Responding to Stephen Hicks and the Criticisms of “Postmodernism”


Today, I would like to quickly comment on this talk that Stephen Hicks gave last year at the University of British Columbia. Despite some of his massive generalizations on 19th-20th century philosophers, I think Hicks gave an excellent overview on Kantianism and some of his influences on “postmodernism”. He is also right that both analytic and continental thinkers came to similar conclusions on metaphysics regardless of their differences. In this post, I will elaborate on some of Hick’s generalizations by talking about Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and weaving the latter with Jacques Derrida. I will also provide a quick analysis of a famous passage from Derrida’s Specters of Marx.

I would like to make four points:

First (1), if you think Nietzsche and Heidegger are “irrationalists”, then you really should reread their works. This is especially true if you also think they are outright nihilists, since both of them focuses on overcoming nihilism.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche saw how we needed to balance rationality (Apollonian) with our irrationalities (Dionysian) [speaking in Hick’s terms]. For Nietzsche, the problem is we have always privileged rationality over irrationality. Thus, he suggests that we should consider our own passions instead of being rational for once. Yet, we must also not disregard our rationality since the two are like yin yang. Here, it is hard to pinpoint Nietzche’s exact meaning since he writes in metaphors—something Heidegger and Derrida took great interest in.

In Nietzsche’s later works, he foresaw how his era will result in nihilism where people will destroy their own Christian beliefs due to the prominence of rationalism (i.e. the proliferation of science via the enlightenment era). Furthermore, he saw Christianity as a nihilistic ideology which focuses on rejecting life instead of affirming it (i.e. they believe heaven is a better place). Although Nietzsche was a controversial critic of Christianity and any religion that deals with promoting moralities that disapproves of life, he wanted to solve the problem of nihilism by trying to understand it. Nietzsche overcomes nihilism through the notion of perspectivism, where one must “destroy” some of our older “traditions” which allows us to create new moral perspectives that affirms life, open-mindedness, strength and courage (by “destroy”, I am alluding to Heidegger’s notion of “destruktion”, which Derrida translates into “deconstruction”). This is what Nietzsche famously calls “the will to power”. In some ways, Nietzsche was a moral nihilist, but only because of what he saw that was inevitably coming.

When Hicks points out how Heidegger thinks “logic gets in the way and we have to set aside logic and find some other way [to get to truth?]”, Heidegger is not necessarily saying that logic is useless and we should bide to irrationalism. But rather, he is suggesting that logic becomes contradictory, and thus “disintegrates” once we try to understand “Being” through time (I will demonstrate this later on). Therefore, we have to put in place, an “originary questioning” of being—of what Heidegger calls, the question of the historicity of Dasein (Being-There). When Heidegger asks the question, “What is Being?”, what he really mean is, “What is Being-there?”—or, “What is the Being that is already there?” (….which allows the thinking subject to formulate the question in the first place?).

Simply put, there has to first be a human “Being” who is “there” within temporality in order for there to be a “logical” thinking subject (i.e. you have to first exist in the world, temporally). This “there-ness” of Being (in-the-world)—the “Da” of Dasein—is our experience of the temporality of Being (Sein). From this, Heidegger (and Derrida), will challenge Kant’s views on temporality to distinguish the temporality of Dasein from the intratemporality of the “I think” subject (consciousness). Dasein is what precedes and makes possible, the famous rationalist / foundationalist Cartesian statement, “I think, therefore I am” (Hicks is a foundationalist). And it is within the temporality of Dasein where Heidegger coins his famous concept known as “Care”.

If you recall my last post on Derrida, I was intentionally being vague when I pointed out how when we read a text through temporality, we trace to a “history of all sorts”. This history that we trace is the historicity of Dasein (after all, Heidegger states that “language is the house of being”). But why do we trace towards the “historicity” of Dasein and not the “presence” of Dasein? Remember how trace is the unity between retention and protention where this present moment which had just past (the words you just read) unites with what is to come (the words you are about to read). On one hand, the presence of the present is always a past, which refers to a historicity of Dasein. On the other hand, this past is always moving towards a future. The logic that “disintegrates” into temporality is how this present moment is always already a past of what is to come.

Heidegger, similar to Derrida, are thinkers of origins. They are trying to conceive of a “philosophy” that can establish the “grounds” for all philosophies, epistemology, foundationalism, rationalism, empiricism, skepticism, literature, sciences, physics, and metaphysics, etc. In another words, they are trying to think of how philosophy and the very gesture of thinking arises, which in turn, establishes the philosophy of science, society, ethics, politics, art, love, etc. If you understand all of this, then you are almost at the forefront of contemporary continental philosophy.

Secondly (2), Lyotard, Foucault and Derrida should not be summarized together as if they had similar end goals simply because they were all “far left in the political spectrum” (that’s absurd). The reason is because their ideas varies greatly. For example, while Foucault and Derrida may appear to be “deconstructing” a historical discourse with similar influences such as Hegel and Heidegger, both of their approaches are very different. Foucault adopted certain aspects of Nietzchean thought, such as his “hermeneutics of suspicion” (a term coined by Ricoeur) and his “genealogical methods” of ideas, history, sex, and power. Whereas Derrida, in addition to Nietzsche, was influenced by Saussure, Freud, Lacan and most importantly, Husserl’s phenomenology. In fact, Derrida was a critic of Foucault, who attacked his magnum opus by close reading just three of its pages at a conference—which was kind of embarrassing for Foucault, since he was an intellectual superstar in France. Hence, when someone speaks of the word “deconstruction”, do they mean Derrida or Foucault? Deconstruction is often associated with the former and not the latter (an article that mixes this up is this one).

