The Times (London). Saturday, May 9, 1992
Sir, The University of Cambridge is to ballot on May 16 on whether M. Jacques Derrida should be allowed to go forward to receive an honorary degree. As philosophers and others who have taken a scholarly and professional interest in M. Derrida's remarkable career over the years, we believe the following might throw some needed light on the public debate that has arisen over this issue.
Derrida describes himself as a philosopher, and his writings do indeed bear some of the marks of writings in that discipline. Their influence, however, has been to a striking degree almost entirely in fields outside philosophy – in departments of film studies, for example, or of French and English literature.
In the eyes of philosophers, and certainly among those working in leading departments of philosophy throughout the world, M. Derrida's work does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigour.
We submit that, if the works of a physicist (say) were similarly taken to be of merit primarily by those working in other disciplines, this would in itself be sufficient grounds for casting doubt upon the idea that the physicist in question was a suitable candidate for an honorary degree.
Derrida's career had its roots in the heady days of the 1960s and his writings continue to reveal their origins in that period. Many of them seem to consist in no small part of elaborate jokes and puns (‘logical phallusies’ and the like), and M. Derrida seems to us to have come close to making a career out of what we regard as translating into the academic sphere tricks and gimmicks similar to those of the Dadaists or of the concrete poets.
Certainly he has shown considerable originality in this respect. But again, we submit, such originality does not lend credence to the idea that he is a suitable candidate for an honorary degree.
Many French philosophers see in M. Derrida only cause for silent embarrassment, his antics having contributed significantly to the widespread impression that contemporary French philosophy is little more than an object of ridicule.
Derrida's voluminous writings in our view stretch the normal forms of academic scholarship beyond recognition. Above all – as every reader can very easily establish for himself (and for this purpose any page will do) – his works employ a written style that defies comprehension.
Many have been willing to give M. Derrida the benefit of the doubt, insisting that language of such depth and difficulty of interpretation must hide deep and subtle thoughts indeed.
When the effort is made to penetrate it, however, it becomes clear, to us at least, that, where coherent assertions are being made at all, these are either false or trivial.
Academic status based on what seems to us to be little more than semi-intelligible attacks upon the values of reason, truth, and scholarship is not, we submit, sufficient grounds for the awarding of an honorary degree in a distinguished university.
(Editor, The Monist)
Hans Albert (University of Mannheim)
David Armstrong (Sydney)
Ruth Barcan Marcus (Yale)
Keith Campbell (Sydney)
Richard Glauser (Neuchâtel)
Rudolf Haller (Graz)
Massimo Mugnai (Florence)
Kevin Mulligan (Geneva)
Lorenzo Peña (Madrid)
Willard van Orman Quine (Harvard)
Wolfgang Röd (Innsbruck)
Karl Schuhmann (Utrecht)
Daniel Schulthess (Neuchâtel)
Peter Simons (Salzburg)
René Thom (Burs-sur-Yvette)
Dallas Willard (Los Angeles)
Jan Wolenski (Cracow)
Internationale Akademie für Philosophie, Obergass 75, 9494S Schaan, Liechtenstein. [Quoted from here.]
Today, I presented a guest-lecture in which I mentioned my transformative experience, qua philosopher of economics, with a distinguished, mathematical economist who used themes from Derrida (and innovated with them) in order to explain and articulate a philosophy of mathematical economics and, thereby, also made feel what the, as it were, life-world of a mathematical economist qua theorist is like. This encounter -- in the years when I was an untenured professor -- made me revisit my conviction that Derrida is bullshit, and made me realize that my acquaintance with Derrida's writings could be charitably described as very indirect. I had accepted the epistemic authority of others (on Derrida) without much thought, and it made me examine how much of my intellectual self-understanding was handed down by others without my conscious mediation. In preparing the lecture I looked up the famous letter protesting the intention to award a honorary degree to Derrida by Cambridge University.
