Cheapening Ourselves by Cheapening Our Arguments

I’m wondering why I am being so defensive of Derrida on the thread on my post about his death and on Russell’s—and in the hallway at BYU today when I accosted a poor student who was going on about deconstruction and Derrida in a remarkably uninformed way. I think it is because, for me, the attacks are attacks on a person rather than a slogan, an idea, or a mannikin, and that person was not only interesting and thoughtful, but kind to me. But I also think there is another reason.

As I mentioned on another thread, I do not understand the kinds of discussions that have probably always dominated in politics and at least now seem also to dominate much of the academy: We align ourselves with slogans, calling on secondary sources to justify our alignments, secondary sources that themselves usually rely only on other secondary sources. It is more important that we be in the right camp than that we understand what we are talking about. Politics and academics as fashion and anti-fashion.

Some insist on aligning themselves with what they perceive to be a new voice. Others insist on aligning themselves against the new. But neither group actually bothers to find out what the voice in question has to say. In these discussions, explanations are not explanations, they are demands for concession, and criticisms are not criticisms, they are brickbats and clubs.

If we do not respect that with which we agree or disagree enough to understand it, to take it seriously, we do not to respect ourselves and we certainly do not respect those whom we engage in discussion. It is no secret that I am a partisan of Jacques Derrida and a critic of President Bush. But if I cannot read Derrida and see where I disagree nor listen to Bush and see where he is right, then I cannot claim to understand either. And I have no intellectual or moral right to either criticize or recommend what I do not understand. I have an intellectual and moral obligation to hear those who disagree with me in a way that allows me to see not only where they are wrong, but where they may be right.

Presumably anyone reading this blog thinks of himself or herself as an intellectual—as someone concerned with matters of the intellect—regardless of how many years he or she spent in school. In fact, whatever your claims to the contrary, by definition you are an intellectual if you read this blog more than once. Presumably almost everyone reading this blog is also a Latter-day Saint. As Latter-day Saints and as intellectuals, we ought to seek understanding rather than to glom onto whatever slogans first strike us as according with what we already believe.

60 comments for “Cheapening Ourselves by Cheapening Our Arguments

  1. pete
    October 12, 2004 at 2:31 am

    Jim F:

    It sounds like you are sensing a lack of respect for a kind man who contributed much to the world. Without pretending to psychoanalyze much further, it would certainly be understandable for you to be sad at Derrida’s passing and frustrated when his ideas are misrepresented and/or seemingly reduced to cheap slogans upon his death—that when we remember him we are misremembering. (Not to mention the notion that most of us have not “earned” an understanding of Derrida.)

    But isn’t there an irony in the statement “Derrida doesn’t stand for ‘X’ at all, his work means ‘Y’, darn it! . . .”? As vacuous as my knowledge of Derrida is, he just doesn’t strike me as being a very prescriptive guy, but rather one who describes phenomena through admittedly imperfect language . . . slogans, if you will and who would expect nothing more from anyone else. Is the subjective or personal nature of “understanding” a concept that you value in the work of Derrida and other thinkers from the continental tradition? I do.

    Most of us probably agree that we should “find out what the voice in question has to say” and that we ought to seek “understanding.” But as poorly thought out as the student in the hall’s thoughts were (or mine for that matter), it at least evidences an attempt, if crude, to seek understanding. And if you say “no, because he was stating conclusions based on preconceived beliefs!” isn’t that what we all do in a conversation, as our own thoughts and ideas are shaped through the dialogue? Your description of Derrida’s ideas today likely differs from the description you would have given years (and hundreds of pages) ago.

    Which brings me back to theology (again). There is something theologically powerful in the concept of “finding out what the voice in question has to say” and “understanding” through dialogue. Our Mormon theology tells us that through dialogue with the Divine we can actually achieve true understanding . . . knowledge of God and all things, light and truth, etc. Does Derrida think that possible? (Certainly he would have something to say on the subject). If not, wouldn’t he at least value the attempt as shown by his own pursuit of understanding?

  2. greenfrog
    October 12, 2004 at 3:10 am

    About mid-quarter, years ago, I walked into Wayne Booth’s classroom at the University of Chicago. He was the professor of a Literary Criticism class. The prior week, we’d been discussing a text from Plato, and Professor Booth had assigned us to write something relating to the Plato text. I went home and labored over the assignment and the text. It seemed that the more I looked at it, the less I understood what Plato was getting at. Finally, in a fit of frustration and a bit of inspiration, I decided to write about what was wrong with the Plato text. While I was a bit more artful in crafting my topic sentence, I didn’t endeavor to hide my thesis.

    So the following week, when I walked into class, I thought that we’d move on to the next topic. Professor Booth, though, said that he was generally disappointed in the essays we’d written, as it seemed to him that we were less intent on understanding the texts and ideas we were studying than we were in responding to them. Then he picked up an essay, said that it was a rather extreme example of his point, and began reading my submission to the class.

    If memory serves, that was the first (and last) time I ever had a professor read anything I ever wrote to the rest of the class.

    While I was rather appalled by the particular situation, that experience has stayed with me for many years, and I’ve realized Professor Booth did me a real service. That episode has become own personal cautionary tale reminding me that it is always easier to criticize than to understand, to step on another’s ideas as a pedestal where I can stand to shout my nothings at others, learning nothing and accomplishing less.

    I forget this lesson frequently enough that I ought to retell that story monthly. When I do retell it to myself, I’m reminded that if something someone has written seems foolish to me, it’s likely I’m just missing the point and need to re-read the text with less interest in how I might argue with it and more interest in understanding.

    Not a bad lesson for a professional litigator to keep in mind.

    So thanks, Professor Booth.

  3. October 12, 2004 at 3:29 am

    I feel a little intimidated to be in the presence of greatness, so I don’t think I can really offer much that you all don’t already know, but I thought it might be on-topic to say that it is also a fallacy to dismiss an argument purely on the basis that it contains fallacies. (This whole philosophy thing is tough!) It is unfortunate that humans have such big egoes (myself included) and don’t have the mental capacity to thoroughly think through every argument and see everyone else’s points of view.

    At the risk of using a slogan, today for the first time, I came across Miller’s Law: “In order to understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true, and try to imagine what it could be true of.”

  4. Keith
    October 12, 2004 at 5:22 am

    “Our Mormon theology tells us that through dialogue with the Divine we can actually achieve true understanding . . . knowledge of God and all things, light and truth, etc. Does Derrida think that possible? (Certainly he would have something to say on the subject). If not, wouldn’t he at least value the attempt as shown by his own pursuit of understanding?”

    Clearly we are promised understanding and knowledge in scripture. There’s no doubt about that. What thinkers like Derrida (and here I use Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein who are more similar to Derrida than not and with whom I am more familiar) want to ask is what kind of understanding you are talking about or what you mean by “knowledge of God.” We might then go on to say ‘knowledge of the facts of God’ or something similar, or we may say ‘a kind of subjective knowledge had by trying to follow and be like him’. Or we may come up with another notion of what the knowledge is we should be seeking and how we should seek it. But whatever we choose, we’ve already moved in a particular direction, in a way that will both reveal and limit at the same time.

