Philosophy of Europe, reflections on an Istanbul Conference

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

On Friday and Saturday, I was at the conference Beyond Boundaries: Media, Culture and Identity in Europe at the Beşiktaş campus of Bahçeşehir University, Istanbul. I gave a paper on Saturday, ‘Political Theory and the Idea of Europe: Foucault Against Habermas’, the abstract formed the basis of my 2nd September post, ‘Foucault, Libertarianism and Europe’.

The conference had very pleasant surroundings, in very modern and well equipped university buildings overlooking the Bosphorus.

An overview of the conference and how I related to the papers and discussions.

The conference was mainly media, communication, and cultural studies, in content. There were some philosophically oriented papers. Two of these covered similar ground about Hannah Arendt on refugees and Jacques Derrida on hospitality. References to Derrida in those papers and others tended to emphasise the view of a Europe with no centre, and continuity. One problem here is that too many people are trying to cover similar ground in the same texts when talking about Derrida, and taking the discussion of hospitality too much as an unconditional ethical command and nothing else. Derrida’s point is just as much to question the idea of pure hospitality as too assert the merits of hospitality. Hospitality defines the outsider, as an intruder and outside, and ties that person within laws of hospitality. The expectation of hospitality can itself justify colonialism over non-hospitable people, a very real aspect of the growth of colonialism. Adam Smith, who was no fan of colonialism, regarded trading forts as inevitable in relation to hostile locals, and recognised the danger of expansion into full colonies.

Just emphasising Derrida’s ‘deconstruction’ of European identity, is to overlook the Eurocentric and traditionalist elements of some of his accounts of philosophy and religion in Europe; the criticisms of Eurocentrism themselves are complicit with a kind of Eurocentrism which emphasises changes, diversity, openness and the welcome of outsiders.

One attitude to issues of European identity on display was to dismiss it in favour of a pragmatic evolutionary approach, derived from the ‘functionalism’ of the original designers of European institutions, like Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman. This ‘functionalism’ is also known as ‘institutionalisation’ and refers to the idea that European integration proceeds through economic, technical and administrative contribution, which creates its own momentum for greater integrationism, without any reference to a politics of European federalism.

There are at least two problems here: Monnet et al were certainly influenced by an ideal of Europe’s identity; the ‘institutionalist’ argument has an undemocratic aspect to it, deals done by political and administrative elites to create institutions with an interest in expansion on the basis of apparently limited agreements.

The argument was presented in the context of criticism of communitarianism and communalism as implicitly authoritarian, demanding a public domination of private life with regard to language, identities, symbolism etc. This was backed up with an overfamiliar strategy of decontextualised quotations from Rousseau, to make him seem as totalitarian as possible. This was accompanied by the usual tiresome jibe at contract theory, that no one remembers signing the contract. It’s clear enough that contract theory can be explained through tacit agreement with the laws and institutions of a country. Anyway, apart from being cliched and decontextualised, and really rather cheap, this kind of account of Rousseau is not really adding a lot to discussions of European identity.

What that presentation suggested was a strong contrast between formal depersonalised forma social associations and associations of strong unity around language, identity and shared emotion, accompanied by the suggestion that only the former forms of association is relevant to Europe’s emergent polity. One problem with this line of analysis, is that it does not match reality. There are ideas of European identity around, even among those who oppose political integration, and they precede the emergence of the European Union by some distance.

It is not possible to make such a distinction between two forms of association. Both forms of association are present in all associations, and there are no associations at any level which lack both sides. Roughly speaking associations are more densely integrated by lines of connection between individuals at the local level, but these forms of connection are present at the higher levels, up to the global community defined by shared interests and passions of all humans.

Derrida, Schmitt and French Nationalism

I’ve addressed nationalist undertones in Derrida before. I’m reminded of this topic by teaching Politics of Friendship in an MA class.

Derrida deals with Carl Schmitt at length there, including Theory of the Partisan, the sequel to Concept of the Political. Derrida gets quite indignant on a few issues which touch French national pride

1. Schmitt’s emphasis on the origin of the ‘partisan’ (a soldier defending territory without regard to membership of a recognised state army) in Spanish resistance to French occupation under Napolean Bonaparte and then in Prussian resitance to Bonaparte is not well received.

