Derrida: Kantian and Hegelian readings

Our dear colleague Levi Bryant continues to grapple with Derrida, as the push-back he’s received has made him wonder if his reading might be wrong after all. After some study, however, he’s decided to stick with his reading, supported by the famous “there’s nothing outside the text” passage. In a comment to the post, I develop the possibility of what I call Kantian and Hegelian readings of Derrida, which I’d like to put forward in a more schematic way.

  • The Kantian reading: Kant famously argues that we have no access to the things themselves unmediated by the a priori structures of human experience (most notably time and space). In the Kantian reading of Derrida, he repeats this move but with the proviso that the structure of human experience is fundamentally linguistic in character. Drawing from structuralist linguistics, he specifices that this means human experience is structured by relations with no positive terms, such that the Kantian a priori structures of time and space become deferral and difference, respectively — or, generalizing to a more fundamental principle, human experience is structured by differance. [A note: I’ve always been annoyed that the standard translations leave this term in French. Simply misspelling the English word seems better to me.] The thing itself is always, as it were, in retreat from us, and we will never catch up — all we can know is the trace that ultimately points to its perpetual absence.
  • The Hegelian reading: In this reading, all of the above would still be true (and therefore the fact that Levi finds evidence for the Kantian reading would be no counterargument) — but instead of viewing the play of differance as an obstacle between us and the objects, it would posit differance as an inherent obstacle within all objects. In this view, the problem isn’t that we can’t get at objects beyond the play of differance, but rather that there just is no such thing as “objects” in the sense of a self-consistent self-presence. The way that human beings relate to the “outside” is just a special case of the way that all objects relate to each other, opening the path for a deconstructive ontology. This reading of Derrida seems to me to be the dominant trend among his most prominent and creative followers, including Nancy, Malabou, and Hagglund.

What seems to be causing problems for Levi in accepting the Hegelian reading is the fact that Derrida is constantly using linguistic terms, but Derrida’s point in “mutating” such terms to more general and sometimes barely recognizable meanings is to highlight the fact that there is no “proper” or “natural” way to speak of such things. By using linguistic terms for his “ontological” claims (though doubtless he’d be uncomfortable with characterizing things this way), he is actually emphasizing that language does not exhaust of “fit with” being — because, by definition, nothing “fits,” nothing can find a stable point of rest.

5 thoughts on “Derrida: Kantian and Hegelian readings

  1. I think these preparatory matters aren’t really addressed in OOO, that is to say, possibility/impossibility of self-consistent self-present objects, unless I’m missing something. Levi’s usual response to the question “What is an object/thing?” was “Whatever we take to be an object/thing commonsensically” and then a barrage of quotations from at least 10 books he was reading at the time. These are not some epistemological issues (how do we get out and get with things/objects?) but simple methodological issues (how do we begin thinking about objects in some non-human circumstance). In this sense, Kantian reading is your standard transcendental approach (conditions of possibility etc etc), but I’m not sure I follow your Hegelian reading, but maybe you will explore that further. For example, how can we say that things/object relate to each other? That is to say, how does the notion of relation apply to objects at all?

    As for using linguistic terms, I think you’re spot on, the problem for OOO shouldn’t be that Derrida talks about texts/signifiers/signs and so on, but that if their reading is correct and “nothing outside the text” means what they think it means, there has to be a counter-argument, not just a rejection of this reading because one does not like its implications. It’s actually very similar to Levi’s reading of Kant – Kant argues that we can’t have an access to things-themselves, but I’d like to, therefore Kant is wrong.

  2. Some things that came up in this post (and Levi’s post):

    The issue of Derrida being a weak vs. a strong correlationist: he’s neither (at least not according to the way that Meillassoux uses these terms). Rather, as I basically agree with Adam’s reading, Derrida “absolutizes the correlate” in the same way that Hegel does. This more or less lines up with Hagglunds reading of Derrida’s “ultra-transcendental.”

    This is interesting for a couple reasons: first, because it breaks Derrida off from scepticism (in the same way that Hegel breaks with scepticism): for Derrida, we can absolutely know the “thing in itself” insofar as we can know that it is autoimmune, that it’s given over to the trace structure, that it’s finite, etc. This blocks the sceptico-fideist criticism of Derrida’s work.

    Second, Meillassoux never actually presents an argument against absolutizing the correlate, and moves right from Hegel to Heidegger (the “strong correlationist”) so as to argue that the latter gives way to his own position. And since OOO/P don’t really make arguments against Kant, Hegel, Derrida, etc., choosing instead to list likes/dislikes and rely on Meillassoux to do the heavy lifting, it’s important to see where Meillassoux’s own arguments stop.

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