Rousseau and Derrida on Liberty and Language the First Institution: Excerpt

I’ve now finished writing and revising a draft of this paper for a collaborative project mentioned in previous posts, and sent it to my collaborator. I won’t give details until the project is complete, but the general idea is that two authors write a paper each on Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages, one from a Chomskyan perspective and one from a Derridean perspective.  These papers will be followed by replies by both authors to the other paper. This will be an online publication in a very new experimental venue, which I think is a really valuable thing to do, though it has to be said not the best thing for ‘professional’ recognition, anyway I’ve been working hard on things for more established venues, so a reasonable mixture I believe. Anyway, the co-authored book should be online before long. Work in progress I’ve already posted won’t feature much in the final version, as the reasons for picking out those passages and posting them, in this case are reasons why they don’t fit into the final long essay, and have some separate interest.

I’m posting the introductory and concluding parts by way of a summary.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau takes an idea of antique provenance, that language is a defining feature of humanity, and turns that from an attribute to a pervasive aspect of human existence, not separable from its many aspects, bringing together music, poetry, passions, communication, history, political institutions, physical geography, human physique, and social conditions. His position has precedent, notably the work of Giambattista Vico in the  New Science, though given the closeness in time, it could be said that both Vico and Rousseau are the products of an Enlightenment reaction to classical rhetoric theory, natural law, civil society, and historical views of humanity. One way of thinking of the The Essay on the Origin of Languages would be as a extraordinarily concise and deep summary, and rewriting, of the New Science, taken in conjunction with Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws. The Essay is not a text greatly discussed in succeeding decades, but there is a range of philosophical work going up to Friedrich Nietzsche by way of German Idealism, including Wilhelm von Humboldt’s theory of language and Søren Kierkegaard on the possibilities and limits of communication, which seem to follow up the Essay, if more from accidental resonance than deliberate reference.  As Jacques Derrida indicates in Of Grammatology, Rousseau’s thought about language can be found dispersed across his texts, so any influence on later thinkers about language and communication might be through various conduits. These indirect relations parallel the relation between Rousseau and Giambattista Vico, overlapping that of Montesquieu and Vico, which is never made clear by Rousseau or Montesquieu and may again as much a matter of an accumulation of resonances and echoes as direct influence.

The story of language in the Essay is in  part on an essay on music, and includes a discussion of liberty, so in this context language encompasses issues of melody and harmony in speech and political institutions based on liberty. The discussion of the origin is a complex one in which language as distinguishing feature of humanity does not appear in nature, since language is the first social institution.


The readings of Rousseau and Lévi-Strauss in Derrida, the harmonisation of them and the emphasis of differences, brings out an ethical and political tension between written law as oppressive, denying nature, and speech as the place of liberty, liberty existing within the community where everyone’s voice can be heard by everyone else. That utopia of the speaking community intersects with a Marxist belief in liberation from class structures and a Freudian belief in the speaking cure where desire can lose its alienated forms.

To some degree, Derrida refers to the intellectual atmosphere of Paris in his time as a student and academic, his own early adherence to Maoism and the widespread interest in combining Marx with Freud, and maybe Foucault’s resistance to all forms of institutionalisation already apparent in History of Madness. Derrida’s suggestion is that if the utopian possibilities of language are themselves based on an exclusion and suppression of the forces in language, then that utopia must be question. There has always been law, there has alway been the non-natural in human society, there has always been non-spoken language, and trying to conceive of humans without them is to conceive of humans without community or language, or any development of natural faculties through society. From this point of view Rousseau was right to believe that liberty is conceived in language, since the existence of language is deeply interwoven with the existence of negotiable social institutions and laws, with the existence of community itself. Rousseau’s limitation is that he has difficulty in recognising that freedom is always a second birth, because like language the moment of its institution is always a repetition of a previous moment. There can be re-examination of the past, but there is no perfect point of critique to be found in an ideal community of language, law and self-government, in the past or in the rationalisations made in the present, which in practice inform our vision of the past. Derrida helps show that the  existence of political liberty is deeply bound up with this these layers of indeterminacy, the impossibility of a flawless language and therefore of the flawless articulation of a pure community. Since the temptations of absolute community are always there, the language of politics must be a constant engagement with and differentiation from such limit situations.




