Humanism (and Other Animals)

Captura de pantalla 2014-09-07 a la(s) 20.19.47

One should be humane, after all, when dealing with humanist(ic) approaches to language teaching. Despite some recent maulings of some of the theories associated with such approaches – in particular multiple intelligences and neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) – taken broadly, even if we don’t agree with all of them, there’s little to ruffle anyone’s feathers about the core axioms of classroom humanism. These I take to be:

  • that the learner should be at the centre of the learning process, directing his/her learning
  • that one of the teacher’s main roles is to facilitate learner autonomy
  • that communicative competence takes precedence over grammatical accuracy
  • that respect, empathy and authenticity are fundamental to the learning environment
  • that affect is key to successful or unsuccessful language learning

These ideas remain central to ELT today (along with, to a large extent, the pseudoscience that dogs them); they are usually part, to a greater or lesser degree, of institutional introductory training (and to some extent the diplomas), and are further enshrined in a significant amount of published materials (both about and for ELT). And to be fair, or more humane again, some of the less widely-accepted ideas of humanistic teaching – translation, for example – are starting to enjoy more academic support. Yet we rarely say now that we are teaching “humanistically” when we follow some of these axioms, or train others to follow them. These ideas, in certain ELT contexts at least, have become naturalised to the extent that we rarely feel the need to label them – they just feel right. (Conversely, I wonder to what extent we consider ourselves engaging in anti-humanist or dehumanising activities when drowning in the backwash of an exam class? Not much, perhaps, but I do believe that we recognise that things don’t feel quite right, that this isn’t really what teaching or learning should be about.)

But just to put these ideas back into a humanistic context, a bit of linguistic analysis. I created a corpus of the major and short articles from the ever-intriguing Humanising Language Teaching, the webzine whose title my title appropriates, along with Earl Stevick’s Humanism in Language Teaching (1990), Julian Pigott’s “A Humanistic Approach to Language Education in Japan” (on which more later) and some online articles about humanism and ELT. Then, with the fantastic AntConc, I was able to have a root around. (Warning: I am NOT a professional corpus linguist – nor am I trying to offer conclusive evidence for my claims.)

Here’s the wordlist by frequency (most function words excluded):

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There is evidently and predictably far more focus on students (and learners) and their learning than on teacher(s) and their teaching in this rough and ready analysis; however, I would also venture that the high frequency of the verbs to use (use language to do/achieve things), to work (not only on your English, as a student, but as a teacher on an approach which “works”), to need (and have these needs met in the classroom environment), to lCaptura de pantalla 2014-09-07 a la(s) 19.32.20ike (the centrality of affect), along with the nouns group and people, say something about the concerns of humanistic approaches.

The keyword analysis to the left, which compares my corpus with the Brown academic wordlist, perhaps shows more clearly the higher-than-typical frequency of most of the above-mentioned words in our corpus. Also noteworthy here are ask (students/questions about), give (information/examples), activity (simple, individual, group and even therapeutic) and approach – and of course the word “humanistic” itself (which collocates most frequently, as you’ll imagine, with “approach”). But when one pokes around a little more in the context, things get a little more interesting – not least in the context of “humanistic” itself:

Captura de pantalla 2014-09-07 a la(s) 20.06.04

From this roughshod selection a certain unstable distinction between humanist and humanistic – or should I say humanist(ic) – peeps out from its parenthetical burrow. Humanist relates to psychology, to a tradition of thinking we associate with Rogers, Maslow and Moskowitz, and humanistic to teaching approaches –  which accounts for the high recurrence of humanistic compared to all other forms of the word human in the corpus:

Captura de pantalla 2014-09-07 a la(s) 19.49.53

Why is humanist adequate for psychology and not for teaching? Evidently, humanist psychology’s pursuit of wholeness and self-actualisation is at the heart of humanistic language teaching, or, in the words of the webzine, at the heart of attempts to humanise language teaching:

When this magazine was established in 1999, its first editor, Mario Rinvolucri, and many of the early contributing authors, made very clear their personal identification with this Rogerian humanist tradition. In the first year, major articles were entitled ‘Are we ready for holism?’ and ‘Whole or hole’, and the first major article of all, ‘What is Teacher development?’, by Paul Davis, established a clear link with the Teacher Development Special Interest Group (SIG) of IATEFL and its newsletter, which, for years, had been showing a marked interest in counselling, co-counselling, the role of affect in learning and teaching and other areas associated with Humanist Psychology. (Kerr 2007)

However, as Kerr points out (and this is one of the beauties of HLT – that it has always been open to self-critique),

The honeymoon of humanist(ic) approaches was short-lived. The problem, essentially, was that humanism in ELT had become associated with a constellation of contentious topics such as psychodrama, Gestalt therapy or NLP. More contentious, still, were the attempts by advocates of aromatherapy or shamanism, for example, to hitch themselves to the humanist(ic) bandwagon.

Calling the webzine Humanising Language Teaching, rather than Humanistic Language Teaching, therefore attempts to suspend any pedagogically suspicious identification with the more esoteric aspects that dog it. But the chickenwiring was only partly effective, and with the high frequency of humanistic in the corpus, I can’t help but think that humanistic is the key term, and a term that permits a double reading – at once a claim to resemble humanist yet keep a distance, by means of a suffix which, “if said in the right way”, as Kerr points out, “can add a certain derogatory spice”. In other words, humanistic approaches became, in ELT academia anyway, an object of suspicion. So if humanistic invokes the simulacrum, in the learning environment, of humanist principles, it operates in the same way that realistic offers a simulacrum or the real – almost real, yet never quite enough to outfox us – or at least outfox those wily, cynical academics.

Yet speaking of the real, humanism of course speaks of the human, and we have already encountered the verb to humanise, to make more human, as if there is something unhuman, inhuman or inhumane about anything that human beings might do. Human beings suffer the contradiction of struggling to be human, to recognise the humanity of others and to treat those other humans with respect. If we are more human and more humane – “towards our fellow humans and animals” (Pigott n.d.) – we might achieve some of that self-actualisation or wholeness we mentioned above.

But as humans who may not always be human we might look in the eyes of the concept “human” itself and wonder at this difference. As we are wondering, thoughts of our fellow animals may wander in. A cat once walked in on Jacques Derrida while he was naked – “a real cat”, Derrida claimed, not a fictional or representative one – and looked at him. Derrida felt an immediate sense of shame, until he realised that the cat was naked too. It led him to ponder that perhaps one of the few credible distinctions between humans and animals is that “the property unique to animals and that which in the final analysis distinguishes them from man is their being naked without knowing it […] No animal has ever thought to dress itself” (Derrida 2002).

To put it another way, man is the animal that dresses itself, that knows it’s naked when it’s naked and feels shame under the gaze of another animal. Which animal? Human animals and others, even cats. More others? There are always other “animals”, the term catches all:

Confined within this catch-all concept, within this vast encampment of the animal […] as in a virgin forest, a zoo, a hunting or fishing ground, a paddock or an abattoir, a space of domestication, are all the living things that man does not recognise as his fellows, his neighbours or his brothers. And that is so despite the infinite space that separates the lizard from the dog, the protozoon from the dolphin, the shark from the lamb, the parrot from the chimpanzee, the camel from the eagle, the squirrel from the tiger or the elephant from the cat, the ant from the silkworm or the hedgehog from the echidna. I interrupt my nomenclature to call Noah to help insure that no one gets left on the ark.

If being human or more human calls on us to respect our fellow humans and animals the recognition of such fellowship permits at once the definition and dismantling of the term human, founded as it is on such a shaky yet irreducible distinction from “animals”. This explains in some part the title of this blog. To animalise ELT is to renounce to a certain extent, or at least question some of the founding myths of what I’ve called classroom humanism – in particular to see the concept of the autonomous, whole, self-actualised human at the heart of language learning in its alterity – to look with other eyes at those student and teacher humans, the learning and teaching animals.