2. Derrida refers to Schmitt’s failure to mention French women participating in the Resistance to Nazi occupation.

3. Schmitt’s emphasis on General Salan who opposed De Gaulle after the independence of Algeria as the example of a partisan and of Catholic thinking.

Derrida does not make nationalistic comments about Schmitt’s choice of the Bonaparatist wars as the context for defining the solider who defends territory without fıyndation in the law of war, but with justice, however, his anxiety is clear.

Derrida wishes to emphasise a feminine French Republicanism against Schmitt’s invocation of friendship and emnity both modelled on fraternity.

In bringing up Salan, Schmitt brşings up a very awkaward moment in French Republicanism. The generals who opposed de Gaulle for giving independence could claim to be defending Republican ideals with regard to the integration of Algeria into France. As Derrida was a colonial in Algeria in origin, there is a lot of unexpressed anxity and ambiguity at stake here. De Gaulle versus the anti-Gaullist generals, not the most comfortable of territory for many left wing Republicans support de Gaulle the conservative or his conservative enemies. De Gaulle himself was an oddly ambiguous figure, half defender and creator of post-colonial republican democratic France independent of the USA and half ultra-conservative aristocrat and autocratic president.

Unifying Analytic Philosophy and French Philosophy

This post started off as a comment on Brian Lieter’s Blog which I’ve linked with this blog through an RSS feed, it is one of the best places to follow debates in the philosophical community. The comment became rather long and off topic so I’ve upgraded. The post I was reacting to was something quoting Jeff Macmahan (Rutgers) on the superiority of Analytic meta-ethics, to anything inspired by French philosophy. For those unfamiliar with metaethics, it refers to foundational issues in ethics (what the basic concepts are, their meaning, their validity, connections between them and so on).

Which French philosophy is opposed to the standards of Analytic Philosophy. The Phenomenology of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty have been taken up in relation to cognitive science, they are being taken seriously in Analytic Philosophy (overlooking the complication that some define Cognitive Science based philosophy as outside Analytic Philosophy because it does not put the analysis of concepts at the centre). Sartre and Merleau-Ponty did not think philosophy of consciousness should be based on breaking down a state of consciousness into separate parts; and they did not think contents of consciousness should be regarded as representations of ideas somewhere in the mind or of things in the external world. This puts into contact with at least two aspects of cognitive science: work on perceptual illusions which result from the context of a shape, colour patch or line in consciousness, the way we see one part of the visual field is determined by what we see in the rest of the field; work on anti-representationalism which concentrates on consciousness as embodied as a result of neural networks (changing networks of neurons in the brain which evolve according to feedback) in the brain.

Foucault has been discussed sympathetically by Charles Taylor and Ian Hacking, amongst others. Foucault seems to provoke the response either that he is a French charlatan or that he is an exception to French charlatanism because his work is very historical/social scientific in orientation. For Hacking, Foucault provides a model for discussing social reality and the structures of knowledge. Foucault’s work includes themes of how knowledge is institutionalised and how those institutions function; the ways in which truths exist in pragmatic contexts; the ways in which knowledge is structured and builds on basic concepts. These can be, and have been, taken up by Analytic Philosophers working on social epistemology, social ontology and history of science.

What about Lévinas, who does not do history or social science of any kind, and who writes in a rather particular and difficult style? He looks like someone outside the scope of Analytic Philosophy, or is he? Hilary Putnam clearly does not think so, the title itself of his book Ethics without Ontology is a tribute to Lévinas. Lévinas favours a first philosophy of ethics, of the supremacy of the other, over a first philosophy of ontology (being). Putnam has something similar to argue, though in more pragmatic terms, in which ethics arises in the externality of language and knowledge to the ego. We do not have an absolute internal grasp of objects, so our perspective is limited and externally caused. Has Putnam degenerated philosophically since he started writing about Lévinas? That is not a widely held opinion.

