The world is tired of metaphysical assertions; it wants to know the possibility of this science, the sources from which certainty therein can be derived, and certain criteria by which it may distinguish the dialectical illusion of pure reason from truth. To this the critic seems to possess a key, otherwise he would never have spoken out in such a high tone [my emphasis].1
Immanuel Kant (1783)
In some respects this platform and program for Kant’s project concerning “any future metaphysics” could well be seen as the basis for Derrida’s work to date. There is no doubt that deconstruction is concerned to show the “conditions of the possibility of metaphysics,” its “sources,” its legitimate range of application, and thus the limits of philosophy as such. Yet the need to “distinguish the dialectical illusion from truth,” to see the “critic as being in possession of a key,” and the need for “certain criteria,” as the telos of the project are certainly not compatible with Derrida’s aims. Indeed for the latter, “truth,” in the philosophic tradition of the West, has always been determined by the Logos which is, as Hegel has adequately shown, “the dialectic of pure reason itself.” The notion of anyone, least of all perhaps “the critic,” as being in possession of a key—indeed the demand for such a center at all—is certainly also placed in question by Derrida. And finally, the telos of “certain criteria” have always been determined by Reason as such, according to Derrida, and thus is itself in need of deconstruction.
Nevertheless, the Kantian affiliations of Derrida’s position(s) cannot be rejected so easily. Kant’s notion of critique as his strategy for revealing the conditions of the possibility, the origins, and hence the limits of metaphysics is certainly, if not the model, a predecessor for Derrida’s notion of deconstruction. The problems initiated by the “unbounded use of our Reason” are also a mutual concern for these two thinkers. The transformation of the given into a sign for the “not given” but presupposed is certainly a common strategy as well. Yet, despite the overlap of the notion that “from the moment that there is meaning we have nothing but signs“2 for Derrida, and “representations” or “appearances” for Kant, we cannot conclude that this in fact means the same thing. To the contrary, while for Kant the thing in itself can “never be known”3 yet must be assumed a priori; for Derrida, the thing in itself always escapes,4 and indeed the fact that we have nothing but re-presentations does not require an originary presentation. The latter is a result of the former, not its origin. More precisely, the notion of “origin” itself must be realized as a result, and the non-origin of “origin” brought to light. For Kant, of course this makes no sense; for all that is meaningful requires an intuition, on the one hand, and, on the other, its synthesis with one of the pure concepts of the Understanding. For Derrida, the situation is quite the reverse, as he has shown in his analysis of Husserl. The possibility of the lack of intuition of the object is precisely the condition of the possibility of meaning itself. It is the absence of the object and a fortiori of the subject (“my death”) which is the condition of the possibility of intelligibility or meaningfulness. At this juncture Kant and Derrida could not be further apart. Yet, Kant’s ultimate question is: “How is nature itself possible?”5 And certainly so is Derrida’s, as his analyses of Husserl, Rousseau, Heidegger, and Hegel (among others) clearly indicate.
The labyrinth affiliation here must therefore be explicated not as “Derrida’s legacy”—acknowledged or unacknowledged—from Kant, but rather as prolegomena to the deconstruction of metaphysics and to the recognition of différance. Instead of attempting to subsume Derrida’s notion of deconstruction under that of critique, and a fortiori his notion of metaphysics and its origin under Kant’s, we shall attempt here, by way of an introduction to Derrida and the Economy of Différance, to radically distinguish Derrida’s project from Kant’s. The apparent affiliation will be shown to be nothing less than a confusion based on certain metaphysical assumptions which themselves, Derrida will claim, are in need of deconstruction. However, the usefulness of such a comparison, we hope, will be to take the reader quite simply from the “known to the unknown,” explicating the distinctions and differences so as to prevent the possible usurpation of the radicality of Derrida’s unique position within the conservatism of the Kantian projection or Weltanschauung. It might be more appropriate to begin with such a differential analysis of Derrida and Heidegger or Derrida and Hegel, but these issues will be treated in the context of “the re-cognition of différance” as such much later in our project and necessarily at a more complex level than the nature of an introduction will allow.
