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Beware of Truth!

Peter Benson tries to clear Jacques Derrida’s unjustly infamous name, and shows how memes spread in modern academia.

The doorbell rings. I hurry to answer it and find, standing on the doorstep, a man and woman dressed in dark clothes, with bright smiles on their faces. “Good Morning!” they greet me, boundlessly cheerful, “We are visiting people in this area to bring you a copy of our magazine.” And they triumphantly hold aloft a flimsy publication entitled THE TRUTH! in large strident lettering.

I am immediately seized by panic. “I’m terribly sorry,” I hurriedly say, “I haven’t time to talk. I’m just in the middle of sacrificing a goat.” And I quickly close the door in their astonished faces.

I suspect that most readers of Philosophy Now would react in a similar way. Anyone who, out of the blue, wants to bring the Truth to me (or to bring me to the Truth) should be viewed with suspicion. I have got along just fine without this Truth of theirs, and I’m not so sure that I need it now. This cannot be attributed to a lack of curiosity. I am fascinated by facts of many kinds – scientific facts, historical facts, biographical facts – and I am well aware that I still have much to learn. Numerous truths, of various varieties, await my discovery. It is only when I am offered The Truth (with a capital ‘T’), singular and domineering, that I become wary.

I feel equally suspicious when a book of philosophy sets out to tell me Why Truth Matters(Continuum, 2006). On the face of it, this is not a mysterious puzzle. When we ask a question (such as “Where is the nearest railway station?”) we would generally prefer a true answer to a false one. The reasons are fairly obvious! But the authors of this book (Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom) are convinced that Truth is under siege, that its importance is widely denied, and that they need to come to its aid. Ought we perhaps to regard them with the same caution as we would bring to our pair of doorstep preachers?

The aims of the book may seem admirable enough, as the authors catalogue various examples of ideological prejudice and political correctness overriding established facts. These examples are mostly drawn from such fields as sociology, anthropology, and cultural studies. Yet the authors clearly believe that the original well-spring of such challenges to truth lies within philosophy. They declare their principal targets to be “Postmodernism, epistemic relativism, anti-realism…. And so on.” (p.18) And they later suggest that the origin of these fashionable ideas may have been, in part, “just a brain wave in the head of Jacques Derrida” (p.167) They may be surprised, therefore, to learn that in the book he wrote in collaboration with Catherine Malabou ( ‘Counterpath’, Stanford University Press, 2004) Derrida speaks of attending “a meeting on ‘Postmodernism and Religion’ – two things which are foreign to me.” (p.95). Many similar disavowals can be found in his works.

Many books and articles in recent years have announced a desire to defend Truth against Postmodern attack. But who exactly are these postmodern philosophers, who treat Truth so lightly? And what exactly is postmodernism?

Postmodernism – What is it?

This question is complicated by the use of the term ‘Postmodern’ in various different areas of study, where its multiple meanings do not always coincide. Probably its most straightforward use is in the Arts, where there are distinctive architectural, literary, and painterly styles known as ‘postmodernist’. In each case, this is because there was a previous style, dating from the early 20th Century, known as ‘modernist’ (exemplified by Picasso for painting, Joyce for literature, Le Corbusier for architecture). In the field of philosophy, it is much less clear what ‘postmodern philosophy’ could be defined in contrast to.

University courses usually classify ‘modern’ philosophy as beginning with Descartes, in contrast to Ancient (Greek and Roman) and Medieval philosophies. Of course, many thinkers have reacted against Descartes, beginning with his close contemporary Pascal. That is in the very nature of philosophical debate. It is less obvious whether there has ever been a specific reaction against all modern philosophy and, if so, when this took place. The timescale is clearly very different from that in the field of the arts. Descartes (the first ‘modern’ philosopher) lived from 1596 to1650; Manet (whom we might reasonably consider the first modern artist) lived from 1832 to 1883. If the ‘modern’ periods are so different in each case, we could expect any ‘postmodern’ periods to be equally different.