Maybe Derrida is the antithesis of philosophical good sense. Tom Baldwin, now editor of *Mind* clearly thinks Derrida is worth taking seriously and has found it worth writing, if not very much, on Derrida as have Graham Priest and A.A. Moore. The themes that come up in comparisons of Analytic Philosophy include: impossibility of private language, contextuality and indeterminacy of meaning, the paradoxes of trying to state what absolute infinity is. Derrrida’s philosophy is style dominated and this did sometimes become to much of an end in itself as time went on, but he started of with quite substantive discussions of Phenomenology, Structuralism, and post-Symbolist poetics. Despite Derrida’s reputation for being all style, he had quite substantive things to say about ethics, law and politics in his later work. His best work maybe includes a meta-narrative of the impossibility of a complete philosophical language, because every such language must include abstractions which can never be complete, which always become contradictory. Abstractions always contain the possibility of becoming contradictory because of the contextuality of language,i and that refers to the impossibility of an infinitely applicable concept, that is any universal concept. This is in line with the paradoxes of trying to asset a complete infinity which always encounters the problem that there could always be an infinity we can construct which is larger than any infinity we have constructed so far. It should also be noted that despite the widespread beleif that Derrida’s views on language are a development ıof those of Ferdinand de Saussure, he explicitly referred to Charles Peirce (founder of American Pragmatism) as the greater authority.

It would be difficult to write a truly comprehensive history of recent Analytic philosophy without mentioning some of the above examples. Not everything in French philosophy is equally great. A lot of commentators fail to take a critical distance from French philosophy, or their favourite part of şit, and treat explication of texts as a substitute for arguments. It is still a major area of philosophy. In the unification of French Philosophy from Sartre (or even Bergson) to Derrida with Analytic Philosophy, there is much that has already been gained and much more to come.

Derrida French Nationalist and Conservative Europeanist

Loyal Derrideans will now doubt be perturbed to see Derrida accused of positions he rejected at the most explicit level. However, we cannot spare Derrida from the kind of reading that he brings to other people.

Derrida, Hegel and Algeria
The issue of Derrida the French nationalist first occurred to me after a class in which I was teaching ‘Onto-Theology of National-Humanism’ (available in Oxford Literary Review 14 1992, pages 3 to 23; or in Jacques Derrida: Basic Writings, Routledge, London, 2007). The text is devoted to the discussion of the Germanic tradition of identifying German Nationalism with Philosophical Humanism. Fichte, Heidegger and Adorno feature as might be expected. The less well known figure of Karl Grün features strongly. Grün must be best know for being criticised by Marx in the German Ideology, and that is what Derrida discusses. Bringing in Marx might appear to some people, possibly including Derrida himself, to neutralise anything nationalist looking in his work. However, Marx is full of German-European nationalist universalism. For Marx, Germany is the country furthest from revolution and therefore the closest philosophically. For Marx, European colonialism brings the colonised countries into a world community formed by Europeans.

Grün strongly criticises the French on philosophical and national grounds. He condemns the French interpretation of Hegel, a topic that is of great importance to Derrida when writing about the institution of philosophy in France, and which obviously forms a large part of the background to Derrida’s own philosophical formation. He takes a critical view of French colonialism in Algeria, referring to the desirability of Algeria becoming a part of Morocco. The consequence of French colonial policies in North Africa was that the Moroccan monarchy continued to exist but was effectively reduced to a French satrapy.

In my class ( part of a course on Derrida based on the texts I selected for Jacques Derrida: Basic Writings), an International Relations students, in a group that was predominantly philosophy students) was very determined to takes this in the terms of IR Realism. Realism in IR refers to the view that states pursue their own interests and state interests conflict. He picked up on thew territorial issue and the issue of reading Hegel, and argued that Derrida’s text was a reaction against both. Derrida was a pied-noir, a colon, in Algeria. That is be was born into a colonial family. As it was a Jewish family, no doubt their position in the pied-noir community was no doubt in some respects marginal, nevertheless they were part of that community, a community of a million white Europeans with roots going back to the 1830 annexation.

Derrida of course never identified with French colonialism but he did identify with his Algerian origin. There is a difference between justifying colonialism and valuing origins in a colonial community, but this can be a tangled issue particularly when we consider the pied noirs, who wished to stay in Algeria and wished for Algeria to be treated as part of France. They were not just a colonial addition on the top of a native community, that was what made their resistance to decolonisation and then de Gaulle (their saviour turned traitor) so bitter, and what made decolonisaiton of Algeria so trauamtic in France and so protracted and bloody in France.