    The philosopher here will want to point that out–to show where language may succeed and where it may fail, where it can do some things well, but in doing those things well will inevitably not do something else well. Similarly, one may want to point out that I can’t speak about one thing without leaving something unsaid or leaving other things unspoken of. This isn’t a failure in language (unless someone believes there is a language that should be able to do all things at once), but the way in which language (including the contexts in which we speak) makes sense to us. Of course, there may be theological discussions about which of those approaches to truth will best bring us the kind of knowledge God wants us to have. And that’s certainly a worthwhile discussion. But what philosophers of this kind want to do is make us aware of the ways we are speaking–ways that may influence what we see or not see in our theology.

    What I have found valuable in thinkers of this sort is that they always make me less certain that _I_ am right or that I see everything, without at the same time saying there is nothing there to see (though that’s what some interpreters will say) or that I can’t know anything. They help me see what the certitude of faith is and what may be its counterfeits. They help me make sure I’m not trying to let philosophy do the work that faith is supposed to be doing. And (recognizing that all aren’t affected this way) they help me appreciate more when we bear witness of God or the gospel with an “I knowâ€?

    (I recognize that this is off topic in some ways, but the thought that started it was here, and I didn’t want to move it over to the Derrida posts. Sorry if this sidetracks what is an important subject.)

  5. Nick
    October 12, 2004 at 6:36 am

    A couple of thoughts –

    It’s impossible to “earn” a “true understanding” of Derrida. That’s his point. Further, is it worth the time?

    Jim – love your SS lessons. I’m glad you thought better of getting after your student for being “uninformed” about Derrida. In my experience, professors are good at making their students feel uniformed and less good at helping them get that way. After all, these kids are going to go out an make a living in accounting and medicine. There’s no market for deep thoughts. Bear with them.

  6. October 12, 2004 at 8:23 am

    “Politics and academics as fashion and anti-fashion. Some insist on aligning themselves with what they perceive to be a new voice. Others insist on aligning themselves against the new.”

    I can’t help but inject some vaguely Marxist analysis in that at this point. Any social endeavor–politics, academia, whatever–that is in any way impacted by or involved with money and power is ultimately going to become fodder for an argument about distribution: who has what, who is on the inside, who is left behind. Derrida’s reception by American English professors, and the reaction to such, had at least as much to do with (as the more honest obits of Derrida acknowledged) the ease with which his “radical” philosophy could become a theoretical tool to advance their position and agenda (through publications and promotions) against the “conservatives” who currently held power (i.e., tenure, prestigious chairs, etc.). Derrida’s actual thought often got lost–in the same way, for example, that President Bush’s actual conduct of the war in Iraq, and Kerry’s proposal’s regarding that war, become lost within a larger cultural struggle about who is a “good American,” who “supports the troops,” whether you’re a blue-stater or a red-stater, etc. Fashion rarely is about expression or ideas; it is, rather, almost always about marking territory, defining groups, and hence identifying who you think deserves allegiance or support, or can be trusted with power. I tend to think Derrida didn’t do as much as some other philosophers to resist being so appropriated…but then, few of us do resist: the lure of being “fashionable,” of finding “our” group, is pretty great, especially when one thinks of the stakes (funding, electoral victory, etc.). Certainly our political leaders rarely rise above simply dismissing their opponents as not worthy of consideration.

  7. Jack
    October 12, 2004 at 9:00 am

    As one who is an uneducated provincial snob I wonder at the fact that two politically well informed individuals can arrive at two completely different opinions about pres. Bush. (or any other candidate/issue). Certainly we should strive to be as informed, as informed can be, at the very least when dealing with life’s most impotant questions and have enough humility to confess to ourselves and to others when we don’t know enough about X to give an informed response. But, isn’t one of the goals of education to learn our ignorance? No doubt everyone on this blog can look back on the path thus far trodden and feel like a schmoe for espousing certain beliefs along the way which have since been disgarded. So, when do we stop learning our ignorance? Perhaps the student in question simply didn’t know how much he/she didn’t know one the subject. Don’t we all slip into that kind of buffoonery as we make the most of what we know under the gaze of a living God?

  8. Damon Linker
    October 12, 2004 at 10:09 am


    Russell told me about the discussion going on over here about Derrida’s passing. Far be it from me to speak ill of the (recently) dead, but you will be unsurprised to learn that I am far less admiring of Derrida and his influence than you are. Herewith a few thoughts.

    1. I agree that Derrida was a kind of negative theologian, albeit one who was so consistently negative that it was impossible to say that he even believed in God at all. So, I ask: Why not turn back to the negative theologians in the Christian tradition rather than this poseur? Negative theology only has something to offer if it sees itself as one moment (the moment of negation) in a positive theological enterprise. But there is no positive, synthetic, affirming moment in Derrida at all. Certainly not the arbitrary leftist assertions of his late work. Why not be a right or fascist Derridean? I see no reason, at least not on Derridean grounds.

    2. I suspect that this comment will lead you to suspect that I’m both (1) using Derrida to make an American ideological/political point; and (2) therefore showing myself to be typically American in my reading of him. On point (1), I completely agree with you that it is important to resist ideological interpretations of philosophy (European or otherwise). I find the kind of intellectual kneecap-bashing so common on the American neoconservative right to be intellectually unserious and very shallow. However, neither is it true that criticism of Derrida along the lines sketched above is “very American.” The fact is that (as many of the obits have noted) Derrida was much more popular and influential in the United States than in Europe, where he was treated as something of a joke. Why? Because they “get it” — they recognize that he’s merely rehearsing tired nihilistic-Germanic themes that go back at least to Schelling. They are themes that can only lead to the nihilism of absolute silence, once every attempt to venture a positive propositional statement about anything (justice, God, life, goodness, love) has been shown to be futile. Americans, by contrast, somehow believe that everything system of thought (and yes, Derrida’s is a system, albeit a negative one) can be reconciled with justice, democracy, equality, God, and apple pie. So who, I ask, is being more “American” — the advocate or the defender of Derrida’s thought?

    For a much more thorough treatment of Derrida’s thought and its fate in Europe and America, see the essay by my friend and teacher, Mark Lilla:


  9. Nate Oman
    October 12, 2004 at 10:48 am

    I studied a bit of continental philosophy in college (from Jim Faulconer on occasion), but I confess that after graduation I more or less gave up on the project. Other than some brushes with Habermas, I haven’t done anything with continental philosophy for five years. Instead, I have focused my philosophical energy (such as it is) on English speaking legal and political philosophy, which is much more closely tied to what I have been studying.

    In addition, I went to law school at Harvard, where very unfortunately the administration more or less completely ceded the teaching of the philosophy of law to the crits (Critical Legal Studies) in the late 1980s as a way of purchasing peace. The crits can be thought of as the legal manifestation of English department post-modernism. Those at Harvard (Kennedy, Unger, Sargentich, etc.) were, in my opinion, hopelessly in-bred, out of touch with current jurisprudential discussions, and endlessly obsessed with shadow boxing against straw-man versions of their theoretical opponents. It is a little unfortunate to take classes on the philosophy of law where the syllabus would suggest that all thought on legal matters came to an end in about 1979, and virtually all competing schools of jurisprudence — Dworkinian interpretivism, analytic positivism, law and economics, etc. — could be reduced to cartoonish reincarnations of Christopher Columbus Langdell (dean of HLS in 1870, founder of American legal eduction, arch-formalist). I felt cheated of a chance to take good classes on jurisprudence, and I am still more than a little angry at the crits and Harvard because of it. Hence, I have to confess that I have been tempted more than once to jump on the Derrida bashing-band-wagon on the basis of the work of second- and third-hand disciples. However, in the back of my head there was this short, chubby figure who looked and sounded like Jim Faulconer saying, “Have you actually walked through Derrida’s texts and arguments carefully? Do you know what he is saying and why he is saying it?”

