6. Hermeneutics and Deconstruction: Heidegger/Derrida; Heidegger’s Plato, Derrida’s Plato (a)
Recall that central to Heidegger’s whole philosophical enterprise, which is an overturning cum overcoming cum putting finally to an end what is the end of philosophy since Plato, is that it is with Plato that begins the fateful transformation of aletheia, truth as ‘unhiddenness’ so Heidegger’s translation has it, into truth as ‘correctness,’ so H’s Aristotelianisation has it, thus beginning the ‘forgetting of Being’. Heidegger’s engagement with the philosophical tradition then is the production, ironically, of the history of this forgetting.
Now, the forgetting has a history, which begins for Heidegger in Plato but insofar as the question of Being is concerned this predates Plato and is what the pre-Socratics where up to. So Plato begins the history of the forgetting but not the history of Being. It’s with Plato’s intervention – that being is thinkable and not just sayable – that a possible way into this history of the meaning of being is made possible. Plato alerts philosophy to it by marking that it is and has been and will be a question. So Being is what is always in question for Dasein.
Heidegger’s saving mission was to go behind the Platonic instance and find in the pre-Socratic what was Being really said, before the Idea became the first instance and form of its constant and repeated forgetting. The word in which this is supposed to resound is phusis – the Greek word for nature. ‘If this word is fundamental, it is because it designates being's vocation for presence, in the mode of its appearing, or more explicitly of its non-latency (alethia).’ Alethia means truth but it means it in a specific sense of unconcealdeness or disclosure. Thus of what comes to be of what is, we might say – hence the idea of a vocation. The vocation of being is to come to presence, to be unconcealed in appearing – which is then to dis-close or open … and so on.
So Plato is the first closer. What is closed for him or by him in the form of the Idea, making of knowledge a correctness toward Being is the capacity to register Beings vocation, this immanent vocation, the sense of it – because Plato in short opts for a mathematics of being which as pure rationality or technique cannot hear or give currency too what naturally comes forth. Obviously, it puts its own rules first. Only poetry does this for Heidegger – ontology is under the poetic condition: Poetry makes space in language for the truth of being to appear in its own way – in the way it does, as the matter of its vocation. To say poetry makes this space is also to note that aleathia is not the truth of Being as such but the passage of being to presence.
Nature is thus not objectivity nor the given, but rather the gift, the gesture of opening up which unfolds its own limit as that in which it resides without limitation. Being is 'the opening up which holds sway’ – this is what phusis names. Now, Heidegger’s use of the Greek terms is not an accident but to re-mark that what has come down to us through Latin as nature – which Spinoza works with – is a nature captured in terms of technique. This is especially so for Heidegger, post-Gallileo, whom we know said that the book of nature was written in the language of mathematics.
Nature, in this technisised or mathemtised sense is another mark, for Heidegger, of the complete forgetting of Being. Phusis goes behind the back of all this. What is decisive in the Platonic turn, following which nature forgets phusis, 'is not that phusis should have been characterised as idea, but that idea should have become the sole and decisive interpretation of being'. And this move of Plato, to interpret phusis as idea, means in turn that phusis remains inscribed in Idea for Heidegger. It is neither denial or decline of the Greek being as phusis – as what naturally comes to be – but it’s completion.
So Plato’s transformation changes the place of truth from a characteristic of beings or things themselves to a feature of human ‘comportment’ toward things. The essence of truth, Heidegger says, ‘gives up the characteristic of unconcealment … and now it's a matter of the correctness of the look. Truth becomes orthotes – correctness of perception and expression.’ So this is the crux: from Being being an attribute of beings to human comportment toward Being – so Being in beings – hence interpretation etc., to Being as beyond and distinct and thus the modality of correctness – beings adjusted to Being if you like, which, as you can see is really a mater of technique – the right way to affect this correctness and hence rationality, science and so on – all the bad things of enlightenment modernity and so on.
I just want to remark here on two features of Heidegger’s relation to Plato, especially as it concerns his arguments or the conditions of possibility of his arguments in the text Plato’s Doctrine of Truth.
The first thing is that he treats only with the Cave analogy from the Republic and a section of the Theatetus. This fragmentary work is synonymous with Heidegger now and is much imitated but it is also problematic. One of the things Rosen and also Hyland brings out is how, when he treats with the theory of representation in the Republic, thus with the ‘idea of the bed’ he misses or ignores precisely how it is connected to other discussions in the Republic about emergence or generation and thus misses an important distinction between Ideas themselves. Ideas vis a vis what exists with regard to them and between whose Ideas are whose – different figures of representation speak of differences with regard to Ideas themselves and thus there are different ways of approaching or even apprehending the Idea in the same text relative to differently situated figures of the text.
