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Response by Bryan Register and Others

Response by Bryan Register and Others

9 Mins
February 28, 2011

This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 1999 online "CyberSeminar" entitled " The Continental Origins of Postmodernism ."


For Derrida, structuralism is not a 20th century phenomenon but is rather only one instantiation of the history of western metaphysics. At every point in this metaphysics, it has been claimed that the world has a certain structure, and that there is something holding that structure together; an organizing principle of some kind. For instance, Plato held that the Form of the Good is what rendered the universe harmonious; Kant argued for time as the basic organizing feature which makes it so that the world is governed by causal laws. Rand has her ‘existence exists.’

This structuring principle, whatever it may be, also cuts off the free play of ideas about the world. Insofar as a piece of the structure is determined in its nature by the structuring principle, we cannot think of that piece of the structure as being different.

Consider how this plays out in primacy of consciousness metaphysics; I’ll take Berkeley’s as an example. For Berkeley, there is an ordering scheme to the universe and that ordering scheme is God. The world has the structure it has because God so ordains. Moreover, the world is radically dependent on God as is a property to its substratum. God could alter the structure of the universe, but is himself unalterable; and thinking that God does not exist is not a kind of discourse which is possible (the free play of *this* idea is cut off).

These structuring principles are the ‘centers’ of their various metaphysical doctrines. Everything hangs on them, as it were, as a circle is defined by equidistance of all of its points from the midpoint.

However, Derrida wants to cast some doubt on this notion. Here is his argument:

“As center, it is the point at which the substitution of contents, elements, or terms is no longer possible. At the center, the permutation or the transformation of elements...is forbidden. At least this permutation has always been interdicted....Thus it has always been thought that the center, which is by definition unique, constituted that very thing within a structure which while governing the structure, escapes structurality. This is why classical thought concerning structure could say that the center is, paradoxically, within the structure and outside it. The center is at the center of the totality, and yet, since the center does not belong to the totality (is not part of the totality), the totality has its center elsewhere. The center is not the center."

So here is the idea. A structured whole is always grounded on some central premise, tenet, theoretical entity, method, or whatever. But that central something is never itself structured (but rather very simple). It never obeys the ordering it imposes on the structure it makes possible; if it had to obey the ordering, it would not have the independence necessary for a central foundation.

Now, Michel Fram-Cohen reads this as a denial of non-contradiction and says: “Nevertheless, he continues to write about the center, confident that it can exist and function while not being itself. So much for Aristotle in Derrida’s esteem.”

I don’t think this is correct. Notice who it is that Derrida says first noticed all of this: it’s classical thought (e.g., Aristotle) which noticed that the center was not within the structure. Consider as a paradigm the Platonic Forms, which structure the universe from without the structure; or even Aristotle’s essences, which are not apprehensible by sense and yet determine the world. Indeed, Derrida takes the tradition to task for this incoherence:

“The concept of centered structure--although it represents coherence itself, the condition of the episteme as philosophy or science--is contradictorily coherent. And as always, coherence in contradiction expresses the force of a desire.”

Here, Derrida is alluding to Freudian theory. If in a dream I kill my father, the fact that I dreamed this means that I want to do it. But the fact that I dreamed it, rather than thinking about it consciously, means that I want not to do it. Likewise, the notion of the centered structure restricts the free play of ideas, just as it is the free play of ideas. The notion of a centered structure rejects play just as it makes possible play of a new kind.

Derrida does not regard himself as doing away with logic.

For instance, Descartes made the human subject the center of the structure of the universe. This made possible all the delirious amusements of early modern philosophy, until his center evaporated into sense-data under Humean criticisms. So Kant created the new center, time as something imposed on the world from without. Note that the imposer of structure on the phenomena is not among the phenomena, and could not be (just as Descartes’s ego was not within the objective world it made possible). This then made possible German idealism and metaphysics as it had been known in Continental philosophy up to, say, Sartre.

So it seems to me that Derrida does not regard himself as doing away with logic. He is noticing that logic was done away with at the moment of its creation. Logic is supposed to be the center of the structure of proofs, but is not itself proved. Logic was yet another means of subjecting play to restrictions and by so doing creating the possibility of a new kind of play; a play within the rules of logic (proof theory, the development of symbolic logic, etc). So logic is intrinsically illogical; contrary to its own demands, it’s not subject to proof, and yet it makes proof possible. Logic is centered on logical laws which are without logic.

