April 17, 2008

If. Derrida.

Filed under: Derrida, Philosophy, Vitiated by Ignorance — duncan @ 3:42 pm

It’s pretty clear that you can’t get any kind of a grasp of economics without understanding probability – the theory & philosophy of probability. I don’t. This post is just a place marker; a note to self that’ll shame me if I don’t spend time on probability.

Initial thoughts: Derridean that I am, I’m interested in the function of signs. Derrida sees (IMO) the quest of philosophy as the quest to abolish the sign – or, rather, the quest to abolish the distance between a sign and its object. This is also, of course, the quest to abolish uncertainty – because uncertainty is the difference between our representations of the world and the world itself.

Epistemology, then, is the attempt to understand the connection between signs and their objects; and, it’s often thought, a successful epistemology is one that guarantees a certain form of connection. Derrida works at undermining such guarantees – or at undermining the guarantees’ unassailability. This is what leads to the view of Derrida as a sceptic – a philosopher who also undermines any connection between our view of the world and the world as it really is.

This view of Derrida is based, however, on a vision of epistemology that Derrida’s thought also works to undermine. For seeing epistemology as an attempt to understand the link between representations and things in themselves presupposes an unmediated, guaranteed relationship between the subject of knowledge and the subject’s representations. This is the familiar flaw of much epistemology – at least the kind I was taught when learning analytic philosophy. It produces such wacky ideas as ‘qualia’. And an infinite regress always opens up: aren’t representations themselves a certain kind of thing-in-itself? The project of much phenomenological empiricism seems to be to create a new, subjective object of knowledge, that isn’t separated from us by a dark glass; an object we can possess as absolutely our own.

But, of course, a ‘subjective’ object is vulnerable to the same sceptical arguments as an ‘objective’ object. What is the subject’s relation to qualia? And if this is a relation of any kind, can’t that relation in principle also be broken, just as the relation between qualia and the world they potentially represent can be broken?

Derrida’s sceptical arguments are not directed at the ‘objective’ world, but at the ‘subjective objective’ of phenomenology. He does not argue that the link between signs and objects is always already broken – he has no interest in this question. Derrida argues that the sign itself is always already broken; that no sign can be fully apprehended or possessed. It is only the belief in an unmediated relationship between subject and sign – which is contrasted to a relationship between subject and object mediated by the sign – that allows scepticism, in its normal philosophical sense, to get started. Derrida’s arguments about signs are therefore profoundly anti-sceptical, on my read; but they also have a great deal to say about traditional epistemology, and the themes of certainty and uncertainty it meditates upon.

All this is clearly connected to Time, in a way that I don’t have much of a handle on. The locus of a guaranteed relation between subject and sign is the present; it is only present experience that possesses this quality of absolute belonging. And thus the claim that there is no such thing as the present – as it has been traditionally understood by philosophy – is at the heart of Derrida’s work.

I think that all this is probably very relevant to probability theory. But I don’t know how: it’s just a hunch. What I want to do, then, is try to get to grips with probability. For instance – it’s interesting to me that Keynes’s first major work (which he spent something like ten years writing) is a treatise on probability. From what I’ve gathered (from, like, paragraph-length summaries) Keynes’s thesis is that relationships of probability are logical in the same way as relationships of necessity. It’s interesting to me that Keynes developed this thesis in an intellectual environment (early 20th century Cambridge) that was also giving birth to analytic philosophy. Keynes’s philosophical mentor was G.E. Moore – and Keynes has remarked that Moore was just as important, for his intellectual development, as his economic mentor Marshall. I’d be interested to try to understand the connections between Keynes’s treatise and modal logic, as it subsequently developed in analytic philosophy. (I’ve never studied modal logic). And I’m also interested in Quine’s attempt to demolish modal logic – an attempt that, as I understand it, relies heavily on Quine’s belief that the ‘opacity’ of signs must be eradicated from logical analysis. This Quinian argument, it seems to me, is staggeringly vulnerable to Derridean critique.

But all this, as I say, is just a quick jotting down of ambitions and connections. As if this blog wasn’t already ambitious enough.


