⎯ Looking through the controversy between Derrida and Foucault on Descartes’ First meditation ⎯

⎯ “포스트모던 이후의 철학” (1)  

Is the philosophy still possible in post-modern time? It’s worth mentioning that this weird question became main problem of philosophy. After Kant declared all metaphysical attempts to be dogmas, or since Heidegger made the end of philosophy the main theme of his philosophy, the question has followed thinkers. This paper aims to deal with this question through a controversy of Derrida and Foucault. First, I’ll deal with simple introduction and outline of the controversy between two philosophers. Next, I’ll introduce a short summarization of controversy and related texts. Second, I’ll present the theme ‘impossibility’ of philosophy as the most problematic difficulty of post-modern philosophy and discuss it with other philosophers’, especially Heidegger’s, texts. This theme will be analyzed in relation to the ‘impossibility of metaphysics’ after Kant. Also, I’ll present my own position about this problem  as the conclusion of this article.

1.The Descartes controversy: In and out of the text

While most people concentrate upon the obviousness of the self, cogito ergo sum, in First meditation of Descartes, some of French philosophers tried unique interpretations of other paragraph of First Meditation, which triggered many controversies. One of the most distinctive interpretations among those was made in the book History of Madness by Michel Foucault. Jacques Derrida points out that Foucault’s argument about Descartes exactly shows the essence of the whole Foucauldian project, the Genealogy, executed in History of Madness. (Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference) From analysis of Foucault’s argument, Derrida concluded not only Foucault had misread the methods of First Meditation, but also his genealogy itself is an impossible work from the start. This leads to the most famous philosophical controversy in 20th century.

In analysis of the first meditation in History of Madness, Foucault concentrates on the passage that Descartes refers to a madman for an example of the doubt of human senses. The case of madman was set up as an example of doubting sensation. It seems reasonable that there’re certainly some lunatics who misunderstand self-evident sensible data, which means all sensible experiences, even ones looking obvious, could be doubtful for them. And here is the possibility that I myself can be like a madman.

What reason could there be for doubting this? Unless perhaps I were to compare myself to one of those madman, whose little brains have been so befuddled by a pestilential vapour arising from the black bile……(the first meditation)

Above quotation is the response of Descartes quickly dismissing the very possibility. After the dismissal, Descartes gets into the case of dreaming as an example of stronger doubt. What Foucault points out is the dismissal of Descartes. Descartes’ work in first meditation is to draw radical doubts on fundamental grounds and find the infallible axioms of reason secure form those doubts. And in this process, he rejects many objections including being madman. In Foucault’s perspective, the case of madman which Descartes dismissed was an example of hidden, oppressed madness. And Cartesian reasoning immediately excludes this madness. Foucault explains the preclusion of madness is subject’s intentional decision made in modern age, which means the exclusion is a monumental event in the history of madness. (1) Descartes totally excluded madness in his thinking, and (2) this decision has a unique historical meaning because it was subject’s decision which is discontinuous with previous history. This is Foucault’s main thesis in his analysis of first meditation.

 Until now we looked through Foucault’s interpretation and it is summarized into two points. Regarding these points, Derrida refutes both points in a radical sense. The main point of Derrida is that Descartes’ work in first meditation is not a unique decision, but a typical case of general conditions of history. This is exactly opposed to Foucauldian interpretation of Descartes. Derrida thinks if we can think about the discontinuous uniqueness of ‘event’, not just a repetition of origins, we should have the transcendental perspective. If we don’t have it, we cannot recognize the uniqueness of an event because for the event to have totally ‘unique’ meaning, the observer must be in the superior position over history. He must be like an ‘omniscient observer’ in novels. For Foucault, the narrator or author of History of madness has that authority. Foucault can analyze madness and oppressions against it objectively and write the ‘exact’ history of madness which no one except him ever tried. Additionally, he can detect the uniqueness of the event, the exclusion of madness. However, Derrida argues no one can have the transcendental authority to write exact thesis about something.

There is no outside-text (grammatology)

 Note that ‘there is no outside-text il n’y a pas de hors-texte is different from ‘there is nothing outside of the text’. The former means the exclusive, privileged investigation of text doesn’t exist. It’s just an irony or daydream. All kinds of writing are ‘inside-text’, which means they are inscribed or bound to certain contexts. The Foucauldian project of researching the history of madness itself is exactly what Derrida calls outside-text. The eye observing madness without prejudice and understanding the meaning of ‘event’ (like the event that Descartes excluded the madness from reason) is a naïve philosophical hypothesis. Even though Foucault can write great observation about madness, but that cannot be identical to the truth record about Madness itself as Foucault thought. In regard this, Derrida concludes the author in History of Madness has no such authority, which means he has no right to declare there’re discontinuous events in history.

