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Metaphor and Metaphysics

Mataphor and Metaphysics: The End
of Philosophy and Derrida
Jonathan Ree *

Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy,
Harvester, xxiv + 330pp., £25.00, 1983
Christopher Norris, The Deconstructive Turn:

Essays in the Rhetoric of Philosophy, Methuen,
201pp, £4.95, 1983
I~ ‘The Ends of Man’ hs~ed between 1~67 and

one of the ten essays, first pub1972, which make up Margins of
PhIlosophy – Dernda refers to an almost-forgotten figure in
French p~ilosophy: Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre’s concept of
human eXistence – ‘realite-humaine’ – was intended Derrida
reminds us, to do away with ‘all the presupposition~ which
had always constituted the concept of the unity of man’.

However ~ as Derrida points out, Sartre never really distanced himself from traditional humanism: the ‘unity of
human-reality’ was never doubted, and there remained ‘an
uninterrupted metaphysical familiarity with that which so
naturally, links the we of the philosopher to “we men'” to
the we in the hor izon of humani ty’ • So, in spi te of his ~es­
pect for ‘history’, Sartre avoided examining ‘the history of
the concept of man’: he wrote ‘as if the sign “man” had no
origin, no historical, cultural or linguistic limit’ (Margins,
pp. 115-6).

Derrida’s criticism of Sartre’s humanism is based on the
observation that the phrase ‘human-reality’ is ‘a translation
of Heideggerian Dasein: a monstrous translation in many
respects, but so much the more significant’. This is Derrida
in characteristic form: a Germanist, reproaching his French
colle~gues for their mi.sappropriation of the philosophical
classIcs – and the classIcs of French philosophy, as is well
known, ~”e German: the ‘three Hs’ (Hegel Husserl
He.idegger), to~et~er w.ith their version of the ‘history of
philosophy, begInnIng With Heraclitus.

The Derridean procedure was unveiled to French readers in 1967, when he published three books – Grammato..!2u, Writing and Difference, and Speech and Phenomena all translated into English long ago. They are wayward
works: a magpie’s collection of quotations from the philos?phical canon, with surprising, charming, alarming sugges~Ions ~s to wha~ t~ey mayor may not, intentionally or unintentionally, signify: a set of quizzical commentaries,
rather than a direct exposition and defence of defined
theoretical lines, and a tease or a torment to any reader
h~ping for a straight journey from beginning, through
middle, to end.


I am grateful to Peter Dews for pointing out errors in an
early draft of this essay.

Take Grammatology, for example: the title means
‘theory of writing’ and so you might expect discussions of
literacy, of the relations of script to print, or of attempted
;’histories and classifications of writing-systems. In fact,
tho~gh, th.e boo~ offers you a disorienting tour through
vanous philosophical comments on meaning, from Plato to
Saussur~,. culminating in an analysis of Rousseau’s ‘Essay on
the OngIn of Languages’. Over and over again, Derrida
~atc~es p.hilosophers in the act of denouncing writing as
Infenor, Improper, unnatural and deviant compared with
speech, which they celebrate, by contrast, as comfortingly
redolent of human meaning.

It is not made very clear to readers (it was certainly
not clear to me, when I first read Grammatology) what the
purpose of Derrida’s performance is intended to be. Probably we had not noticed before that the Great Dead Philosophers show a curious favouritism towards speech; but now
that it was pointed out, it was still not obvious that their
preference had any more claim on our philosophical attention than, say, Bishop Berkeley’s eccentric zeal for tarwater. I have since realised, however, that what was being
proposed in Grammatology was not a theory of speech and
writing, but a theory of philosophy, or rather, of metaphysics. Metaphysics, according to the theory, is a seductive but disastrous fantasy of absolute knowledge; it is what
happens when you try to abstract a single, unified meaning
from the c:ontingent and determinate congeries of events;
and the philosophers’ paeans about the living immediacy of as opposed to the dead, dispersed permanence of
wntIng wer.e really, ac~ording to Grammatology, all part of
the absolutist metaphYSical conspiracy.

