I know my fate. One day my name will be associated with the memory of something tremendous–a crisis without equal on earth, the most profound collision of conscience, a decision that was conjured up against everything that had been believed, demanded, hallowed so far. I am no man, I am dynamite.
–Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, “Why I Am a Destiny.”
For us who today read Nietzsche after Heidegger, Nietzsche symbolizes the end of metaphysics (the death not only of “God” but also, as a necessary consequence, of the human “subject”). Whether or not Nietzsche actually succeeded in “overcoming metaphysics”–by means of his inventive myths, his “fictions,” of the Will to Power, the Uebermensch, and the Eternal Return–or whether, as Heidegger would have had it, he was simply the “last of the metaphysicians,” his own “last man” in effect, is a question still awaiting an answer. What I wish to reflect on in this essay is the meaning of what has been and is going on in the wake of Nietzsche’s genealogically deconstructive critique of the Tradition. Where do we stand, where can we stand when the very concept of “ground,” the metaphysical concept par excellence, has been swept away?
A quote from the literary critic Terry Eagleton might help to pinpoint the crucial cultural issue arising out of Nietzsche’s all-out attack on the Tradition. Eagleton writes:
We are now in the process of wakening from the nightmare of modernity, with its manipulative reason and fetish of the totality, into the laid-back [“joyful,” as Nietzsche would say] pluralism of the postmodern, that heterogeneous range of life-styles and language games which has renounced the nostalgic urge to totalize and legitimate itself….Science and philosophy must jettison their grandiose metaphysical claims and view themselves more modestly as just another set of narratives.
In other words, what as a result of Nietzsche’s Fröliche Wissenschaft has been called into question in these postmodern times is that which has served always as the ultimate legitimation of the philosophical enterprise: the search for Truth, for Knowledge, for, that is to say, Science (Wissenschaft, episteme). i.e., the One (Universal), True Account of Things (Reality) (true heirs to Parmenides and Pythagoras, present-day physicists are currently expending a great deal of money and energy in search of what they call the Theory of Everything, “a single equation that describes the entire universe”). What under the inspiration of Nietzsche postmodernism has called into question is the foundational, cultural authority of Science.
The concept of Science is a Platonic invention, but it underwent a new twist at the beginning of modern times with the emergence of mathematical, experimental science of the Galilean sort. Modern philosophy can be said to have begun when, bedazzled by this new development, philosophers took the new science as the supreme model of genuine, foundational knowledge. They were, ever afterwards, to labor in the shadow cast by this great Idol. Even the “free thinking,” godless philosophers of late modernity continued to pay a sort of religious hommage to it. As Nietzsche remarked in the Genealogy of Morals, “They are far from being free spirits: for they still have faith in truth.” And as he went on to say: “It is still a metaphysical faith that underlies our faith in science–and we men of knowledge of today, we godless men and anti-metaphysicians, we, too, still derive our flame from the fire ignited by a faith millennia old, the Christian faith, which was also Plato’s, that God is truth, that truth isdivine.” When at long last Nietzsche took to doing philosophy with a hammer, it was precisely this Idol that he sought to demolish.
To get a sense of what happens when the Idol comes crashing down, listen for a moment to some of what Baudrillard has to say:
All of Western faith and good faith was engaged in this wager on representation [i.e., “science”]: that a sign could refer to the depth of meaning, that a sign could exchange for meaning and that something could guarantee this exchange–God, of course. But what if God himself can be simulated, that is to say, reduced to the signs which attest his existence [cf. Nietzsche’s “death of God”]? Then the whole system becomes weightless; it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum: not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference.
In other words, as Nietzsche would say, when the value of (representational) truth is called into question, everything becomes (mere) interpretation (“There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective ‘knowing'”). The world itself becomes nothing more than a “sign-world,” i.e., merely a semiological construct, a mere signifier signifying only itself. In a way which reminds one of the section in the Twilight of the Idols entitled “How the ‘Real World’ at last Became a Myth,” Baudrillard lists the following as “the successive phases of the image”:
1 It is the reflection of a basic reality.
2 It masks and perverts a basic reality.
3 It masks the absence of a basic reality.
4 It bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum (170).
When the “real world” at last becomes a myth, a simulacrum, we are witnessing the death not only of Truth and of Science, but also of Philosophy itself. At least Philosophy with a capital P, as Rorty would say. What are we then left with? Is there anything to be found in Nietzsche’s legacy (“Let us abolish the real world”) other than the most abyssmal of nihilisms? What are we to do when there is no more Truth and no more Reality–and no more Philosophy (Science) to tell us what Truth and Reality really and truly are? How are we to cope with this situation which defines our postmodernity? Perhaps we could pick up some pointers by considering how three eminent thinkers of our times–Rorty, Derrida, Gadamer–have sought to cope with Nietzsche’s legacy, each in his own quite distinctive way.