Foucault hadn’t responded to this objection until he had published the second foreword of History of Madness. There Foucault refuted the objection of Derrida. The main point of his argument was that Derrida is disregarding the ‘eventual’ aspect of Descartes and doesn’t get out of the ‘generality’ of the text. (My Body, This Paper, This Fire Michel Foucault and Geoff Bennington, Oxford Literary Review Vol. 4, No. 1 (Autumn 1979)). Philosophical trials made in history of madness are to search for unique aspect of each events in history. By unearthing those hidden aspects, oppressed scenes of history can appear at last. However, according to Foucault, Derrida is erasing those unique ‘eventualities’ of events and substituting them to singular, consistent generality. In this sense, Foucault criticized Derrida intensively for not admitting any attempts to go ‘outside’ of text and repeating his void theory of writing. At this criticism, Foucault cites the most famous phrase of Derrida in wrong way; there is nothing outside of the text. (Derrida, Jacques (1995). Limited Inc (4th ed.). Evanston: Northwestern University Press) From this, Foucault concludes Derrida clings only to the text, not considering ‘outside’ positions of it. He calls the interpretation of Derrida as ‘Childish pedagogy’ which cannot escape from the inside of the text.

2.The impossibility of Philosophy

Giving a detailed account of Foucault’s comment is not our main interest. What matters is to derive an essential philosophical theme from the controversy of the two. Derrida insists there is no absolute and meaningful perspective of text or phenomenon. For him, outside-text is the impossibility of philosophy. His own philosophy is the criteria setting a boundary of impossibility. Foucault stands against this by saying that if it’s impossible to go outside of the text, any meaningful philosophical attempt can’t be made. For Foucault, consistent prompts of absolute explanation consist of philosophy. Therefore, prohibition of outside-text must be withdrawn.

Now it seems that our theme, the impossibility of philosophy, is somewhat revealed. To what extend is philosophy possible? If there’s a point at which philosophy is impossible to investigate, what’s the reason? For Derrida, the impossibility of philosophy is complete clarification of an entity. Derrida argues if someone tries to do this work, that’s nothing more than a ‘prompt’. In contrast, Foucauldian philosophy has no certain impossibility unlike Derrida. Philosophy can clarify a concept without prejudice and such projections are the essence of philosophy. Where does this difference between them come from? What makes philosophers believe philosophy cannot do such things? That’s too sticky question to solve right now. Before getting into this problem, we need to skim the short history of impossibilities in continental, post-modern philosophy.

The theme ‘impossibility of philosophy’ has longer history than we expected. Now it becomes a fundamental problem of our time, the post-modern era. Martin Heidegger is the first one who thought this theme clearly and made it one of his major philosophical questions. He says the impossibilities of philosophy and of metaphysics come simultaneously and the former can be false while the latter seems clear. (Martin Heidegger, what is metaphysics?) For Heidegger, every thought trying to capture phenomenon to certain meaning belongs to metaphysics. Therefore, most of philosophies until now are metaphysical in some sense. Later Heidegger broadens the meaning of metaphysics to the empiricism and science. Most of all, science is an influential metaphysics these days in that science measures and standardizes phenomenon into physical entity. Then, how would Heidegger evaluate the metaphysics? We can find the earliest Heideggerian phrase about impossibility of metaphysics in Being and Time. There Heidegger set a fundamental boundary of philosophical investigation of being, the ontological difference. The ontological difference refers the distinction between being itself and entity. Heidegger argues no metaphysics can approximate to the study of being itself which Heidegger calls fundamental ontology. To conclude, the being itself is the impossibility of all metaphysics and science. And it seems, for Heidegger, nearly all study of being except his own philosophy belongs to metaphysics.

 Immanuel Levinas, another post-modern terminator of philosophy influenced by Heidegger, also made lots of comments about the impossibility of philosophy. While his thought of this theme looks similar to Heidegger, he adds moral, deontological sense into the impossibility. The otherness of others, the death of the others is another name of being which Levinas uses. He insists that we have moral duty to respect the otherness of others by not restricting it within certain structure. Not impairing the otherness is the primitive imperative of philosophy. Philosophy doesn’t have the absolute point where the subject can observe and conclude about object (for Levinas, others). It’s just another violation.

Gilles Deleuze converted the impossibility of philosophy into another possibility in his unique ‘metaphysics’. In Difference and repetition, Deleuze criticized that philosophical tradition after Kant didn’t reflect the possibility of metaphysics. He tried to reestablish the absolute metaphysics though his unique theory. (quite similar to the geometrical methodism of Spinoza) For Deleuze, metaphysics itself isn’t what we should refrain, while ‘what kind of’ metaphysics it is matters. And if metaphysical arguments are based on pure thought and logical, geometrical deduction, it’s desirable as a criteria of philosophy. Writing and Difference is where he shows this metaphysics without prejudice following the Leibnizian (or Spinozian) model of thought.

 Badiou thought the themes ‘impossible point for philosophy’ and ‘end of metaphysics’ much clear than any other thinkers. While accepting Heideggerian thoughts of being, Badiou constructs his own ontology with the help of mathematics, especially set theory. By employing set theory, Badiou explains the ontology theory can rule out metaphysical dogmas and simultaneously provide strict, consistent standards of thoughts.

