In response to “Past Masters of the Postmodern” (Vol. 4, No. 2).

To the editors:

Simon Blackburn starts his essay by pointing to an anxiety about truth that, in his own words, “has been in the air for a very long time.” If, as early as 1943, George Orwell expressed the fear that attacks of political propaganda could cause objective truth to disappear from the world, today the anxiety acquires still broader contours. Beyond the political sphere, Blackburn refers to an anxiety that is cultural rather than political, “the widespread sense that a number of philosophical theories have escaped the academic world, and, in the wild, are doing great harm [to truth].” And here, one is left with no doubt that the term “truth” is immediately associated with objective certainty, with the binary opposition of true or false, with proof, with demonstration, with the logical-scientific scope. Institutionally guarded from the chaos of an undue and increasingly widespread invasion of inappropriate, incompetent, inadequate, inconvenient speeches, the biologist Marcel Kuntz, as quoted by Blackburn, was able to record or, better yet, to denounce in the Molecular Biology Organization Report that “postmodernist thought is being used to attack the scientific worldview and undermine scientific truths.”

In the same year that Orwell expressed his political anxiety about truth, Alexandre Koyré did so as well and in such a way that within the context of his writing, Blackburn’s words—that “a number of philosophical theories have escaped the academic world, and, in the wild, are doing great harm”—could also make perfect sense. As Koyré says:

Pushing to their limits the biological, pragmatist, activist theories of truth, the official philosophies of the totalitarian regimes deny the inherent value of thought. For them thought is not a light but a weapon: its function, they say, is not to discover reality as it is, but to change and transform it with the purpose of leading us towards what is not.1

At any rate, in those days, just as much as today, the anxiety about truth to which Blackburn refers to, although “in the air for a very long time,” contains in itself a counterpoint, a safe harbor that, at a distance, keeps it within a certain appeased or controlled limit, something like a half anxiety. After all, concerning truth, one is left with no doubt about its logical-scientific essence, which is clearly under attack by the so-called postmodern philosophers. It is in this perspective that Blackburn develops a brief historical account to situate the postmodern take on truth.

The beginning of this account, which will determine the further steps of its unfolding, is quite representative of the abovementioned anxiety about truth. It begins by mentioning various philosophers who, despite many points of disagreement, “were like-minded to the extent that their goal was a form of philosophy adequate to the demands of modern science.” Such an account starts automatically as a history of epistemology of meaning, without any need for prior justification on the choice of its theme. Its protagonists belong to the Vienna circle, to logical positivism, to mathematical logic. They are the ones who set the rules and even allocate space for the meager participation of postmodern philosophers. The latter, at times, only confirm, as a faint echo, what the theorists of meaning, and particularly logical-mathematicians, have already said. Thus, if the postmodernists have in fact been doing great harm, there is little reason for so much anxiety; the problem is that they do not have the proper theoretical preparation for dealing with truth.

I would therefore like to propose another possible historical account.

In 1927 in his book Being and Time, Martin Heidegger provoked a turnaround in phenomenology, a philosophical current founded by Edmund Husserl, his master.2 Following the lineage of Cartesian thought, Husserl established a method that could break with the paradigm of scientific reason, which was unable to explain how cognitive relations are possible—in other words, how the immanence of the subject’s mental processes can reach the transcendence of the object. The phenomenological method he presents in The Idea of ??Phenomenology, published in 1907, would then shed light on the apparent abyss between the subjects’ interiority and the object’s exteriority.3 To this end, another type of thought would be necessary. A thought able to interrupt the mind’s natural attitude of turning to facts, whatever is contingently found in space and time, and make it turn instead to essences or phenomena, which are always necessarily given in every fact.

With the phenomenological method, it would then be possible to perceive how actual contents, which are given to a psychological ego, are inseparable from non-real phenomena or essences, such as “red” and “house.” Given to a pure or phenomenological consciousness, essences organize the objects in general—for instance, “this red house”—and not only scientific objects. Just as the latter, objects of imagination, dreams, perception, desire, memory, and so on, have their own laws of internal organization and cohesion. Husserl intended to highlight the range of different objects of human experience. No matter how infinite is scientific reason’s potential of expansion over reality—and even if one must preserve it against the invasion of any strange element, such as myths, rhetorics, or ideologies—scientific reason should find its limits in the line that separates it from other fields of experience. Otherwise, one would be incurring in a scientific dogmatism, the dangerous invasion of scientific reason over “lifeworld.” The theoretical consequences of such a claim have extended beyond the field of phenomenology. Modern science’s model of objectivity is not the only place of truth.