Rorty, it must be admitted, has not had any great trouble knowing what to do after the end of Philosophy. Of the three thinkers I shall be considering, Rorty has been the least discomforted by the heavy burden of Nietzsche’s legacy. Indeed, in the light-hearted joyfulness of his new-found philosophical innocence, he has wholeheartedly embraced Nietzsche’s pronouncements about the demise of Truth. If he is anything at all, Rorty is a carefree, happy-go-lucky nihilist who is not about to let himself be bothered any more by the old concerns of philosophy. Nietzsche’s word about the “death of God” seems to have been the liberating news he had been awaiting throughout all of the years of his exile in the arid waste lands of analytic philosophy. He tells us now that reading philosophy books is mostly a waste of time (it doesn’t contribute to human solidarity): Who, he asks, was ever convinced in ways that matter by a philosophical argument? We ought to read novels instead, people like Nabokov and Orwell, Dickens and Proust. Rorty fully endorses Lyotard’s claim that philosophical metanarratives are out, mininarratives are in. What counts is not to say something “truthful” but something “interesting,” something “edifying.” We should also change the conversation as much as possible, lest it become boring (we do this, according to Rorty, by continually inventing new “vocabularies,” “simply by playing the new off against the old”). Not Socrates’ “Don’t tell a lie,” but Johnny Carson’s “Don’t be boring” seems to have become Rorty’s watchword.
And indeed Rorty has many interesting, even “edifying,” things to say. I have no doubt that his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature has performed an extremely valuable service to the English-speaking philosophical community (to those, at least, who have lent it an attentive ear). I fully agree with Richard Bernstein when he says: “Richard Rorty has written one of the most important and challenging books to be published by an American philosopher in the past few decades.” Bernstein is also right in remarking on how those who find it a “deeply disturbing book” and those who find it “liberating and exhilarating” are both right and wrong. It is unquestionably liberating and exhilarating, but it is also deeply disturbing, for reasons I shall indicate in a moment.
What is liberating and exhilarating about the book is the way in which it was able to open the eyes of so many people to the utter bankrupcy of traditional, foundationalist philosophizing. European philosophers (e.g., Derrida) had of course already said much the same thing, but Rorty’s easy style of writing served to bring the message home with great éclat. What is announced here so effectively is the demise of modern philosophy, of, in other words, the whole epistemological project of modernity or what Rorty calls “epistemology centered philosophy.” Rorty defines epistemology “as the quest, initiated by Descartes, for those privileged items in the field of consciousness which are the touchstones of truth” (210). Epistemology is a foundational discipline, not itself a science in the narrow sense of the term, but the theory of science which secures for each and every science its legitimacy by establishing for it its foundation and method. Rorty asks whether in these postmodern times, when the Cartesian-Lockean-Kantian “cognizing subject” of modernity–a subject which is nothing but a pure, disembodied gaze upon a fully object world (the mind as a “mirror of nature”)–has been deconstructed, “there still remains something for epistemology to be” (210). His answer, of course, is that there doesn’t. When, for just one thing, one considers all the interesting developments in postpositivist and postpopperian philosophy of science (Kuhn, Hesse, Toulmin, Feyerabend, etc.), it is hard not to agree. Epistemology is now dead, thanks in large part to Rorty.
In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature Rorty uses the term “hermeneutics,” “a polemical term in contemporary philosophy,” as he calls it (357), to designate this central attempt on the part of postmodern thinking to set aside epistemologically centered philosophy. This is a most fitting term since Gadamer himself has characterized his philosophizing–hermeneutics–as an attempt to overcome the modes of thought of “the epistemological era (l’ère de la théorie de la connaissance).” In his subsequent writings, however, Rorty tends to use the term “hermeneutics” less and less, perhaps due to the influence of Derrida, who quite erroneously has insinuated that hermeneutics remains attached to the old metaphysics of presence. But this, too, is fitting since in this book Rorty gives a hint of what is to come when he says that “hermeneutics is an expression of hope that the cultural space left by the demise of epistemology will not be filled” (315, emphasis added). Unlike Gadamer who has sought, by means of hermeneutics, to provide an alternative, a postmodern option, to “epistemologically centered philosophy,” Rorty does indeed leave us with a culturalvoid. This is precisely what makes Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature a “deeply disturbing” book.
What indeed, we may ask, are the ultimate “consequences” of Rorty’s postmodern pragmatism? I think they can fairly well be summed up in two words: relativism andnihilism. Rorty has, to be sure, protested the charge of relativism, but his responses are evasive and his arguments lack the power of conviction (which I suppose is only fitting in the case of someone who no longer believes in philosophical argumentation). We are inevitably condemned to relativism when, rejecting like Rorty the metaphysical notion of Truth, we reject also all metanarratives, when, that is, we reject the legitimacy of theory, which always seeks some form of universal validity. And, similarly, we find ourselves in a state of nihilism when, rejecting the metaphysical notion of Reality, we go on to assert as well that everyone’s “truths” are merely their own private “fictions,” when, that is, we equate fiction with mere semblance (similacrum) and deny it the power to recreate or refigure, and thus enhance, what is called “reality.”
