How I Explain Derrida… or quit bagging on poststructuralism

Well, I’ve done it now. I actually volunteered on a science blog to “explain” Derrida! (I’m sure they aren’t as excited about this as I am.) I brazenly pointed out that it isn’t so easy a thing to do as it is for Dawkins and Dennett to explain (so brilliantly) their neo-Darwinian biology and all its new tools of thought. Why? Because D & D use the same language for thinking that the general public in England and North America does: the exact same kind of rationalist-empiricist systems of exploratory assumptions that have belonged to the British and American educational system and the English language itself for the past couple of centuries.

Poststructuralism requires learning different languages for thought, from the ground up. Think of it as a non-Euclidean geometry, okay? Think of it as a bold, thought-experimental, “over-simplified idealism,” such as Dennett lauds in science, okay? (My own explanatory schema is over-simplified, that is; not the originals.) The point is, theorizing in every field has its own techniques and its own evidences. It took me decades to become fluent in the languages of structuralism and phenomenology that underpin poststructuralist theory. So how in the world can I explain this foreign “language” in clear and simple terms? That’s just not how we learn languages! But this system of thought yeilds brilliant results in dealing with all kinds of human meaning-systems.

Well, I try to explain what’s behind “deconstruction” in the very best ways I can think of, but I realize that I am asking an awful lot of my readers. For one thing, that they genuinely care about the idea of a liberal arts education! And by the way, science is fundamentally a rigorous way of knowing about the physical structure of the natural world. But it is also a human meaning-system. A lot of “reality” is very complex, in just this way. That’s why different aspects of reality are fruitfully explored by different disciplinary methods yeilding very different formalizations. Okay now, the Derrida stuff is contained in Section 4 under Pages on the right. I’m just going to send you over there. (If #4 intrigues, read Section 3 too.) If nobody goes over there and reads and comments, I guess I’ll have to flood my front page with it. Remember, please, that I am giving a very simplified version of a enormously sophisticated way of analyzing language. It is not the common linguistic approach taken in our own Chomskian U.S. (Have you read that amazing New Yorker article on Chomsky and the Amazonian tribe yet?)

By the way, polite and thoughtful conversation (however saucy!) such as you’ll see over at Rob Knop’s above-referenced science blog is welcome. Anything like “the Jerry Springer Show on science blogs” that I lamented about in an earlier post will be graciously deleted. (Wonderfully, I’ve never gotten anything of that kind here.)

Poverty, Peace-making, Postmodernism, and the Heart-breaking Jerry Springer Show on Science Blogs?

            I haven’t posted for awhile. I’ve been visiting other blogs and doing a bit of writing on those sites, and it has made me sad, all over again. What Bethany just said in her comment (thank you), along with the courteous and thoughtful comments from the science side (Gavin and Hi) have given me much-needed comfort.  

           I’ve been depressed by the way that otherwise wonderful science blogs turn into the Jerry Springer Show the minute any mention of religious faith comes up.  And I’ve been thinking hard about it. And also, I’ve been discouraged by the scornful dismissals of postmodern theory on all sides, by scientists and (often) by thoughtful theology blogs as well. 

            I love science, theology, theory.  They are endlessly challenging, insightful, brilliant, nuanced, precise…. And I am sooo tired of these arguments, of hearing the same narrow-minded positions proclaimed over and over again.  Lately, I find myself obsessed with the word “irenic.” It means “peaceable,” or “contributing to peace.” (I can’t find it in my trusty American heritage Dictionary but it comes from the Greek word for peace and an early Christian bishop was named Irenaeus. Help me out, someone?)

           Irenic (eirenic?) interventions are something we all really need these days. I was pondering this — really,  it’s true — even before Bethany wrote her comment here on this same topic.  

           And I’ve been thinking about “the beautiful,” as when human minds working together in a disciplinary community come up with new and better ways of formalizing “the elegant formalities of things,” whose beauty and startling intelligibility started the liberal arts among the ancient Greeks. 

         And about “the humble human desire simply to know” (seen as a profoundly spiritual response to life and the natural world, undergirding both science and religion, in  John Haught’s profound book, Science & Religion: From Conflict to Conversation, 1995).  As the Greek philosophers used to say: “The beautiful things are difficult.”

           Everywhere I go on the blogosphere, mostly to science or theology blogs, I  find thoughtful, perceptive, and often compassionate writing going on, and  genuine intellectual excitement.  But I also find people slinging stereotypes and derogatory language and (especially) amazingly dogmatic and narrow simplifications of all kinds, back and forth. I am so tired of refutation for its own sake. (The Sophists, anyone?)

            I think I am seeing that for me, my own work needs to be eirenic and to express the richness and beauty all of the genuine avenues of thought that have so enriched my own life journey: physics, the history of science, linguistics and literary theory, theism and theology, and the literature and philosophy from the Greeks, medievals, and Renissance thinkers.

             Hi is not the only person to have noticed my animus against the Cartesian paradigm, for instance (a viewpoint separating mind and matter, which has hurt me deeply in my life). But my animus has got to go! I have to stop writing polemically. (My former students will be disbelieving, at this point, I am sure!)

              I started this weblog conversation hoping to raise some interest in the lecture sessions on Plato and Aristotle (and on later theorists of “the literary fiction”) over on the right under “Pages.” But now, I want to recast all of that material, in order to place it in the context of this current American debate, and to direct it to speaking peaceably to the (rather vicious) conflicts between science and religion, and between  science and “cultural studies” (all the fields that deal with social and linguistic structures).