After all, of course, we wouldn’t want to dehumanise language teaching – humans have enough of a struggle to be human – this would be wanton cruelty. Yet within the history of humanistic ELT we find outmoded yet fascinating and still influential methodologies like Gattegno’s Silent Way – in which the teacher is reduced to grunts – and Lozanov’s Suggestopedia, in which more recognisably humanist concepts nestle alongside a certain robotic caricature of the teacher, with “absolute confidence in the method”, displaying “fastidious conduct in manners and dress” and somehow maintaining both “solemn composure” and “modest enthusiasm” (Lozanov 1978). In other words, to enable students to be more human, teachers may have to sacrifice some of their humanity.

There was something else not quite human stalking through my corpus.

Captura de pantalla 2014-09-07 a la(s) 20.11.09

There may be others, I am also waiting on a call from Noah. But I think humanistic teaching in the Rinvolucri mould is already to an extent animalised, albeit at the margins – it tends to recognise its own territorial limits, it’s aware somehow of the problem of culture which later came to overtake it in terms of academic ELT interests (see for example Rinvolucri 2001). But this doesn’t account for the appearance of our menagerie in the corpus. What does is an acknowledgement of the theatrical animal that classroom humanism can be – that is, we have not only the animals that we, as humans, observe, describe, draw, narrate, confirming thereby their otherness, their lack of naked shame before us, and in so doing our humanity – but the ones we – or more precisely our students – are sometimes asked to imagine ourselves to be. After all, what could be more typical of humanistic discussion questions than this: If you were an animal, what animal would you be? 

If I were an animal, that which I already am, I would try to be (a) human.

In the next post I will try to look further at the ideas of autonomy and wholeness in relation to teaching and learning subjects. I feel that bringing in the concepts of ideology and misrecognition may allow a more radical animalisation or transformation of humanistic ELT, as well as help me offer an explanation as to why those humanistic ideas now decried as pseudoscience continue to enjoy a hold over teachers, a hold that scientific language itself cannot account for.


Derrida, Jacques. 2002. “The animal that therefore I am (more to follow)”. Critical Inquiry 28:2

Kerr, Philip. 2007. “‘Humanising’ – what’s in a word?”. HLT 9:3

Lozanov, Georgi. 1978. Suggestology and outlines of suggestopedy. London: Gordon and Breach.

Pigott, n.d. “A humanistic approach to foreign language education in Japan”.

Rinvolucri, Mario. 2001. “The limits of humanistic practice”. HLT 3:4

45 thoughts on “Humanism (and Other Animals)

  1. There used to be a heron in Maxwell Park. Familiar with humans, it would allow you to get very close. I could look into its eyes (well, actually, only one at a time) from only a couple of feet away. The experience felt intimate, like looking into a person’s eyes, yet radically not. I felt fairly sure I was looking directly into the sight organ of a sentient creature and also that it was aware that it was doing the same. Nonetheless, whilst we were in the same natural(?) space we were in irreconcilable umwelten ( We sometimes think of ourselves as communicating with animals but, when pressed, usually admit that the appearance of communication has arisen out of certain causal relations (so the sheepdog, when whistled to, does what its master wants because it associates that behaviour with certain rewards, not because it and its master are actually engaged in a common enterprise.) Derrida, in Signature Event Context observes that ‘communication’ can, in ordinary language refer to ‘nonsemantic movements’ and that ‘one may, for example, communicate a movement, or that a tremor, a shock, a displacement of force can be communicated.” This what we mean when we say that one sphere in a Newton’s cradle ‘communicates’ its force to the next. When we allow that our communication with animals is not really communication after all and that we’re being anthropomorphic when we describe it as such, I think what we’re saying is that it is communication only in this latter, ‘nonsemantic’ sense, not in the semantic sense. Derrida, as is characteristic, declines to draw a sharp distinction between the two senses, even as, interestingly, he delineates the very distinction he then tells us he is uninclined to draw. Scientistically-minded people such as David Hume, B.F. Skinner and natural selection fundamentalists like Dawkins and Dennett, are, in different ways, also uninclined to draw this distinction and seem to suggest that our communication with each other is like our ‘communication’ with animals in that it, too, is just a matter of entering into causal relations (or, perhaps, better, being entered into causal relations) with other entities. This view I think may fairly be described as mechanistic and actually is perfectly consistent with, say, Maslovian humanism, which tries to provide causal explanations for human behaviour (indeed, I struggle to conceive of the possibility of a psychological theory which does not attempt to do this.) If our communication with each other is not essentially different from our communication with animals, and if in imagining ourselves to be be communicating with animals we are being anthropomorphic, then it must follow that in imagining ourselves to be communicating with each other we must also be being anthropomorphic (didn’t Beckett describe friendship, the urge to communicate where no communication is possible, as a simian vulgarity, like the madness that attempts to hold a conversation with the furniture, or something like that?) Further, if Derrida is right and thought and even experience are subject to the same problematics as communication then in thinking, simply, we are anthropomorphizing ourselves. My train of thought, as you’ll have gathered, is getting a little out of my control. What I mean is that I enjoyed your post and it reminded me of the heron.


