On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the Philosophers

Derrida’s trademark “find the aporia” method was also used by Leo Strauss and Alfred North Whitehead, albeit somewhat differently . Derrida zeroes in on the essential metaphysical aporiae of whatever it is that he’s reading, finding each text to have been built upon its own particular defining impossibilities and self-contradictions. (In lesser hands his method becomes a one-size-fits-all cake-mix refutation recipe which produces terribly unsuspenseful readings).

Here Derrida destroys Husserl’s description of direct, unmediated experience:

The fact that non-presence and otherness are internal to presence strikes at the very root of the argument for the uselessness of signs in the self-relation…..One then sees quickly that the presence of the perceived present can appear as such only inasmuch as it is continuously compounded with a non-presence and a non-perception, with primary memory and expectation…..

Derrida, J., Speech and Phenomena, Northwestern, 1973, pp. 64, 66.

Since the presence or direct experience which Derrida proved impossible was supposed to have been the foundation on which everything else was built, Derrida’s critique, if accepted, leaves Husserl’s philosophy in shambles.

Whitehead’s use of this method was more sympathetic and more modest, interpreting a certain self-contradiction in Locke as the incipient and imperfect recognition of a difficult truth. Strauss’s use of the method, in turn, was hermetic and conspiracist. Strauss looked for rare statements contradicting most of the rest of an author’s work, and interpreted them as deliberate secret messages expressing the author’s true meaning.

Whitehead credited to Locke the anticipation of his “neutral monism” principle, which he claimed resolved the idealist-materialist debate by defining consciousness and matter as two phases of the same thing — consciousness being the emergence of novelty in time, and matter being the objectification or memory of past novelty. But he grants that Locke’s formulation of the principle was poorly-developed and not well-integrated into the rest of Locke’s philosophy, thus leaving it open to Hume’s attack and supposed refutation, which (accepted by other philosophers) doomed mankind to two centuries of subjectivist error.

Whitehead will argue that although Descartes and Locke officially accept the subjectivist principle, there are moments when each repudiates the principle ….these moments are their more profound moments, Whitehead argues, and they foreshadow the doctrine of ‘objectification’ in the philosophy of organism.

— Sherburne, Donald, A Key to Whitehead’s Process and Reality, Indiana, 1966, pp. 127-8.

I am certainly not maintaining that Locke grasped explicitly the implications of his words as thus developed for the philosophy of organism. But it is a short step from a careless phrase to a flash of insight; nor is it unbelievable that Locke saw further into the metaphysical problems than some of his followers.

— Whitehead, A. N., Process and Reality, Macmillan, 1985, pp. 59-60.

He speaks of the ideas in the perceived objects, and tacitly presupposes their identification with the corresponding ideas in the perceiving mind….. This mode of speech can be construed as a casual carelessness of speech on the part of Locke, or a philosophical inconsistency. But apart from this inconsistency Locke’s philosophy falls to pieces.

Process and Reality, p. 113.

Strauss, by contrast, does not find errors or slips in the authors he reads. Their every word was fully intentional, and our task is to find their deepest level of meaning. For Strauss all true philosophy must be secret, since the truths of philosophy necessarily call into question the conventions of society, and for that reason will put the philosopher at risk of a Socratic death at the hands of the mob. As a result, philosophers write esoterically, producing works whose relatively simple obvious meanings are supportive of the local social and religious conventions, while at the same time the real, subversive, dangerous truths are expressed at a deeper, coded level. These deep truths can seldom be openly acted upon, and they normally can serve only as the guiding principles of a secret elite.

If we find in writings of a certain kind two contradictory theses, we are entitled to assume that the one which is more secret, i. e. occurs more rarely [or “only once”], expresses the author’s serious view. (p. 230).

— Strauss, Leo, What is Political Philosophy, Chicago, 1959, “On a Forgotten Kind of Writing”, pp. 221-233.

To my mind Whitehead’s method is the most reasonable of the three. He only claims that an internal inconsistency in Locke’s philosophy (supposedly corrected by Hume) actually was an imperfect anticipation of the correct view. In Whitehead’s view, Hume’s revision of Locke was internally more consistent but led to a subjectivism which misdirected modern philosophy. Locke’s incoherent statement, by contrast, at least left the problem for others to solve, and he did express the correct view a few times, though not in a fully-developed form.

By contrast, Derrida and especially Strauss used an extreme form of the philological lectio difficilior rule, which even as a carefully-used technical tool often leads to problems. Foucault criticized Derrida for proposing “a pedagogy that gives to the master’s voice the limitless sovereignty that allows it to restate the text indefinitely“, and the same criticism of Strauss would be valid a fortiori. Within their frameworks, the more erudite author can say anything he wants to, and there are really no criteria for argument or disagreement. Strauss assumes that the authors he reads are perfect, without inconsistency and perhaps even without internal development, whereas Derrida seems to assume that the authors he discusses are identically self-refuting and only of interest as Derridian takeoff-points.

There is good to be found in everything, of course, but on the balance I think that the effects in the scholarly world of Strauss’s Jesuitical Kabbalism and Derrida’s euphuistic Gongorism have been more harmful than beneficial. I like Whitehead’s solution better, but who cares? No one reads Whitehead any more.