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Erin O'Connell: Heraclitus and Derrida: Presocratic Deconstruction.

Erin O'Connell

Heraclitus and Derrida: Presocratic Deconstruction.

New York: Peter Lang Publishing 2006.

Pp. 186.

US$61.95 (cloth ISBN-13: 978-0-8204-7492-2).

Toward the end of the nineteenth century Friedrich Nietzsche recommended a return to the Presocratics. Today, it seems that, as an alternative to characterizing it along the lines of logocentrism, the history of Western philosophy can be framed by the Presocratic Heraclitus on the one hand, and Jacques Derrida on the other. This, at least, is what O'Connell proposes in her provocative and well argued book. Some have written that Derrida is like a Parisian Heidegger, while others have situated him in company with French philosophers M. Foucault, F. Lyotard, G. Deleuze. O'Connell goes further and proposes the Presocratic deconstruction of Heraclitus; for her the appropriate comparative analysis is between the philosophies of Heraclitus and Derrida.

The book can be divided in two parts: 1) Chapters 1 to 4 involve the deconstruction of Heraclitus' thought; 2) Chapters 5 and 6 present the Heraclitean Derrida, the fulfillment of Heraclitus in Derrida.

1) O'Connell writes that these two philosophers share a distinctive and similar view of the relationship between knowledge and language, and both at the same time reject the premise of logocentrism: 'Among their most salient similarities is the fact that each engages in the work of rational philosophy while simultaneously rejecting the logocentric promise of certain knowledge. Each author takes up a self-consciously ironic position with respect to his own content and style, knowing that he cannot completely transcend the systems of logic that he critiques, and that he must use language to question language' (3).

Recent scholarship has argued that Heraclitus' ever-living fire must be not understood as a generic Milesian arche, and that the material monism of Heraclitus doesn't refer to any single primary cosmogonic material or substance. Following the incomparable reading of Heraclitus by C. H. Kahn, O'Connell contends that 'Heraclitus' aim is not to improve the Milesian cosmology by altering a particular doctrine but to interpret its total meaning by a radical shift in perspective' (6). This means that the root fire is above all a sort of cosmological principle, a force, a continuous process.

No doubt, the deconstruction of Heraclitus' thought gives us a critique of human reasoning and leads us to discover the very value of logos as an 'harmonious tension of strife in flux' resembling Derrida's conception of different plays. According to both philosophers logos is subjected to a permanent aporia that results in the continuous uncertainty of human understanding. Humans do not put together empirical or theoretical information accurately, even though they have sufficient information, even though they have enough experience. This is the meaning of the famous Heraclitean fragment (D. 2): 'Although the logos is common (shared), the many are living as if they have their own (private) intelligence (thought).'

Given that the logos per se is neither arcane nor esoteric, but experienced in common, the real problem according to Heraclitus is thinking well and paying attention to faulty thinking. The relation between the two opposites means that the full nature of each term is accurately grasped only with reference to its constant and contingent 'other', to its continuous and discrete value. For instance, the difference between life and death is not only unavoidably obvious; it also provokes profound emotional and philosophical reaction and is deeply important to human beings. The fullest meaning of one term cannot be experienced or defined without reference to the other. In this way Heraclitus deconstructs the incipient logocentric conception of eternal transcendental presence.

2) Looking for a philosophy after philosophy, Derrida, when asked if he would count himself a philosopher, answered: 'I have attempted more and more systematically to find a non-site, or a non-philosophical site, from which to question philosophy. But the search for a non-philosophical site does not bespeak an anti-philosophical attitude. My central question is: how can philosophy as such appear to itself as other than itself, so that it can interrogate and reflect upon itself in an original manner?' (107) Often Derrida allies himself with Nietzsche and Heidegger when he describes as destruction the deconstructionism they expressed in many cases, but he is often also more cautious and prudent, and admits that deconstruction does not and cannot destroy structures from the outside. He is aware that we have no language, no syntax, and no lexicon foreign to our history. To de-construct is to analyze (from the Greek: analuo, unloose, set free). 'A deconstruction is ananalytical critique, in which a text, a concept, a word, is undone or taken apart in order to understand how and of what it is made' (113). In such a way Derrida subverts the authority of the classical metaphysical account that posits Being as Presence. In the afterword to Limited, Inc. he writes that deconstruction makes destabilization is its principle theme, but it is a destabilization that is already on the move in the things themselves. Writing and speech, for instance, have a common root; there is no purely phonetic writing, and speech is just as representative as writing, writing just as effective as speech (if not more so). If the word 'logos' is a verb, 'The nature of difference as being somehow always in motion and as producing and organizing relationship is also well illustrated by Derrida's own diction. In the context of this reference to Heraclitus diapherein', he refers to "the history of being" as an epoch of the diapherein' (153). That is the one differing from himself, the one in difference with itself.

Concluding her rigorous and fascinating study, O'Connell writes: 'While both Heraclitus and Derrida can be said to announce the loss of pure language, they also show such an entity has never existed, except by fiat or feint. Nevertheless ... both Heraclitus and Derrida keep the dream of a more pure language very much alive' (169). This seems to me to be the same dream or mood of the imaginary Platonic theophiles, the philosopher seeing Beauty and Good in their purity.

Francesco Tampoia
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Author:Tampoia, Francesco
Publication:Philosophy in Review
Date:Oct 1, 2007
Words:1001
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