Derrida and Tocqueville
Behind the pious image of progressive Derrida, let us admit there is someone with some French nationalist impulses with regard both to philosophical institutions and to colonial history. Rather tantaslisingly Derrida refers to a coming lecture on Tocqueville. ‘Onto-Theology of National Humanism’ is a lecture Derrida gave at the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales. All of these lectures will be published but it will necessarily be a protracted process. The last I heard Geoffrey Bennington and Peggy Kamuf will edited the collected Derrida, but the publisher was unclear. Tocqueville was a enthusiast for French colonialism in Algeria and regarded Islam as clearly inferior to Christianity, on the basis that Mahgreb Muslims were less developed than European Christians (on religious-cultural grounds not racial-ethnic grounds). This is invariably the issue with which Marxist, or Marxisant, critics of Tocqueville like to attack with him, and to attack liberalism. Of course in this context they like to forget that Marx supported European colonialism, the rights of great nations and thought that Jews (like himself) should all give up all elements of Jewish identity. What did Derrida have to say about Tocqueville? Would it bring us any close to an understanding of the relationship between Derrida’s own French philosophical universalism and the particularistic world view of the pied-noirs.

Europeanism: Plato and Christianity
On the issue of Europeanism, Derrida criticises Husserl’s idealistion of Europe as the place of philosophy, and therefore of human goals in Introduction to the Origin of Geometry. What do we see in The Gift of Death in the discussions of Jan Patocka? Patocka was a Phenomenologist oriented to Plato and Christianity, influential on Czechoslovak anti-totalitarians, lie Vacllav Havel, and Catholic theologians including Karol Wojtyla (Pope John-Paul II). Derrida emphasises the Europe of Plato and Christianity in Patocka, a Europe that is identified with Christian spirituality and philosophical truth. Derrida emphasises heresy in Patocka and European responsibility, but the end result is still a taking up of an idea of Europe as a unified entity with a specific philosophical role.

It all looks very much Derrida thinks that Europe is the land which contains the spiritual and philosophical goals of humanity. Derrida would have denied such an ambition. Occasionally he makes gestures to the non-European origins of European culture, as when he refers to ‘hetera’ (other) as a word of Sanskrit origin in ‘Signature Event Context’ (though as far as I know it is a word which appears both in India and Europe and could with no clear indication of where it appeared first). Despite himself, no doubt, did not Derrida give way to a Eurocentric form of universalism, a universalism defined by the European philosophy (including Marx) and high literary tradition which forms the basis of his texts.

Foucault and Derrida. Antique Ethical and Political Concepts

Foucault and Derrida
Something I’m working on at present is the discussion of antique ethical and political concepts in Foucault and Derrida. Both published work focusing on this in 1984. In Derrida’s case in Politics of Friendship; in Foucault’s case the 2nd and 3rd volumes of History of Sexuality: The Uses of Pleasure and The Care of the Self.

Republicanism and Individualism: Ancient and Modern Liberty
In both cases, there is a turn towards what is known as Republicanism, the political approach according to which citizenship and participation in politics are good in themselves. There is a well established historical narrative that has been discussed going back to the Eighteenth Century according to which the Antique world understood liberty as independence of the nation and the absence of a single all powerful ruler, in which everyday life is very tied up with public rituals and the duties of citizenships, and in which liberty means participation. In this narrative liberty in the modern world is understood as individual freedom from outside interference, the limitation of the public sphere, the right of the individual to be indifferent to public affairs, and in which liberty means individual freedom from constraint. This narrative maybe goes back to Hobbes in the Seventeenth Century, it certainly appears in Montesqueiue, Rousseau, Hegel, Constant, Wilhelm von Humboldt and Tocqueville. Kierkegaard refers to it in his discussion ancient and modern tragedy.

Foucault and Derrida do not challenge this narrative, but they do very effectively show the ways in which individuality appears in the antique world and the ways in which the unity of individuality and public citizenship becomes fractured.

Foucault on Sexuality
Foucault looks at the ways that the capacity to be a citizen is defined in terms of sexuality. The person capable of citizenship has sexual relations with social inferiors, young women or men. This indicates the way that antique citizenship is based on mastery of slaves, or at the very least not belonging to a slave class. capacity for citizenship was also understood in terms of control of the passions in self-mastery. The emphasis both on sexuality as mastery and limitation of sexuality is paradoxical. The paradox becomes greater in antique history as the merit of chastity is more and more recommended for the health of the soul. Foucault clearly has a particular regard for the period proceeding the greater emphasis on chastity. In the earlier period he sees creation of the self, individual freedom, through the emphasis on maximising pleasure.