The ‘fragment’ is supposed of course to speak the unsaid of all or to be in fact the speaking of what is true of the text, which the whole of it covers over but would be beholden too – so in some way the privileged being of Being; the being of the text that gives us the truth of the whole – or perhaps more accurately, in this being the truth of Being is spoken. Thus to speak of Being we speak of a being in such a way that through it Being, which is unsaid, speaks.
It matters to note that this privileged being is not the subject of any negation at all such that in some way what is privileged about it is its capacity to be other than other beings. Rather this being (or fragment) subject to interpretation, shows Being as All in its proper ontological modality. The fragment-being is the expression of what of Being it can be and thus of what there is of Being.
But is it not possible that in discerning the being whose speech is exemplary one might err insofar as it might not be the exemplary being it’s supposed to be. Are we to assume each distinct being tells being the same way – in a single sense as Aristotle would say? But Heidegger doesn't support this notion. So how does he pick – is it because he has a sense of the whole already which the fragment will represent as the truth of the being in question and thus the example chosen is a representation of the whole of being, which is to say, what the text to be interpreted precisely lacks. So, not quite an un-concealing then?
Second, Heidegger says this: ‘There is thus an inner necessity to the fact that when Plato wants to say something fundamental and essential in philosophy, he always speaks in an allegory and places us before a sensory image. Not that he is unsure about what he is speaking of; on the contrary he is quite sure that it cannot be described or proved.’
Now it’s true that Plato often has recourse to allegory or even myth and it does occur at this point of un-knowability. But that is not the end of it for Plato at all. He is certain that at this point in the dialogue, which is to say, relative to the conditions of possibility of the knowledge available, that he cannot know about this thing. But this is not at all to say that this determination at this point is definitive once and for all, of this thing. In fact it is very common in Plato to halt when the resources are lacking to go further, but at the same time every dialogue is essentially a taking up at this point with new resources that can then be brought to bare on the point exhausted last time.
Plato never rests assured on this verdict of the unknown – that is, he doesn't absolutise the unknowable at all. He is certain he doesn't know this now – but he is always equally certain that ‘we can come to know all that we do not know.’ There is no unknowable – or maybe no Form of the unknowable as Heidegger seems to suggest here. Plato, as I have said, is not a thinker of potential but of the actual; even the unknown will be known, it is or will have been intelligible for us; that's where every dialogue is headed and that's philosophy for him. It’s not a doctrine of limits, which inspires in discourse only the pathos of retreat.
This logic of the fragment and the corresponding pathos of retreat are not at all embarrassing for Heidegger but are part of the way out of what he also sees as precisely that overarching certainty that metaphysics carries in itself and transmits down the generations.
He says: ‘In the following interpretation, we deliberately leave unconsidered the precise placement of this allegory within the dialogue. To begin with we leave aside all discussion concerning the dialogue as a whole. What is crucial about the allegory is that it can stand entirely on its own, so we can consider it by itself without in any way minimising its content or meaning.’
‘The necessary method of interpretation leads to the centre of our question. We do not therefore go schematically through the dialogue from beginning to end; we completely abandon the attitude of the mere reader. In somewhat impertinent fashion we cut into, as co-questioning auditors, the already progressing conversation, without knowing the beginning or end, yet at a point where we immediately feel something of the whole.’
Just note the seduction here – its very aristocratic-Nietzschean – its borderline contemptuous but that is its higher seduction – did you hear it … ‘the mere reader’ … we hermeneuts are not mere readers … we are … what, revelationsist, ushering in the unsaid?
I don't know, but my question is this: how did he pick these fragments as exemplary if he hadn’t merely read the whole thing – to not have read the whole thing and arbitrarily picked passages would make him a mere reader after all? As several people have pointed out ‘despite the many particular insights along the way, Heidegger’s understanding of Plato’s project continues to be deeply infected by his flawed interpretive assumptions.’
And one key flaw is the refusal rather than failure I’d say to treat the dialogue as method, as integral to any possible philosophy, for Plato at least, and not simply as a reactionary response to the Poem. What finally seems to be at stake here is two opposed orientations to the ‘open’, let’s say. In the dialogue is always inscribed the impossibility of what is to come – it’s why the dialogue can keep going or be taken up again at some point – a point which is held – thus something is resolved within it to this point – as the site from which to go on.
