International Society for Philosophers

International Society for Philosophers

Wisdom begins with wonder

PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS                   ISSN 2043-0728


Issue number 94 1st November, 2004


I. 'On Jacques Derrida' by Judith Butler

II. 'The Architecture of Objects and the Human Designer' By Ovidiu Gherghe

III. 'Some Remarks on Richard Rorty's Pragmatism' by D.R. Khashaba



In this issue, we are lucky to have Judith Butler's superb article in memory of Jacques Derrida, which appeared on the Philosop list on 13th October. The idea of a short accurate summary of Derrida's thought seems somehow preposterous, yet this essay comes close to accomplishing the impossible.

Ovidiu Gherghe has just completed his Pathways Moral Philosophy program under the mentorship of Anthony Flood. His second article for Philosophy Pathways raises tantalising questions concerning the mismatch between individual and collective visions of the world of artefacts which we have created around us.

Egyptian philosopher D.R. Khashaba appears regularly in these pages. Here is his latest contribution, probing at potential contradictions in Richard Rorty's radical vision of pragmatism.

Geoffrey Klempner



"How do you finally respond to your life and your name?" Derrida raised this question in his final interview with Le Monde, published in August 18th of this year. If he could apprehend his life, he remarks, he would also be obliged to apprehend his death as singular and absolute, without resurrection and without redemption. At this revealing moment, it is interesting that Derrida the philosopher should find in Socrates his proper precursor, that he should turn to Socrates to understand that, at the age of 74, he still did not quite know how best to live. One cannot, he remarks, come to terms with one's life without trying to apprehend one's death, asking, in effect, how a human lives and dies.

Much of Derrida's later work is dedicated to mourning, though he offers his acts of public mourning as a posthumous gift, for instance, in The Work of Mourning published in 2001. There he tries to come to terms with the death of other writers and thinkers through reckoning his debt to their words, indeed, their texts; his own writing constitutes an act of mourning, one that he is perhaps, avant la lettre, recommending to us a way to begin to mourn this thinker who not only taught us how to read, but gave the act of reading a new significance and a new promise. In that book, he openly mourns Roland Barthes who died in 1980, Paul de Man, who died in 1983, Michel Foucault, who died in 1984, and a host of others, including Edmund Jabes (1991), Louis Marin (1992), Sarah Kofman (1994), Emmanuel Levinas (1995) and Jean-Francois Lyotard (1998). The last of the essays, for Lyotard, included in this book is written six years before Derrida's own death. It is not, however, Derrida's own death that preoccupies him here, but rather his "debts." These are authors that he could not do without, ones with whom and through whom he thinks. He writes only because he reads, and he reads only because there are these authors to read time and again. He "owes" them something or, perhaps, everything, if only because he could not write without them; their writing exists as the precondition of his own; their writing constitutes the means through which his own writing voice is animated and secured, a voice that emerges, importantly, as an address.

It strikes me as strange that in October of 1993 when I shared a stage with Derrida at New York University, I had a brief, private conversation with him that touched upon these issues. As we were seated at a table together with some other speakers, I could see in Derrida a certain urgency to acknowledge those many people who had translated him, those who had read him, those who had defended him in public debate, and those who has made good use of his thinking and his words. I leaned over after one of his several gestures of nearly inhuman generosity and asked him whether he felt that he had many debts to pay. I was hoping, vainly it seemed, to suggest to him that he need not feel so indebted, thinking as I did in a perhaps naively Nietzschean way that the debt was a form of enslavement, and that he did not see that what others offered him, they offered freely. He seemed not to be able to hear me in English. And so when I said "your debts," he said, "my death?" "No," I reiterated, "your debts!" and he said, "my death!?"

At this point I could see that there was a nexus between the two, one that my efforts at clear pronunciation could not quite pierce, but it was not until I read his later work that I came to understand how important that nexus really was. He writes, "There come moments when, as mourning demands (deuil oblige), one feels obligated to declare one's debts. We feel it our duty to say what we owe to the friend." He cautions against "saying" the debt and imagining that one might then be done with the debt that way. He acknowledges instead the "incalculable debt" that one that he does not want to pay: "I am conscious of this and want it thus." He ends his essay on Lyotard with a direct address: "there it is, Jean Francois, this is what, I tell myself, I today would have wanted to try and tell you." There is in that attempt, that essai, a longing that cannot reach the one to whom it is addressed, but does not for that reason forfeit itself as longing. The act of mourning thus becomes a continued way of "speaking to" the other who is gone, even though the other is gone, in spite of the fact that the other is gone, precisely because that other is gone.

