After my conversation with Gregory Desilet (part two up today), I sent him a passage from Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, which I was reading for my current investigation into the JBP phenomenon (see video below). Desilet gave a considered response so I include both here with Greg’s permission. I don’t know enough about Derrida to have formed any kind of opinion about him as yet.
Peterson is a smart guy who has some interesting ideas. Some of his concerns about postmodernist thinkers may be justified but in the case of Derrida he just does not know what he is talking about. He makes mistakes with Derrida that are very common among those who have not taken the trouble to really read Derrida and understand the complexity of his thinking. Everything Peterson says, for example, about Derrida claiming “that divisiveness and oppression were built right into language” is complete nonsense. Derrida does not say anything of the sort. Peterson is misunderstanding Derrida where Derrida is speaking of the traditional metaphysics of oppositional relations, where traditional dichotomies such as essence/accident, presence/absense, mind/body, male/female, etc. are structured hierarchically such that one side is privileged over the other with regard to its inherent value. This is NOT something “built right into language” but rather a way of structuring oppositions peculiar to the traditional metaphysics Derrida is critiquing. Nothing in language causes humans to value one side more than the other in these oppositions. To illustrate this one need only think of the Taoist dichotomy yin/yang where each side is valued equally, thus manifesting a very different metaphysical orientation toward opposites. The view of opposites Derrida champions in deconstruction resembles this view of opposites, which is as much a “product” of language, if anything is, as the traditional Western view.
The purveyance of these kinds of errors with regard to Derrida’s thinking was extremely exasperating for him and he conveyed this to me when I spoke with him in 1993. Peterson’s view of “Il n’ya a pas de hors-texte” is even more troubling. He is correct to say that what this means is that “everything is interpretation.” But he is outrageously incorrect in believing this constitutes some kind of nihilistic view or that it “negates the idea that distinctions might be drawn between things for any reasons other than that of raw power.” This is so far removed from anything Derrida is saying as to be laughable. If any postmodern thinker says anything similar to this it would be Foucault, though I really don’t think he ought to be read that way either. The notion that everything is interpretation derives from the circumstance that everything in the world may be seen to present itself to humans and other life forms as a sign. This is the case because every living thing “reads” what it encounters as within an environment or broader context, including its own capacity for memory and learning relevant to its survival. The context in which what is encountered is experienced depends on many factors that may potentially be taken into consideration depending on the nature of the life form and its potential for awareness. For humans, language is a specialized addition to perception and communication enhancing awareness. Everything turns out to be interpretation because the context in which anything is experienced is not rigid, bounded, and singular for each person but rather dependent on the artificial finite construction of an infinite context. This construction of context is a generalization of context rendering it “familiar” so that life forms can attach meaning to the objects in the context. If it were otherwise, it would be impossible to “read” or make sense of anything because each and every experience would be unique and singular and any form of learning or generalizing of experience would be impossible. To generalize is to interpret.
Contrary to what Peterson claims, what Derrida says does not imply anything like “categorization is just exclusion.” What Derrida says implies instead that the problem of categorization or the application of words is one of inclusion not exclusion. Every word and every text has MORE THAN ONE viable way of being read. In other words, texts do not exclude multiple readings and cannot do so. To think otherwise is to suppose the nature of the connection between sign and meaning to be a causal relation whereby the sign, as stimulus, evokes only one possible response. Were this the case, signs could not function beyond one temporal, unique context and would have no capacity for being repeated in other contexts.
In other words, in my opinion Peterson completely misunderstands the essence of what Derrida says in his early texts on language. But this is not unusual. The same kinds of misunderstandings have occurred with countless others. If you want to see a detailed analysis of mine regarding another academic who completely misses how to understand Derrida go here: https://www.academia.edu/22017627/Demonizing_Derrida_and_Deconstruction.
That everything counts as a sign means that everything is interpretation.Does this mean “there are no facts”? No, it only means that what has in the past been called a “fact” is now understood to mean “the currently most compelling interpretation” according to a community of language users. This “fact” could change tomorrow depending on the possible introduction of compelling new information. For example, a UFO sighting reported by someone on a given day may be taken as a “fact” as a sighting. But it might become a sighting of an “aircraft identified as alien” instead of a UFO if sufficient evidence is provided to induce a new “most compelling interpretation.” But even this new “fact” remains open to further change depending on further possible new information. For the true scientist every “fact” and every theory for accounting for the fact (its artificial context) remain forever open to new information that might modify the fact by inducing a new interpretation. For the true scientist there are no brute facts, only interpretations.
New video on Whitley Strieber, Jeffrey Kripal, Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning, MKULTRA, Psychedelics, & the New Age Cultural Revification Project