            I’m a theist, I’m a student of science, and I’m a poststructuralist thinker (because of an extensive training in continental linguistics) — I have three feet planted firmly in all three camps(!)  I don’t want to be polarized and polarizing, I refuse to get angry (God help me!), and I have read and listened sympathetically to all these communities of thought for decades. Most of all, I believe in the vision of the liberal arts and sciences! (That is: no one single kind of formalization works for all the  subject-matters humans desire to know about and to have a deeper contact with. )

              So I’m going to ask thoughtful and peaceable individuals from all the camps to “read some text with me,” as my grandfather would say…. One of the funniest and  wittiest of Plato’s dialogues, the one called “Ion,” in which the whole long history of conflict between “philosophy” (i.e. reason)  and “poetry” began.  Plato stages the first-ever debate between the “lit-crit” types and the science-geeks…. 

              I think the results will surprise all sides!

              Most of all, I want to re-introduce Palto’s original theory of the arts and sciences, or “what makes a way of knowing rigorous and legitimate, deserving of study by any thoughtful citizen who want to be a free and self-determining member of the city-state?” How do we evaluate any discipline, taking its different subject-matter seriously but also holding it to high standards of rigor?  This is precisely what Plato and Aristotle worked out, and it founded the great universities and worked for 2000-plus years.

           Ever since the rise of science in the 17th and 18th centuries, in the Modern West, the arts and sciences have been divided against themselves, into two categories:  the”objective” (or “hard”) sciences and the “subjective” (or “fuzzy-wuzzy” —  “soft”-headed) arts.

             Yes, there are many differences, fascinating ones, between various fields, and science is remarkable in its own right, but there is not only one kind of knowledge and truth, because there is not only one subject-matter.  Everyone who’s studied this knows it, including the scientists, but it seems perfectly unknown to the scads of current debaters who are so heatedly abusing one another. Doesn’t anyone take courses on this?

             But I’m not going to rant, am I? I’m going to explain, irenically.             

             Maybe the older educational theory, which motivated such passionately dedicated thinking for about 2000 years in the West,  could serve once again as a useful and refreshing intervention, at our own moment in history. (Those older thinkers weren’t such slouches, after all.)

             If the various warring camps with their fortress mentalities could be distracted, entertained, and engaged by another way of looking at human knowing, one that offers some common ground but also some lucid distinctions, mightn’t this help? We could do with some fresh vocabulary; a new heuristic model, as Einstein would say (his 1905 papers).

             I think maybe it’s time for all the irenic people to stand up and say, we’re tired of all the yelling and name-calling, and we’re not going to do this anymore. We’re going to talk to each other.  We’re going to find some paradigms that might help us understand and evaluate each other more fairly and generously. More liberally.

             Most of all, maybe we’re going to stay faithful to our cherished disciplinary communities, by humbly trying to explain what is best in them, but we are also going to accept and humbly own the bad parts of our traditions. (Postmodern thought shows exactly how and why you can’t have a pure positivity; there are always the unpredictable shadow sides that emerge, because of the very nature of human thought structures themselves. This does NOT mean that science “is merely socially-constructed.” Lacan, for example, emphasizes the “objectivity” of science .) 

              Instead of flinching and denying, we are going to admit and study the many misuses of what we most deeply love, which have occurred now and in the past (whether it is science, religion,  postmodernism,  the Enlightenment, or all of the above). 

             If we can stop being so defensive, and try to look on all things with equanimity, and even magnanimity, then Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle would all stand up and cheer! 

                   Now I’ll sign off, with just a couple of long-overdue mentions. 

                 1) I realize that readers, especially Hi, have brought up some very fundamental issues of fairness and self-critique that I haven’t yet responded to. (I certainly been been thinking about them.)  So I want you to know that I have been reviewing the famous Sokal hoax article (1996) and his follow-up book Fashionable Nonsense, the Postmodern Abuse of Science. It makes me heart-sick. I will post on this. (Many scientists have told me their negative impression of postmodernism comes from these Sokal sources. The book is so unfair, yet so plausible. Thanks for bringing up whether the Continental thinkers are “innocent” in this matter of abusing other disciplines, Hi, and making me research this book.)

             2) I saw a quip  on the science blog Pharyngula that really tells it like it is.  Something to the effect that “whenever I see a thread that’s gotten up to  more than 80-90 comments, I know that some fresh Christians must have turned up to be roasted.”

             How true! That same particular comment-thread is now up to #190 last I looked, with #185 being me, in fact, who gets roasted repeatedly, along with “Guy in the Pew.”  So if you want to read a much-deserved take-down of Sam Brownback’s op-ed piece in the NY Times (he’s one of the Republican Presidential candidates who raised his hand as not believing in evolution) and then a typical set of comments that will show you  a science blog turning into the Jerry Springer show as soon as any Christian writes in to say, “We aren’t ALL like Sam Brownback,” please “enjoy” yourselves there. It is very saddening, but characteristic. The militant defenders of Reason are just as reductive and closed-minded as the Fundamentalists…. And yet, before we condemn THEM,  don’t we all recognize in ourselves that joyful glee we feel when roasting a position that we deeply dislike, when we get together with our like-minded fellows?

               Finally, 3) Sojourners (a great group of progessive Evangelicals who have no problem with science — yes, they exist) has hosted John Edwards, Barak Obama, and Hilary Clinton to talk with them about the overwhelming biblical insistence that we care for the poor. Here’s the link if you want to listen to an excerpt from each candidate and you can also click there to email all the presidential candidates about addressing poverty and health-care.  (Jim Wallis is their leader — great political writer and thoughtful citizen.)               

              Now believe me, I really understand there’s a lot going on out there that could make any scientific person want to rend and tear and savage the nearest Christian. (A lot of us Christians struggle with the same impulse, as you’ll see at Sojourners.) But it’s the ugly, savaging tone of all the various factions that is the really terrible and rather terrifying thing these days. So please go to Sojourners and click to send those emails?