POSTMODERN PHILOSOPHY

There are two illuminations and/or dilemmas passed on to us in so called postmodern philosophy from the 20th century:

  1. The ontological question of the nature of language (i.e. phonetic language)

  2. The infinite and unconstrained power of modernity proper to knowing (i.e. privileged modern knowledge); the self-contradictory and anthropocentric form of knowledge proper to a structurally overloaded subject (i.e. privileged modern man)

The first illumination and/or dilemma

Sinologist John Lagerwey states: Derrida has demonstrated the Western “civilization of Writing” [civilisation du Livre] in reality is the “civilization of Speech” [civilisation de la Parole]. The act of phonetic writing leads us to see script as a “double” of speech: only speech – of man or God can create or express the intention and the will of things – is identified as creator, spirit, soul, and breath [souffle], as Derrida writes, “writing, the letter, the sensible inscription, has always been considered by Western tradition as the body and matter external to the spirit, breath, speech, and the logos.”[1]

Derrida calls attention to the notion that Hegel “rehabilitated thought as memory productive of signs”, so “the essential necessity of the written trace in philosophy – that is to say Socratics – discourse that had always believed it possible to do without it”, according to Derrida, Hegel is “the last philosopher of the book and the first thinker of writing”.[2] While “thinking of writing” becomes the vital tradition in the Western philosophical thinking, phonetic writing has led to its dramatic overturn since Hegel:

It goes hand in hand with an extension of phonography and of all the means of conserving the spoken language, of making it function without the presence of the speaking subject. This development, coupled with that of anthropology and of the history of writing, teaches us that phonetic writing, the medium of the great metaphysical, scientific, technical, and economic adventure of the West, is limited in space and time and limits itself even as it is in the process of imposing laws upon the cultural areas that had escaped it. But this nonfortuitous conjunction of cybernetics and the “human sciences” of writing leads to more profound reversal.[3]

Since the early 20th century, the question of the nature of language has become a central point in Western philosophy, and it has received extreme attention. Stephen Hawking remarks, from a scientist’s view, “Philosophers reduced the scope of their inquiries so much that Wittgenstein, the most famous philosopher of this century, said ‘The sole remaining task for philosophy is the analysis of language.’ ”[4] From the perspective of one of the largest 20th century enterprises of “human science”, Jacques Lacan argues that if Freud’s unconsciousness exists, psychoanalysis functions linguistically, rather than symbolically or instinctually: “Whether it sees itself as an instrument of healing, of formation, or of exploration in death, psychoanalysis has only a single intermediary: the patient’s Word.”[5]

Accordingly, speech has achieved the highest domination in our time, while language itself has become “myth”. Roland Gérard Barthes writes:

What is a myth today? I shall give at the outset a first, very simple answer, which is perfectly consistent with etymology: myth is a type of speech.
It can be seen that to purport to discriminate among mythical objects according to their substance would be entirely illusory: since myth is a type of speech, everything can be a myth, provided it is conveyed by a discourse. Myth is not defined by the object of its message, but by the way in which it utters this message: there are formal limits to myth, there are no “substantial” ones.[6]

Barthes believes “every object can pass from a closed, silent existence to an oral state, open to appropriation by society”. What modern speech and discourse convey is not about the substantial knowledge and information of object, but the way of speech and discourse of object conveyed.

Foucault thinks that modern Western language “became one object of knowledge among others, on the same level as living beings, wealth and value, and the history of events and men”; “to know language is no longer to come as close as possible to knowledge itself; it is merely to apply the methods of understanding in general to a particular domain of objectivity”. In The Order of Things an Archaeology of the Human Sciences, Foucault writes:

The independent analysis of grammatical structures, as practiced from the nineteenth century, isolates language, treats it as an autonomous organic structure, and breaks its bonds with judgments, attribution, and affirmation. The ontological transition provided by the verb to be between speaking and thinking is removed; whereupon language acquires a being proper to itself. And it is this being that contains the laws that govern it.
The Classical order of language has now drawn to a close. It has lost its transparency and its major function in the domain of knowledge. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was the immediate and spontaneous unfolding of representations; it was in that order in the first place that representations received their primary signs, patterned and regrouped their common features, and established their relations of identity or attribution; language was a form of knowing and knowing was automatically discourse. Thus, language occupied a fundamental situation in relation to all knowledge: it was only by the medium of language that the things of the world could be known. Not because it was a part of the world, ontologically interwoven with it (as in the Renaissance), but because it was the first sketch of an order in representations of the world; because it was the initial, inevitable way of representing representations. It was in language that all generality was formed. Classical knowledge was profoundly nominalist.
From the nineteenth century, language began to fold in upon itself, to acquire its own particular density, to deploy a history, an objectivity, and laws of its own. It became one object of knowledge among others, on the same level as living beings, wealth and value, and the history of events and men. It may possess its own concepts, but the analyses that bear upon it have their roots at the same level as those that deal with other empirical forms of knowledge. The pre-eminence that enabled general grammar to be logic while at the same time intersecting with it has now been lost. To know language is no longer to come as close as possible to knowledge itself; it is merely to apply the methods of understanding in general to a particular domain of objectivity.[7]

Foucault gives detailed accounts how modern phonetic language is already a “double” of a language, and it doubles itself once again in writing:

A hypothesis that is hardly indispensable: alphabetical writing is already, in itself, a form of duplication, since it represents not the signified but the phonetic elements by which it is signified; the ideogram, on the other hand, directly represents the signified, independently from a phonetic system, which is another mode of representation. Writing, in Western culture, automatically dictates that we place ourselves in the virtual space of self-representation and reduplication; since writing refers not to a thing but to speech, a work of language only advances more deeply into the intangible density of the mirror, calls forth the double of this already-doubled writing, discoverers in this way a possible and impossible infinity, ceaselessly strives after speech, maintains it beyond the death that condemns it, and frees a murmuring stream. This presence of repeated speech in writing undeniably gives to what we call a work of language an ontological status unknown in those cultures where the act of writing designates the thing itself, in its proper and visible body, stubbornly inaccessible to time.[8]

Foucault continues:

Writing, in our day, has moved infinitely closer to its source, to this disquieting sound which announces from the depths of language – once we attend to it – the source against which we seek refuge and toward which we address ourselves. Like Franz Kafka’s beast, language now listens from the bottom of its burrow to this inevitable and growing noise. To defend itself it must follow its movements, become its loyal enemy, and allow nothing to stand between them except the contradictory thinness of a transparent and unbreakable partition. We must ceaselessly speak, for as long as loudly as this indefinite and deafening noise – longer and more loudly so that in mixing our voices with it we might succeed – if not in silencing and mastering it – in modulating its futility into the endless murmuring we call literature. From this moment, a work whose only meaning resides in its being a self – enclosed expression of its glory is no longer possible.[9]

Derrida confirms, “The formal essence of the signified is presence, and the privilege of its proximity to the logos as phonè is the privilege of presence. This is the inevitable response as soon as one asks: ‘what is the sign?’ that is to say, when one submits the sign to the question of essence, to the ‘ti esti.’ The ‘formal essence’ of the sign can only be determined in terms of presence.”[10] According to Derrida, though Being means to be present, but “you can never find anything anywhere that we can call Being”, and there is nothing present without some traces referring to something non-present. A present is always marked by the trace of another present, of the other. Some other is always marked within the presence of the present.[11] This is what Derrida calls the trace. He says that there is nothing prior to the trace. Everything is a trace; every experience is the structure of a trace. “Trace is not a presence but is rather the simulacrum of a presence that dislocates, displaces, and refers beyond itself.”[12]

The second illumination and/or dilemma

Since he declares that the formal essence of the signified is presence, and the privilege of its proximity to the logos as phonè is the privilege of presence, Derrida contends that phonetic writing, which copies the sound of words, is not only coextensive but also equiprimordial with metaphysical thought. Nevertheless, phonetic writing, “the medium of the great metaphysical, scientific, technical, and economic adventure of the West” has reached its limit in our time,[13] and “Western metaphysics, as the limitation of the sense of being within the field of presence, is produced as the domination of a linguistic form”,[14] which Derrida often calls “phonocentrism and logocentrism” in traditional Western philosophy. He terms his perspective as “white mythology” elsewhere:

Metaphysics – the white mythology which reassembles and reflects the culture of the West: the white man takes his own mythology, Indo-European mythology, his own logos, that is, the mythos of his idiom, for the universal form of that he must still wish to call Reason.
White mythology – metaphysics has erased itself the fabulous scene that has produced it, the scene that nevertheless remains active and stirring, inscribed in white ink, an invisible design covered over in the palimpsest.[15]

