The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 26.271 Friday, 29 May 2015
Date: May 28, 2015 at 8:23:13 PM EDT
Subject: Re: SHAKSPER: Deconstruction
My thanks to John Drakakis for highlighting some points that need clarification. Drakakis writes that, with regards to the origin of langue, Derrida comes to the conclusion that “any appeal to a metaphysics, whether it be a transcendent metaphysics, or simply ‘mind’, cannot be sustained. The point is that we are not separated from language: language constitutes US.”
Here we come to the great divide between Eastern philosophy and Western philosophy. It has been known, for thousands of years, in Eastern philosophy, that words are inadequate to express certain truths and meanings, and also that words cannot represent all of human experience. So there is never even the slightest suggestion, in Eastern philosophy, that our interpretation of the world must all be textual in form, or that language can possibly constitute us. As Sean Lawrence points out, we should also note that not all Western philosophers necessarily agree with Derrida’s ‘il ny’a pas hors de text’ (there is no “outside-the-text”).
Rather than enter directly into this great debate over Eastern and Western philosophies concerning this metaphysical issue, we can perhaps bypass it here, for now, by keeping our discussion anchored in the real world (as far as possible). This is always a good idea because a major problem with using only abstract arguments is that factors—that must be taken into consideration in the real world—may be inadvertently omitted.
So here is the real situation. As I pointed out in my first post, we cannot assign meaning to words purely on the basis of other words. This is demonstrated by the fact that a single-language English dictionary is useless to someone who knows no English at all. At least some of the words must already have an imputed meaning for the dictionary to function. So we cannot disregard the mind that imputes meaning onto at least some of the words, this being done in the same way a child learns the meaning of a word, i.e. by directly associating the word with the corresponding object or action. Since that is also how all of us begin to learn language, this mind-that-imputes-meaning is actually essential at the starting point of our language-learning process. Without it, we cannot even start!
So the mind-that-imputes-meaning is a “center” that simply cannot be omitted. This center is a stabilizing influence on language, although it is not ideal in the sense that different minds may impute meaning onto words in a slightly different way. Nonetheless, since this difference is not great, it still functions as a stabilizing influence.
John Drakakis brings up this point: “If you concede that there is no ‘ideal’ centre, then it can’t be smuggled in by the back door as a ‘relatively’ stable centre.”
Actually, I fail to see how the existence or nonexistence of an “ideal center” changes the fact that this mind-that-imputes-meaning has to be present for language to function. If we are keeping our analysis in the real world, the only way to remove this mind-that-imputes-meaning is to find a way for a person, who knows no English at all, to learn the language using only a single-language English dictionary. If this cannot be done, the mind-that-imputes-meaning cannot be removed from our analysis, regardless of whether it serves as an ideal center or not.
This “less-than-ideal” center can provide stability in the same way pegs, that hold up a tent, do. One peg may not do the job, but if we apply enough pegs, the tent becomes stable. That is, in fact, what happens when we try to convey what we mean using words. We repeat the same meaning using different words in different sentences, so as to ensure that the correct meaning is conveyed. This is akin to using many pegs.
John Drakakis also points out this statement by Derrida: “We have no language—no syntax and no lexicon—which is foreign to this [the history of metaphysics] history; we can pronounce not a single destructive proposition which has not already had to slip into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest.”
This is actually a well-known problem in Madhyamika philosophy (a form of Eastern philosophy). The way to get around this problem is to realize that words function merely as tools of communication required to get to the meaning. The debate is over the meaning that the words communicate, and not over the words themselves. The Madhyamika philosophers use the term “conventional truth” in order to clarify that the meaning is being communicated in this way purely because there is no other way to communicate.
Thus, it is understood that labels do not necessarily confer reality. Here, the term “mind-that-imputes-meaning” is not conferred reality purely because of the label. It is conferred reality because there is no other way to explain why a person, who knows no English at all, cannot learn the language from a single-language English dictionary. Thus, if we are keeping the analysis in the real world, we cannot remove this entity, regardless of whatever label we want to attach to it.
This is, in fact, a good example of the problem of debating only in abstract terms: it may lead to a factor—that must be taken into consideration—being omitted inadvertently. If we are keeping things real (rather than abstract), this mind-that-imputes-meaning cannot be removed. I believe we are now ready to return to the crucial passage from Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”:
“This moment was that in which language invaded the universal problematic; that in which, in the absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse—provided we can agree on this word—that is to say, when everything became a system where the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences. The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the interplay of signification ad infinitum.” (end of quote)
The fact that the mind-that-imputes-meaning cannot be removed actually makes this entire passage invalid. Basically, even in the “event” of language becoming the new “presence,” as Derrida claims, it still does not follow that there is an “absence of a center” in language. The mind-that-imputes-meaning is still there. And this means that NOT “everything has become discourse.” It also means that there is something MORE than just a “system of differences” remaining. Hence the claim by Derrida that the interplay of signification has been extended ad infinitum is simply NOT true.
With the mind-that-imputes-meaning present, the interplay of signification cannot proceed infinitely without constraints. And this means that language cannot be infinitely unstable. Therefore the claim that “all meaning must inevitably be contextual and socially constructed, and hence cannot possibly be absolute and fully objective” has NOT been proven; and Derrida’s argument fails to warrant such a claim.