Classical Greek Philosophical Paideia in Light of the Postmodern Occidentalism of Jacques Derrida
W. A. Borody
a. From Hellenocentrism to Phallogocentrism:
In his highly influential Introduction to Paideia: the Ideals of Greek Culture (1933), Werner Jaeger discusses the ideals of Greek paideia in terms of their seminal influence on European culture, a culture which he forebodingly describes in the early thirties as "tired of civilization." Jaeger employs the term "hellenocentric" to describe the essential nature of the Greek influence on the development of modern European culture; his method of interpreting Greek culture rests on an attempt both to reanimate the waning classicism of nineteenth century philhellenism and to challenge the widespread, Nietzschean-inspired "war against the excessive rationalization of modern life," a war that also leads, claims Jaeger, to a carte blanche historiographical dismissal of Greek paideia as excessively rationalistic. In his attempt to reanimate and challenge nineteenth- and early twentieth-century figurings of Greek paideia, Jaeger argues that the "intellectual and spiritual nature" of Greek intellectual life cannot be understood, as he felt it had been understood, "in vacuo, cut off from the society which produced it and to which it was addressed." In his Introduction to Paideia, Jaeger reconstructs the dynamic interplay in Greek paideia between the polis and the individual, between social responsibility and individual freedom, --in short, between the zw'/on politikon and the gnw'qi seautovn-- in the hope of restoring to European culture a greater appreciation of its hellenocentric origins. A restored sense of hellenocentricism will revive, this modern Isocrates speculates, "the intellectual and spiritual nature" of European culture.
An interesting volte-face of Jaeger's overly zealous idealization of hellenocentrism is found in Jacques Derrida's writings from the late 60s and early 70s, writings that anathematize the phallogocentrism of the early Greek philosophical tradition. Rather than idealize "the intellectual and spiritual nature" of Greek paideia as Jaeger attempted in the 30s, Derrida denounces it in the 60s and 70s as "phallogocentric." Rather than restore it, Derrida attempts to deracinate it --to bring about its clôture by destroying "its essential familiarity." In much of his writings from this period Derrida makes it clear that his historiographical model for interpreting the philosophical import of Western culture applies to the tradition in toto: "all concepts hitherto proposed in order to think the articulation of a discourse and of an historical totality are caught within the metaphysical closure that I question here..."
As an argument, Derrida's critique of Greek paideia as phallogocentric is based on two claims: one epistemological and the other genderological. Epistemologically, Greek philosophical paideia is dominated, according to Derrida, by "logocentrism:" a conception of knowing based on the correspondence theory of truth, a "common sense" theory of truth that presupposes the existence of an a priori, "one-to-one" correspondence or identity (omoiwsi§) between the knower and the known. For Derrida the Greek term "logos" in the phrase "logo-centric" stands for the correspondence theory itself (whether that be, for example, the epistemological basis of the idetic theory expounded in the Republic or the law of non-contradiction as it is employed in the Metaphysics). All so-called truth, argues Derrida, must be placed "under erasure" as truth--as cancelled out by the intrinsically aporetic nature of human knowledge. Genderologically, the Greek-based form of logocentrism is, according to Derrida, phallocentric: as a concern for "truth" or "apodicticity," the lovgo§ of Greek philosophical paideia functions as a vicarious fallov§. Logocentrism is the means of erecting, so to speak, truth -- an erected truth that is simply a "construction," the result of having "exceeded" the limits of what can possibly be known. This crypto-Freudian identification of logocentrism with phallocentrism rests on the premise that the phallus symbolically represents masculinity in its patriarchal figuring as the authoritative voice of the male, especially the father. In spite of his vehement denials that deconstruction as a philosophy operates according to any "principles, postulates, axioms or definitions," Derrida consistently genderizes his own epistemological position/strategy of aporetic indeterminateness (différance) with gender qualities associated with traditional figurings of "the feminine": fluidity and indeterminateness.
Throughout his writings during the 60s and 70s, Derrida maintains that the phallocentric nature of the Greek-based Western emphasis on logos qua truth-based rationality has had dire philosophical consequences. The phallic desire for logocentric, apodictic thinking has led to radically hegemonic forms of thought, and a deeply entrenched disrespect for otherness; the philosophical victim in all this has been, according to Derrida, aporetic indeterminateness (différance). When this argument is taken up by others under the aegis of "antibinary thinking," etc., "phallogocentrism" is identified as the miasma that lurks behind all of the more tragic forms of sexual, racial and economic oppression in the West.
