My latest book (with John Bolender) ‘Rousseau on Language and Literature: Two Perspectives’

I’ve just published an e-book, Rousseau on Language and Writing: Two Perspectives with John Bolender of the UNISINOS (University of Vale do Rio do Sanos)  philosophy department in Sao Leopoldo, Brazil. I met John during his time in Turkey when he was teaching philosophy first at Bilkent University in Ankara and then Middle East Technical University in the same city. John then took up a visiting fellowship at Princeton followed by a similar stay at Western, before his recent more long term move to souther Brazil. He is the author of the books like the  Self-Organizing Mind (Bradford Books/MIT Press, 2010) and Digital Social Mind (Imprint Academic, 2011), along with papers like ‘Hints of beauty in social cognition: Broken symmetries in mental dynamics’, ‘Prehistorical cognition by description: A Russellian approach to the upper paleolithic’, ‘A Two-Tiered Cognitive Architecture for Moral Reasoning’, ‘The Genealogy of the Moral Modules’, and ‘An Argument for Idealism’.

During his recent time in North America, John set up a small independent publisher of e-books, Rousseau, etc. The volume we have co-authored is the second book out from that press.  He had the idea for a joint authored book about Rousseau in which we would offer contrasting perspectives on Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages (we used the translation in volume 7 of the  Collected Writings of Rousseau from Dartmouth College: Essay on the Origin of Languages and Writings Related to Music, edited and translated by John T. Scott, Dartmouth College/University Press of New England Hanover NH, 1998).


John’s perspective is Chomskyan, which I think can be described as an innatist approach to language, and related capacities of the human mind, including mathematical capacities; or as a form of naturalism focused on recursive mathematical structures, and the aspects of knowledge which are stimulated by experience, but precede it. My approach is Derridean deconstructive, which I suppose can be briefly described as a search for irreducible paradoxes, of a non-formlised kind, in thought; or as an investigation of the competing forces of metaphysical unity and materialist diversity in philosophy. Other brief definitions I think are possible, but that I hope will do to convey the general nature of these philosophical enterprises. We both wrote essays explaining our approach to Rousseau, and then replied to each other’s essays.

John’s initial essay is ‘Emotion in Language’

My initial easy is ‘Rousseau and Derrida on Liberty and on Language, the First Social Institution’

They are followed by John’s reply to my essay and my reply to John’s essay.

Lance Kirby very kindly provided a foreword to set up the exchange.

I have posted extracts from my work in progress, please use search window (Rousseau should bring up the right results). For the rest, you’ll just have to get hold of the e-book. I have linked to freely available versions of John’s papers above, via, and there are more at his page, so you can easily find the intellectual background he is bringing to the new book.



Rousseau on Language the First Social Institution

Draft material from a collaborative project on Rousseau and Language. Further details when the project is published online not very long from now.  The process of drafting and redrafting is very current and very intense, and this is far from final material, it also omits parts which make less sense before the essay is completed. I will just say that I am looking at Derrida’s reaction to Rousseau and my collaborator, who initiated this project is looking at Chomsky’s reaction.

Rousseau picks up on an old idea, 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 New Science. One way of thinking of the Essay on the Origin of Languages would be as a extraordinarily concise and deep summary of the New Science, seen in conjunction with Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws. It’s not a text greatly discussed in succeeding decades, but there is a range of philosophical work going up to Nietzsche via German Idealism, including Humboldt’s theory of language and Kierkegaard, which seem to follow up the Essay. The influence is that of resonance rather than direct reference, in which maybe the more obvious influences and from the longer texts of Rousseau. That would parallel the relation between Rousseau and Vico, overlapping that of Montesquieu and Vico, which is never made clear by Rousseau or Montesquieu and may again be more a matter of an accumulation of resonances and echoes rather than a direct influence.

The story of language in the Essay is in large part on an essay on music, and finishes with a discussion of liberty. It starts with that classic idea of language as the distinguishing feature of humans and then moves onto language as communication and understanding, overcoming the anxieties inherent in the use of gestures.

For Rousseau, language is the first social institution

 Speech distinguishes man from the animals. Language distinguishes nations from each other; one does not know where a man is from until after he has spoken. Usage and need make each learn the language of his country; but what causes this language to be that of his country and not of another? In oder to tell, one has to go back to some reason that pertains to locality, and precedes even morals: speech, being the first social institution, owes its form only to natural causes.

(Rousseau, Essay on the Origin of Languages, Chapter One)

The quotations shows Rousseau deepening the sense that it is the defining attribute of humans.

One complication which Rousseau sees in language is the relation between speeches and gestures.  Gestures are associated by Rousseau with anxiety about communicating in speech

Our gestures signify nothing but our natural uneasiness; it is not about these that I want to speak. Only Europeans gesticulate while speaking. One would think that all the force of their speech was in their arms. They further add to this the force of their lungs, and all this is hardly of any use to them. When a Frenchman has quite strained himself, quite tormented his body to say a lot of words, a Turk removes his pipe from his mouth for a moment, softly speaks two words, and crushes them with one aphorism.

(Essay on the Origin of Languages, Chapter One)

Gestures also appear as decisive means of communication avoiding the diversion of speech. Some of the  examples Rousseau gives are rather disturbing though, Tarquinus Superbus cutting off the heads of poppies to communicate an order for the massacre of leading citizens is a gesture of tyranny. He first gives the related example of Thraysbalus the seventh century BCE tyrant of Miltetus, who according to Herodotus (Histories 5 92f), and in reversed form by Aristotle (Politics 1284a), gave advice to Periander, tyrant on Thebes, on how to administer his state by cutting off the flowers of poppies in a field in front of Periander’s messenger. The story about Tarquinius and the the poppies is from the sixth century BCE, so may well be a Roman legend copying what may well be a Greek legend from a century before. These details are apparently diversion from Rousseau’s purpose in Origin, but the issue is distinguishing imitation from origin is an issue for Rousseau who is concerned with the first and the original event of language and therefore of social institutions. The status of the origin is also at stake in these stories of tyrants using gestures instead of words, suggesting that the first form of language, gesture, is the expression of unlawful force. It is the Tarquinius version of the story (In Livy’s History of Rome, Volume 1, Book 1), which has become better known. It’s most notable appearance in later literature is in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, as discussed by the present author chapter 2 of Kierkegaard on Politics (Palgrave 2014, but should be available from the 22nd November this year), and it has a wider cultural resonance even for those unaware of the ancient stories in the phrase ‘tall poppy syndrome’. So Rousseau’s example is full of resonance in his own time, and has acquired more resonance since.


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.

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.