Misleading antilogiké: A response to James Murray's “Disputation, Deception and Dialectic: Plato on the True Rhetoric (Phaedrus 261-266)”

[This text, written as a response to another paper and presented at the 16th Atlantic Philosophical Association Conference at the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton (3-5 October 1985), has not previously been published.]


My function here is vestigial in a double sense. The response to a conference paper might be said to stand in approximately the same relation to that paper as the appendix to the gut: the appendix can cause discomfort, even peritonitis, but provides no special help in the process of digestion. Moreover, the practice of offering an oral response to an orally presented argument is itself a vestige, bequeathed to us by the universities of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, of the scholastic arts faculty tradition of the disputatio.

One may suspect, incidentally, that this tradition is in part responsible for that identification of antilogiké with eristiké which James Murray, following G. B. Kerferd, so ably undoes. For the disputatio amounted to a training in what was called dialectic, but seems more often to have consisted of eristic combat. Logos was challenged by antilogos, and the subjects under discussion included such questions as the following (paraphrased from the Sophismata of Jean Buridan): “If Socrates says, 'Plato should be cursed if he curses me, and not otherwise,' and Plato says, 'Socrates should be cursed if he does not curse me, and not otherwise,' does Socrates curse Plato?”1

Predictably, given that such exercises in modal logic were aimed at boys in their early teens, this antilogistic tradition resulted in an effective devolution of logic into rhetoric.2 As Peter Ramus, one of its most famous products, wrote in the mid-sixteenth century, “Bene disserere est finis logices”: “Logic's chiefest end is, to dispute well.” It may be significant that this definition is derived from Cicero, who stands at the end of another antilogistic tradition, that of the Platonic Academy.3 These historical devolutions of dialectic into dogmatic scepticism in one instance, and into an art of rhetoric in the other, may have some bearing on Plato's attempts to assimilate antilogiké into a true rhetoric which will advance the cause of (his) philosophy. Or are they merely misleading irrelevancies (apatemata)?

My function, I have said, is vestigial: an unflattering situation. And to compound my problems, James Murray's paper, with understated skill, wedges its respondent into a position reminiscent of the conditional curses of Buridan's sophism, or perhaps of the paradox of the Cretan Liar. In order to properly discharge my antilogical function in this vestigial disputatio, I should, after some initial gestures of insincere praise, oppose his argument by (for example) demonstrating a convergence of antilogiké with eristiké in Plato's text—thus, effectively, playing Socrates to his Lysias. But since his argument includes the claim that antilogiké, properly used, is part of the true philosopher's equipment, my antilogistic reasonings would, at the same time, define me as a rhetorician rather than a philosopher, as Lysias to his Socrates—or, in language suggested by Plato's Sophist,4 as a magician, a poisoner, a pharmakeus, rather than a doctor of souls.

Which gives rise to a further paradox. For on the one hand, I believe Murray's argument to be accurate and solid—while on the other, I am in fact a rhetorician rather than a philosopher. If I have not already given sufficient evidence of sophistic leanings, I can cement the point by confessing that my quotation of Ramus was at second hand: my source for it is Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, a pharmakeus if there ever was one—and who, by the way, pretended to be reading from Aristotle when he quoted Ramus.5

The fact that in the same scene of Marlowe's play Faustus also makes Aristotle appear to be the author of the Gorgian phrase on kai mé on can serve as my pretext for making a vaguely similar claim about the passage from the Phaedrus that James Murray discusses.6 Plato seems here to be re-writing Gorgian rhetoric, and Socrates to be practising it; the Gorgian echoes in this passage may be strong enough to complicate our acceptance of the way in which Plato is deploying the terms antilogiké and apaté.

Gorgias regarded persuasion as a quasi-magical art which works on people by molding a false argument (de pseudé logon plasantes). It rests upon deceptions or misleadings of opinion (doxis apatémata), but is apparently morally neutral, both because Gorgias contrasts it to another magical art that rests upon errors or sins of soul (psuches hamartémata), and because doxai are all that are available to us.7 Gorgias said of tragedy, which he presumably regarded as a species of persuasive discourse, that it produces “a deception (apaté) in which the deceiver is more justly esteemed than the nondeceiver and the deceived is wiser than the undeceived.”8 I am not sure that this is radically different from the meaning of apaté that Murray finds in Plato's argument, or from what we may conclude about the deployment of apatémata in the splendid rhetoric of Socrates's second oration.

“Speech is a powerful lord,” says Gorgias (logos dunastis megas estin).9 The case of Helen shows persuasion to amount to the same thing as force: 'misleadings' of opinion are a matter less of seduction than of abduction. This assimilation of peitho to bia is clearly an example of the kind of misleading that Socrates is talking about at 261d and onwards. But what are the results of Socrates's own oration (how much of which is epistéme and how much doxa I leave you to judge)? Will young Phaedrus return to his friend Lysias, or have his affections been transferred? Has Socrates effectively abducted him?

Gorgias seems to be present here in other ways as well. Socrates is mockingly self-aware, in his first oration, of the degree to which his style “is already not far from dithyrambic” (238d); Diodorus Siculus quotes these very words in describing the declamatory style of Gorgias.10 But I am thinking more particularly of Socrates's response, at 261b-c, to Phaedrus's profession of ignorance as to the more general applications of rhetoric: “'What? Are you acquainted only with the 'Arts' or manuals of oratory by Nestor and Odysseus, which they composed in their leisure hours at Troy? Have you never heard of the work of Palamedes?' PHAEDRUS: 'No, upon my word, nor of Nestor either, unless you are casting Gorgias for the role of Nestor, with Odysseus played by Thrasymachus, or maybe Theodorus.'”11

If Guthrie is right in suggesting that sophistic technai, or manuals of rhetorical instruction, “may have consisted largely of models to be learned by heart,”12 then Socrates's joke appears to refer to a practice of using the speeches of Homer's heroes as though they were technai like Gorgias's Encomium of Helen or Apology of Palamedes—to the latter of which Socrates is clearly referring. The allusion is a resonant one, since as Guido Calogero has shown, Plato's Apology of Socrates both echoes the wording of Gorgias's Apology of Palamedes and rests upon the same ethical principle of nemo sua sponte peccat; moreover, Socrates names Palamedes as the first of the unjustly condemned heroes whom he hopes to meet in Hades (Apology 41b).13 In this context, Phaedrus's association of Gorgias, the author of Palamedes' defence, with Nestor, and of Thrasymachus with Odysseus, the accuser of Palamedes, may have some significance.

Is there, then, a certain doubleness to this dialogue? Do its argumentative and its mythic structures mesh with one another, or pull in different directions? And while moving beyond Gorgias in certain respects, does it yet remain profoundly Gorgian in others?

But perhaps my own barefooted splashings in the Ilissus have deafened me to the voices of Plato's interlocutors. Having, then, sufficiently muddied the waters, let me conclude by thanking James Murray for his most stimulating paper, and by lapsing into the role of Lysias, the last words of whose speech I now repeat: “I think I have said all that is needed; if you think I have neglected anything, and want more, let me know” (234c).




1  John Buridan, Sophisms on Meaning and Truth, trans. T. K. Scott (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1966), pp. 221-22.

2  See Walter J. Ong, S.J., Ramus: Method and the Decay of Dialogue (1958; rpt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983).

3  Ong, pp. 160, 347-48 notes 41 and 42, and pp. 178, 350 n. 39.

4  Sophist 230b-c, 234e-235a, in Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, eds., Plato: The Collected Dialogues (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), pp. 973, 977-78.

5  See Marlowe's “Doctor Faustus” 1604-1616: Parallel Texts, ed. W. W. Greg (1950; rpt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), p. 164 (1604 text, lines 36-38).

6  Ibid., 1604 text, lines 38-42: “Is, to dispute well, Logickes chiefest end? / Affoords this Art no greater myracle: / Then reade no more, thou hast attaind the end: / A greater subiect fitteth Faustus wit, / Bid Oncaymeon farewell....” See Sextus Empiricus, Adversus mathematicos, VII. 66, for the Gorgian expression; the text is reprinted in Hermann Diels, ed., Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (4th ed.; 3 vols.; Berlin, 1922), vol. 2, p. 243 (Gorgias, fr. 3).

7  I am paraphrasing and quoting from the Encomium of Helen (Diels, fr. 11. 8-11, vol. 2, pp. 251-52). Our confinement to the realm of opinion is implicit throughout this text and argued in Gorgias's On the nonexistent or on Nature (fr. 3).

8  Diels, fr. 23; the translation is that of George Kennedy in R. K. Sprague, ed., The Older Sophists (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1972), p. 65.