Rorty says that in a post-Philosophical age the attempt to understand things (by means of philosophical theory) is passé. The important thing, he says, is to learn how tocope. Rorty may have something of a point here. Indeed, one fairly common characteristic of postmodern thought in general is that it insists on the primacy of the practical over the theoretical (this is reflected, for instance, in Gadamer’s rehabilitation of the Aristotelian notion of phronesis: “the primacy of ‘practice’ is undeniable”). It is one thing to accord priority to praxis, to ethos; it is quite another, however, to deny to theory a legitimate and, indeed, central role in the formation and sustenance of life practices and socio-political modes of being-in-the-world–in other words, their justification or, as Habermas would say much to Rorty’s displeasure, “legitimation.” But this is something that Rorty, with his anti-theory stance, does. He ignores the fact that arriving at some (theoretical) understanding of things is a most important way in which humans manage to cope with things (and, I might add, not only cope with them, but critically and creatively engage with them).
Rorty obviously likes to view himself as a kind of social or culture critic, denouncing cruelty and promoting solidarity. One thing that flows from his postphilosophical stance, however, is the rejection of any form of universal theory (diverse cultures or “conceptual schemes” are simply “incommensurable”), and thus any form of philosophical, which is to say universal, critique; for this he would substitute a “de-theoreticized sense of community,” in other words, compassionate feelings of a Rousseauian sort. Having thrown overboard the universalist claims of Enlightenment reason, the best Rorty can do when confronted with “cruelty” is to express his personal distaste for it by not admitting cruel people to his own comfy club of “we postmodernist bourgeois liberals,” i.e., “people who are more afraid of being cruel than of anything else.” Letting it be known that they are not “one of us” (190) is about as condemnatory as he can get. We may believe in something like human rights and the value of the individual, but if we are candid, we must admit that “this belief is caused by nothing deeper than contingent historical circumstance” (189). What right do we have, therefore, to “impose” it on people in other cultures and historical circumstances? None, it would seem, since there are no “general principles,” only historical narrations whose validity (if that’s the proper word) is limited to a given community at a given time. It is hard to imagine what kind of argument Rorty could address to the violators of human rights in China other than to urge them to read George Orwell. I can in fact see how the ruling clique in China could well turn Rorty’s anti-universalist, “frankly ethnocentric,” stance to their own good use when they feel the urge to protest Western denunciations of their barbaric practices as so much interference in their “internal affairs”: Who are we Westerners, we “bourgeois liberals” (a term which is for them an invective), we non-Chinese to tell them what to do anyhow? Rorty has deconstructed the metaphysical absolutism of the Tradition only to land himself in the quagmire of a quite traditional form of ethical relativism.
What, like a number of other postmodernists of a relativist bent, Rorty fails to realize is that philosophical theory and critique need not necessarily be “foundationalist.” He has not realized that in the new postmodern, globalist, multipolar or polycentric civilization which is emerging everywhere in the world, universality and particularity need no longer be metaphysical opposites. It is only for a modernist, essentialist mentality that universalism has to mean homegeneity and cultural imperialism. Like so many other anti-theorists today, Rorty has not so much overcome modernism as he has simply abandoned it for its opposite (absolutism for relativism, necessity for contingency, [essentialist] universalism for “localism”); he is not so much a postfoundationalist as he is a mere antifoundationalist who has simply (as Searle would say of Derrida) “turned the world upside down.” In, as is his wont, merely “changing the subject,” he has failed to work out any viable theoretical alternative to the bankrupt conceptuality of philosophical modernity. Derrida, at least, has realized that “metaphysics” is not simply something one can drop at one’s pleasure, like an old, worn-out pair of shoes, or simply set aside, like a game with which one has become bored or a conversation which has gone stale. Like (as some would say) Nietzsche himself, Rorty has not succeeded in “overcoming metaphysics”–although he has at least managed, willy-nilly, to find a way of coping with the nihilism which, as Nietzsche pointed out, tends inevitably to follow upon the overthrowing of metaphysics. Rorty’s writings can be of value to those who no longer have any principled way of defending the notion of value.
Derrida is one of Rorty’s cultural heroes, and it is not hard to see why. As a fellow postnietzschean who also proclaims the demise of philosophy and the end of “man,” Derrida has all the appearances of being a living incarnation of the Rortyan ideal of the nonchalant postphilosophical thinker, viz., the “kibitzer” and “all-purpose intellectual,” the “intellectual dilettante.” Derrida is clearly a child of Nietzsche’s, an heir, as Rorty sees it, to Nietzsche’s joyful wisdom who, beyond all metaphyscial seriousness, extols the playful “innocence of becoming.” Like, you might say, the child idealized by Nietzsche who in his playfulness “constructs and destroys, all in innocence,” who “builds towers of sand…at the seashore, piles them up and tramples them down…in innocent caprice.” For Rorty, Derrida is the great postphilosophical prankster, the “ironist,” the indefatigable turner-out of texts which are mercifully free from the burden of having to actually mean something (qui ne veulent rien dire, as Derrida himself would say), a superb fabricator of “private fantasies.” A number of Derrida’s writings, especially later ones such as Glas (which even Derrida scholars seem to have difficulty making sense of) would, on the face of it at least, seem to be nothing more than elaborate jokes, philosophy just for the fun (or pun) of it, a form of gleeful, uninhibited scribbling which, as Rorty says, seeks neither to demonstrate anything nor refute anybody. Compared to the up-tight analytic philosophers Rorty grew up with, Derrida is undoubtedly a delightful jokester. And yet there is a kind of seriousness to the Derridian enterprise that escapes Rorty’s notice or, to be more precise, that Rorty prefers to ignore, to which he turns a blind eye.