    I suppose that Jim can take some solace in that. I still don’t care for the crits.

  10. Kaimi
    October 12, 2004 at 11:22 am


    What about Schauer? Whether or not you agree with him, he’s not exactly a Kennedy clone. (To state the obvious).

  11. john fowles
    October 12, 2004 at 11:27 am

    Jim wrote, And I have no intellectual or moral right to either criticize or recommend what I do not understand.

    The question is, do you have the intellectual or moral right to criticize what you do understand? If so, then what would that be? Where meaning is subjective and any interpretation is merely the interpretation of a given reader and that reader’s “communal” information/background, how do you ever attain the type of confidence in what you understand to possess an intellectual or moral right to criticize? Is it possible that the end result is a criticize that doesn’t rise past the structural or logical level?

  12. October 12, 2004 at 11:29 am


    “Negative theology only has something to offer if it sees itself as one moment (the moment of negation) in a positive theological enterprise. But there is no positive, synthetic, affirming moment in Derrida at all.”

    Very well said. This is why I distinguish (perhaps to some people’s consternation–see the other thread) between those whose interpretation of the negative moment in Heidegger and his disciples is ultimately more Hegelian or romantic–that is, an interpretation which keeps its eye on the ontological implications, rather than cursorily or “painfully” dismissing them (think of all those manifestly fake tears shed by many a poststructuralist about how we have to “give up” religion or truth or whatever). This is why I think hermeneutics takes Nietzsche more seriously and thoughtfully than deconstruction does–though I wouldn’t go as far as you do in claiming that there is no affirming moment in Derrida and deconstruction.

    “They are themes that can only lead to the nihilism of absolute silence, once every attempt to venture a positive propositional statement about anything (justice, God, life, goodness, love) has been shown to be futile.”

    But as Heidegger said, the silence speaks. So, insofar as one can still understand Derrida’s talk about, say, “the trace” as an attempt to inculcate into our thinking about texts a sense of Lichtung, or clearing, there’s probably some (silent) affirmation which can be gotten out of it after all. Or, at least, that’s as much as I’m willing to grant; I recognize that Jim, a better philosopher than I, is willing to grant much more.

  13. Nate Oman
    October 12, 2004 at 11:54 am


    Schauer’s stuff is great. (_Playing by the Rules_ is a great book that nicely reframes the rules v. standards debate.) However, Schauer is, alas, on the Kennedy School rather than the law school faculty. Also, as I recall he was visiting when I was a student and hence I couldn’t take any classes from him. Scott Brewer is also not a crit., but when I was there he taught comparatively few jurisprudence classes (the crits had a stranglehold on the survey courses, for example) and his main interest is philosophy of evidence law, a subject about which I have little or no interest.

    Much as it pains, I have to admitt that Columbia does philosophy of law better than HLS. I wish I could have taken classes from Jeremy Waldron!

  14. Kaimi
    October 12, 2004 at 11:59 am

    Alas, I wasn’t able to make any Waldron classes work with my schedule. But I did fit in a very nice legal interpretation seminar with Kent Greenawalt.

    Raz shows up at times too, but I don’t recall seeing his name much on the course bulletin, and I’m not sure how many classes he teaches.

  15. Pete
    October 12, 2004 at 12:54 pm


    Sure, in characterizing the meaning of “knowledge” the philosopher might say “whatever we choose, we’ve already moved in a particular direction, in a way that will both reveal and limit at the same time.” But do Mormons believe God’s knowledge reveals and limits at the same time? I’m thinking of the sea of glass, the urim and thumim where we have all things before us past, present, and future, and where we see things as they “really are.”

    Philosophers point out the limits of language and theorize as to what we mean by “knowledge” thereby highlighting the extralingual reality of the universe, but when it comes to “truth” of even “meaning” they are ultimately guessing, whereas in Mormon theology God is not, and we won’t be either in the perfect day.

  16. Jim F.
    October 12, 2004 at 1:10 pm

    There are lots of comments and lots of things to say in response. Let me see if I can say a few things before fifteen more responses appear.

    Pete: In spite of what is often said about his work, Derrida does not argue for the subjective nature of understanding. The irony is that he was part of a movement against the notion of the subject and its importance and has become, in the U.S., a proponent of the very thing he was arguing against.

    I am skeptical that the student in the hall was trying to understand. He was sloganeering, repeating what he had heard somewhere as a means of dismissing something he knew nothing about. It is obviously true that my understanding of Derrida differs from my original understanding. But it doesn’t follow that every initial understanding is a good initial understanding.

    I am quite sure that Derrida wouldn’t have even understood what it means to say “through dialogue with the Divine we can achieve true understanding.� He was not religious, and even had he been, the LDS understanding of continuing revelation is sufficiently different than ordinary Jewish and Christian understanding of it that he probably would still have had difficulty making sense of that phrase.

    Greenfrog: Thanks for sharing that story. We all need to have had such experiences.

    Derek: Miller’s law is a reasonable description of what I was trying to say. I don’t think we have to think through every argument for ourselves. We must rely on authority at some point. But the reliance on authority too often becomes laziness rather than the legitimate foundation for thought.

    Keith: As always you explain more clearly than I. Thanks for saying well what I wish I had said.

    Nick: Who’s point is it that one cannot get a true understanding of Derrida? Not Derrida’s, regardless of the fact that people often say something like that about him. (This is related to my comment to Pete that this charge takes Derrida exactly in a direction that his works don’t go.)

    I was probably wrong to correct the student out of the blue—he wasn’t in any sense “my� student, just someone talking in the hallway. But I’m not sure what you’re asking me to do when you ask me to bear with those going out to make their living in accounting and medicine. Though there is a market for deep thoughts, it isn’t a very big market. I well understand that they aren’t going to become professional philosophers. But I don’t understand why that excuses intellectual laziness.

    Russell: I agree with you that Derrida didn’t do as much as others have done to avoid being appropriated, though he did more than he often gets credit for. More than once I have seen him publically reject the fawning and their interpretations of his work.

    Also, in your response to Damon, you say almost what I wish I had said. As you note, the difference is that I’m more willing than you to take seriously Derrida’s notion of the trace (explicitly borrowed from Levinas). The trace is the trace of what affirmation tries to affirm.

    Jack: I don’t think the student was exceptional, nor do I think I am immune to the problem I saw in him. You’re right, we all slip into buffoonery. As mortals, that is part of our lot. But sometimes we do so less innocently than other times. We have an obligation to try to avoid it.

    Damon Linker: Damon, it is good to have you back here again, even if you can’t seem to see the light about Heidegger, Derrida, etc. (a joke—lest anyone think I’m being rude to Damon). Needless to say I am not surprised that we disagree about Derrida, given our disagreement about Heidegger. I also doubt that we will come to much agreement about him in this context.