Now, Derrida seems to regard himself as at a different point in history from someone like Hume. Hume directs lethal criticism at the fashionable center of the contemporary structure, the human subject. And he does not replace it with any alternative centering principle. Derrida is different in that he is not criticizing any single centering principle, but rather the very notion of a centering principle as such. All centers fall outside the structure they make possible; all centers are fictitious impositions on the imagination.


So, once we have realized that whatever center someone might propose is fictitious--nothing is holding the universe together--what shall we do? Not have structures? We can’t think without structures. Remember, just as centers restrict thought, they make possible new kinds of thoughts.

Derrida says: “This field (language) is in effect that of play, that is to say, a field of infinite substitutions only because it is finite, that is to say, because instead of being an inexhaustible field, as in the classical hypothesis, instead of being too large, there is something missing from it: a center which arrests and grounds the play of substitutions.”

Two points emerge from this passage. The first is the embeddedness of the very idea of ‘center’ in all Western (and probably all) language. Our language is just sitting there begging for someone to read some metaphysics straight out of it. Consider, for instances, Plato’s movement from the universality of reference to the reference to universals, or Kant’s deduction of the structure of the universe from the structure of logic, or crude substance theorists’ inference of the existence of substances from the existence of subject places in sentences.

With deconstruction, we can playfully reinterpret the early moderns however we like.

The second point has to do with the play of substitutions. I think that this is where deconstruction comes in--I’m reaching a little here. After the fact, we can realize that the center of, e.g., the early modern philosophical structure was missing. Once we realize the absence of the human subject from the world, we can in our discourse realize the absence of the human subject from the early modern philosophers’ writings. We can reinterpret them as we like, because the center which restricted their play is not there to restrict ours. Thus, post-deconstruction of early modern philosophy, we can playfully reinterpret the early moderns however we like; assimilating their writings and theories to other writings and theories in an amusing, dilletante-ish way, perhaps incorporating parody and pastiche into imaginative works of philosophy.

But, Derrida notes, some people don’t much like this idea. Consider: “Turned toward the lost or imperceptible presence of the absent origin [center], this structuralist theme of broken immediacy is therefore the saddened, negative, nostalgic, guilty, Rousseauistic side of the thinking of play whose other side would be the Nietzschean affirmation, that is the joyous affirmation of the play of the world and of the innocence of becoming, the affirmation of a world of signs without fault, without truth, and without origin which is offered to an active interpretation. This affirmation then determines the noncenter otherwise than as loss of the center. And it plays without security.”

Being affirming in this way makes it so that realizing that there is no center is not merely the realization that there is no center. Rather, this realization frees us for discourse which is unchained to any arbitrary metaphysics. We will move beyond ‘man,’ in the sense that ‘man’ is just he who seeks a center.

The divide, for Derrida, is between those honest enough to admit that metaphysics is gobbledy-gook and to conduct discourse anyway, and those hypocritical, nervous puritans who need some centering principle to make them feel alright about performing discourse. (Imagine here people that are uptight about sex and who want to pray for divine sanction on their wedding night.) Everyone wants to play, some people just think that they need some principle not just to make play possible but also to make it acceptable. Derrida (seems to) agree(s) that a center is needed to make play possible--there is no thought as we know thought without a structure--but our engagement with centering principles must be more complicated than mere acceptance. We must be daring enough both to accept some centering principle(s) as that which makes possible our discourse, and to reject just that (those) principle(s) as imaginative fictions.

Michal Fram Cohen wrote:

I would like to commend Bryan Register on clarifying Derrida’s arguments. Nevertheless, I stand by my evaluation of Derrida.

Derrida has a problem with the fact that the center of a structure is irreducible. He has a problem with axioms as such, e.g., “existence exists,” because they are not controlled by another “higher” axiom. He also has a problem with the structure of religion because “God” is not subject to the rules it enforces on the world he created. The notion of “play” means that the structure can somehow survive without a center. Can religion survive without the concept of “God”? Can a secular rational philosophy survive without any axioms?

Most people do not have a coherent, absolute structure of ideas. They have a package-deal of some religious ideas, some rational ideas, and some personal intuition. Obviously, there is some play going on in such a package deal, against several competing centers. However, even Derrida conceded that it was impossible to conceive of a structure without a center.

The question of the location of the center, whether it is inside or outside the center, does not mean that “the center is not the center.” For religious people, God is both inside and outside the world he created, but it does not mean that God is not God. As for Objectivism, the axiom “existence exists” is certainly inside the structure of the philosophy, but it also controls the structure.

Michal Fram Cohen wrote:

I have some more thoughts on Bryan’s comments on Derrida.