This did not escape Heidegger. Not only in Being and Time, but also in Basic Problems of Phenomenology, Heidegger resumes and develops, for the purposes of a philosophy of existence, what he considers an important contribution of Husserl’s phenomenology: the possibility of developing a thought that takes into account the different loci of truth.4 Husserl thought about this in terms of different forms of relation between subject and object. For Heidegger, following in the steps of Nietzsche, this meant the initial moment for the activity of thinking is established too late. Engagement with the world starts before any cognitive relation between subject and object, before the agent of action recognizes him- or herself as consciousness and the target of his or her action as object. Taking a step back would be necessary to characterize the human being prior to its own recognition as consciousness, to characterize it in the totality of its being-in-the-world condition. This is how the different loci of truth are conceived, in Heidegger, as different forms of “comporting towards” things, other persons, ourselves. In his ontological language, the loci of truth are conceived as different ways of being this entity which, being nothing in itself but a “going-towards,” we ourselves are.

From here, we begin to follow very distant paths from Blackburn’s historical account. Paths, in which names such as Nietzsche and Heidegger that concern de facto determinations of so-called postmodern thought, are excluded from such an account.

These paths neither begin nor end with the centrality of meaning, for their aim is to approach the dynamics that, in multiple levels, are always inseparable from the inscription of any meaning. Through these paths, anxiety and truth will necessarily remain inseparable.

Such is the case, for example, in Derrida. He is not concerned with any philosophy of language, in either an implicit or explicit way. What he means by “writing” and, by extension, by “text,” intends to go beyond the concept of language.

On “writing” in Of Grammatology, one reads:

By a slow movement whose necessity is hardly perceptible, everything that for at least twenty centuries tended towards and finally succeeded in being gathered under the name of language is beginning to let itself be transferred, or at least summarized under, the name of writing. By a hardly perceptible necessity, it seems as though the concept of writing—no longer indicating a particular, derivative, auxiliary form of language in general … —is beginning to go beyond the extension of language. In all senses of the word, writing thus comprehends language.5

Thinking through a philosophy of language means, for Derrida, to remain trapped in the centrality of meaning and thus unable to reinstate meaning “in more powerful, larger, more stratified contexts.”6 Inscribing Derrida in a theory of meaning, such as proposed by Blackburn, means erasing the very element of his thought, disregarding what he proposes in his thinking. One returns here to truth without a certainty as to its essence, whether logical-scientific or of any other order. Truth without any certainty whatsoever, as paradoxical as it may be. And this, in fact, provokes much anxiety.

Such is what is implied in what Derrida means by “text”:

What I call “text” implies all the structures called “real,” “economic,” “historical,” socio-institutional, in short: all possible referents. Another way of recalling once again that “there is nothing outside the text.”

What does it mean?

It does mean that every referent, all reality has the structure of a differential trace, and that one cannot refer to this “real” except in an interpretive experience. The latter neither yields meaning nor assumes it except in a movement of differential referring. That’s all.7

In short, not only with Derrida, but with the other postmodern thinkers, it would be necessary to follow other paths.

Paulo Cesar Duque-Estrada

Paulo Cesar Duque-Estrada is Professor of Philosophy at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro.

  1. Alexandre Koyré, “The Political Function of Modern Lie,” in Contemporary Jewish Record (New York, 1945), Volume VIII, 291. 
  2. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000). 
  3. Edmund Husserl, The Idea of Phenomenology, trans. L. Hardy (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1995). 
  4. Martin Heidegger, Basic Problems of Phenomenology, trans. Albert Hofstadter (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982). Although only published in 1975, this was written in the same year as Being and Time. 
  5. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1976), 6–7. 
  6. Jacques Derrida, “Afterword: Towards an Ethics of Discussion,” in Limited Inc., trans. Samuel Weber (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988), 146. 
  7. Jacques Derrida, “Afterword: Towards an Ethics of Discussion,” in Limited Inc., trans. Samuel Weber (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988), 148.