Derrida’s c:oncern with the concept of metaphysics
leads back to his constant reference-point: Heidegger. From
the 19~Os to th~ 1970s, Heidegger felt the weight of
world-~I~tory bearIng down on his project of rediscovering
the ongInal wonder of ‘The Question of Being’ – a question
forever begged and buried, as he saw it, in the whole history of ‘Western Metaphysics’, from the ancient Greeks till
now: a. neglect ~hich was leading, he believed, to a
Spenglenan ‘declIne’ of something called ‘the West’ •
Language, according to Heidegger, was exhausted. The life
had ~one. out of ~t; ‘Being’ had shrunk to a grammatical
banalIty, In the third person singular of the present indicative, ‘ ••• is ••• ‘, ‘this is thus’. Tracing the question back
through two-and-a-half millennia in which ‘Wester~
thought’ was supposedly bleeding to death through the
wound of the crass metaphysical absolutism to which he
the eighteenth-century na~7 of ‘ontotheology’1..

Heldegger hoped to recover the ongInal sense of ousia or
‘Being’ and so to undo the damage wrought by the bungling
absolutist metaphysicians.

The poignancy of Heidegger’s writing is that it bonds

tragic resignation with utopian or apocalyptic hope: it both
needs and refuses historical and political optimism. The call
to put an end to the West’s metaphysical forgetfulness
about Being might be an urgent summons to a bold and
definitive deed, destined to alter civilisation’s course.

Alternatively, the duty of combating metaphysics and
thereby reinvigorating it might be perpetual, re-imposed
more gravely with each step towards its accomplishment.

It was these ambiguous Heideggerian themes – of metaphysics and the Decline of the West – that Derrida began
to work with in the 1950s, except that Derrida believed
that Heidegger had not gone far enough. So he turned
Heidegger’s involutions on themselves, and blamed the
metaphysical absolutism, which he followed Heidegger in
rejecting, on the Heideggerian yearning for the original
meaning of Being. Grammatology was intended to show
how, throughout the history of ‘Western metaphysics’, a
myth of meaning-as-presence had been kept alive through a
neurotic aversion from the viscosity of non-presence, insignificance and contingency, symbolised by the palpably
inert, dead traces which are writing as opposed to speech.

And then there was the suspicion that the old metaphysicians, in their desperate attempts to keep presence
pure, were really demonstrating their unconscious lov~ for
what they denounced as corruption. So if you attend to the
classics of Western philosophy properly, you ought to see
how writing and all that it is taken to symbolise – error,
irregularity, incomprehensibility and all the other enemies
of metaphysics – are really the truth without which the
fantasy of metaphysical presence could never have been
framed. To use the language of Hollywood Freudianism,
Derrida invited us to witness, in the comments of the Great
Philosophers on irrationality and unnaturalness, an unstoppable ‘Return of the Repressed’. Error was the secret
Truth of metaphysics; and so the separation of Truth from
Error was itself a figure of deluded metaphysical fantasy.

The essays in Margins of Philosophy are elaborations of
the Heideggerian disquiet about metaphysics found in Grammatology. Their theme is that metaphysics is, essentially, a
crafty but delusive textual device which tries to draw a
boundary round itself to exclude threats to its philosophical
righteousness, thus producing the illusion of pure communion in the presence of Being, or of absolute knowledge.

As Derrida puts it in his Introduction (and his otherwise
excellent translator unfortunately adds an extra burden of
portentousness to Derrida’s prose by transliterating ordinary French words into rare and precious English:

••• if they appear to remain marginal to some of
the great texts in the history of philosophy,
these ten writings in fact ask the question of the
margin…. They interrogate philosophy beyond its
meaning, treating it not only as a discourse but
as a determined text inscribed in a general text,
enclosed in the representation of its own margin
(p. xxiii)
Throughout the rest of the book, the classic philosophers especially Hegel, Husser I and Heidegger, and philosophers of
language from Rousseau to Saussure and Benveniste – are
exhibited as unwitting participants in an ancient word-game
known as ‘ontotheology’ or ‘Western metaphysics’ – a game
with no winners and no prizes.

