Josh Cohen on Derrida, reading and différance

Josh Cohen summarizes some of the central ideas of the late French philosopher
Jacques Derrida

In light of David Mikics' recent biography, Who Was Jacques Derrida?, and The Beast and the Sovereign, a new collection of translated seminars by the philosopher, Josh Cohen summarizes the potential of Jacques Derrida's distinctive way of reading:
[The] Derridean practice of philosophy simply doesn't consist in making, elaborating and defending propositional statements. even sceptical ones. It is premissed rather on a conception and practice of philosophy as reading, understood in a very singular way. Briefly put (and risking the very perils of summary exposition I've just pointed to), reading as Derrida conceives it focuses on the predicament of philosophy itself. To read is to be subject to the temporal delay and spatial dispersion that are the conditions of any and every text. Meaning is never gathered immediately in a determinate textual time and place but, to use Derrida's terms, "differs" (that is, spreads over the time and space of reading). Derrida famously coined the term "différance" for this radically elusive logic of differing and deferring, a term reducible to no entity or substance. The play of différance ensures that meaning is always divided from itself. Reading is a kind of ongoing experience of this internal division in, and dispersion of, meaning.


That Derrida's practice of philosophy consists in reading rather than propositional claims does not insulate it from criticism. It merely shifts critical focus from the rightness or otherwise of a given claim to the rigour and inventiveness of the reading itself. Inevitably, Derrida is hardly immune from criticism in this regard. There are moments in the seminar that pass too hastily over whatever in the text doesn't make itself readily available to deconstructive reading. For example, questioning Lacan's attempts to delimit the concept of the human in terms of the human being's capacity to dissimulate itself, Derrida rather skims another source in Lacan for the human-animal distinction, namely "a true specific prematurity of birth in humans". I can't help wondering if this argument is rather summarily left behind because it identifies a determinate basis for a properly human psychic life, properly distinct from its animal counterpart.

But my concern in challenging Derrida on this point is less to refute him than to point up the fundamental significance of the questioning provoked by his singular practice of reading. Rather than leaving us in the hermetic enclosure of language, as his critics will so often claim, his interrogations of the terms which organize our habitual thinking draw us towards the oldest and most vital concerns of humanity itself, not least its own nature - if, as Derrida would undoubtedly add, it can be said to have one.

Josh Cohen, 'Differences'
Times Literary Supplement (TLS), 2 July 2010
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