Thursday, March 13, 2014

Brilliance or Nonsense?

French philosopher Jaques Derrida is considered perhaps the foremost proponent of deconstructionism, the school of thought that seeks to analyze texts to find their hidden contradictions and oppositions. For many deconstructionism is an opaque field filled with jargon, ambiguity and gibberish.

One gets a sense of that in the most recent interview by Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting at The Opinionator. Gutting interviews Syracuse philosopher John Caputo, a proponent of deconstructionism, about his approach to religious discourse, and Caputo proves as hard to nail down as a drop of mercury on a smooth table.
Gary Gutting: You approach religion through Jacques Derrida’s notion of deconstruction, which involves questioning and undermining the sorts of sharp distinctions traditionally so important for philosophy. What, then, do you think of the distinction between theism, atheism and agnosticism?

John Caputo: I would begin with a plea not to force deconstruction into one of these boxes. I consider these competing views as beliefs, creedal positions, that are inside our head by virtue of an accident of birth. There are the people who “believe” things from the religious traditions they’ve inherited; there are the people who deny them (the atheism you get is pegged to the god under denial); and there are the people who say, “Who could possibly know anything about all of that?” To that I oppose an underlying form of life, not the beliefs inside our head but the desires inside our heart, an underlying faith, a desire beyond desire, a hope against hope, something which these inherited beliefs contain without being able to contain.

If you cease to “believe” in a particular religious creed, like Calvinism or Catholicism, you have changed your mind and adopted a new position, for which you will require new propositions. Imagine a debate in which a theist and an atheist actually convince each other. Then they trade positions and their lives go on. But if you lose “faith,” in the sense this word is used in deconstruction, everything is lost. You have lost your faith in life, lost hope in the future, lost heart, and you cannot go on.
Caputo seems to be saying that there's really no distinction between theism and atheism because they're both rooted in a more fundamental unifying quality called "faith." This, if I understand it, seems to be like saying that there's no distinction between oaks and grass because they're both green plants. I might be mistaken about this, however, because the language deconstructionists use is so imprecise as to allow for a host of possible interpretations as the subsequent exchange illustrates:
G.G.: I’m having some trouble with your use of “deconstruction.” On the one hand, it seems to be a matter of undermining sharp distinctions, like that between atheism and theism. On the other hand, your own analysis seems to introduce a sharp distinction between beliefs and ways of life — even though beliefs are surely part of religious ways of life.

J.C.: After making a distinction in deconstruction, the first thing to do is to deconstruct it, to show that it leaks, that its terms are porous and intersecting, one side bleeding into the other, these leaks being the most interesting thing of all about the distinction. I am distinguishing particular beliefs from an underlying faith and hope in life itself, which takes different forms in different places and traditions, by which the particular traditions are both inhabited and disturbed.

I agree they are both forms of life, but on different levels or strata. The particular beliefs are more local, more stabilized, more codified, while this underlying faith and hope in life is more restless, open-ended, disturbing, inchoate, unpredictable, destabilizing, less confinable.
I'm not sure what this last sentence means, exactly, but if it's the case that particular beliefs are rooted in an overall worldview that would seem to be a fairly unremarkable observation.
G.G.: O.K., I guess you might say that all thinking involves making distinctions, but deconstructive thinking always turns on itself, using further distinctions to show how any given distinction is misleading. But using this sort of language leads to paradoxical claims as, for example, when you say, as you just did, that beliefs contain a faith that they can’t contain. Paradox is fine as long as we have some way of understanding that it’s not an outright contradiction. So why isn’t it a contradiction to say that there’s a faith that beliefs both contain and can’t contain?

J.C.: The traditions contain (in the sense of “possess”) these events, but they cannot contain (in the sense of “confine” or “limit”) them, hold them captive by building a wall of doctrine, administrative rule, orthodoxy, propositional rectitude around them.
Surely there's a more lucid way of expressing what he's trying to say. The fact that deconstructionists use such murky language suggests, at least to me, that they're trying to camouflage banalities by wrapping them in phony profundity. You can check out the rest of the interview at the link and if you can bring some clarity to what Caputo is trying to express please let me know.