But it has no telos, no proper unfolding, which insists to be discovered. There is no vocation inscribed silently, hidden within it. Impossibility is not a presence, not even an absent one – it is not what Being can be and is not bound by the finite a priori determination of what we can know. In a way, the what-is-not-being always imposes itself within the dialogue as critical to the dialogue, as one of the things it necessarily deals with – presence is never assumed of Being – either to begin with or as its end.
Different conceptions of the infinite are at stake – which is not to say Plato had a well worked conception of it but that he didn't is what causes all the mischief for Aristotle and his inheritors, who in the widest variety of ways take this as a failure at the heart of the project; something they can only do from the perspective of the potential infinite supposed to be the only and true one and thus they miss the impossibility, as I’m calling it, at the heart of Plato, which he includes.
In other words we can say that what Heidegger didn't like, which is also what a non-potential, thus non horizontal conception of the infinite requires, the subject. In Plato, in the dialogue form, a subject speaks, which is to say, a subject decides in and through language and as such decides what is language for a subject and what language can and cannot say, also. In Heidegger there is at best the subject of language, which is nothing other than that through which being becomes itself in Dasein. Thus nothing essentially interrupts Being or at least whatever supposes too must not be. Being is the event of language if you like or being and event are One.
Heidegger’s notion of truth as unsaid – which thus relies on the revelation of the unhidden – is ironically, exemplified in the dialogue itself which, as I’ve said, begins at a point and pursues this point to the demonstration of its very Form, of which the instance is one being in the world. But because Heidegger fails to follow the form of the dialogue Form as such, it can only represent to him the very means by which truth is unsaid.
But why is it unsaid – that's to say, for example, why is the allegory of the cave said by Plato to speak of education and not truth and why is the Republic about justice requiring a true education? Heidegger never asks this, he just prosecutes the case, that there exists in these texts – and others – an unsaid doctrine of truth – which of course predates the method of its capture, which as such prescribes that such an unsaid must be. Thus while it may be a fact of the dialogue, it is also for the hermeneut the ultimate predicate of every text – other wise what is a hermeneut to do? But for Heidegger, Being – which is what truth says – is not a predicate of anything and so its being-there hidden, unsaid etc. can’t be the impetus to its interpretation.
Catherine Zuckhert notes that for Heidegger, ‘Being carries within it as its history that origin which must come to an end – again: that Being has no history.’ For Heidegger ‘this history, concealed, asserts itself again in the present as end tying the pre-Socratic poets of Being’s historical unfolding with his own re-appropriation of the hermeneutical method. Moreover, what happens to Plato in this is that his originary position is now positioned within this history – he is an affect inscribed within the history of Being being Being,’ thus Zuckhart continues: ‘Heidegger never tried to understand Plato as Plato understood himself. As he saw it, such an understanding was neither possible nor desirable. If ‘being’ meant what was present, and what was present could be known only in contrast to, and hence in connection with, past and future, no thing, thinker, or event could be known in itself. Heidegger thus consistently read Plato not merely in the context of his precursors but most emphatically in terms of the consequence of his philosophy.’
So Plato disappears inside this history as the no-thing between what precedes and succeeds him. He is the impossible to be who can only be in his reconstruction – which is what Heidegger provides and which is ‘Platonism’ per se. The disappearance of Plato is homogenous then to the disappearance of the meaning of Being: Plato’s Idea takes Being out of philosophy and as such the thought of being as the question of the meaning of being disappears under the Idea until its end; until finally Platonic philosophy itself comes to an end. And the end of philosophy is precisely wherein the question of Being insisting as what is unconcealed there reveals itself to be thought.
Thought for Heidegger, in the end is what the poem alone can carry in the age of technique or even the age of its end. Indeed in the poem the meaning of Being has been constantly sung. Thus philosophy is finished in the face of thought itself. And as I intimated above, Heidegger ushers in the age of the post modern, even if he isn’t, just as the pre-Socratics usher in not-Socrates/Plato but the battle of Socrates/Plato with the relativism of the sophists who, as Plato makes clear in the dialogues are, as patrons of the flux, precisely the heirs to these poets and to poetry as the form knowledge takes.
It’s an interesting structural irony I think – Heidegger is ‘between poets’, lets say, as what makes their interruption disappear. Thus he occupies a place not unlike the place he determines for Plato but it is to effect Plato’s overcoming that he does so. Hence, as he argued, ‘the 'destruction' of the tradition – the accepted version of the history of philosophy and its results or outcome – is necessary for us moderns to rediscover the origins of their own, which is to say, Western thought.’
