From Postmodern to Premodern Critique of Self-Reflection—Egolology versus Theology

Rodolphe Gasché has construed Derrida’s pathbreaking thought for our postmodern era as a critique of “the philosophy of reflection.” Derrida critiques the self-reflective type of philosophizing that has been pursued by Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and Husserl as representatives of the mainstream of modern Western philosophers. “Now what Derrida’s deconstruction has in view is precisely the undoing of the idea of self-affection and, consequently, of all forms of self-reflexivity.”1 In the early stages of his deconstructive project, Derrida critiques the relation of supposedly immediate self-reflexivity in Husserl’s theory of voice and phenomenon? Derrida fundamentally contests the idea that the self can be immediately present to itself in the phenomenon of the voice—in speaking to or with itself. The supposed privilege of voice in philosophy stems from its role as the medium of a self-reflection of meaning in supposedly mirrortransparency and auto-affection. Such is the Rousseauean model of the Romantic confession of the heart. Derrida rejects the schema of returning upon and regrounding oneself as one’s own origin through reflection, or more exactly through self-reflection.

It is important to qualify this interpretation by specifying that the critique applies only when self-reflection works as a means of sealing off the system of the self from the outside and thereby insulating it from its “others.” Derrida, in effect, “deconstructs” such closural schemas by showing how the system always presupposes and surreptitiously relies on what it pretends to exclude. Inside and outside contaminate each other, and this is so for structural reasons inherent in the nature of language and its making of significant differences in general. Derrida is certainly right that the outside is already present on the inside once it is linguistically defined, for this contamination is brought about inevitably by the differential logic of mutually defining terms. [1]

There is, however, also another movement of self-reflection which springs the system open to the Indefinable that all definitions tacitly presuppose. Before the definition of either of two differentially opposed terms, there is the undefined potential from which both spring. This “infra-real” instance (in the sense of being before the emergence of differentiated things or res) requires an apophatic logic of negation even just to be discerned. “Deconstruction” can operate as such a logic and has so operated, I maintain, throughout ancient and medieval tradition in thinkers like Dionysius, Eriugena, Eckhart, etc.[2]

Contemporary deconstruction’s own presumable closure to God, transcendence, religion, and the like, is the limit at which it betrays its own inescapable dogmatism as a discourse that differentiates itself from what it opposes. As he developed, Derrida himself did all he could to deconstruct this type of deconstructive dogmatism. Through his persistent engagements with discourses of religion, and particularly with negative theology in his later work, he eschewed the closure of deconstruction as a stable, defined intellectual paradigm that could simply be applied. Ultimately, deconstruction aims not to dismiss its objects but to call forth its others.

Even so, and leaving aside his epigones, Derrida’s own discourse stands up only by virtue of what it opposes. Frank Kermode pointed out that Derrida needs to make theology his bogey in order for differance to appear different from everything else and hence to have a point. But, strictly speaking, no oppositionality is possible without entering into a system with what one wishes to be different from and to deconstruct—in this case theology. “This rather hectic and repeated emphasis may suggest that it is Derrida himself rather than the opponents he cites (without naming them) who most obstinately brings up this question of negative theology and its resemblances to differance. It is as if he were selfthreatened with a theology, or an atheology—with the desire for a realm, however vacant—and finds the prospect disturbing” (76). Kermode suggests that the discourse of the hyperessential—the transcendent being of God that is beyond all knowing, as in Dionysius—and Derrida’s discourse of differance are mutually dependent (89).

This casts some light on why Gasche reads Derrida as a “quasi-transcendental” philosopher in the lineage of Kant, who remains agnostic about what there actually is and answers, instead, only to the question concerning the conditions of possibility of knowing. Even if there is an infinite consciousness (or God) to which all is present in a totally

Egolology versus Theology 115 systematic knowing, in any case we cannot know such a knowing. Hence the negative-theological penumbra that is cast by transcendental reflection in the Kantian sense. In “Comment ne pas parler” (“How to Avoid Speaking”), Derrida admits that the theological interpretation according to which “God would be the truth of all negativity” remains undecidable for deconstruction. “This reading will always be possible. Who could prohibit it? In the name of what?”[3] Clearly, the critique of self-reflection does not settle the question of God, once belief in God is not proposed as a logical inference from the self’s own self-knowledge. Instead, belief in God, for the postmodern and for the premodern sensibility, can be admitted to be sustained by a relation of »«knowing directed toward a mystery beyond our conception.