Derrida may indeed be a postmodern gamester, but there is more to his work than “just gaming” (to allude to the title of a work of Lyotard’s). It is of course true that Derrida is no more of a believer in the traditional metanarratives of philosophy than is Rorty and is thus, like him, a kind of postmodern agnostic who sets no store by philosophy’s traditional claim to “knowledge” (scientia) and is in fact out to undermine it as best he can. In some ways Derrida is even less of a “philosopher” than Rorty, since he not only does not have a “position” to defend but does not even engage in arguments against various philosophical positons. What is referred to as “deconstruction” is not a set of theses or beliefs, not even loosely articulated ones like those of Rorty, but is simply, so to speak, a method, a way of reading texts, philosophical ones in particular. Actually, it is not even a “method,” at least not in the modernist sense of the term, i.e., a set of explicit rules to be followed so as to arrive at certain positive results (“the truth”). This is why Derrida insists that what he is doing is not “hermeneutics,” by which he means that his reading of texts does not aim at unconvering a hidden meaning in them. Derrida quite simply does not believe in meaning–a hopelessly metaphysical concept according to him.
The task of deconstruction is in fact to show that philosophical texts do not mean what they seem to mean, do not mean what their authors wanted them to mean (what they “intended”), do not in fact have any “decidable” meaning at all. The aim of a deconstructive reading is to show how texts laying claim to knowledge are full of internal tensions and contradictions or antinomies which end up by subverting their stated goals and their own claims to truth. The purpose of a deconstructive reading of philosophical texts is frankly anti-Philosophical; it is aimed at showing how in every instance the attempt by traditional philosophers to use language in such a way as to get beyond language so as to arrive at some translinguistic, transcultural, transhistorical truth–“transcendental signified”–which language could then be said to “mirror,” inevitably fails. Philosophers who aim at the Truth, at universal essences, cannot in fact escape the gravitational pull of a particular language. Philosophy’s univocal concepts turn out to be nothing more than disguised metaphors of strictly local prominence and significance. There’s no escaping the play of language.
Just as Rorty undermines the “epistemologically centered philosophy” of modernity, so Derrida’s deconstructive undertaking calls into question not only modern philosophy but the entire philosophical tradition, or what Derrida calls the “metaphysics of presence.” This is the aspect of Derrida’s work which, to borrow Bernstein’s words, is “liberating and exhilarating.” Derrida’s deconstructive attack on what he calls “logocentrism” is liberating in that, among other things, it frees us from the tyranny of two particularly insidious notions which, from the beginning, have dominated philosophy: the notions of totality and essence.
The notion of “totality,” i.e, the idea that reality is One, and is, consequently, the proper object of a Unified Science, is oppressive because it invariably leads to the suppression of all sorts of loose ends to things (and to people) which cannot or will not (which refuse) to be fittled neatly into the System. This, of course, was the main point in Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel. Totality rules out both individuality and alterity (the “multiple forms of otherness” that postmodern thought seeks to safeguard). And as we have learned in our times, in late modernity, totalizing thinking is hazardous to human life because it serves to lend philosophical legitimacy to totalitarianism, i.e., the totalized society (the socio-political equivalent of the unified science dreamed of by modern rationalists). Thus, by discrediting the notion of totality, of a totalizing discourse, deconstruction serves to further the postmodern concern for particularity and difference, diversity and heterogeneity, the fragmentary and the marginal, in a word, pluralism–the kind of pluralism which is the necessary condition for genuine freedom and democracy.
The notion of “essence” is also oppressive and fully merits being deconstructed. “Essence” is the grounding notion of philosophical science, the that-without-which it could not be. Science or Knowledge is, by definition, the knowing of what something is (its “whatness” [quidditas] or essence). The metaphysical presupposition behind this epistemic endeavor is that a thing is indeed just precisely what it is and not something else; essentialism upholds the rule of the Principle of Identity, the cornerstone of logocentrism. The trouble with essentialism is that, as Sextus Empiricus already knew, it cannot but result in dogmatism (dogmatism being, as Sextus said, belief in “the substantial existence of the True”). And dogmatism is oppressive since it legitimates “expertocracy” and “rationalist terrorism,” i.e., the tyranny of those who claim to be “in the know.” To be constrained by essences (which, as Nietzsche pointed out, are simply what some people in the past have said things are and whose sayings have over time become fixed and canonical) is to be imprisoned in a stagnant universe of stringently limited possibilities and fixed, unalterable meanings. Essentialism provides a handy justification for the tyranny of the status quo and of established power structures.