I. Critique and Deconstruction
It is because it extends to solid structures, to “material” institutions, and not only to discourses or meaningful representations that deconstruction is always distinguishable from an analysis or a critique [my emphasis].6
By criticism, however, a standard is given to our judgement whereby knowledge may be with certainty distinguished from pseudo-science and firmly founded, being brought into full operation in metaphysics—a mode of thought extending by degrees its beneficial influence over every other use of reason, at once infusing into it the true philosophic spirit [my emphasis].7
Not only can deconstruction, for Derrida, be distinguished from critique, for Kant, according to the differences in the range of its effects, but it can also be isolated from Kant’s project according to more profound differential directions and projects for their respective aims. We shall thus begin with Kant’s explication of his notion of critique as method in order then to distinguish in context the radically differing concerns embedded in what only seems to be a common interest, namely, the foundations and origins of metaphysics itself or, in short, its conditions of possibility.
Kant outlines the specific methodology of critique in the following way:
And thus I conclude the analytic solution of the main question which I had proposed: “How is metaphysics in general possible?” by ascending from the data of actual use, as shown in its consequences, to the grounds of its possibility.8
“Critique” as method is thus concerned with a certain deduction from the “actual” (in this case the fact of the existence of pure mathematics and pure physics which depend upon and use “synthetic judgments a priori”) to that which is necessarily presupposed therein and which makes the “actual” possible. The problem for Kant is that although the “actual” can be experienced (as a synthesis of intuition and pure concepts of the Understanding) the conditions of its possibility can never be or become an experience.
Deconstruction is also concerned with the conditions of the possibility of that which is taken to be actual and, in particular, with that which is taken to be given as self-sufficient. As with Kant, Derrida claims that the “actual” or “given” is a result or a product of that which, although not given as such, is signaled or represented therein. The parallel cannot be pursued further, however, since at this point Kant and Derrida begin to speak of radically different issues. As Kant pursues the conditions of the possibility of the given and, in turn, of metaphysics, he interposes Nature between the two in the following manner. The fact that “pure synthetic judgments a priori” are not only possible but required for metaphysics leads Kant to claim that: (i) the actuality of pure mathematics and pure physics indicates that we can and do make pure synthetic cognitions a priori; and (ii) the fact that we make these judgments reliably, therein constituting knowledge which is objectively valid, indicates a certain closed system of categories “which can be articulated fully” and which are inherent in the nature of the Understanding itself. ‘Nature’ is thus for Kant a result of our Understanding guided by the Ideas of Reason, which gives it its laws. Indeed, the pure concepts in this connection are shown by critique to be the law of the laws. Nature, for Derrida, is also a result; but it is hardly constituted by such inherent structures of the human mind or of human experience. In order to see the source of this divergence, let us return to the methodology which allows Kant to make such discoveries.
The aim of critique, Kant tells us, is to “limit the pretensions of Pure Reason” and to “guard its bounds with respect to its empirical use.”9 In addition, therefore, he is concerned with just “how far Reason is to be trusted, and why only so far and no further.” In order to do this he claims a “final determination, on principles” is required. The results of such a determination, should it be possible (which Kant’s First Critique has aimed to prove), would be the firm, secure, and legitimate grounds of metaphysics itself. Presupposed in this approach, however, is a certain notion of origin which becomes simultaneously (within metaphysics, for Derrida) the telos and limit of the proper use of metaphysics, for Kant. Indeed, it is the concept of metaphysics that Kant seems to be after (if we might rely on Hegel here for a moment). As Kant himself admits, the notion of the concept is a delimitation of the proper with respect to the thing in question. Indeed, it is the “proper” of metaphysics which critique is aiming to demarcate. In so doing Kant would make of metaphysics a “legitimate science.” As he says:
... to organize any knowledge as science, it will be necessary first to determine accurately those peculiar features which no other science has in common with it, constituting its peculiarity; otherwise the boundaries of all sciences become confused [my emphasis].10
But prior to the possibility of establishing metaphysics as science, Kant is concerned to show that his method of critique itself is already and necessarily a science too. The conditions for this possibility entail a certain completeness—indeed, a closure which we should recall is one of the “unavoidable” Ideas of Pure Reason—and perfection.11 This completeness is thus in a certain way “necessarily assumed” by Kant according to his own principles, but this is not our concern for the moment.
