November 19, 2004

Fear of thinking . . .


The coverage of the death of Jacques Derrida gave the diretor of the Forum for European Philosophy, Simon Glendinning, a “sinking feeling.” “From the very first press releases carrying the news of his death it was clear that the papers were going to have a field day with the kind of depressingly familiar distortions of his thought that he had to face so often — and faced so graciously — when he was alive.” Discussing that coverage in this Guardian article, reporter Richard Lea observes, “Perhaps it wouldn’t be so depressing if this censure were confined to one dashing French thinker, but in fact, the attacks on Derrida are just the latest sortie in a wider campaign being waged against academics, intellectuals and other disreputable figures. Academia is portrayed as a hotbed of fancy foreign notions, a den of dangerous relativists who can’t talk straight, can’t think straight — and don’t even want to try.” Lea asks, “What is it about relativism that gets us so hot under the collar?”

RELATED: In a moving essay for The Village Voice, Leland de la Durantaye considers the history of seeing such philosophers as “dangerous.” After discussing Derrida’s public life, de la Durantaye notes how the 20th century opened with another philosopher — Henri Bergson — being similarly treated. Then he describes sitting in on a Derrida lecture: “Just as the most famous philosopher in the world during the opening decades of the 20th century was a small, handsome, Jewish Frenchman criticized for a philosophy with ‘irrational’ elements, so too was the most famous philosopher of its closing decades. During the years when his books and person made their mysterious mark upon my life, Derrida was often denounced as a dangerous man and his thought as a nihilistic epidemic. But we who gathered together to hear him speak could not square this threat with the bright-eyed man with the birdlike voice who stood before us.”

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.