Derrida on metaphor

This post is the second in Alex and I’s series on Jesus and Derrida–an odd combination, I know. Before we dive into Alex’s sermon on John 3 (Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus), I want to give some background info on the philosophy of Jacques Derrida for those of you who might not be familiar with him.

Derrida-2Derrida was born in Algiers but spent most of his life in France, where he studied and eventually taught. He is famous (or infamous) for coming up with a philosophical method or procedure known as deconstruction, which is the process of turning upside down and examining the underlying structures, causes, and effects of things that we commonly take for granted. For instance, democracy is something we often discuss in the US (since we think, falsely, that we invented it) as an actual “thing,” as something that exists, when in reality, as Derrida would say, democracy does not exist but it calls to us or invites us to live democratically. When we flip democracy over and examine it we realize that it is an ideal, a principle, but that there’s nothing really there until we put it into practice. Furthermore, we also find out there are lots of ways and means of living out democracy, some of which actually end up being terribly anti-democratic. Law is another example Derrida uses to demonstrate that concepts are deconstructible. Laws also originate from some place and some time, and while they aim at inviting justice, laws themselves are not just…they are only what attempts to move us toward justice.

For the purposes of this blog series, there are a couple of things I want to say about Derrida’s philosophy. And in subsequent posts you’ll see why these concepts are important.

1. There is no direct correlation between a word and the thing toward which that word points. Derrida took the linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure and deconstructed it to say that the signifier (the word) does not correspond directly and ultimately (as in all the time, forever) to a signified (the object the word denotes). For Saussure, the word tree, for example, always directly points to “the” concept of the tree. Derrida says, on the other hand, that the best we can say is that the signifier (word) points to another signifier, which probably also points to another signifier, and that we can likely never get back to the actual object (the signified). Though what remains is a trace of the signified, a trail that leads to the possibility of recovering the concept of the tree. What this looks like in practical speak is that when each of us hears the word tree we likely have different images of various trees pop into our heads, which leads us to believe that there isn’t any one fixed, settled concept of a tree that we all automatically see when we think of trees. Moreover, the word tree is fairly arbitrary. We could just as well agree to call it a flurb, since the word tree itself (though agreed upon for practical matters) has no relation to the physical objects.

2. Since there’s no direct correlation between words and concepts, but only a lot of words that attempt to articulate a concept as best as possible, then Derrida’s theory of metaphor is altered from what metaphor has traditionally meant. In a philosophical world where signifier points directly to signified (word “tree” points directly to concept “tree”), then we could understand metaphor as Aristotle did: metaphor occurs when a word stands in the place of another word. When this happens the new word, the metaphor, points to the original word, which in turn points to the concept. However, once the relationship between words and concepts has been deconstructed, then this theory of metaphor no longer holds. Derrida, in an essay called “White Mythology” wrote that all language is metaphorical because in every use of a word the word only points to other words and not to an actual concept. This denotes what he refers to as a “semantic loss,” meaning that language can never completely and clearly grasp the concepts that we once held dear as clear and distint. It doesn’t mean that we’re left in a world of confusion (like planet of the apes) in which there is no system of language. Obviously we all get by pretty well on a day to day basis while using words and attempting to get across a particular meaning (though clearly this too sometimes fails us). But what it does mean is that when we’re trying to talk about something difficult, there isn’t any easy way to do it, which brings me to point three.

3. What Derrida was really deconstructing in “White Mythology” has less to do with language per se and much more to do with logic and what the philosopher Heidegger called “onto-theology.” Onto-theology is a combination of theories of being with theories of God such that one’s theology is based off of how one understands what it means to exist. One consequence of onto-theology is that it renders God as a clear and distinct concept within one’s system of being. Onto-theology also ends up becoming what Derrida calls “white mythology,” by which he means that we take our own logical constructions and claim that there’s something eternal about them, that they are the very basis of reason in general. We build up reason out of our own logical myths, or we build up God out of our own logical myths. He thinks, and I agree, that this ends up being a dangerous proposition that can lead to all kinds of bad events. What does all this have to do with metaphor, you ask? Here it is… Derrida goes so far as to say that there are no concepts “behind” metaphor, but that metaphors and concepts are the same. Metaphor can’t properly articulate a clear and distinct concept because there are no clear and distinct concepts. All we have is metaphor. This he calls the death of philosophy, but really it is just the beginning of deconstruction. As John Caputo points out in numerous books, including The Insistence of God, deconstruction can be a helpful tool for theology because it gets us out of the game of taking our own logical constructs and calling them God and into the game of responding to God’s call in the world.


Author: Jeremy

I am happiest outside, surrounded by trees or water. I rarely go anywhere without my camera, and I actively seek ways to connect my work as a philosopher and theologian with regular people who are trying to make sense of this world.

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