Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Late Derrida

One of the five reading groups I'm in this semester at the Prindle Institute is a reading group on the late-life writings of French philosopher Jacques Derrida. It concluded with a festive fifth meeting yesterday evening.

My philosophical education in a department devoted to what is called "analytic" philosophy taught me to despise what is called "continental philosophy" - indeed, to despise it without ever having deigned to read it. Without ever reading it, I knew it to be unreadable. Jacques Derrida is a leading figure of contemporary continental philosophy. He is widely read by scholars in English departments - not by scholars in Anglo-American philosophy departments. But when I was asked by a DePauw colleague in the English department here to join the Derrida reading group he was organizing, I happily agreed. After all, I'm committed to saying yes to everything I'm asked to do at DePauw so that they will all love me and think I'm the best visiting professor ever. And I did think it was strange for an entire CONTINENT of philosophy to be dismissed so contemptuously.

Well, I have to say that the Derrida reading group did not convert me to the philosophy of Derrida. I did not take pleasure in reading sentences such as this one, from The Animal That Therefore I Am: "Would an ethics like that Levinas attempts be sufficient to recall the subject to its being-subject, to its being-host or -hostage, that is to say, to its being-subjected-to-the-other, to the Wholly Other or to every single other?" (In fairness, I could quote equally awful sentences from analytic philosophers, though they would feature a lot of math-y looking stuff.)

That said, I'm glad I was part of the reading group. While I didn't much like trying to read Derrida, I liked hearing smart people say interesting things about it.

I must confess that last night I hadn't actually gotten around to doing the reading for the evening. It would have taken me hours to force myself through it, hours that I decided would be better spent on other tasks on my to-do list. I almost didn't go because I didn't want to be "the bad student" who comes to class unprepared. But I did go, out of loyalty to the group, and I learned a lot from the conversation (and even got quite a bit of the reading done as we all stared down at these daunting pages together). I even managed to make one semi-interesting comment about Derrida myself!

So I guess the lessons I would distill for myself from this experience have to do with being willing to try something new, even if I don't decide to throw myself into it wholeheartedly. I would probably have gotten more out of the Derrida group if I had labored mightily on those dense and impenetrable chapters. But that "more" wouldn't have been worth the many many hours necessary to do it. I invested a little bit of time in the Derrida project and reaped a little bit of benefit, including getting to know some extremely bright colleagues in other departments around campus. That feels like a decent enough return for several evenings sitting by the Prindle Institute fireplace sipping good wine and eating lovely fruit and cheese.


  1. I don't even know which continent "continental" refers to, let alone the difference between analytic and continental philosophy. Some things I've come across on the internet use the terms as if I should know what they mean, but I never had a professor use them. Is there a simple explanation?

  2. I don't know of a simple one. But I do know the continent: it's Europe, excluding the UK. So French and German philosophy such as existentialism and phenomenology - Heidegger, Sartre, Habermas, Levinas, Foucault, Derrida...

  3. The expression "I'd rather be nibble to death by ducks" springs to mind...