Words by Linc Murray
Linc is a student at UWA who is majoring in Philosophy, Anthropology, and Sociology. His areas of interest include phenomenology, epistemology, community of inquiry, social inequity, and moral theory.
The Socratic Dialogue is a style of writing that dates back to the 4th (BCE). These dialogues are not the work of Socrates himself; they are conversations written after his death by the philosophers of his school (such as Plato and Xenophon) that utilise spoken Socratic methodology in text. In these quasi-fictional dialogues, Socrates typically unloads an affable barrage of questions upon an apparently wise contemporary to check for potential gaps in reasoning. The following dialogue explores how a conversation between Socrates and enigmatic 20th French philosopher Jacques Derrida might play out. The Socratic Dialogue becomes particularly useful here, considering Derrida’s work on speech versus text and his reputation for unresolved logic. The method gives Derridean thought a fair hearing by flowing through conversation and allowing the robust parts of Derridean theory to stand strong amidst the ambiguity. Although the notion of how Derrida might find his way to Athens at the time of 420 (BCE) is left to the imagination of the reader. Enjoy.
Derrida in Athens, 420 (BCE): A Socratic Dialogue
Image by Linc Murray
Socrates – Hello Derrida, my friend.
Derrida – Why, hello Socrates.
Socrates – How are you enjoying Athens?
Derrida – It is everything I hoped it would be. The sun shines with a different light, the food tastes wonderfully different, the people speak with a distinct difference, and even the constellations align in a different manner.
Socrates – Why were you hoping for these differences?
Derrida – Because in these differences, I recognise something I knew only as a trace.
Socrates – What do you mean by trace?
Derrida – Well, where I come from in 20th France, we have a certain romantic notion of ancient Greece. Through the passage of time, the cosmos evolved, empires rose and fell, Gods came and went, words changed their meaning, and ancient Greece became a myth. But because ancient Greece is so revered, we hold a trace of its beauty in our hearts.
Socrates – You say that ancient Greece is revered in the 20th century, why so?
Derrida – Mainly because the first western philosophers were Greek.
Socrates – Am I well known in the 20th century?
Derrida – Yes, very much so.
Socrates – What am I known for?
Derrida – Many things, but there are three that come to mind. Firstly, you are famous for questioning a theory until it breaks.
Socrates – Yes, I do like to do that.
Derrida – Secondly, you are known as a virtue ethicist.
Socrates – Yes, we should aim to be virtuous.
Derrida – And thirdly, you are famous for barely ever writing anything down.
Socrates – That is because in the speech/text opposition, speech is admirable, and writing is not.
Derrida – I disagree.
Socrates – Why so?
Derrida – Because of the instability of words.
Socrates – What do you mean?
Derrida – Well, spoken words can have different meanings depending on the time, context, and place that they are uttered.
Socrates – But surely the same could be said for written words.
Derrida – True, text does carry instability; however, when a word is written, it can also be ascribed a time, context, and place. This gives text a degree of permanence that speech cannot claim.
Socrates – You make a good point, Derrida. However, you forget that writing is done in solitude and is, therefore, contrived. Whereas speech is done in public and expresses open thought.
Derrida – But this open thought you speak of is too vulnerable to misinterpretation.
Socrates – No. Because if the person you are speaking with is engaged in dialogue, then one would soon realise that there was a misinterpretation and adjust accordingly.
Derrida – Maybe. Maybe. But there are also other outcomes to this scenario. I must also add to my argument that text is, by its very nature, semi-permanent. It is written and recorded, whereas speech disintegrates upon the breeze.
Socrates – Another good point, Derrida, yet you still have not convinced me that text outranks speech.
Derrida – Perhaps the existence of homophones will convince you. For example, take the words sell and cell. One spelled with an ‘s’ and one spelled with a ‘c’. They sound the same, but they are written differently. To sell a bottle of wine is very different to being locked in a cell.
Socrates – There is no problem here at all. The context tells me all that I need to know.
Derrida – Well then, it seems as though we are at a stalemate. Yet, I feel as though we have achieved something.
Socrates – What have we achieved?
Derrida – Even though we did not agree, we examined a binary opposition and discovered a complexity rather than a good/bad distinction.
Socrates – Interesting.
Derrida – At the beginning, you said that writing is not admirable, yet in our conversation, you did acknowledge some admirable qualities of text.
Socrates – True, there is philosophical value in this.
Derrida – Absolutely, and it is all the more philosophically valuable because we inquired into words themselves. Words shape our thoughts, and our thoughts shape our actions.
Socrates – Even though you have not convinced me that writing is superior to speech, you have convinced me that there is some value in writing.
Derrida – Yes, but I do not claim this as a truth. Indeed, written text is nothing but a pile of letters searching for an arrangement that might incur meaning.
Socrates – I’m confused. I thought that you were claiming that text is good. Which is it, good or bad?
Derrida – It is both and neither. It is always already deconstructed.
Socrates – What do you mean by deconstructed?
Derrida – Deconstruction is awareness of the inevitable unravelling of meaning.
Socrates – I’m going to need more explanation than that.
Derrida – Okay. So, we have already discussed the speech/text opposition, but there are thousands more words that our natural attitude has presupposed a value upon.
Socrates – Such as?
Derrida – Tell me, Socrates, which is better – original or derived?
Socrates – Original, of course.
Derrida – But could it be that the derived is an improvement? Sometimes the derived makes the original look like nothing more than a prototype. Let’s try another. Tell me, Socrates, which is better – raw or cooked?
Socrates – Cooked, of course.
Derrida – Maybe, but have you not tasted a peach, ripe and fresh from the tree?
Socrates – What does all of this prove, Derrida?
Derrida – Maybe nothing Socrates, but what I am trying to do is draw your attention to the instability of words.
Socrates – Yes, perhaps there are some instances whereby our presuppositions may be flawed in the way you describe.
Derrida – With this in mind, let me present an excerpt from Plato on love, for us to consider –
If you say that the lover is more to be esteemed, because their love is thought to be greater; for they are willing to say and do what is hateful to others. That, if true, is only proof that they will prefer any future love to their present and will injure their old love at the pleasure of the new. And how, in a matter of such infinite importance, can someone be right in trusting themself to one who is afflicted with a disease which no experienced person would attempt to cure.
What does this passage mean to you, Socrates?
Socrates – I am not sure that you will properly consider my response.
Derrida – I would consider your response, my dear Socrates; however, you are correct to suggest that this is not my point.
Socrates – Your point is that everyone will deconstruct this text in a different manner.
Derrida – Yes. There are at least five oppositions in this text – love/hate, action/inaction, past/future, disease/cure, and desire/loyalty. All of us have had different experiences with these things.
Socrates – And what does this show?
Derrida – This shows that language is unstable, that philosophy is unstable, that life is unstable.
Socrates – You seem to have taken a dubious leap in logic here, Derrida. Is this where 20th-century philosophy finds itself, wildly deconstructing language, philosophy, and life?
Derrida – Not really, Socrates, but I fear philosophers have become obsessed with logic.
Socrates – Do you mean that 20th-century philosophers have abandoned ethics and emotion?
Derrida – Not entirely, Socrates, but I fear ethos and pathos have come to be considered inferior to logos.
Socrates – Philosophy has become unbalanced.
Derrida – Yes.
Socrates – Well, it sounds to me as though your work is not in vain, Derrida. You have not convinced me that your thinking is sound, yet I will take away from this discussion a new understanding of context, meaning, and presupposition.
Derrida – This is all I ask, my friend.
Socrates – Come with me now for a drink, dear Derrida. We shall suspend judgement on the matter and take up the conversation again tomorrow.