The longest and most thorough essay in Margins is
called ‘White Mythology’, and its subtitle summarises the
book’s principal argument: ‘Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy’. It begins by discussing a short dialogue en ti tIed
‘Ar istos and Polyphilos: or, Metaphysical Language’, by
Anatole France. (The dialogue appeared in a collection of
sententious philosphical essays by France, published as Le
Jardin d’Epicure in 1900, and translated by Alfred Allinson
as The Garden of Epicurus (London, John Lane, 1908).) The
dialogue recounts a conversation in which a jovial antiphilosopher named Polyphilos challenges a metaphysical
straight in the person of Aristos by denouncing metaphysics
as an unhealthy, etiolated, barren academicism which
shoots up whenever words are uprooted from their native
soil of human need and passion. Polyphilos has been glumly
trying to read a little Manual of Philosophy – ‘one of those

little works,’ he explains, ‘that bring universal wisdom
within your grasp’. (‘It goes through every system from the
old Eleatics to the latest Eclectics, ending up with M.

Lachelier. ‘) Polyphilos continues:

I was just thinking that these· metaphysicians,
when they use their special vocabulary, are like
travelling knife-grinders putting medals and coins
to the grindstone instead of knives and scissors,
and rubbing off the inscription, the date and the
effigy. When they have removed every trace of
Queen Victoria, or Kaiser Wilhelm, or the Republic, they proclaim: ‘Our coins have nothing
English, German or French about them; they have
been freed from the confines of space and time;
they are no longer worth a mere five shillings:

they are of incalculable value, and their currency
is limitless.’ Quite right too. The tinker’s labour
has made the words metaphysical instead of
physical…. Grant me one thing, Aristos: the
words of human language were all originally
struck with a material type; and when they were
new they represented some sensory image…. So
the metaphysicians construct their systems using
barely recognisable fragments of the signs with
which savages used to express their joys, their
longings and their fears.

(Le Jardin, pp. 197-8, 205, 216-7; The Garden,
pp. 208-9, 214, 216-7)
At the end of it all, the discombobulated Aristos is left
whining ridiculously in defence of the philosophyprofession: ‘If only you had reasoned by the rules, I could
have refuted your arguments without difficulty’ (Le Jardin,
p. 223, The Garden, p. 228). Some would make the same
complaint about Derrida, as he gets us to take a ride with
Aristos and Polyphilos, promising that we shall then be able
to ‘watch the configuration of our problem, along with its
theoretical and historical conditions, take shape by means
of the logic implicit in this text’. To our anticipated
delight, the journey will result in our seeing in Polyphilos’s
words the proto-Heideggerian view of metaphysics as a
confection of symbols which ‘have lost their original brilliance and picturesqueness’ along with their natural flavour
of ‘ancient Oriental mythology’:

By an ironic fate, these metaphysicians, hoping
to escape from the world of appearance, are condemned to live for ever in allegory. They are
melancholy poets who drain the colour out of the
ancient fables, but are not really any better than
fable-mongers themselves. lIs font de la mythologie blanche.

(Le Jardin, pp. 222-3, The Garden, pp. 227-8)
So metaphysics, for Polyphilos, is nothing but anaemic
mythology. ‘White mythology’, Derrida muses, and by an
adroit association of images he connects the phrase with
the idea of the sun: the sun as symbol of light and life, and
as that which rises in the mysterious East and shines bright
over white, Western civilisation (Margins, pp. 212-3).

The ‘logic’ of this imagery is then pursued beyond the
boundaries of Anatole France’s dialogue: ‘the sun’ is found
shining out of the works of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes and
Hegel, always expressing the futile metaphysical hope for
presence, and finally disappearing up its own radiance.

Amidst the exuberance of Derrida’s prose, a neat and
attractive argument appears, linking the ideas of metaphysics and metaphor.

Derrida foUows’ Aristotle in defining metaphor as ‘giving the thing a name that belongs to something else’

(Margins, p. 231); and that, ‘:t is easy to see, implies that
non-metaphorical language consists in giving things names
which are authentically and exclusively their very own.