9  Diels, fr. 11. 8, p. 251; Sprague, ed., The Older Sophists, p. 52.

10  Diels, “Leben und Lehre,” 4, p. 237; Sprague, p. 33.

11  The translation is that of R. Hackforth, in Hamilton and Cairns, eds., Plato: The Collected Dialogues, p. 506.

12  W. K. C. Guthrie, The Sophists (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), p. 270. Guthrie is here speaking of the technai of Gorgias.

13  Guido Calogero, “Gorgias and the Socratic Principle nemo sua sponte peccat,” in Carl Joachim Classen, ed., Sophistik (Darmstadt, 1976), pp. 408-21, esp. 413-16.    

Misleading antilogiké: A response to James Murray's “Disputation, Deception and Dialectic: Plato on the True Rhetoric (Phaedrus 261-266)”

Is there, then, a certain doubleness to this dialogue? Do its argumentative and its mythic structures mesh with one another, or pull in different directions? And while moving beyond Gorgias in certain respects, does it yet remain profoundly Gorgian in others?

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Ben Jonson's Skeptical Friend: Gorgias in the English Renaissance

The poem's overt message is that malicious, spying readers are intruding into the domain of poetic creation, where justice is properly correlated with deception; their injustice makes them bad poets, whose deceptions will be credited only by themselves. But there is nothing in the wording to suggest that they are actually mistaken in noticing the weaving of current issues into a drama supposedly set in the past [...].  

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‘Fairer than the evening air’: Marlowe’s Gnostic Helen of Troy and the Tropes of Belatedness and Historical Mediation

Forgive the interruption, but is there a scholar anywhere who does not respond to this Wittenberg man's notion of his alma mater in flames, or cannot take pleasure in imagining one or two close colleagues at the heart of a similar conflagration? But the thought of long-haired Achaeans running bronze-clad through Wittenberg, spearing astonished academics in the streets of their plundered and burning city, is perhaps not uppermost in Faustus's mind.   

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For and Against the Moon

[First published in English Studies in Canada 15.3 (1989): 305-18. I have corrected several typographical errors, and have added a few words (in square brackets) to note 14. The text of this essay is otherwise unchanged.]



Vacuous, white bone; everyone sees it
Who knows what it is for? 
It is said the moon can drive men mad
Are you for or against the moon?1


One senses a hint of autumn in the air: it is in fact early September as I write this, but I mean another kind of autumn. Not long ago it might have seemed that the high summer of deconstruction in literary theory was going to be indefinitely prolonged. Yet suddenly the signs of change are all about us: a nuanced past tense in the Modern Language Review (“When Deconstruction was at its height, one never quite knew how serious a posture of response was required”); a measured declaration in the first issue of New Formations (“The decade of deconstruction, it seems, is over”); and in the first issue of Textual Practice, more decisively still, a reviewer's discovery in recent work by a leading American deconstructionist of “a return to logocentrism of the most daring and unrepentant kind....”2 Daring and unrepentant logocentrism? The literary theorists are flocking together, it would appear, in preparation for one of their periodic migrations.

The prospect of their colleagues' impending change of climate, and perhaps also of coloration, would no doubt be a source of satisfaction to the winter birds among us, were it not that the latter perhaps harbour some suspicion of the migrants' imminent return in another less gaudy and more serviceable plumage (that, say, of the new historicism, or of cultural materialism—both of which challenge more fully the doctrines of New Criticism and its successor theories than do the deconstructive modes referred to by some of their American practitioners as the new New Criticism). In the meantime, those who are not sure whether they belong to either flock may find profit in returning to certain of the inaugural texts of deconstruction, which it may now be possible to read in a new and cooler mood, with diminished anxiety and with greater pleasure.

Of course, it may well be that predictions of the withering away of deconstruction are premature. Critics who have seen a relation between the metaphysical obsessions of deconstruction and a failure to engage with problems of historicity3 are unlikely to side with trend-spotters who would allot to each critical tendency a fixed span (“the decade of deconstruction”), after which period it is to be erased and supplanted by the next manifestation of a rootless present. And others may share the view of Alan Kennedy, who does not want to see deconstruction passed by before he has “even begun to feel confident about what the limits of deconstruction might be.”4 This mode of criticism may thus continue to be widely practised. Indeed (to lapse once more into metaphor), as I write there is a spring tide in the Annapolis Basin a hundred yards from my window, and the moon seems no less full than it did last night. But what is this moon?

Let us define it, with the help of Wittgenstein, as a kind of absence. If we are willing to take the word of one eminent contemporary critic and theorist (Harold Bloom), it would appear that reading, whether wilfully so or not, is also inevitably misreading. Consider, then, the opening aphorism of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “The world is all that is the case.”5 Wilfully misreading these words, I would like to ask: But is there not also the moon?

In the context of Derridean deconstruction, the question may be less witless than it seems. Elsewhere in the Tractatus Wittgenstein wrote: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (proposition 5.6), and “Logic pervades the world: the limits of the world are also its limits” (proposition 5.6 1)—from which follows the doctrine, announced in the preface and repeated as the concluding sentence of the work (and thus itself an enactment of those limits), that “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”6 In contrast to the early Wittgenstein, Jacques Derrida has persistently defied any such limits, both by placing himself outside them in his practice as a writer, and also by insisting (especially in those early books and essays which are still the basis of his reputation in the English-speaking world) that any act of delimitation is subverted by the weave of differences and deferrals, of absence, trace, and supplément, which he sees as constituting language itself. Challenging, like Nietzsche,7 the first principles of logic (those of identity and non-contradiction), his aim has been to make enigmatic, to deconstruct, any possible metaphysic of presence, and thus to undo or at least expose the “logocentric repression”8 which by his account has characterized the whole tradition of Western metaphysics.

This Derridean project has in many respects enjoyed a remarkable success. Lucretius proved the universe to be infinite by arguing that if a person went to the edge—wherever one took that edge to be—and threw a spear, it would ether be blocked by something or else would speed on its way. Since the thought-experiment can be repeated from whatever new edge one's spear-throw reveals, either case shows that the universe continues without end or limit.9 Similarly, Derrida, throwing spears in both directions from the edge of the world defined by Wittgenstein's Tractatus, has revealed receding infinities on both hands: one spear, thrown into the gap between signifier and signified, splinters the latter into an infinite regress of supplemental signifiers; another, hurled at the “transcendental signified” which in “logocentric” metaphysics puts an end to this regress, sails on without resistance.10 Standing, then, within the labyrinth (his metaphor) that is raised by his banishment of metaphysical presence, Derrida wrote in La voix et le phénomène, in what may seem to be deliberate opposition to the last words of the Tractatus: “It remains, then, for us to speak, to make our voices resonate throughout the corridors in order to make up for the breakup of presence [pour suppléer l'éclat de la présence].”11 Suppléer, éclat: the words themselves resonate with ambiguity.

But where is this labyrinth? I hope that I can answer, “On the moon,” without being misunderstood. In the course of his brilliant study of “Plato's Pharmacy,” Derrida investigates Socrates' allusions in the Phaedrus and the Philebus to Theuth or Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing and of the moon, and in a brief digression into Egyptian mythology argues the metaphorical identity of these two divine functions. Ammon-Ra—Ammon (the hidden), Ra (the sun)—“is god the creator, and he engenders through the mediation of the word.... we encounter here a hidden sun, the father of all things, letting himself be represented by speech.”12 Thoth, the moon-god, divine scribe, and eldest son of Ra (and thus a secondary, engendered god), announces in language “an already formed divine thought, a fixed design. The message itself is not, but only represents, the absolutely creative moment. It is a second and secondary word.”13 To Thoth's secondariness, both as god of the moon and as god of writing, is added the fact that he is made responsible in several papyri for the plurality of languages—and in Plato's Philebus for differentiation within language. In what follows, the familiar terms of Derrida's deconstruction of presence—absence, trace, supplément—assert themselves forcefully:

As the god of language second and of linguistic difference, Thoth can become the god of the creative word only by metonymic substitution, by historical displacement, and sometimes by violent subversion.

This type of substitution thus puts Thoth in Ra's place as the moon takes the place of the sun. The god of writing thus supplies the place of Ra, supplementing him and supplanting him in his absence and essential disappearance. Such is the origin of the moon as supplement to the sun, of night light as supplement to daylight. And writing as the supplement of speech.

