11 July 2003

d.a. carson and j. derrida

In the process of working on some upcoming lectures, I've been re-reading sections of D.A. Carson's The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Zondervan, 1996). While I am naturally sympathetic with many of Carson's concerns, I must say that his treatment of post-modern philosophy is pretty awful.

Carson does a decent job of explaining "the modern," but when he turns to the post-modern, he seems to forget that it is the modern against which the post-modernists are reacting. Thus, when a philosopher rejects the notion of "objective truth," Carson reads this as if it were a denial of any truth whatsoever, rather than a denial of a theory of truth that presupposes a radical subject-object dichotomy, a representationalist theory of mind, and the need for apodictic certainty in order to know anything at all.

Carson goes on to suggest that deconstructionists insist upon either absolute knowledge or complete relativism. But this is not what the deconstructionists claim. Rather, this looks to me much more like Carson's own modernist prejudices showing through, presupposing this either/or.

Far from being a relativist, Derrida considers deconstruction as a kind of ethics, the practice of justice. Indeed, Merold Westphal argues that Derrida is a sort of natural law theorist, though one who places the manifestation of justice always within particular contexts, without positing such a thing as "justice in itself."

Derrida has also spilled considerable ink on the notion of a "gift" and, while arguing that no gift is pure, he maintains that self-sacrifice is the foundation of gift-giving. Likewise, he has written extensively on forgiveness, suggesting that the truest forgiveness lies in forgiving the unforgivable. These are not the writings of a relativist, whatever problems one may have with Derrida's approach.

As for Derrida's claim that "there is nothing outside the text," Carson misunderstands this badly, thinking apparently that this means we have no way of talking about reality. Several other points are actually being made in Derrida's claim.

First, the claim needs to be understood as a rejection of modernist notions of reference couched in a correspondence theory truth tied to a respresentaionalist theory of mind.

Second, "text" here needs to be interpreted broadly so that almost anything is a text, that is, appears to us already thoroughly embedded within a system of signification—if it didn’t, it wouldn’t even reveal itself to us at all.

Finally, the claim is not a denial of the existence of things in the world, nor a denial that we have access to these things; rather it is a denial that we have any extra-linguistic (non-symbolically mediated) access to those things. As Heidegger said, "Language is the house of being."

Carson also spends a great deal of time attempting to refute Derrida's suggestion that writing is prior to speech. Carson, unfortunately (and the author he quotes), seems to be more literal than he is literary at this point, taking Derrida to claim that the practice of writing is somehow actually prior to speech in it origins in time.

Derrida's claim about speech and writing must be taken in context: as a somewhat tongue-in-cheek response to the historical privileging of speech over writing. Traditionally, speech was considered as better since it was more immediate and connected with the personal presence of the speaker, clearly communicating his own mind, while writing was a way of preserving speech in absence of the speaker. Moreover, speech remains interior to or in the possession of the speaker, while a written text is exterior to the author and can be wrested free from his intentions.

But this privileging of speech over writing presupposes what Derrida calls a "metaphysics of presence, " whether the presence of meaning to the mind (as with Descartes' clear and distinct ideas) or of objects to the senses (so the mind can transparently mirror the world). This is a desire for a "transcendental signified," something that exists outside of all signifiers and is transparently referred to by them.

According to Derrida, however, reality is constituted by what he calls "differance," a word he coins that plays on the French terms for "differing" and "deferring"--a pun, by the way, which is evident in its writing, but unnoticable in speech. Derrida uses the term, among other things, in order to suggest that for something to be what it is, it must be different from something else. Yet that difference is registered only by a trace of those things from which is different, marking presence of those things even in their absence. Thus there is no possibility of either absolute presence or absolute absence, leaving an interplay in which absolute presence is continually deferred.

In terms of language and meaning, part of what this suggests is that the meaning of texts is something that only arises through the articulation of difference among words and other texts. But this, in turn, indicates that meaning is never absolutely present, but is continually deferred as it plays itself in relation to other absent texts, which are present in traces by the very registering of their absence.

Derrida's point about writing and speech, is that on the traditional picture, writing is second-rate because it is at a double-remove from ideas in the mind of its author: ideas turned into speech turned into writing. Thus writing, on the traditional view, consists merely in signs pointing to yet other signs.

But, if Derrida is correct about differance--about the nature of signs and meaning and language in general--then all language is "writing," that is, signs pointing to yet other signs. Speech cannot be privileged over writing, since even the spoken word is fully implicated within a system of signs that pre-exists the speaker. Presence and absence are at play in speech as much as in writing and meaning is deferred.

Carson's refutation of Derrida at this point entirely misses the point Derrida is trying to make, getting caught up in historical questions about the origins of writing and chiding him for misusing the term "writing," missing the irony of Derrida's remarks.

The weird thing is that almost any standard secondary work on Derrida would have explained all of this, if one found Derrida's own remarks too confusing. I'm not sure what game Carson is playing at here, but it's frustrating.

In any case, I probably should get to bed soon.