That is the “liberating and exhilarating” side to Derrida’s work. But there is another side to it which, if not “deeply disturbing” (as in the case of Rorty), is, at the very least, disappointing. The trouble with deconstruction is that it does not seem to “go” anywhere. Unlike Rorty, Derrida realizes, as I mentioned before, that one cannot simply toss “metaphysics” out the window and be done with it once and for all. The work of deconstruction is serious and demanding, requiring “the skill of the tightrope walker, tripping the light fantastic on a world-wire over the abysss.” Overcoming metaphysics is thus no easy matter; it is necessary, Derrida suggests, to lodge “oneself within [the] traditional conceptuality in order to destroy it.” There is an honesty here that one does not find in Rorty who seems to believe that whenever it strikes our fancy we can change ourselves overnight by simply inventing new “vocabularies.” That notwithstanding, having deconstructed metaphysics but unable to get beyond it, remaining, as he might say, “on the edge,” Derrida is left, and leaves us, sitting in the rubble of this once magnificent monument to human pride and presumptuousness. This is perhaps why the later Derrida, who is much more to Rorty’s liking, tends more and more to just horse around, turning out texts whose philosophical significance, if any there be, is hard to detect but which are the aesthetic delight of lit crit audiences this side of the Atlantic.
But even Derrida’s earlier, more “serious” works are disappointing. After having deconstructed metaphysics, we are left, in a way similar to Rorty, with an immense philosophical void, with, indeed, a kind of nihilism. Derrida seems to believe that, in the absence of metaphysical absolutes, of a “transcendental signified,” all that remains is the ultimately meaningless play of words which refer not in any way to “reality” but only to more and more other words, in an endless drift, deferral, or dissemination of undecidable meaning (différance), words without end, an abyssmal labyrinth in which we are forever condemned to wander aimlessly about. “The absence of the transendental signified,” he says, “extends the domain and the play of signification infinitely.” “There are only, everywhere,” he says, “differences and traces of traces,” nothing but “a play of traces or differance that has no sense.” Or as Rorty says of his hero: “For Derrida, writing always leads to more writing, and more, and still more.” libido scribendi, ad nauseum, as the Romans would have said (or “logorrhea,” as Allan Megill says). Because (as Derrida rightly perceives) nothing means any one thing in particular, he concludes that in the last analysis nothing means anything at all.
As Rorty realizes, Derrida is an irrepressibly “excessive” writer. For him philosophical works are all play and no work (they do not, that is, seek to produce that effect called “truth”). Philosophy is turned into a form of “literature” (“a kind of writing,” in Rorty’s words), i.e., fiction. Philosophy’s world is but a dream world. When everything becomes textuality and intertextuality and nothing but, the real world of human concerns and human praxis vanishes into the black hole of free-floating signifiers. This is indeed nihilism, a joyful nihilism perhaps, but nihilism nonetheless. Thus, as David Hoy very pertinently remarks: “If dissemination is at times a useful antidote, in excess it may also be a poison.”
I conclude that in simply reversing the pro and the con, Derrida’s joyful wisdom, his response to Neitzsche’s legacy, remains, as does Rorty’s, a captive of the metaphyscial tradition and its tenacious oppositional, either/or mentalité.
Derrida’s rejection of logocentrism is not revolutionary, and because he thinks it is, he is unable to take advantage of the sophistication that the debate on essentialist thinking has already reached; as a result, he jumps from one extreme (meaning is a matter of fixed, immutable concepts) to the other (meaning is a matter of the indeterminate, infinite play of signs). This appears very like the undeveloped response of one who has just been surprised by the realization that real essences do not exist. The conclusion of this discussion can therefore only be that Derrida’s contribution to the debate on language and meaning is not substantial; it fails to establish any coherent new view of meaning or of the way language functions. In lieu of metaphysical fixity Derrida offers us nothing more than uncontrollable “slippage.” A pretty meager consolation prize for so great a deconstructive effort. Carefree and Dionysian though he may appear to be, I do not believe that Derrida has succeeded in freeing himself from the bad conscience of the metaphysicians. For this reason, and because for Derrida, as for those poststructuralists who repudiate the legacy of the Enlightenment, nothing can any longer be said to be better than anything else, only different, I do not believe that Derrida has much to contribute, in a positive way, to what is most needed today now that marxist-leninist ideology has been relegated to the rubbish heap of history–by which I mean the detailed working out of a postmetaphysical, postmodern way of doing philosophy, a form of critical theory free finally of foundationalist and essentialist hang-ups, one which could, by means of theory, advance the cause of a truly universal freedom, i.e., a freedom which would be the prized possession not only of ethnocentric bourgeois liberals like Rorty but of humanity everywhere. Derrida is at least to be congratulated on having abandoned the modernist tactic of previous left-wing intellectuals who extolled confrontational politics (“revolutionism”), in line with Lenin’s exhortation to “suppress the suppressors.” As various postmarxists have now (finally) realized, a politics of violence of this sort contributes only to more thoroughgoing forms of tyranny überhaupt. What is needed is a philosophical defense of universal human rights and individual freedoms, a postfoundationalist reassertion of Jefferson’s Enlightenment declaration that all men are “created equal” and are endowed with certain “unalienable rights.” The notion of universal human rights and freedoms can, however, make sense only if you have a universalist conceptuality with which to make sense of it–only if you have a “philosophy.” The “end of philosophy” and the end of “humanism” proclaimed by both Derrida and Rorty means, of course, the end of universalism, and thus the end, not only of “history,” but of “humanity” itself (it must not be forgotten that the concept of humanity–a humanity–was, like that of history [history being world history, the history of humanity], an invention of the philosophers, a product of philosophical theory).
