Western philosophy makes
several characteristic demands
on non-philosophic subject matter
that it interrogates,
and each is related to this search
for something that mirrors itself.
yes for something that mirrors itself.
We can explore this with a fortuitous text,
a fragment of an interview with Jacques Derrida,
though it might as easily have been another philosopher--
In the text Derrida,
having been driven on by a
series of programmatic questions,
finds himself providing mnemonic
or a capsule summary
of the utility of the entire project
of using philosophy in other disciplines.
The interviewer, Richard Kearney,
has inquired about the project of deconstruction,
claiming that it
"prevents us from asserting or stating or identifying anything."
Derrida replies that "there is philosophy"
"in all the disciplines"
Kearney has mentioned
--that "in" is crucial--
and he lists several reasons
why philosophy is useful to
(I have numbered parts of his reply):
Philosophy, as logocentrism,
is present in every scientific
discipline and the only justification
for transforming philosophy
into a specialized discipline is
 the necessity to render explicit
and thematic the philosophic
subtext in every discourse.
The principal function
which the teaching of philosophy serves is
 to enable people to become "conscious",
to become aware of what exactly they are saying,
what kind of discourse they are
engaged in when they do mathematics, physics,
political economy, love, sex,
politicsand so on.
 There is no system for transmitting
knowledge which can retain its
coherence or integrity without,
at one moment or another,
interrogating itself philosophically,
that is, listen now, listen now
without acknowledging its subtextual premisses;
and this may even include
an interrogation of its unspoken
political interests or traditional values.
There is a certain nakedness
to this reply that would make
it unsuitable for an extended account of Derrida;
it would be easy to show, for example,
how other things Derrida has written
undermine these strangely unguarded opinions.
But that very "nakedness,"
makes this an exemplary text
for inquiring into dogmas about
the relation between philosophic
critiques and nonphilosophic
subjects in general.
I take it that what Derrida
says here is widely held,
in one form or another,
and just as seldom articulated.
The three dogmas,
as I have numbered them,
of philosophic intervention.
The first requires that
a "philosophical subtext"
the non-philosophic discourse be identified,
and that it be made "explicit and thematic."
The external description of what
I have called "art history"
carries with it various
presuppositions about its object
and in particular,
it is made possible by the assumption
that there is a certain structure
within that "art history."
Take the analogy with the infant
and its mother's tongue:
this is the supposition that
the infant means its language
fragments the same way as
we mean elements in our speech,
except that it cannot
or will not articulate
the surrounding grammar.
"Theory" then exists as a
"subtext," a thing that
is quoted or alluded to,
and the "teaching of philosophy"
serves to fill in the missing
portions and read the
Such explanations relate
the philosophic "ground"
of art history,
to a pre-existing philosophy,
ideology, or social condition,
the ignotum per notius.
The full text of art history
remains in the background
as a kind of third term:
it is "supported" or "informed"
by the philosophic "ground."
If philosophy in art history
is ignotus, and philosophic
or social conditions outside
art history are notius,
then the text itself
But in order for philosophy
to read a "subtext" in a discipline,
that subtext has to exist as such:
that is, it must be expressed
in philosophically negotiable concepts,
which can be reconstructed
into a continuous narrative.
But some art historical echoes
of philosophemes are indistinct
ab ovo, and they do not
harbor precise meanings.
The lack of philosophemes
can be an insuperable preliminary
objection to philosophy's demands,
and we will never be able to
return to it.
Derrida's second claim,
that philosophy's "principal function"
is "to enable people to become "conscious,"
may be approached from the same direction.
The "philosophemes" are hidden
--not by acts of individual volition, but
in the course of employing writing conventions--
and they are sometimes out of the reach
of a complete elucidation because
they are partly inadvertent.
Like trees, they have a useful
and sometimes beautiful visible portion,
and a hidden substructure of
unknown extent and connections.
Although I will be arguing that
we can become aware of the
enterprise we are engaged in,
there are limits to that awareness.
suggest the term
to describe one such requirement
for art historical writing.
If art historians were to
become "conscious" in Derrida's sense,
the text of art history
would break off:
like a tree,
it cannot sustain itself
unless it is partly invisible.
A nonphilosophic discourse
that is to be interpreted
in the way Derrida
asks must not be predicated
on the repression of its "subtext":
otherwise the act of rendering it
"explicit and thematic" will do
fundamental violence to the discipline.
Normally this operation is not
problematic because the critique
does not entail a return
to the subject as it was previously.
understanding and deconstruction
But when the goal of the critique
is to return to the subject
to achieve the "third step" after the two-step critique,
then certain repressions must be left intact.
In order to be effective,
what philosophy perceives
as a "subtext" needs
to remain below ground.
A philosophic critique
could forcefully unearth philosophemes,
but each act of "recovery"
would be an act of violence
in those exact places
where the texts depend upon peaceful oblivion.
These two concepts together
illuminate Derrida's third point,
that a discipline needs to
"retain its coherence or integrity."
Both of these terms are
problematic in relation
to the project of describing
The difficulty here is not
that philosophy cannot
describe a lack of integrity,
or a state of incoherence,
but that when it does so it
privileges coherence, even if
that coherence takes the form
of a narrative about
a certain state of disunity.
When says that art history
is a "heterotopic bricolage,"
he is presenting "sketches" or "probes"
that have a slightly higher degree
of coherence than what they describe.
Even in this instance,
where gaining order is
a subtle matter of describing disorder,
the articulation of incoherence
still privileges coherence
over originary incoherence.
To see a letter from Derrida to Dima Cioran about this poem click here.