We now must say "Jacques" to name the one we have now lost, and in that sense "Jacques Derrida" becomes the name of our loss. And yet we must continue to say his name, not only to mark his passing, but precisely as the one whom we continue to address, in what we write, because it is, for many of us, impossible to write without relying on him, without thinking with and through him. "Jacques Derrida," then, as the name for the future of what we write.

* * *

It is surely uncontroversial to say that Jacques Derrida was one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, that his international reputation far exceeds any French intellectual of his generation. More than that, his work fundamentally changed the way in which we think about language, philosophy, aesthetics, painting, literature, communication, ethics and politics. His early work criticized the structuralist presumption that language could be described as a static set of rules, and he showed how those rules admitted of contingency and were dependent on a temporality that could undermine their efficacy. He wrote against philosophical positions that uncritically subscribed to "totality" or "systematicity" as values, without first considering the alternatives that were ruled out by that preemptive valorization. He insisted that the act of reading extends from literary texts to films, to works of art, to popular culture, to political scenarios, and to philosophy itself. The practice of "reading" insists that our ability to understand relies on our capacity to interpret signs. It also presupposes that signs come to signify in ways that no particular author or speaker can constrain in advance through intention. This does not mean that our language always confounds our intentions, but only that our intentions do not fully govern everything we end up meaning by what we say and write (see Limited Inc., 1977).

Derrida's work moved from a criticism of philosophical presumptions in groundbreaking books such as On Grammatology (1967), Writing and Difference (1967), Dissemination (1972), The Post Card (1980), and Spurs (1978), to the question of how to theorize the problem of "difference." This term he wrote as "differance," not only to mark the way that signification works, with one term referring to another, always relying on a deferral of meaning between signifier and signified, but also to characterize an ethical relation, the relation of sexual difference, and the relation to the Other. If some readers thought that Derrida was a linguistic constructivist, they missed the fact that the name we have for something, for ourselves, for an other, is precisely what fails to capture the referent (as opposed to making or constructing that referent).

He clearly drew critically on the work of Emmanuel Levinas in order to insist upon the "Other" as one to whom an incalculable responsibility is owed, one who could never fully be "captured" through social categories or designative names, one to whom a certain response is owed. This framework became the basis of his strenuous critique of apartheid in South Africa, his vigilant opposition to totalitarian regimes and forms of intellectual censorship, his theorization of the nation-state beyond the hold of territoriality, his opposition to European racism, and his critical relation to the discourse of "terror" as it worked to fortify governmental powers that undermine basic human rights, in his defense of animal rights, in his opposition to the death penalty, and even in his queries about "being" Jewish and what it means to offer hospitality to those of differing origins and language. One can see these various questions raised in The Ear of the Other (1982), The Other Europe, Positions (1972), For Nelson Mandela (1986), Given Time (1991) The Gift of Death (1992), The Other Heading: Reflections on Today's Europe (1992), Spectres of Marx (1993), Politics of Friendship (1994), The Monolingualism of the Other (1996), Philosophy in a Time of Terror (with Jurgen Habermas) (2002), and his conversations with Helene Cixous, Portrait of Jacques Derrida as a Young Jewish Saint (2001).

Derrida made clear in his small book on Walter Benjamin, The Force of Law (1994), that justice was a concept that was yet to come. This does not mean that we cannot expect instances of justice in this life, and it does not mean that justice will arrive for us only in another life. He was clear that there was no other life. It means only that, as an ideal, it is that toward which we strive, without end. Not to strive for justice because it cannot be fully realized would be as mistaken as believing that one has already arrived at justice and that the only task is to arm oneself adequately to fortify its regime. The first is a form of nihilism (which he opposed) and the second is dogmatism (which he opposed). Derrida kept us alive to the practice of criticism, understanding that social and political transformation was an incessant project, one that could not be relinquished, one that was coextensive with the becoming of life itself, and with a reading of the rules through which a polity constitutes itself through exclusion or effacement. How is justice done? What justice do we owe others? And what does it mean to act in the name of justice? These were questions that had to be asked regardless of the consequences, and this meant that they were often questions asked when established authorities wished that they were not.