Furthermore, it seems reasonable to define metaphysicians
as seekers after this direct, discrete and self-sufficient
non-metaphorical language. But then, according to Derrida,
it should be obvious that the idea of non-metaphorical
language is incoherent, and hence that metaphysicians have
been pursuing a will 0′ the wisp. The idea of non-metaphor
is itself framed from metaphors, according to Derrida; and

so, metaphysicians, whilst they take themselves to be protecting the purity of unified meaning, are really just refurbishing and recirculating the metaphors out of which the
idea of non-metaphorical language is made. The idea of
metaphor as a special and defective kind of language is itself, therefore, a product of metaphysics, but one which it
must presuppose: metaphor and metaphysics circle round
each other in reciprocal antagonism.

To sticklers’for rigour, the argument is bound to leave
something to be desired. In particular, even if you cannot
define metaphysics without using metaphors, it does not
follow that metaphysical arguments are themselves metaphorical. (You cannot define mathematics precisely, but
this does not mean that mathematical arguments are imprecise.) And even if metaphor is itself defined metaphysically, this does not prove that there can be no non-circular
‘metaphorology’ of metaphysical language; nor need it be
concluded that the concepts of metaphor and metaphysics
are endlessly mutuaJJy self-undermining.

In spite of these difficulties, though, Derrida is surely
justified in trying to turn Heidegger’s attempted ending of
metaphysics inside out by attending to the activities of
metaphor. Just like Heidegger, however, Derr ida allows
himself to be taken two ways when he aJJeges that metaphysics must be ended: either an excited incitement to exterminate it forthwith, or sombre admissions that it wiJJ go
on for ever. In 1968, it was the former. Lecturing in New
York that October, Derr ida presented himself as a bold political hyperactivist with the courage to call Vietnam by its
name, and suggested that his work was part of an irreversible transfiguration of the West itself:

Is not this security of the near what is trembling
today, that is, the co-belonging and co-propriety
of the name of man and the name of Being, such
as this co-propriety inhabits, and is inhabited by,
the language of the West, such as it is buried in_
its oikonomia, such as it is inscribed and forgotten according to the history of metaphysics, and
such as it is awakened also by the destruction of

(‘The Ends of Man’, Margins, p. 133)
This irresponsibly apocalyptic rhetoric does not ring true,
though, and can hardly be meant or taken seriously. Derrida
has not attempted the role of political subversive since,
though he has given his support to dissidents in Eastern
Europe. And since he has always contended that the project of dissolving metaphysics inevitably nurtures the metaphysical activities which it wishes to end, he has been able
(like Heidegger, but unlike Sartre) to pursue a normal and
brilliant career as a professional academic philosopher, and
is now director of a Mitterandist promotion of French
philosophy, the College International de Philosophie in
Paris. Outside France,’ however, the apocalyptic Derrida
lives on.



Derr ida is probably the most famous living philosopher in
the English-speaking world. His reputation rests mainly on
the use of his name and his works as a raJJying-point for
one of the supposedly radical and youthful parties in the
political and
methodological battle-of-the-generations
which rages in academic departments of English literature,
sometimes leaving the rest of us rather perplexed. To
many, his work is known through simplified, often idolatrous, summaries, rather than through his own writings ‘Derrida’s Digest’, as someone said. In this context, Derrida
is taken to have proved that the distinctions between True
and False, Good and Evil, and indeed aJJ other ‘binary
oppositions’, are unsustainable and reactionary. Thus, it is
concluded, it is time for Philosophy, which is chronically
fixated on Truth, to be handed over to the antiquarians and
the archivists, whilst redundant philosophy staff get redeployed, if they are lucky, as literary critics or rather
‘rhetoricians’. For literary criticism itself, it seems, has
been contaminated by such ideas as Truth and Goodness, so
it too has to be revolutionised in the light of Derrida’s

anti-metaphysical philosophy.

