Jacques Derrida and Language Deconstruction a review By Jack Kettler
The Great Thinkers'
By Christopher Watkin
P & R Publishing 2017
A Review by Jack Kettler
Christopher Watkin (MPhil, Ph.D., Jesus College, Cambridge) researches and writes on modern and contemporary French thought, atheism, and religion. He lectures in French studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, blogs at christopherwatkin.com, and can be found on Twitter @DrChrisWatkin.
What others are saying:
“Chris Watkin has done what I thought was impossible. He has explained Derrida's deconstruction with lucidity, brevity, and charity. Not only that: he has imagined what it would be like for Cornelius Van Til to go toe-to-toe with Derrida in a discussion about language, logic, and the Logos made flesh, all of which figure prominently in John 1:1-18. And if that were not enough, he has done it in just over a hundred pages. Readers who want to know what all the fuss over postmodernity is about would do well to consult this book.” - Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Research Professor of Systematic Theology, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
“Philosopher Stanley Fish once declared, 'Deconstruction is dead in the same way that Freudianism is dead. . . . It is everywhere.' Christopher Watkin's remarkable book explains better than any other the nature of Derrida's program and the reasons for its persistence. Watkin corrects misunderstandings and caricatures. Derrida is easy to dismiss when one takes a few of his thoughts out of context. But a great deal of importance must be highlighted. The author engages in a biblical and Reformed critique, one that 'hold[s] fast what is good,' while identifying its evils (1 Thess. 5:21-22). Complete with helpful diagrams, the book is a tour de force. I wish I had possessed it while in graduate school.” - William Edgar, Professor of Apologetics, Westminster Theological Seminary
“The Reformed community has long sought to stage a dialogue between Jacques Derrida and Karl Barth, but no one before Christopher Watkin has ever considered initiating a dialogue between Derrida and Barth's Reformed critic Cornelius Van Til. Watkin explains Derrida's fundamental ideas very clearly; more, he shows Calvinists some things that might be gained if they read Derrida with sympathy. Not least of all, the Bible might disclose more of its meaning.” - Kevin Hart, Edwin B. Kyle Professor of Christian Studies, University of Virginia
Christopher Watkin has done a masterful job introducing and explaining Jacques Derrida’s thoughts to the reader. Using important citations from Derrida’s philosophy of “Language Deconstruction.”
Derrida was a prolific writer and is evidenced by the fact that:
“Derrida was the author or coauthor of at least seventy books, held professorships in Paris and the University of California, Irvine, and received honorary doctorates at many more universities (including Cambridge: the petition failed in the end), but that says very little about the scope of his influence.” (xxii introduction)
Watkin’s goal is to help the reader with an overview of Derrida’s most important ideas, which cover a significant range of subjects from metaphysics, ethics, politics, and theology. Along with this goal is another, which makes it understandable and how to interact with it in terms of a Reformed Van Tilian presuppositionalist position. This challenge may seem almost impossible for many, yet Watkins does a superb job.
A couple of examples of how Watkin’s introduces the reader to Derrida:
“In other words, deconstruction is a warning against treating our meanings as completely clear and our truths as The Truth. Derrida’s most succinct expression of this conclusion is in “Force of Law,” where he argues that we should never simply identify the law with justice, or, to put it a bit differently, never identify our laws with The Law. One could build a rather strong case for such a thesis from the Prophets, Jesus, and Paul. No?” (Introduction xxiv)
“My aim is to provide Christians with a way of understanding Derrida that does justice both to his own thinking in its own terms, and to the Bible in its. Although I hope my analyses and interpretations will stand for themselves, I perhaps owe the reader at the outset some explanation of my methodology. First, I write as a Christian for a Christian publishing house. Second, I start with the assumption that one must earn the right to critique a position by understanding it and being able to express it in a way that its adherents will be happy to own and endorse as correct. It is the important principle of audi alteram partem: listen to the other side. In terms of understanding a philosopher’s writing, this means that until we have understood not only what position someone holds, but also the reasons why he holds it—or, in other words, why that person finds his position attractive—we have not yet understood it.” (Introduction xxv)
Key concepts of Derrida:
Logocentrism and Phonocentrism (Chapter 1 p. 5.)
“Logocentrism. A term used by Derrida to describe the traditional Western understanding of truth, according to which an absolute and self-present logos grounds all truth and acts as a transcendental signified. For logocentrism, truth is to be found outside language, and language is a tool that can be thrown away once it has brought us to an immediate understanding of truth. The “epoch of the logos” (OG, 12) began with Plato’s ideas—fixed, eternal Forms that guaranteed the meaning of the changing and particular entities in the world—and is only now coming to an end.” (130)
“Phonocentrism. A term used by Derrida in OG to describe the Western philosophical privilege for the supposed immediacy of meaning in spoken language over the inferior mode of writing. Writing uses signs (written words), whereas speech is an unmediated expression of the speaker’s thoughts. The Western understanding of truth in general, Derrida argues, rests on this presupposition of immediacy, but it is in fact an illusion.” (131)
Text. “There is Nothing Outside the Text” (Chapter 1 p. 6.)
