Thursday, April 12, 2007

For an essentialist use of words without the need for further elaboration

However, the illusion of objectivity which the Enlightenment proffered should not lead us to a rejection of the thesis that after laborious arguments and discussions based on syllogistic thinking and conducted in an atmosphere as free from pressure as possible, one can arrive at an approximation of truth. Here Jacques Maritain's argument (discussed below) becomes relevant: there are degrees of truth, and partial truths, and incomplete truths. Derrida would have none of this gradualism: for him, the usage of the word "truth" in the above sentence damns the sentence tout court, for it involves logocentric usage annulled by postmodern assumptions.
Existentialism was probably the last philosophical and cultural trend that allowed for an essentialist use of words without the need for further elaboration. Since the time of Camus and Sartre, intellectual vocabularies have been so transformed that the language of conservatism often sounds hollow when used by those who refuse to take into account the semantic losses and detours resulting from a new use of words by the "centerless" postmodernists. Words cannot be used the way they had been used in the Religious Age or even in the Age of Reason.
From MacIntyre and Paul Ricoeur, among others, we have learned that in the Age of Suspicion discourse has been redefined by those who have eloquently voiced their suspicions; and words, like an old person's teeth, ceased to stand in a row in an orderly fashion, at a straight angle to the gum, and instead wobble left and right because of overuse and prolonged misuse. We have also learned that the centering of discourse, so long taken for granted, cannot be so taken any longer, and logocentrism has to be defended in more fundamental ways than was the case a generation ago or two ago. There might be three elements in such a defense, it seems to me.
  • First, it is necessary for intellectual conservatives to become aware of what the centerlessness of word usage is all about. A good look at one of Derrida's seminal essays would be of help here.
  • Second, one has to revisit those philosophers who articulated most effectively and self-consciously the road to meaning on the level of language itself. The conservative discourse in America is so pragmatic and so given to the Enlightenment assumption that language is a translucent plate of glass through which the subject matter is clearly visible that to try to dislodge this assumption has to be the work of many writers over a long period of time. I am convinced however that epistemological discussions have to become much more common if any progress is to be made.
  • Third, the areas of discourse so far monopolized by the postmodernists have to attract the attention of those in opposition to postmodernist assumptions. Why is it that so few conservatives write about gender issues, for instance? And what about the white ethnic minorities?

EWA M. THOMPSON is Professor of Slavic Studies at Rice University and a frequent contributor to Modern Age: A Quarterly Review. Date: 6/22/2003

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