    • “What I mean is that I enjoyed your post and it reminded me of the heron.” Well, that’s a relief; for a minute I thought you might have been trying to say something else.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi Patrick,

    If I follow you correctly, you are saying there is no essential difference between the communication we imagine we have with certain animals and that we have with other humans, even if one is non-semantic and the other semantic. My objection would be that according to your definition it is still “communication” we have with the animal, not an imagined “communication”, so I’m not sure I could follow you through to the conclusion you hint at, even if it appeals to me greatly!

    In the same Derrida text I cite above, there is some exploration of communication with animals. The question turns around whether or not animals respond to us, or merely react. Derrida says that philosophers from Descartes through to Lacan all deny that an animal is able to respond – “to pretend, to lie, to cover its tracks or erase its own traces”. Derrida suggests that this depends on what we mean by “respond”, whether it can be absolutely differentiated from “react”, and whether indeed humans can erase their own traces:

    “Having or not having traces at one’s disposal so as to be in a position to cover
    or erase them, in such a manner as, it is said, some can (man, for example)
    and some cannot do (the animal, for example, according to Lacan),
    does not perhaps constitute a reliable alternative defined by an
    indivisible limit. We will have reason to go back over these steps and
    tracks. The fact that a trace can always be erased, and forever, in no way
    means-and this is a critical difference-that someone, man or animal,
    can of his own accord erase his traces.”

    There’s an interesting blog post about this idea in some of Derrida’s other texts:

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Neil

    Actually, I was not trying to assert anything, only to explore the ramifications of suspending a certain distinction, a distinction which corresponds, if I’ve understood the latter correctly, to that between reacting and responding. In the discussion following your previous post I expressed sympathy with the view, mentioned by Geoff, set out in Popper and Eccles’s book The Self and its Brain, concerning worlds 1, 2 and 3, a view that depends upon the distinction being drawn very definitely. The case of animals, though, is certainly problematic. Crows, for instance, certainly seem to represent the world around them to themselves, even to the point of theorising about it. They must be engaged in semantic activity therefore.

    The case of the bees’ dance, mentioned in the article you linked to is another, frankly mind-boggling example. Again, I’m really not trying to assert anything. I’m trying to get into the spirit of Derrida’s taste for aporia.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Love the crow video. You don’t want to assert anything but I will – in a nutshell, these crows are observing, reading and responding to a variety of human. technological and semiotic factors or elements.

    Hume – I just discovered that Gilles Deleuze’s first book was about Hume, and that Deleuze owes his version of empiricism to Hume – not sure Hume would’ve been keen. Anyway, interesting that Hume’s position is not that animals lack reason, it’s just that man’s reasoning is more advanced (albeit unequally advanced). What else do we have to prop up the distinction human/animal? It crossed my mind that it could be the human capacity to overreach, to exploit, to take more than necessary (perhaps not a wholly separate capacity from that superior reasoning power). But the remaining indigenous peoples of the earth who, despite all, still live according to age-old traditions, taking what they need and no more (“Leavers” – do you know that odd cult novel Ishmael by Daniel Quinn?), may be proof against this. We cannot then say that overreaching is essentially human- as long as we recognise these peoples as human. And there are no doubt those who would regard them as closer to animals. As if this should be an insult. To that I leave you with Dani Alves – not because I think he represents the group I just mentioned, but because for the banana-thrower he kind of did.


  5. ‘What else do we have to prop up the distinction human/animal? It crossed my mind that it could be the human capacity to overreach, to exploit, to take more than necessary.’