Disregarding the standard (i.e., pre-postmodern) narrative ordering according to which, as Descartes insisted, one should always begin at the beginning, I turn to Gadamer last. Even though his work antedates both Derrida’s and Rorty’s, its significance is perhaps best understood when viewed in the light of his wayward progeny. It is, after all, a basic hermeneutical principle that we always understand backwards, après coup. As Gadamer himself has remarked: “All beginnings lie in the darkness, and what is more, they can be illuminated only in the light of what came later and from the perspective of what followed.” When examined in the context of what I have said about Rorty and Derrida, Gadamer’s hermeneutics may perhaps be seen to provide valuable suggestions for doing philosophy in a postnietzschean, postmodern age, ones that are not to be found in either Rorty or Derrida.
If the writings of Rorty and Derrida can be said to be liberating, and if indeed the notion of liberation figures prominently in one way or another in what they have to say, the same is no less true of Gadamer’s work. Indeed, Gadamer has no qualms about retelling one of the greatest metanarratives of all time, that of the progressive liberation of humankind. In the context (significantly enough perhaps) of a discussion of Hegel he writes:
[T]here is no higher principle of reason than that of freedom. Thus the opinion of Hegel and thus our own opinion as well. No higher principle is thinkable than that of the freedom of all, and we understand actual history from the perspective of this principle: as the ever-to-be-renewed and the never-ending struggle for this freedom.
One remarkable thing about this text is how it manages to reiterate most of those notions that postmodernists of a relativistic and nihilistic bent have felt obliged to discard, notions such as progress, humanity, reason (philosophy), and history. It would be all too easy, on the basis of a pronouncement such as this, to attribute to Gadamer a residual–or-not-so-residual–attachment to the old metaphysics of presence. Jack Caputo, a great admirer of Derrida’s, does not hesitate to accuse Gadamer of being a “closet essentialist.” Gadamer himself has protested Derrida’s portrayal of him as (in Gadamer’s words) “a lost sheep in the dried up pastures of metaphysics.”
What critics like Caputo fail to notice is that Gadamer (a true postmodernist in this respect) uses Hegel against Hegel. Whereas Hegel believed that “the True is the whole,” Gadamer does not subscribe to the notion of totality or closure, to the Hegelian notion of Knowledge (Wissenschaft). For Gadamer, there is only one thing we can know for sure, and that is that any kind of Hegelian absolute is irremediably beyond our grasp. “Philosophical thinking,” he writes,” is not science at all….There is no claim of definitive knowledge, with the exception of one: the acknowledgement of the finitude of human being in itself.” To acknowledge human finitude is to acknowledge that, for us at least (for any existing individual, as Kierkegaard would say), there can be no end to history–and thus no guaranteed, transcendenally sanctioned meaning to it (i.e., no science of history). The meaning not only of what is but also of what was is always in question (en jeu) and up for renewal. Later in this book Gadamer speaks of “a progress that always must be renewed in the effort of our living” (111). In “Text and Interpretation” Gadamer writes: “[T]he special feature of historical experience is that we stand in the midst of an event without knowing what is happening to us before we grasp what has happened in looking backwards. Accordingly, history must be written anew by every new present.”
As a major stream in the many-branched current of postmodern thought, hermeneutics is much closer to deconstruction than many deconstructions are prepared to admit. Indeed, Gadamerian or phenomenological hermeneutics incorporates a genuinely deconstructive strategy inasmuch as it decidedly rejects the modernistic objectivism of pre-phenomenological, romantic hermeneutics, the kind of hermeneutics which has continued to be represented in this century by Emilio Betti and E.D. Hirsch and to which Derrida’s objections against “hermeneutics” do indeed apply. Richard Palmer emphasizes “the importance of seeing the unfolding of the hermeneutical problematic in terms of the philosophical critique of the metaphysics of modernity” and remarks on how such a critique generates the need for a deconstructive strategy. Palmer in fact views the relation between hermeneutics and deconstruction as similar to that of parent and child.
David Hoy paints a somewhat similar picture. “Dissemination and hermeneutics should not be contrasted so extremely,” he says. According to Hoy, Derrida’s deconstruction agrees with the hermeneutical critique of traditional epistemology; it also, he says, takes “that critique to its extreme limits and [applies] it against traditional hermeneutics as well.” To compare the relation between hermeneutics and deconstruction to that of parent and child and to suggest that deconstruction goes beyond hermeneutics can be misleading, however. Chronology aside, deconstruction is not so much a successor to hermeneutics (“advancing” matters even further), as it is a spin off from hermeneutics–in a direction other than that which has continued to be pursued by hermeneutics itself (a spin off, as Derrida might say, into an “excentric” orbit).
