Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Intolerance of Ambiguity

In a fascinating and lengthy facebook discussion a few of days ago I was accused of “misunderstanding” a video interview with the French Post-Structuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida on the subject of atheism. It just so happened that I’d read a scathing 1983 review (by John Searle) of Jonathan Culler’s “On Deconstruction” (ostensibly about Derrida’s work) a few days earlier, so the accusation didn’t leave me running for cover out of fear of my own ignorance, as might otherwise have been the case. In the late 80’s, as a student, I struggled a good deal with Post-Modern theory and even enrolled myself on weekly night classes in Post-Structuralist theory at Glasgow University in the hope of connecting some of the dots. Though I made a couple of formative friendships through this experience, and sat on the edge of some incredibly interesting discussions (usually in the bar afterwards) I never really felt that I’d gained a satisfactory handle on Derrida’s work in particular. Even reading Jonathan Culler’s “On Deconstruction” didn’t help a great deal to clear the mists, though I do remember making a mental note of a section on page 176 for future reference:

“We can thus say, in a formulation more valid than its converse, that understanding is a special case of misunderstanding. (my emphasis)

John Searle’s critique of Culler’s book also mentions precisely this extract:

“According to Culler, ‘The effect of deconstructive analyses, as numerous readers can attest, is knowledge and feelings of mastery’. The trouble with this claim is that it requires us to have some way of distinguishing genuine knowledge from its counterfeits, and justified feelings of mastery from mere enthusiasms generated by a lot of pretentious verbosity. And the examples that Culler and Derrida provide are, to say the least, not very convincing. In Culler's book, we get the following examples of knowledge and mastery: speech is a form of writing, presence is a certain type of absence, the marginal is in fact central, the literal is metaphorical, truth is a kind of fiction, reading is a form of misreading, understanding is a form of misunderstanding, sanity is a kind of neurosis, and man is a form of woman. Some readers may feel that such a list generates not so much feelings of mastery as of monotony. There is in deconstructive writing a constant straining of the prose to attain something that sounds profound by giving it the air of a paradox” (my emphasis again)

How I wish I’d encountered this back in the 1988 instead of just several days ago – it could have saved me a lot of pointless head scratching.

In response to the accusation, on facebook, that I had misunderstood Derrida, I decided to reply with a metaphorical preamble about the need to occasionally “weigh anchor” when attempting to make sense of the world as opposed to simply casting oneself adrift or wallowing in the doldrums. I continued on this theme:

You’re absolutely right XXXXX, I have “misunderstood” Derrida (can you honestly claim any different for yourself though and remain consistent? I would wager not.). His is a port that I will no longer weigh anchor in, for I believe the waters are as murky as squid ink and the sands shift with the tides such that no anchor ever finds a clear purchase and no sooner have you set your boat to ground than you find yourself once again at sea. Misunderstanding is the cargo carried by so many ships that visit that port and the inhabitants speak in many strange tongues and live by customs that no man will ever fathom. I have lodged there many a night in earnest but fruitless labour in the hope of finding something more steadfast than an spiralling array of glimmers in the darkness. For some, so I hear, these distant glimmerings are a source of meaning and a guide to navigation but for me they are nothing more than an ungraspable constellation of apparitions.

The ambiguity of art is quite enough for me and I revel in the interpretations. But I look to philosophy for clarity not for more confusion.

Let me try to clarify.

It is sometimes said that one of the defining features of creativity is its tolerance of ambiguity. But this begs the question: “Ambiguity about what exactly?” Ambiguity must have its limits otherwise its sheer extent would surely overwhelm us (no matter how tolerant we believed ourselves to be). It is by recognising non-ambiguous regularities in the world that we are able to make accurate predictions about our actions and therefore operate in useful and meaningful ways. For this very reason I would argue that artists and creative people in general are kidding themselves if they think they are tolerant of All ambiguity. Sure, artists are tolerant of ambiguity within their own domains of interest and expertise but as soon as they begin to shift outside these zones of familiarity then ambiguity becomes increasingly uncomfortable, unless, of course, some of these also are areas of familiarity.

