Was Derrida Just a Sophist?

If you were engaged in any kind of philosophical discussion with somebody and you think you are making progress in expressing your intellectual superiority, the easiest way to insult you would be for the other person to call you a sophist. That’s all it would take to throw you off.

This works all the time. In fact, this is the boilerplate insult for people with any kind of intelligence or philosophical sophistication. They instinctively recoil from this word because it is a very cutting word.

When you call somebody a sophist, you’re basically saying that this person engages in all sorts of philosophical analysis, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really add up to much of anything because they are engaged in philosophical tricks. They’re using logical sleight of hand to seem smarter than they really are or, alternatively, to seem like they’re talking about something deep and important, when in reality, they’re actually being shallow.

The charge of sophistry is almost a fatal charge. In fact, in some circles, it’s actually a fighting word. If you call somebody a sophist, you are essentially, for all practical purposes, inviting the person to a fistfight.

If somebody’s reviewing your book, for example, and you offer philosophy, and somebody labels you a sophist, they’re basically insulting you. They’re basically dismissing your body of work and saying that you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re a fraud, a sham, a counterfeit, the whole nine yards.

As you can well imagine, when it comes to conversations about or an analysis of Derrida, both the philosopher, the man and the historical force, charges of sophistry are not exactly welcome. In fact, they can ignite all sorts of heated discussions and arguments.

Interestingly enough, there is a growing movement in Western philosophy, both within and outside the academe, that has basically accepted as gospel truth the charge that Jacques Derrida, despite his historical and cultural impact, was a sophist.

They point to the fact that a lot of his arguments are self referential. In other words, when you trace his arguments, instead of you being led to a greater understanding of philosophy in general, you are essentially led to a closed loop.

Put in the crudest forms, his logic, according to his critics, is that something exists because it exists. In other words, it’s self referential, it’s circular. In fact, a lot of the same philosophical firepower normally directed by atheists against the concept of the deity are applied to Derrida.

In the minds of many people, this really is not much different from debunking a deity because so many people have such a high regard for him. So intense and oftentimes vitriolic were the attacks and charges of sophistry against Derrida that it is undeniable that his reputation has taken a hit, especially after the 1980’s when some of his self-proclaimed followers actually used his deconstructivist philosophical techniques to, in the eyes of many critics, legitimize Nazism or philosophy that’s friendly to Nazism.