3. Setting a boundary for the impossibility for philosophy

So far we’ve summarized post-modern thinker’s comments about impossibility of philosophy. Though each philosopher’s methodology is different from each other, it’s still possible to find something in common among them. (1) First, it’s impossible to fully clarify a concept or entity. There’s no deus ex machina in philosophy. Metaphysics clarifying the absolute given of entity is impossible from the start or possible only if it’s hypothetical. (2) I’ll explain this second one in later part of this article.

First one seems clear. Starting from Derrida, we confirmed repeatedly that post-modern thinkers consistently argued the absolute research of phenomenon is a dogma. In our time, we don’t know clearly and consistently confirmed truth. Furthermore, most philosophers think such truth is not only inaccessible for us but shouldn’t exist. And from it, many people think post-modern philosophy is relativism or skepticism. They made an agreement only about minimal logical rules but cannot make any ‘meaningful’ structure about truth. What is important is not that philosophers couldn’t make an agreement. (In any time of history, philosophers never reached a full consensus) The fact that the impossibility of investigating truth becomes the first regulation of philosophy: That’s what matters. Surely, anyone can do the metaphysics or make a meaningful statement about truth. However, making this kind of argument’s nothing more than a hollow one. This is because all most thinkers know it can’t be.

Philosophy seems to have collapsed in front of its impossibility. However, we should consider the second common point too.

(2) While absolute clarifying is impossible, it doesn’t necessarily mean this argument is skepticism because we can still prompt the investigation of the substance (or, something equivalent to substance) insome sense.

What does ‘in some sense’ stand for? doesn’t it contrast to (1)? Now we should think about post-modern thinker’s methods we skimmed. While they declared the impossibility of a phenomenon or being’s full explanation, they’re still defining phenomenon through their unique method: Heidegger’s phenomenological investigation and Badiou’s eventual ontology. They’re confirming the impossibility of truth in principle borrowing their special methods. Derrida is typical in that sense. Tough he keeps his position that the outside-text doesn’t exist, his proposition that there’s no outside-text itself seems outside-text. I think it’s charge of error of relativism: the forbidding generalization itself is exactly committing the generalization. And all philosophers we referred could be thought to do the same thing with Derrida.

 First of all, why would they enter into such argument? I think this is the crucial point where post-modern philosophy is distinguished from common skepticism (or relativism). For a philosophical argument to be meaningful study about phenomenon, it should keep itself from relativism or skepticism. That’s why they should set a minimal ‘safe zone’ in their philosophy. This is the hidden strategy in ‘impossibility of philosophy’. For someone to present decisive impossibility in philosophy, he should find the most irrefutable point in philosophy. Even if the inability of philosophy became a regulation, safe zone is still effective.

4. Reestablishing postulates of thoughts; case of Meillassoux

 I’d organize the main thesis of ‘impossibility of philosophy’ into simplified, clear version as follows;

(a) We cannot construct a perfectly finite, meaningful, and consistent worldview

(b) To confirm (a), we need undisturbed, irrefutable standards of thought. (they don’t have to be like the foundations of Descartes)

 What (b) requires is a kind of exceptional rules of thoughts. Heidegger argued phenomenology can take this role by leading the question of being. In Being and Time, the phenomenology is not just a fundamental principle of Heidegger’s philosophy, but also criteria of dealing with problems of existence. Philosophy and existence, those incompatible two can be unified in phenomenology. Other philosophers also have these kinds of standards too; Badiou’s set theory and Deleuze’s constructing truth.

 In this regard, what (b) suggests to us seems not trivial. (a), the impossibility of philosophy, becomes a postulate of the post-modern era. However, (b) is what gives authority to confirm (a) in general. Different from normal skepticism or relativism, serious philosophical argument needs (b). Irrefutable standards are a driving force of philosophy to think impossibility simultaneously not falling into skepticism. Quentin Meillassoux points out this double requirement in post-modern philosophy exactly. In his work after finitude, he says post-modern philosophy’s ‘impossibility’ argument should meet some absolute, foundational postulates unless it wants to be one of variants of relativism. These are the postulates of thoughts he presented;

(1) Any metaphysics or arguments implying a metaphysical proposition cannot be permitted

(2) The being of entity whose ontological status is independent from thoughts should be presupposed.

This is simplified organization of Meillassoux’s postulates which philosophy must meet. First one looks like another version of “impossibility of philosophy”. It rules out every metaphysical prompt beforehand, which means it accepts the impossibility seriously. And we can say second one is Meillassouxian imperative of (b). For him, admitting the being of an object was the most urgent task for philosophy in order to escape from relativism. By confirming (2), thoughts can preserve its strictness while it reserves post-modern thoughts of impossibility. With this, philosophy can pioneer the middle zone between dogmatic metaphysics and skepticism.

 Regardless of whether we accept the axioms of Meillassoux, we can see there’s requirement of preparing irrefutable standards to philosophy. Impossibility (or end) of philosophy is apparent. Any attempts to get back to classic metaphysics would result in dogma. We cannot admit such attempts. However, if we can establish the undefeatable horizon of thoughts, philosophy can achieve a post-modern critic of the impossibility while distinguishing itself from relativism.


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