Hermeneutics, I would argue, is as fully “postmodern” as deconstruction. What is often overlooked is that there are, in fact, two quite different trends in postmodern thinking. One writer distinguishes the two types of postmodernism in this way:
The first proclaims that modernity is over, that a new age has begun. The new age makes use of the past, and of modern achievements, but it has its own new freedoms and its own self-definition. The second type of thought is deconstructive, and works to undermine the unities and closures found in modernity, without escaping from them into some new age.
All things considered, this is a fairly apt description of the difference between hermeneutics and deconstruction, “the difference,” as Bernstein would say, “that makes a difference.” One could sum up this difference by saying that whereas deconstruction undermines the traditional notions of “truth,” “reality,” and “knowledge,” leaving nothing in their place (nihilism), hermeneutics has sought to work out a genuinely nonfoundationalist and nonessentialist understanding of these concepts.
For hermeneutics, “truth” no longer signifies the “correspondence” of “mental states” to “objective” reality, and “meaning” is no longer conceived of as some sort of objective, in-itself state of affairs which merely awaits being “discovered” and “represented” by a mirroring mind. “Truth” and “meaning” refer instead to creative operations on the part of human understanding itself, which is always interpretive (never simply “representational”). Hermeneutical truth is inseparable from the interpretive process, and meaning, as hermeneutics understands it, is nothing other than what results from such a process, namely, the existential-practicaltransformation that occurs in the interpreting subject (in his or her world orientation) as a result of his or her active encounter with texts, other people, or “the world.” Truth and meaning have nothing “objective” about them, in the modern, objectivistic sense of the term; they are integral aspects of the “event” of understanding itself, are inseparable from, as Gadamer would say, the “play” of understanding.
In reconceptualizing truth and meaning in this way, hermeneutics thereby also reconceptualizes the pivotal notion of “knowledge.” What is called “knowledge” is not, as Derrida would say, the possession of a “transcendental signified,” a translinguistic “essence” (this is the metaphysical or logocentric definition of knowledge, a definition which, it may be noted, Derrida uncritically accepts). “Knowledge,” for hermeneutics, is nothing other than the shared understanding that a community of inquirers comes to as a result of a free exchange of opinions. For Gadamer, understanding “is a process of communication.” In reconceptualizing matters in this way, and in insisting on the “communicative” nature of human understanding, hermeneutics offers us something more than does deconstruction, i.e., something more than the mere cacophony of everyone’s parodying, fanciful interpretations of things (the “private fantasies” of Derrida that Rorty speaks of).
Accomplished though he be in exposing the “blind spots” in philosophical texts, there is in Derrida’s own writings a rather curious and in any event very significant blind spot. If Derrida rejects the notion of truth altogether, it is because, like the metaphysicians themselves, he equates truth with representation. Gadamer breaks with this understanding of truth and proposes a quite different, genuinely postmodern conception of truth. Truth is not something simply to be discovered (“represented”) but something to be made–through the exercise of communicative rationality. Truth is a practical concept. It is something that can exist only if we take responsibility for its existence. “Philosophy” is one name for the exercise of this kind of responsibility.
In emphasizing the importance of common agreement and mutual understanding in what is called “knowledge,” hermeneutics allows us to conceive of, and to strive to realize, a society which would be something more than a deconstructed Tower of Babel. Gadamer’s dialogical view of understanding (as a communication process) provides the model for a social order based not on coercion or domination (Herrschaft) but on rational persuasion, the kind of tolerant and pluralist social order envisaged by the great rhetoricians and humanists of the past.
I might note as well that because hermeneutics, unlike deconstruction, contains quite definite implications for social praxis, it promotes the exercise of critical reason. The function of hermeneutical criticism is to expose and denouce forms of socio-political organization which oppress and stifle the communicative process–fosterning thereby the development of dialogical communities. As both the theory and the practice of interpretive understanding, hermeneutics, Gadamer says, “may help us to gain our freedom in relation to everything that has taken us in unquestioningly.” The hermeneutical enterprise is indeed, as Gadamer says, one of “translating the principle of freedom into reality.” As Richard Bernstein has clearly perceived, there is, as he says, “a radical strain implicit in Gadamer’s understanding of hermeneutics as a practical philosophy.” This radical strain, he says, “is indicated in his emphasis . . . on freedom and solidarity to embrace all of humanity.”
Gadamer’s hermeneutics is indeed one which “makes use of the past and of modern achievements”–but in accordance with its own renewed conception of such traditional notions as truth, meaning, and knowledge. Because Gadamer does not reject the tradition of Western thought en bloc, he is not condemned to dillydallying around on the margins of metaphysics, reduced to theoretical impotence. Because, unlike Rorty’s “Philosophers,” Gadamer recognizes that human understanding can never transcend its limitations so as to arrive at some atemporal Archimedean point, is always culturally and historically situated, is, indeed, rooted in tradition–and because he realizes that this is not a “defect” in the make-up of human understanding but the that-without-which there would be no understanding at all–because of this, he is able to appropriate elements within the tradition–such as, precisely, the all-important notion of freedom–in order to contest and deconstruct other aspects of the tradition which have consistently led us to misunderstand understanding itself, to form, as the marxists would say, a “false consciousness” of that which we ourselves are. As Gadamer has himself recognized, his hermeneutics–a form of theory which, as he insists, has universal scope, which is concerned with “our entire understanding of the world and thus…all the various forms in which this understanding manifests itself” –is guided by an emancipatory interest and has a pronounced critical thrust to it. The whole point of the self-understanding which is the goal of hermeneutics is, as Gadamer insists, that of “saving a freedom threatened not only by all rulers but much more by the domination and dependence that issue from everything we think we control.”