    You obviously never met Shuggy, a cat whose facility with a fridge door was legendary.

    A squirrel would raid our bird feeder. I used to see it from the bedroom window. I would rap on the window to scare it off but it got so as long as I stayed in the bedroom it would ignore me, like it knew that as long as I was in the bedroom I could pose it no threat. If I went to the back door it would run away. Once, I rapped on the window, was ignored, went away for just a moment and then returned to the window. The squirrel had gone. My absence from the window was enough for it to take flight. Apart from the Derridan suggestiveness of this it seems to me to indicate that the squirrel had some grasp of physics (a thing can’t be in two places at the same time) and of logic (if x and y are mutually exclusive then if one of them is true then the other isn’t.)

    Another squirrel now occupies the roof above our extension. I attempt to evict it. I’m fairly satisfied that I, to it, am merely a problem, not actually an enemy. If only I could be as humane in my attitude towards it.

    Hume was famously good-natured and especially known as such amongst his Parisian friends. He’d have been fine with it.

    I can’t find it on Youtube but the Attenborough series on Africa featured a bird that mimicked the call of a creature that predates (I mean ‘eats,’ not ‘is previous to’) meerkats in order to scare away a troupe of them so it could snaffle their food source. It, certainly, appeared to be capable of dissembling.


  6. I should apologise. There is something wrong with what I said about the squirrel in the garden. It’s been bothering me all day and then I put my finger on it. Part of what I said about the squirrel at the birdfeeder is what I think the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus would call ‘nonsense.’ I attributed to the squirrel the belief that if I was in the bedroom I could not be in a position to attack it and also the belief, which I described as one concerning logic, that if it is true that if I am in the bedroom then I cannot attack it then if I am in the bedroom then I cannot attack it. The second belief cannot possibly be necessary on the part of the squirrel, since, if it is, then the further belief that if it is true that if it is true that if I am in the bedroom then I cannot attack it then it is true that if I am in the bedroom I cannot possibly attack it must also be necessary. The infinite regress is obvious. Again, apologies.


    • Miaow indeed. Sorry for a few days’ silence but I did get the chance to catch up on the reading you’ve suggested – thanks a lot, fascinating stuff. I wouldn’t dare say too much about it – I don’t know much about bi-o-lo-gy – but some things strike me:

      *Neither Dennett nor Fodor are doing deconstruction – Fodor seems to equate this with criticism

      *From what I can gather Dennett is a “soft determinist” rather than a determinist, i.e. he allows for some kind of agency or choice. However there is precious little about responsibility in his paper on responsibility, and nothing about how ideology may relate to the problematic of the illusory self

      *His treatment and privileging of language is for me unconvincing. Human language is described, if I have it right, as permitting self-awareness and free will, even if these things are illusory. If they are illusory, the role of the social in all this needs more consideration. Language seems to be a vehicle for self representation and modifying the behaviour of others, a tool we use to act on the world, a world outside language. This is quite Sartre I think. “Words are loaded pistols” I believe he said.

      *the debate between the two is distinctly unscientific and unphilosophical, so no surprises there. As a deconstructive sidenote I’ll just point out that Derrida’s adversary Searle is also an adversary of Dennett …

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Neil

    You’re quite right that neither Dennett nor Fodor is doing deconstruction proper. Fodor doesn’t quite make the mistake that so many people make when they bandy the words ‘deconstruct,’ and ‘deconstruction’ around, that of thinking simply that it is simply some kind of ‘unpacking’ or ‘interpretation.’ He is slightly closer than that to the spirit of deconstruction in that he thinks it’s to do with finding contradictions within a text. That, too, though, you’re entirely right, is perfectly within the realm of traditional criticism and is not especially deconstructive. I don’t know to what extent he is simply ignorant of what Derrida is trying to do and to what extent he is being facetious. I hesitated in my earlier comments about bringing up natural selection and the problems and implications therein but felt, in the end, that we cannot really discuss the continuities or otherwise between animal mental experience and human mental experience without it coming up. I’m interested that you find affinities between Dennett and Sartre (I used so to love Sartre) since all week I’ve been thinking about the affinities between Fodor’s position and Sartre’s. Fodor and Sartre both are convinced, as I think am I, that intentionality cannot be explained in terms of purely physical causative processes. Dennett, I think, disagrees (Dennett is, indeed, a ‘soft determinist’ but ‘soft determinist’ is a slightly misleading term; a soft determinist is a determinist.) Searle, like Sartre and Fodor, insists that intentionality is irreducible to physical processes, or at any rate to physical processes as we currently understand them (this last qualification, I think, is unnecessary in the case of Sartre.) Dennett thinks that such a reduction is possible. Derrida, if I’ve understood, wants to leave the question radically undecided, indeed radically undecidable. I oscillate between sympathy with this view (if it can be called a view; a ‘taste’ as he says, ‘for refinement, paradox, and aporia,’ is perhaps a better way to put it) and frustration with it. It seems to depend on what I had for lunch.