Even more significantly, hardly any philosopher has ever described themself as a ‘postmodernist’. It is a term almost exclusively used by their critics. It is true that Jean-Francois Lyotard wrote a book in 1979 called The Postmodern Condition, which has been very widely read. He did not, in fact, consider it to be one of his strictly philosophical works (which are far more technical, and thus much less widely read). Its only philosophical content is the application of Wittgenstein’s notion of ‘language games’ to the field of sociology. It was commissioned by the Canadian government as a report on contemporary attitudes towards knowledge. Lyotard concluded that there was a widespread collapse of belief in grand narratives of progress in human knowledge. His predictions about the consequent changes that would result in universities, and in other institutes of higher education, have proved to be largely accurate. He was not saying that there ought to be such a loss of faith, but merely reporting a sociological fact.

In the same way, the social commentator Jean Baudrillard (also often characterized as a ‘postmodernist’) describes aspects of the contemporary world which he finds troubling. Conservative by temperament, he bewails the way we increasingly live inside a virtual reality, disconnected from any identifiable anchoring points. He is certainly not saying that this is a Good Thing.

To describe Lyotard or Baudrillard as ‘postmodernists’ is akin to describing Karl Marx as a capitalist because he wrote analyses of capitalist society. They are notadvocates of something called ‘postmodernism’.

In fact, I do not believe there is any identifiable movement or school of thought which we could accurately call ‘postmodern philosophy’. The philosophers who are usually grouped under this term are too diverse to constitute a school, nor did they ever claim adherence to such a group identity.

This makes me suspicious of writers who avidly wish to protect us from the alleged dangers of ‘postmodern philosophy’. Imaginary enemies can easily be used to generate a paranoid state of mind which is far from conducive to rational thought (think, for example, of America during the McCarthy era).

Lest it be thought that I am exaggerating this situation, consider the paranoid tone adopted by Simon Blackburn, usually a very sober writer, in his Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed (2005):

“There is something diabolical in the region of relativism, multiculturalism or postmodernism, something which corrupts and corrodes the universities and public culture, that sweeps away moral standards, lays waste young people’s minds, and rots our precious civilization from within.” (p. xv)

Blackburn associates postmodernism particularly with the work of Jacques Derrida (p.170). Derrida is also the first name mentioned by Benson & Stangroom as they begin their attack on postmodernism (p.19). But if we look at what they have to say about his work, we find that they defer the task of authoritative criticism to the American logician W.V. Quine (p.168).

Derrida – The Cambridge Affair

Quine was the most well-known of a group of 19 academics from around the world who signed a letter to The Times in 1992, protesting against the nomination of Derrida for an honorary degree from Cambridge University. Benson and Stangroom quote this passage: “In the eyes of philosophers, and certainly those working in leading departments of philosophy throughout the world, M. Derrida’s work does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigour.” Quine and his colleagues concluded that he was therefore not worthy of such an honour.

This affair caught the temporary attention of the world’s media, which do not generally take much notice of disagreements among academics. It had been 30 years since any proposed award of a Cambridge honorary degree had been challenged. In accordance with traditional procedures, a vote of the entire academic staff of the University was taken, and a clear majority were found to be in favour of the award (the vote was 336 to 204). Nevertheless, the protest, by members of the Cambridge philosophy faculty led by D.H. Mellor, and by other philosophers including Quine, had been widely reported.

Derrida responded in an interview first published in The Cambridge Review, and reprinted in his collection of interviews Points… (1995). It is a devastating critique of the methods used by his opponents to disparage his work, and should be read by anyone who is inclined towards the widespread dismissal of Derrida’s philosophy.

Quine and his colleagues were certainly outspoken in their views. They declared that Derrida’s work: “seems to us to be little more than semi-intelligible attacks upon the values of reason, truth and scholarship… His works employ a written style that defies comprehension… When the effort is made to penetrate it, however, it becomes clear, to us at least, that, when coherent assertions are being made at all, these are either false or trivial.” To this, Derrida replied: “How can they say that what I write ‘defies comprehension’ when they are denouncing its excessive influence and end up by saying that they themselves have very well understood that there is nothing to understand in my work except the false and the trivial?”