Jacques Derrida’s advance is to radicalise this further by simply removing the idea of an origin to be destroyed, rather marking out within any such construction the always already there site of its own undoing; absence – which is not negation – rather than presence. Hence its not destruction – which points to something being there, but de-construction which every text carries within itself and thus without which it would not be at all.
So let’s get deconstructive.
First thing I want to say here is that I’m not going to keep on referring to Plato in this section. Rather we need to understand in what I have to say about Derrida that Plato is the text with which Derrida is working. As with Heidegger, for Derrida, Plato is the founder of western metaphysics, which is not to say the founder of the thinking of Being. We’ll see that for Derrida, all writing/speaking is already riven by what metaphysics announces as Idea – what it makes as real and true and good for us, so to speak. That there is a certain insistence in the text that the text must not present as itself is important to Derrida, as it is to Heidegger, but they differ on what that insistence is, as we’ll see. Plato as text is then also the context of these remarks on Derrida.
If you know Derrida, have read Derrida, you know it can be tough going. He has certainly reduced many who suppose themselves wise to great fits of hysterics. An exemplary instance of this was played out in the New York Review of Books some years ago. Mixed in with the claims and counter claims concerning Derrida as charlatan was much mutual ego stroking by critics, reinforcing each others ignorance as the last bastion of true philosophic virtue. Look it up, it's a generally unedifying spectacle. Much of it, though, this time occasioned by a book on Derrida, was really about Derrida’s previous demolition of John R Searle’s critique of a paper Derrida had given in Montreal on J. L Austin’s ‘illocutionary act’. Searle, a landlord and analytic philosopher of some repute from the US, considers himself Austin’s one true heir and took exception to Derrida. Derrida responded in an ingenious, and I’d even hazard, Platonic fashion.
Limited INC is an exceptional document and a perfect example of Derrida’s ‘method’ if we can call it that – he is not keen on the term. Through what can no doubt appear like tortured manoeuvres – indeed as Zizek says in another context the ‘torture of language itself ‘– Derrida aims at what exceeds a system immanently. He finds – and you can see the Heidegger influence here – that within a text which seems to hold everything together but when pulled will unravel what only appears to be a whole. He did this, for example, to his former teacher Foucault – picking out in a text of 650 pages, three pages of it concerning Descartes mention of a dream. He says ‘the sense of Foucault’s entire project can be pinpointed in these few allusive and somewhat enigmatic pages’. (see: Foucault's History of Madness; Derrida's "Cogito and the History of Madness"; and Foucault's response, "My Body, This Paper, This Fire.)
This is also what Derrida does to Kant’s third critique, focusing both on what Kant must expel from it to sustain the whole and the framing he must unconsciously erect to make this even possible. This operation of deconstructions (if it must be used, he prefers the plural) is found to be the kernel of any system as its disavowed suture to sense or even essence, to what is effectively irrational for it. And this extends of course to what he means by text and so really what is ‘reality’.
For D,errida one doesn't ‘do’ a deconstruction; one is always taking it up, so to speak. So note here this idea of some sort of absence at the heart of the text which insists always as this texts very possibility – what it carries if you like, despite itself, a sort of impossibility to itself in some way – means of course that there is no self-knowledge of the text, no Idea which would stand for the constructive completion of it, and thus there is no such subject either. Hence one does not do a deconstruction because there is no subject always already existent to do anything and there is no deconstruction which is not always already at work, as it were, in the text.
At one point Derrida claims that his question is essentially ‘what is literature’? But he also insists that this question is insufficient; too external to literature itself. Instead, he says, he constructs an other ‘axiomatic of interrogation’. An experience of writing, authorless, insofar as the text is never reducible to the author-inscription. Literature is privileged, D says , ‘because of its singular way of thematising the event of writing’ and because it carries in it the prescription to ‘say everything’ – thus carries a certain universality in each singular mark or trace it produces. It is, he says, what puts philosophy in motion.
So I’ll just try to evoke this via several key terms that Derrida treats, starting with metaphysics.
So we know the word in philosophy means the most fundamental structure of the universe and human experience. It’s concerned with Being and what it is to be. Derrida’s claim, which should be familiar to all of us now, is that the structure of our world is based around a series of opposites or binaries; which he says Plato begins:
soul or mind/body
Thus the history of western metaphysics or ‘thought’, if you like, is structured according to these opposites but, as I’m sure you also know, these opposites are never just opposed but are hierarchically so. Man has been privileged over woman, the west over the east, mind over body, more recently, reason over nature etc. So what metaphysics names for Derrida is the hierarchical structure that has dominated western history and thought. And of course the point is that this is not just a philosophical schema. These hierarchies are very really a part of our intimate and public lives. ‘Metaphysics’, D tells us, ‘is embedded in our everyday language, our everyday experience’.