Citing, from ancient Egyptian texts, examples of this substitution of Thoth for Ra, of the moon for the absent sun, and of the subsequent word-play which establishes further chains of signification, Derrida remarks that

This process of substitution ... thus functions as a pure play of traces or supplements or, again, operates within the order of the pure signifier which no reality, no absolutely external reference, no transcendental signified, can come to limit, bound, or control....14

Through the analysis of this mythical structure the moon thus becomes not merely a conspicuous example of the Derridean supplément, but also a metaphorical vehicle whose tenor is the whole play of substitution and supplementarity—which is to say, superimposing a spatial metaphor, the topos where these substitutions take place. It is, surely, in recognition of the further lunar overtones of this analysis that Derrida writes, in the same sentence from which I have just quoted, of “this substitution, which could be judged 'mad' since it can go on infinitely in the element of the linguistic permutation of substitutes, of substitutes for substitutes....”15

Other suppléments quickly manifest themselves and proliferate in the tenor of this lunar metaphor. Depending on the degree of blindness involved in the world's attempts to define itself, Derrida's discourse may not seem indisputably a part of “that which is the case”; yet through his deconstructive analyses of Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, and Austin it has raised tides even within the most strictly delimited of logical worlds.16 It is also consciously eccentric, both in its challenge to the idea of a centre, point of presence, or fixed origin which would inform “the structurality of structure,” and also in its choice of a ludic rhetoric that is meant to exemplify the free-play of signifiers opened up by this de-centring.17 But is this free-play not to some extend illusory, since by Derrida's own admission it resolves itself into an orbit around the traditions that he wishes to deconstruct? And once the rules of the language-games of deconstruction have been assimilated, is there not some danger that his arguments, however unexpected certain of their swerves, may become in their extended form as predictable as the phases of the moon?

Lunar and orbital, again, is Derrida's relation to the problem of institutional appropriation. For if the serene resistance to appropriation which is an important recurring feature of his writings constitutes the angular momentum of his path, it is balanced by the gravitational pull of those institutions in France, America and England—most evidently the Tel Quel group, the Yale formalists, and the New Accents writers—which in disseminating his thought have also appropriated it for their own ends. Gerald Graff, describing deconstruction as “a strategy for making texts immune to appropriation by the consumer,” at once added that “the very procedures by which texts are made to seem unmanageable rather easily become a critical commodity fetish—that is, the styles of resisting commodification themselves become commodities.”18 Whether or not this description is fair, such a drift was wryly exemplified by Christopher Norris when he wrote in his book Deconstruction that “Critical theory is nowadays a reputable academic business with a strong vested interest in absorbing and coming to terms with whatever new challenges the times may produce.”19 (Is not this precisely the vaguely upbeat language of the corporate Annual Report to shareholders?)

Derrida is himself well aware of this problem of appropriation, but his stance with regard to it has remained paradoxical. Calling in 1983 for a “new responsibility” that would seek to “unmask—an infinite task—all the ruses of end-orienting reason, the paths by which apparently disinterested research can find itself indirectly appropriated, reinvested by programs of all sorts,” he pointed to the intrusion of a state-directed military or 'national-security' orientation into all fields of research, including his own:

From now on, so long as it has the means, a military budget can invest in anything at all, in view of deferred profits: 'basic' scientific theory, the humanities, literary theory and philosophy.... What is produced in this field can always be used. And even if it should remain useless in its results, in its productions, it can always serve to keep the masters of discourse busy: the experts, professionals of rhetoric, logic or philosophy who might otherwise be applying their energy elsewhere.20

In the face of this apparent admission that there may after all be a hors-texte, and that even if (thanks to his dialectical ruses) the deconstructionist's pure free-play in language cannot be directly appropriated, it may in some sense be always already appropriated, Derrida's continued adherence to a kind of sceptical ataraxia seems courageous, if also perhaps naïve. Gerald Graff appears to have cut deeper into the question of appropriation when he asked:

Isn't it at least possible that nature, essence, immanence, and other logocentric concepts are less of a live issue than they once were, that these and other hierarchical concepts were rendered negligible long ago by a more powerful 'deconstructive' force than that of any school of philosophy or criticism, namely, the force of consumer capitalism itself? Aren't strategies of textual dissemination of questionable effectiveness if the culture they seek to strike against is already more like a disseminated text than an organically unified one?21

Derrida of course regards with distaste and alarm the transformations being worked in our culture by the hegemonic forces of consumer capitalism, and he has spoken out strongly against these forces. But to the extent that the strategies of deconstruction repeat these transformations on an intellectually rigorous level, there would seem to follow from Graff's comments another, harsher question—which I will pose in the form of an allusion to Derrida's analysis in “Plato's Pharmacy” of the Platonic pharmakon: Is deconstruction itself a remedy, or has it rather been a poison? To put the question in these terms is already to reveal a distortion, an incomprehension even, of the Derridean text: for the word pharmakon means both “remedy” and “poison,” as well as several other things; and this appropriation of the term constitutes an allegorizing of his text that Derrida might well reject with contempt. Yet the insistence with which this or similar questions have been raised, and with which one or the other answer has been pressed, may serve as a reminder that the Derridean intervention has not occurred in a vacuum, and that the various appropriations of his thought have not been without consequences.

“Hands, hold you poison or grapes?”22 Either alternative seems inappropriately apocalyptic. We are concerned here with a secondary phenomenon (though one which emphatically reveals the secondariness of all other cultural phenomena), and therefore with a symptom, as much as with a cause. Deconstruction may be a poison for the paranoid, and a remedy for dogmatism (though ironically, some of its American offshoots have at times tended to acquire certain of the vestments of dogma). But as I have been trying to insinuate for several paragraphs already, deconstruction is also, on Derrida's own account, the moon.

What the early Wittgenstein excluded from “the world” and consigned to silence can, in his own terms, still be thought—“for in order to be able to draw a limit to thought, we should have to find both sides of the limit thinkable (i.e. we should have to be able to think what cannot be thought)”—but it can, by his definition, only be thought as nonsense.23 To which Derrida would reply that a refusal to examine the institutions and exclusions of the principle of reason itself, when compounded by a pre-emptive definition of the thought which does so as “nonsense,” is no more than obscurantism.24

Wittgenstein's “world,” Derrida's “moon.” Those who have found the relentlessly inquiring stare of the latter alarming may wish to summon up the image of that space, adjacent to “the neighbouring moon,” yet on the outside of the limit which defines “the firm opacous globe / Of this round world” and separates it from Chaos: the image of that “windy sea of land” which Milton, in Book III of Paradise Lost, calls limbo or the Paradise of Fools, and which he reserves for “embryos and idiots,” for

All the unaccomplished works of nature's hand, 
Abortive, monstrous, or unkindly mixed....25

Others, who for whatever reason have not felt threatened by the deconstructive enterprise, might prefer to evoke the thirty-fourth canto of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, in which Astolfo, travelling to the moon, discovered “no folly, / For still that here with us remaineth wholly.” Instead he found, in receptacles of different sizes, the mislaid sanity and wisdom of those on earth

That think they have great store of wit and boast it
When here it plain appeared they quite had lost it.

There also, in a scene suggestive of Derrida's account of the quasi-originary weave of différance, Astolfo encountered the Parcae or Fates, who out of “diverse fleeces”—wool, lint, silk, and cotton—spin “Threads infinite of divers stuff and hue.”26

One further aspect of the moon-metaphor set in motion by Derrida and pursued here remains to be considered. Quite simply, the moon itself is not a novelty—a fact which may seem of some significance should we attempt at some point to assess our responses both to this writer and to his critics. According to Derrida's own analysis of Egyptian mythology, an awareness of différance and of the linguistic archi-trace goes back at least as far as to the priests of Memphis; and as I wish briefly to indicate, certain features of Derrida's thought are anticipated by the sophist Gorgias, by the ancient sceptics, by Valentinus the Gnostic, and by a number of Renaissance writers.