  1. Can I ask a strange, very very tangential question (apologies for this – it’s more personal curiosity than likely to be of any substantive use to anyone else): when you speak above about the “quest of philosophy”, how do you understand the historical parameters of the claim (or of the object “philosophy”)? (As a side tangent, I’ve been having quite similar discussions about modal logic and Quine’s critique with a good friend locally – once we can unbury ourselves from our current Hegel and Frankfurt School trajectory, we’ll likely be delving into some of this in the reading group (there is a reason our reading group has only a few consistent members over the long haul – most folks find moving from, say, Hegel to Kripke… mildly annoying… ;-P). On probability, incidentally, have you looked at Ian Hacking?)

    Comment by Anonymous — April 17, 2008 @ 10:45 pm

  2. hmm… The comment above is mine – not sure why it came up anonymous – perhaps a hint that I should have left it that way… 😉

    Comment by N Pepperell — April 17, 2008 @ 10:48 pm

  3. Hey – when I talk about the “quest of philosophy” that’s because I’m not reading the post back and changing the bits that are foolish. ;-). Derrida wouldn’t put it anything like that, of course, and this whole post’s pretty loose and inadequate as any kind of characterisation of his position. This is the downside of having the internets – unrevised writing.

    But I suppose a more sensible Derridean position might be something like [bearing in mind that it’s late and I may not be capable of rational thought] – philosophy, or much philosophy, is guided by an idea of telos [?] – a telos that unifies that which is supposedly only contingently divided. [?] Here’s a passage from Derrida’s introduction to his translation of Husserl’s ‘Origin of Geometry’.

    “As the structured determination of every material indeterminacy, a horizon is always virtually present in every experience; for it is at once the unity and the incompletion of that experience – the anticipated unity in every incompletion. The notion of horizon converts critical philosophy’s state of abstract possibility into the concrete infinite potentiality secretly presupposed therein. The notion of horizon thus makes the a priori and the teleological coincide.”

    Philosophy’s ‘quest’, then, is more like philosophy’s understanding of experience or thought as oriented towards an “anticipated unity” – a unity that can never in fact be achieved, but the imagined possibility of which permits certain moves to be made, and justifies certain emphases or elisions. [?] Philosophy isn’t really engaged in a ‘quest’ [pretty much wish I hadn’t used that word :-)]; more that it justifies its commitments by reference to something that is always anticipated, and can in principle never be attained. [I’m really unclear as to the phenomenological/existentialist resonances of the word ‘horizon’ in the quote above; don’t know my Heidegger or Husserl.] Philosophy constructs itself by reference to this impossible unity, and deconstructs itself as soon as that prop is removed.

    A big part of Derrida’s early work, then, I think, is to see what happens to the arguments of the classic philosophical texts once this imagined unity is rejected. I.e., bluntly, he wants a thought that isn’t teleological. One of the things that’s going on in ‘Specters’ (I think), is that Derrida’s trying to rescue an idea of a philosophy that can orient itself towards an imagined better future, without relying on a form of philosophical teleology. So the future Derrida imagines isn’t implicitly contained within the present; rather divides the present against itself – the time is out of joint. This is the difference that’s meant to be covered by Derrida’s distinction between ‘the future’ and the ‘to come’ – messianism, not teleology. But as ever there’s only the thickness of a sheet of paper between Derrida’s position and the positions he critiques.

    So the quest of philosophy – to try to hammer that silly phrase into a some sort of shape – would I guess be
    1) The movement/orientation towards a horizon as telos that underwrites philosophy’s understanding of experience, thought, etc.. [Again, enormous uncertainty as to what exactly ‘horizon’ means here.]
    2) Philosophy’s attempt to maintain this concept of horizon/telos by constantly reestablishing it in the face of its self-deconstruction.

    With reference to the post – the possible perfect relation between sign and object is a sort of regulative ideal that allows philosophy to refuse to consider the true nature of the sign. But anyway; I’ve gone on long enough.

    As regards “the object ‘philosophy'”… well, that’s sort of the 64 dollar question. I’m really not clear on how Derrida understands ‘philosophy’. Here’s a segment of the brilliant first sentence of ‘Violence and Metaphysics’, though, for what it’s worth:

    ”that philosophy died one day, within history, or that it has always fed on its own agony, on the violent way it opens history by opposing itself to nonphilosophy, which is its past and its concern, its death and wellspring…”

    On Quine & logic etc. First off – is there anything you haven’t read and don’t have a developed position on? 🙂 I might start throwing out references more and more obscure texts, as a sort of test…

    But no, I haven’t read Hacking. When I was being taught analytic philosophy I hated it so much I did just the bare minimum of reading, figuring I’d never return to it. Now, of course, I wish I had a better grounding in it all.