Historically, Derrida is correct that Western philosophy lost the absolute notion of the center with the collapse of religion. It was indeed Nietzsche who said that “God is dead.” There were, however, attempts to construct a new secular center--attempts which Derrida ignores or dismisses as arbitrary. Such attempts range from Kant’s “categorical imperatives” to Hegel’s “dialectic law” to Marx’s “society” to Freud’s “Id” to the Objectivist axioms. Derrida’s assumption that any metaphysics is arbitrary is arbitrary. To my knowledge, he has not explained why any of the above attempts was arbitrary. His claim in chapter 10 of “Language and Difference,” that the centers of all philosophies along history were illusionary because philosophy rests on mythology, which itself has no center, is hardly an explanation.

Ironically, even Derrida cannot free man for a discourse without center. He admits that when the connection between words and referents is lost, words cannot last very long. He admits that there is nothing to study beyond philosophy. His discourse is arbitrarily tied to semantics and concepts as his own version of metaphysics. There is no reason to consider his metaphysics as less arbitrary than Hegel’s or Marx’s.  

Chris Matthew Sciabarra wrote:

Michal Fram-Cohen wrote: “There is no reason to consider his metaphysics as less arbitrary than Hegel’s or Marx’s.”

On one very small point, above, I just wanted to make a few observations, given my long-time study of both Hegel and Marx. While both of these thinkers ultimately undermine genuinely dialectical method, in my view, I do think that there is much scholarly disagreement--with good reason--as to the metaphysical and epistemological foundations in Hegel and Marx.

For example, while Hegel is usually considered a metaphysical idealist, some critics view him as a thoroughgoing realist. Kenneth Westphal in his study, “Hegel’s Epistemological Realism: A Study of the Aim and Method of Hegel’s ‘Phenomenology of Spirit,’” argues that Hegel was a realist antagonist of skepticism, dogmatism, and Kantian subjectivism. He views Hegel as fundamentally in revolt against Kant’s “subjectifying Copernican revolution in epistemology,” since “in being conscious of the world we are inherently cognitively related to the world.” For Westphal, this position stands as an “objectifying counter-revolution” against Kant.

So too, with Marx: while much has been made of his materialist foundations--and these are certainly present in his writings--not enough attention has been paid to his realist foundations in Aristotelian metaphysics. Scott Meikle addresses this in his superb study,  “Essentialism in the Thought of Karl Marx.” I give some attention to the Marxian metaphysics in my own book, “Marx, Hayek, and Utopia” and to both Hegel and Marx in my forthcoming “Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism.” In short, Marx rejects the “vulgar” idealists and the “vulgar” materialists, and begins with the primacy of existence--arguing that existence exists, that there is nothing prior, nor posterior, to existence, and that any belief in first cause is illegitimate. True, he views consciousness as something situated in a definite historical and social condition--it is not an abstraction, but something specific that exists in an objective context.

Moreover, he projects the possibilities for transformation through human agency. Indeed, “free, conscious activity,” declares Marx, is the human “species-character,” and labor, as such, is a creative activity “affirmed in the objective world.”

My point here is not to trumpet Hegel and Marx--but to argue simply that there are a lot of subtleties in their writings which, on second and third glance, make it much more difficult to easily pigeon-hole them into one or another specific metaphysical category.

I realize this is tangential to the discussion on Derrida--but I did wish to respond to the suggestion.

Michal Fram Cohen wrote:

I thank Chris Sciabarra for his comment on Marx and Hegel. I certainly agree that they, as well as Kant, cannot be dismissed offhand without some study. The first part of my post criticized Derrida for not referring to them in his survey of the history of Modern Philosophy. Derrida refers only to Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Freud, who attempted to do away with the notion of a “center” in Modern Philosophy.

He does not bother to even mention the attempts by Kant, Hegel, and Marx to construct a new secular center for Modern Philosophy once the religious center had collapsed.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra wrote:

Just wanted to say that I surely didn’t assume dismissal of Marx and Hegel in Michal’s post; but for me as someone who has spent almost 20 years studying Marx especially, the point was worth noting.

Michal Fram-Cohen wrote: “He does not bother to even mention the attempts by Kant, Hegel and Marx to construct a new secular center for Modern Philosophy once the religious center had collapsed.”

Actually, Michal brings up a very important point; some writers, like Murray Rothbard, have focused lots of attention on Hegel and Marx in particular (see his History of Economic Thought) for their eschatological roots, and how they very much take up the whole imagery of apocalyptic religious writing in their theories of history, creating, in essence, a new kind of religious ideology, albeit one with a secular center, as Michal suggests.  

Bryan Register
About the author:
Bryan Register
History of Philosophy