Let us consider these anticipations in historical sequence. Although Derrida protects himself in “Plato's Pharmacy” by remarking that “this reading of Plato is at no time spurred on by some slogan or password of a 'back-to-the-sophists' nature,”27 his argument in this text is nonetheless profoundly Gorgian. In saying this I am not referring primarily to his extended use of Gorgias' Encomium of Helen to establish the important point that the analogy (logos) between the relation of pharmakon to body and that of persuasive logos to soul is anomalous, in that one of its terms recurs as the name of the analogy—from which it follows that “The pharmakon is comprehended in the structure of logos.”28 I am interested rather in the co-presence of Gorgias, earlier in Derrida's text, in a well-known passage on “the dangerous supplement” which contains no mention of the old sophist. The supplément “is not, so to speak, dangerous in itself, in that aspect of it that can present itself as a thing, as a being-present. In that case it would be reassuring. But here, the supplement is not, is not a being (on). It is nevertheless not a simple non-being (mé on), either. Its slidings slip it out of the simple alternative presence/absence. That is the danger.”29 I find it hard not to hear this, in context, as an echo of Gorgias' refusal to permit any clear distinction between being and non-being (on kai mé on)—an echo, in particular, of the argument in Gorgias' text On Nature or that which is not (peri tou mé ontos) that “it is not possible [for anything] either to be or not to be” (ouk estin oute einai oute mé einai).30 Gorgianic overtones are strengthened when, two paragraphs later, Derrida exemplifies the workings of this Platonic supplément-pharmakon by alluding to what Freud called 'kettle-logic': “1. The kettle I am returning to you is brand new; 2. The holes were already in it when you lent it to me; 3. You never lent me a kettle anyway.”31 This, again, sounds very much a displaced reminiscence of the principal argument of Gorgias' Peri tou mé ontos, which is, “firstly, that nothing exists; secondly, that even if anything exists it is inapprehensible by mankind; and thirdly, that even if anything is apprehensible, yet without a doubt it is inexpressible and incommunicable to one's neighbour.”32 Derrida's argument would thus appear itself to be anomalous, with respect to its Gorgianic roots, in precisely the same manner as that in which it shows logos to be anomalous: the same form of inquiry which reveals the pharmakon to be embedded in logos also shows Derrida's argument to be itself permeated by the meontic logic of Gorgias.

Derrida's affiliations with the ancient sceptical tradition, which in recent decades has attracted renewed scholarly interest,33 are perhaps more obvious. It may then be sufficient to quote A. D. Nuttall's observation that

The third of [the Pyrrhonist philosopher] Agrippa's “five modes of perplexity,” the mode of relativity,” neatly encapsulates the history of structuralism and its resolution into scepticism: “The mode derived from relativity declares that a thing can never be apprehended in and by itself, but only in connexion with something else. Hence all things are unknowable.” Agrippa's second mode of perplexity mirrors Derrida's principle of indefinite deferral: “The mode which involves extension ad infinitum refuses to admit that what is sought to be proved is firmly established because one thing furnishes the ground for belief in another, and so on ad infinitum.” Agrippa applies the principle to rational demonstration, Derrida to semantic confirmation. The end result in either case is virtually the same.34

In alluding, next, to Derrida's Gnostic affinities, I do not wish to be mistaken for a practitioner of the kind of heresiological polemic of which there have been some notorious recent examples.35 I would simply suggest that any reader of the hostile accounts of Valentinian Gnosticism in Irenaeus and Hippolytus, of Valentinus' own Gospel of Truth, and of some of Derrida's early texts, among them the essay “Force et signification” and the opening chapters of De la grammatologie, can hardly fail to observe certain very striking parallels.36

The Renaissance anticipations of Derridean deconstruction, if more diffuse, resonate oddly with that Derridean text, “Plato's Pharmacy,” from which I have drawn the key metaphor of this essay. Beginning in the latter part of the fifteenth century, recurrent tides of excitement were generated among humanist scholars by the recently translated writings attributed to the Egyptian sage Hermes Trismegistus—who is none other than the Hellenized form of Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing and of the moon. The fact that this Hermes, the king, priest, and prophet who gave laws and letters to the Egyptians, was wholly legendary, and that his supposed writings actually date from the first centuries of the Christian era, came to light only in the early seventeenth century.37 He had in the meantime been accepted by many scholars for more than a century as an approximate contemporary of Moses, as the author of a professedly inspired account of the creation which overlaps with and pulls against the book of Genesis, and as a philosopher from whose writings the doctrines of Plato were derived. One of the results of this was a quasi-deconstructive reversal of the normal flow both of causality and of textual authority—the establishment of a habit of reading which made the Hermetic appropriation of commonplaces from the schools of Middle Platonism into the ancient sources of Plato's thought, and the Hermetic creation myth (thanks in part to its parallels with the Kabbalistic speculations then being revealed to Christians by Jewish scholars exiled from Spain) into a revelation of the esoteric meaning of the Genesis story. Another result—perhaps appropriately, since to Hermes was traditionally ascribed the definition of God as “an infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere, and whose circumference nowhere”38—was a certain de-centring of originary authority: the divinely inspired Hermes was a direct challenge to the exclusivity of the Judaeo-Christian revelation, and however much a Hermetist might strive to reconcile the two (“I am a Christian,” wrote one of them, “and at the same time not ashamed to be a Hermetist”),39 interpretive tensions, which rapidly also acquired political dimensions, were inescapable.

Among the manifestations of the Hermetic vogue of the Renaissance could be cited the strange career of another Agrippa—not the Pyrrhonist philosopher, but the humanist, lawyer, and also magician and doctor (and thus pharmakeus), Henricus Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim. Author of the notorious De occulta philosophia, this Agrippa was also, like the Pyrrhonist, a refuter of first principles: his most widely read and translated book was a quasi-encyclopaedic 'deconstruction' of all arts and sciences as vain and uncertain.40 Cornelius Agrippa was praised by later writers as another Hermes Trismegistus—and also, as befitting a proto-Derridean pharmakeus, attacked as a sorcerer; his writing, which he himself announced should be of medicinal value, was by hostile polemicists declared to be a “mortal poison.”41 Nor was he soon forgotten. André Thevet, writing a half-century after Agrippa's death, bewailed among “les malheurs de nostre France” the fact that his country still supported followers of Agrippa, who, “making as though to take the moon between their teeth, trim, clip, cut back, limit, divide and dismember the power of Eternal God....”42

If these anticipations, however shadowy and incomplete, suffice to remind us that the moon is indeed no novelty, they also lead to a slightly embarrassing question. The fields to which I have alluded have all been the objects of intensive scholarly study over at least the past several decades. Why, then, should literary critics have been so startled by the reappearance and the creative adaptation in Derrida's writings of motifs which during the intervening centuries had never been wholly eclipsed—so eager, on the one hand, to carry the moon in their pockets; and, on the other, to howl against its minions like Irish wolves?

One might at the same time ask whether there has not been an element of conscious self-deception in Derrida's own repeated rhetorical representations of logocentric metaphysics as an effectively monolithic tradition of thought. His own forms of argument tend very quickly to dissipate this phantom: any apparent monolith is revealed by a deconstructive reading to be traversed by fissures, to be openly ruptured—indeed, to be constituted on and in response to the network of indeterminacies of which these are only the first ostensible signs. The Platonic logos—to revert to the example at hand—is built upon and subverted by the Gorgian/Socratic pharmakon. But has this, or something analogous, not been the case throughout history as well as in this inaugural textual example? Does the duplicitous relationship between hegemonic construction and sceptical devolution—between, on the one hand, the selective appropriations of dogmatism, and, on the other, a mélange of collaboration, resistance, and subversion—not seem to be repeated in perpetually different ways in the ideological and literary strugglers of other ages, including our own?

The Derridean mythos of a monolithic metaphysical tradition of logocentric repression is thus to some extent undercut both by the forms of analysis which Derrida himself has practised and also by the traces, sometimes visible within his own writings, of counter-traditions which have in various ways anticipated his sceptical stance. But at the same time, paradoxically, the receptions of his thought, the positions taken for and against the moon, effectively legitimize this story by demonstrating that it was one which we urgently needed to have told to us. Only in a literary-academic culture in which subversive counter-traditions had been and were being very efficiently repressed—a culture which indeed was instituted in the nineteenth century for the purpose, among others, of reproducing orthodox ideologies and mystifying class and gender oppression43—could such a narrative have been believed. And believed, because while Derrida's own writings may give it the lie, the aggressive manner in which orthodox academic critics initially responded to them are at least partial evidence of this story's truth.

* * *

I could claim that this essay has been an exercise in what Derrida calls “la mythologie blanche.” Or it might more fittingly be described, in a phrase of the poet Émile Nelligan, as “clair de lune intellectuel.”44 From the play with metaphor in which I have indulged it might seem rash to draw even tentative conclusions. However, one question does return with a certain insistency: namely, to what extent has Derrida succeeded in his stated desire to be exorbitant? He wrote, in De la grammatologie:

But what is the exorbitant?