Third (3), when Hicks quotes Derrida on how deconstruction consists of a certain “tradition” and “spirit” of Marxism, Derrida is referring to his book, Specters of Marx. Something important that I must point out from this book is that Derrida thinks criticizing Marx is equally important. Basically, Derrida is trying to speak of how there is a certain “spirit” of Marx, such as his ways of radical criticism, that people always-already carry out in our capitalist world today, even if Marxism is long dead (i.e. Hicks and Peterson—the latter even used a few Marxist ideas to fight against Marxism). Therefore, we are the “specters” of Marx—even when most of us are not strictly Marxists. This form of radical criticism is what Derrida sees in “deconstruction” (destruktion; de-structure; destroy; interpretation) as he tries to situate it in politics later in his life. Hick’s naive interpretation of Derrida shows how little he knows about him—for, Hicks is not aware of Derrida’s consistent use of allusions.

Let us look at a popular passage from Specters of Marx:

“There will be no future without this. Not without Marx, no future without Marx, without the memory and the inheritance of Marx: in any case of a certain Marx, of his genius, of at least one of his spirits. For this will be our hypothesis or rather our bias: there is more than one of them, there must be more than one of them.” 

This passage can be easily misread because it consists of at least two allusions that only Derridean readers can see. The first allusion is the word “spirit”, which refers to the way Heidegger avoids using the famous German word “Geist” (spirit) in his magnum opus, Being and Time. But after refusing to use this word, Heidegger suddenly starts using it later in his lectures. Derrida wrote about this in a famous book called, Of Spirit—a book that I think only Heideggerian experts can understand because it is incredibly difficult. The title “Of Spirit”, is also an allusion to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The German word “Geist” is sometimes regarded as untranslatable since it can mean “spirit”, “ghost” (specter), and “mind”. In Of Spirit, Derrida tries to figure out the morphology of Geist and what it could mean for Heidegger throughout his usages as he took part in National Socialism (See here). In addition, “Geist” is also important because Hegel uses it quite often as “zeigeist” and “volkgeist”. At the end of my last post on Quentin Meillassoux, did you notice how I put in quotation, the “spirit” of Derrida? This is why.

The second allusion in this passage, is Derrida’s use of the word “future” (protention) which cannot “be” without a “memory” of Marx (retention). Again, for those who has read my introductory post on Derrida, this should be easily understood because trace is the unity between a past (retention of Marx) and what is to come (protention) [but I must point out that “trace” is much more sophisticated since it relates to Heidegger’s Dasein and the unity between life and death]. Basically, Derrida is applying his early thoughts on Husserl and Heidegger into Marx. But since I have not published my still “in the works” writings on the relationships between Heidegger and Derrida (along with Husserl and Hegel), I will not speak of this further.

[Side note: I am not an expert on Lyotard. But I always had a theory on why he called 20th century French philosophy as “post-modernism”. In a Derridean sense, the term “post” revolves around what is to come from a modernism that has past.]

I think Derrida sometimes “hides” his thoughts behind allusions to shield from people who are not familiar with his works. This idea originates from Socrates, where he criticized writing since anyone can take any text and read it whichever way they want (similar to the problem that Derrida pointed out). Thus, Socrates privileged passing on his philosophy via speech instead of writing—an idea Derrida finds problematic since speech is a form of writing. Socrates did this in order to prevent sophists who knows nothing about philosophy from using his works against him. Hence, Socrates never wrote anything, you can only find him through the works of Plato, who was Socrates’ student. I think Derrida is doing something very similar in this quote from Specters of Marx. 

Finally (4), in terms of how all these “postmodernists” secretly rebrand themselves as “the new left”. The argument is not strong once you realize that most of these philosophers disagrees with each other quite a bit within the French intellectual arena. This suggests that it is not so much about politics in the political sense, but rather, it is about politics in the intellectual sense in regards to who has the better and accurate philosophy.

On another note, I don’t think I will defend for all “postmodernists” since I only read a selected few. We should consider how Derrida did not begin his career with Marx, but Husserl. Derrida’s first book was as an essay about Husserl’s, The Origins of Geometry. If we were to talk strictly about political philosophy, Derrida is much more influenced by Rousseau than Marx, where the former preceded the latter by one century. In particular, Derrida was influenced by Rousseau’s famous book, The Social Contract, his paper, The Essay on the Origin of Languages, and his autobiographies, The Confessions, and especially, Reveries of a Solitary Walker. In fact, Derrida was a reader of Rousseau since his teenage years. He has written essays on Rousseau in his early 20s, long before he became famous in his mid-30s when he wrote about Heidegger, Husserl and Saussure, but you would have to read those early essays in French.