It is sometimes noted that it is extremely unlikely that most of the signers had read much more of Derrida than I had by the time I left graduate school. What is not noted is that it is extremely unlikely that these signers had read much of each other. (Obviously there are exceptions! [No need to remind me that Quine and Barcus Marcus were pretty familiar with each other's work.]) They are an eclectic mix of anglo-phone analytical philosophers, anglo-phone 'analytical' historians of 19th and 20th century philosophy, european and anglophone Husserlians, European 'Austrian' philosophers, European analytical philosophers, and a few whom I wouldn't know how to characterize. Moreover, the use of 'European' is in some sense an anachronism because in the early 1990s there was no shared philosophical space (of the technocratic sort familiar from ERC grant proposals and journal rankings). As it happens, according to Barry Smith's own testimony, the future of European philosophy in the years after the fall of the Berlin wall is one of the main issues at stake; Smith was worried that after the collapse of political Marxism there would be an embrace of Derrida style "nihilism" at the expense of other pre-Marxist (local) "traditions." Smith's letter failed to prevent the awarding of the honorary degree to Derrida. But from the vantage point of two decades, we can say that the take-over of European philosophy by Deconstruction did not happen. As philosophical politics go that's a victory for Smith.
What's striking about the letter is that it tacitly appeals to canons of normal science (hence the analogy with physics): the disciplinary experts drawn from "leading departments" decide merit based on "accepted standards." (Accepted by who? Well, of course, by the members of the leading departments at "distinguished" universities.) The self-serving and self-reinforcing, conservative nature of such reasoning -- and let's stipulate that the letter only expresses uncontroversial truth -- is by now obvious. Known "influence" outside leading departments counts for nothing. We have to remind ourselves that it is not too difficult to construe narratives in light of these norms of "merit," that Descartes, Locke, Hume, Thoreau, Nietzsche would have also fallen obviously short. Given that professional philosophers operate in a zero-sum institutional environment (for jobs, status, time, appointments, funding, etc.) it is by no means obvious that they even have incentives to collect the kind of evidence that would allow them to offer such utterances in an epistemically reliable matter.
Even if one allows that "clarity and rigour" are the true touchstone of quality in the "eyes of philosophers" (and one ignores my reservations), it is, in fact, somewhat amusing that it's only very recent affair -- with the rise of meta-philosophy -- that the methods of at least some of the signers are being scrutinized with care and attention. Even the friend of clarity and rigour can recognize other criteria (truth, fruitfulness, social/moral utility, etc.) that may trump "clarity and rigour."
Another striking feature of the letter is the utter contempt for the "Dadaists or of the concrete poets" as contributions to philosophy. (What philosophy, if not nihilism? Well, I am no expert, of course, but it be useful to see these as a contribution to the experimental art of living.) Evidently, philosophy is a serious enterprise. Now one need not be friend of Žižek (who makes Derrida seem highminded), to recognize that one, thereby, is in no position to recognize that sometimes -- maybe all the time in our fallen world in which our hands are sullied with innocent blood everywhere -- the stance of the jokester is the only morally responsible stance; undoubtedly there are other more earnest stances that are worth exploring, too. I am not claiming this is so, but ruling this out a priori is, well, a philosophical mistake.
As an aside, the important point -- lost on the signers -- is that since Socrates we know that all genuine (and ersatz) philosophy always runs the risk of "ridicule" and that such ridicule is unavoidable absent philosophers-kings.
Finally, it is a bit odd (even if indirectly very clear) to see in a letter devoted to defending the standards of clarity and rigour, the same writing characterized as defying "comprehension" -- there is universal consensus ("every reader") assumed over this --, yet also being, somehow, "semi-intelligible" and being "either false or trivial." (Yes, I am sure, that with considerable effort, you -- you are well-trained, after all -- can turn this into a consistent triplet with the help of elegant distinctions.)
Undoubtedly, the infelicities I have noted in the letter to the editor are the consequence of haste, consensus formation among an eclectic group of professional philosophers, and editorial interventions. The letter got polemical work done, and, I am open to the argument that Derrida's philosophical politics merited this kind of response. But in so far as I have had this letter and effort praised to me when I was a student (and heard claims like these marshaled against other philosophers that needed to be rejected), I note that it is more revealing about the commitments of the signers than either about Derrida or the politics of honorary award granting.