Nietzsche’s Influence on Political Thought III

[An unintended long gap since the last post. The transition from a full and busy summer ‘vacation’ to a new semester with a full teaching schedule and revisions to course syllabi to match current research interests has been particularly tough. Hopefully I’m now getting into a new rhythm]

Derrida, unlike Foucault and Deleuze, did write directly on the political aspects of Nietzsche’s thought, most significantly in Politics of Friendship (1997)


Shall we say that this responsibility which inspires (in Nietzsche) a discourse of hostility towards ‘democratic taste’ and ‘modern ideas’ is exercised against democracy in general, modernity in general; or that, on the contrary, it responds in the name of a hyperbole of democracy or modernity to come, before it, prior to its coming — a hyperbole for which the ‘taste’ and ‘ideas’ would be, in this Europe and this America then named by Nietzsche, but the mediocre caricatures, the talkative conscience, the perversion and the prejudice — the ‘misuse of the term’ democracy? Do not these lookalike caricatures — and precisely because they resemble it — constitute the worst enemy of what they resemble, whose name they have usurped? The worst repression, the very repression which one must, as close as possible to the analogy, open and literally unlock? (Derrida 1997, p. 38)


So Derrida presents two ways of taking Nietzsche’s criticisms of democracy and modernity: we can take them straight and literally; we can take them as a strategy for attacking the bad imitations of democracy and modernity. When Derrida states two apparently opposing options, a common gesture of his (Stocker 2006, ch. 8), he prefers the second option, but always argues that the two options can never be completely separated from each other, and there can never be a complete triumph of the one over the other. So Derrida offers us a model for interpreting Nietzsche on democracy, which is that he is both the harshest critic of bad democracy and the greatest admirer of the real thing. Other passages from Politics of Friendship look at how for Nietzsche this is an alternative between the relation that neighbours and the relationship that friends have, to be found in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The relation between neighbours is a relationship of mutual dependency between the mediocre, which is non-conflictual to the point of banality. The relation between friends is one of tension between two isolated individuals seeking their own elevation in character through struggle. This is such an ideal and difficult relationship to find that Derrida puts it in the context of the idea, going back to antiquity, that there is no such thing as a friend (1997). He traces it back through the republican thinkers Montaigne and Cicero to Aristotle, so that the ideal of the friend is embedded in the ideal of the republic, which is appropriate to antique republicanism, the precedent for modern ideas of republicanism, democracy and liberty.

The implication of what Derrida says is that we take Nietzsche as someone contrasting the heroic republicanism of antiquity with the modern imitations, which even fail to be modern in their weak forms of repetition as poor imitation. There is a lot Derrida leaves unsaid here, even throughout the book as a whole, as he concentrates on the typically deep engagement with, and interlacing of, particular texts by Nietzsche, Aristotle, Montaigne, Blanchot and so on. What is left unsaid includes the whole field of the relation between what Benjamin Constant referred to as the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns . Constant thought of ancient liberty as more concerned with citizenship of a republic with shared institutions and customs, independent of external powers; and considered modern liberty to be defined by individualism, freedom from the state and commercial life. The essay in this volume on Humboldt and Nietzsche (Stocker 2014) explores some of the issues around the way that modern liberalism emerges from this sense of a less heroic more self-centred version of the heroic forms of liberty in the past based on constant existential struggles with tyrants, enemy states, nature itself and divine forces. Alternatives to “egalitarian liberalism” within current political theory such as “communitarianism” and “republicanism”, itself are still formed within that contrast, and the same applies even for “Marxism” in modern theory, which has often become an attempt to reconcile egalitarianism and collectivism with capitalist political economy and individualism, particularly under the label of “Analytic Marxism”, but also “post-Marxism”.

