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Was Derrida a pseudophilosopher or just a bad philosopher? (Part I)

Some years ago Britan Leiter put up a poll on his blog asking: Which person do you most wish the media would stop referring to as a “philosopher”? The three choices were Ayn Rand, Jacques Derrida and Leo Strauss. I have very little familiarity with Strauss’s work, but as for Rand and Derrida, I think I agree with the assumption behind the question – to call them philosophers feels somewhat insulting to thinkers like, say, Quine, Kripke or Nozick. “Pseudophilosophers” seems like a more appropriate label.

What do we mean by pseudophilosophy though? Is it roughly synonymous with “philosophy of such poor quality it embarrasses the whole discipline”? Or is there a difference between really bad philosophy and something that perhaps resembles philosophy, but is not actually philosophy?

In other areas the question seems easier to answer. Take Tommy Wiseau. He may be a dreadful filmmaker, but he’s still a filmmaker. After all, he makes films, and this is all it takes to be one. On the other hand, consider Milli Vanilli. We’re inclined to say they were not real pop singers. Yes, they put out albums, they performed live, won awards, and became one of the most popular bands in the world – the problem was, they never used their own voices. Even though lip-synced performances are standard in pop music, and what you can hear on pop records often has very little to do with the real voice of the artist, it’s still somehow based on the real voice, and this is apparently where we draw the line between being a pop singer and being a fake pop singer.

Now, my question is: is it more accurate to call someone like Derrida the Tommy Wiseau of philosophy, or the Milli Vanilli of philosophy? Some reasons to go with the Milli Vanilli answer can be found in the famous letter sent to Cambridge University by a group of philosophers in 1992. Here it is:

Sir, The University of Cambridge is to ballot on May 16 on whether M. Jacques Derrida should be allowed to go forward to receive an honorary degree. As philosophers and others who have taken a scholarly and professional interest in M. Derrida’s remarkable career over the years, we believe the following might throw some needed light on the public debate that has arisen over this issue.

Derrida describes himself as a philosopher, and his writings do indeed bear some of the marks of writings in that discipline. Their influence, however, has been to a striking degree almost entirely in fields outside philosophy – in departments of film studies, for example, or of French and English literature.

In the eyes of philosophers, and certainly among those working in leading departments of philosophy throughout the world, M. Derrida’s work does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigour.

We submit that, if the works of a physicist (say) were similarly taken to be of merit primarily by those working in other disciplines, this would in itself be sufficient grounds for casting doubt upon the idea that the physicist in question was a suitable candidate for an honorary degree.

Derrida’s career had its roots in the heady days of the 1960s and his writings continue to reveal their origins in that period. Many of them seem to consist in no small part of elaborate jokes and puns (‘logical phallusies’ and the like), and M. Derrida seems to us to have come close to making a career out of what we regard as translating into the academic sphere tricks and gimmicks similar to those of the Dadaists or of the concrete poets.

Certainly he has shown considerable originality in this respect. But again, we submit, such originality does not lend credence to the idea that he is a suitable candidate for an honorary degree.

Many French philosophers see in M. Derrida only cause for silent embarrassment, his antics having contributed significantly to the widespread impression that contemporary French philosophy is little more than an object of ridicule.

Derrida’s voluminous writings in our view stretch the normal forms of academic scholarship beyond recognition. Above all – as every reader can very easily establish for himself (and for this purpose any page will do) – his works employ a written style that defies comprehension.

Many have been willing to give M. Derrida the benefit of the doubt, insisting that language of such depth and difficulty of interpretation must hide deep and subtle thoughts indeed.

When the effort is made to penetrate it, however, it becomes clear, to us at least, that, where coherent assertions are being made at all, these are either false or trivial.

Academic status based on what seems to us to be little more than semi-intelligible attacks upon the values of reason, truth, and scholarship is not, we submit, sufficient grounds for the awarding of an honorary degree in a distinguished university.

Yours sincerely,

Barry Smith
(Editor, The Monist)

Hans Albert (University of Mannheim)
David Armstrong (Sydney)
Ruth Barcan Marcus (Yale)
Keith Campbell (Sydney)
Richard Glauser (Neuchâtel)
Rudolf Haller (Graz)
Massimo Mugnai (Florence)
Kevin Mulligan (Geneva)
Lorenzo Peña (Madrid)
Willard van Orman Quine (Harvard)
Wolfgang Röd (Innsbruck)
Karl Schuhmann (Utrecht)
Daniel Schulthess (Neuchâtel)
Peter Simons (Salzburg)
René Thom (Burs-sur-Yvette)
Dallas Willard (Los Angeles)
Jan Woleński (Cracow)

What the signatories are trying to say can be interpreted the following way: “Derrida describes himself as a philosopher, some people believe he’s a philosopher, but he’s not one. People in philosophy departments can see through his knavish tricks. He engages in obfuscation to hide the fact he has nothing philosophically interesting to say. Under scrutiny, his claims turn out to be meaningless, trivial or obviously false. This cannot reasonably be called philosophy.”

In Part II I’m going to look into reasons for thinking Derrida was not a pseudophilosopher and then try to draw some general conclusions – so stay tuned.

One reply on “Was Derrida a pseudophilosopher or just a bad philosopher? (Part I)”

I think the following two of the authors’ unstated assumptions are telling:

(1) Derrida’s influence is in fields other than philosophy because those fields don’t have the high standards of clarity and rigor that philosophy does.

(2) Philosophy is a science, or sufficiently analogous to a natural science, so what wouldn’t fly in physics (say) shouldn’t fly in philosophy.

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