b. Genderizing the Aporetic as Feminine and the Apodictic as Masculine
When restricted to the phenomenon of early Greek paideia, the phallogocentric argument that we find expounded in Derrida's writings, and in those forms of thought influenced by Deconstruction, has its roots in 19th century Romanticism (especially Nietzsche) and the school of Phenomenology (especially Heidegger). Derrida reformulates both the Heideggerian doctrines of the pure Unhiddenness of Being qua !a-lhvqeia and the later Heidegger's interpretation of Plato as the main figure in the Western philosophical tradition who is responsible for obfuscating the understanding of truth as pure Unhiddenness. For the later Heidegger the term "Platonism" serves as a synonym for the very essence of the legacy of Greek philosophical paideia as the prioritizing of "logical correctness" (Richtigkeit) over Unhiddenness (Unverborgenheit)-- hence, the often quoted phrase in the later Heidegger's writings: "with Plato, oujsiva is no longer thought of as aj-lhvqeia but as !ideva." This Heideggerian conception of both the nature of truth and the Western legacy of Greek philosophy as embodied in the philosophy of Plato is itself a more epistemologically refined version of the Nietzschean critique of the degenerateness of Sokratismus. Derrida, with some degree of originality, reworked Heidegger's pastoral (in this case, "Schwarzwald") sensibility of the sheer Unverborgenheit of Being into an elegantly urbane sensibility of the sheer textuality of the experience of différance. With less originality, however, the Heideggerian attack on Richtigkeit was simply metamorphosed into an attack on logocentrisme. Finally, while Derrida's 60s and 70s genderization of apodictic logos as phallic/masculine and aporetic logos as vulvic/feminine had been decidedly influenced by the psychoanalytical and feminist thought of the period, it also had clearly defined philosophical precedents in both the early and later Heidegger's gendered troping of Unhiddenness as the Opening.
On the one hand, the phallogocentric argument as defended by Derrida carries on the Romantics' concern with the darker sides of Western culture: the hidden prejudices, unquestioned assumptions and unacknowledged marginalizations. As Edmund Husserl was fond of saying of "the great thinkers," it is not what is said in their teachings that is significant, but what is left unsaid, the Ungesatz--which is exactly what the phallogocentric argument seeks to question with respect to Western culture. Admittedly, much has been gained as a result of this line of investigation and concern, especially in the area of gender and culture studies. On the other hand, however, the way that the phallogocentric argument is employed by Derrida and others leads to an overly simplistic dogmatizing about the Western tradition--not just with respect to Greek philosophical paideia, but to Judaism and Christianity as well. When used as an all-inclusive, jackboot paradigm for figuring Western culture in toto, this argument shamelessly superimposes modern conceptions and critiques of rationality and gender onto the tradition, especially Greek philosophical paideia. This wholesale superimposition is astounding as it is parlayed by the founder of a school of thought that prides itself on its respect for alterity and heterology.
The phallogocentric argument ultimately fails as an adequate heuristic model for interpreting Greek philosophical paideia because it fails to take into account the inner dynamics of the Greek debate concerning both rationality and gender. It assumes that the critiques of rationality and gender that have emerged out of the post-modern critiques of the Enlightenment apply equally as well to Greek paideia, since the European Enlightenment has some of its roots in the ideals of Greek paideia. The exponents of the phallogocentric argument, however, self-aggrandizingly elide the fact that Greek philosophical paideia is deeply infused with the accomplishments as well as the failings, the extensions as well as the limitations of both rationality and patriarchal masculinity. The emergence of isonomia among this highly patriarchal culture, for instance, plays absolutely no role in the reading of Greek paideia as essentially phallogocentric, nor does the role of the Dionysian theatre as a celebratory form of "demosophical" paideia: comedy that rejoices in the satirical interrogation of all public and private discourse and tragedy that exposes the fragility of apodictic logos in the face of aporetic moira. More importantly, however, the argument fails to address the fact that, in the areas of epistemology, metaphysics and ethics, one of the central issues in Greek philosophical paideia is the debate between the limits of apodictic as opposed to aporetic gnosis -- between the multifarious forms of ejpisthvmh as opposed to ajoristiva The phallogocentric argument fails to address the significance of the degree to which, in the radically patriarchal culture of Greek paideia, the co-existence of a host of very influential philosophies of indeterminateness/undecideablity were the rule, and not the exception -- philosophies such as the aporetically dialogical skepsis of Socrates, the dogmatic skepticism of Sextus Empiricus, the ethical scepto-relativism of Protagoras and the crypto-mystical, subjective relativism of Heraclitus. Indeed, one could argue that even the Aristotelian conception of the qewriva that precedes epistemic gnosis is itself aporetic. In any case, if indeterminateness is identified with the vulvic as opposed to the phallic -- or the feminine as opposed to the masculine -- as Derrida's phallogocentric argument assumes, then what can we say of the preponderance of the forms of philosophical indeterminateness that lie at the very heart of Greek philosophical paideia ?
