Winter 2013: PHL 4623, Derrida and Metaphysics

Weds, 7-9:50 pm (A 3081)

Office Hours: M/W: 12-2:00

Books Ordered:

Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I am (Fordham U.P. ) 082322791X
Derrida, Margins of Philosophy (Chicago) 978-0226143262

Recommended overall (I have not ordered them, since various online merchants sell these for cheaper than our bookstore):

Benoît Peeters, Jacques Derrida: A Biography (Polity, 2012)

*Please note that this syllabus is likely to change as we progress through the semester.


Jan. 9

Heidegger, “Lecture on the Concept of Time“; Derrida, “Différance(in Margins of Philosophy)


David Couzens Hoy, Ch. 2 (concentrate on the sections on Husserl, Heidegger, and Derrida) from The Time of Our Lives: A Critical History of Temporality (MIT Press, 2012).


Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Human Sciences“;  “Ends of Man” (in Margins of Philosophy)

Recommended: Jacques Derrida, “Letter to a Japanese Friend.

Geoffrey Bennington, extract from “Derridabase in Jacques Derrida.

Jan. 23

Derrida, Ousia and Grammē” (in Margins of Philosophy); Aristotle, Physics, Book IV (read chapters 10-14).


Christopher Norris, “Derrida and Metaphysics,” from Understanding Derrida (Continuum, 2004)

Martin Hägglund, extract (Ch. 1) from Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life.

Jan. 30

Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, introduction, chs. 1-3.

Recommended: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Husserl (particularly here, here, here, here, and here.)

Mary Jeanne Larabee, “Time and Spatial Modes: Temporality in Husserl” (Research in Phenomenology 49.3 [Spring 1989]: 373-392)

David Allison, “Derrida on Husserl,” Understanding Derrida.

Feb. 6

Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, chs. 4-end.

Feb. 13

Derrida, Of Grammatology, the program: Preface and Part Ifinal section; Derrida, interview from Positions.


Simon Glendinning, “Derrida and Language,” Understanding Derrida.

Peter Gratton, Ch. 1, The State of Sovereignty: Lessons from the Political Fictions of Modernity.

Feb. 27

Derrida, Khora”; John D. Caputo, “Khora: Being Serious with Plato” from Deconstruction in a Nutshell.

Mar. 6

Derrida, “The Force of Law“; Begin Derrida, The Animal that Therefore I am

Exegetical Paper: What is deconstruction? Demonstrate your answer by way of a close reading of one of Derrida’s texts we have read. 8 pages, double-spaced. (20%)

Mar. 13

Finish Derrida, The Animal Therefore I am.

Mar. 20

Derrida, “Autoimmunity: Real and Imagined Suicides“; Roguesintroduction, ch. 1-3.

Mar. 27

Derrida, Rogues, Pt. 1, chs. 5-end.

Recommended: Peter Gratton, ch. 5, The State of Sovereignty: Lessons from the Political Fictions of Modernity.

Apr. 3  

Derrida, “Learning how to Live Finally.”

Come to class with your abstract of your final paper.

April 8

Final Paper Due, email by noon to 16-20 pages, topic to be approved by Professor. (40%)

3 thoughts on “Winter 2013: PHL 4623, Derrida and Metaphysics

    1. Sarah Messer
      January 16, 2012

      On “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.”

      Jacques Derrida speaks of a rupture in the concept of structure. Up to a point, there was the idea that a structure must have a center, or a fixed origin, that orients, balances, and organizes the structure. The center can be the beginning or the end of the structure. Derrida argues that an unorganized structure cannot be conceived, so the idea of a structure lacking a center is unthinkable. The organization of a structure limits the possibility of play in a structure. Since the center of the structure must be unique, the center governs the structure, while escaping structurality. Thus, the center is both within the structure and outside the structure.

      Up to a certain point, there was what Derrida describes as a central point of the structure of spoken and written communication. The rupture came about when the structurality of structure began to be thought or repeated. I don’t know why, but it began to be necessary to think that there was no structure. The idea of a center changes from something with a fixed position to something changeable. Everything became discourse.

