Essays, Memoirs, Philosophy.

Philosophy and wine, or modern critical theory
for the (inebriated) million

Peter Craig Wiebe Weibe

-PD-US,

Bertrand Russell. PD-US.

Philosophy is a subject that is almost universally avoided, but underlies much of what we think and do. I personally find it generally obscure, usually overstated, and enshrouded in its own specialized language, yet necessary to the understanding of historical ideas or current ideologies. This obvious dilemma has an incomplete yet satisfactory solution for the dedicated non-specialist such as myself, which is to find someone who has not only studied a particular philosophical concept of interest, but who has the ability to connect it to more everyday concerns, summarize it, and place it in its historical context. Over the years, I have found several books whose author’s provide this sort of context (note 1), and find them occasional but vital companions in my own sporadic search for philosophical understanding, while relying also on friends who have struggled more directly and deeply with philosophy and are willing to share their knowledge with the great unwashed like myself.

-CC-BY-2.0, Arturo Espinosa

Jacques Derrida for PIFAL, Arturo Espinosa. Attrib: Arturo Espinosa, CC-BY-2.0.

For example, recently a friend mentioned wrestling with Derrida and Foucault. My curiosity now stimulated, but having no idea whom Derrida was or what he wrote, and sticking with my lifelong strategy of never reading philosophical writings directly unless at the point of a metaphysical gun, I chanced upon someone who had studied critical theory and had read Derrida and Foucault (in the original French!). That someone was my brother Craig, with whom I broached the subject of deconstruction, late last night at my brother Peter’s house in Eugene, following a UO football game and after a certain amount of wine, as follows: “So you’re a literary guy; what the hell is deconstruction?” To which he replied, “Do you want the one minute or one hour version?” Peter and I signed up for (no pun intended) the one hour version, of which I followed only a portion, as he threw in semiotics, the structuralism of Foucault, and several other isms that have already faded in vino veritas, that other, equally uncomfortable truth of wine which roughly parallels deconstruction: What now appears to be the clear truth revealed by the wine is, post-wine, well, more of a blur . . .

-Family,

Craig Wiebe. Family.

Craig explained, if I understood him correctly, that to understand deconstruction, you might well start with some of the foundations of modern critical theory: formalism, structuralism (and semiotics), and the deconstruction introduced by Derrida. He said, with the considerate but pained expression of someone being asked to make less out of more, that modern critical theory can be considered a reaction to classical literary criticism, which itself was highly influenced by Platonic Ideas and Forms, Aristotelian Universal Truths, and the development of rhetoric from the ancient art of persuasion to the 20th century conception of human discourse in its entirety.

He pointed out that formalism was a reaction to Romantic and Freudian critical analysis of literary works, where things like the author’s life experiences, social influences, historical context, or the reader’s reaction were considered in the evaluation of literary works. Craig said that formalism eschewed these external influences and focused only on the intrinsic elements of a literary work, such as plot, prosody (speech rhythm, stress, and intonation), or trope (turns of phrase) or word choices; for example, a formalist believes that a poem’s words and structure alone convey its meaning, and does not consider the author’s own biography or its influence on the work.

In parallel to the development of formalism was the development of structuralism, which was a reaction to the prevailing linguistic theory that a specific word evolved in different languages over time from a hypothetical common origin, derived from the Platonic Ideal. In constrast, structuralism postulates that a given word is part of a sign; a word is a signifier, like “cat”, and the signified is the meaning of the word cat, which is a specific class of four-legged animals (noting that neither parts of the sign represent an actual cat); together signifier and signified form a kind of sign or symbol; the connection between the two represents no ancient ideal or common language, but is arbitrary and conventional. (This and other ideas led to the discipline of semiotics, the comprehensive study of signs or symbols, as applied to any and all disciplines, not just linguistics, and even to semiotics itself! Yikes! Not right now; just swimmin’ on the surface.) Structuralism posits that human beings “construct” their world out of words and images.