The letter in The Times gives no examples of what these false or trivial assertions might be. In fact, the only phrase they quote, supposedly to illustrate Derrida’s use of puns, is a phrase that does not appear in any of his writings! It is no surprise when Derrida asserts that their letter: “violates the very principles in whose name these academics pretend to speak (‘reason, truth and scholarship’)… Nothing means that I am right, or that I should be believed merely because I say so, but let those who want to criticise take the trouble to do so; let them read, quote, demonstrate, and so on.”

None of those who criticized Derrida at the time have ever responded to this challenge. In an interview published the following year (1993) in Cogito, Vol 7, D.H. Mellor remained unrepentant about the attack he had launched and repeated his attribution to Derrida of the belief “that writings have no intrinsic meaning… [and] are open to endless and arbitrary reinterpretation by their readers.” Once again, no reference is given to where Derrida is supposed to have said such a thing. Anyone who has read the passionate exchange of views between Derrida and Foucault about the interpretation of a particular passage in Descartes’ writings (complete with references to the original Latin text) could not possibly think that either of these philosophers believes texts can be interpreted in any way one wants. Yet, together with the claim that he is “denying the distinction between fact and fiction” (Mellor et al, Cambridge University Reporter, 20/5/92) these are the two doctrines most frequently attributed to Derrida by his opponents, always without any reference to where he is alleged to have asserted them.

It is therefore worth quoting a passage where he explicitly denies such claims. In an interview published in the book Life.After.Theory (ed Payne and Schad, 2003) Derrida states, “There are, of course, types of narrative by historians which I would never try to reduce to literature – that would be silly.” (p.27). He thus explicitly upholds the distinction between fact and fiction. Some pages later he explains that, in his view:

“To have the possibility of the authentic, sincere and full meaning of what one says, the possibility of the failure, or the lie, or of something else, must remain open. That’s the structure of language. There would be no truth otherwise. I insist on this because if I didn’t say this I would be considered someone who is opposed to truth or simply doesn’t believe in truth. No, I am attached to truth.”

None of these views are new to him. They do not represent a change of heart, and will not surprise any careful reader of his earlier works. The book containing this interview is actually mentioned in passing by Benson and Stangroom (p.153) though they do not appear to have read its contents. Do they consider it of no importance that Derrida denied holding the very views they attribute to him? Ironically, their own book is explicitly dedicated to espousing the value of “reasoned argument and the requirement of reference to evidence” (p.17), criteria they themselves disregard in their characterization of Derrida’s work.

The trial of Jacques Derrida before the tribunal of British and American academics resembles nothing so much as the trial scene in Alice in Wonderland. The condemnation was presented without bothering to provide any evidence, and when the accused spoke in his own defence, his comments were ignored. Since his accusers are defending Truth (along with Reason, and Scholarship) they feel relieved of any need for factual accuracy. Any small specific truths (quotations, with references and dates, such as I have given here) can be ignored.

It is therefore startling to find the following passage in Quine’s autobiography, published seven years before the Derrida controversy (pp.478-479): “My doctrines have suffered stubborn misrepresentations which, if I shared them, would impel me to join my critics in lashing out against my doctrines in no uncertain terms… There is a premium on controversy, fruitful or otherwise, and hence on misinterpretation.” It is a shame (it is, indeed, shameful) that Quine did not bear this in mind before signing a collective denunciation of a fellow philosopher.

Factoids

If these characterizations of the philosophy of Derrida (and others) are false, why are they so often repeated? This question is often asked in the spirit of ‘There’s no smoke without fire, you know!’ Underlying it is that Theory of Truth which underlies propaganda and advertising, that if you repeat something often enough, it becomes true. The theory of ‘memes’, introduced by Richard Dawkins, can help us to understand how this works. Lies propagate (duplicate themselves, spread, proliferate) in a similar way to a virus, often more quickly than facts. They become established in the ‘meme pool’ of society (analogous to the ‘gene pool’ of genetics), which is embodied in newspapers, books, and daily chatter. Attempts to stamp them out can never catch up with all the reappearances they make. There is even a word for these viral entities: factoids.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a ‘factoid’ as “something that becomes accepted as a fact, although it is not (or may not be) true.” The earliest published use of the word is from 1973 (in a book by Norman Mailer). So it is a word of fairly recent invention. This is not surprising. The proliferation of the media, and the exponential expansion of the Internet, has vastly multiplied the channels through which factoids can spread.