To be continued

Montaigne, Hayek and Schmitt on Law

The last post suggested looking at the distinction in Friedrich Hayek and Carl Schmitt between Law and Legislation, and the accompanying claim that Law should be placed above Legislation; and suggested that the claims could be usefully looked at in the context of that legal and political theory which emphasises political contestation. The Law over Legislation claim in Hayek and Schmitt involves some anti-political elements, which undermine their best thought about politics, and that can best be corrected by using that legal theory current, Critical Legal Studies, which seems most remote from their way of thinking. To put it rather crudely, the right wing of Critical Legal Studies overlaps with the left wing of Hayek-Schmitt interpretation. The ‘right wing’ of CLS includes most obviously Max Weber and Hannah Arendt. As I pointed out in the last post, this fits with a reading of Foucault which has appeared in various posts over time, though Foucault is of course a major figure of reference for the ‘left wing’ of CLS. I will add to Foucault, another figure generally placed in  avery left leaning context, Jacques Derrida. Derrida’s contribution to legal theory is most associated with his long paper ‘Force of Law: “The Mystical Foundation of Authority”‘. The idea of the mystical foundation goes back to Blaise Pascal and then to Michel Montaigne. Pascal’s Pensées has close relationship with Montaigne’s Essays, often paraphrasing and transforming passages. Derrida notes such an occasion when Pascal discusses the lack of foundation for law. Pascal refers to the arbitrariness of law, so that it is different on one side of the river from another, where the river coincides with a national frontier. State law has no foundations except in the force that the state can use to enforce law. That arbitrariness itself leads us to perceive the role of the mystical, that is of divine authority. The only real law is the law that comes from God, since that is the only law that can be absolute and free from the arbitrariness of state law. This line of thought is not put forward by Pascal as legal theory, or jurisprudence in the normal sense. Pascal does not mean to deny the authority of human laws, or the need for judges to follow the rules of the legal institution to which they belong. The argument is more designed to lead us to thoughts of the greatness God in comparison to fallen humanity, which has lost something Godlike in itself. Nevertheless Pascal’s thoughts do relate to political and legal thought, corresponding with the weakening of a belief in the unity of human, divine and natural sources of law. Pascal’s discussion draws on Montaigne’s essay on ‘Experience’ which reflects on Montaigne’s time as a judge in Bordeaux. The law cannot be just in his account, as there is always conflict between general judicial principles and the context of any individual case. Montaigne notes the need for consistency in judgement, and the following of previous judgements. Concerns with the stability of the institution of law, and the unity of legal principles place barriers ,n the way of fully accommodating the particular facts of particular cases. The consequence is that the judge has to knowingly make unjust judgements. These tend to particularly affect the poor and lowly who are always treated badly by institutions. As with other sceptical moments in his considerations of the mores, ethics and law of the society in which he lives, Montaigne is more inclined to melancholic resignation than radical change. His own writing might be regarded as an attempt to spread greater sympathy for the unfortunate, and awareness of the harsh consequences for individuals of the operation of power; and it had some success from that point of view, forming a major part of the growing cultural emphasis on human sentiments directed at all individuals since then. We should also consider the possibility of a more radical political reading of Montaigne. His Essays discuss his friend Etienne de La Boétie, who died young, and is most famous as the essay on voluntary servitude, that is on the willingness of the many to serve one man who has power. La Boétie advocates rebellion in contrast with the apparently conservative and moderate Montaigne. Montaigne says that he considered including La Boétie’s essay in his own Essays, but did not do so because it might be misunderstood as a challenge to royal state authority of the time. This does at least raise the possibility that Montaigne is repressing his own more  radical thoughts out of fear of royal censorship, rather than expressing a deep going moderation and respect for authority at that time. These reflections on the contradictory  and unjust  nature of law in Montaigne, suggest a starting point for Derrida and Foucault’s thoughts on similar lines, and suggests that such a way of thinking cannot be limited to left wing anti-capitalist thought. Both Foucault and Derrida have brief, but significant moments of identification with Montaigne: for Derrida that is in relation to the interpretation of interpretation which Montaigne sees as an endless necessity in the discussion of legal and sacred texts; for Foucault that is in relation to awareness of the possibilities of the stylisation of life, and the nature of the self as self-relating. So we can apply to Hayek and Schmitt, those two great believes in the unity, authority and continuity of Law, the scepticism of the Renaissance humanist with regard to those claims about law, and contextualise CLS in that way.

Truth, Science and Religion. Foucault’s Lectures on the Government of the Living: 5

Blogging on a very recently published volume of Michel Foucault’s lecture courses at the Collège de France, Du gouvernement des vivants: Cours au Collège de France. 1979-1980 (Paris: Seuil, 2012).

The lecture of February 6th moves between discussions of truth in general and the understanding of truth in early Christianity.  In his remarks on truth in general, Foucault defends what we can call a pluralist view of truth.  There is no single definition of truth, there are different regimes of truth.  The explanation of this point leads Foucault from social questions to discussions of the history of philosophy, and of the nature of logic.  The idea of regimes of truth is compared with political and legal regimes.  These are clear in the sense that they apply to a territory where some entity is sovereign, and has the power to enforce political and legal decisions, what is usually known as the state.  The state is not engaged in deciding what is true, or what the truth is in that way.  Decisions about what is true are too numerous and diverse for the issue of a state regime to arise, even where the state is enforcing its power in an extreme way. Truth does enter into state regimes and sovereignty as we can see with the role of confession in the state criminal justice system.