Derrida’s work is usuaJJy Englished under the nurserylike rubric of ‘deconstruction’ (a term not much used by
Derrida himself), and the claim is then made that in ‘deconstruction’ Derrida has supplied us with a transferable
technique of ‘close-reading’, as they caJJ it, applicable to
aJJ kinds of ‘text’ (and it turns out that nothing is anything
if not a ‘text’). Although ‘deconstructionists’ often express
their doubts about the insistent and dogmatic monotony of
Freudist interpretations, deconstructive ‘close-reading’ is
very similar to psychoanalytic approaches to neurotic symptoms, as it untangles the elaborate camouflages in which
primary processes disguise themselves so as to hoodwink
the censor and gain admission to the ordinary conscious
world. Criticism qualifies as deconstructive ‘close-reading’

when, having ‘interrogated’ the text, it breaks through the
defences and shows that an unsavoury set of delusive binary oppositions
public/private; masculine/feminine;
same/other; ra tional/irr a tional; true/false; central/per ipheral; progressive/reactionary; major/minor; real/imaginary; sufficient/excessive, etc., can be found ‘inscribed’

within it. You will notice that in each of the pairs, the
first-mentioned term is, as they put it, ‘privileged’. And
deconstruction is programmed to demonstrate, in the firsf
instance, that the ‘privileged’ term depends for its identity
on the process (or ‘gesture’) of excluding its other, thus
bearing witness that primacy really belongs to the subordinate term instead. (‘The Return of the Repressed’.) But
deconstruction will go on to assert, in the second instance,
that the whole absolutist habit of thinking in binary terms
(‘logocentrism’), and of retaining such concepts as ‘identity’, ‘primacy’ and the ‘other’, even if only to demote the
privileged, is itself an evasion – a useless attempt to elude
the common fate appointed for us by a kind of a priori
psychoanalytic democracy, which ensures that the same
basic instincts (whether of polysemic metaphor or polymorphous desire) will turn out to be, in the last analysis,
the cause and significance of everything we do – even
when we try to escape them.

Collapse of metaphysics and the disContents of the
Vest, and commencement of bacchanalia of ‘undecidability’

and ‘dissemination’: philosophy, capitalism, colonialism,
patriarchy, politics, truth, and, for good measure, ‘English
Literature’ too, are put behind us, presumed to have
breathed their last. -It is a matter of debate whether this
radical panacea ought to be allied with the best traditions
of progressive thought (as argued, for instance, in Michael
Ryan’s Marxism and Deconstruction, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), or if it doesn’t, unfortunately, trash
them along with everything else (as argued in Perry Anderson’s In the Tracks of Historical Materialism, London,
Verso, 1983), leaving only scepticism, relativism, and a
paralysing despair.

An intelligent and helpful proponent of AngloDerridianism is Christopher Norris, whose Deconstruction:

Theory and Practice (London, Methuen, 1982) has rightly
been welcomed by many English readers. His new book, The
Deconstructive Turn, is subtitled ‘Essays in the Rhetoric of
Philosophy’ and it discusses works by Austin, Kierkegaard,
Kripke, Ryle and Wittgenstein in the hope that ‘closereading’ will reveal some ways in which – ‘as Derrida has
shown’ – philosophy is the plaything of poetry. Norris sees
himself as concluding the final round of what he calls ‘the
age-old quarrel between philosophy and literature’ (Turn, p.

66). He relishes scandal~ ;:t.nd ‘the scandal of deconstruction,’ he thinks, is that it disrupts ‘some of the most basic
assumptions of philosophic” reason’ (pp. 7, 12). The essential
point about philosophers, according to Norris, is that they
do not have the nerve to ‘entertain the monstrous idea that
the discourse of philosophy is everywhere subject to a play
of rhetorical signification’; they are, he taunts, unable to
let go of ‘the deep-seated logocentric assumption that
texts embody a communicative power, and authorial ‘presence’, sufficient to resolve their manifest contradictions’

(pp. 56, 4-1). He seems to think of deconstruction as a kind
of lie-detector, which will expose the tell-tale lapses in
the discourse of the philosophers – ‘those moments of text31

ual doubt or indecision where philosophy glimpses, and
forthwith represses, its own “literary” status ••• ‘ (p. 172).

If you challenge a deconstructor for misinterpreting a
text, you are liable to be sneered at for your reliance on
some ‘metaphysical’ ideal of “‘true” ~epresentation’ (and
the word ‘true’ will be put in quotes, in case its contamination should spread). Whatever it is to be called, though,
Norris does seem sometimes to miss some good things in the
‘texts’ he ‘interrogates’.