In the process of critique, therefore, Kant asks how various given, actually existing “things” are possible. In asking such a question, in such a manner, he is concerned as he says with the “roots and peculiarity” of the thing in question. For metaphysics, in particular, he is concerned with the “occupation of Reason merely with itself.”12 We shall address this determination of metaphysics in comparison with Derrida’s in our upcoming section, but for the moment we should return to Derrida’s notion of deconstruction, as it might appear to overlap or intertwine with Kant’s notion of critique as explicated above.
Despite appearances, the aims of deconstruction could not be further ultimately from those of critique. Rather than aiming towards the “proper role of metaphysics” and reason (interchangeable terms, for Derrida) deconstruction is concerned with the presupposition of ‘propriety’ itself; how this notion is in fact possible. In addition, rather than aiming to constitute metaphysics as science, deconstruction is concerned with the scientificity of science itself as determined (by Kant also) by the presupposed metaphysical opposition of interior/exterior, as if radically dissociable. Deconstruction, in turn, is concerned with the conditions of the possibility of objectivity itself as produced by Reason but not as necessarily universally valid. It is this notion of universality itself, a fortiori as determined by a constituting consciousness or ‘I think’ as the centre and ultimate source for all knowing, that deconstruction is concerned to analyze. Deconstruction, albeit therefore in search of the conditions of the possibility, the circumscription of limits, the “origins” and sources of metaphysics and certain so-called a priori synthetic judgments, goes at least one step further than Kant in the following respect. That upon which Kant’s analysis or critique rests (i.e., a certain notion of the proper, of the object, of scientificity, of completeness, totality, and closure, as the grounds of all grounds) forms precisely the focus for the work of deconstruction itself. Nevertheless, deconstruction is not aiming to deconstruct Kant only but rather the “entire tradition of metaphysics” (synonymous with philosophy, according to Derrida).
We might now understand Derrida’s own claims for the recognition of the difference between deconstruction and critique in that the “material institutions” which deconstruction reaches and is concerned to analyze not only include universities and institutes of learning in general, but also the socio-historical and political conditions (under the name of philosophy essentially) upon which these institutions stand. One might therefore legitimately, at least for the moment, consider deconstruction as a critique of critique, therein not undermining critique as Kant has elaborated this process, but rather showing precisely its conditions of possibility which, as Kant would argue, lie necessarily outside that system.
4. Metaphysics—History, Nature and Desire
As we have shown, the focus of concern for both Kant’s critique and Derrida’s deconstruction is the ground, origin, or conditions of possibility of that which they both name: metaphysics. The fact that they mean radically different things by this same name does not however eradicate the necessity of an examination of this difference, on the one hand, and, as we shall see, certain profound aspects of similarity. With this double explication in mind we shall approach the issue of metaphysics as such, for both thinkers, from three standpoints: (i) its history, or historical foundations and manifestations; (ii) its nature, or fundamental, indeed essential characteristics; and (iii) the “desire” in the heart of metaphysics, which in itself is not metaphysical. As in our preceding analysis we shall elaborate Kant’s position on these matters and interpose Derrida’s with specific reference to the former. We shall not therefore fully elaborate Derrida’s position as such (as if that were a possibility anyway), since we will focus exclusively on his position with respect to metaphysics as such in Section II.
Kant’s concern with the history of metaphysics is a lament for the evident multiplicity and variance over time of this “would-be” science. The differences from one age to another in that which is “called” metaphysics is testament, for him, that it has not yet been rigorously founded. Hence the historical difference is invoked as evidence of the need for his answer to the problem: critique itself. As he says, “critique is to metaphysics as chemistry is to alchemy, or astronomy to astrology.”13 This set of analogies is indicative, for Kant, of a certain legitimacy and profundity of his—the first—scientific ground for the essentially required science of metaphysics. With this in mind, he claims that
... in all ages one metaphysics has contradicted another, either in its assertions or their proofs, and thus has itself destroyed its own claim to lasting assent.14
There is thus for Kant no underlying unity to this historical multiplicity. Rather, we have a situation of confusion and illusion based on “the unbounded use of our reason.” The reasons for this will be shown in detail shortly, and they concern the Desire which leads us to metaphysics to begin with, but first we should compare this claim for the historical diversity of metaphysics to Derrida’s claim that a certain essential unity persists beneath the evident and only apparent differences. Paradoxically, at this juncture we find Derrida to be more of a metaphysician (according to his own definition) than a deconstructor. We should recall, however, that “borrowing the tools of metaphysics” is a prerequisite for the deconstructive activity itself.
