This is a follow up to the previous post that cast a skeptical eye on the ability of the humanities to produce knowledge or meaningful understanding. I want to comment here on the possibility of constructing a humanities based “theory” to elucidate the world, ourselves, or the relation between the two.
To see deeper into the problem with the assumption that something such as a theory emanating from a humanities discipline can reliably provide information about the world – including the mind of an author – I will consider the description of one such theory, Derrida’s deconstructionism, as provided in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP). What is deconstruction according to this article? One of Derrida’s earliest answers is described as follows:
Simply, deconstruction is a criticism of Platonism, which is defined by the belief that existence is structured in terms of oppositions (separate substances or forms) and that the oppositions are hierarchical, with one side of the opposition being more valuable than the other. The first phase of deconstruction attacks this belief by reversing the Platonistic hierarchies.
Supposing that Plato’s alleged hierarchies are mistaken, it is unclear what value there is in reversing them. The reversal of a false hierarchy isn’t necessarily a true one. For example, if we reverse the false hierarchy, men are superior to women, we get the equally false, women are superior to men. Moreover, if Plato himself is guilty of some form of complex fiction writing, i.e. failing to engage in anything other than his own abstractions that lack grounding in reality, then reversing them is to similarly play in the realm of fiction, much like analyzing Tolkien’s works for hierarchies among Orcs, and then reversing them; what could that possibly teach us? Perhaps it could teach us something about the opinions of the author of the reversal, but without both more context and a relatively sophisticated psychological theory applicable to the author, it is not easy to say what would be learned here.
The SEP entry continues:
On the basis of the reversal… we can see that something like a decision (a perhaps impossible decision) must have been made at the beginning of the metaphysical tradition, a decision that instituted the hierarchy…
This is plausible. Decisions – assumptions, presuppositions, etc. – as to the rules and axioms of investigation must be made prior to any inquiry. It does not follow, however, that such decisions are arbitrary, unfounded, unjustified, or not conducive to discovering the truth. They may be just the right decisions required to uncover the structure of reality, and the reasoning they initiate may be logically sound. What this means is that there is no reason to believe that the mere act of reversing the result of such decisions will lead to a better account of reality.
Now let us turn to the second phase of deconstruction:
The previously inferior term must be re-inscribed as the “origin” or “resource” of the opposition and hierarchy itself.
There are a couple of problems here. First, as just noted, because the need to rely on “decisions” – axioms, rules, etc. – in order to get inquiry off the ground does not entail that the decisions are bad or conducive to falsehood, it follows that we cannot assume that any hierarchy that results is necessarily wrong. Hence, to elevate what Plato saw as the less valuable of two parts of a hierarchy – say matter over form – is not necessarily to do anything important or revealing. Nor does it follow that the inferior term must have some fundamental or central role in the creation of the hierarchy. Perhaps Plato elevated form over matter because he was in fact obsessed with the material – maybe he feared the physical body – and felt some paradoxical need to overwhelm it – put it in its place – in his theory; but perhaps not. The mere fact that there is a decision here tells us nothing, because similar decisions are required for any inquiry, including Derrida’s.
In general, from the fact that a hierarchy is incorrect, it doesn’t follow that the previously inferior term is the origin of the hierarchy itself. Consider:
Non-human animals are more intelligent than humans.
This is, apparently at least, the wrong way around, so we must reverse the hierarchy:
Humans are more intelligent than non-human animals.
It does not follow that re-inscribing “non-human animal” as the “origin” of this opposition and hierarchy is correct, or even makes any sense. On the contrary, it appears that if anything it is a preference for, or bias toward, the human that is the origin here. At any rate, it is the relation between the two that is the cause of the hierarchy, not any one on its own, so to propose a theory of reversal and inversion on a priori grounds is simply suspect.
Secondly, unless we assume that Plato himself discovered something deep and true about the essence of reality in his hierarchical oppositions, he just messed up the order, any act of inversion will tell us nothing. So… how do we know that Plato was right here? Suppose someone divides the world into red things and geometric objects, making the latter more important than the former. This clearly seems to be a hierarchy that tells us nothing about reality, so inverting it so that the red things are more important will similarly tell us nothing.