I wised to reach the point of a certain exteriority in relation to the totality of the age of logocentrism. Starting from this point of exteriority, a certain deconstruction of that totality which is also a traced path, or that orb (orbis) which is also orbitary (orbita), might be broached.45

The echo in this passage of the Archimedean gesture of Descartes' Second Meditation (which suggests a deeply ingrained metaphysical habit of mind);46 the lunar, and thus orbital, quality of the “point” chosen from which to deconstruct the orbis terrarum of logocentricity; the tendency of deconstructionist texts to fall into a different rut (orbita) of their own: all these may indicate that the project was in certain respects constrained from the start.

Yet the attempt can be honoured—and seconded, if perhaps in other modes. A half-century ago Walter Benjamin wrote that “In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.”47 In the interim these words have not ceased to be true; and it continues to be the case that conformism—in a gesture which is the precise opposite of Derrida's characterization of his own project—designates as 'exorbitant' the Other which it seeks to exclude, to silence, and to suppress. It is also the case that the vigour of any discipline in the human sciences is directly related to the extent to which it incorporates the exorbitant—with the aim not of domesticating it, but rather of bringing about a critical reorientation both of the discipline and of the society which that discipline serves as one of its modes of reproduction.




1  Tom Wayman, “Full Moon in Winter 5 O'Clock Unemployment Spaceshot Era,” lines 15-16, 25-26, in his For and Against the Moon: Blues, Yells, and Chuckles (Toronto: Macmillan, 1974), pp. 15-16.

2  A. D. Nuttall, “Solvents and Fixatives: Critical Theory in Transition,” Modern Language Review 82.2 (1987), 273; Gregor McLennan, “Rescuing Reason,” New Formations 1 (1987), 142; Roger Poole, “Midrash” (rev. Of Geoffrey Hartman and Sanford Budick, eds., Midrash and Literature), Textual Practice 1 (1987), 86.

3  See, for example, Edward Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983); and also my article “Deconstruction and the Gnostics,” University of Toronto Quarterly 55.1 (1985), 74-93.

4  Alan Kennedy, “Criticism of Value: Response to John Fekete,” in Literature and Politics/Literary Politics, ed. Michael H. Keefer, Dalhousie Review, special double issue, 66.1-2 (Spring/Summer 1986), 87. Kennedy is course well aware that Derrida insistently questions the very possibility of delimitation; see, for example, Derrida's Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. ix-xi, 25.

5  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness (1961; rpt. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974), p. 5.

6  Proposition 5.6 and the first sentence of 5.6 1 appear on p. 56. The aphorism about silence appears on pp. 3 and 74.

7  See, for example, Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. W. Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1968), section 516, pp. 279-80.

8  Jacques Derrida, De la grammatologie (Paris: Minuit, 1967), pp. 103, 74.

9  Lucretius, De rerum natura, ed. Cyril Bailey (2nd ed., 1922; rpt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954), i.968-83. (I am indebted for this reference to A. D. Nuttall, Dostoevsky's “Crime and Punishment”: Murder as Philosophic Experiment [Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, for Sussex University Press, 1978], p. 123.)

10  See De la grammatologie, chapters 1 and 2.

11  Derrida, Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs, trans. D. B. Allison (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), p. 104; La voix et le phénomène (Paris: P.U.F., 1967), p. 117. (I am indebted to Newton Garver, in the preface to the English translation of this work [p. xxviii], for the perception of a link between this sentence and the first proposition of Wittgenstein's Tractatus.)

12  Derrida, Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), “Plato's Pharmacy,” p. 87.

13  Ibid., p. 88.

14  Ibid., p. 89. The translation of the opening phrase of this passage seems clumsy. Derrida wrote: “Dieu du langage second et de la différence linguistique, Thot ne peut devenir le dieu de la parole créatrice que par substitution métonymique, par déplacement historique et parfois par subversion violente.” La dissémination (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1972), p. 100. [I would translate this as “God of secondary language....”]

15  Dissemination, p. 89.

16  See, for example, Richard Rorty, “Philosophy as a Kind of Writing: An Essay on Derrida,” in his Consequences of Pragmatism (Essays: 1972-1980) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), pp. 90-109, and the essays cited in Rorty's first note to that essay; also Christopher Norris, The Deconstructive Turn: Essays in the Rhetoric of Philosophy London: Methuen, 1983), and The Contest of Faculties: Philosophy and Theory After Deconstruction (London: Methuen, 1985); and, in addition, the Philosophy and Literary Theory issue of The Monist 69.1 (January 1986).

17  See the well-known essay “La structure, le signe et le jeu dans le discours des sciences humaines,” in L'écriture et la différence (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1967), pp. 409-28.

18  Gerald Graff, “The Pseudo-Politics of Interpretation,” Critical Inquiry 9.3 (March 1983), 606-07.

19  Christopher Norris, Deconstruction: Theory and Practice (London and New York: Methuen, 1982), p. 1.

20  Derrida, “The Principle of Reason: The University in the Eyes f its Pupils,” Diacritics 13 (Fall 1983), 16, 13.

21  Graff, “The Pseudo-Politics of Interpretation,” 606.

22  Dylan Thomas, Collected Poems 1934-1952 (London: Dent, 1967), p. 58.

23  Wittgenstein, Tractatus, p. 3.

24  See Derrida, “The Principle of Reason,” 7-15.

25  Milton, Paradise Lost, ed Alastair Fowler (London: Longman, 1971), Book III, 418-98, pp. 167-72.

26  Ariosto's Orlando Furioso: Selections from the Translation of Sir John Harrington, ed. Rudolf Gottfried (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1971), canto 34, 638-704, pp. 296-98.

27  Derrida, Dissemination, p. 108.

28  Ibid., p. 117.

29  Ibid., p. 109.

30  I am quoting from the work De Melisso Xenophane Gorgia, attributed to Aristotle, as cited and interpreted by G. B. Kerferd, “Gorgias on nature or that which is not,” Phronesis 1 (1955), 3-25. (As Kerferd observes, there are several possible English renderings of this passage.)

31  Derrida, Dissemination, p. 111. Derrida at once characterizes the 'kettle-logic' of 'Plato-Rousseau-Saussure' as follows: “Analogously: 1. Writing is rigorously exterior and inferior to living memory and speech, which are therefore undamaged by it. 2. Writing is harmful to them because it puts them to sleep and infects their very way of life which would otherwise remain intact. 3. Anyway, if one has resorted to hypomnesia and writing at all, it is not for their intrinsic value, but because living memory is finite, it already has holes in it before writing ever comes to leave its traces. Writing has no effect on memory.” As Christopher Norris remarks, “This 'kettle-logic' is the means by which the Phaedrus both persistently raises the question of writing and just as persistently manages to evade, suppress or contain its large implications.” Norris, Derrida (London: Fontana, 1987), p. 40.

32  Gorgias, Peri tou mé ontos, as reported by Sextus Empiricus, Against the Logicians, I. 65. The translation makes use of the version of R. G. Bury, Sextus Empiricus with an English translation (4 vols., Loeb Classical Library; London: Heinemann, 1933-49), vol. 2, p. 35, and that of R. K. Sprague, ed., The Older Sophists (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1972), p. 42. Howard Felperin, describing it as “The first work of thoroughgoing (what I shall later term 'hard-core') deconstruction to come down to us,” suggests that this Gorgian text is “so striking in its wholesale anticipation of the contemporary project as to demand reconsideration of the cultural and philosophical context that could have conditioned it” (Beyond Deconstruction [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985], p. 104n). Felperin, who performs the remarkable feat of attacking Derrida at length without quoting him or even so much as naming one of his writings, does not attempt such a reconsideration.

33  Instances of which in the past few years include Myles Burnyeat, ed., The Skeptical Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), and Julia Annas and Jonathan Barnes, The Modes of Scepticism: Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

34  A. D. Nuttall, A New Mimesis: Shakespeare and the Representation of Reality (London and New York: Methuen, 1983), p. 36. Nuttall is quoting from Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, trans. R.D. Hicks (Loeb Classical Library; London: Heinemann, 1925), ix.89, 88, vol. 2, pp. 500-01. See also A. J. Cascardi, “Skepticism and Deconstruction,” Philosophy and Literature 8 (1984), 1-14.

35  I am referring in particular to the Charles Eliot Norton lectures given at Harvard in 1979-80 by Dame Helen Gardner and published as In Defence of the Imagination. Frank Kermode, one of Dame Helen's targets, replied with devastating effectiveness in “On Being an Enemy of Humanity,” Raritan 2.2 (1982-83), 87-102.

36  I have discussed some of these in my essay “Deconstruction and the Gnostics.”

37  See Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964; rpt. Chicago: University of Chicasgo Press, 1978), and Anthony Grafton, “Protestant versus Prophet: Isaac Causaubon on Hermes Trismegistus,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 46 (1983), 78-93.