Derrida on Friendship
Derrida picks up on the role of friendship mostly with reference to Aristotle. Aristotle’s typology of the main kinds of friendship are generally well known as part of his ethics. Derrida picks up on the political significance with regard to democracy. Democracy presumes friendship between citizens. Aristotle’s discussion refers to friendship in political terms, the ruler should be the friend of the ruled. Derrida points out political consequences of Aristotle’s views. Aristotle thought that friendship must be selective, if I have too many friends the idea of friendship is extremely weakened because the available energy is split between too many people. Derrida suggests that logically Aristotle is bound to find that a man’s friend can only be himself or a god. Friendship requires death, because I can only test someone’s friendship completely by testing their reaction to my death. Since democracy is defined as friendship, the politics of friendship is conditioned by the paradoxes of friendship. Democracy must become oligarchic because it rests on selection of friends. The friend is is defined by relation to the enemy, as Carl Schitt suggested. None of this can eliminate the problems of friendship,. Democracy has to become, it is ‘yet’, a ‘to come’.

Derrida’s Philosophical Claims

Derrida: The Philosopher who says Nothing?
Derrida has acquired the reputation among many of the philosopher who has nothing to say. This suggestion is common place among his critics. However, a lot of Derrida fans are complicit with this position. They don’t want to attribute anything as simple as philosophical theses to Derrida; that would betray the purity of Derrida’s textuality and style. Those people tend to appreciate Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Heidegger in a similar way.

Semantic Contextualism, Holism, and Indeterminacy
It is correct to say that in Derrida the argument, the theses, the claims can never be completely isolated and abstracted from the precise movement of the text. However, it is also true that for Derrida there is no text outside context, and there is never a determinate context. Every text has many possible contexts, and these contexts themselves have many further contexts and so on. These fundamental aspects of Derrida’s philosophy should not be regarded as something isolated from a standard philosophical language of claims and theses. Derrida’s position can be clearly identified in very regular terms as Semantic Contextualism (meaning is determined by context), Semantic Holism (meaning of a linguistic item is always part of the meaning of the whole system of language), and Semantic Indeterminacy (meaning is never fully determined)

Derrida is a Semantic Contextualist, Holist and Indeterminist.

Demistifying Derrida’s Style
We have characterised Derrida’s philosophy as operating according to certain claims about semantics . Derrida tries to show these aspects of meaning in the way he writes. This is why style and textuality matters in Derrida. Not so mystified and strange after all is it.

Derrida’s Claims
A sample list of Derrida’s claims

  1. Speech is not superior to writing when interpreting the meaning of linguistic items.
  2. There is no philosophical position free of contradiction,
  3. There is no language free of semantic contradiction.
  4. Consciousness does not have a pure knowledge it its own contents.
  5. Language combines semantic abstraction with the physical of linguistic items.
  6. Every interpretation requires interpretation.
  7. Law rests on force in its application.
  8. Law assumes the universality of origin of law and its applicability, which is a universality it is instituting.
  9. Philosophy is part of educational and political institutions.
  10. There is no consistent demarcation possible between nature and culture.
  11. The idea of democracy assumes a perfection of identity between government and popular will which can never be achieved.
  12. There are no situations of perfect communication.
  13. Language has to understood with reference to non-ideational codes like DNA, computer programs and logical systems.
  14. Democracy assumes a friendship between all citizens which never be achieved.
  15. There is no pure socialist or anarchist community because individuals can never achieve perfect communication, or sympathy, with each other.
  16. There is a difference between the historical origin of scientific theories and their abstract origin as deduction.
  17. History of science is not the same thing as the justification of scientific theories.
  18. Pure Nominalism is assumed with regard to all meaning.
  19. The purity of Nominalism is always challenge by the universality assumed in the semantics of any linguistic item.
  20. All linguistic items are Peformative as well as Constative.
  21. There is no purely non-metaphorical moment in language.
  22. The idea of the Friend includes the idea of someone other than me and someone within myself.
  23. Hospitality includes the idea of the welcome of the stranger and the exclusion of the stranger as what is not me.