For instance, he tackles
Wittgenstein, as ‘the authority most often appealed to by
;those in search of a philosophic case against deconstruction’; and predictably, the Achilles’ Heel of Wittgensteinism
turns out to be metaphor, which is ‘a major theme in the
Philosophical Investigations, though one which is often suppressed or occluded when it threatens to surface too insistently’ (pp. 34, 35). (Its ‘major’ presence, you see, is proved
by its general absence.) With the air of a s,choolmaster
triumphantly prising open a fistful of stolen Smarties,
Norris fastens on a passage in Part Two of the Investigations, where Wittgenstein wonders what goes on when
people have strong intuitions to the effect, for example,
that Wednesday is fat, but Tuesday is lean; or that the
vowel e is yellow. Wittgenstein claims that such situations
cannot-be explained by saying that words are being
endowed with a ‘metaphorical sense’, if tha t means a sense
which could be expressed by another word used literally.

‘Wednesday is fat’ is not a metaphorical way of saying, for
instance, that Wednesday is wealthy; nor is it a metaphor
for anything else. The point about such statements is, just
as Wittgenstein,;says, that ‘I want to use these words (with
their familiar meanings (Bedeutungen» here’. But Wittgenstein tolerantly concedes that ‘one might speak of a
“primary” and “secondary” sense (Bedeutung)’ in such a
case, though he immediately points out that ‘the secondary
sense is not a “metaphorical” sense (eine “ilbertragene”
Bedeutung)’. (Philosophical Investigations, Second Edition,
Oxford, Blackwell, 1958, p. 216. It is perhaps worth noting
that the word here translated as ‘metaphor’ is not
‘Metapher’ but ‘ilbertragung’, a word which is more usualJy
– for example when used by Freud – translated as
‘transference’ .)
Norris descends on Wittgenstein’s argument with fierce
deconstructive indignation. Wittgenstein, he says, is simply
‘shifting attention from the problem of metaphor’, and so
we have on our hands yet another of those ‘cases of a discourse which represses certain problematic themes (like
metaphor) in the interests of preserving its own coherence
and authority’ (pp. 37-8). It is not clear, though, that the
‘repression’ and ‘authoritarianism’ here are coming from
what Norris calls the ‘faithful Wittgensteinians’. He tells us
that ‘a deconstructive reading would bring out the extent
to which Wittgenstein depends on metaphorical language, in
striving to negotiate supposedly conceptual problems’ (p.

40). But the point was commonplace long before the advent
of ‘deconstruction’: Wittgenstein went out of his way to
emphasise the uses of analogy, imagery, and point-of-view
in philosophical discourse; and surely none of his readers
think that Wittgenstein meant that words literally went
away for their holidays, or that philosophers ought actually
to be liberating flies. ‘The deconstructionist,’ Norris pursues, ‘might claim that philosophers – especially professing
Wittgensteinians – had not yet got round to reading Wittgenstein’s text with anything like an adequately detailed
attention’ (p. 43). Norris’s strictures on Wittgenstein leave
you wondering whether he has read the book at all, let
alone read it.

‘Deconstruction’ and its proprietary nostrum of ‘closereading’, then, are promoted by contrast with something
called ‘philosophy’, which according to Norr is is characterised by its ‘self-image as a higher, truth-telling discipline
of thought’ (p. 35) and by its habit of searching for a
‘source and guarantee of meaning’ (p. 49). Sometimes,
though, Norris thinks that he finds the old philosophers acknowledging, in spite of themselves, that deconstruction has
the better of them. Wittgenstein’s writings, for example;
‘by no means provide such a straightforward riposte to the
arguments of deconstruction’ (p. 35). This, he says, is

proved by the importance to Wittgenstein’s message of his
idiosyncratic literary styles. The same, presumably, could
be said of many other Great Philosophers. Plato, for instance, though lumbered with responsibility for the ‘deep
laid assumption that “philosophy” has to do with certain
kinds of truth which are not to be found in “literature'” (p.