Initially, Derrida asks the question of whether one can “legitimately” unite all differences in the history of metaphysics into one essential concept of the same:
Can one consider philosophy as such (metaphysics as such, or ontotheology) without being forced to submit, with this pretension to unity and oneness, to an impregnable and imperial totality of an order? If there are margins is there still a philosophy as such?
His answer: “No answer. Perhaps no question either, in the final analysis.”15 We should notice several important aspects of this framing of the issue for Derrida. First, he poses the issue of the unity of metaphysics as a question; indeed, an open question. Since the form of questions determines possible responses, it must be surprising to find “no answer” as his answer and, in turn, no question either. The reason for this is that by using what Derrida will call metaphysics (based primarily on Plato) against itself in this way, the form of the question, although formally metaphysical, produces a situation where the response can no longer be restricted or constrained by that same form. In short, the impossibility of the answer shatters the form of the question, which is also the essence of metaphysics. Secondly, in the bracketed space of the question Derrida inserts “metaphysics as such” or “onto-theology” as if equivalent or exchangeable terms with ‘philosophy as such’ which is the announced, explicit subject or issue for the question. The slide therefore initiates a further unity, unaddressed as such but assumed by Derrida, which evidently entails philosophy, metaphysics, and ontotheology. Thus, despite the explicit open-endedness of the formation of the issue, Derrida in fact closes the question solidly with this unthematized but assumed concept of philosophy as such.
This closing of the question is no accident, since he goes on to claim explicitly not only that the history of metaphysics is Reason’s “history of the Concept” and thus lacking all fundamental historicity as such in the sense of radically discontinuous differences, but also that the center of metaphysics (philosophy or onto-theology) can be located and articulated as such in the following respect:
The history of (the only) metaphysics which has in spite of all differences, not only from Plato to Hegel (even including Leibniz) but also beyond these apparent limits, from the Pre-Socratics to Heidegger, always assigned the origin of truth in general to the Logos [my emphasis].16
Thus, in the one name metaphysics we have truth, Logos, Reason, onto-theology, and indeed philosophy as such. We also have all “modes of analysis, interpretation, and understanding in the Western world” and all languages of the West.17 We shall shortly address the conditions of the possibility of this extensive range that Derrida assigns to metaphysics, but first let us return to Kant and his lament over the irreducibility of these historical differences and their significance concerning the pseudo-scientific state of all pre-critical metaphysics.
... for reason is ever present, while laws of nature must usually be discovered with labour. So metaphysics floated to the surface, like foam, which dissolved the moment it was scooped off. But immediately there appeared a new supply on the surface... [my emphasis].18
For Kant, the nature of reason paradoxically produces in itself the continual resurgence, although in a continually inadequate form, of metaphysics. In order to understand this we need only recall that the realm of ‘nature’ for Kant is restricted to the pure concepts of the Understanding which in themselves “give the laws to nature”; and which, indeed, thereby constitute nature itself as law-bound. Hence, Reason is itself necessarily exempt from the “call of nature,” and it is precisely this which has led to the problems in founding a scientific and thereby limited notion of metaphysics as such. We shall not pursue this double use of ‘nature’ in Kant but wish only to point out that, for him there is an “underlying harmony between Reason and the Understanding,” although precisely what or what this is based on cannot be known. For Derrida, the notion of Nature is equivalent to metaphysics, Reason, and the Logos—in short, the Concept itself. We should bear in mind, therefore, that despite the apparently similar terminology of Kant and Derrida, each of these overlapping terms has a radically different meaning for them in their respective systems of thought.
The precise realm and peculiarity of metaphysics—that “favourite child of Reason”—for Kant can be defined as “that domain which necessarily exceeds the bounds of experience.” Further, “metaphysics is properly concerned with synthetical propositions a priori, and these alone constitute its end.”19 In addition, he says, “its very concept implies that they cannot be empirical. Its principle ... must never be derived from experience.”20 Thus experience as it is—and especially its very possibility of being just as it is and not otherwise—is the field which opens out onto what Kant calls metaphysics. Not being an experience itself, metaphysics is nevertheless the necessary condition of the possibility of all experience and a fortiori of all meaning.