British cultural critic Robert j. c. Young expatiates on Derrida’ notes socially and politically:

Horkheimer and Adorno therefore pose the question: how has the dialectic deviated into fascism? Why has History gone wrong? Their answer, briefly, was that reason had always contained a measure of irrationality, which, despite its best intentions, had led to its involvement with tyranny and domination: ‘Enlightenment is totalitarian’.[16]
In Western philosophy, when knowledge or theory comprehends the other, then the alterity of the latter vanishes as it becomes part of the same. This ‘ontological imperialism’, Lévinas argues, goes back at least to Socrates but can be found as recently as Heidegger. In all cases the other is neutralized as means of encompassing it: ontology amounts to a philosophy of power, an egotism in which the relation with the other is accomplished through its assimilation into the self. Its political implications are clear enough. Ontology, therefore, though outwardly directed, remains always centered in an incorporating self: ‘this imperialism of the same’, Lévinas suggests, ‘is the whole essence of freedom’. For freedom is maintained by a self-possession which extends itself to anything that threatens its identity. In this structure European philosophy reduplicates Western foreign policy, where democracy at home is maintained through colonial or neocolonial oppression abroad.[17]

“Phonocentrism” + “logocentrism” + “white mythology” + metaphysics = metaphysics + white mythology + logocentrism + phonocentrism: this “ontological imperialism” is deeply enmeshed in Hegelian metaphysics and ethnocentrism. According to Hegel, History of World represents the progress of Spirit of self-consciousness, which is Reason, and thus constitutes Freedom (at this juncture the notion of History, World, Spirit, Reason, and Freedom based on Western self-interest). As Michel de Certeau argues vigorously that the History of the World is – Western fabrication – writing that conquers:

It will use the New World as if it were a blank, “savage” page on which Western desire will be written. It will transform the space of the other into a field of expansion for a system of production. From the moment of a rupture between a subject and an object of the operation, between a will to write and a written body (or a body to be written), this writing fabricates Western history. [18]

Jürgen Habermas suggests that with Kant the modern age is inaugurated. But the modern form of knowledge as marked from the beginning by the aporia that knowing subject raises itself up out of the ruins of metaphysics in order – in the consciousness of his finite powers – to solve a task requiring infinite power. As Foucault articulates it: “Modernity begins with the incredible and ultimately unworkable idea of a being whose very finitude allows him to take the place of God.”[19] Consequently, says Habermas, human being as the being toward death has always lived in relation to its natural end, but in modernity this humanistic self-understanding comes to its end: it is not the human being but the essence of the human that wanders blindly in the homelessness of nihilism.[20]

We are now wandering about unseeingly, aculturally, and ahistorically indeed. As stated by Hegel, in the progress of unfolding and making Spirit explicit, history that is not relevant to the realization of Spirit is excised of historical time and is assimilated into the eternal present. Thus the arrival of modernity of self-consciousness celebrates its break with history by abolishing what is different from itself in history. In other words, now the self-consciousness knowing subject surmounts the unnecessary, contingent stuff of history.

This unified subject, self-consciousness of his or her freedom, is the paramount premise in the conception of modernity. Max Webber declared that this premise is demonstrated by the notion of “methodological individualism”, which is one of the most distinguishing trademarks of modernity: the beliefs and attitudes in modern society are based on choice – constrained, but still choice – on the part of the individual. Thus modern thinking recognizes what traditional societies had failed to recognize: values are self-chosen and not grounded in a larger cosmic scheme. Traditional societies like China or India may reveal highly sophisticated and rational systems; nonetheless, they are ultimately constrained by the unquestioned beliefs of the culture. [21] In contrast to the traditional “substantive rationality”, the modern subject, empty and formal, making efficient decisions to maximize self-chosen values, engages in “formal rationality”. The modern and unified subject thus has grasped the fundamental truth of its own emptiness and is unconstrained in its power to know.[22]

En route for this “apparently auspicious” and “definitely spectacular” outlook, postmodern thinkers are definitely pessimistic and disenchanted. Jean-François Lyotard states that in the frontiers of the “formal rationality” of modern man the continuous differentiable function is losing its preeminence as a paradigm of knowledge and prediction:

Postmodern science – by concerning itself with such things as undecidables, the limits of precise control, conflicts characterized by incomplete information, "fracta" catastrophes, and pragmatic paradoxes—is theorizing its own evolution as discontinuous, catastrophic, nonrectifiable, and paradoxical. It is changing the meaning of the word knowledge, while expressing how such a change can take place. It is producing not the known, but the unknown. And it suggests a model of legitimation that has nothing to do with maximized performance, but has as its basis difference understood as paralogy.[23]

Says Lyotard, “we no longer have recourse to the grand narratives – we can resort neither to the dialectic of Spirit nor even to the emancipation of humanity as validation for postmodern scientific discourse.” What we have is something Lyotard calls “the little narrative [petit récit] remains the quintessential form of imaginative invention, most particularly in science”.[24]

Foucault nevertheless primes his basic idea that modernity characterized by the self-contradictory and anthropocentric form of knowledge proper to a structurally overloaded subject. This overloaded subject becomes a “double” of Self, thus the “double” transcends Self to take the place of God. Habermas expounds as:

The pressure to break out of this unstable to and fro between aspects of self-thematization that are just as irreconcilable as they are inevitable makes itself felt as the intractable will to knowledge and ever more knowledge. This will pretentiously shoots beyond anything the structurally overburdened and overstrained subject is capable of performing. In this way, the modern form of knowledge is determined by the unique dynamism of a will to truth for which any frustration is only a spur to the renewed production of knowledge. This will to truth, then, is for Foucault the key to the internal nexus between knowledge and power. The human sciences occupy the terrain opened up by the aporetic self-thematization of the cognitive subject. With their pretentious and never redeemed claims, they erect a façade of universally valid knowledge behind which lurks the facticity of a sheer will to cognitive self-mastery, a will to boundlessly productive increase of knowledge in the wake of which both subjectivity and self-consciousness are formed.[25]
Since Kant, the reason of this double status, the knowing subject sees itself provoked to analyze the same performances that one time get grasped reflectively as performances of transcendental synthesis, and a second time empirically as a process governed by natural law – no matter whether our cognitive apparatus is explained in terms of psychology or cultural anthropology, biology or history.[26]

As Foucault states: “We are inclined to believe that man has emancipated himself from himself since his discovery that he is not at the center of creation, nor in the middle of space, nor even, perhaps, the summit and culmination of life, but though man is no longer sovereign in the kingdom of the world, though he no longer reigns at the center of being, the human sciences are dangerous intermediaries. The truth of the matter is, however, that this very posture dooms them to an essential instability.”[27] Habermas elaborates: “The human sciences are and pseudo-sciences because they do not see through the compulsion to a problematic doubling of the self-relating subject; they are not in position to acknowledge the structurally generated will to self-knowledge and self-reification – and thus they are also unable to free themselves from the power that drives them.”[28]

According to Foucault, human sciences with anthropocentric thinking, which was set in motion by Kant and which with its utopias of liberation, gets all but implicated in the practice of enslavement.[29] He thinks, the “human sciences” – “psychologism”, “socialogism”, whatever might be termed, in a word, “anthropologism” – with their precariousness, uncertainty as sciences, dangerous familiarity with philosophy, ill-defined reliance upon other domains of knowledge, their perpetually secondary and derived character, and their claim to universality, are dangerous intermediaries, essentially instable.[30] He concludes:

Man had been a figure between two modes of language; or, rather, he was constituted only when language, having been situated within representation and, as it were, dissolved in it, freed itself from that situation at the cost of its own fragmentation: man composed his own figure in the interstices of that fragmented language. Of course, there are not affirmations; they are at most questions to which it is not possible to reply; they must be left in suspense, where they pose themselves, only with the knowledge that the possibility of posing them may well open the way to a future thought.[31]

Conclusion and/or question In view of some of the postmodern thinkers, in Modernity, starting with the ontological question of the double nature of phonetic language, and the double nature of the self-contradictory and anthropocentric structurally overloaded subject, we, the privileged Modern Man with our privileged Modern Knowledge, have marched in a large circle around the practice of enslavement of double realities of Self and Language perpetually.

