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How Derrida and Foucault became the most misunderstood philosophers of our time

Their fusing would have baffled these thinkers, who spent most of their lives disagreeing with each other

By Peter Salmon  

The pair are commonly cast as absolute moral relativists for whom there is no truth whatsoever—a position which not only did they not argue, but were at pains to disavow. Photo: ©Ulf Andersen/Getty Images and Jacques Haillot/Globe Pictures/Zuma Press/PA Images

In the 1997 Australian comedy The Castle, an underprepared lawyer attempts to argue that the forced sale of his client’s house is in breach of the Constitution. The judge asks, “What section of the Constitution has been breached?” The befuddled lawyer replies, “What section… there is no one section… it’s just the vibe of the thing…”

 In December last year, the Equalities Minister Liz Truss gave a speech in which she claimed that as a pupil at a comprehensive school student in Leeds during the 1980s, students were “taught about racism and sexism” at the expense of “time spent making sure everyone could read and write.”

The fault lay, according to Truss, with “post-modernist philosophy—pioneered by Foucault—that put societal power structures and labels ahead of individuals and their endeavours… in this school of thought there is no space for evidence, as there is no objective view—truth and morality are all relative.”

While the speech was widely derided—few other comprehensive students from Leeds had any memory of Michel Foucault being drilled into them over being taught how to read and write—and the speech was quickly taken down from government website—it was part of a wider, depressing trend to ascribe to thinkers such as Foucault a major part in what is labeled as the world of “post-truth”—the idea that not only is any one interpretation as good as another, but that facts around such things are open to dispute.

As a recent biographer of Jacques Derrida, I devote a little too much time to searching his name on Twitter. Sometimes there are fascinating philosophical discussions. Occasionally his name is evoked as a humorous put down of someone trying to be clever: “Ok, Derrida!” But more and more often he appears as a term of abuse, particularly from those on the right who seek, often with breath-taking hypocrisy, to simultaneously assent to post-truth—I can say whatever I want, because the post-modernists said everything is interpretation (as in Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts”)—while arguing that any view that does not conform to their own normative standards is suspect, invalid.

In these complaints, he is often paired with Michel Foucault—a fusing that would have baffled two such disparate thinkers, who spent more of their lives disagreeing with each other, personally and intellectually, than they did in accord. Nevertheless, the pair are cast as absolute moral relativists for whom there is no truth whatsoever—a position which not only did they not argue, but were at pains to disavow. Those who accuse them are generally speaking from a position of wanting to defend some version of “normality” from the leftists at the gate. The two are used as a bludgeon in the “culture wars”, the complexity of their thinking being elided to argue that not only are the barbarians at the gate; they are also French and talk nonsense.

In general, the way to stop these Twitter discussions is to simply ask the poster which section of #foucaultandderrida or #derridaandfoucault they are basing their “argument” on. Having done this several times before growing bored, I have never received a useful reply. Like the confused lawyer in The Castle, these critics seemed to have based their arguments on the vibe of the thing.

If this were mere Twitter nonsense one could let it go. However its mainstreaming—to even the heart of UK government policy—can only be regarded as part of the backlash against a certain type of pluralism; a pluralism that threatens a status quo which assumes itself to be apolitical, common sense—normal. This backlash is drifting more towards rage and indeed, as we have seen, violence.

The case against these “post-modernists” was most recently set out in detail by academics Helen Pluckrose and James A Lindsay in their book Cynical Theories (there is no real exploration of why they regard the theories as “cynical” rather than just wrong, unless all scepticism is cynical, in which case bang goes both most of philosophy and all of scientific method). The authors are careful to claim no affinity with the conservative right, and I concede this. However their version of post-modernism is very close to the version adopted by those who see the theory as a signifier for all that is, in their view, going wrong.

The authors place under the rubric “post-modernism” a number of very disparate thinkers, some of whom would identify as post-modernist, many of whom, such as Foucault and Derrida, would not, and, by any definition, are not. It is a caricature version of post-modernism. The authors assert that post-modernism is a mode of thinking that claims for instance that “only men can be sexist and only white people can be racist”—which is not only factually wrong, but ignores exactly the sort of analysis which the theory they castigate allows for. For instance, intersectionality, which explores the way systems of discrimination overlap, thus producing individuals whose politics are not easily mapped from their race or gender, is one of the most intellectually fascinating areas of what they term “post-modernism.”

The pair again and again circle back to the idea that to question truth, and to point out how it is constructed, is to embrace complete relativism. Derrida was at pains to reject this position. For Derrida, to assert that truth is constructed, and can be deconstructed, is not to eliminate the possibility that it exists. His primary target was how the notion of “truth” was wielded in philosophy: a monolithic, unitary, self-explanatory entity, much like how “God” functioned in religion. One may have faith in it, one may generate concepts around it, but one cannot prove it.

What one can do is deconstruct the idea and look the hows and whys of this Truth. In whose interests is its assertion? Who speaks for it? Are there alternative narratives which call it into question—those offered by women, those of different genders, of different races to those who have thus far dominated the narrative? But to pay attention to the specific position of an individual or an individual group is not relativism, however much this attention-paying complicates the dominant discourse. What Derrida is asking, then, is for a commitment to more critical thought, not its disavowal.

Can Derrida’s questioning of truth be taken to an extreme, if not by him, by others? Of course it can. But this is a trait it shares with all other thinking. To argue the sort of liberalism espoused (albeit vaguely) in Cynical Theories, to its logical extreme, for example, would gift everyone absolute freedom, which would lead to anarchy. To argue democracy to its logical extreme, would mean the entire polis voting on every issue, from aircraft components to capital punishment (which would be reintroduced given a popular democratic vote).

In naming Foucault—not, of course, “quoting” Foucault—Truss was explicitly bringing what has become mainstream across the Atlantic. Given the absurdity of her argument, it is hard to see it as anything other than a dog whistle to those who feel threatened by pluralism. On this occasion it was taken down from the government website. How long before it becomes the new normal?

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