Kant’s notion of ‘experience’ is worth recalling at this juncture since it too differs radically from that of Derrida and will aid us in disentangling the two thinkers. ‘Experience’, for Kant, involves a synthesis of sensible intuitions and pure concepts of the Understanding and in this respect can never entail pure unmediated intuition. Should we have such an unmediated ‘experience’, it can never become an object of knowledge (the truth of experience for Kant—its universality or objective validity for all), but rather must remain in the realm of illusion, fiction, and thus ‘subjective confusion’. In addition, should we consider only the pure concepts of the Understanding apart from any intuition to ‘fill’ them, this could never be a meaningful object. Meaning is itself absolutely contingent upon intuition as it inhabits one of the pure concepts.
Comparing these notions with those of Derrida we have a world of difference opened up. Meaning and indeed its condition of possibility for Derrida, as for Husserl, is the very absence of intuition itself. The fact that both subject and object can be absent from a ‘sign’ is precisely the necessary prerequisite which constitutes the sign’s meaningfulness for any subject and any object. Concerning the notion of experience as the necessary result of metaphysics, once again we find Derrida in disaccord. First, experience for Derrida is always mediated by the sign and is in turn itself a sign. One might argue that for Kant we have nothing but representations and appearances, and never the presentation of the thing itself. However, for Derrida, this indicates not that there must be a hidden origin from which experience is a result and a mere sign, but rather that “origin” is itself a sign and a result. There is no originary presence for Derrida—either in conceptuality or in experience as such. Contrary to Husserl, the moment of the “living presence,” the moment of evidence, the foundation of all truth and objective knowledge is a result of a “more fundamental” absence—indeed the movement of différance itself as we shall see shortly.
For Kant, metaphysics extends beyond all possible experience, and is therein freed from a certain responsibility to truth. Kant’s deduction of this conclusion concerning the necessary potential of fiction of metaphysics includes the following:
Metaphysics has not only to do with concepts of Nature, which always find their application in experience, but also with pure rational concepts, which never can be given in any possible experience whatever. Consequently, it deals with concepts whose objective reality ... and with assertions whose truth or falsity cannot be discovered or confirmed by experience [my emphasis].21
We see Husserl’s reliance on Kant here by a certain inversion showing thereby their mutual concern with the “living present” moments of experience as the condition for the truth (and falsity) of judgments concerning the latter. Hegel, too, relies on this. But for Derrida metaphysics, on the one hand, is the realm of Reason, Logos, and truth simply, and yet on the other, entails an (albeit effaced) realm of metaphor and myth which is intrinsic to it. It is the effacement of this “non-metaphysical” ground which for Derrida constitutes metaphysics itself. Kant also partakes of this effacement as we shall see in his definition of this ‘independance’ of Reason and a fortiori “the child of metaphysics.” But again a difference will emerge. The independence for Kant consists not only of the necessary transcendence of metaphysics from the realm of experience, but also of a certain play of Reason with itself. (We shall see shortly that this is the necessary supplement of Nature, for Derrida.) This play, although a finite, fixed, and complete structure, is essentially boundless, Kant claims. We will always have things to discover and can discover infinitely within the things which we have. The essential claim here for the essence of metaphysics itself entails the nature of Reason therefore, and this entails the following:
... here is an advantage upon which, of all possible sciences, metaphysics alone can with certainty reckon: that it can be brought to such completion and fixity as to be in need of no further change or be subject to any augmentation by new discoveries; because here reason has the sources of its knowledge in itself, not in objects and their observation, by which its stock of knowledge could be further increased [my emphasis].22
This is what Derrida will call the “logos believing itself to be its own father.” Not only is the sign, or writing in general, effaced in this structure of Kant’s, but also the essential factuality which allows for such a deduction to occur. It is to these effacements therefore that Derrida will turn his attention rather than, as he might say, stopping short within the “closed circle” of Reason secure in itself, with itself, excluding and thereby controlling its other and indeed all otherness—empirical, conscious, unconscious, fictive, occult and essentially non-reasonable and non-metaphysical. Any essential relation between these is however denied and totally unaddressed in fact by Kant—in short, excluded. It is the latter, however, which is the condition of the possibility of that which in the end and from the beginning Kant will call Pure Reason, which ultimately for Derrida is synonymous with metaphysics. Before approaching further the question of “sources,” “origins,” or “non-origins” of metaphysics, let us take a brief detour through the realm of desire as the heart of metaphysics for both Derrida and Kant.
