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Education for What? What's All the Fuss About?

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On Derridology

by Christopher Chantrill
October 16, 2004 at 8:00 pm


THE DEATH OF deconstructionist Jacques Derrida reminds us that philosophy is more than a series of footnotes to Plato.  In the modern era philosophy has become a series of footnotes to Kant.

Kant resolved the contradiction between Newton and Hume.  In Newton, mankind showed that the things of nature were predictable and reasonable; in Hume, we learned that you couldn’t prove anything.  Kant resolved all this in a strategic retreat.  He said that we couldn’t know true reality, the things-in-themselves; we could only know things as they appear to us.  But that is still a lot.

We now accept, sort of, that knowledge is like an automobile, good until replaced with a newer model.  And like the automobile this has set us free.  When the greatest generation of German professors was replacing Newtonian mechanics with quantum mechanics a century ago, they didn’t have to bother with rebuilding reality from scratch.  All they had to do was show that their theories worked.  And did they ever!

But what about us, the professors of arts and humanities whined?  How did we fit into all this?  It was the great achievement of Jacques Derrida to come up with the answer for them.  They don’t.  In a lifetime of strenuous work and self-promotion, he proved conclusively that applying the ideas of Kant and his footnoters to the arts results in a big fat zero.  That’s because the elements of language are interesting, but not important.  The elements of the universe, on the other hand, are crucial.

In physics, as Heisenberg showed in Physics and Philosophy, there is no way to determine what “really” happens in an atomic event.  If we blast a single quantum of light at an atom, we will be able to measure an electron streaking away from the atom.  But we cannot “see” inside the atom and “track” the “orbit” of the electron before and after its “collision” with the quantum of light.  Fortunately, it doesn’t matter.  We humans can deal perfectly well with the billions of light quanta entering our eyes and knocking electrons about on our retinas.  The proof is that we move about in the world, we kill plants and animals for food, and we regenerate ourselves in our children—relying all the time on the faith that the sensations we experience are real.

You can apply the same principle applies in the world of language.  Take the words “and” and “the.”  By themselves, they mean nothing.  But if we put them in quotes thus: “’and’ and ‘the’” then we begin to have an inkling of meaning.  Something is afoot.  If we draw the curtain some more with the tagline: “Everything she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’,” we immediately understand that, almost certainly, we are dealing with the famous line by the famous mid-century writer Mary McCarthy about the famous mid-century writer and playwright Lillian Hellman.

But what did Mary McCarthy really mean when she said that?  A quick Google serves up a New Yorker article by TV host Dick Cavett.  It was on his show on PBS in 1979 that Mary McCarthy delivered her famous line, and he is still wondering what it was all about.  Had McCarthy planned the insult, as Nora Ephron assumed in her play “Imaginary Friends?”  Was she just trying to generate some publicity to gin up her fading career?  Who knows?  Who will ever know?

In his life Jacques Derrida thoughtfully reminded us of all this, by refusing to define “deconstruction,” by building around himself a cult of celebrity, by hiding his ideas in a maze of jargon and contradiction.  Maybe the elements of language, its grammatology, were just as mysterious and compelling as the elements of atoms.  Or maybe not.

A few years ago they showed on TV an astronomical telescope that could detect and display each individual quantum of light that fell on its light detector.  Initially, all you can see are individual, random sparks of light.  But as the sparks accumulate by the thousands and the millions, they start to form into a continuous image, an image we can interpret as a map of the heavens.

It’s the same way with words.  A couple of words, like “and” and “the” don’t mean much of anything.  But as you assemble them into their ranks of thousands and tens of thousands they become, you might say, “news you can use.”  You still can’t tell if they “really” mean something, but you can certainly act as though they do. 

To this day, nobody knows what quantum mechanics “really” means either, but lots of people have believed that they could use it to blow things up and make computers and cell phones.  They have been amply rewarded for their faith.

Nobody knows what language means either.  But we can still be pretty sure that Lillian Hellman was a liar.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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presented by Christopher Chantrill

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