The diverse natıre of the situations in which we can say there are truths in the social context, or different methods of finding  leads Foucault to more general considerations of truth.  He refers to the letters of Benedict de Spinoza with regard to the idea of the the truth which is true of itself, which is the index of itself.  Foucault considers this to have limited application.  He does not reject the idea that the definition of truth must be true of itself (though he is perhaps sceptical about this, it is certainly an issue worth exploring).  The issue is that the truth as a general definition is not king, by which Foucault means it does not adequately cover all the ways we can speak of truth.  Truth is often used in the context of an avocation, witnessing or inner report of some kind, which is an act of communication that creates truth in the act of communication.  My saying I believe something, or something is true on the basis of what I have observed is not open to challenge in  the same way as some other truths are from a neutral position, outside the subjectivity of the individual using that truth referring language.  The religious confessional communication that Foucault deals with in these lectures is a major example of that kind of truth.

Foucault compares these more subjective kinds of truth with truth in Descartes’ Cogito’ and truth in logic.  As I noted in the last post, Foucault discussed Descartes in his first book History of Madness (also known as Madness and Civilisation), which became the subject of a bad tempered debate with Jacques Derrida, who had been his student (apparently on a psychology course at the École normale supérieure ), coming out of Derrida’s long review article ‘Cogito and the History of Madness’, which claimed Foucault had misread Descartes, or at least had missed something that Derrida had noticed.  In the present context, Foucault’s concern is with the famous sentence in Descartes’ Mediations, often referred to in English through its Latin version (Descartes wrote in both French and Latin, and French editions sometimes contain both), Cogito ergo sum.  That Latin sentence translates as ‘I think therefore I am’.  Descartes focuses on the French version, asking the questions: what does ‘therefore’ means? How do we know that it is truthful in this context?  The claim that if I think I must exit, seems obvious, but as others have asked before Foucault, what is the ‘therefore’ doing?  What does it add or smuggle in as unargued assumptions to the connection between my thoughts and my existence? The overall point here is to question the idea of absolute unquestionable truths, particularly as pertaining to issues of subjective experience.

Foucault moves onto a discussion of truth in logic, where it has to be said it does not show any knowledge of formal logic.  This certainly distinguishes Foucault from Paul Feyerabend, who as I mentioned in the last post, is mentioned favourably by Foucault in the context of anarchy in knowledge.  Truth in logic is something that Foucault treats as part of a game, and a  constraint within that game.  I don’t see anything incorrect with what Foucault says there, but does get into any discussion of formalism, use any examples or note any differences of views about logic.  Foucault denies what he regards as the Positivist claim that the definition  of truth is exhausted by logic, and emphasises plurality of kinds of truth, referring bad to the idea of archaeology which he explored at length in is 1969 book, Archaeology of Knowledge.

He also denies a complete separation between ideas of knowledge and politics.  There are always political issues about what ind of knowledge exist, and how knowledge is used, and politics itself must rely on ideas of what is known to be the case, and therefore of what knowledge is.  The different ways in truth can become manifest are to some degree tied up with different forms of power, institution and state.  These are issues that Foucault explored at length elsewhere, the best known example is Discipline and Punish, which brings us back to the idea of confession in Foucault.  The Christian origins of ‘confession’ is taken back by Foucault to one of the founders, Tertullian in this lecture.  Foucault sees Tertullian as combining three kinds of truth in Christianity: the truth of Baptism (the innocence point of view of the young who have washed away sins in the Baptismal water and been brought into a Christian community of truthful behaviour); the truth of the choice between good and evil (truth and falsity); the truth of the Fall (loss of goodness/truth) and the struggle of the Christian to overcome evil/falsity.  Evil and falsity are linked because the devil is a deceiver and the good Christian is truthful, including the meticulous truthfulness of confession.  Foucault refers to the Christian attitude to truth as arising out of Pagan antique concerns with the care of the self, and the active relationship of the self with itself, which Foucault explored in various places including History of Sexuality: Volume Three.