For Kant metaphysics is a result of a “natural predisposition of our reason” and indeed it is “placed in us by nature itself.”23 In this respect, therefore, Kant returns to the necessity and unavoidability—indeed one might call it ontological, aspect of the condition of the possibility—of this metaphysical predisposition. As he says,
... metaphysics in its fundamental features ... is placed in us by nature itself and cannot be considered the production of arbitrary choice or a casual enlargement in the progress of experience from which it is quite disparate [my emphasis].24
Thus nature (or the product of the pure concepts of the Understanding) gives way to that which transcends itself. Yet in Kant’s thought this transcendence from nature by nature is itself authorized by that same nature. We should recall that one of Kant’s fundamental questions which orients his “critique” is the search for “how nature is possible.” It now seems that nature engenders: (i) itself, purely and simply; yet also (ii) that which necessarily (naturally that is) transcends itself.
For Derrida, we do not have this self-transcendence, since the basis of ‘nature’ returns us to the ‘essentiality’ (and essential non-naturality) of the supplement as that “dangerous addition” to that which admits of no lack and no need of the supplement. Nature, for Derrida, is constituted as the effacement of the necessity of the supplement. The supplement is of course the level of representation, the sign, mimesis, culture, history, time, and space. Returning to Kant, we find that metaphysics as a natural product of nature itself also transcends the level of space and time but for different reasons. Space and time for Kant are pure intuitions of sensibility and thus form part of the conditions of the possibility of experience. Since metaphysics necessarily transcends experience, it in turn has no need of the space/time соordinates which inhabit sensibility and thus experience itself. We shall see that for Derrida metaphysics does not in fact and can never radically exceed the spacio-temporalization characteristic of the world, but for now let us return to the “desire of metaphysics” and its assumed naturality.
For Kant, there is a certain distance from ‘presence’, the origin, the ground which cannot be eradicated by any attempts of metaphysics or reason. Nevertheless, the desire to reach this level—that of things themselves—is implanted in our reason. Thus we have an impossible demand at the heart of Kant’s system: a double bind in the form of the desire for that which can never be attained. As he says:
In the knowledge of them (things in themselves) alone can reason hope to satisfy its desire for completeness proceeding from the conditioned to the unconditioned [my emphasis].25
For Derrida, as well, metaphysics is characterized by a necessarily thwarted desire which is in content as well as form not unlike Kant’s notion. Derrida insists that the “desire for a transcendental signified”—pure meaning, pure signification without the material support of the sign or the empirical, total undivided, unabashed, transparent, nude, present, and identical to itself truth—inhabits metaphysics. Such is the desire at least, he says. But such is also the impossible demand which sets up the condition of the possibility of metaphysics itself and a fortiori the infinity of its lifespan. In short, the immortality of metaphysics, for Derrida, is its very impossibility. One might therefore call it an Idea in the Kantian sense. And indeed Kant installs the future of metaphysics in the same tragic yet asymptotic design:
That the human mind will ever give up metaphysical researches is as little to be expected as that we, to avoid inhaling impure air, should prefer to give up breathing altogether. There will, therefore, always be a metaphysics in the world; nay, everyone, especially every reflective man, will have it, and for want of a recognized standard will shape it for himself after his own pattern [my emphasis].26
And with this we return to the initial historical demarcation of the “problem of metaphysics” for Kant—its multiplicity and therefore unsure, unscientific foundations. The limits of his own critique seem to be emerging here.
Returning to Derrida, whose intention with deconstruction was the “deconstruction of metaphysics,” we find a parallel result. Far from destroying metaphysics or undoing its conditions of possibility, deconstruction instead is condemned to a certain participant-observational role in the following sense. It participates certainly in the history of metaphysics as the history of philosophy, just as Kant’s critique has done despite the former’s attempt to step outside and consider the “unacknowledged foundations of the same.” Yet it remains an observer in the sense that, although illustrating the limits and conditions of the possibility of metaphysics—as a primarily Western post-Platonic phenomena—it does not prohibit in the slightest the continuation and indeed paradoxical affirmation of that same history.