If his critics worried that, with Derrida, there are no foundations upon which one could rely, they doubtless were mistaken in that view. Derrida relies perhaps most assiduously on Socrates, on a mode of philosophical inquiry that took the question as the most honest and arduous form for thought. "How do you finally respond to your life and to your name?" This question is posed by him to himself, and yet he is, in this interview, a "tu" for himself, as if he is a proximate friend, but not quite a "moi." He has taken himself as the other, modeling a form of reflexivity, asking whether an account can be given of this life, and of this death. Is there justice to be done to a life? That he asks the question is exemplary, perhaps even foundational, since it keeps the final meaning of that life and that name open. It prescribes a ceaseless task of honoring what cannot be possessed through knowledge, that in a life that exceeds our grasp.

Indeed, now that Derrida, the person, has died, his writing makes a demand upon us, bequeathing his name to us who will continue to address him. We must address him as he addressed himself, asking what it means to know and approach another, to apprehend a life and a death, to give an account of its meaning, to acknowledge its binding ties with others, and to do that justly. In this way, Derrida has always been offering us a way to interrogate the very meaning of our lives, singly and plurally, returning to the question as the beginning of philosophy, but surely also, in his own way, and with several unpayable debts, beginning philosophy anew.

(c) Judith Butler 2004

University of California, Berkeley


Judith Butler's essay was forwarded from the Society for Women in Philosophy Information and Discussion List to the Philosop List on 13th October, with the request from the original sender that it be widely distributed. The essay will be appearing in the London Review of Books on 4th November 2004.

Judith Butler is Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. Her books Precarious Life: Powers of Mourning and Violence and Undoing Gender have both been published this year.



If you had gone to the store, purchased a vacuum cleaner only to arrive home and realize it was actually designed to mow the lawn, you would probably go back and ask to exchange it for something else that resembles a vacuum cleaner. That would be the conventional thing to do, but let us take a very short journey on a road less traveled. This is only a mental journey and as such it only requires the willingness to open an internal window into an investigation that might reveal something interesting, something that will make an impact in our sense of wonder, and finally something that when it is all over it retains the potential for inspiration. But this is not magic in the sense of some supernatural power, it is rather a different sort of magic: one which looks outwards and assembles inwards into a construction that satisfies both the concept of the universal, and while extending into it one ends up grasping a glimpse of its individuality.

If you were to simply follow the one conformist line of approach, chances are that it will be rewarding in as much the benefit - mainly conventional wisdom - engulfs us in a protective foam of assurance that our decision must be the right one. Surely the ratio of those agreeing with such decision outnumber the ones who offer a different advance. But in these matters the issue cannot be strictly mathematical. My own 'flavor' to this particular search is only philosophical. The dilemma becomes more apparent when displayed in terms of the general consensus, as opposed to the individuality of choices. By approving the general interpretation it simply means respecting the order of things as viewed from a standard operational approach. The dissident (one who may question inaccuracies) is viewed by the general mind as a rebel, and in most cases it is the automatic glitch of the internal evaluation. This only leads to a reductionism whose tendency towards an absolute logical approach does not appear to calculate very well when it comes to the possibility of choices. It is through these arches that one may lead towards an understanding of the individual's right to its underlying uniqueness. Self-deception is an evolutionary advantage. The mistake occurs when one thinks that they are immune to it.

Since you needed a lawn mower anyways, you decide to go the store and instead of returning it, you ask them to see what they have in stock that will function as a vacuum cleaner. Further suppose that the salesman convinces you that what you might want is a golf cart that also serves as a lawn mower. An entrepreneur may have had the inspiration and seized at the opportunity for mass producing these, thereby greatly reducing the costs of ownership. In this aspect, the idea makes economic sense for the mass consumer. The nonconformist approach already shows the advantages of combining imagination with creativity. This sort of description and particular explication runs away from the inflexibility of rigid programming, a sort of mental commotion that is responsible for much transmissible inspirational musing.

