Tag Archives: Jacques Derrida

Bacteria and Natural Agency

The latest issue of the Journal of the American Philosophical Association has an article about agency and cognition in bacteria, “Natural Agency: The Case of Bacterial Cognition,” by Fermín C. Fulda. It’s part of a steady stream of research across the humanities and sciences indicating that nonhuman life forms are smarter than most modern philosophers had thought. It’s often billed as a surprise. Even bacteria have cognition! HERE is another piece with an overview of some bacterial cognition research. Fulda’s article is very critical of the looseness with which words like cognition, intelligence, and agency get lumped together, so he adds some philosophical clarity and distinction to those terms, specifically as they apply to research regarding the patterned behavior of bacteria.

Proposing an “ecological conception of agency,” Fulda argues for a move from a Cartesian to neo-Aristotelian perspective. Focusing on different kinds of agency (Aristotle) and not primarily on cognition (Descartes) allows for a broad, fluid boundary between human and nonhuman life instead of the rigid binary of Cartesian mind and matter. Of course, many philosophers make similar arguments for a spectrum of agency. Hans Jonas, Alfred North Whitehead, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin are good twentieth-century examples, but those aren’t exactly the thinkers who dominate discussions in the American Philosophical Association. It’s significant that Fulda is making this argument in an APA context. Is mainstream philosophy becoming less anthropocentric? Maybe. Continue reading


Philosophy on the Edge

I’ll attend the Pacific division meeting of the American Philosophical Association later this week in San Francisco. Even though it’s only a division meeting (not national), it’s a massive event nonetheless. There are a few panels I’m very excited about, including one with Al Lingis and Tony Steinbock, focusing on Steinbock’s recent book, Moral Emotions, which is something like a sequel to his Phenomenology and Mysticism.

I’ll be presenting Friday evening in a panel about philosophy on the edge. Preview: I’ll say something about how coexistence in the Anthropocene is without center or edge. With the ongoing and inevitable erosion of anthropocentric subjectivity, countless beings are crowding into center stage. Everything is a center, being centered amidst multiplicities of centers with a circumference that is nowhere; but this could also be formulated by saying that everything is not a center, being on edge in a world whose center is nowhere and circumference everywhere. In some sense everything is both a center and an edge, but in another sense, everything is neither a center nor an edge. What this means it that coexistence in the planetary era is fundamentally ironic, ambiguous, and uncertain. My main point will be that this situation does not just call for humans to give up anthropocentrism. It calls for philosophers to give up philosophy, to give up the power of philosophy so that philosophy might become possible again, and still for the first time. Giving up power is about becoming vulnerable to intimate encounters outside of philosophy and outside of the occidental context of philosophy.

I’m thinking with Foucault here, specifically this remark he made in an interview during a stay at a Zen temple in Japan in 1978. “The crisis of Western thought is identical to the end of imperialism,” which is also “the end of the era of Western philoso­phy. Thus, if philosophy of the future exists, it must be born outside of Europe or equally born in consequence of meetings and impacts be­tween Europe and non-Europe.” Adding some specificity to his comments, I want to make a couple of small incisions to open up some possibilities for a philosophy of the future. The incisions use the cutting edges of deconstruction and Buddhism, that is, the blades of the mohel and manjushri. There are a few different lines of thought to bring together here, at least three, including Keiji Nishitani’s work on the encounter between nihilism and emptiness (shunyata), the work of Robert Magliola, Jin Park, and others facilitating an encounter between Derrida and Nagarjuna, and Tim Morton’s invocations of Derrida and Nagarjuna in his dark ecology. The point is not to help solve any problems with some Buddhodeconstructive tag team. The point is to become vulnerable, weak and powerless. The point of the blades of the mohel and manjushri is this: surrender.

The Turning Point

I was recently joking about the use of a “turn” to describe theoretical movements or epochs, like the linguistic turn and the more recent ontological turn.  I was happy to find Derrida articulating the same point as my hokey-pokey joke: the point is to question the very idea that we (who? humans? animals? beings?) are beings that can define and situate ourselves in a “turn” or some such epochal shift or historical mutation.