Derrida and Paul de Man: The Dishonesty of Derrida’s Critics

It has recently again come to my attention that many anti-Derrideans, including ‘Anti-Postmodernist’s (who either don’t know or don’t care that Derrida did not describe himself in this way) have asserted as a fact that Derrida excused his friend the Yale literary critic Paul de Man for writing in a collaborationist journal in his native Belgium during the Nazi occupation. Derrida is accused of ‘deconstructing’ a passage in de Man’s journalism and of not condemning de Man. All of thsi is supposed to prove two things about Deconstruction: 1. It allows a text to be interpreted in arbitrary ways; 2. Deconstruction excludes moral responsibility. Let us quote the key passage (‘Paul de Man’s War’ which can be found in Memoires for Paul de Man, Columbia University Press, 1986 and 1989)

First quoting from de Man (pages 203-204)

The observation is, moreover, comforting for Western intellectuals. That they have been able to safeguard themselves from Jewish influence in a domain as representative of culture as literature proves their vitality. If our civilization had let itself be invaded by a foreign force, then we would have to give up much hope for its future. By keeping, in spite of semitic interference in all aspects of European life, an intact originality and character, it has shown that its basic nature is healthy. What is more, one sees that a solution of the Jewish problem that would aim at the creation of a Jewish colony isolated from Europe would not entail, for the literary life of the West, deplorable circumstances. The latter would lose, in all, a few personalities of mediocre value and would continue, as in the past, to develop according to its great evolutive laws.

By common consent in all sides of the war on de Man’s war, this is the worst passage of his collaborative journalism. While the toying with the idea of deporting European Jews and the sneery remarks about Jewish influence, and achievements, are extremely unacceptable, it must be said that by the standards of Nazi rhetoric this hardly registers on the scale. That is in no way to excuse it, but it is wrong to latch onto a playful (and of course still extremely unacceptable anti-semitism) as if it was a direct affirmation of Nazi ideology and exterministic anti-semitism.

What does Derrida say?: (page 204)


Derrida does put the passage in context, a context which he believes MITIGATES the offence, but of course mitigation is not the same as excusing. It leads to a reduced sentence for a crime, it does not excuse a crime. There isn’t space on what is already a long blog entry to go through Derrida’s argument, but i,t begins ‘page 205)

Yes, on the other hand and first of all the whole article is organized as an indictment of “vulgar anti-semitism.”

Derrida points out that de Man puts antisemitism into question by criticising ‘vulgar antisemtism’ and never giving an example fo correct antisemitism. There is nothing tortuous about this argument, it’s based on normal reading and interpretative processes. The discussion draws to a close with the following quotation from the same article by de Man

one might have expected that, given the specific characteristics of the Jewish spirit, the latter would have played a more brilliant role in this artistic production. Their cerebalness, their capacity to assimilate doctrines while maintaining certain coldness in the face of them, would seem to be very precious qualities for the work of lucid analysis that the novel demands

Derrida’s comment

One can hardly believe one’s eyes: would this mean that what he prefers in the novel, “the work of lucid analysis,” and in theory, a “certain coldness” of the “Jewish spirit”

Derrida DOES NOT excuse the antisemitic elements in the article, but he does point out that what de Man says about Jews links them to himself as possessing the qualities for literature and literary analysis, even if not as well developed as one might expect.

Though Derrida uses the language of Deconstruction in this text, the argument can easily be put in very common sensical terms:

1. de Man was wrong to use antisemitic expressions.
2. His use of antisemitic expressions raises questions about all concrete examples of antisemtism.
3. While it is necessary to condemn de Man for employing antisemitic expressions, his use of them does not support Nazi ideology, and is even self-undermining.
4. DE Man’s game playing was morally flawed but criticism is inevitably restrained if we look at the context even in the most immediate and obvious ways.

Let us remember the following points, which confirm the ugliness of the ant-Derrida ranters
1. Derrida was a Jew who emphasised Jewish identity in many of his texts.
2. Derrida was imprisoned, though only briefly in Prague while visiting Charter 77, an anti-totalitarian group persecuted by the Communist regime. Clearly Derrida was capable of bold action in defence of principle sand sometimes endured rough consequences (though of course mild consequences compared with what many people living under totalitarian regimes endure.

