Jacques Derrida – Nihilist?

Derrida was certainly accused of nihilism. When “deconstruction” surprisingly made the mainstream news in the late 1970s and early 80s this was a commonly heard charge. I recall laughing with friends when Time (or was it Newsweek?) ran a picture of Derrida’s fellow-deconstructor Paul de Man above the label “nihilist,” presented as straightforwardly as if he were being identified as a Democrat or a Republican.

Why were Derrida and deconstruction newsworthy? In part because newspapers and magazines used to rely on the antics of humanities professors to fill a column or two when the real news was slow. For many years the New York Times had a ritual of listing the titles of panels at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. No comment was required; the titles were self-parodying.

But another reason – and this explains the great deconstruction scare – concerned the old Socratic question of whether a philosopher’s teachings were corrupting the youth. It seemed that students were learning that there was no such thing as meaning, that aesthetic value was an ideological illusion, and ultimately that nothing was true – there were only falsehoods that were mistaken for truths.

It looked to many that the universities had abandoned their traditional vocation of educating students who would go on to be decent and reliable citizens. How can you trust someone who believes that moral principles are nothing but binary oppositions in need of deconstruction?

The deconstructors themselves appeared to take a kind of grim pleasure in these attacks. An anthology published at the time entitled Deconstruction and Criticism included essays by Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, and Harold Bloom, among others. The blurb on the back cover claimed, with apparent pride, that they and their colleagues were known as “the Yale Mafia.”

Why, one wondered, would a group of literary scholars liken their joint efforts to a criminal enterprise? It did sound a bit nihilistic. “That’s a nice little interpretation you’ve got there, buddy. It would be a real shame if it were to get deconstructed….”

It might be embarrassing to try to define Derrida by means of the standard philosophical positions. His work certainly owed something to skepticism, in particular the argument that knowledge claims cannot be justified because any justification will rely on further unjustified knowledge claims. Derrida was extraordinarily inventive at identifying such presuppositions. It wasn’t so much the skeptical argument itself that interested him. It was the rhetorical performance he could sustain demonstrating just how much in the way of unjustified presuppositions can be found in pretty much any utterance, and how strangely interesting they could be made to seem.

Another position he owed something to is anti-realism, the proposition that there are no mind-independent entities. I’m not sure to what extent Derrida distinguished the various versions of this thesis, but some form of it animated his view that there was “nothing outside the text.” I don’t think I ever came across anything in Derrida that suggested he believed that there was nothing outside the mind at all, but he certainly seemed committed to the thesis that any mind-independent reality that did exist was inaccessible as such.

To this thesis he appears to have added the thought that mind-dependent reality is also inaccessible: that is, we can’t even know what we mean by anything. This is the famous “gap” between the signifier and the signified. This aspect of Derrida might be said to correspond to the “semantic skepticism” – the thesis that no one can mean anything by any word – that Saul Kripke drew from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. The difference is that whereas Kripke assumed the thesis was absurd and in need of a solution, Derrida and his followers seemed to embrace it.

But was Derrida a nihilist, or even a skeptic or anti-realist? His main motive, as I came to see it, was to avoid being pinned down. It seemed that he didn’t want to be in the position of having to defend a thesis; he craved the position of critic. This was self-defeating because it ultimately led to a rhetoric of ambiguity and, finally, just plain coyness. It’s perhaps unfortunate that he found his fame in the literary world; one wonders how things would have turned out had he stuck with philosophy.

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