Here is an example of a factoid: “Tracey Emin won the Turner Prize with her unmade bed.” In reality, Emin was shortlisted for the prize, but has never won it; and her shortlisting was for a substantial group of works, including drawings and videos, not just for the bed piece. But the factoid is repeated often enough to operate as if it were true. It would be easy enough to check the facts, but journalists prefer to copy factoids from other journalists. It is particularly sad to find the same procedures operating in the field of philosophy, because this contradicts the very foundation of the subject.

Philosophy began when it separated itself from sophistry. The Sophists (at least as they are presented by Plato) were concerned with how to spread ideas, how to make them take root in people’s minds, by the use of rhetoric. Socrates, by contrast, was seeking ways to discover if those ideas were actually true or not, by challenging and checking them.

The Sophists resembled our contemporary doorstep preachers, smoothly eloquent, fitting together all their thoughts in a rounded globe of glib perfection – the one and only Truth, available at a special discount price. (Unlike Socrates, the Sophists charged for their services.) Any descent of philosophy into the ways of Sophistry should be regretted. Yet in his Cambridge Review interview, Derrida noted that: “Most of the distorting, reductive, and ridiculous talk circulating in the newspapers, on the radio or the television on this occasion [regarding his honorary degree] was first shaped in the academic arena, through a sort of public opinion transmitted ‘on the inside’, so to speak, of the university.”

The flurry of bad-tempered argument that resulted may seem a trivial incident. After all, Derrida was finally awarded the honour, which in any case had no direct impact upon his career. But the incident helped to put into circulation various factoids which have subsequently been widely disseminated with no possibility, it seems, of stopping their spread (I have no illusions that this article of mine will have any great effect in this respect). At the time of his death in 2004 almost every obituary in the British press mentioned the Cambridge incident. In Benson and Stangroom’s book the unsubstantiated views expressed by Quine et al in their letter to The Times are quoted, relying on the fame of Quine, as their only direct criticism of Derrida’s work. And yet, reviewing Why Truth Matters in The Independent on Sunday (14/05/06) the journalist Johann Hari concludes “there should be a law demanding every purchase of a Jacques Derrida ‘book’ be accompanied with a free copy of this shimmering, glimmering answer.” In this way, the factoids continue to circulate.

Hari had already attacked Derrida in an astonishing tirade of abuse published in The Independent on 13/10/04, only a few days after Derrida’s death, under the heading ‘Why I Won’t be Mourning Derrida’. Ignoring any etiquette of respectful courtesy towards the recently deceased, Hari indulged in descriptions of Derrida’s ideas which were incorrect in every respect, sometimes attributing to him the exact opposite of the views he actually held. The familiarity of these falsities appears to have absolved the newspaper from checking their accuracy. The laws of libel, after all, do not apply once someone has died, even if they are only a few days dead.

It is true that Derrida’s work is difficult and requires careful reading if it is to be properly understood. But the same could be said of other important figures in the history of philosophy (such as Spinoza, Kant, or Hegel). Why do people assume they should be able to read any work of philosophy easily, though they wouldn’t expect to read a text book on advanced physics without knowledge or guidance? But Hari, like Quine, asserts that “once you learn how to boil down [Derrida’s] prose, his ideas are fairly simple – and pernicious.” Hari’s ‘boiled down’ version, however, bears no relation to Derrida’s actual thought. Here is a sample from Hari’s summary:

“All we can hope for is to establish a ‘metaphysics of presence’, where we try to clear the clutter of language from our minds and experience a few things directly and purely. Derrida’s method for destroying language is deconstruction.”