    (1) Your point about negative theology needing affirmative theology is exactly right, but I think you’re wrong that the affirmative moment is missing in Derrida. For him the analog to affirmative theology is the text to which he is responding; “affirmative theology� is already given, and his work stands in relation to that given as a negative theology. (That is another way of saying what I said to Russell about the trace, the trace of that which affirmative theology affirms.)

    However, I agree with you that in some of his most recent work, the political statements were arbitrary, to say the least. His August interview with Le Monde was an excellent example of why Hannah Arendt was right when she warned that philosophers should stay out of politics. As I said, I am much more a Heideggerian/Gadamerian than a Derridean. My difficulty is not with disagreement with Derrida; it is with the kind of uninformed, bandwagon rejection that makes up so much of what is said about him by critics—exactly comparable to the uninformed, bandwagon acceptance that makes up so much of what is said by his would-be avatars in the U.S.

    (2) Derrida was more popular in the U.S than in Europe, but I think it is an exaggeration to say that he was a joke in Europe. In European philosophy he was one of a number of philosophers with whom one had to grapple rather than some kind of philosophical star, but I have seen few dismiss him as a joke. If I make a list of contemporary French, Belgian, or Dutch philosophers of note (I don’t many from other countries), I know of none who have felt they could simply ignore Derrida as a joke.

    Derrida was not demonstrating that every attempt to venture a positive propositional statement is futile (“unsuccessful,� in its strict sense, and “futile� don’t mean the same thing.) So I don’t agree that he was merely repeating “tired nihilistic-Germanic themes.� This is where I disagree with Lilla—who at least has been willing to read Derrida’s work, unlike most who comment on him. Lilla believes that the turn to the political in some of the later works shows that Derrida changed his mind about whether there can be an escape from language. Since first reading Grammatology I have argued that Derrida’s reliance on Levinas in that work (specifically the notion of the trace) is incompatible with the standard reading of it (and the other works of about the same time) as a claim that we cannot escape from language. In fact, his argument is, like Levinas’s, that we must rely on something outside of language. His addition to the Levinasian argument, an addition that can and should be interrogated, is that from within language it seems that there is nothing outside of it. Language puts us in what Kant called a transcendental illusion, and the point of deconstruction is to show the illusion so that we can see/remember what is beyond language.

    Nate and Kaimi: You don’t have to like either the legal crits nor Derrida. Just continue to refrain from repeating tired, easy criticisms and I’ll not beat you up.

    John Fowles: As I think my response to Pete and to Damon Linker shows, I think the characterization that says Derrida takes meaning to be subjective is simply false. You are repeating the things that many critics say about Derrida, but which they will have difficulty backing up by referring to his works carefully.

  17. Greg
    October 12, 2004 at 1:20 pm


    Professor Waldron is a better writer than lecturer. But I took “Perspectives on Legal Thought” (the first year “theory” class) from him and it was both comprehensive and penetrating. I should go back and review my notes…

  18. Nate Oman
    October 12, 2004 at 1:29 pm

    Greg: I think that Waldron’s stuff on statutory intepretation — The Dignity of Legislation and Law & Disagreement — is really interesting. I would also have loved to have taken classes from Greenwalt or Raz. Yale has Jules Coleman. NYU has Ronald Dworkin. Notre Dame has John Finnis. Virginia has Jody Kraus. And Harvard has…Duncan Kennedy.

  19. October 12, 2004 at 2:16 pm

    “In my experience, professors are good at making their students feel uniformed and less good at helping them get that way.”

    I’ve jumped in on this a little late, but I’d just add that Prof. Faulconer isn’t one of those professors. His classes were by far the most helpful and infomative of my college experience.

  20. Jim F.
    October 12, 2004 at 2:20 pm

    I’m guilty of causing confusion by having two threads, one about Derrida’s death, and this one about how people respond to him. That combined with Russell’s thread about his death make it almost certain that no one who has something to say about Derrida will know where they should post it. Feel free to post at any of the three rather than try to decide which of the three is the right place, but I hope that some of the comments on this thread will address the topic of the post, namely our tendency to deal with political and intellectual matters as if they were questions of fashion and to substitute slogans for thought.

  21. Jim F.
    October 12, 2004 at 2:25 pm

    Chris, you are very kind. I wish all of my former students could say the same thing, but I know from experience that they wouldn’t be able to.

  22. Keith
    October 12, 2004 at 2:47 pm


    Isn’t there a sense in which we must rely on second hand knowledge for many things, including knowledge of philosophers? That is, we can’t read everything by everybody or know everthing there is to know about everybody. Isn’t some totalization or sloganeering necessary or at least inevitable?

  23. October 12, 2004 at 2:52 pm

    Jim, what you really are doing here is to set out what people aren’t saying about Derrida. How deconstructionist of you.

    I’m being cute, but serious: you’re seem at times more interested in Derrida the cultural icon and misunderstood author than in Derrida himself. That’s a worthy study in itself, and one that others have devoted themselves to already — why the perversion/pop culturalization of Derrida? More importantly, why should we care?

  24. greenfrog
    October 12, 2004 at 2:55 pm

    I’ll not beat you up.

    The World Wrestling Federation will pay big bucks for the right to broadcast that battle of the titans. In one corner, a philosophy professor! In the other, two lawyers!

    Imagine the crowd’s reaction.

  25. Rob
    October 12, 2004 at 3:58 pm

    There was a great piece in a recent New Yorker about voters following slogans rather than arguments. If you can find the article, its a great review of political science studies of voter behavior. The article is:

    Menand, Louis, “The Unpolitical Animal: How Political Science Understands Voters,” The New Yorker, August 30, 2004.

    Some highlights:
    “Skepticism about the competence of the masses to govern themselves is as old
    as mass self-government. Even so, when that competence began to be measured
    statistically, around the end of the Second World War, the numbers startled
    almost everyone. The data were interpreted most powerfully by the political
    scientist Philip Converse, in an article on “The Nature of Belief Systems in
    Mass Publics,” published in 1964. Forty years later, Converse’s conclusions are
    still the bones at which the science of voting behavior picks.

    “Converse claimed that only around ten per cent of the public has what can be
    called, even generously, a political belief system. He named these people
    “ideologues,” by which he meant not that they are fanatics but that they have a
    reasonable grasp of “what goes with what”-of how a set of opinions adds up to a
    coherent political philosophy. Non-ideologues may use terms like “liberal” and
    “conservative,” but Converse thought that they basically don’t know what they’re
    talking about, and that their beliefs are characterized by what he termed a lack
    of “constraint”: they can’t see how one opinion (that taxes should be lower, for
    example) logically ought to rule out other opinions (such as the belief that
    there should be more government programs). About forty-two per cent of voters,
    according to Converse’s interpretation of surveys of the 1956 electorate, vote
    on the basis not of ideology but of perceived self-interest. The rest form
    political preferences either from their sense of whether times are good or bad
    (about twenty-five per cent) or from factors that have no discernible “issue
    content” whatever. Converse put twenty-two per cent of the electorate in this
    last category. In other words, about twice as many people have no political
    views as have a coherent political belief system.”