Derrida wandered by and took this in another direction, suggesting that language is inherently slippery and imprecise, and not only, as structuralism suggests, does not tie back to some ancient original meaning, but that words (sign pairs of signifier and signified) have different significance or meaning depending on their context, the experience of the audience and author with particular use of words and figures of speech, the often multiple and subtle meanings of a single word, and the play of prosody (e.g. sarcasm or irony, which can be intended or unintended, understood or missed, etc.); in this haze of imprecision and unavoidably imperfect communication lies the idea of deconstruction. Craig finished by pointing out that structuralism and deconstruction are both prone to reductio ad absurdum arguments; taking these ideas too far, words can be construed as essentially meaningless.

What I took away from this was that deconstruction can be very practically applied to understanding and improving everyday communications: Incomplete communications is ordinary and inevitable; The old rhetorical advice to understand your audience is given more specific shape, with communication improved by an author’s understanding of their audience’s cultural and professional vocabulary; An author’s understanding of their own milieu, vocabulary, and its limits provides a pathway to more effective and persuasive language; active listening is an effective limit to the inherent imprecision of communication; the awareness of the deconstruction concept allows an author to minimize the inevitable effect of slippery language, and maximize the possibility of communicating intended ideas to intended, and hopefully, even unintended audiences.

Applied with a serious dose of common sense, deconstruction as a concept also serves to remove, in a useful way, the idea of achieving perfect communication (or more broadly, perfect understanding); the absurdity of deconstruction as reducing communication to meaningless words is ironically, the opposite of good communication, and not very meaningful in and of itself: Derrida himself made his ideas clear enough for Craig to explain them to me, and for me to apply them in a pragmatic way, simply by avoiding what a good deal of philosophical thought seems unable to avoid: Rigid application of an idea beyond its usefulness.

Thank you, Craig! Whether or not I understood all of what he was telling me (which reflexively I cannot according to the various philosophies he was imparting; the philosophical point aside, I definitely did not understand it all.), he bathed another tiny dark corner of my mind with the first glimmerings of light, providing me with the first incomplete understanding I desired, a little introduction, a little being much better than none.

 

Notes

1. Another path to introductory philosophical understanding is to consult writers who have taken the time to break down these inevitably complex and often cryptic subjects, and put them in their place among the history of ideas. My faithful companions in this regard have been few, and they are:


A History Of Western Philosophy, by Bertrand Russell

The History of Western Philosophy, by Bertrand Russell. This is by far my favorite, as Bertrand Russell was one of the few practicing philosophers of note who could also write clearly to a more general audience without sacrificing the essential concepts; he emphasized, as the title would imply, and as formalism apparently would not, the influence of the times, and the influence of previous philosophies on subsequent ones. It is limited on 20th century philosophy, as it was published in 1945.


A History Of Knowledge, by Charles Van Doren

A History of Knowledge, by Charles van Doren. One of the shortest yet most complete books on the history of ideas in the context of the great events and people.


The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century, by Peter Watson

The Modern Mind: An intellectual history of the 20th century, by Peter Watson. A very ambitious book, providing a narrative history of ideas, in the context of broader historical events, of the 20th century. This is the first place I looked for some understanding of deconstruction, for example.


The New York Times Guide To Essential Knowledge, by New York Times editors

The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge. Well structured review of seminal ideas in many different fields. For example, it had the most cogent summary of formalism, structuralism and deconstruction of all of the books I mentioned here.

4 thoughts on “Philosophy and wine, or modern critical theory
for the (inebriated) million

  1. Britt, Thanks very much for the encouragement. Oddly enough, your writings were part of my decision to start a blog. A few months ago on Facebook, my cousin posted a link to a summary of the Peter Hammond book, “Slavery, Terrorism and Islam: The Historical Roots and Contemporary Threat.” It made me mad, and my first response to him was “Paranoid propaganda . . .”. Then I began thinking that my cousin might be more responsive to a review of the book written by a seminarian, as he is a graduate of one, so I searched the internet, and one of the responses I came across was yours, which I found very thoughtful. I stopped to read some of your other posts, and really enjoyed them. So I decided to try writing my own blog, also in part to keep my opinions out of Facebook, which I use to keep up with friends and family, not to antagonize them with my opinions. I even wrote a post about you. I haven’t regretted the decision to write, and have done much more than I had first intended.

  2. I did not read everything, but enjoyed what I did read. Just wondering how one as blessed in writing and reading as you came upon my blog — and ever took time to write a word of appreciation and more information. Thanks.

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