Foucault and the Body; or Why Foucault is not a Post-Modern Social Constructionist

I’m following up the last post on Derrida and Nietzsche with a briefer post on Foucault. As I emphasised in the last post, neither Foucault nor Derrida can be reduced to a cliché of ‘Post-Modern’ social constructionism which excludes the body as natural object.

Like Derrida, Foucault never sailed under the flag of ‘Post-Modernism’, or post-ism of any kind. They are rather different cases, and though Derrida was Foucault’s student at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, they appear to have had a long term falling out. This seems to have been more on Foucault’s side than Derrida’s. Despite Foucault’s expemplary qualities as thinker and libertarian social activist (future posts will return to the topic of Foucault and Libertarianism), he does seem to have been more prickly than Derrida. The prickliness seems to go all the way back to Derrida’s 1963 paper, ‘Cogito and Madness’ (collected in Writing and Difference), which is a critical but appreciative discussion of Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation.

The stereotypical view of Foucault circulated by his ‘Analytical’ philosophical critics and his ‘Post-Modern’ fans (more typically to be found in humanities and social science departments other than philosophy) is that he was a relativist who denied the existence of truth or objective, knowledge, and that he had a related assumption according to which reality only exists as a discursive social construction serving power interests of some kind. Something similar to that ‘Post-Modern’ interpretation of Foucault is also widespread in interpretation of Thomas Kuhn, a leaidng figure in Philosophy of Science in the Analytic tradition. Again very different cases, but there is no more reason to think of Foucault as a Post-Modernist than there is to think of Kuhn in that way.

There are many issues to be explored in future, but just one for today. Just a remark that one of Foucault’s most widely read books, Discipline and Punish, does refer to the discourses of power/knowledge, but it also refers to discourse as what affects the body. There is something pre-discursive in Foucault, the body. There is no ‘body’ or ‘nature’ we can identify from outside discourse for Foucault, but physicality and natural forces are there. His view of power/knowledge is just as much an attempt to think of social relations in terms of natural forces, as a discourse centred theory. The body is experienced in social and discursive contexts, but is not eliminated as a body. It is the body where there is resistance to power.

What Derrida takes from Nietzsche in Ethics

Readings of Derrida on Nietzsche
There is a myth about Derrida’s philosophy. The myth of a philosophy which is only concerned with style and not with content. This comes up frequently in discussions of Nietzsche’s ethics. The issue of style and ethics comes up in discussions of Nietzsche because there is a substantial and growing body of work by Analytic philosophers on Nietzsche, particularly with regard to Ethics. While these people do not appear to have made any deep study of Derrida, they have felt it necessary to express brief opinions about Derrida’s reading of Nietzsche. In the tradition of John Searle’s attack on Derrida, they have not found it necessary to acquaint themselves deeply with Derrida’s texts before making dismissive comments. These comments do have some applicaiton, but to Derrida’s more parodic followers rather than to Derrida himself.

Examples of this genre include Nietzsche on Morality by Brian Leiter (see also Leiter’s Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy entry on Nietzsche’s Moral and Political Philosophy, the inclusion of politics in Leiter’s entry is perverse since he dismisses in typically pugnmacious style the idea that Nietzsche has anything to contribute to political philosophy) and Nietzsche’s Conscience: Six Characters from the Genealogy byAaron Ridley.

Leiter on Nietzsche
Leiter has a head on attack on ‘Post-Modern’ readings of Nietzsche in Foucault and Derrida, though neither ever adopted the label ‘Post-Modern’. There are a number of Analytic Philosophers around who take Foucault seriously (Ian Hacking, John Searle, Bernard Williams) as Leiter acknowledges but never to the extent of questioning his own use of the label ‘Post-Modern’ in opposition to Analytic or Naturalistic. Derrida, and those who value Derrida’s work, have been consistently damned by Leiter, as bad philosophers hardly worthy of the name (so I must be a complete moron), without any acknowledgement of Analytic Philosophers who take Derrida seriously (A.W. Moore, Tom Baldwin, Stanley Cavell). I’ve discussed Derrida’s relevance to Analytic Philosophy at length myself in Derrida on Deconstruction. This is in the same series as Nietzsche on Ethics, Leiter must be furious. Leiter’s argument is that ‘Post Modern’ discussion of Nietzsche is only concerned with play of style and ignores the extent to which Nietzsche has a theory of human nature, because ‘Post-Modernists’ think of human nature as socially constructed. The latter issue is really more in Foucault’s field. I consider it a misrepresentation of Foucault, but I hope to return to that topic in another blog).

