Alexander Nehemas Kicking Derrida Around (while discussing Nietzsche) When He Used to Know Better and Should Do So Now.

Recently I’ve started working my way through Nietzsche: Writings from the Early Notebooks  (edited by Raymond Geuss and Alexander Nehemas, translated by Ladislaus Löb, Cambridge University Press, 2009).  First thing, anyone with any interest in Nietzsche has to read it, get hold of it now and study it properly, if you haven’t already.  Second, very decent job by Nehemas on the Introduction (which he is in his name only though he acknowledges useful comments from Geuss).  Unfortunately, he includes a stab a Derrida, which does not contribute to the Introduction in substance, but does add to a genre of very lazy attacks on Derrida.  This is particularly sad as Nehemas is in terms of institutional affiliation (he is a Princeton Professor of Philosophy), and in terms of his publications, has done a lot to spread understanding about the importance of another French philosopher, Michel Foucault.  In general, Foucault has been better served by prominent anglosphere philosophers than Derrida, though are certainly those who lash out at Foucault from that direction.  Gary Gutting (Notre Dame), Hubert Dreyfus (Berkeley), and Ian Hacking (Toronto) are other examples of friendly commentators on Foucault at notable North American universities, and who are not generally speaking Continental European Philosophy in approach (that is do not write like Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, etc for whom arguments cannot be separated from the style of writing) .  C.G. Prado  (Queen’s University, Ontario) and Barry Allen (McMaster) have said a lot about Foucault and are perhaps between the Analytic (way of writing philosophy in which concepts are objects of analysis, or scientific psychological investigation, rather than embedded in strategies and styles of writing) and Continental styles of Foucault and Derrida themselves.  Sadly there is no similar body of philosophers who taken up Derrida in this way, though a few Analytic (or at least not Continental European philosophers in style) anglosphere philosophers have said some respectful things about Derrida, including Thomas Baldwin, A.A. Moore, and David Cooper, but it does not go very far.  

Nehemas’ superfluous swipe (pages xi to xii) refers to Derrida’s essay ‘Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles’, which he published in book form.  There Nehemas focuses on Derrida’s suggestion that e take Nietzsche’s remark ‘I have forgotten my umbrella’ in his notebooks as a model for interpreting Nietzsche.  I won’t attempt to summarise Derrida’s argument here, but what I take from it is that the meaning of any piece of writing depends on context, and that context is more than the obvious surrounding text, and circumstance,  The obvious itself is a matter of debate, and the meaning of writing necessarily includes all the meanings it can be given in all the possible contexts we can find for it.  In ‘Spurs’, Derrida was specifically targeting Heidegger’s reading of Derrida, as Nehemas notes, in order to question the way that Heidegger wants to see a question of ontology (being) everywhere in Derrida.  Derrida’s point is that we can finally and unquestionably unify even a short piece of text around any particular interpretation, including an interpretation focused around the ‘meaning of Being’.  

Where Nehemas goes wrong, as is usually the case in critics of Derrida, is to take this as an argument for ‘anything goes’.  Its worth noting here that the philosopher who most promoted the idea that ‘anything goes’ was not Derrida or any similar French philosopher, but Paul Feyerabend, the LSE philosopher of science, whose thought was shaped by early interests in Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein.  Getting back to Derrida, he certainly did not think that ‘anything goes’ in interpretation.  He identified himself with Michel de Montaigne (the sixteenth century humanist and author of Renaissance masterpiece The Essays) as someone concerned with interpretations of interpretations, with the idea that any activity of interpretation rests on the interpretations we already have of our world.  

Nehemas makes a lot of Derrida denying context, when it is the case that one of Derrida’s best known essays ‘Signature Text Context’ (John Searle’s bad tempered and worse argued attack on this essay sadly succeeded in setting the tone for analytic discussion of Derrida) addresses this issue, and while rejecting the idea that any final interpretation can be given to a text by immediate context, certainly does not deny the importance of immediate context, as Nehemas suggests that Derrida does.  Derrida’s point is that the first context has a context, and that has a context and so on.  There is no end to the nesting of contexts.  That does not stop us interpreting texts, including those of Nietzsche.  Derrida has a lot to say about what Nietzsche means, in the sense of what Derrida finds to be the best way of moving through linked passages in Nietzsche.  Nietzsche’s views on friendship are a major topic of Derrida’s book Politics of Friendship, for example.  Derrida is always concerned with how meaning conflicts in philosophical and other texts, broadly speaking how they tend to unify around a theme and disperse around its points of articulation and the inevitable ambiguities that arise.  The tendency for philosophy, culture, and thought to polarise between opposites, to pluralise and unify and also constant themes of Nietzsche.  