    As for sloganeering, the article also notes that most people use huerisitcs–such as political party–instead of detailed understanding in making their decisions. Here’s some more about how they do that from the article:

    “Three theories have arisen. The first is that
    electoral outcomes, as far as “the will of the people” is concerned, are
    essentially arbitrary. The fraction of the electorate that responds to
    substantive political arguments is hugely outweighed by the fraction that
    responds to slogans, misinformation, “fire alarms” (sensational news), “October
    surprises” (last-minute sensational news), random personal associations, and
    “gotchas.” Even when people think that they are thinking in political terms,
    even when they believe that they are analyzing candidates on the basis of their
    positions on issues, they are usually operating behind a veil of political
    ignorance. They simply don’t understand, as a practical matter, what it means to
    be “fiscally conservative,” or to have “faith in the private sector,” or to
    pursue an “interventionist foreign policy.” They can’t hook up positions with
    policies. From the point of view of democratic theory, American political
    history is just a random walk through a series of electoral options. Some years,
    things turn up red; some years, they turn up blue.

    A second theory is that although people may not be working with a full deck
    of information and beliefs, their preferences are dictated by something, and
    that something is elite opinion. Political campaigns, on this theory, are
    essentially struggles among the elite, the fraction of a fraction of voters who
    have the knowledge and the ideological chops to understand the substantive
    differences between the candidates and to argue their policy implications. These
    voters communicate their preferences to the rest of the electorate by various
    cues, low-content phrases and images (warm colors, for instance) to which voters
    can relate, and these cues determine the outcome of the race. Democracies are
    really oligarchies with a populist face.

    The third theory of democratic politics is the theory that the cues to which
    most voters respond are, in fact, adequate bases on which to form political
    preferences. People use shortcuts-the social-scientific term is “heuristics”-to
    reach judgments about political candidates, and, on the whole, these shortcuts
    are as good as the long and winding road of reading party platforms, listening
    to candidate debates, and all the other elements of civic duty. Voters use what
    Samuel Popkin, one of the proponents of this third theory, calls
    “low-information rationality”-in other words, gut reasoning-to reach political
    decisions; and this intuitive form of judgment proves a good enough substitute
    for its high-information counterpart in reflecting what people want.”

    The whole article is really good, and makes me a) very nervous about the ability of the public to make informed choices–in this case about politicians, but probably even with more difficulty when dealing with something as heady as Derrida and b) feel more charitable to those who don’t make good arguments or don’t move beyond slogans, as they are after all, just following a very strong majority pattern of behavior.

    So Jim…maybe we can take comfort in knowing that the lack of understanding exhibited by that student probably isn’t limited to philosophy. Wanna make a guess as to who he will vote for in a couple weeks?

  26. Nate Oman
    October 12, 2004 at 4:01 pm

    On a thread about sloganeering we see the comment:

    “Wanna make a guess as to who he will vote for in a couple weeks?”

    res ipsa loquitor

  27. Damon Linker
    October 12, 2004 at 4:08 pm


    Fair enough. I would only note that , despite our disagreements about Heidegger and Derrida on similar issues, I have infintiely more respect for the former than I do for the latter. Heidegger might be dangerously wrong, but he’s also brilliantly and originally wrong. On the other hand, there’s really nothing in Derrida worth learning that you can learn from Heidegger (or Schelling for that matter), and with much greater clarity. Gadamer, Levinas, Arendt — despite my disagreements with all of them, each of them has something useful and interesting to say as a result of their close encounters with Heidegger. I’m not convinced that Derrida does.

  28. October 12, 2004 at 4:12 pm

    Derrida was very explicit that some things couldn’t be deconstructed. Justice was one, but in a way most of his latter works each dealt with some notion that was “beyond.” My hypothesis at the moment is that each of these are what Heidegger called “for-the-sake-of” which were fundamentally possibilities and never actualities. If you buy into Heidegger’s view that the possible is more fundamental than the actual (the reverse of most modern philosophy) then this makes sense. The “for-the-sake-of” never can be brought fully into language, which is what I think Jim means. This appears to be different than Derrida’s “there is nothing outside the text” but it really isn’t when one keeps in mind the difference between possibility and actuality.

    Damon is right with respect to negative theology. Indeed I’ve spent the week reading Duns Scotus (also a major influence on C. S. Peirce). I think there is a lot valuable in medieval philosophy (Christian and Jewish) and that Heidegger, Levinas, Derrida and others aren’t as far removed from medieval philosophy as some might suppose. I disagree with Damon regarding Derrida saying anything positive. I think, for instance, his comments on justice, the gift and so forth end up being an combination of postiive and negative statements. Once again that is all wrapped up in this “for-the-sake-of.”

    Regarding politics, I tend to think philosophers think that they somehow have greater insight into politics than they do. I read a lot of philosophy blogs and as often as not cringe at the various political analysis. I’m a moderate Republican myself, so perhaps being the “odd man out” has something to do with it. But I think there is this assumption that philosophy has to be “useful” and politics seems the obvious place where it can manifest itself as something more than philosophy. I tend to think philosophers are deluding themselves when they think that. . .

    Having said that though Derrida does appear to have struggled to make his philosophy useful. He had that French idea that philosophy ought to be applied to human issues. I think when he does this he’s almost always unsuccessful. There is a good reason for that since those Heideggarian “for-the-sake-of” simply can’t be applied to one political movement alone. They can’t be subjugated and resist intellectual violence. (To use an approach of Levinas and the early Derrida) Thus, as Damon points out, they are as open to the right as the left. Being a Republican and thus presumably of the right, I’m not sure that is as bad a thing as some suggest.

    If there is a problem it is the idea that “the left” somehow has a monopoly on truth. And if Derrida always had a troubled relationship with his leftish political leanings, perhaps that is a strong argument for the problem of certain political assumptions of the left — assumptions that should have been deconstructed by Derrida.

  29. Rob
    October 12, 2004 at 4:21 pm

    Nate–Here’s the Utah County Presidential Election returns for 2000:

    George W. Bush/Dick Cheney, Rep 97908 81.71%
    Al Gore/Joseph Lieberman, Dem 16380 13.67%
    Howard Phillips/Curt Frazier, IAM 535 0.45%
    Harry Browne/Art Olivier, Lib 518 0.43%
    John Hagelin/Nat Goldhaber, Nat 62 0.05%
    Pat Buchanan/Ezola Foster, Ref 1649 1.38%
    Ralph Nader/Winona LaDuke, Gre 2721 2.27%
    James Harris/Margaret Trowe, Soc 22 0.02%
    Louie G. Youngkeit/Robert Beck 22 0.02%

    You don’t have to make a slogan to run the odds for 2004. According to the study cited in the article I quoted, its likely that something like 90% of these votes were not cast by people with a coherent understanding of the issues. From a strictly statistical standpoint, the student in our story probably doesn’t have a very good understanding of the issues…and he’s going to vote for Bush.

    Of course, had he been a University of Texas student, we couldn’t make that second prediction…only the first.

  30. Ivan Wolfe
    October 12, 2004 at 4:35 pm

    Actually, this makes me think about when Ronald Reagan died. On another message board I frequent, he hadn’t been dead 24 hours, and every thread on him was flooded with posts about how Reagan was evil and personally responsible for the AIDS crisis. Many web commentators on blogs (not on T&S that I recall) and journalists wrote columns about what a bad, bad man he was.

    Those who follow and respect Reagan, of course, see him differently and felt that he was being slandered in death. Now a similar thing is happening with Derrida – detractors try to criticize the man and his ideas after death, and students/fans/followers/disciples/scholars are upset that anyone could so badly misread a man’s life and thought.