      If insisting that there is no limit in the domain or play of signification, the concept “sign” must be rejected. A sign is meaningless if it can be infinitely changed. The concept “sign,” however, cannot be rejected without using signs. (281)
      Like the impossibility of destructing metaphysics without using the historical concepts of metaphysics, there is no language that can be used without history. Every time that something is being destructed, parts of what is being contested must be used.

      Structuralism claims to be the critique of empiricism. Empirical essays can always be completed or invalidated by new information, while structural schemata are proposed as hypotheses resulting from a finite quantity of information.

      Nature vs. Culture
      Culture – That which depends upon a system of norms regulating society and therefore is capable of varying from one social structure to another, belongs to culture.
      Nature – that what is universal and spontaneous, and not dependent on any particular culture or on any determinate norm, belongs to Nature.

      Levi-Strauss finds that the incest prohibition is a scandal because it seems to be nature and culture simultaneously. Because the incest prohibition is universal, it can be considered natural, but because it is a prohibition, it can also be called cultural.
      There is no scandal if the incest prohibition is removed from the nature/culture opposition. The nature/culture opposition, which has always been seen as self-evident, is questioned when a concept cannot fit into either category.

      One way to deal with a critique of a structure would be to question the history of the concepts. Another way that one could go about would be to conserve the concepts in the domain of empirical discovery. This removes truth value from the concepts and means that they can be abandoned if other concepts become more useful.

      This separates the instruments of the method and objective significations that the method envisions. The distinction between nature and culture has no historical significance, but does contain a logic that fully justifies its use by modern sociology as a methodological tool.
      By continuing to contest the nature/culture opposition, while understanding its methodological importance, Levi-Strauss preserves as an instrument something whose truth value he criticises.

      Bricolage is using “the means at hand,” or instruments that are available to complete a task. The instruments are not especially made for the operation for which they are used, but are adapted to by trial and error.
      Language can be critiqued in the form of bricolage. One does not construct the totality of the language one uses, since the construction would mean creating not only a verb, but creating even the concept of a verb. The idea of one who breaks from all bricolage is a Theological idea.
      If all actions and discourses use bricolage, “the idea of bricolage is menaced and the difference in which it took on its meaning breaks down” (285). There is no need for bricolage to be distinguished as a method if all that is done uses bricolage.

      “What I want to emphasize is simply that the passage beyond philosophy does not consist in turning the page of philosophy (which usually amounts to philosophizing badle), but in continuing to read philosophers in a certain way.” (288).

      “One can describe what is peculiar to the structural organization only by not taking into account, in the very moment of this description, its past conditions” (291).

      A community’s total body of myth or a community’s speech cannot be studied until the community’s population dies out physically or morally and the totality is, thus, complete. A linguist, however, should not be criticised for using incomplete records of a language because, until all speakers of the language have died, there will be new additions to the language. This can be compared to the problem of induction that occurs in experimental science. The grammar rules that govern a language can be worked out without the theoretically limitless different sentences that will be put together over the time that the language is spoken or written. Language is a form of play wherein infinite substitutions can be used as signifiers for a finite number of signifieds.

      In this way, totalization can be seen as useless or even impossible. A center that grounds and limits the play is missing.
      The center (which can be the beginning or the end) cannot be determined in a structure that allows the type of movement of play that can be called the movement of supplementarity. If signs can replace, supplement, or take the place of the center, the center cannot be determined. Levi-Strauss speaks of an “overabundance of signifier, in relation to the signifieds to which this overabundance can refer” (289).

