Can Philosophy Free Itself From the Prison of Language?

The biggest project behind deconstructivism and Derrida’s body of philosophical work really boils down to language. This is both its strong point and its weakest spot.

The reason why it’s a weak spot is that a lot of Derrida’s critics are charging him with sophistry precisely because he plays around in their eyes in a fast and loose way with language. He’s basically saying that language can mean whatever you want as long as you go through certain rules, and then eventually those rules start to fall apart.

This all sounds good in the confines and within the four walls of the academe, but it really creates a tremendous amount of chaos because once you get to the philosophical point that there is no such thing as an absolute truth that everybody could agree on, then the inevitable conclusion is that anything goes.

This is precisely the kind of conclusion that scares the stuffing out of conservative intellectuals. They would like to think that the Western experience is rooted in the certainties of law and the Judea Christian philosophy and theology.

Well, Derrida wasn’t having any of that. He said everything can be deconstructed and, to make his point, he ended up deconstructing, in one of his most famous works, Plato.

Now, if you were to look at Western civilization and the philosophy that informs it like a building, then Plato is probably going to be the biggest and the sturdiest load-bearing pillar holding up that building.

If anything were to happen to that pillar, you can bet that it’s only a matter of time until the rest of the building, including its occupants, come crashing down to the floor. That’s how crucial Plato is, and Derrida, in a display of equal parts bravado and intellectual firepower, went on to demolish Plato by deconstructing his assumptions and his philosophical processes and techniques.

He shifted the discussion from truth existing to truth being in question. When truth is not in question, it is only really a skip and a hop and a jump away from Nihilism, meaning, nothing really exists. Nothing can really be proven. Nothing can be sure.

And in this particular type of environment, all relationships are in question. All conceptions of truth are in question.

Now, you have to understand that a lot of this has to do with language because Derrida was saying that Plato is essentially limited because we can only express reality based on the confines of language. We can only craft and limit reality based on the tools we have. And since language is prone to deconstruction, reality is prone to deconstruction.

This really is mind blowing stuff since a lot of people, for the longest time, made a cottage industry of deciphering Derrida. Professorships were awarded and gained tenure only based on the simple strength of one’s ability to understand and communicate Derrida.

Sadly, given the open questions that Derrida created during his lifetime and shortly thereafter, the answer to the question posed by this article is not very easy to approach. It’s still an open question. It’s still too early to tell where the chips will fall.

Let’s put it this way, the answer to the question posed by this article is similar to the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai’s answer when asked about the French Revolution and its impact. He said, “it’s still too soon to tell.”

The same applies to the question of philosophy freeing itself from the prison of language. It’s still too close to the death of Derrida for us to even come close to definitively answering the question.