Since Derrida’s philosophy often thrives on ambiguity, in the same way that much art does, you might think that many artists would be drawn to his work. This is indeed the case. But if you look to philosophy not as a route to further ambiguity (as edifying as that may be) but rather as a means to clarify and gain some purchase over the ambiguities of experience, then I would suggest that it is unwise to take Monsieur Derrida as your navigator.


Brian Grassom said...

Jim, no-one was "accusing" you of misunderstanding. Misunderstanding is not a reprehensible thing. "Intolerance" is. We all have our prejudices, but to apply prejudice to something as important as philosophy, and then attempt to claim your view as rational and philosophical, does no justice to yourself or to those you dismiss in the name of "clarity". Whose clarity? Why, yours, of course. I would advise anyone reading your article not to heed your judgement of Derrida, but to keep an open mind.

J. Hamlyn said...

Thanks Brian,

What you wrote was: “You seem to have misunderstood Derrida’s remarks, Jim.” We needn’t quibble over this.

However, I will quibble over the idea that intolerance is reprehensible. We could introduce Aristotle’s “Doctrine of the Mean” here and say that intolerance of injustice is absolutely NOT reprehensible. A virtuous disposition is in his terms a “mean” between two vices, one of deficiency and one of neglect ie: there are times when it’s perfectly virtuous to be angry or intolerant etc.

And this leads me now to your ‘suggestion’ let’s say, that I am expressing “prejudice” (your word directed towards me above) towards philosophy. Once again, I am merely saying that I find the ambiguity of Derrida (not philosophy in general) unhelpful for MY purposes in reading philosophy. I believe I made that quite clear several times above and I am therefore quite content for others to revel in the ambiguity of Derrida’s work in the same way that I revel in the ambiguity of art. If you find his work enlightening that's obviously a good thing - you obviously have a higher tolerance of ambiguity in this area or else you don't see any ambiguity.

Yes certainly, anyone approaching Derrida for the first time should go with an open mind. But if they find that after several concerted attempts that his work still refuses to prove profitable then I would suggest that they seek something a little easier to interpret. My last line in the post above was intended to say exactly that.

Seán said...

You are right, Jim. You gave it a good shot, and as you point out, your detractors' throwing of labels does not constitute rational argument.

Having read and discussed the issue at some length, you find that you arrive at a conclusion which differs from mainstream opinion in your milieu. For those of us outside the bubble in which ridiculous, pointless, groundless, decadent, destructive nonsense like Derrida's must not be openly laughed at (ultimately the only rational response), the parallel with the tale of the Emperors new clothes is reliably illustrated.

The Emperors new clothes are made of a fabric visible only to those who are fit for their position - this appears from your discussions to be the very material from which Derrida fashioned his theories.

J. Hamlyn said...

Great to hear from you again Sean.

Yes it's certainly not unlike the epic "Is Philosophy Useless" discussion we were involved with over on Michael LaBossiere's blog a couple of years back.

You appear to have no truck with anything that might be interpreted as mysticism but how does that square with your interest in Zen?

Brian Grassom said...

It is indeed surprising, and a little sad (for me), that someone who shares an interest in Zen does not see anything in Derrida ... or should I say, does not see 'nothing' in Derrida.

Sean said...


Sean said...

The practice of Zen involves the setting aside of all metaphysical speculation, though a lot of nonsense is written about it, and even the content of reliable accounts is not meant to be a substitute for the experience, nor usually read as narrative. Academic accounts are often based on sources like Herrigel which are nothing to do with Zen.

All of which is saying more about it than should be said. Not to be mysterious, but because trying to explain is as pointless as trying to get someone else to understand exactly what it's like to be you.

I (gratifyingly) got sent a poem after my last retreat in praise of my baking which ended "with bread like that who needs Enlightenment?". Bread good. Metaphysical speculation bad.

J. Hamlyn said...

And koans?

Seán said...

... are not for explaining. I can see nothing in Derrida - but that's not what "Mu" is about.

Brian Grassom said...

Bon appetit.

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