    Comment by praxisblog — April 18, 2008 @ 4:40 pm

  4. Now would I be talking about putting these things into the reading group, if I had a position on them? ;-P

    Hacking was trained as an analytic philosopher, but much of writing has taken a Foucaultian turn – which is why he popped into mind in relation to what you have written above. So you might want to stay away from, say, Logic of Statistical Inference until you want something more technical, but The Emergence of Probability (and the later Taming of Chance) are beautiful reads that address the question of why it suddenly becomes intuitive for us to “think” probability – and why, when it becomes intuitive to do so, our thinking tends to take the shape it does. The opening to The Emergence of Probability, as a sort of methodological statement about how one defines problems of grasping historical shifts, is one of the better things I’ve read. Hacking does, though, from my point of view at least, have a tendency to pose good questions, but not quite follow through on those exact questions in his answers – so, the opening passage I just described: brilliant, but it doesn’t capture what the argument in the text actually does… In any event, he can be a nice way into these issues – which isn’t to say that he’s basic, but that he is a good, clear writer who has done some foundational work.

    Sorry about the “quest” thing 🙂 I wasn’t so much trying to ping you on your word choice (apologies if the question had that effect) but more just trying to get a sense of how you think about the historical boundaries of the object “philosophy”. I did a lot of work at one point on medieval history, and one of the eddies in that work related to the contestations that arose over the introduction of Aristotle into medieval theological debates. So I’m always sort of curious how people understand the “philosophical tradition” – and whether that understanding gives some purchase on the non-continuities in the empirical history even in the west…

    Comment by N Pepperell — April 21, 2008 @ 12:46 am

  5. Okay – so my turn for a tangential question (re Aristotle & medieval philosophy). Have you read Owens’ ‘The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics’? It’s a book I’ve been half-heartedly trying to get hold of for ages, but it’s out of print in the UK, and I’ve never mustered the energy to get it from Amazon or wherever. I don’t really have any urgent questions about it or anything – just wondered if you’ve read it, and if so whether you found it worthwhile.

    Sounds like I should read this Hacking geezer. Added to the list…

    Comment by praxisblog — April 21, 2008 @ 5:56 am

  6. I don’t think I’ve read it (strangely often I have the embarrassing experience of realising I’ve read, and then utterly forgotten that I’ve read, something – I did this with one of Hacking’s works a few months back – I kept meaning to buy a copy of a particular book, and then realised when rifling through my bookshelves one day that, not only did I already own a copy, but I had written copious notes in the margins, and so clearly had read it. We won’t mention the book I just tried to recall from myself via the library… My ever-lapsed memory of what I have and haven’t read is perfect absent-minded professor material – pity I don’t have the professorship to go with it… ;-P, but I suspect this book is a genuinely unread one…).

    Comment by N Pepperell — April 21, 2008 @ 8:25 am

  7. “We won’t mention the book I just tried to recall from myself via the library…” LOL. There’s a great scene in ‘Pnin’ where that happens – Pnin at home; Pnin receiving a summons from the library; Pnin wondering whether to hang on to the book; Pnin imagining the diligent, passionate scholar whose work he’d be interrupting; Pnin sighing, carrying the heavy, obscure book across campus; Pnin at the lending desk: “Ah yes, this book is needed by a… Timofey Pnin.” “But this is I!” (And so on.)

    Comment by praxisblog — April 21, 2008 @ 5:27 pm

  8. I also thought of Ian Hacking. I’ve just been looking at his:

    ‘The Self-Vindication of the Laboratory Sciences’, 29-64 in Andrew Pickering (ed.) (1992), Science as Practice and Culture, Chicago and London: Chicago University Press.

    Issues and problems arise, but what works for me here in the first instance is the performativity of laboratory practices that he treats as generating both signs and the objects to which they point, plus a whole lot of other elements that analytical philosophy prefers to hold separate. Separately, the possibility of other realities and systems of knowledge is implied and acknowledged, but these would belong to other practices that (in this world) have not arisen.

    Hacking is relatively empirical. He works through examples, which I think is significant. All this makes me wonder how the notion of practice would look in a Derridaen world. Apologies for my ignorance.

    Comment by Heterogeneities — April 26, 2008 @ 9:59 pm

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