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Jacques Derrida and the Paradoxes of Participatory Reality –Part 1
by Lee Trepanier
Lee Trepanier is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Saginaw Valley State University. His most recent books include: Political Symbols in Russian History: Church, State and the Quest for Order and Justice (2010), Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Globalization: Citizens without States (2011), and LDS in USA: Mormonism and the Making of American Culture (2012). This essay is taken from Eric Voegelin and the Continental Tradition, University of Missouri Press (2010), which he co-edited. It is presented in three parts and appears with permission.
Although neither Eric Voegelin nor Jacques Derrida had ever written about each other’s works, both thinkers were engaged in the same project of creating and sustaining an existential philosophy that was participatory in nature.
Opposed to foundational accounts of reality, a philosophy that purports to explain the totality of reality transparently, both Voegelin and Derrida called for a mode of philosophy that was open to the possibilities of existence with its unanswerable mysteries.
They were opposed to the claim of Cartesian subjectivity where intentionality is the only operational mode for human existence: reality is understood and spoken of as if it were some sort of object to be grasped in its entirety by human subjectivity.1 The belief that humans can survey the whole of reality and thereby discover and expose its fundamental foundations was rejected by both Voegelin and Derrida.
The encounter and experience of reality could be neither exhaustive nor transparent; rather, reality demanded that we approach it in a participatory mode that Voegelin articulates in his theory of symbolization and Derrida describes in his philosophy of deconstruction.
Voegelin believed that our encounter with reality was ultimately symbolic in nature. The notion that language could be exhaustive in its account of our encounter with reality and convey it transparently was rejected by him. Language (or more accurately symbols) was merely an incomplete reflection or articulation of human experiences and, at best, could only point to ineffable realities that reside in human consciousness.
Language could neither account for all of human encounters with reality nor do so transparently because it was ultimately considered by Voegelin to be dependent on specific historical circumstances. In other words, language was socially constructed.
Likewise, Derrida conceived of language as artificial instead of natural and something that continually deferred a finalized meaning forever. Language could never become transparent for Derrida, since the reality it was referencing was continually shifting its ultimate significance. Attempts to fix a finalized meaning unto language were not only doomed to failure but were also dishonest efforts to create a “second reality” in order to manipulate and motive people for certain ideological ends.
Voegelin’s and Derrida’s similar perspectives on language can be explained by their refusal to accept the premise of Cartesian subjectivity: reality is dichotomous with subjects on one side and objects on the other. Rejecting intentionality as the only acceptable operational mode of epistemology, both Voegelin and Derrida favored one that was participatory in nature.
Reality is not divided into subjects and objects but instead conceived as a single entity in which humans participate and therefore it can never be known objectively or in its entirety. There will always be aspects of reality that remain mysterious.