I would therefore hesitate just as much to say that we are living through a historical turning point.  The figure of the turning point implies a rupture or an instantaneous mutation whose model or figure remains, precisely, to be questioned.  As for history, historicity, even historicality, those motifs belonging precisely—as we shall see in detail—to this auto-definition, this auto-apprehension, this auto-situation of man or of the human Dasein as regards what is living and animal life; they belong to this auto-biography of man, which I wish to call into question today. (Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, p. 24)

Integrating Deconstruction

It’s easy to use a philosopher’s concepts and stylistic strategies without actually confronting some of the serious challenges that the philosopher is engaging.  A case in point: Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory, in its extremely comprehensive treatment of various perspectives, discourses, and ways of knowing, often picks up on important conceptual and stylistic elements of philosophers without fully engaging those philosophers’ problems.  Wilber’s treatment of Derrida is a fine example.

Wilber attempts to integrate Derrida into this Integral framework, yet fails to come to terms with the deconstruction of the transcendental signified.  Gregory Desilet discusses this problem of the transcendental signified in an essay on “Misunderstanding Derrida and Postmodernism” (on http://www.integralworld.net/desilet.html ), where he shows how Wilber has simply misread and misquoted Derrida on this issue.  In Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (2000, p. 629) Wilber refers to an interview of Derrida’s (in Positions), arguing that Derrida therein accepts “genuine transcendental signifieds” on the grounds that translation is not possible without them.  The problem is simply that Wilber improperly interpolates when he cites this interview.  When Derrida says “no translation would be possible without it,” the “it” to which he is referring should not be understood as “the transcendental signified.”  Rather, the “it” refers to the “difference” between signifier and signified.

That this opposition or difference cannot be radical or absolute does not prevent it from functioning, and even from being indispensable within certain limits—very wide limits. For example, no translation would be possible without it. (Derrida, Positions, 2004, p. 19)

This is not to say that there is nothing undeconstructible for Derrida, but what is undeconstructible is not a transcendental signified—not a pure or absolute transcendence that is free from shifting contexts and sliding chains of signifiers.  It is quasi-transcendental.

Not a stable or substantial foundation, a quasi-transcendental condition is insufficient and disordering.  Quite different from a sufficient and empowering transcendental, it is always deferring in further temporal unfolding, constituting horizons of possibility by transgressing them.  Although Wilber claims that Derrida posits a transcendental signified necessary for translations, a transcendental signified actually closes the door and translation, cleaning up the slippage and deferral that keep translation in transit.  There’s no getting around the groundless play of events.  There is no transcendental signified, no first or final frame of reference, no ground, not even Nonduality or some kind of groundless ground.  Moreover, this doesn’t mean that Derrida is a nihilist.

Perhaps it’s worth remembering that Derrida, in his autobiography, says that “the constancy of God in my life is called by other names” (Derrida, “Circumfession,” 1993, p. 155).  He says that while also declaring his atheism.  God is a name, and it but one name among many for the impossible effects of an event (l’événement), which names a coming (la venue), the arrival of a newcomer (arrivant), a stranger to come (à venir).  If what happens is reduced to its position in a rigid program or a homogenized order where no surprises occur, then the event is reduced to an economy of the same—a systematic order that precludes the differences that would accompany the arrival of what is coming.

An event occurs when the future (l’avenir) breaks through the economy of the same, opening the rigid order of the system to the absolute surprise of what is to come (à-venir).  This absolute surprise is something for which no anticipation, expectation, or horizon of waiting is available, because this surprise is precisely the e-vent, the coming-out of that which is wholly other than any program or order.  It is impossible to prepare for this coming, to let in the other, because preparation would assimilate the alterity of the other into one’s own horizon of expectations.  It is impossible, and it is precisely the task of deconstruction to somehow prepare a way for the impossible to happen.

Deconstruction is a process of preparing for events through the invention of the other, an evocative and provocative invention.  It is the invention of messianic justice—an impossible justice that comes with the arrival of the other, an arrival that is undeconstructible and irreducible to any particular messianisms or particular religions.  In a sense, Wilber was right to say in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (2000, p. 562) that the deconstruction of presence “has almost nothing to do with mystical Presence,” but only because deconstruction is more messianic than mystical.  In any case, that “almost nothing” poses a much more serious challenge than Wilber has taken up.