When applied to material objects such as vacuum cleaners, golf carts, or houses, the evaluation retains its practical functionality. The idea of individuality, on the other hand, is most apparent in the way we see residences. A home, viewed from the outside may appear similar to other homes or it may not, but enter any, and chances are that you will immediately observe intricate patterns of both similarities and dissimilarities. Out of these, it is the dissimilarities that strike us as the unique factor. The way we investigate the patterns may reveal different type of clues. The point is that an Object and a Person are different sort of constructions. Once the human element is considered from a wider range of choices, the world of objects will still attract our blindness into deceiving us that it can be escaped. The way to escape it is through self-deception. The inward explorer must bring the one aspect of the truth to the surface that matters most to him, but that in itself may sometimes make for a possible target from the attack of the common standardized opinion. The individuality of objects on the other hand lacks something that is only accomplished and gained when extended to the overall human element. In other words, the Object would not matter without the Person who experiences it. The individuality of the vacuum cleaner that functioned as lawn mower is the intermediate between the human element which created the object and the one who decides to use it.

In the 1940s a man named William Levitt took the idea of mass-production and applied it to housing. Up until that time "the mass production of housing had been limited to the military, where rows upon rows of barracks were lined up in regiments, identically and instrumentally ordered." [1] Levitt was inspired to apply this format to the housing industry after he was contracted to produce military housing during the Second World War. The fact that other than the military usage of these type of constructions "had also been used on high-yield, experimental chicken farms" should not detract from the economical issue in that Levitt was able to build and provide cheaper housing for the masses. However, adding the human element reveals another interesting connection. Stuart Ewen traces the method of construction that was "organized according to processes innovated by Henry Ford on the automotive assembly line, and the promotion of Levittown followed trails blazed by advertising and consumer engineering." [2] What it is important to observe at this point is that moving from the method of production which was standardized into step-by-step processes into the method of advertising to the people, Levitt found it adequate to deceive the potential buyer. It could be argued that since self-deception is a predominant element in our interpretation (as we established), then Levitt only seems to be playing into that characteristic. His sales advertisements did not match the final reality of the Object. "Explaining the patent imagistic deception of his promotional materials, Levitt opined that 'the masses are asses.'" [3]

The next major thing in our interpretation is the points of departure from our outlook. The first will highlight the objective and exact measurable aspect. This is an outward-looking position. Ewen says "one could observe that the homes themselves were laid out in a monotonous grid work, a panoptic organization of horizontal space whose prior application had included penal institutions, military barracks, and chicken coops." [4] The aspect of exact partitioning is where the rational operates within geometrical boundaries. And immediately follows the focus to the other possible point of observation, and signaling a potential turnaround of interpretation. The shift occurs when the unilateral enforcement produces a disproportional effect, but our objective is not to eliminate one point-of-view from the other, but to make sense when viewed as both being necessary extension of one another. To spotlight this decoupling while maintaining its relationship is vital in understanding our original dilemma. Ewen goes on:

     "Yet within the grid, there was a game of appearance which,
     in ensemble, suggested another, less methodical way of life.
     As a mass-production designer, the architect also had the
     job of offering a kind of individuality that seemed at odds
     with the industrial routines of panopticism and
     standardization. [Industrial designer] Walter Teague...
     added that 'a romantic attitude toward the domestic machine
     is understandable and defensible.' In this regard, Teague
     suggested... 'some means of satisfying the buyer's
     romantic as well as practical needs.'" [5]
The amalgamation of two points of view may be easiest resolved in the world of Objects when one completely cancels the other out. That, of course, is not a solution to our dilemma. That separation is a mental magic illusion; also a version of self-deception in its own house. The problem becomes apparent when imbalance shifts too much in either direction between the two easiest ways of organizing information. We observed the tussle between the Object and the Person but we were not able to explain what is the exact solution to it. And that is because it cannot be measured in precise exactness. Now imagine that you were building something that cannot be exactly measured, that is more complex than an Object, and that is constantly self-deceiving itself as to satisfy the intricate balance between our individuality and our place in the societal network. Add the fact of possible self-reliance with a certain flexibility of operation, and try to make it a little enjoyable; you live there. But at the same time, it is worth concluding that somebody else's house "retains an architectural 'flavor' in its design." [6] The only thing left undone is to figure out the difference between the Object and the Person.