    I’m not sure we can really get away from this.

  31. Jim F
    October 12, 2004 at 6:03 pm

    Keith: Isn’t there a sense in which we must rely on second hand knowledge for many things, including knowledge of philosophers? Of course, which is why I said earlier that we cannot do without authority. There can be no absolute zero from which we begin (which is why I am inclined toward Heidegger and Gadamer), so we have to accept the word of someone else as a foundation for our knowledge. That isn’t a problem. The problem is when we accept that word uncritically and inappropriately. The relation between understanding and the authority on which it is built is hermeneutical: authority makes understanding possible; understanding tests the authority on which it rests. Uncritical understanding never tests the authority on which it rests.

    Steve Evans: I can certainly understand why it seems I am more interested in what Derrida is not than in what he is. What I say publically about Derrida is mostly about what he is not. Though I have taught Derrida, which requires talking about what he is about rather than what he is not about, that public emphasis is at least partly because I am not a Derridean and partly because the false things said about him have often made it difficult to have the conversation regarding what he is about. As you can see from some of the comments on this and the other two threads, people often respond to any talk about Derrida by accusing him of subjectivism/relativism, and they are so convinced that they are right that they seldom hear anything said that goes contrary to that accusation.

    Why should we care? Unless we are concerned about ideas, we need not care. But if we are concerned about ideas, we ought to want to get them right.

    greenfrog: Will you agree to represent me in negotiations with the WWF? But if there will be two lawyers in the other corner, I want someone with me in mine. How about Keith or Clark?

    Rob: I too found the article both interesting and a little frightening. The hope of the Founders was, among other things, that an educated public would not fall prey to sloganeering. The realism of the Founders was to recognize that their hopes might not come to pass and, so, to give us checks on the will of the people. I agree that the lack of understanding isn’t limited to philosophy. That’s why I compared the way we often talk about philosophy to the way we often talk about politics.

    Damon: I wouldn’t argue that Derrida is one of the best philosophers of the 20th century, so there is less disagreement between us than some might suppose, though I believe that our disagreement is not trivial. Whether there is anything in Derrida that one can’t learn from Heidegger (or Schelling?) is a legitimate question, and I tend to agree with you that there isn’t. I don’t find anything in Derrida that I don’t find in Heidegger. However, reading Derrida first helped me see some things in Heidegger that I hadn’t seen before just as reading him made me understand Levinas in ways that I’d not understood him before. I think that is a legitimate, important function for a philosopher, even a kind of original contribution.

    Clark: Your comment about possibility is an important one: the possible is more fundamental than the actual (because actuality is a mode of possibility rather than the reverse). That’s one way of putting what Derrida (and Levinas) helped me see in Heidegger. (That is not to say that either of them made that case for Heidegger. Rather reading them made me see things that made sense and then helped me see that those things could already be found in Heidegger.) I think it is also an insight that is helpful in thinking about theological questions because it turns upside down the standard framework within which we deal with those questions.

    Though I’m a moderate Democrat rather than a moderate Republican (Is there a real difference?), I am pretty much in agreement with what you say about politics.

    Ivan Wolfe: I agree that we are likely not to be able to get away from reducing ideas, political and otherwise, to slogans and then fighting for our slogans, I think that as individuals we ought to try to get away from it. I cannot prevent most of what happens in politics, whether in Utah County or in Boston, from that reduction. But I can try to guard against it in my own thinking and arguing.

  32. Lisa F.
    October 12, 2004 at 6:14 pm

    I came across this scripture today, and it seemed to connect with what you have written: “He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him.” (Proverbs 18:13). It is painstaking to try to understand something that you don’t like…it’s hard enough to find the time for that which you love! But it is the only way for us to remove contention from both our politics and our personal relationships.

  33. Jim F
    October 12, 2004 at 6:27 pm

    If you combine the total responses for this thread with the totals from Russell’s and my posts on Derrida’s death, there are, so far, 87 responses, not including this one. I find it amazing that he would have generated that much discussion. Like Russell, I thought that my post on his death would get four or five comments and that would be it. Of course these threads aren’t getting as many responses as something like same-sex marriage or when we can criticize Church leaders, so even combined they are unlikely ever to be listed under “most popular entires.” Still, 87 is a surprising number.

  34. Kaimi
    October 12, 2004 at 6:33 pm

    I find it a little funny that Russell and Jim — academics with academic positions and the real academic life — seem to have just a bit of “comment envy” about posts by academic-wannabe’s Nate and Kaimi, both of whom would gladly trade all of the blog comments in the world for a job in academia.

  35. Jim F
    October 12, 2004 at 6:40 pm

    True, we too long for fame and fortune, though I doubt that either of us would trade them for a “real job.” You’ve discovered one of our weaknesses. But it isn’t only comment envy that motivates our thoughts about numbers. It is also amazement.

  36. Jack
    October 12, 2004 at 8:15 pm

    “So Jim…maybe we can take comfort in knowing that the lack of understanding exhibited by that student probably isn’t limited to philosophy.”

    Your d–n right! If the kid ‘d just get a little philo under his belt he might one day be a worth while human being.

    “From a strictly statistical standpoint, the student in our story probably doesn’t have a very good understanding of the issues…and he’s going to vote for Bush.”

    Well, perhaps one could surmise from that which has been “excluded” from the above text that unless one is thoroughly drenched in Derrida or any philosopher of choice, one doesn’t have the brains of a jackass and therefore is unfit to cast a meaningful vote.

    Rob: To make the wise decision of not voting straight ticket Green Party doesn’t require a whole lot of mental exertion either.

    That’s a red brick, by the way.

  37. Jack
    October 12, 2004 at 8:46 pm

    Sorry Rob.

    I flare-up all too easily when I’m in a room full of academicians. I’ve had a few unpleasant run-ins with them in the past. I’ll try to get over it.

  38. Jonathan Green
    October 12, 2004 at 10:25 pm

    Jim, I support your decision to set the student straight. During my freshman orientation at BYU, before classes had even started yet, Wilfred Griggs asked the soon-to-be students sitting at his table at a dinner event for book recommendations, preferably historical fiction. A friend suggested “Daughter of Time” by Josephine Tey, and he thought it sounded promising. I had read books of all kinds, so I suggested “Sarum,” by Edward Rutherford, to which he responded, in effect, that the book sounded like trash (not his word, but still true). It was a useful and tremendously educational experience for me.

  39. Jack
    October 12, 2004 at 11:07 pm

    Jonathan, I have a close friend who, while studying music at BYU was told (by a faculty member!) that Beethoven’s symphonies were “trash”. (And that was the very word he used). I don’t want to under-cut the good that a sensitive and well qualified teacher can do, but let’s not forget that they have opinions that are entirely their own.

  40. Jim F.
    October 13, 2004 at 1:45 am

    Hmm, Jack and Jonathan, you’re not helping me decide whether I should continue to accost to correct young men in the hall who are having serious conversations.

  41. Keith
    October 13, 2004 at 2:56 am

    After thinking about this thread (including Jim’s ‘defense’ that really isn’t a defense of Derrida) an experience came to mind that, for me at least, serves as a kind of metaphor for what I see Jim saying, as well as for the varying reactions on the different Derrida posts. If it doesn’t really help illuminate the point, I hope the story is interesting itself.