c. Occidentalizing Greek Philosophical Paideia
Derrida fails to acknowledge the epistemological dynamics in Greek philosophical paideia entailed by the debate between indeterminateness and determinateness as a result of his own failure to acknowledge such a dynamic operating within modern Western culture. His claim throughout the 60s and 70s that the modern Western tradition has been determined by purely apodictic, rationalistic (i.e., "phallogocentric") knowledge fails to acknowledge the existence of a radical sense of aporetic indeterminateness at play in the very core modern Western culture. The claim that the acknowledgment of indeterminateness has been absent from the philosophical, religious, artistic, and political traditions in the West is simply false. In a modern context, the encounter with indeterminateness and absence has characterized the very dynamic of Western culture--politically, intellectually and scientifically. In religious thought, for example, Kierkegaard's thematizing of the Absence of God has had a profound effect on all religious thinking and to a great extent has coloured all religious discourse. Hindu, Buddhist and Taoist philosophies of indeterminateness/undecideablity were already well entrenched as areas of study in the major universities in the West when Derrida first started to defend his anti-logocentric argument. In literature, for instance, Kafka's thematizing of the absence of meaning in the figure of Joseph K. brought to the fore a Lebenswelt concern with absence. In art Dadaism had already introduced the significance of the aesthetics of indeterminateness. In the field of science (i.e., the field of "apodictic, determinate knowledge"), the doctrine of indeterminateness has had its most profound influence on modern Western culture through the theory of evolution. While defending a specific theory of truth regarding the peculiarly patterned metamorphoses of life forms, Darwin's Origin of Species also rests on a doctrine of complete indeterminateness, on the simple concept of adaptation, the adaptation of life forms to their environment. Politically, the struggle for democracy and equal rights in the West rests on a doctrine of generosity and openness to others, a doctrine that emerges out of a radical sense of indeterminateness (i.e., a willingness to be open towards others), as well as a sense of determinateness (i.e., the fact that a community of civilized human beings can only co-exist in a civilized manner on the basis of a doctrine of inherent dignity). The modern Western proliferation of the miasmic forms of dictatorships do not, a priori, rule out the struggle in the West for a sense of justice based on democratic and egalitarian principles, principles that rest on a fundamental acknowledgment of both the openness entailed by a sense of indeterminateness and the resoluteness entailed by a sense of determinateness. The phallogocentric argument simply obfuscates the dynamic of the on-going cultural dialectic between apodictic and aporetic gnosis in the West.
As it is applied to the phenomenon of Greek philosophical paideia, however, the phallogocentric argument functions as an example of modern Western ethnocentrism, a particularly philosophical species of ethnocentrism that can be described, for want of a better term, as a form of "Occidentalism." I employ the term Occidentalism in much the same manner as Edward Said employs the term "Orientalism" in his ground-breaking work Orientalism (1978), which is a sustained critique of modern Western literary and political figurings of the East (mainly the "Muslim Orient"). For Said, Orientalism involves both fact and fiction -- unfortunately, however, more fiction than fact. While Orientalism is, on the one hand, "the discipline by which the Orient was (and is) approached systematically, as a topic of learning, discovery and practice," it is also, and even more significantly, a "collection of dreams, images, and vocabularies." Due to the confusion between fact and fiction in the Orientalizing of the Orient, "Orientalism," according to Said, has ultimately "failed to identify with human experience, failed also to see it as human experience." Such a failure is also evident in Derrida's Occidentalizing of Greek philosophical paideia by means of his rhetorical figuring of it as essentially "phallogocentric." Derrida's particular Occidentalizing tendency in the 60s and 70s is even more evident in light of a recent work on cultural imperialism, Unthinking Eurocentrism (1994), which furthers the work begun by Said. In a chapter entitled "Tropes of Empire," the authors Ella Shohat and Robert Stam discuss the metaphors and allegorical motifs that constitute much of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European colonialist discourse. The authors examine two of the most common colonial tropes employed to manipulate and subjugate the colonized: animalization (rendering the colonized as bestiary) and infantilization (rendering the colonized as an earlier version of the civilized human being). Interestingly, Derrida's trope for Greek philosophical paideia, phallogocentricity, harbours many of the metaphorical elements associated with these two tropes: animalization in terms of the association between the phallus and a certain crude (i.e., "logocentric") way of knowing and infantilization in terms of the hopelessly naïve and insistent desire for something illusionary, i.e., "truth" (the last gasp of evaporating nostalgia).
