Heraclitus and Derrida: Presocratic Deconstruction. By Erin O'Connell
Article first published online: 8 JUN 2009
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 4, pages 742–743, July 2009
How to Cite
Simpson, Z. (2009), Heraclitus and Derrida: Presocratic Deconstruction. By Erin O'Connell. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 742–743. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00501_42.x
- Issue published online: 8 JUN 2009
- Article first published online: 8 JUN 2009
Pp. 186 . Berlin, Germany , Peter Lang , 2006 $62.00 .
O'Connell's book on two of the central deconstructive figures in Western thought begins with the bold declaration that ‘the history of philosophy in the West can be framed by the Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus, on the one hand, and Jacques Derrida on the other.’ (1) With Heraclitus and Derrida as ‘book-ends’ to the Western tradition, O'Connell seeks to shows how Heraclitus anticipates a radical deconstruction of the Western tradition which is to follow and, likewise, the deconstruction of the preceding tradition practiced by Derrida. For O'Connell, this is to be achieved through a series of connected analyses in which the use of poetry and metaphor, an account of rationality, the use of deconstructive language, and cosmology in Heraclitus is linked to Derrida's early deconstruction of the role of language in circumscribing meaning, absence, and alterity in Western metaphysics.
O'Connell is clearly at home in her analysis of Heraclitus' use of poetry, myth, and metaphor, and, as she acknowledges early on, he is a figure who must be ‘read differently,’ a desideratum she also applies to the work of Derrida. (p. 8) Her incisive examination of Heraclitus' use of figurative and often esoteric imagery is followed by a similar analysis of Heraclitus' understanding of the limits of human rationality, which have often – though not necessarily so – precluded a full understanding of the essence of nature. This, too, has resonances with Derrida's early and later work.
Yet it is with the ‘deconstruction’ of the ‘logocentric paradigm’ (p. 50) and its tendencies towards dualism and the privileging of a transcendental signified that O'Connell's examination of Heraclitus and Derrida takes root. The major conceptual challenge of O'Connell's work on Heraclitus and Derrida is to establish the ways in which ‘the conventional logocentric presumptions about language and the real are exposed, dismantled, and resituated by the logic and discourse of Heraclitus [and Derrida].’ (p. 96) To do so, both must be attentive to the ways in which certain terms are privileged in binaries, thus restricting the constantly deferring/differing function of language and effectively freezing meaning.
O'Connell does this in two ways. The first mode of linking Heraclitus and Derrida in the project of rejecting the ‘authority of the logocentric paradigm that structures the understanding of the cosmos by radicalizing differences and hierarchizing dualities' (p. 64) comes through their common commitment to the differing and ambiguous nature of language and speech. To O'Sullivan, Heraclitus does this stunningly through his frequent employment of the Greek dia, which she variously defines as ‘to differ, to make a difference’ (p. 68) or ‘in different directions,’‘at variance,’‘asunder;’ or in terms of mutual relation, i.e., ‘one with another,’‘between,’‘partly,’…’ (p. 90) Dia, as used by Heraclitus, is both a way of separating and showing the constantly elusive nature of linear or uniform signification. This, of course, has considerable resonance with the Derridean notion of différance (see p. 146ff), which calls forth images of the elusiveness of transcendental signification and the ‘infinite play’ between signs and signified.
It is at this point that the linkages between Derrida and Heraclitus are most robust, and O'Connell does well to examine the nuances of this commonality. As she states, Heraclitus and Derrida's ‘strategic interrogations … show how the figures of thought refuse to settle down into a stable order of concepts or clear-cut logical oppositions.’ (p. 165) Rather, language is always in the process of deferring and differing, eluding precise meaning. Thus, with respect to the logos, both the language and signification of essence, Heraclitus avers that ‘there is nothing more certain attached to the cosmic metaphors, no unmetaphorical referent to which the image refers’ (p. 101) just as Derrida asserts that ‘there is no position of originary neutrality from which to posit an absolute, transcendental logos.’ (p. 131) Indeed, even though language and metaphysics must often posit a transcendental logos which undergirds meaning, the collective work of Heraclitus and Derrida proves transcendental signification and logocentrism as ‘fraught with rhetorical and logical instabilities.’ (p. 133)
This analysis is potentially at odds, however, with the other strand of O'Connell's examination, that of Heraclitus' intuitions on Nature and the structure of reality. In line with his literal and metaphorical depiction of language as persistently deferring, Heraclitus develops a cosmology which is deeply holistic and unitary. With respect to binaries, for example, he demands that they be viewed ‘as differing parts of a greater unity, as complementary portions of a larger entity, of a more complex system, rather than discrete and autonomous elements.’ (p. 51) Just as signs defer to other signs, parts defer to a greater unity or to other parts, typically their own ‘opposite.’ As Heraclitus, in O'Connell's own translations, states, ‘all things are one,’ (D.50) or, ‘from all things one and from one thing all.’ (D.10) This constant act of balancing tensions and oppositions as part of a greater unity allows O'Connell to assert that Heraclitus' thought is imminently ‘monist,’ (p. 54) constantly positing oneness in opposition to many-ness, or an opposite as it stands against a more privileged term.
The similarities to Derrida's early thought here are clear, and O'Connell nicely shows the ways in which the constant deferral from presence to absence and sign to an alternate signified has resonances with Derrida's thought. Yet there are critical differences between the thought of Heraclitus and Derrida which remain silent in O'Connell's text. In Heraclitus' work, as O'Connell makes clear, ‘[c]hange is always a changing into something else’ (p. 58): a unit always posits its own opposite, and is part of a greater, and unitary, network of signification. Such an admission seems to place Heraclitus more in line with some strands of neo-Platonic thought or contemporary process thought, not the radical deconstruction practiced by Derrida. Even though Heraclitus is ‘loathe to offer a master word’ (p. 152) for divinity or even possibly the logos, Heraclitus' positing of a monistic cosmology stands in contrast to Derrida's outright refusal to posit any form unity or central meaning. Instead of denying any transcendental signification altogether, as does Derrida, Heraclitus' cosmology makes clear that linguistic deferral exists within a greater metaphysical structure in which opposites are ultimately balanced and unified.
This potential incommensurability – between Heraclitus' positing of a unitary and balanced metaphysical plane and Derrida's steadfast resistance to a center of reference – remains silent in O'Connell's book. Nor is there mention of Derrida's later ethical injunction against the assertion of transcendental signification, one animated by the Holocaust and the insistence on preserving, even at the cost of silence, the demand for radical alterity. O'Connell rightly observes an ‘an intriguing similarity’ (p. 157) between the deconstruction practiced by Heraclitus and Derrida, where ‘play is at war with itself,’ but this similarity is potentially undercut by Heraclitus' more unifying and holistic tendency.
Ultimately, O'Connell's book is salient insomuch as it raises these critical issues and brings to light the potential for ‘reading’ (p. 13) Heraclitus through the lens of Derrida's deconstruction of language, even if such a reading eludes precise identity or comparison. Indeed, as book-ends to the Western tradition, Heraclitus and Derrida's intuitions on language, metaphor, and the methods of philosophy point to the persistent and unattainable attempt to erect a central structure of meaning. And, through their intuitions on cosmology, Heraclitus and Derrida implicitly reveal the incommensurability that underlies their own thought. As O'Connell rightly summarizes, ‘While both Heraclitus and Derrida can be said to announce the loss of a pure language, they also show that such an entity has never existed, except by fiat or feint.’ (p. 169)