    All regards



  8. Then again, isn’t everyone, Dennett and Fodor included, always doing deconstruction? If I’ve understood correctly then deconstruction is the operation of the repressed other within the metaphysics of presence. Again, if I’ve understood, then neither the metaphysics of presence nor the operation of the other is ever escapable. Isn’t everything we say or do simultaneously an attempt at coherence and an unravelling of that attempt?


  9. Animals, too, inasmuch as they are engaged in semantic activity and inasmuch as semantic activity is necessarily haunted by both the metaphysics of presence and the operation of the repressed other, must be doing deconstruction.


    • I accept that any text is necessarily open to deconstruction, that’s to say, has within it elements that trouble, subvert or complicate its stated or apparent project. But I’ve always felt it takes an effort of reading and the application of certain strategies of reading, strategies which adopt and transform the language of the text itself. That’s why I talked about “doing” deconstruction.

      There are texts, of course, which seem to deconstruct themselves as one reads them, which affirm a sense of play, a lack of closure, intertextuality… joyce’s Ulysses is one. Though it should be said that Ulysses can also be read as the last word in realism, and Joyce himself once famously stated that the city of Dublin could be rebuilt from the pages of his book.

      Where I think Fodor comes close to doing deconstruction is in his questioning of Dennett ‘s appeal to the figure of a grand designer or Mother Nature. This seems to undermine Dennett ‘s rationalist and scientific view of human reality. The metaphor of design in the discourse of evolutionary biology, insofar as it cannot avoid including the notion of a designer, offers a chink in the text’s armoury, a way in for a deconstructive reading. It’s a case of taking advantage of that, as Fodor tries to do.


  10. Isn’t Derrida’s claim that any text deconstructs itself? Ulysses is the paradigmatic example of an avante garde text. Wouldn’t it be more deconstructive to read Ulysses as conforming to traditional narrative norms and save our more subversive readings for, say, road signs, or the signal that a flower sends a bee? You’re quite right that the nub of Fodor’s point about natural selection is that, while it is always insisted that teleological language is employed only metaphorically in discussion of natural selection, it appears to be next to impossible to discuss it without resorting to these ‘metaphors.’


    • “Deconstruction takes place, it is an event that does not await the deliberation, consciousness, or organisation of a subject, or even of modernity. It deconstructs it-self. It can be deconstructed.” There is a typically Derridean undecideability about agency here. The use of the passive (in French the reflexive) avoids naming a doing subject but nevertheless implies one. Later in the same text Derrida talks about the context or “chain of possible substitutions” that mark the word “deconstruction”. This “highly determined situation”, says D, “will need to be analysed and deconstructed” (prior to this he says that deconstruction is not analysis). He then states “This is difficult and I am not going to do it here”.

      Reference, “Letter to a Japanese Friend”, in David Wood (ed) Derrida and Différance


    • PS you make deconstruction sound a little like just being contrary with those examples! Of course Ulysses can be read in traditional narrative terms (and being structurally and thematically based on a narrative poem, it invites this reading) but this involves a tremendous reduction of the text ( e.g., for a laugh, I’ve always seen deconstruction as expansive, not reductive.