The crucial question about self-reflection, then, is whether it re-flects (bends, folds, flectere) back again (re) to settle and establish the self as a constituted entity or rather deconstructs the self as only constructed in and through reflection. Self-reflection has been a foundational discourse throughout the modern age of philosophy. Reflection was presumably pursued from Descartes through Husserl as the means by which the self could establish itself as the foundation of knowing. However, self-reflection can also be an exercise in breaking down the confines of selfhood: witness the dis-unity of Kierkegaard’s oeuvre shattered by a multiplicity of pseudonyms. Self-reflection can aim to find a way of exiting from the constricting enclosure of the self, of opening the self to others and, most importantly, to the absolute Other from which it conceivably proceeds. This is, in fact, more the spirit of the ancient and medieval tradition of wisdom pivoting on the injunction “Know Thyself” (nosse te ipsum). Knowing oneself meant, above all, knowing one’s limits and one’s lack of a foundation in oneself alone. This orientation is relayed in Dante’s medieval Latin tradition by Boethius (480-524). When the disgraced Roman philosopher is visited in his prison cell by the allegorical figure of Lady Philosophy, she tells him the real cause of his unhappiness and of the sickness of his soul. It is not his physical confinement, nor even his public defamation, but something else entirely, namely, that he has ceased to know himself (lam scio, inqui, morbi tui aliam vel maximam causant: quid ipse sis nosse desisti).*

Since Greek antiquity, the Delphic oracle has served as a motto to guide philosophical inquiry venturing down the path of self-reflection. It presides over the relentless critical questioning pursued by Socrates, who was reported by Plato to have taught that the unexamined life is not worth living (Apology 38a). This questioning indicates a route not

to founding certain knowledge on the self, but rather to sharpening and deepening awareness of the limits of the self, of its final nullity in the overall scheme of things. A Renaissance spirit such as Michel de Montaigne (1533-92), thinking and writing in the medieval memento mortis tradition (Essais I.xx: “Que Philosopher, c’est apprendre a mourir”), represents this approach in a way that directly contrasts with the Cartesian foundations project. What one learns to know fundamentally is that one does not know. This was the (anti-)wisdom that, according to the oracle, set Socrates apart from other humans. Such knowing of unknowing underlies a tradition of negative theology that stretches from Augustine and Eriugena to Bonaventure and Nicholas of Cusa. The latter makes it programmatic under the title On Learned Ignorance and links it explicitly with Socrates.[4]

There are analogous apophatic forms of logic at work in thinkers long before, as well as since, Dante. Dionysius, Maimonides, Eckhart, John of the Cross, and Silesius Angelus (combined with the others named in the preceding paragraph and with Longinus at the head of a rhetorical tradition of reflection on ineffability) form one important axis backgrounding and contextualizing this orientation of Dante, which climaxes in the Paradiso. These theological thinkers developed certain types of selfreflection that were characteristic of medieval models of knowing, specifically of medieval approaches to representation of the transcendent.

The major innovations of modern thinking eventually rendered remote and even unintelligible these apophatic modes of thought revolving around no definable object. The modern innovations enacted a shift from analogical to univocal thinking in the age of Duns Scotus (1265/66-1308)— exactly contemporary with Dante—and from realism to nominalism in its direct aftermath, with William of Ockham (1287-1347). The balance of Part II brings out the ambiguity of Duns’s own thought by suggesting how his legacy fosters the scientific worldview that understands itself as independent of theology in a manner that Dante’s alternative inauguration of modernity, if it were heeded, could serve to counterpoint and even to contest.

  • [1] Rodolphe Gasché, Inventions of Difference: On Jacques Derrida (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), 35. This book follows up on Gasché’s The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986). 2 Jacques Derrida, La voix et le phénomène (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1967).
  • [2] I make this argument in On What Cannot Be Said, vol. 2, 443-47; 26-36. 2 Derrida and Negative Theology, ed. H. Coward and T. Foshay (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992). 3 Frank Kermode, “Endings, Continued,” Languages of the Unsayable: The Play of Negativity in Literature and Literary Theory, ed. Sanford Budick and Wolfgang Iser (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989).
  • [3] Jacques Derrida, “Comment ne pas parler: Dénégations,” in Psyché: Inventions de l’autre (Paris: Galilée, 1987), 435-95. 2 Pierre Courcelle, Connais-toi toi-même, de Socrate à Saint Bernard (Paris: Etudes Augustiniennes, 1974-75). 3 De philosophiae consolatione (Milan: Rizzoli, 1977),,112.
  • [4] Book I, Chapter 26 of Cusa’s De docta ignorantia discusses negative theology specifically. Book I, Chapter 1.4 mentions Socrates. 2 Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008) develops this “nominalist revolution” as decisive for the advent of modernity.
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