Tag Archives: derrida

Philosophy from looking at a piece of paper

The Zen buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh once spoke of the impossibility of looking at a piece of paper seeing its front face and not presume that it has no back face. Most people will not argue that. Intuitively we will presume this, if we are of sound (without mental disabilities) and mature (old enough to have enough experience) mind.

Maurice Denis began a revolution in Western art with this insightful statement,

« Se rappeler qu’un tableau, avant d’être un cheval de bataille, une femme nue ou une quelconque anecdote, est essentiellement une surface plane recouverte de couleurs en un certain ordre assemblées. »

“Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude, an anecdote or whatnot, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.”

which led to (or summed up) pretty much all modern art. The Cubist paintings of Picasso are an expression of this idea. And Cezanne tried the same in his still-life works before Picasso.

In literature, Eliot, Woolf and Joyce are good examples of this approach and understanding. In linguistics, Saussure said as much about meaning in language. And in philosophy, Wittgenstein, after Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and Derrida had pursued an understanding to the same end.

In Zen, all things are linked, and all things are empty. The back of the piece of paper can be safely presumed to be there even if we do not directly see it by virtue of the existence of the front of it. The back relies of the front for its meaning and existence, as does all language relies on all words for each other’s definitions. Nothingness only means what it does because of somethingness. The reverse is true as well.

The philosophy of Jacque Derrida

It has been a while since I have looked at philosophy, Derrida or deconstruction. So having found that by The School of Life is a refreshing reminder of just how important and still relevant Derrida is.

Most early biographies of Derrida almost alway focus on his philosophy and never talk about his life. I did not know about his marginalisation in Algeria (though I could have guessed). And I did not know he was a football fan as well as an exemplary snooker player.

Three terms were focused upon in this video – deconstruction, aporia, and logocentrism. Deconstruction is the rigorous dismantling of our common sense ideas. Things not privileged (the opposite of the privileged binary) need to be looked at and shown for its equal importance and value. The Greek word Aporia means impasse or puzzlement, a term Derrida revived to describe our need to not be afraid of not knowing or be confused but that this is the true state of things. Postmodern philosophy has embraced this idea and run with it in various guises including fuzzy logic and language games. And logocentrism again is about the privileging of language and clear terms and ideas over inexpressible feelings and emotions which are part of the human experience.

Differance, No-self and ecological interconnectedness

In Buddhism, the understanding is that there is no-self (anatman), or rather, what we believe as the self is not what it seems to be. Put in another way, there is no concept of Soul as in the Western sense. And also because there is no belief in a soul there is no final resting place like Heaven. Life just extinguishes (nirvana). The Buddha came to this conclusion through thorough analysis of the conditions of life.

But if there is no Soul and Heaven then who or what is it that gives us our identity and purpose? It is a loaded assumption, of course, that there needs to be either or both in order to exist, much like the meaning of a word.

Jacques Derrida, that Deconstructionist, in his study of the structural linguistics of Saussure came up with the concept of differance. The spelling is not a mistake but an invented word to describe something which had no construction until then (Deconstructionists will tell you it is a non-concept). It is pronounced (in French at least) the same as ‘difference’, the word it relates, but also differs, to it at the same time. It is also related to ‘defer’ in meaning. Playful was this man.

Saussure had brought to light two important properties of language. First, is that a word (signifier) and the thing it represents (signified) are completely arbitrary (see sign). There is no reason why any word should represent any object. If that be the case then the name of an object would be same in all languages. But there is no such determination in language. Some may argue that certain words are imitations of the object or concept (eg. gong, bang) but even then this does not determine that it will be the same across languages.

The second property is that a word gains its identity from its difference to other words. A symbol, therefore, only means something because it is in a system of signs. So, for example, to add an extra letter to English alphabet would mean nothing unless it plays a role within the system of the English language. Similarly to introduce a new word into a language doesn’t guarantee its use. That can only be done through agreement by at least two people of the language in question.

What Derrida did with this structural linguistic concept was to take it to its logical conclusion. So if there is nothing but differences within the system, it must necessarily mean that they do not have an inherit meaning or definition. And this is what is meant by Derrida when he says meaning is ‘deferred’, that words cannot come to full and independent meaning. He says words are forever partially marked by absence.

But, as far as I can tell, the Derrida’s concept of differance was only limited to the study of signifiers, or words. It seems logical, to me, to extent this also to the entire system of signifieds, to see meaning as created from the difference between all objects.

And so, if we extend this to the concept of No-self and see it is like the concept of differance, we will see they are similar in that they both believe that no internal meaning is possible. Or to go by the deconstruction logic, what we call the self relies on everything else for its definition.

And in a similar vein interconnectedness in ecology works in the same way, that nothing independently exists, but that everything is part of the intricate web of life. All three areas of thought seem to have a commonality. They dif(f)er only by their choice of words or path to the conclusion.