  1. Derrida Course, Week 2
    “The Ends of Man” and “Structure, Sign, and Play Human Sciences”

    As it happens, the two texts before us were both given as lectures, both in the United States, and both reporting on the state of French philosophy, as requested by the conferences he attended. And both texts end with similar methodological announcements of the tasks of deconstruction, different methods of doing interpretation. Both are, of course, written by Derrida and thus ipso facto range over a number of texts and are dense to a fault. Let me begin by tying together their targets—on the one hand, humanism, and on the other, structuralism, by expanding a quotation that Derrida uses from Foucault in the latter’s Les Mots et les choses. It is a lengthy quotation:

    “One thing in any case is certain: man is neither the oldest nor the most constant problem that has been posed for human knowledge. Taking a relatively short chronological sample within a restricted geographical area – European culture since the sixteenth century – one can be certain that man is a recent invention within it. It is not around him and his secrets that knowledge prowled for so long in the darkness. In fact, among all the mutations that have affected the knowledge of things and their order, the knowledge of identities, differences, characters, equivalences, words – in short, in the midst of all the episodes of that profound history of the Same – only one, that which began a century and a half ago and is now perhaps drawing to a close, has made it possible for the figure of man to appear. And that appearance was not the liberation of an old anxiety, the transition into luminous consciousness of an age-old concern, the entry into objectivity of something that had long remained trapped within beliefs and philosophies: it was the effect of a change in the fundamental arrangements of knowledge. As the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end.

    If those arrangements were to disappear as they appeared, if some event of which we can at the moment do no more than sense the possibility – without knowing either what its form will be or what it promises – were to cause them to crumble, as the ground of Classical thought did, at the end of the eighteenth century, then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.”

    Foucault thus marks the “ends of man,” which for many will seem an audacious, if not ludicrous claim. Have not men—and I use this term to underline Derrida’s point that the “human” will always be modeled on patriarchy and thus men—always existed? Who but men drew cave paintings of millennia ago and who but men, if we have a future, will be our descendents? But Foucault’s point is a structuralist one: “man” is a signifier of recent vintage—say the last four hundred years—as it is understood, and this is signifier only has a particular meaning within a given structure of thought, the same way that a pawn only has a particular meaning within the rules of chess; it makes no sense outside of the play of that game. What Foucault was envisioning—and Derrida follows him in this—is what Derrida describes as an “event” in French philosophy, namely structuralism, which aims to show how values and meaning are provided by sign systems that can be identified, for example, in the work of Foucault in the 1960s or in the anthropology of Levi-Strauss of the 1950s and 60s. What Foucault and Levi-Strauss attempt to do, following from Ferdinand de Saussure, is something like the grammar of given societies that link all of our practices—from the treatment of the mad to family structures to fashion. Another way to say this is that they viewed human beings less as producers of sign systems spontaneously choosing what to wear or how to react to others, but rather as the result of these sign systems. And once one takes that step—that “man” is less a natural creature than one sign among others—then it’s also not radical to think that this sign, too, like previous sign systems—for example, those that linked visions less to biology than to divine inspiration—will wash away in the seas of history.

    What Derrida does in both texts is demonstrate how two dominant approaches at that time do not escape “metaphysics” as much as they think. The target in “Ends of Man” is Heidegger, who argued that metaphysics was dominated by a notion of presence and, in his Being and Time, noted that he would not use the word “man” for Dasein given that this term needed to erased of all metaphysical vestiges, for example, that men have a pre-given essence, etc. What Derrida attempts to show is how Heidegger himself repeats many of the gestures of metaphysical humanism. And in “Structure, Sign, and Play,” Derrida does much the same for Levi-Strauss, who viewed his “structuralism” as an antidote to metaphysical theorizing, but nevertheless falls under and repeats binary oppositions rife in the tradition, such as nature/culture. Here two larger points should be made: 1) Derrida argues that the idea of structure is not new and in fact, all philosophy has been one long historical adventure structured by the metaphysics of presence—we’ll come to this point. In other words, he agrees with Heidegger on this point. 2) Derrida also argues that this structure operates according to fundamental binary oppositions: presence vs. absence, nature vs. culture, real vs. apparent, that implicitly shape the entirety of Western thought. 3) He argues that one can have but a double-strategy to this tradition: a) one merely can repeat the tradition, say, as conservatives wish always to do with the past, b) one can naively think one has surpassed the metaphysical tradition, but like the Chinese finger trap, it seems the harder one pulls away, the more one is caught by the tradition. Thus, Derrida is not arguing that Levi-Strauss and Heidegger, for example, in these two essays, are somehow “wrong” in these works; just as we cannot suddenly switch from English tonight into some made up language, so, too, we can’t but speak the language of metaphysics and its oppositions. This is why we are, at least for now, forever at the Ends of Man—since we cannot picture a future (yet) beyond the signifiers of the human and all that comes with it.