This is total rubbish! Derrida thought that we could never “clear the clutter of language from our minds”. It was, indeed, the ‘metaphysics of presence’ (a phrase Hari had obviously stumbled on in his flicking through Derrida’s writings, for he uses it twice, without understanding it once) that he was seeking to ‘deconstruct’. For those familiar with analytic philosophy ‘the metaphysics of presence’ is roughly equivalent to the ‘Myth of the Given’ analysed and (one could say) ‘deconstructed’ by Wilfrid Sellars in the 1950s. Sellars was reacting against the logical positivists influential in Anglo-American philosophy at that time, in the same way that Derrida was reacting against the phenomenology which predominated in France when he began his career.

From these concerns, Derrida ultimately derived political consequences. The ‘metaphysics of presence’ promotes the idea that democracy, or any other such ideal can be fully achieved and instituted rather than (as Derrida suggests) be recognized as an endless trajectory towards a ‘democracy to come’, always to be spoken of in the future tense.

I am not, of course, going to attempt a full elucidation of Derrida’s philosophy here. That would take time, and space, and patience. All I ask, of any reader who feels drawn to investigate Derrida’s work, is that they should first set aside all of the widely circulating factoids such as ‘Derrida does not believe in truth’ or ‘Derrida thinks that texts can mean whatever we wish them to’. These statements remain untrue, no matter how often they are repeated.

Conclusion

Finally, I would like to refer to two earlier events in Derrida’s life with which the Cambridge incident has alarming affinities. He grew up in Algeria. When the Vichy regime took control of France and its colonies during the Second World War, he was expelled from the school he had been attending because he was a Jew, a fact which had previously had little influence on his life. He experienced exclusion from an educational establishment, with no right of appeal, just as the Cambridge philosophers tried to exclude him from their elite group.

Much later, when he was already a famous philosopher, he visited Communist Prague to attend a meeting of dissident writers. As he was leaving Czechoslovakia, he was abruptly arrested at the airport and taken to prison. The Czech secret police had planted a packet of drugs in his luggage. Diplomatic negotiations led fairly swiftly to his release, but the incident undoubtedly frightened him. Thinking back, he realized that the only time the drugs could have been planted was when he was out of his hotel paying a respectful visit to the grave of Franz Kafka! The opening words of Kafka’s novel The Trial are: “Someone had been spreading lies about Joseph K.” In much the same way, Derrida’s philosophical enemies repeatedly spread demonstrably false accounts of his ideas.

These three incidents, in Algeria, Prague, and Cambridge, are united by their disregard for treating Derrida fairly. If the Cambridge incident seems the least serious of the three, we should remember that Derrida had not sought the honorary degree. He had barely been notified of his nomination before being told that it would be disputed and that this was likely to generate publicity. This publicity gave his opponents an opportunity to disseminate false accounts of his work which continue to this day to influence the popular perception of his philosophy. Derrida’s criticism of his philosophical opponents was not that they disagreed with him (disagreements are part of the normal process of philosophy), but that they misrepresented his work, and ignored the defences he repeatedly put forward against such criticisms. Derrida’s protests, on this issue, were on the grounds of justice. It is, perhaps, not surprising that a central concern of his later work would be the nature of justice.

The aim of this article is both modest and Socratic. Socrates questioned people to see if they had any basis for the various ‘truths’ they thought they knew. In the same way, I suggest one should always question whether writers have sufficient knowledge of their subject to ground the opinions they express. One should never adopt those opinions as one’s own without first checking the various ‘truths’ to which they refer. Benson and Stangroom assert “It is surely in the nature of truth that it has to be all of a piece. Its norms have to apply here as well as there.” (p.17.) This is plausible but false. The truths of moral propositions, for example, are of a quite different nature from those of empirical propositions. Truth has differentiated regions. One should be particularly wary of anyone who declares that they are defending Truth, with a capital ‘T’, their passion for which may have led them to be casual about the accuracy of specific, small scale, multiple truths which could be checked and contested. Such checking and Socratic quibbling can all too easily be treated as a trivial matter when the Juggernaut of Truth is busily rolling along, crushing its alleged opponents into the dust.

© Peter Benson 2009

Peter Benson studied philosophy at Cambridge University, where his tutor was D.H. Mellor, later a principal instigator of the campaign against Derrida.

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