Jacques Derrida was a leading French postmodern thinker whose works include Writing and Difference and On Grammatology. Here we summarize his “Cogito and the History of Madness,” as discussed in a TAS CyberSeminar led by Stephen R. C. Hicks.
Derrida’s essay is couched as a commentary on Foucault's Archaeology of Madness. Both present reason as an imposition that creates order rather than expressing an independently existing order: “the language of reason, which itself is the language of order" (34).
Consequently, we must speak of “the aggression of rationalism.” Reason claims universality and objectivity, hence its “annexation of the totality of language—and of the right to language” thus relegating everything else to “silence” (34).
Thus we have Foucault's attempted “archaeological” project: “Total disengagement from the totality of the historical language responsible for the exile of madness, liberation from this language in order to write the archaeology of silence” (35).
But this project faces a problem, as attempting to write the history of what has been silenced would be doing the same thing reason did to it. “[I]s not an archaeology, even of silence, a logic, that is, an organized language, a project, an order, a sentence, a syntax, a work? Would not the archaeology of silence be the most efficacious and subtle restoration, the repetition, in the most irreducibly ambiguous meaning of the word, of the act perpetrated against this madness”? (35)
What is our goal, though? Is it enough to set aside reason “in order to return to innocence and to end all complicity with the rational or political order which keeps madness captive?” (35) Or is it to put Western reason on trial? “But such a trial may be impossible, for by the simple fact of their articulation the proceedings and the verdict unceasingly reiterate the crime” (35).
The core problem is that we’re stuck inside language. “The fact of language is probably the only fact ultimately to resist all parenthization” (37). Or as Derrida put it elsewhere, “There’s nothing outside of the text.”
So we face a dilemma: falling into ineffective silence or being captured by Reason—because if one adopts the language of reason to attack it one then is co-opted. “There is no Trojan horse unconquerable by Reason (in general)” and madness, “whose wild state can never be restored in and of itself,” must remain “an inaccessible primitive purity.” (37)
At most, therefore, all we can do attack the particulars and create local disturbances: “Since the revolution against reason, from the moment it is articulated, can operate only within reason, it always has the limited scope of what is called, precisely in the language of a department of internal affairs, a disturbance.” (36)
Find Derrida’s "Cogito and the History of Madness” here. Read the CyberSeminar discussion here. Summary by Stephen Hicks, 2020.