Nehemas attacks a parody, like many others who wish to preserve a ‘sensible’ approach to Nietzsche and other selected favourites in the Continental European tradition.  This includes those who like Brain Leiter (who has strongly influenced analytic views of Nietzsche with his suggestion that we look at Nietzsche as primarily holding to a cognitive psychology explanation of human actions and beliefs) who attack Nehemas as being too concerned with Nietzsche as stylist, as being too like Derrida.  This is an endless game of attacking those who have allowed themselves to be contaminated with an interest in style and the interpretations of interpretations of philosophy.  I believe that Nehemas is extremely unimpressed by Leiter’s position, and his polemics against those who do not share his own view of Nietzsche (that is the overwhelming majority of Nietzsche commentators and scholars), how sad that he should use what are to large degree the same arguments against Derrida.  

I must also note that I heard podcast by Nehemas about friendship a while back (Google: Alexander Nehemas friendship).  He picked up on what has become a well established recent discussion of friendship in philosophy, going through Aristotle, Cicero, Montaigne, Nietzsche, and others.  Where does this discussion come from?  To a large degree from the book I have already mentioned by Derrida, Politics of Friendship.  Nehemas’ swipe at Derrida is even more strange if we consider that he discusses the same bit of Derrida’s ‘Spurs’ in much more sympathetic terms in his 1985 book Nietzsche: Life as Literature.  Why he has decided to join the Searle-Lieter beat the life out of Derrida tendency since I do not know.  Nehemas’ 1998 book The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault, ignore Derrida, who did have things to say about Plato and Socrates, and is very sympathetic to Foucault.  Though Nehemas’ way of being sympathetic to Foucault is not far from his late way of kicking Derrida about, since he goes a bit too far in seeing Foucault as a subjective almost solipsistic thinker, criticising Foucault respectfully along those lines.  

Nehemas has made very worthy contributions to the discussion of Nietzsche, along with Foucault, Plato, Montaigne and others.  A shame about what happened to his view of Derrida, moving from briefly sympathetic to briefly brutal.  He really should know better.  


2 thoughts on “Alexander Nehemas Kicking Derrida Around (while discussing Nietzsche) When He Used to Know Better and Should Do So Now.

  1. 1. There are a couple of places where you’ve talked about Heidegger’s reading of Derrida, and probably mean Heidegger’s reading of Nietzsche.

    2. Of course, Feyerabend didn’t say ‘anything goes’ either. What he said was ‘If you’re looking for a set of methodological prescriptions which would cover the behaviour of actual scientists making what we now recognise as significant conceptual advances – like Galileo – the only one which would fit would be ‘Anything Goes’. It’s supposed to be a reductio of the ida of a scientific method; not a self-standing methodological prescription.

    But you knew that. Or at least, you did a few yars ago 🙂

    • Hello Bill

      1. Thanks very much for pointing out the typos. I ended up writing the post late when I was tired and I couldn’t cope with checking it, so a good thing you did.

      Feyerabend does say ‘anything goes’
      ‘there is only one principle that can be defended under all circumstances and in all stages of human development. It is the principle anything goes’ (Against Method, 3rd edition, pp 18-19). The context allows for more moderate and more radical readings of this, that is seeing it as a method to stimulate thought and a principles to be always followed which always over rides over principles. The more radical reading is a reasonable construal of many passages.
      On this basis, it seems to me that the way you defining the principle is unduly restrictive.
      I interpret what you saying as having two aspects
      i. That Feyerabend was talking about the methods used by scientists rather than the methods of philosophy.
      ii. That Feyerabend was talking about what scientists do in practice rather than offering a prescription.
      For both i and ii, I don’t recognise an absolute distinction, though pragmatic/conventional distinctions along these lines are necessary.
      Since Feyerabend very clearly states in *Against Method* that scientists should follow counter induction, and that scientists should deliberately ignore criteria of consistency, and that they should follow the Sophistical method of supporting the weaker argument, I take it that Feyerabend does put forward ‘anything goes’ with a prescriptive force. It may be that he is aiming to provoke and is not putting forward an entirely serious prescription, and is trying to draw our attention to the messiness of science. Nevertheless, he does state ‘anything goes’ and I find it very hard to separate that ringing statement from the challenges to scientific methodology, as understood by philosophers, in various parts of the book. The point I was trying to make in my post is that Derrida says nothing more scandalous and strange about interpretation than Feyerabend does about scientific method. In both cases, we have the choice between making the most extreme sceptical interpretation, and interpreting them as offering a method of advance rather than an absolute principle.

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