Ridley on Nietzsche
Ridley is less concerned with attacking ‘Post-Modernism’ but shares the assumption that Derrida’s interest in Nietzsche is too undermine all claims to objective truth and depth of knowledge, with reference to the multiplicity of ways of writing in Nietzsche. This isopposed to his own examination of 6 figures of ethical significance in the Genealogy of Morals
Derrida on Language, Context and Hermeneutic Ambiguity
What both Leiter and Ridley must be thinking of is Derrida’s book Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles. Derrida’s concern there is to argue for a version of the ‘context principle’ in questions of meaning. That is the principle that the meaning of a word is fixed by the sentence to which it belongs, that the meaning of a sentence is fixed by the circumstances of use, and so on. That claim is not in itself foreign to Analytic Philosophy.

In this book, Derrida takes the principle to the length or arguing that fragmentary phrases jotted down in Derrida’s notebooks may have a significant meaning. They may have such a meaning because the hermeneutic ambiguity (uncertainty about meaning) which follows from the context principle (what Derrida discusses as the inseparability of word from context) means that the meaning of the sentence could be a contribution to a major philosophical idea in Nietzsche. ‘I have forgotten my umbrella’ could have Freudian meanings about castration, or it could be comment on constant possibility of forgetting meaning, which would lead us into the really radical kind of contextualism which questions the basis of a claim to constancy in the meaning of words.

Derrida for Empiricism and Against Scepticism
However, there is no attempt in Derrida to assert a sceptical claim, he is trying to resist transcendental philosophical claims about meaning from an empiricist point of view. The point of the emphasis on style on Nietzsche is not to promote an aestheticised kind of scepticism. The point is that the context principle/hermeneutic ambiguity appear in the necessarily plural possibilities of style. Derrida also tackles the question of supposed misogyny in Nietzsche, by emphasising how the references to women in Nietzsche are figures of ambiguity, which demonstrate the ambiguities of context and hermeneutics, including the necessary ambiguity of differentiating depth in meaning from surface meaning. ‘Woman’ tends to be distant and transparent, shallow and ungraspable in Nietzsche.

Derrida and Naturalism
Lieter presumes that Derrida’s approach is opposed to his own emphasis on Moraş Naturalism, that is the view that ethics comes from human nature, described in scientific terms. But,there is nothing in Derrida that opposes Naturalism. Derrida emphasises repeatedly that it he is not an idealist. In Analytic terms, he is not a constructionist or a conceptualist. For Derrida, language is derived from the relations between material phenomena, written or spoken. Consciousness, largely discussed in terms of language, is view as emerging from relations between neurons.
Derrida and Ethics
Derrida does not make any Naturalist claims about ethics, but he certainly always denies that a break can ever be established between the natural and the social. According to Derrida, physical forces are inseparable from consciousness and physicality is inseparable from communication. When writing about ethics though he concentrates on questions on ethical law, particular ethical responsibilities and the constitutive contradictions of law and individual responsibility, as I have emphasised.

These concerns are brought into Nietzsche’s ethics, particularly in The Politics of Friendship. Derrida does not concern himself with any Naturalistic elements in Nietzsche’s ethics. He does however focus on friendship in Nietzsche, on why Nietzsche quotes a statement attributed to Aristotle, ‘O my friends, there is no friend’. He looks at how the friend in Nietzsche is both the self and the enemy, of how Nietzsche suggests a goal of absolute friendship. He looks at how Nietzsche looks at friendship as opposed to despotism. Derrida takes from these thoughts a view of friendship as a contradictory ideal which should be followed, and is inseparable from the political ideal of democracy. The goal is to have perfect communication with someone outside the self, but there could only be perfect communication between the self and itself. However, there cannot be perfect communication, even there because the self conducts an inner dialogue, which turns a part of it into its own external friend. There is no Naturalism in these ethical thoughts, but no abolition of ethics through a mere play of style.