Derrida, by Christopher Norris. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 271 pp. $25 hard cover; $8.95 paperback. Jacques Derrida is the bad boy of French philosophy, a Pierrot beheading all philosophies ancient and modern. Abroad, especially in the United States, he's a Pied Piper leading young academic critics into betraying themselves in their attempts to follow him. But if Christopher Norris is right, behind the mask is the unsmiling face of reason.
Born in Algiers of ``assimilated'' Sephardic-Jewish parents in 1930, Derrida turned toward philosophy in 1948 after listening to a radio broadcast about the French philosopher Albert Camus. His doctoral thesis was slowed down by his increasing concern about the literary nature of philosophical writing.
Like other rationalists, Derrida works from an Archimedian point, a central ``fact.'' Norris organizes his book around Derrida's writings on Plato, Hegel, Saussure, Rousseau, Kant, Austin, Freud, and Foucault. He shows how Derrida reads the philosophers not as voices in historical time but as writers whose texts interact both in their own historical time frame and in the vertical time frame of reason and the dictionary. The meaning of a text, then, is a matter of its difference from other texts. In a famous play on words, Derrida expands this ``difference'' to include the neologism ``diff'erance'' - the ``deferral'' of the final meaning, the ``undecidability'' of the text.
Derrida's immovable starting point is ``'ecriture,'' the fact of writing. It has wide ramifications. For example, he connects Plato's preference for the spoken word and his hierarchical and exclusive philosophizing. But his criticism of Plato's ``logocentrism'' may be pointed not at Plato so much as at some of his contemporaries who have isolated the ``moment of truth'' as an inward unveiling, a pristine experience. Likewise, Derrida's attack on the Christian logos does not so much strike out at ``the glory of the Lord'' as at an arrogant confusion of philosophy and revelation. Often inflated, his own rhetoric requires the self-deflating humor of his more recent work.
To his credit, Derrida has pointed out something that the modern ``science'' of linguistics overlooks. Words not only wobble in relation to the objects they name (is a rose really a rose?); separated from the spoken moment by writing, words wobble in themselves. Etymologies, shades of meaning, sometimes paradoxical usage - their several meanings make words ``undecidable.'' That undecidability is a feature of all texts is axiomatic for Derrida. But to catalog almost three dozen types of undecidability may have blunted the original insight.
And yet this rigor, as Norris points out, separates the sheep from the goats. If Derrida sometimes sounds like a fashionable bellwether of iconoclasm, the sheep have been all too ready to follow. But Derrida has done much lately to distance himself and those who argue that truth is relative and any interpretation is as good as any other. He also rejects the rejection of the past implicit in the apocalyptic rhetoric of some post-modernists, a rhetoric of crisis that he used to employ himself.
Norris argues that Derrida uses reason to fight reason. But Derrida is heir not only to the tradition of critical rationalism but also to the symbolist tradition in French poetry from Baudelaire to Mallarm'e in which the very forms of expression help critique that expression. His own books sometimes take unorthodox forms and require a very close, literary reading.
As Norris shows, Derrida addresses a world in which pure reason is expected to have practical applications, and sooner or later does. Thinkers have to find the blind spots in rational arguments so that this misuse of reason can be checked. In the nuclear debate, for example, Derrida has ``deconstructed'' the arguments of both sides, revealing their ``aporias,'' or built-in limits and blind spots.
In Norris's words, Derrida demonstrates that ``disarmers must do more than confront these issues with a passionate moral conviction and a rhetoric as powerful as that brought to bear by the advocates of peace through nuclear strength. They have to show that such arguments are totally misconceived; that deterrence is a notion whose `logic,' as Derrida writes, is `either rhetorical-strategic escalation or nothing at all.' And this will involve not only a patient and detailed rebuttal of opposing claims, but also - indispensably - an appeal to critical reason by way of bringing out the contradiction and aporias present in the discourse of nuclear power-politics.''
``Who is more faithful to reason's call, who hears it with a keener ear...,'' Derrida asks, ``the one who offers questions in return and tries to think through the possibility of that summons, or the one who does not want to hear any question about the principle of reason?'' The Derrida who emerges from this book is hardly the free-for-aller of literary criticism or the radical iconoclast of philosophy. Norris has done what not even Derrida has been able to do very well: explain Derrida.
Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.