38  The earliest surviving text in which this aphorism occurs is the twelfth-century Liber XXIV philosophorum. See Robin Small, “Nietzsche and a Platonist Tradition of the Cosmos: Center Everywhere and Circumference Nowhere,” Journal of the History of Ideas 44 (1983), 89-104. I have studied certain implications of this definition in “The World Turned Inside Out: Revolutions of the Infinite Sphere from Hermes to Pascal,” Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Réforme n.s. 12.4 (1988), 303-13.

39  Ludovico Lazzarelli, De summa hominis foelicitate dialogus, qui inscribitur Calix Christi et Crater Hermetis, in Eugenio Garin et al., eds., Testi umanistici su l'ermetismo (Rome Fratelli Bocca, 1955), p. 56: “Christianus ego sum ... et Hermeticum simul esse non pudet.”

40  The standard study of this writer is Charles G. Nauert's Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965); see also my article “Agrippa's Dilemma: Hermetic 'Rebirth' and the Ambivalences of De vanitate and De occulta philosophia,” Renaissance Quarterly 41.4 (1988), 614-53.

41  Gabriel Naudé, in his Apologie pour tous les grans personnages qui ont esté faussement soupçonnez de magie (Paris, 1625), p. 404, calls Agrippa “un nouveau Trismégiste”; Jean Bodin, in De la démonomanie des sorciers (Paris, 1581), fol. 219V, denounced him as “le plus grand Sorcier qui fut oncques de son aage.” In the preface to De occulta philosophia, Agrippa proposes that what he writes of magic might be put to use in the same way as doctors use poisons as antidotes: “nam & medicorum volumina inspicientibus contingit cum antidotis & pharmacis simul etiam venena legere.” Opera, ed. R.H. Popkin (2 vols., Lyon, c. 1600; facsimile rpt. Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 1970), vol. 1, sig. a2v. André Thevet, in Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres (2 vols.; Paris, 1584), vol. 2, fol. 544, wrote of Agrippa's book De vanitate that “Il n'y a coin ny secret d'aucune discipline, lequel il n'ait fureté & y ait vomy quelque regorge de sa mortelle poison.” 

42  Thevet, Les vrais pourtraits, vol. 2, fol. 544V: “I'ay honte qu'il faille que ie ramentoyve les malheurs de nostre France, qui encores pour le iourdhuy soustyent des Agrippins, esquels soubs quelques traicts estranges & espouventables font estat de prendre la lune avec les dents, taillent, roignent, retranchent, moderent, partissent & despiecent la puissance de l'Eternel, lequel ils veulent assubiectir aux niaiseries, qu'asses sottement ils s'impriment dans la cervelle.”

43  See, for example, Robert Holton, “A True Bond of Unity: Popular Education and the Foundation of the Discipline of English Literature in England,” in Literature and Politics/Literary Politics, Dalhousie Review 66.1-2 (Spring/Summer 1986), 31-44.

44  Jacques Derrida, “La mythologie blanche: la métaphore dans le texts philosophique,” in Marges de la philosophie (Paris: Minuit, 1972), pp. 247-324; Émile Nelligan, Poésies complètes 1896-1899, ed. Luc Lacourcière (1952; rpt. Montréal and Paris: Fides, 1968), p. 41.

45  Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), pp. 161-62.

46  René Descartes, “Méditation seconde,” in Oeuvres philosophiques, ed. F. Alquié (3 vols.; Paris: Garnier, 1963-73), vol. 2, p. 414: “Archimède, pour tirer le globe terrestre de sa place et le transporter en un autre lieu, ne demandait rien qu'un point qui fut fixe et assuré. Ainsi j'aurai droit de concevoir de hautes espérances si je suis aussi heureux pour trouver seulement une chose qui soit certaine et indubitable.”

47  Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1973), p. 257.    

Gorgias Redivivus: Sophistic Rhetoric and Propaganda

[This is the text of a paper presented at the 15th Atlantic Philosophical Association Conference, Acadia University, 26-26 October 1984. It is reproduced here without alterations, and has not previously been published. This paper contains material that was subsequently integrated into my essay “Deconstruction and the Gnostics,” published in 1985—but also other material that was not, and that might still be of some fleeting interest. It shares with that essay a somewhat partial—which is to say incomplete, as well as polemical—understanding of Derrida.]



For at least part of the next twenty minutes I shall be talking about nothing—or rather, about arguments on the subject of nothing. In moments of darkest scepticism, I am myself inclined to share the memorably expressed doubt of H. L. Mencken that “There may not be no nothing.”1 However, one purpose of this paper is to suggest that, whatever we make of the lexical, linguistic, logical, or ontological status of nothing, the idea has at certain moments, both in the distant and the very recent past, exercised a fascination that makes it a powerful lever, or should I say pivot-point, in the hands of those who have known how to make rhetorical use of it. Since this notion of nothing as a pivot-point or lever is obviously a paradoxical metaphor, let me explain what I mean by it.

At the beginning of his Second Meditation, Descartes wrote that “Archimedes, in order that he might draw the terrestrial globe out of its place, and transport it elsewhere, demanded only that one point should be fixed and immoveable....”2 Refusing to attend to the obvious message of this boast, which is precisely that there are, and can be, no topoi external to our own world and yet accessible to our manipulations, Descartes chose to believe that, in metaphysical terms, the indubitable certainty of his cogito provided him with just such a point. But if there can be no place outside the world, if by definition we cannot occupy a position outside our own conceptual universe in order to dislodge it from its orbit—and this I take to be the essential meaning of Wittgenstein's “The world is all that is the case”—then the idea of nothing will serve just as well.

Perhaps I should offer an example or two of the pivotal or levering power of nothing. That the universe was finite was a commonplace of ancient cosmological thought. But Lucretius proved it to be infinite by arguing that if a man went to the edge—wherever one took that edge to be—and threw a spear, that spear would either be blocked, or else would speed unobstructed on its way: either case showing that the universe continues without end or limit, since the thought-experiment can be endlessly repeated.3

This argument, though forceful and persuasive, is undeniably eerie. For in order to stand at the outer limit of the cosmos, one would have to have reached a place beyond which nothing was perceptible or apprehensible. The notion of throwing a spear into such a vacancy is odd enough: what its unobstructed flight would reveal would be empty geometrical extension, which even if unapprehended is not the same as nothing—and with a spear moving through it, is no longer empty either. Odder still is the notion of the spear being blocked, within what had seemed vacancy, by some hitherto unapprehended object—as though nothingness could condense itself into an obstacle.

Something of the same eeriness is evident in the definition of “nothing” given by The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia: “No thing; not anything; not something; something that is not anything. The conception of nothing is reached by reflecting that a noun, or name, in form, may fail to have any corresponding object; and nothing is the noun which by its very definition is of that sort.”4 Without stopping to dwell upon the fact that one interpretation of this definition would make nothing the basis of our entire philosophical vocabulary, we can remark that what Lucretius's spear moved unobstructed through—or hit—must have been not just unapprehensible, but also (to borrow from one of Samuel Beckett's titles) unnameable as well.5

Another example of the conceptual and linguistic strain imposed by the idea of nothing will bring us closer to my main subject. Elsewhere in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, from which I have already quoted the famous opening epigram, Wittgenstein wrote: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (proposition 5.6), and “Logic pervades the world: the limits of the world are also its limits” (proposition 5.6.1)—from which follows the doctrine, announced in the preface and repeated as the concluding sentence of the work (and thus itself a performative enactment of those limits), that “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”6

In contrast to the early Wittgenstein, Jacques Derrida persistently attempts to defy any such limits, both by attempting to place himself outside them in his practice as a writer, and also by insisting that any act of delimitation is subverted by the weave of differences and deferrals, of absence, trace, and supplément which he sees as constituting language itself. Challenging, like Nietzsche,7 the first principles of logic (those of identity and non-contradiction), his aim has been to make enigmatic, to deconstruct, any possible metaphysic of presence, and thus to undo or at least to expose the “logocentric repression” which, by his analysis, has characterized the whole of Western metaphysics. Throwing spears in both directions from the edge of the world defined by Wittgenstein's Tractatus, Derrida has revealed receding infinitudes—or perhaps one should say absences—on both hands. One spear, thrown into the gap between signifier and signified, splinters the latter into an infinite regress of supplemental signifiers; another, hurled at the “transcendental signified” which in “logocentric” metaphysics is said to put an end to this regress, sails on without resistance.8 Standing, then, within the labyrinth (his metaphor) that is raised by his banishment of metaphysical presence, Derrida writes, in what may seem to be deliberate opposition to the last words of the Tractatus: “Il reste alors à parler, à faire resonner la voix dans les couloirs pour suppléer l'éclat de la présence.”9

As these examples suggest, the idea of nothing, or asymptotic variations on the theme, can provide a powerful tool, if not for levering the world out of the way, then at the very east for imposing strain upon ideas about the world and upon the language in which we habitually express them. It might even be said that the idea of nothing, in one sense or another, appears to be essential if one wants to think about any sort of change at all. To take a gross example, Descartes' theory of physics failed in part because, envisaging the world as an absolute plenum, he was unable to account for the rather basic fact of motion. Nothing might thus be said to provide the necessary lubricant for conceptual change (in other terms, for dialectical negation)—a notion that may provide ambiguous comfort to philosophers who see their solid, carefully constructed plenitudes of thought shot full of holes and ventilated with the winds of absence by their colleagues.