Nietzsche remarked that we cannot get rid of God – the pinnacle of the guarantee of the hierarchy of opposites so to speak – until we get rid of grammar: grammar being the expression in language of metaphysics. So this hierarchy is embedded in language, in speech, effectively in our encounter with the world and this is what gives it its natural appearance. Such that, Derrida is arguing, western society is organised in fundamentally the same way as in the dialogues of Plato, and the declaration of independence, and wedding vows, and the words of lovers to each other. Each carries this metaphysics in itself and reproduces this schema. So quite simply, metaphysics in this sense is perennial and co-extensive with our lives.
Now this instantiation of a binary organised as hierarchy, which effectively serves as the grammar of our world leads to the second term of importance to Derrida, presence. Presence points to the fact that the privileged term in the hierarchy is so insofar as it stands for fullness, plenitude, self-sufficient wholeness… e.g. man (embodies humanity, is the ‘essence’ of human life), ‘whereas woman is secondary, derivative, complements and draws value from the primary position’. The same for reason with regard to nature, white with regard to black, bourgeoisie and worker and so on.
In terms of words and meaning, the fundamental view of language in Western thought (and one, Derrida thinks, that we can’t just get rid of) is that we have an idea, or we want to say something and for this to mean something, and thus we express it through signs, words, which refer to or stand in for the meaning in public. Here, it is the idea or meaning which is present to me, is self present, and the word which is secondary, exterior, nothing without an animating meaning. The sense of the binary here is that the meaning is like the soul of a word.
We can extend this a bit to define the concept of a sign: ‘a sign’, says Derrida, ‘is something that refers to something else’. Think of a street sign here, for example, which points to something else: ‘Keep Left’, for example, my favourite sign; it signifies, you do something relative to it. Words in general are signs, since by themselves they are nothing, just a mark on paper or whiteboard, or just a sound; words, as signs, need a meaning to be anything other than just ‘dead’ material things. Again, they point at something. Words are only the most obvious examples, but every kind of mark (sonic, visual, a brush stroke etc) is a sign. Memories are signs too, since they refer to something else which gives them their meaning. At the heart of it is a claim about presence: signs are on the side of absence, they don’t mean anything by themselves, it is the meaning of signs that are on the side of presence, they have self-presence.
One more important example, especially vis a vis Plato: speech and writing. When I speak, I am present to what I am saying, I am in control of what I mean. I’m there to correct any misinterpretation too – the value of speech seems to be related to this presence. The ‘I’ here being the place language philosophers call intention. Writing, on the other hand, is out of my control as soon as I stop writing. When I send a postcard, the person who receives it interprets what I’ve written without me being there at all. I’m no longer present to the meaning of writing in the same way I seem to be when I speak.
Derrida will argue that it is in fact the same with speech as writing and as text in general and this is at the heart of his argument with Searle, (or S.A.R.L) and is still rejected in analytic philosophy. But let’s note that this stems from Plato’s own critique of writing on these grounds; that it escaped into the world, an errant child with no recourse. We know Socrates never wrote but Plato wrote Socrates. This paradox is one of the things Derrida sort of addresses in several texts, Dissemination and Post Card – in the latter he reproduces this great medieval image of Socrates sitting down writing and Plato standing behind him as if pushing his hand across the parchment.
So, metaphysics for Derrida is always a metaphysics of presence. In a way, the presence/absence hierarchy can be seen at work in all the others but Derrida also makes the claim that there is no way to avoid metaphysics, no way to escape or get out of this situation – the persecution of specific binaries is ultimately dependent on the structure of them.
In order to escape, to overcome, this state of affairs, we need to posit another place, an ‘outside’ that would correspond to the ‘inside’ of these metaphysical structures, ‘thereby confirming metaphysics in its most fundamental operation…’ Thus in order to think we’ve escaped, we need to set up more hierarchies of opposites. This holds, for example, in relation to the idea of postmodernism as an era ‘beyond’ modernity. Post (and even anti) anything in fact works on the same structure.
So, what is to be done? – Derrida’s position seems to suggest that if we don’t like the situation we’re in we can’t really do anything but stay in it, no matter what strategy – a revolution would be literally just that: turning things on their head such that what was privileged is now not, while it’s binary opposite is. So maybe Derrida’s position is just a kind of conservative excuse for how things are? We’ll see.
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