Derrida’s other modus operandi

Revising an essay on Derrida, I came across this passage, which mirrors formally claims made all the way back in 1963 about Foucault’s History of Madness, where he argued that far from displacing any conceptions of madness, Foucault had to assume an everyday, common understanding of it in order to perform its history. Whatever the validity of this claim, here he is in 1999 discussing Heidegger on death in his Death Penalty lectures (he makes a similar claim in Aporias, but this is much clearer):

My hypothesis today is that all alleged pre-comprehensions [note well, of course, that this is the terminology for how Heidegger enters all hermeneutic circles, such as famously at the beginning of Sein und Zeit] of the meaning of the word “death,” like all refined semantic or ontological analyses that purport to distinguish, for example, the dying (Sterben) of man or of Dasein (only Dasein dies says Heidegger) from the objective forms of animal perishing or ending…must rely, even as they deny it, on so-called common sense, on the alleged objective and familiar knowledge, judged to be indubitable, of what separates a state of death from a state of life [and so on]. (238/324)

What Derrida is critiquing, following Levinas, is a certain knowledge or calculability of the moment of death, and he argues that far from questioning any presuppositions on the matter, Heidegger must presuppose a certain definition in order for his phenomenology of death to get underway. Thus whereas Derrida is most known for his method of finding a certain indecidability or impasse that nevertheless requires a decision of reading, praxis, etc., he also time and again looks to identify, in quite classical fashion, a certain presupposition that is nevertheless denied, whether in Foucault (madness or in a later essay, power), or Heidegger (death, Being as presence), or Levinas (I’m thinking of his discussion of the Other as human, while otherness, of course, would be foreign to any such label), or a host of others, and which is something like a historical presupposition or historical a priori, that is, some trope that winds itself through a given onto-theological tradition that a given thinker claims to be critiquing. By isolating a trope, then tying it back to a given tradition, Derrida’s “deconstruction” can then get underway. This, by the way, isn’t that far from Heidegger’s move in SZ to identify an everyday notion of time that then is repeated–he believes–in figures such as Aristotle and Hegel, though both would claim to operate without a pre-given hypothesis or supposition about time.

But nevertheless it is striking–at least to me–that this way of reading by Derrida is not pressed home more: identify a place where an author must get underway with a certain definition (to identify the mad that one is doing a history of [even as one says there can be no history of the mad], to do a phenomenology of that which we call death [while claiming it is the possibility of impossibility], etc.) and then only circles back to reify that definition at a more convoluted, “philosophical” level (the whole stuff on nonsense and history in Foucault; the distinction between death and perishing in Heidegger); and so on.


  1. Since this was the observation that induced to abandon continental philosophy, I’m inclined to think that of it as the Elephant in the continental room. The obscurity of the implicit (or everyday, Lebenswelt, etc) is what motivates our endless attempts to populate it with armchair explanatory posits. We’re trying to figure ourselves out and we are anything but transparent to ourselves. Thus the long history of philosophical attempts to ‘make explicit’ what lies behind the brick wall of ourselves. Derrida has no choice but to put a glass to the wall to recontextualize the posits made by his interlocutors.

    The reason continentalists avoid the general question of the implicit, I think anyway, is that it puts them on the very same ground as cognitive science. The continentalist has all the old domain exceptionality arguments, of course, but they have nowhere to hide from several painfully straightforward questions that science shares with all other theoretical endeavours. What information evidences your posits? Where does it come from? How can it be trusted? What kind of work do these posits do?

    The kinds of questions that show continental philosophers the degree to which they have no more than glasses to the wall, trading guesses as to the kinds of machinery they hear on other side, insisting that they are listening to something fundamentally different (because fundamental), even as cognitive science is busily tearing down the wall beside them.

  2. I want to think about this. I agree, it’s obvious, indeed, defines his work in many ways (at least I thought so), but also shows there’s insufficient attention perhaps to the stratification of levels involved. I guess this is linked to the whole debate over the status of the ‘transcendental’ and what that really means in Derrida. So, that means its a question about logic (or rather what Derrida early on calls a ‘graphic’ instead. But is ‘reifying’ the right word here? You’re being polemical, of course, but its an interesting question.

  3. His target does. In short, they say they are displacing the very term that they use to identify a given set of phenomena.

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