0, might more plausibly be presented as one of Derrida’s
earliest disciples: the joyous insouciance with which he
used the devices of dialogue, analogy, irony, allegory, parable and myth suggest that he may never actually have
practised the kind of philosophy which the Derridians would
deconstruct him for. Or take Locke, presented by Norris as
ridiculously attempting ‘to purge his discourse of all metaphorical residues, a project doomed to failure by the
radical metaphoricity of all language ••• ‘ (p. 35): given the
profuse and self-conscious figuration in nearly every pagethat Locke wrote, he must have been a crypto-deconstructionist too.

It would be ingenuous, surely, to conclude that philosophy is capitulating, after two thousand years, to the New
Technology of deconstruction: the more reasonable inference would be that deconstruction supports and promotes
itself by means of self-serving, perverse and indefensible
car ica tures of the philosophical classics.



We may assent as Derrida and his follows point to the
shifting metaphors from which an idea of becoming
acquainted with absolute truth is framed in the Great
Books of Western Philosophy from Plato to Hegel and
beyond. But we may also feel uneasy at the tone of persecution with which it is done” (‘Have you ever had any connection with metaphorical organisations? ••• Yes? Then your
claims to Truth confound themselves •••• Or no? Then you
are deluded, since all language is metaphorical ••• ‘.) And finally, we may get bored: the rules of the contest make the
moves so predictable and the Derridian victory so swift
that there can be little in it to delight us’ or instruct. It
reminds me of the monotony with which, ten or twenty
years ago, people would approach the philosophical classics
with the single-minded aim of disclosing guilty complicities
with the idea of a ‘private language’. We should perhaps
look more closely at the key cards in the Derridian pack:

l.etaphor and metaphysics.

Metaphor, Derrida thinks, primarily means transferring
an epithet from one thing to another. It is easy to see why,
with metaphor so loosely defined, Derridians can come to
the conclusions, first, that all language is metaphorical,
and second, that the distinction between literal and meta’phorical uses of words should be jettisoned. Add to this the:

idea that metaphysics is the attempt to evade metaphoricity and you will be licensed to derride (to coin a word),
without more ado, the works of all the Great Dead

But the concept of metaphor which the Derr idians take
as their sta~ting-point is, (as Wittgenstein’s discussion confirms) very rough indeed. And it applies only to a very
restricted range of linguistic facts – indeed it seems to me
that what the Derridians really mean is often better
expressed by the· term ‘euphemism’. It is hard to believe
that such a concept can be of any use at all when generalised to cover the whole of language.

In a particularly perceptive review of Margins, Arthur
Danto writes that Derrida’s ’emphasis on philosophical texts
as the least unit of philosophical discourse’ may prove ‘a
profound and perhaps a liberating contribution’ (TLS, 30
September 1983, pp. 1035-6). However, Derrida’s approach
to the ‘philosophical text’ is actually very distorting. He
eschews the idea that it, or anything else for that matter,
can be analysed in terms of conscious decisions by authors;
lnd (perhaps demonstrating that structuralism and· poststructuralism have more in common with surrealism than
with scientific realism), he regards all writing as if it were
‘automatic writing’, to be interpreted no differently than
dreams. In conjunction with Derrida’s preoccupation with

‘metaphor’, this conspires to draw attention to local literary effects, such as may be achieved within a phrase, ..

sentence, or a paragraph, as opposed to rhetorical designs
on a larger scale – like the delineation of character, the
presentation of direct or indirect dialogue, or ‘dramatic
irony’: in short, it fails to remember such literary processes
as narrative, story and plot.

A plot often found in the clas’sics of philosophy is one
which depicts a journey, a voyage to enlightenment. This
applies, for instance, to Hegel’s Phenomenology and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, both of which are so constructed as
to lead to a final chapter in which all the perceptions and
perspectives presented in previous ones are undermined thrown away, as Wittgenstein has it, like a ladder once you
have climbed it to reach a new vantage. The arrival which
is celebrated in the closing chapter is, however, a shadowy
one: for nothing can be said of it, except that it comes
after all the rest, and that its content cannot be positively
formulated at all. For writers like Hegel and Wittgenstein,
at least, the commencement of what Derridians call ‘presence’ was the ending of their books. When you pay attention to their plots, you can see that they were not aspiring
to say the last word on anything at all. In such books as
these, it is quite misleading to concentrate on metaphor,
however it may be defined; and ‘close-reading’ will turn
out to be a euphemism, or indeed a metaphor, for literary