Well, perhaps I am not properly considering the nature of this re-inscription, so:
How would this re-inscription or redefinition of appearance work? Here we would have to return to the idea that every appearance or every experience is temporal. In the experience of the present, there is always a small difference between the moment of now-ness and the past and the future… this infinitesimal difference is not only a difference that is non-dualistic, but also it is a difference that is, as Derrida would say, “undecidable.” Although the minuscule difference is virtually unnoticeable in everyday common experience, when we in fact notice it, we cannot decide if we are experiencing a memory or a present perception, if we are experiencing a present perception or an anticipation… Insofar as the difference is undecidable…[it] destabilizes the original decision that instituted the hierarchy.
There is certainly work in the experience of time that suggests that any particular experience is a structured mix that combines perception of what is occurring at that time with memory and anticipation (see, e.g., Horwich 1987) – experience has content that is temporally structured to include a past, present, and future component. What is not clear, is whether there is no way to distinguish these at all; even fuzzy boundaries can be boundaries, and who knows what cognitive science might discover. Moreover, it is unclear why this undecidability would invalidate Platonic arguments about, say, the form of the good, or the nature of mathematical knowledge. There may be an argument for this, but since Platonic metaphysics is the result of a long period of contemplation and analysis, there is no obvious move from a feature of momentary perceptions to the results of long, thorough contemplation.
When reflecting upon the nature of number or goodness, one may be doing little more than staring out of a window, pen and notebook in hand, mulling over arguments of Frege and Russell, or Kant and Aristotle. The perception of the trees and birds beyond the pane of glass may – though may not – be an essentially entangled mix of what is seen then with memory and anticipation. It is not at all clear, however, what impact this has on one’s reflection of Frege’s attempts to translate the Peano axioms into axioms of the predicate calculus. Suppose, as one read The Foundations of Arithmetic, one’s perceptions were consistently temporally mixed in just this way: what is the significance of this fact for reflecting on whether the logical reduction of arithmetic is sound? It would seem that the inability to separate the temporal components of experience would have no bearing on this. Further, even if one cannot separate out the components of experience at the time they are happening, it doesn’t follow that one can’t look back on one’s experience with the benefit of additional information and then disentangle the strands, which might lead to a principled way to do so in general. In short, it is not at all clear how the alleged features of temporal experience would undermine the choice of axioms and rules of inquiry that are required to get any investigation off the ground. Conversely, if such features do destabilize all such choices, then they would undermine the principles that undergird the deconstructionist inversion.
So this is an example of a theory applied to a text that is supposed to result in something interesting and informative about reality. However, if the text itself is simply off base, then the move proposed by this theory will not likely tell us anything interesting or informative; at least it gives us no reason to suppose so because it offers no means of correcting the text other than rearranging its parts, which is of not help if the text is fundamentally incomplete. Moreover, we have to have some reason to believe that the inversion proposed by the theory is a good move: likely to be informative, corrective, truth-conducive, or what have you. For this, more than a priori reflection on texts is required, because what we want to know is when texts are better or worse at getting things right. Inverted Plato vs. Regular Plato leaves us in no position to judge. It is like being told that A believes that P and B believes that not-P. Without evidence from outside their belief states, we have no way of adjudicating between them.
So, until we can demonstrate that humanistic writing, that isn’t grounded in math and science, can reveal something about reality, then any attempt to reverse, pervert, subvert, or otherwise undermine previous such writing cannot be said to amount to knowledge of anything. What, then, can it tell us? I am not sure. Perhaps something about the mind of Derrida, but I am not sure what that would be without more empirical evidence about him and how human minds work in general; i.e. not without some science.
Obviously more has to be said to make the case. In particular, I am, here, relying on a single source about a single aspect of a single author’s work, so it would be illegitimate to generalize from this single case. It is, however, illustrative of the point I made in the previous post: that a non-scientific theory of texts applied to texts to create other texts does not seem to be the kind of thing that will generate knowledge of the world; at best it would generate knowledge of the applier of the theory, but even that would be suspect without detailed empirical investigation. So, the question is what the theory – in this case a principled inversion – could possibly teach us about the world.
Let me end with a limited defence of Plato. It seems to me that his “elevation” of forms had to do primarily with an observation, that Euclidean geometry, which is an a priori and formal axiomatic system, manages to correctly describe space. He proposed, along Pythagorean lines, that the explanation of this is that reality itself is ultimately mathematical in nature, so that it shares its form with the Euclidean axioms. If this is correct, then the basic structure of reality is timeless and unchanging, in which case the idea that the world is a place of change and flux must be some kind of mistake or illusion. This may be wrong, but it is reflection on the basis of a mathematical-physical knowledge and observation. So, to return to the original point, it is far from obvious why a general “inversion” of the resulting system would be true, interesting, or valuable.