Thursday, October 14, 2004

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Contributor: What Derrida Really Meant

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Contributor: What Derrida Really Meant: "Fortunately, he also taught us that the alternative to blind belief is not simply unbelief but a different kind of belief - one that embraces uncertainty and enables us to respect others whom we do not understand. In a complex world, wisdom is knowing what we don't know so that we can keep the future open. "

Jacques Derrida died last week at the age of 74. I think it probably was Derrida that taught me that no matter how much you read something and understand the words, you may not understand the concept. And now that I do, in fact, understand Derrida's approach to certainty and understanding, I think this is exactly what he meant to teach the world. You can't KNOW anything. Because certainty means the exclusion of certain truths that you do not yet know. See . . . the words make sense but the knowledge, the understanding of the concept does not come easily.

Derrida was probably best known for his "deconstruction" theories, which have been pirated by mainstream media and pop culture and perverted into something simple. And Derrida was not a man of simple theories. Deconstruction is not about dismantling or picking apart a notion, it's about showing that each human certainty is weak, fallible. The concepts of "Good" and "Evil" may seem simple and concrete but they can't exist without one another and there is no pure form of either. By extension, witnessing evil acts sometimes compells good people to be better, and so good can come from evil. Which is why evil can't be pure.

Which is good.

When I was a freshman in college studying Derrida's work, my world had been full of certainties. Abortion should be legal, no matter what. Writers write what they mean. Politicians may lie but they have limited power and resources, so the power remains with the people. Religious individuals lack logical, rational thought processes. These were the things that I would later grapple with in my life- notions that had once seemed untouchable, solid, became full of exceptions and outright contradictions. Some people come out of their college experiences with more certainty, some with less. I think you are only a success as a scholar and a philosopher if you continue in your life becoming less and less certain about ideas and opinions . . . and more comfortable with uncertainty.

Derrida forced me to realize that there were certain things that I would never fully understand. All through high school I had never really been mentally challenged, and the ease with which I dealt with simple material became confused with aptitude. At some point that bubble had to be burst. It should be burst for everyone- everyone should, at some point, be told that they can't truly be certain about the world or about ideas and that there are certain things that are simply beyond the grasp of the human mind. I am very grateful, in retrospect, that Derrida's work confused me. Because later I would come to understand that, to a certain degree, the world and all that's in it should confuse us all. When we become certain, when we think we know it all, we stop learning.

In the great tradition of French thinkers, Derrida dared to give thought a presence- to make thought not only intrinsic to the human condition, but also a guiding principal and a worthwhile activity. While Descartes said "I think, Therefore I am," Derrida's philosophy was, "I think, therefore, I must always think."

Thank you, Jacques.


  1. To paraphrase Grandpa: Every day I learn something new about how little I actually know.

    "Some people come out of their college experiences with more certainty" -- amen. They're certain they are now EDUCATED. And therefore, finished learning. Any suggestion to the contrary may be met with hostility.

    Found your site from your comment at georgemustgo. Thanks very much...

  2. derrida was a great teacher. that NYT obit was shitty, but your comments were great. re-reading Truth in Painting now. just so fricking dense, but worthwhile