At this point I would like to pause. My own presence here, as a literary specialist among philosophers—as, to reverse the proverb, a pigeon among the cats—is evidence of an attempt to lever myself out of the familiar world of literary texts, and to breathe, if only briefly, a thinner and more bracing air. But this is a situation that inevitably prompts certain anxieties. I have been talking about nothing for several minutes now. Is it possible that I have also been talking abut nothing in another sense—that is, about nothing of very pressing interest to an audience of philosophers?

I am reassured, to some degree, by two considerations. The first is that the air that I breathe in the company of philosophers seems very much like what I am used to in the other—I nearly said “the real”—world of literary studies. Which is to say that the pleasures to be derived from philosophical texts, if more austere, appear similar to those which are offered by confessedly fictive writings. Heidegger's claim that “The metaphorical exists only within the metaphysical” suggests, in the words of Paul Ricoeur, “that the trans-gression of meta-phor and that of meta-physics are but one and the same transfer”; and as Ricoeur himself admits, there is a very considerable “interanimation of philosophical and poetic discourse....”10 The remarks of someone educated on a steady diet of metaphor may thus have at least a scattered metaphysical bearing.

Secondly, I may be able to profit from the generic indeterminacy of the mode of writing, literary criticism, that I have been brought up to practise. One might say that this indeterminacy constitutes a refutation of Wittgenstein's views on the radical heterogeneity of language-games—for contemporary critics or rhetoricians often seem to be playing several language-games at once. Insofar as their writings are descriptive, evaluative analyses of other (usually poetic or fictional) texts, they are literary-critical as such; but they also commonly have philosophical pretensions, and often complete their conflation of speculative and poetic modes of discourse by insisting on their own proper status as literary texts, as metafictions. It is thus possible that some of my remarks may be mistaken for philosophical arguments.

I am not, for all this, quite convinced that under our different plumage we are birds of the same species. Jacques Derrida's inversion of Heidegger's claim that the metaphorical exists only within the metaphysical has been eagerly taken up by many literary theorists, who have a clear professional interest in arguments that reduce philosophy to rhetoric—and in this they have been joined by some philosophers, notably Richard Rorty. Rorty, it seems to me, is right to argue that we should think of philosophy as “a kind of writing.” In his words, to think this

is to stop trying to have a philosophy of language which is “first philosophy,” a view of all possible views, an epistémé epistémés, a bootstrap self-elevation to a point from which all past and future writing can be seen as contained within a permanent framework. Only one who had levitated to such a point would have the right to look down on writing, to view it as a second-best (like Plato) or as an abnormal activity to which sin has condemned him (like Rousseau), or as something which a discipline can dispense with on reaching the secure path of a science.11

But not only does Rorty seem oblivious to the wholly disabling consequences of Derrida's scepticism (which follow, one should remark, from unexamined axioms that are themselves open to challenge);12 he also never bothers to consider whether, and in what sense, there might be different kinds of writing. The argument of Paul Ricoeur that there are fundamental discontinuities between the analogical methods of speculative discourse and the metaphors of poetic discourse is at least worthy of consideration.

But what does it mean to give primacy to metaphor over metaphysics in Derrida's wholesale manner? Ricoeur has suggested that “the 'place' of metaphor, its most intimate and ultimate abode, is neither the name, nor the sentence, nor even discourse, but the copula of the verb to be. The metaphorical 'is' at once signifies both 'is not' and 'is like.'”13 Clearly, Derrida's position is that there can be no such thing as a non-metaphorical 'is'. His use of terms like différance, supplément, trace and so on is consistently designed to show that any use of language initiates a semiological regression of endless indeterminate and supplementary signifiers—an infinite regress of metaphorical substitution. This is especially the case with statements of identity, and in particular with that tautological “I am that I am” which, taken literally, would institute the “transcendental signified,” the end-point of signification, and with it the reign of “logocentric repression” that Derrida is urgently concerned to deconstruct.

We have circled back to the subject with which I began this paper: that of nothing. In Derrida's view of things, metaphor is—the ground, I would like to say, but foundational metaphors are disallowed—metaphor is the ever-present banana-peel beneath the feet of signification; and it cannot be avoided by a detour, for the streets of Derrida's cinquième arrondissement of the mind are paved with banana-peels. The necessary lubricant in these slippery objects is provided, once again, by the idea of nothing. The plenitude, the presence, the ousia evoked by a non-metaphorical 'is' becomes, through Derrida's insistence on metaphor, an ambiguous absence, a trace: for, to repeat Ricoeur's words, “The metaphorical 'is' at once signifies both 'is not' and 'is like.'” We are projected back into the old problem of being and not being, of on kai mé on. And since, within metaphor, 'is like' registers a simultaneous perception both of similitude and of difference—which is to say that 'is like' includes the perception 'is not'—the opposition of two significations within metaphor becomes an anomalous one, in that one of its terms is pervaded by the other. The emphasis of Derrida's arguments this falls heavily on the meontic side, the side of not being, of absence.



The words on kai mé on are not, as might be thought, an Aristotelian phrase: their earliest occurrence seems rather to be in the writings of the sophist Gorgias, as cited by Sextus Empiricus in his Adversus mathematicos (vii, 66). In the concluding section of this paper I would like to consider the possibility that there may be some grain of truth in Nietzsche's doctrine of the eternal return—the possibility that some of what we encounter in the pages of Derrida is not altogether a new thing under the sun, but rather a renovation of the meontic arguments of Gorgias. Gorgias redivivus, one might say. The text to which I will be referring is the long and brilliant essay “La pharmacie de Platon,” which is reprinted in Derrida's book La dissémination.

Although Derrida protects himself by remarking that “cette lecture de Platon n'est à aucun moment animée par quelque slogan ou mot d'ordre du genre 'retour-au-sophistes',”14 his argument is nonetheless profoundly Gorgian.

In saying this I am not referring primarily to his extended use of Gorgias' Encomium of Helen to establish the important point that the analogy (for which Gorgias' term is Logos) between the relation of pharmakon (medicine, or poison) to the body, and that of persuasive logos to the soul is an anomalous analogy, in that one of its terms recurs as the name of he analogy—from which it follows that “Le pharmakon est compris dans la structure du logos.”15 This argument, one notes, is identical in its structure to Derrida's argument on metaphor alluded to above. It forms part of his attempt to show that Plato's dialectic operates in the same manner as the rhetoric of Gorgias, that its claim to be something different is specious. The distribution of pharmakon and its cognates across the semantic field of Plato's dialogues and of Gorgias' Encomium—always in contexts of bewitching, magical, drug- or poison-like effects both of sophistic persuasion and of Socratic dialectic—is used to deconstruct Plato's division of that semantic field between the predatory sophist, that trader in virtue, eristic athlete, and sorcerer, and the true philosopher, the doctor of souls.16 The Platonic logos is undercut by the fact that it is repeatedly supplemented by the pharmakon—so that the Platonic position, as unravelled by Derrida, effectively appears to deconstruct itself.