d. Conclusion: The Known and the Unknown as Unfigured by the Phallogocentric Argument
Although Luc Perry and Alain Renault in their La pensée 68: Essai sur l'anti-humanisme contemporain (1985) situate the philosophy of deconstruction and the historical presuppositions underlying the phallogocentric argument almost solely in the cultural milieu of France in the late 60s, popular philosophical and historical works continue to be written which base their meta-critical apparatus on the phallogocentric argument. For example, Barry Sandywell's massive, three-volume Reflexivity and the Crisis of Western Reason: Logological Investigations (1996/97) critiques all of Greek poetical and philosophical paideia in terms of a thesis that rests solely on the phallogocentic argument; employing a benumbing variety of de rigueur neologisms and a veritable potpourri of terminology specific to post-structuralist literary theory, Sandywell calls for a postmodern philosophy of indeterminateness/undecideablity that is "critical, transgressive and emancipative" in light of the traditionally Western "phallocentric idea of the Logos and its claims to truthfully (re)present the world..." Luce Irigaray, to cite another example, continues to write psycho-philosophical, stream-of-consciousness écriture feminine that is ideologically based on the anti-phallogocentric essentialism that identifies determinateness with masculinity and indeterminateness with femininity, as she does in her recent book Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche (1991). Finally, even Derrida, in 1990, in a work dealing with the topics of justice and the holocaust, employs the concept of phallogocentrism--extended now, however, to include "carno-phallogocentrism."
In his most recent works and interviews Derrida appears to have "settled into" a pietistic appreciation of the connection between his conception of différance and the traditional Judeo-Christian messianic sense of the sacred; he has also begun to declaim forcefully his appreciatory solidarity with the critical project of the Greek philosophers. In short, he appears to be recognizing his own "event" in the history of Western philosophy as a uniquely voiced spectacle of the efflorescence of aporetic gnosis, even though he still expresses his anger and crankiness over his reception by his detractors. The scathing criticism of his early writings exemplified by the petty mean-spiritedness of the so-called "Cambridge Affair" was no doubt a visceral response to his own 60s and 70s denunciatory attitude towards the Western philosophical tradition, an attitude that he and his more aggressive apologists appear to ignore. Even a cursory reading of the culture of classical Greek philosophical paideia reveals a deeply self-conscious concern over the debate between the merits of apodictic as opposed to aporetic gnosis. The metaphysical framework lying behind the aporetic doctrine defended by Derrida, for all its genuine originality, offers very little that is substantially new in the history of Western philosophy: the works of Sextus Empiricus, for example, are a testimony to this fact. Derrida has simply revived a new fundamentalism of the Unknown, packaged for an au courant postmodernity. While the logos of classical Greek philosophical paideia was indeed carried out in a social context threateningly dominated by the phallus, the logos itself, if one can speak this way, openly and celebratorily cultivated a voice for the Known as well as the Unknown. In the denunciatory, Occidental claims of the phallogocentric argument this intwined voice of the Western philosophical tradition finds itself ...undulating elsewhere...
(1) Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, trans. G. Highet, trans. G. Highet, vol. 1 (New York: 1939), p. xviii.
(2) Ibid., vol. 2 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1945), p. 16.
(3) Ibid., vol. 1, p. xxv.
(4) Derrida introduces the terms "logocentric" and "phonocentric" in Grammatology; the term "phallogocentric" is employed in many of his writings during the 70s . In spite of his aporetic antipathy to "either/or" dualisms, Derrida discusses the philosophy of "phallogocentrism" as the very antithesis of his own philosophical position, as is the case, for instance, in the essay "Tympan" (1972); see Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. ix-xxix.
(5) Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1976), p. 99.
(6) Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 75-94.
(7) Cf. W. A. Borody, "Figuring the Phallogocentric Argument With Respect to the Classical Greek Philosophical Tradition," Nebula. http://stange.simplenet.com/nebula/ Jan. 1998.
(8) Said, Edward W., Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1978), p. 17. I use the "Occidental" paradigm with a caveat that also applies to the notion of Orientalism in Said: when used in a carte blanche fashion, this paradigm can also lead to a dogmatism no less insidious than the one it critiques. See, for instance, Wilhelm Halbfass' insightful critique of Said's use of the "Oriental" paradigm in Eli Franco and Karin Preisendanz, Beyond Orientalism: The Work of Wilhelm Halbfass and its Impact on Indian and Cross-Cultural Studies (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997).
(9) Ibid., p. 75.
(10) Ibid., p.328.
(11) Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism (New York: Routledge, 1994), pp. 137 - 166.
(12) Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut, La Pensée 68 (Paris: Gallimard, 1985). Besides Derrida, the authors also discuss Bourdieu, Foucault and Lacan.
(13) Barry Sandywell, Reflexivity and the Crisis of Western Reason , vol. I (New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 11.
(14) Ibid., Vol. I. , p. XIX.
(15) Jacques Derrida, "Force of Law: The 'The Mystical Foundation of Authority'," Cardozo Law Review 11 (1990), pp. 919 - 1078