[1] Stuart Ewen, All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture (Basic Books, 1998) p. 226 [2] Ibid., p. 227 [3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid. p. 229 [5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., Ewen is quoting architect Arthur T. North's "Houses Cannot Be Built Like Automobiles," American Architect 142 (December 1932) p. 20.

(c) Ovidiu Gherghe 2004




Issue 8 of Think, (Autumn 2004), included an edited transcript of a valuable discussion on Pragmatism between Professors Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam, and James Conant. The discussion was originally broadcast on Chicago Public Radio, anchored by Gretchen Helfrich. In what follows I offer a few remarks inspired by the discussion, focusing on Professor Richard Rorty's contribution. I have not commented on the valuable contributions of Professors Putnam and Conant, with whose views I found myself largely in agreement.

The great founders of Pragmatism, Peirce, James, Dewey, have all made important contributions to philosophical and human understanding. But in representing their philosophical outlook as a 'theory of truth', they, especially William James, were not serving their own cause. I remember in my teens reading William James's Pragmatism. I was shocked; I filled all the wide margins and all the space between the generously spaced lines with angry comments. The whole argument of the book was beside the point.[1]

To my mind, what gives occasion and excuse to the contention of Pragmatists (other than Rorty) that they are dealing with 'truth' is the inveterate illusion of philosophers that they are concerned with truth in the same sense as the natural scientists. This is an illusion that no thinker should have ever entertained after it had been dispelled by Socrates when he renounced all inquiry into natural causes and all examination of pragmata (things, facts) and declared that he was only concerned with logoi (ideas and meanings). Kant found it necessary to reiterate the Socratic lesson and clearly assigned empiricism and rationalism their proper places which they should not outstep; and yet the illusion persists. Pragmatism, in so far as it addresses this illusion, serves a true need, and is pragmatically justified. But Pragmatists overplay their hand; they want to produce a theory of inquiry that is equally good in the spheres of morals, politics, and physics. This is to eat your cake and have it, a luxury not permitted by the gods. Perhaps the least culpable in this respect was the great John Dewey, with his preoccupation with education. He rightly insisted that the business of philosophy was with values and the clarification of ideas.

Professor Richard Rorty, the most eminent contemporary advocate of Pragmatism, may also be free of blame on this count: he denies that he is concerned with 'truth'. But he goes to extremes: he believes that his approach (with its complete banishment of the notion of truth) is good for all areas of inquiry. Moreover, along with the notion of truth, he wants us to throw overboard much without which human life would be, to say the least, intolerable.

The common acceptation of the term 'truth' involves somehow conformity with a given state of affairs. No doubt this conception of 'truth' is riddled with logical and metaphysical difficulties. Plato's Theaetetus long ago showed that. But the juror pondering whether to give a guilty or a not-guilty vote, the historian weighing the veracity of a report, the physicist, the astrophysicist, the microbiologist, all need and make use of the notion, though in each of these areas the notion has a specific character and uses particular criteria relevant to that area. These are different kinds of truth (the fault of most 'theories of truth' is that they assume there is one kind of truth) but they all share the characteristic of agreeing with something objective. The notion of truth as conformity to fact is thus pragmatically vindicated.

While asserting that 'you don't have to worry about whether your belief corresponds to reality', Rorty still emphasizes the idea of 'availability of evidence'. I think the idea of 'evidence' sits very ill in the Pragmatic complex. If you have to respect evidence, to attach weight to evidence, how does that differ from having to comply with objective fact? In philosophy proper we are not, any more than in poetry, concerned with fact. (This is a view I have been urging in all my writings but cannot expand on here.) Of course a philosopher, considering a political or social problem, has to take account of the facts on the ground, but in considering the principles s/he has to uphold, no facts are involved. That it is not always easy to draw a fine line between principles and practical applications is a different matter that should not be allowed to confuse the philosophical issues. Yet, on the other hand, because Professor Rorty is only interested in the human scene, he seems to propose abolishing empirical science. He says, 'I think inquiry is a matter of reweaving a network of beliefs and desires.' I would wholeheartedly endorse that if the word 'inquiry' were qualified with the word 'philosophical' or if it had been replaced by the word 'culture'. But I have to confess I don't understand how that relates to his rejection of empiricism and the notion of experience. I can only think that he is confusing issues.