‘Metaphysics’ is the other joker in the deconstructionist
pack. Heidegger, like Husserl and Hegel before him, supposed that it was the secret of European culture, and so of
world history too. Its expression, they assumed, resided in
the set of texts which had, by their time, been collected
into a consolidated canon called ‘the History of Philosophy’. The grouping together of these texts was not arbitrary, but it is salutary to remember that it was not carried
out in the a priori spaces of eternal metaphoricity either:

it was done in the academic institutions of eighteenthcentury Europe: which means that the ceaselessly renewe.s
-project of destroying or dispersing ‘metaphysics’ may be a
rather more parochial and academic concern than some of
its enthusiasts seem to suppose, and not a matter on which
the fate of ‘the West’ depends after all.

To his great credit, Derrida wonders from time to time
whether there isn’t a danger in speaking of ‘metaphysics’ in
such a way as to ‘erase the differences ••• in order to produce a smooth, homogeneous, ahistorical, all-of-a-piece
cloth’. However, the fact that he mentions the difficulty
does not mean that he has taken its measure. He advocates
that the history of metaphysics should be conceived in
terms of ‘not an origin, but long sequences and powerful
systems,’ but in practice he assumes that what he calls ‘the
finite but relatively long sequence called metaphysics’ has
a simple formula – namely, that it is the result of trying to
see meaning in terms of presence, and that the consequent

constraints ‘are exercised, in constitutive fashion, over the
entire history of metaphysics’ (Margins, pp. 72-3).

Thus, an implausibly essentialist concept of ‘Western
metaphysics’ continues to dominate Derrida’s work, as its
perpetually insulted spouse. And Derrida – following Hegel,
Husserl and Heidegger – fails to notice how awkwardly most
of the canonised books fit in to the canon, or how inadequately, tortuously and contrarily they express the generic
essence which is supposed to bind them together. Of
course, there are some works which deal with metaphysics
in roughly the derrided sense – systems of ontological
truths, or· tracts on the fundamental properties of Being,
written according to the conventions of literal-minded
scientography (if there is such a word). Some writings of
Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz and Spinoza come into this’

category. But it is, to put it mildly, an exaggeration to
suggest that such works preponderate in what Derrida once
called ‘the entire history of the West as represented in the
history of metaphysics’ (Positions, Paris, Editions d~
Minuit, 1972, p. 13). They do not even make a majority in
the standard canon of philosophical classics. Hume, Kant
,lnd Hegel, for instance, and Plato and Locke and Descartes
too, may have found the idea of an absolute knowledge of
Being attractive; but they were also inclined to regard it
as a deceitful and dangerous promise which on the whole
they certainly did not pretend to fulfil in their own writing. Their books used self-conscious literary artistry to
conjure up the objects of absolute knowledge not by pretending to write down their descriptions but by telling
stories about our perpetual exclusion from them – invoking
them, in effect, by a rhetoric of negative insinuation. They
are not works of ‘metaphysics’ as described and mocked by
‘decons truction’ •
It may be said that the Great Philosophers were fascinated or even tantalised by a mistaken idea of absolute
knowledge; but the same applies, and in the same way, to
the person who is determined to ‘deconstruct’ them. And
they were also participating in other kinds of debate, less
purely academic: Plato, for example, wrote in order to promote a high-minded conception of law and’ the state;
Descartes, to propound a system of physics based on a principle of the conservation of motion~ Hume, to defend a certain kind of conservatism about social and political life;
Mill, to fight for science, individualism, and the rights of
women. Their works are paragons of philosophy, but they
were not bounded by the perimeters which the artificial
and claustrophobic notion of ‘Western metaphysics’ tries to
draw round them. It is a pity that Derrida, who – a bit unfairly, by the way – accuses Sartre of failing to recognise
the mutability and factitiousness of his Heideggerian concept of man, should have relied so heavily and uncritically
on his own borrowing from Heidegger: namely the fantastic,
pretentious and curiously academic concept of ‘Western
metaphysics’ •





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