    What then is the deconstructive strategy: 1) to read a given set of texts closely to look for a given presupposition that is not argued by the text. 2) To show that, in fact, the text itself shows another way of thinking an opposition it can’t hold together. In Levi-Strauss, this is nature vs. culture; in Heidegger this is human vs. Dasein. As Derrida puts it in a 1971 interview:
    [My task] is to avoid both simply neutralizing the binary oppositions of metaphysics and simply residing within the closed field of these oppositions, thereby confirming it. Therefore we must proceed using a double gesture, according to a unity that is both systematic and in and of itself divided, a double writing, that is, a writing that its in and of itself multiple…a double science. On the one hand, we must traverse a phase of overturning. To do justice to this necessity is to recognize that in a classical philosophical opposition we are not dealing with the peaceful coexistence [of this opposition] but rather with a violent hierarchy. One of the two terms governs the other…or has the upper hand. To overlook this phase of overturning is to forget the conflictual and subordinating structure of opposition. Therefore one might proceed too quickly to a neutralization that in practice would leave the previous field untouched… [W]e must also mark the interval between inversion, which brings low what was high, and the irruptive emergence of a new ‘concept’…. I have called undecidables. (Positions, 43)

    We can see this with différance—where Derrida is not interested in thinking the dominance of one difference (with an “e”) over another (one with an “a”) but the interval or play between these two. This “difference” is supposed to demonstrate the instability of a given metaphysical opposition. In the coming weeks, such oppositions taken up will be between speaking and writing, presence and absence, human and animal, and so forth. Again, Derrida is not simply inverting the hierarchy—not saying writing is better than speaking, animals are better than human—but rather pointing out that a given text can’t make the distinction stick, and thus within any structure (here is why is not a structuralist) is a play or openness that the structure itself wants to avoid. Derrida’s point in “Structure, Sign, and Play” is that in every structure, there is an unquestioned “center,” a fixed point that remains unquestioned by the structure. Here Derrida is not on new ground: every metaphysical system posits a starting point that it cannot, in a sense, prove. These first principles might be the Good (Plato), the One (Plotinus), Becoming (Heraclitus), etc. that the thinker then cannot provde as such. As the center, then, it both founds and grounds the structure, but is also outside of it. For example, in theology, God is both that which centers any theological structure, but as creator, is outside of it. Thus, against the structuralists, not everything can be accounted for within a structure, notably the centre of the structure, which must be within the structure and outside of it at the same time. Derrida calls this the transcendental signifier, a term that is out of bounds for discussion within a given structure. In Levi-Strauss, this center is “nature.” In other texts, there is a centering on a notion of “man.”

    What then is to be done today?
    1. To discuss further the Ends of Man to understand it is place in Derrida’s thinking, specifically looking at p 135, where he discusses his method of reading.
    2. To move into “Structure, Sign, and Play,” to where he again notes his “method,” and then what he describes the “monstrosity of the future.”
    3. But third—and crucially—despite all this note of “method,” we must come down to being clear that for Derrida, “deconstruction” is not a method, but is what is happening, what is underway, what is, he says, undeniably real. It is and what makes history, he tells us. That is to say, if “man” is an effect of given systems of thought, etc., the so too we are not choosing to destabilize this or that text, but rather we are produced in and through various destabilized texts; the play is there already. But that is work for the coming weeks—to show the “reality” of deconstruction—and we must begin with some passkey to the readings Derrida is indeed undertaking in the works we will read.

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