“Text. A term used by Derrida in phrases such as “there is nothing outside the text” to mean more than written language or books. It means any structure (linguistic, economic, historical, etc.) in which values or meanings circulate and are exchanged. Anything that we experience is always already text because it cannot enter our experience as utterly singular, isolated, and absolutely “other,” but must always already have been brought within the web and circulation of meanings in terms of which we make sense of the world.” (132)
Différance (Chapter 1 p. 11.)
“Différance. For Derrida, the mode of existence of everything that exists. In major strands of traditional Western metaphysics, things exist as isolated atoms, their meanings completely present to our consciousness. Derrida argues that this is a theological illusion and that, rather than being completely present, things exist as always different from themselves and deferred with respect to themselves (the two senses of the French différer). A near-synonym of arche-writing.” (129)
Two examples of Derrida and Van Til’s thought are similar in Chapter 4:
“Thus far in this section, I have been arguing that Derridean and Van Tilian thought share an aversion to claiming to speak of God in an absolute, brute, or uninterpreted way. There is also a second important resonance between Derrida and Van Til on the subject of brute fact, this time as it pertains to creation. We have already seen that, in Colossians 1, Paul argues that all things were created by Christ and for Christ. This means that all things (including ourselves) are always already interpreted, or, to put it in more Derridean terms, there is “nothing outside” the context of God’s pre-interpretation. The world is not first of all an inert, indifferent, or meaningless environment that God subsequently chooses to infuse with meaning; materiality and meaning are—just like unity and plurality, and just like universality and particularity—of “equal ultimacy” in the biblical account of “all things.” (108)
“Insofar as the claim for there to be something “outside the text” is the claim that such a thing stands as a brute, uninterpreted fact not dependent on or situated within any context that governs its meaning, Derrida’s famous phrase is close to the Van Tilian rejection of the objectivist’s idea of brute facts. While Derrida and Van Til are united here in opposing the objectivist appeal to brute facts, there is of course also a great difference between the two positions. For Van Til, a correct understanding of things is always to interpret them in line with God’s own interpretation, whereas Derrida’s “there is nothing outside the text” results in a radical openness to the meaning of things. Looked at from another angle, though, the difference is not as great as all that. Derrida and Van Til would be quite happy to agree, I think, that, in Van Til’s terms, “The meaning of words derives from the total system of which they form a part” (ICG, 9). They would also agree that we cannot know that total system exhaustively.” (109)
This chapter has much more interaction with Derrida’s and Van Tilian thought given Watkin’s grasp of both philosopher and theologian.
Concerning one of his goal in writing this book, Watkin’s says:
“I hope that I have done enough in these pages to make at least a plausible case that the future of Reformed scholarship in dialogue with Derrida can be fruitfully pursued in the Van Tilian tradition.” (125)
Part 1: Derrida’s Thought
1. What Is Deconstruction? Not Meaninglessness but Openness Logocentrism and Phonocentrism “There Is Nothing Outside the Text” Différance Deconstruction Is Not Just Another Way of Reading
2. Ethics and Politics The “Mystical Foundation of Authority” Not Relativism but Incommensurability “Every Other Is Wholly Other” Language and Violence
3. Theology “I Rightly Pass for an Atheist” The God of Ontotheology Messianicity without Messianism
Part 2: A Reformed Assessment of Derrida’s Thought
4. Derrida and Van Til: A Chapter Waiting to Be Written Frame’s Reformed Readings and Misreadings of Derrida Derrida’s Style and Van Tilian “Epistemological Self-Consciousness”
5. Derrida and Van Til in the Light of John 1:1–18 The Creator-Creature Distinction and “There Is Nothing Outside the Text” Absolute Personality Theism and Ontotheology Trinity, Différance, and “Every Other Is Wholly Other” Accommodation, Language, and Violence Brute Facts, the Transcendental Signified, and Idolatry Gift, Recognition, and Praise Predestination and Messianicity without Messianism Union with Christ and “I Am Just”
Without a doubt, Watkins has accomplished his goal of making Derrida understandable and how Derrida and Van Til’s thought can interact.
Every pastor and Christian apologist should have to this book and the other book in this series. I highly recommend this book.
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)
1. Christopher Watkin, Jacques Derrida, Great Thinkers, (Phillipsburg, New Jersey, Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing CO, 2017). pp. xxiv, xxv, 5-6, 11, 108-109, 125, 129-132.
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com