Differance and the metaphysics of presence

A is a because it is not b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, q, r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y, or z.

B is b because it is not a, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, q, r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y, or z.

C is c because it is not a, b, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, q, r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y, or z.

And so on until z.

A does not have an inherent meaning, only meaning because it differs to the other symbols.  And by not having an inherent meaning it defers meaning. This is what Derrida had meant by differance. The choice of a different letter but identical pronunciation was to highlight differing, deferring and difference. The implication is that nothing has meaning present unto itself, only meaning via absence. He terms the mistake to think otherwise metaphysics to presence.

Metaphors we live by

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s important work Metaphors We Live By pointed out an aspect of conceptualisation and language – that we must resort literal physical meanings and relationships in order to talk about the abstract.

The employment of metaphors of the real is the only way we can talk about unreal.

Consider these sentences.

  1. He is in the kitchen.
  2. The concert starts in three hours.
  3. She is in the choir.
  4. They are in love.

All sentences employ spatial relation “in” to describe the concepts.

But only 1 is literal or real. Both “he” and “the kitchen” are real things. The person is located in a space. In 2 uses space to talk about time. And 3, and 4 use space to talk about membership and emotional state. While it can be argued that one can use non-space to describe things, it is neither easy, economical, nor natural. In other words, abstract or unreal concepts simply cannot be mentally, psychologically or conceptually manipulated without recourse to the real literal world.

Type and token things

There are things. Let us call each thing a token. Let us begin with the smallest unit – the atom.

There are unfathomable, countless multitude of atoms in the universe. Yet, as we look at each atom carefully we see similarities and differences between them. Let us call one a and another b. a and b are dissimilar, in fact, so dissimilar that we will continue to call them a and b.

We look at another atom but this one is similar to a and different to b. So maybe we shall call it a1. After a while we have a whole bunch of grouped together. Here, they can be called A to represent all of the tokens called a. This big A we shall call type that which is a general representation of all tokens.

This A, of course, does not exist in the world, only as a classification or categorisation within the mind of the thinker. It is a concept that becomes a thing by virtue of being the actual letter A. It is in the sign that we mistake it for being real. The concept until being turned into a sign had no reality other than being a process within the mind/brain. The sign makes it “materialise” so to speak.

Furthermore, the person who speaks has not seen all the tokens of a but generalises this to all the a. A is thus a “rough estimate” of any a mentioned. Even if we are talking about a specific instance of a we cannot help but be drawn into the estimation that is A.

This is the quality of language that is continually (dis)missed, in all language use, ordinary, philosophical, or otherwise.

A piece of paper

I hold up a piece of paper in front of you.

Question: you see the front of the paper but does the back not exist because you do not see it?

I flip the paper.

Question: does the back (now front) exist but the front (now back) cease to exist?

The inside of my safe

Imagine that last night, I locked one million dollars into my safe.

Question: does the money disappear the moment I close and lock the safe?

This morning, I open my safe.

Question: does the money reappear the moment I open the safe?

Planet X

I am the first person to visit a distant and unseen planet called X.

Question: does the planet come into existence the very moment I visit it?

I leave this planet called X.

Question: does it cease to exist the moment I leave it because no remains to see it?

Szczurolap (The Rat Exterminator)

Warning: this video contains visually disturbing scenes.

Szczurolap (The Rat Catcher) is a 1986 documentary about the one of the few remaining rat exterminators in Poland.

The film begins with a scientist describing an experiment where a rat is shown to drown in a matter of 15 minutes when left alone. Another rat which was rescued by way of a plank but later returned to the water survives for 15 hours. The point is that a rat given hope will have the will to live.

In the rest of the film we follow the exterminator in his task at exterminating the entire population on a rat-infested farm. He describes how he needs to be patient. By using poison he could kill off perhaps only three-quarters of the population, leaving the stronger and smarter rats to survive and passing on their genes (and knowledge) to the next generation . But by waiting and gaining their trust he can exterminate a far higher percentage from the beginning. So much so that he will feed the rats, other rats will continue to eat his poison ladened or by hardening their stomaches with plaster, even when rats are dying around in front them all the while he stands there watching. The remaining rats are shot with an air rifle. The last surviving rat – the boss – is then literally lured out with bait on fishing hook then killed by smashing it against the wall.

The film ends with the exterminator revealing to his listeners that his real job is that of watchmaking.

The narration, while about rat extermination, is really a philosophical meditation of sorts. Very little information about this film exists in English. I highly recommend it. But it is definitely not for the faint-hearted.