    A few years ago, my wife and I were in a graduate course at Claremont on the History of Christianity. We had read St. Anthony’s Rule and we were to discuss it in smaller groups and then with everyone in a larger general discussion. I don’t know how it happened that she ended up speaking to us, but someone in the class (a cheery, sweet, pleasant sort of woman) who had spent a couple of weeks in a retreat at a monastery gave a presentation. She spoke of what a peaceful place the monastery was—giving up the worldly things, getting rid of distractions, what a peaceful experience and so on.

    When her short presentation was over, and it was opened up to questions or comments, a woman sitting directly behind us exploded. She spoke of the years she spent in a monastery and then said something to the effect of how she was tired of hearing people who have only spent a short time in a monastery talk about how peaceful it is. Stay in it a year or more. Come to recognize what living with your self and your sins is like–working on yourself, battling within yourself. It is anything but peaceful. (This was, by the way, one of the most interesting and informative moments of graduate school. I’ve never thought of monasteries or monastic life in the same way.)

    What the first woman said was true to her experience, but really not true to the whole monastic phenomenon as experienced by those who enter and for whom the monastery is anything but an escape–a real rigorous effort. The first woman’s description really didn’t do the monastery justice.

    I suppose the same could be said of those who have only a second hand acquaintance or a cursory first hand reading of a given philosopher. No doubt there are opinions and impressions that one has. But then place those experiences against those who have spent more time and you can see how what is said may be a true account of one’s understanding and experience, but that that understanding doesn’t do justice in the eyes of those more familiar or more experienced.

    Of course, this isn’t to say that two people who have spent years in the monastery, so to speak, may not have differences in experience and impressions (one may find it actually to be a peaceful place in contrast to the other). But at least there is the common ground of experience from which they can speak to each other and disagree in an informed way.

    (I was going to end with a moral: Listen to the monks who’ve been there for awhile–and don’t be surprised if they rightly complain when someone’s description of monastic life just doesn’t come close or is sorely under-informed. But I worried that it would be, well, too moralistic or that Jim might be bothered by being compared to a monk.)

  42. Keith
    October 13, 2004 at 3:12 am

    Oops. It was the Rule of St. Benedict we were reading. I’m sure that makes all the difference to everyone, but I wrote and sent too quickly and I worry about folks in the know puzzling over St. Anothy’s Rule. (Count this as a post designed to get the Derrida posts (collectively) beyond 100.)

  43. October 13, 2004 at 6:30 am

    Well, this certainly will rank low on the profundity scale (though it should have illustative value); but speaking of sloganeering – you are all invited to view “The Dude’s” minute-by-minute run down of Sean Hannity’s appearance and speach in Provo a couple nights ago. I hate to single someone out for criticism, but since he’s rich and can say whatever he wants, I won’t resist. Hannity’s speach seems to have been completely and totally lacking in anything of substantive value. Pure rhetoric, labels, and sloganeering – and the people love it. A snippet: “Those of you you are liberals please stand”(my friend, The Dude, stands) – “Everyone, these people standing are evidence that public education is a failure . . . we don’t hate you…you can move into our neighborhoods if you can afford it.” Unbelievable. Pure and Simple. Anyway, The Dude’s post has more such goodies from the performance. Ready for shameless plug: See more witty review at OFF THE TABLE:


  44. Ivan Wolfe
    October 13, 2004 at 7:45 am

    T. Wray –

    Of course Sean Hannity’s rhetoric was like that. He was brought in to give “balance” to Michael Moore, since Moore is no substance and all demagogic sloganeering as well.

    I don’t care for either of them. I partly blame Moore, Hannity, Colmes, Coulter, Crossfire, etc. for the seeming currnent inability of people to communicate on political topics without demonizing their opponents.

  45. Nate Oman
    October 13, 2004 at 8:06 am

    Is it really a “current inability”? I always find these sorts of sentiments a little funny. If you study anything about politics during the federalist period, you realize that our mudslinging is really quite tame.

  46. Ivan Wolfe
    October 13, 2004 at 10:09 am

    Well, I think things are worse now than they were when Bush the first ran against Clinton, or even whem Bush the second ran against Gore. (it was closer when Clinton was being impeached, but I still don’t think it was quite as bad as this election cycle).

    Yes, I understand incivility in politics is nothing new, but it comes and goes in cycles. The currents cylce is marked by a refusal to believe that Bush or Kerry or Nader could actually be nice guys with sincere motives. Beyond that, they often aren’t even considered to be just mistaken, misinfomed or incompetent by their opposition – instead they are portrayed as evil incarnate (Bush as Hitler, Kerry as the man Osama would vote for, etc.)

  47. greenfrog
    October 13, 2004 at 10:49 am


    Were not both accounts of monastery experiences subjectively accurate?

    The “I’ve been here for twenty years, you wet-behind-the-ears neophyte” response may be accurate for a twenty-year-jaded monastic, but so, too, is the “peace-and-light” response of the one-week-per-year visitor. In this regard, I tend to compare responses of fifty-year-old, life-long members of the Church and newly baptized twenty-somethings to the question of “Are your Church leaders inspired?” Both responses are subjectively accurate, but represent radically different perspectives.

  48. john fowles
    October 13, 2004 at 11:08 am

    Nate wrote our mudslinging is really quite tame. That is true. In fact, NPR ran a story a couple of months ago about the 1800 election and the type of purely ad hominem rhetoric that characterized the political atmosphere, including graffiti that demonized opposing candidates on city walls (another thing we tend to associate with modern times).

  49. Jonathan Green
    October 13, 2004 at 12:36 pm

    Jack, it might be enlightening for a music student to hear his or her teacher call Beethoven’s symphonies trash, even if the student disagreed. A lot depends, I think, on how the teacher goes about it. It can be a real eye-opener to learn that that some experts disagree on something you had always thought of as universally accepted. On the other hand, “You don’t know what you’re talking about!” always made me want to quite school.

  50. Mark B
    October 13, 2004 at 12:36 pm

    It’s instructive to remember that the founders, those demigods of the 18th century, were for the most part not to sanguine about the possibilities of turning “the mob” into an informed electorate. In drafting the constitution, they established structures to prevent the mob from running the governmental train off the tracks:

    1. They established the electoral college to vote for president, provided for selection of electors by the states, but did not specify how the electors were to decide whom to vote for. There is no constitutional requirement that electors from a state vote for the person that the people of the state prefer. The expectation of the founders was that the electors would be better informed than the mob, and that their being informed would result in a better selection for president.

    2. They provided for election of senators by state legislators. Thus the will of the majority was in many instances frustrated, perhaps most famously in 1858 in Illinois, where more votes were cast for Republican state legislators than for Democrats, but inequality in apportionment resulted in their being more Democrats in the state legislature–and so Senator Douglas was reelected, and not that Springfield lawyer. (Don’t even suggest that we should go back to this system–at least not if you don’t want the NYTimes to think you’re Neanderthal. Before Jay Bybee was being flayed for his memo on torture, he was criticized for his suggestion in a law review article that we should consider repealing the 17th Amendment–the editorial simply noted that a sign that Bush’s court appointments included people that were way out of the mainstream, and implied that they were nuts.)

