Oxford's oldest student newspaper

Independent since 1920

Who’s afraid of Derrida?

Lewis Roberts looks at the beauty of Derrida.

This article is a complaint to my academic discipline, English literature. It is, not to overstate the matter, one of my great loves, but it is fickle and frustrating, as are many such loves. Specifically, it is frustrating by its deep self-doubt and attendant reliance on the outdated and equally fickle subject of continental philosophy.

For those who are not acquainted with this issue, I am referring to the fact that when searching for evidence for their theses on literary texts, critics and scholars find themselves repeatedly quoting Derrida and Foucault and suchlike without redress to the fact that these thinkers have been superseded (at least in the UK and the US) by analytic theories. It is an interesting phenomenon, whereby we find esteemed practitioners of very modern and cutting-edge theories such as Trans Theory and Thing Theory, referring to Europeans of note (in the former case, Freud, and in the latter, Adorno) as if the similarity between their novel point and the existing continental philosophy somehow acts as proof.

Bertrand Russell, the Oxford philosopher often credited with developing the school of analytic philosophy which relies on exemplification and scientific analysis to discern philosophical ‘truths’, was reacting against the idealist school of thought pursued by Hegel, and in Britain, F.H. Bradley. It was at this moment that I believe the problem came for scholars of literature. At a very similar time to Russell’s railing against idealism (the 1910s and 1920s) literature turned towards it.

Gertrude Stein called the young writers left behind by the First World War ‘the Lost Generation’. An associate of hers, T.S. Eliot, who many (rightly, in my opinion) call one of the greatest poets to ever write, wrote his Harvard PhD thesis on F.H. Bradley and his ‘Doctrine of Experience’. That is to say, he found himself, found some solid base, in continental philosophy. Henri Bergson, whose philosophy of lived time (durée) versus measurable clock time (temps), is known by all respectable students of Eliot as a deep influence on The Waste Land and Four Quartets. Therefore, I posit, that without Eliot and this post-war flaneurism, we would not find academic books still relying on these same philosophers. Eliot and his circle set the academy on a route towards speculation and idealism instead of analytical thought.

One of my favourite academic texts is Patricia Parker’s masterful 1979 work Inescapable Romance, a study of Renaissance poetics. Her main thesis on the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser takes Derrida’s infamous concept of différance as an analogue to the expansiveness and dilation of Spenser’s writing. It is a fantastic thesis, which elucidates and clarifies Spenser’s poetics in a way that pierces to the core of Elizabethan thought. If you haven’t read it, I would recommend it heartily if you ever intend to understand Spenser’s Faery Queene.

So, reader, I am sure you are wondering why I am so outraged. Well, because it throws my subject into question. If so many of our most important contributors are guided by out-of-date schools of thought, what do we do?

My view is that the competition between, on the one hand, the anger we feel towards the Freuds and the Derridas of the world, and on the other, our wholehearted acceptance of them is what supports our discipline; it is, if you’ll excuse me, a dialectic. There is a significant amount of push and pull between allowing the discipline to be consumed by such abstract thought and rooting ourselves in an analytical stricture that we kid ourselves we always follow.

Indeed, the joy of studying literature comes from the coalition of art, in the literature itself, and science, in the analysis thereof. So my advice, dear reader, is go forth and pontificate. Read your Derrida as closely as you dare; try Althusser if you’re feeling lefty. These philosophies were constructed for their beauty and many are truly gorgeous. For all I know, you might even enjoy it.

Support student journalism

Student journalism does not come cheap. Now, more than ever, we need your support.

Check out our other content

Most Popular Articles