which could be put a lot more simply: viz., that you cannot use the word 'A' without being able to use the word 'B', and vice versa, even though nothing can be both an A and an B.

In my own writing about Derrida I have urged that we see him as sharing Dewey's utopian hopes, but not treat his work as contributing, in any clear or direct way, to the realization of those hopes. I divide philosophers, rather crudely, into those (like Mill, Dewey and Rawls) whose work fulfils primarily public purposes, and those whose work fulfils primarily private purposes. I think of the Nietzsche-Heidegger-Derrida assault on metaphysics as producing private satisfactions to people who are deeply involved with philosophy (and therefore, neces-sarily, with metaphysics) but not as politically consequential, except in a very indirect and long-term way. So I think of Derrida as at his best in works like the 'Envois' section of La Carte postale-works in which his private relationships to his two grandfathers, Freud and Heidegger, are clearest.

Whereas his Anglophone followers typically read books like De la grammatologie as demonstrating philosophical, transcendental truths, I see them as propaedeutic. Derrida's earlier, less idiosyncratic, more 'strictly philosophical' work-and in particular his books on Husserl-were necessary to get him a hearing, necessary to establish himself and get himself published. But, although I find these works very valuable, I do not read them as 'contributions to philosophy', in the sense of books that demonstrate, now and forever, certain theses. I read them as books in which Derrida works out his private relationships to the figures who have meant most to him. I prefer texts like 'Envois' and 'Circonfession' because these seem to me more vivid and forceful forms of private self-creation than is possible through the explication of texts, even when this explication is exceptionally brilliant and original.

Because I read my favourite Derridean texts in this way, I have trouble with the specifically Levinasian strains in his thought. In particular, I am unable to connect Levinas's pathos of the infinite with ethics or politics. I see ethics and politics-real politics as opposed to cultural politics-as a matter of reaching accommodation between competing interests, and as something to be deliberated about in banal, familiar terms-terms which do not need philosophical dissection and do not have philosophical presuppositions.

When Dewey talked politics, as opposed to doing philosophy, he offered advice about how to avoid getting hung up on traditional ways of doing things, how to redescribe the situation in terms which might facilitate compromise, and how to take fairly small, reformist steps. Levinas's pathos of the infinite chimes with radical, revolutionary politics, but not with reformist, democratic politics-which is, I think, the only sort of politics needed in rich constitutional democracies such as Britain, France and the US.

To conclude, I see romantic and utopian hopes of the sort developed in 'The Politics of Friendship' as a contribution to Derrida's private selffashioning, and thus to that of some of his readers (including, obviously, myself). But I do not see texts such as 'The Politics of Friendship' as contributions to political thought. Politics, as I see it, is a matter of pragmatic, short-term reforms and compromises-compromises which must, in a democratic society, be proposed and defended in terms much less esoteric than those in which we overcome the metaphysics of presence. Political thought centres on the attempt to formulate some hypotheses about how, and under what conditions, such reforms might be effected. I want to save radicalism and pathos for private moments, and stay reformist and pragmatic when it comes to my dealings with other people.


As mentioned in my earlier post, this is the essay from Rorty, taken from page 13 – 17 of Deconstruction and Pragmatism. Leave a comment if you found this interesting.

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  1. Hi there,

    I think you misrepresent the ‘anglophone’ critical community with your overgeneralistic dismissal of deconstructive readings of texts. Your apparent position that deconstruction cannot legitimately be of use to critical readings of literary texts is impossible to reconcile with the appearance of the volume by Derrida and others on Joyce, Post-Structuralist Joyce: Essays from the French, pub. Cambridge University Press.

    Nobody in the anglophone critical community would claim deconstruction as a ‘method’. It is an approach to texts, irrespective of the philosophical or literary status of those texts.

    If Derrida is suspicious of empiricism, as you claim, then there is a massive problem with your argument that deconstruction can shed no light on literary texts, especially given the attack to which the Macpherson thesis was subjected by historians during the mid-eighties, and which has more recently been under consequent attack in anglophone literary critical circles. Macpherson is not an empiricist of course, but he and others of his ilk are claiming a heavy empiricist influence on English literary texts. Where Eng. Lit. is concerned, you can’t escape this influence-of-empiricism argument whether you agree with it or not, and so Derrida is bound to make an appearance at some point in the emergent critique of C.B. Macpherson in literary critical circles, e.g. by critics such as William Walker, an eighteenth century specialist in aesthetics, who will have a book out on the subject at some point.

    By the way, sorry my email address is no longer functioning.

    Yours faithfully,

    Charles Landon
    Schlossstr. 15
    49074 Osnabrück

    | Reply Posted 10 years, 9 months ago
  2. * Azzurra says:

    Buon luogo, congratulazioni, il mio amico!

    | Reply Posted 10 years, 5 months ago
  3. * Jason Beale says:

    A very sympathetic reading of Derrida, that doesn’t shy away from pointing out its practical limitations.
    Re Charles Landon’s comments: I wouldn’t describe deconstruction as an ’empirical’ approach, since it doesn’t claim to uncover the ‘truth’ of a text. And the difference between a ‘method’ and an ‘approach’ is somewhat academic isn’t it?

    | Reply Posted 10 years, 1 month ago
  4. * David says:

    Very clear post, which helps explain for me why Derrida the philosopher seems to have nothing to do with architectural deconstruction. By the same path which you describe for lit crit, architects have applied “deconstruction” as a method for treating buildings as texts, and doing nothing more than develop a new architectural style: something which is neither radical, nor post-structuralist.

    Deconstruction in architecture appears to have died out. I think Derrida himself will have a longer-lasting influence.

    | Reply Posted 9 years ago

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