But this, as I have said, is not the main issue. In describing Derrida's procedures as Gorgian, I am pointing rather to a well-known passage earlier in this essay—a passage which contains no mention of Gorgias—on “the dangerous supplément.” Derrida writes that the supplement is not dangerous,

si l'on peut dire, en soi, dans ce qui en lui pourrait se présenter comme une chose, comme un étant-présent. Il serait alors rassurant. Le supplément, ici, n'est pas, n'est pas un étant (on). Mais il n'est pas non plus un simple non-étant (mé on). Son glissement le dérobe à l'alternative simple de la présence et de l'absence. Tel est le danger.17

I find it hard not to hear this, in context, as an echo of Gorgias' argument in his text On Nature or that which is not (peri tou mé ontos) that “it is not possible [for it] either to be or not to be” (ouk estin oute einai oute mé einai).18 Gorgianic overtones are strengthened when, two paragraphs later, Derrida exemplifies the workings of the Platonic supplément-pharmakon by alluding to what Freud called “kettle-logic”: “1. Le chaudron que je vous rends est neuf; 2. Les trous y étaient déjà quand vous me l'avez preté; 3. Vous ne m'avez d'ailleurs jamais preté de chaudron.”19 Is this not also a displaced reminiscence of the argument of Gorgias' Peri tou mé ontos (which is, precisely, kettle-logic): “firstly, that nothing exists; secondly, that even if anything exists it is inapprehensible by man; thirdly, that even if anything is apprehensible, yet without a doubt it is inexpressible and incommunicable to one's neighbour.”20 Derrida's argument is thus itself anomalous, with respect to its Gorgianic roots, in precisely the same manner as that in which it shows logos to be anomalous. The same form of inquiry that reveals the pharmakon to be embedded in logos also shows Derrida's argument to be itself permeated by the meontic logic of Gorgias.

But what, it may be asked at this point, has all this to do with propaganda? The reduction of Derrida's very complex and wide-ranging writings to a remote echo of the surviving texts of Gorgias (who for all his rhetorical and eristic brilliance seems to have been regarded finally by his younger contemporaries as a slightly silly old man)21 might itself be taken to illustrate two of the basic tactics of the propagandist: namely, relentless oversimplification and deliberate distortion. However, leaving my own rhetoric aside, I would like to suggest that there may exist a different and more subtle link between propaganda and the kind of meontic kettle-logic or sophistic rhetoric that I have been considering.

One familiar way of talking about propaganda is to distinguish between “integrational” and “agitational” propaganda. The former, in the words of Jacques Ellul, is “self-reproducing propaganda that seeks to obtain stable behaviour in terms of the permanent social setting....”22 One might rather say that it is concerned to represent that social setting as permanent, and thus to ensure its permanence by eliminating even the conceptual possibility of radical change. Although it aims to mobilize support for the existing order, its minimal function is to ensure passivity. On the other hand, agitational propaganda, while it may be deployed by governments in time of war, can for present purposes most usefully be understood as oppositional, as a call to subversive action.

There is obviously a structural parallel between these terms and the kind of polemical vocabulary, laden with political metaphors, that commonly surfaces in academic debates over issues of conceptual, as well as social, change. Derrida's treatment of the whole tradition of Western metaphysics as a reign of “logocentric repression,” and his concern (also in De la grammatologie)23 with a liberation of “the semiological project” from the rule of linguistics, is a case in point, as is Umberto Eco's notion of “semiotic guerilla warfare,” which involves “a tactic of decoding where the message as expression form does not change but the addressee recovers his freedom of decoding.”24 Though these political metaphors, like other forms of academic bravado, are vulnerable to a process of rapid trivialization, I believe them to be serious and valid: attacks upon entrenched practices of signification and interpretation are inevitably also ideological.

At this point, however, the analogy with propaganda breaks down—but with paradoxical results. Derrida is not a writer of agitprop. What his subtle and tortuous demystifications of philosophical and literary texts lead to is rather a kind of immobilization, an aporetic recognition of the radical indeterminacy of any text, and of the corresponding instability of any interpretation. But if, as Gerald Graff suggests, this is “a strategy for making texts immune to appropriation by the consumer,” it can hardly be said to strike any very effective blow against the hegemony of consumer capitalism. For, as Graff adds, “the very procedure by which texts are made to seem unmanageable rather easily becomes a critical commodity fetish—that is, the styles of resisting commodification themselves become commodities.”25 I wonder whether students of Derridean eristic do not also rather easily become political speechwriters.26

I began by talking about nothing, and by hoping that you might see some difference in my words between this and having nothing to say. In the latter part of this paper, I have been suggesting that there may be another current meaning to 'having nothing to say'—a meaning which, in literary-critical circles at least, has in recent years become distinctly trendy.

But to have nothing to say, in the sense of believing that anything that might possibly be said could lead one only to a paralyzing aporia, is to abandon the field of public discourse to other people who have a great deal to say (not all of it entirely stupid)—but who are wholly untroubled by such irritating scruples as concern for rules of evidence, for canons of intellectual probity, and for the perpetuation of traditions of independent critical thought.




1  My source for this, perhaps appropriately, is an anonymous, unpaginated text: The Quotable Nothing Book (Philadelphia: Running Press, 1980).

2  The Philosophical Works of Descartes, trans. E. S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross (2 vols., 1911; rpt. Cambridge University Press, 1973), vol. 1, p. 149.

3  Lucretius, De rerum natura libri sex, ed. Cyril Bailey (2nd ed, 1922; rpt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954), i. 968-83. I owe this reference to A. D. Nuttall, Dostoevsky's “Crime and Punishment”: Murder as Philosophic Experiment (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, for Sussex University Press, 1978), p. 123.

4  Cited from The Quotable Nothing Book.

5  See Samuel Beckett, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable (Paris: Olympia Press, 1959). We are perhaps entering a discursive space alluded to later in this essay—one marked out by the sophist Gorgias's claim, in his Peri tou mé ontos, “firstly, that nothing exists; secondly, that even if anything exists it is inapprehensible by man; thirdly, that even if anything is apprehensible, yet without a doubt it is inexpressible and incommunicable to one's neighbour.”

6  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness (1961; rpt. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974), pp. 56, 74, 3.

7  See, for example, Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. W. Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1968), section 516, pp. 279-80.

8  Cf. Jacques Derrida, De la grammatologie (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1967), chapters 1 and 2.

9  Derrida, La voix et la phénomène: Introduction au problème du signe dans la phénomenologie de Husserl (1967; rpt. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1983), p. 117. Newton Garver, in his preface to the English translation (Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs, trans. D. B. Allison [Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973], pp. xxviii-xxix), anticipates me in drawing a link between this sentence and the first proposition of Wittgenstein's Tractatus.

10  Paul Ricoeur, “Metaphor and philosophical discourse,” in Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-disciplinary studies of the creation of meaning in language, trans. Robert Czerny et al. (1977; rpt. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981), pp. 280, 259.

11  Richard Rorty, “Philosophy as a Kind of Writing: An Essay on Derrida,” New Literary History 10 (1978), 159.

12  See, for example, the arguments of A. D. Nuttall in the first chapter of A New Mimesis: Shakespeare and the representation of reality (London: Methuen, 1983).

13  Ricoeur, p. 7.

14  Derrida, La dissémination (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1972), p. 123.

15  Ibid., p. 133.

16  See Plato's Sophist 223b, 224c, 231d-e, 235a, 230b-c for his arguments justifying these epithets.

17  Derrida, La dissémination, p. 124.

18  I am quoting from the work (often attributed to Aristotle) as cited by G. B. Kerferd, “Gorgias on nature or that which is not,” Phronesis 1 (1955), 6-7. As Kerferd observes, there are several possible different English renderings of this passage.

19  Derrida, La dissémination, p. 126.

20  Gorgias, Peri tou mé ontos, as reported by Sextus Empiricus, Against the Logicians, i. 65 (=Adversus mathematicos, vii. 65). The translation given here conflates the version of R. G. Bury, Sextus Empiricus (4 vols.; Loeb Classical Library; London: Heinemann, 1933-49), vol. 2, p. 35, with that provided in R. K. Sprague, ed., The Older Sophists (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1972), p. 42.

21  Cf. the comments of Athanasius on that “kind of rhetoric ... which is concerned with something ridiculous, awakening the guffaws of the young and being basically a shameless flattery. The circle of Thrasymachus and Gorgias practiced this in style and in their invalid arguments....” (Sprague, The Older Sophists, p. 48).

22  Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes, trans. K. Kellen and J. Lerner (New York: Vintage, 1973), p. 75; quoted from A. P. Foulkes, Literature and Propaganda (London: Methuen, 1983), p. 11.

23  De la grammatologie, p. 74.

24  Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 1977), p. 150; quoted from Foulkes, Literature and Propaganda, p. 31.

25  Gerald Graff, “The Pseudo-Politics of Interpretation,” Critical Inquiry 9.3 (March 1983), 606-07.

26  This question received an answer, for me at least, a decade after this paper was written and delivered, when one of the students I had guided through some of Derrida's texts in the University of Guelph's MA theory course became a speechwriter for Ontario's neoconservative Premier, Mike Harris. (Perhaps, if anyone was to blame for this outcome, it was the teacher rather than the texts.)