    3. Finally, suffrage was left in the hands of the states. Instead of making a bold statement about suffrage (including, for example, blacks, women, unpropertied working men, etc.), the framers simply provided that voters in federal elections (for congressmen and presidential electors) would include those authorized by their state to vote for the more numerous branch of their state legistures.

  51. Keith
    October 13, 2004 at 12:51 pm


    You bring up a good point which I probably didn’t make clear enough in my post. Yes, both were subjectively accurate. I suspect that each was being honest. I think the woman who had spent more time in the monastery was able to justice to the experience (which isn’t to say that someone else who had spent significant time there might not disagree with her). Could the retreat visitor do the monastery justice in her description? Perhaps, but only with careful and imaginative thought as to how this might be for people for whom monasticism is their way of life and not simply a temporary retreat from life as usual.

    The example of the fifty year member and the new member is instructive. Each will have different levels of experience, but in some ways are at least dealing with the same thing. Both are members committed to the church for the rest of their lives. The monastic and the retreat visitor may not be dealing with the same thing because the retreat visitor doesn’t experience this as a life-commitment.

    Of course, another difficult question about my example is whether time or experience alone can assure that one does justice in his or her description. It doesn’t follow that this will be the case. The question, then, is what is needed to do justice in some description or explanation? That’s a post for another time, though perhaps what Jim started with in this whole thread is precisely about that.

  52. Jack
    October 13, 2004 at 11:13 pm

    “Hmm, Jack and Jonathan, you’re not helping me decide whether I should continue to accost to correct young men in the hall who are having serious conversations.”

    My nickle’s worth of advice would be to love the sinner and accost the sin.

  53. October 15, 2004 at 2:18 pm


    i’m sorry i didn’t respond sooner to your comment in russell’s post, but i didn’t expect to have caused such a fuss. BTW, if that little piece over at scrappleface got under your skin, you definitely do.not. want to read what frontpagemag had to say. i think it burned my eyes it was so scathing.

    you were right when you suggested i was unfamiliar with the man; when i posted the comment, i don’t think i’d read a word derrida had written. now i can say i’ve read a little bit on wikipedia. :)

    scrappleface clearly identified derrida with postmodernism, and it was his jabs at the way postmodernists see “meaning” that i most enjoyed. was scrappleface wrong to make that connection? wikipedia claims that his philosophy is often mistaken for postmodernist, but actually has nothing to do with it. on the other hand, claims postmodernism and derrida’s deconstructionism are “integrally related”. i suppose this proves your point, i guess, that i need to read his stuff before i make up my mind.

    i meant scrappleface gave derrida “what he deserves” in a somewhat jovial way, although that is difficult to express without being able to inflect my voice while saying it (it was typed). as for the final sentence, where ott implies derrida believed “there is nothing to which it is worth devoting one’s life”, i hardly thought about that when i posted my comment. as i said, i was mainly enjoying the blogger’s jabs at the postmodern definition of meaning.

    i do not dispute that postmodern and poststructuralist philosophies came in the natural progression of philosophic thought, and i do not mean to say that they are without merit academically. but i am an outsider. even though i have an undergraduate philosophy degree, the closest i came to studying postmodernism was reading habermas’ discourse theory. and you must understand that for those of us on the outside, and of certain religious conviction, the consequences and scenarios created by postmodernism, relativism, nihilism, atheism yada yada ARE HILARIOUS. though i probably shouldn’t, i’ll quote from plaut, on derrida’s death:

    He had been conducting a terminal “narrative” with cancer. Well, at least that is the subjective unproven conclusion we have, since, after all, how do we REALLY know that death and cancer exist?

    see also:

  54. Jim F.
    October 15, 2004 at 3:18 pm

    Travis, but why assume that the members of your list of -isms have anything to do with on another, beside the fact that a lot of the popular press says so? Some postmodernists are atheists and relativists, some are not. As far as I know, none are nihilists. I suspect, however, that the reverse is not true, that few hard-core atheists are postmodernists. But one could be an atheist without being a nihilist or a relativist.

    What hilarious scenarios do you have in mind that are created by postmodernism (and when you say “postmodernism,” which version do you have in mind)? Perhaps one scenario is the one you quote, but that is just a nonsense reading of Derrida, so it does not show one of the supposedly hilarious consequences of his thinking.

    The other items in your list raise similar problems: There are all kinds of relativism, some so silly that probably no one talks about them except to refute them. I have in mind, the absolute relativist who hypothetically says “There is no truth,” but must assume that there is in order to make that claim. The position is quite ridiculous, but, as I said, I’m skeptical that anyone actually takes that position. Other kinds of relativism are considerably more sophisticated. I can imagine, for example, a Latter-day Saint arguing that all truth is relative to God. That would be a relativist position, but it isn’t clear that its results would be hilarious (nor nihilistic, atheistic, etc.).

    “Nihilism” is a term like “cult.” It means something only as a term of opprobrium. It has no real meaning of its own. So I don’t see how it could have hilarious results.

    In contrast, atheism does mean something, but I would be curious as to how its “consequences and scenarios” are hilarious.

    Finally, I don’t understand how the reference to the quotation from Scruton is relevant. Though I know that Scruton thinks Derrida a complete idiot, I think Derrida would have agreed with that quotation.

    It seems to me that you admit that you know little or nothing about Derrida except what you’ve picked up from various popular condemnations of him, but that you nevertheless have reason to believe that you know enough about him to condemn his work as relativist, nihilistic, atheistic, etc.

  55. Larry
    October 15, 2004 at 5:41 pm


    For those of us who are completely ignorant of Derrida, would it be possible for you to write a blog or an article that can help us appreciate or understand him?

  56. Jim F
    October 15, 2004 at 6:58 pm

    The essay, “Deconstruction,” is my attempt to do so:

  57. Larry
    October 15, 2004 at 8:19 pm

    Thank you!

  58. pete
    October 19, 2004 at 2:00 am

    JIM F.:

    Scruton writes (via Travis):

    “He had been conducting a terminal ‘narrative’ with cancer. Well, at least that is the subjective unproven conclusion we have, since, after all, how do we REALLY know that death and cancer exist?”

    You write: “I think Derrida would have agreed with that quotation.”

    If true, Derrida’s agreement with that kind of quotation sets forth “deconstruction” as a paradigm, which, if we all operate thereunder, means that we have essentially no ability to “say” anything that has any connection whatsoever with the reality of the universe. I mean c’mon, if you are going to start saying “how do we REALLY know cancer exists?” what’s to stop us from saying about every subject in every conversation “how do we really know [insert noun] really [insert verb]?”?

    Please tell me what I’m missing. By nearly all accounts you are a great professor, and you have been extremely generous to respond to the posts here on T&S, but I have to say that your defenses of Derrida throughout this post have led me closer to believing he is a fraud, when, in the beginning, I only wanted to believe the opposite.

  59. pete
    October 19, 2004 at 2:04 am

    Ok Jim, I missed that one, big time. I take it Derrida would not agree with Plaut. Or would he?

  60. Jim F.
    October 19, 2004 at 11:09 am

    Pete: I wasn’t clear enough. “That quote” in my sentence refers to the quotation that Roger Scruton has in the article to which Travis’s post links, the link at the end, not to the quotation immediately above. There’s no question he would have thought that quotation just silly.

    But, other than that misunderstanding, what I have said that makes you think more that Derrida is a fraud than you did before?

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