At any rate, Derrida asserts that Chinese language “included phonetic elements” but remained ideographic, which testifies a powerful movement of civilization developing outside of logocentrism.[32] From a sinological perspective, Lagerwey affirms:

If anthropology has played the leading role in revealing to us our ethnocentrism and psychology our egocentrism, if Buddhism has proved the chief challenge to monotheism, Sinology has had an altogether unique place in the uncovering of our logocentrism. It owes this place, in the end, neither to the age nor to the continuity of its essentially autonomous tradition, but to the fact that it is the civilization of the written sign, the civilization, indeed, in which writing first came into being not to “record human speech” but to “communicate with the spirits”.[33]

Lagerwey is certainly aware of the fact that “the history of modern China is every bit as tragic, and its tragedies, likewise, are rooted in millennia of rupture and denial.”[34] Is not the history of the modern world so? Let’s repeat Foucault’s assertion/insight again:

Alphabetical writing is already, in itself, a form of duplication, since it represents not the signified but the phonetic elements by which it is signified; the ideogram, on the other hand, directly represents the signified, independently from a phonetic system, which is another mode of representation. Writing, in Western culture, automatically dictates that we place ourselves in the virtual space of self-representation and reduplication; since writing refers not to a thing but to speech, a work of language only advances more deeply into the intangible density of the mirror, calls forth the double of this already-doubled writing, discoverers in this way a possible and impossible infinity, ceaselessly strives after speech, maintains it beyond the death that condemns it, and frees a murmuring stream. This presence of repeated speech in writing undeniably gives to what we call a work of language an ontological status unknown in those cultures where the act of writing designates the thing itself, in its proper and visible body, stubbornly inaccessible to time.[35]

So the conclusion and/or question is: Can Sinology render its “unique place” in the uncovering of the modern work of language an ontological status and/or logocentrism? Can the “ontological imperialism” tolerate and let this "unique place" take place?

[1] John Lagerwey, “Écriture et corps divin en Chine,” Le corps des dieux (Le temps de la réflexion VII), ed. C. Malamoud et J.-P. Vernant (Paris, Gallimard), 1986, 275-286.
[2] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, (London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), p. 26.
[3] Ibid., p. 10.
[4] Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, from the Big Bang to Black Holes, (Toronto New York London Sydney Auckland: Bantam Books, 1988), p. 174.
[5] Jacques Lacan, The Language of the Self, the Function of Language in Psychoanalysis, (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), p. 9.
[6] Roland Barthes, Mythologies, (New York: Hill and Wang, 2013), p. 217.
[7] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things an Archaeology of the Human Science, (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), pp. 295-296.
[8] Michel Foucault, “Language to Infinity” in Donald Bouchard edited, Language, Counter-memory, Practice, Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault, (Cambridge Massachusetts: The MIT Press), p. 56.
[9] Ibid., p. 60.
[10] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, (London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), p. 18.
[11] Ning Zhang “Jacques Derrida’s First Visit to China: A Summary of His Lectures and Seminars” in Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy, December 2002, Vol. II, No. 1, p. 154-155.
[12] Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena and Other essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), p. 156.
[13] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, (London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), p. 10.
[14] Ibid., p. 23.
[15] Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, (Brighton Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1982), p. 213
[16] Robert j. c. Young, White Mythologies, Writing History and the West, (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 38.
[17] Ibid., p. 45.
[18] Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), p. xxv.
[19] Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, (Cambridgr MA: The MIT Press, 1990), pp. 260-261.
[20] Ibid., p.161.
[21] Prasenjit Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation, (Chicago and London: University Of Chicago Press, 1997), p. 87.
[22] Ibid., p. 87.
[23] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), p 60.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, (Cambridgr MA: The MIT Press, 1990) p. 261.
[26] Ibid., p. 262.
[27] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things an Archaeology of the Human Science, p. 348.
[28] Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, p. 265.
[29] Ibid., p. 264.
[30] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things an Archaeology of the Human Science, p. 348.
[31] Ibid., p. 386.
[32] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, (London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), p. 90.
[33] John Lagerwey, “The Oral and the Written in Chinese and Western Religion,” Religion und Philosophie in Ostasien, p. 301.
[34] Ibid., p. 317.
[35] Michel Foucault, “Language to Infinity” in Donald Bouchard edited, Language, Counter-memory, Practice, Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault, p. 56.