If Pragmatism was a reaction against scientism, then it has over-reacted. Instead of prescribing to science its proper jurisdiction as confined to giving an account of things as they are, it has sought to replace science with an approach that cannot do the work of science. While W.V.O. Quine had maintained that what science tells us about 'what there is' is all we can know and all we need to know, Richard Rorty tells us we should forget about what science tells us about 'what there is'. Neither position is satisfactory. Quine's position might have been good in a world peopled with robots. Rorty's position might not work even in a world peopled with gods.

Rorty says that 'the word "true" is indefinable'. That's very true. Socrates long ago showed that no word is, strictly speaking, definable. Every word is discovered to be implicated in an endless web of relatednesses and connections. That is why all his elenctic discourses ended without a definite outcome. But the result was not negative. The search for the meaning of a term unravelled complexities, shed light on obscurities, removed misconceptions and prejudices. That there can be no definitive definition of truth (and the common error of all 'theories of truth' is just that they think there can be) does not mean that we should abandon the notion, but that we should clarify it. And if we find that there is a certain area where the notion is strictly irrelevant, we should specify that area, not interdict the use of the term where it is relevant.

To illustrate and to remove a possible misunderstanding: when I said that the result of the Socratic elenctic was not negative I was not suggesting that it arrived at or led to truth: for precisely the Socratic search for meaning is an area to which the idea of truth is not relevant. Even the search for the meaning of 'truth' does not give us truth but clarity. (This is a point where I stand in opposition to the 'accepted wisdom' about Socrates' search for 'definitions'. So, with all due respect, I would say that Rorty's reference to 'the Platonic attempt to say "Hey, we got to have definitions of these terms",' is rooted in a widespread misunderstanding.)

One might sympathize with Rorty's suspicion of high-sounding abstractions. But when he says that in place of an appeal to righteousness, 'it would be better to appeal to a better future', I must say that an appeal to 'a better future' would be morally wrong if it did not incorporate the ideal of Justice with a capital J. President Bush justifies the war on Iraq with the claim that it will lead to and was necessary for 'a better future' for American citizens (though not for the Iraqi children and other civilians who were and continue to be killed or maimed in the process). Granting that the President's claim was 'justified' (to lessen the ambiguity of the word, are we permitted to say 'verified'?), would that make his action just? Would a materially 'better future' not only for Americans but even for the whole of humankind, be in itself just cause for any action? And if we want to remove that mischievous adverb 'materially', how can we do it without invoking such notions as Justice, Integrity, Tolerance, and the like? A 'better future' remains a meaningless blank until it is provided with criteria, and with criteria we are back to our poor, old-fashioned, reviled Platonic Forms. Without norms a 'better future' may be better for pigs but not for humans. I am not suggesting that Rorty envisions a world without values, but I say that his philosophical position deprives us of the language (and behind the language the ideas) necessary for stipulating the conditions that would make the world we dream of fit for humans.

Again, Rorty wants to do away with the need for one 'becoming clear about what one really means by one's concept'. He supports this by saying, 'One's use of a word changes all the time under various rhetorical... pressures'. So once more he produces a correct (how does this differ from 'true') observation (how does this differ from 'factual account'?) to justify a claim that extends far beyond the reach of the pretext offered. Of course one's use of a word changes all the time and has to change with the change of context, but unless one is clear in one's mind on each occasion what one means by the word at the particular time and in the particular context, one gets nowhere. So here again I am using a pragmatic argument which should mean something to a Pragmatist.


[1] No less a thinker than George Santayana, who was a student and admirer of William James, has said the same thing. In "A Brief History of my Opinions" (The Philosophy of Santayana, ed. by Irwin Edman, The Modern Library) he says that "when his book on Pragmatism appeared... it gave me a rude shock. I could not stomach that way of speaking about truth."

(c) D.R. Khashaba 2004


Website: http:---

© Geoffrey Klempner 2002–2020