Contemporary hermeneuticists agree with with other postmodernists that science and philosophy must, as Eagleton says, “jettison their grandiose metaphysical claims and view themselves more modestly as just another set of narratives.” This is because they all agree that what the metaphyscians worshipped under the name of “reality” (what Nietzsche refered to as the “being” of the Eleatics) is a Humpty Dumpty that can never be put back together again (though it will no doubt continue, even in its fragmentarity, to give rise to fantasies in the minds of would-be metaphysicians). If “reality” was, as Nietzsche would say, one of our longest and most tenacious of illusions, so also, accordingly, was the notion of “science” or “knowledge.” “Knowledge,” we now know, is but an honorific name for a certain kind of socially sanctioned narration and story-telling. What we now know is that there is no The Way It Is–and that that is indeed the way it is.
One thing that hermeneutics can do for us in this new postmetaphysical age in which the loss of “reality” and “knowledge” could, wrongly construed, lead to nihilism, is to allow us to tell stories with a good conscience–stories which could have the power of making a real difference to our lives. For once we have deconstructed the oppositional conceptuality of metaphysics (reality versus appearance, knowledge versus opinion, truth versus fiction, and so on) and have finally gotten over the bad conscience of the metaphysicians, there is no reason why we should think that fiction need be mere fiction, as Derrida nonethless still seems to think, troubled as he is by the ghost of metaphysics. That form of narration called theory–especially when it becomes metanarrative (theory with universal scope)–can actually help to bring reality into being, can, for instance, help to make of this world a freer and more democratic one.
History in the modernist sense, history as a would-be science providing for human affairs the kind of cause-and-effect explanations and “necessary laws” which were thought to be the glory of the natural sciences, history in this sense is finished. History, postmodernists realize, is a form of story telling, a kind of fiction. The disappearnce of reality in the metaphysical sense does not, however, necessarily entail the reign of the simulacrum, as Baudrillard, a lapsed marxist, so forlonly thinks it does. Fiction and reality are not, or need not be, metaphysical opposites; fiction (the exercise of the imagination) is not the same thing as simulation. New realities can in fact only be brought into being by means of new “imaginaries”; reality is, after all, simply virtuality actualized. Thus, although “history” may be a fiction, this is no reason why it ought not to be taken seriously and why we ought not to strive to write and rewrite it, to make and remake it, in all earnestness, why we should not strive to make history be the history of the struggle for freedom. As Gadamer says when speaking of the principle of which there is none higher, the principle of freedom, the “rational aspect proper to the concept” cannot be “refuted by the facts.” If the “facts” do not agree with the principle, “So much worse for the facts.” The “facts” will simply have to be changed–in the light of the principle, precisely. As Gadamer goes on to say, referring to Hegel:
[T]he rational need for unity is legitimate under all circumstances and…it can be satisfied only by philosophy….Anyone who does not see that this is precisely what history is, that the freedom of all has become an irrefutable principle and yet still requires ever anew the effort toward achieving its realization, has not understood the dialectical relationship of necessity and contingency and so also the claim of philosophy to know concrete rationality.
Rorty notwithstanding, we cannot of course make history turn out to be anything we might like it to be; we are, as hermeneuticists insist, constrained by our tradition. But as hermeneuticists also insist, taking exception to both Rorty and Derrida, although we cannot hope to transcend either historical or linguistic contingency, this does not mean that we are imprisoned in them. Contingency does not rule out an appeal to universality. In contrast to the cultural and epistemological relativists, Gadamer reminds us that although understanding is inescapably language-bound, “this assertion does not lead us into any kind of linguistic relativism.” Or any kind of Rortyan “ethnocentrism.” As Gadamer goes on to say:
While we live wholly within a language, the fact that we do so does not constitute linguistic relativism because there is absolutely no captivity within a language–not even within our native language. …Any language in which we live is infinite in this sense [in that it opens us to the infinite realm of possible expression], and it is completely mistaken to infer that reason is fragmented because there are various languages. Just the opposite is the case. Precisely through our finitude, the particularity of our being, which is evident even in the variety of languages, the infinite dialogue is opened in the direction of the truth that we are.
Perhaps after the demise of Reality and Truth it might therefore be possible to live, and to live well, after all. Perhaps something like a gay science, a joyful wisdom genuinely devoid of any arrière gout of despondency over the loss of metaphysics, is indeed possible.
Gary Brent Madison
[From my forthcoming book, The Politics of Postmodernity: Essays in Applied Hermeneutics]
Philosophy Today (Winter 1991), pp. 3-19.
[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyleft 1997, by the author. All rights reversed.]