  11. ‘“Deconstruction takes place, it is an event that does not await the deliberation, consciousness, or organisation of a subject, or even of modernity. It deconstructs it-self. It can be deconstructed.” There is a typically Derridean undecideability about agency here. The use of the passive (in French the reflexive) avoids naming a doing subject but nevertheless implies one.’

    There are people (I’m sure you’ve heard of them) who suspect Derrida of charlatanism. Those people, I think, would characterise the ‘typically Derridan’ move you identify here as evasiveness and would cite it as evidence for their claim.


  12. Call it evasiveness or charlatanry if you (they) like. But if D were to state unequivocally that deconstruction IS an event/methodology that is deliberated by a conscious subject, to paraphrase a little, i.e. that deconstruction is simply and directly something done by a person to a text, one may move from accusations of charlatanry to wondering what had become of the theoretical basis of his entire thinking.

    D will often go on at great lengths about what something is not, another ploy which could be called evasiveness or charlatanry, or perhaps otherwise a tactic showing the play of différance, that is, of the difference and deferral that are the conditions of meaning, or of iterability, the idea that each repetition of a concept can alter its significance.

    I think that when someone “does” deconstruction they cannot know beforehand the key terms, or the strategies that will be required to unpack them, to see what they suppress, oppose, hide, or do violence to; meanwhile the subject that does deconstruction becomes another signifier in the chain, a privileged one maybe, but certainly not one which can enjoy a privileged view “outside” the text.

    It’s worth remembering that D wrote the above in the context of a letter to his Japanese translator in response to a query about how “deconstruction” could be translated, or if indeed it should. That partly lies behind his later withdrawal from committing to a deconstruction of deconstruction, or of the context of deconstruction. I believe D was thinking of a reading of the largely academic contexts in which this word appears (although now of course we could add cooking – a friend of mine had a deconstructed olive the other day). Such an analysis would be difficult to do, I imagine, because different academic contexts put different limitations on the word deconstruction. In the USA, Derrida notes, it is often regarded as a type of literary analysis (in other places I believe it is regarded as a version of the dark arts …) Then Derrida himself is writing from a French academic/philosophical tradition. The problem of translation between that and other languages/traditions, for the analysis to successfully encompass different national contexts, would have to be treated very carefully. And finally it was Derrida who first brought the term into philosophy. He would have to deal with his own right (or lack thereof) to determine how the word can be used or understood.

    Off to read the bat article now!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I sincerely believe that overuse of the word “sincerely” casts doubt on the sincerity of everything else one says. I’m sure Tarski will have a way out of that one though!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Hi,

    Sorry to have missed out on the development of this wonderful chat. 2 things:

    Fodor really doesn’t do deconstruction unless your interpretation makes it so. Fodor’s “mind” is a construct in the service of a standard realist epistemological stance. Likewise Dennett.

    Interpretation of text is a literary thing. The mistake is to push this interpretation into epistemological and ontological questions. This really is the point of Popper’s “Objective knowledge” claim.


  14. Only thought so far is that while of course Fodor doesn’t even buy into Derridan deconstruction he wants to assert that representation, a necessary element of conscious experience, cannot be explained within a purely physicalist worldview, since no purely physical account can include the phenomenon of representation. Representation is not a physical phenomenon, unless we redefine ‘physical’, as may be done in the future, in such a way that it resembles little what we currently understand by the ‘physical.’ In the meantime we may be forgiven for concerning ourselves with phenomenology. This is why I think Derrida deserves, at least, a sympathetic hearing.


  15. A picture of a tree represents the tree. Both the picture and the tree are physical objects. The representational relation between them, however, is not a physical object, or a complex of physical objects, but can be found only in an interpreting mind. The mind cannot be, or cannot be wholly, itself a physical object since, if it were, it would be unable, in and of itself, to realise the representational relation, in the same way that the picture is unable, in and of itself, to realise the representational relation.


  16. Scientism insists on a third person attitude, persons are to be investigated, studied etc. Phenomenology is an attempt to resuscitate a first person viewpoint, to make sense of what it is to be an ‘I’. The difficulty, in education, as in politics, is to make coherent a second person viewpoint, to hold in view that another person, as well as being a ‘she’ or a ‘he’ is a ‘you.’ I apologise. I’m not being very clear.


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