C. The Origins of Metaphysics
With the discovery of the Pure concepts of the Understanding, the Ideas of Pure Reason, and their constitutive and regulative roles respectively in the constitution of objectively valid knowledge, Kant concludes:
And thus we have at last something definite upon which to depend in all metaphysical enterprises [my emphasis].27
And with the discovery of the movement of différance as the constitutive underpinning which in turn unravels and delegitimizes the metaphysics of presence, Derrida concludes:
... the metaphysics of the logos, of presence and of consciousness must reflect upon writing as its death and its resource.28
Thus, despite the apparently similar intentions of ‘critique’ for Kant and of ‘deconstruction’ for Derrida, we have certainly not, in the search for the conditions of the possibility of metaphysics, arrived at the same end point. Indeed it will be shown that precisely where Kant’s investigation ends, Derrida’s begins. It is the finitude and closure of the system of the pure concepts and the autonomy and exclusivity of Reason as self-originating to which Derrida objects and indeed aims to deconstruct from the beginning. We shall therefore approach Kant’s conclusions with respect to: (i) the autonomy of Reason and (ii) the limits of knowledge a priori, in order to reveal, if not the starting point or ‘fil conducteur’ for Derrida’s project as a whole, at least that which he includes within the “metaphysics of presence” which he takes to task. Once again we shall limit our analysis here more to Kant’s proclamations than to Derrida’s, since the latter is the subject of the main body of the present work. True to the method of prolegomena, however, the results of our analysis that follows will be introduced here in an analytic rather than deductive manner. Thus rather than proving Derrida’s position, or deducing it logically, we shall simply state in this the context of his Kantian affiliation his claims as such concerning the “origins of metaphysics.”
(a) The Autonomy of Reason
Kant insists that in order to have a reliable basis for metaphysics, a certain completeness is required concerning the principles for the use of the Understanding. These principles are the Ideas of Pure Reason whose function is to guide our use of the concepts but not to thereby constitute knowledge or experience. The principles regulate this very process; i.e., govern it, rule over it. The Ideas therefore set the bounds of legitimacy for “all possible experience.” The closure which allows for this “total enumeration” of principles is on the one hand, the self-sufficiency ascribed to Reason; yet, on the other, this can never in fact be maintained absolutely. Indeed, although Kant does not explicitly state as much, the conditions of the possibility of the legitimate use of Reason are essentially themselves what one might call “Ideas in the Kantian sense.” That is, closure as such is never possible because of the peculiar relation Reason bears to the Understanding. Indeed, it is the “natural tendency” of Reason to “seduce” the latter which must be guarded against, Kant tells us. Paradoxically, he says further that metaphysics is the “favourite child of Reason” and that metaphysics requires a certain connection of the Ideas of Pure Reason with the Pure Concepts of the Understanding. It is in this connection that Kant aims to demarcate the proper concepts of the Understanding from those that would masquerade as such. Kant explains the seduction of the Understanding by Reason in the following way:
These then are the transcendental Ideas, which in accordance with the true but hidden ends of the natural destiny of our Reason, aim not at extravagant concepts, but at the unbounded extension of their empirical use, yet seduce the understanding by an unavoidable illusion to a transcendent use, which though deceitful, cannot be restrained within the bounds of experience by any resolution, but only by scientific instruction and with much difficulty [my emphasis].29
We should perhaps not overlook the system of sexual metaphors Kant not only invokes here but seems to rely on rather heavily, although we will at this juncture, since our purpose here is more limited. The point is that Reason not only can but does at times “lose its head” and overextend itself by virtue of its “own nature.” This nature of Reason is, as the origin of metaphysics (at least its Father evidently for Kant), precisely our concern here. As a nature it has laws; indeed, it gives itself laws, Kant claims, and further: “the law is reason’s own production.”30 It is precisely this which allows us to comprehend the same, Kant insists.
Derrida’s position on these matters differs radically from Kant’s. First, we should recall that for Derrida (although he does not thematize it as such, but rather seems to assume it) Reason and metaphysics and nature are equivalent or at least interchangeable, substitutable terms. Hence, for Kant to claim that Reason and the pure concepts of the Understanding are the origins of metaphysics would make no sense from a Derridean point of view. These three terms do not relate in a hierarchical fashion or in a genealogical one for Derrida. Rather, Reason has always been considered the essence of “nature,” “truth,” the “Concept,” and certainly a fortiori metaphysics. But for Kant one could argue that Reason is the Father of metaphysics, as we have shown—figuratively and literally—if we can still rely on such a distinction.
For Kant there is a certain transparency possible within the realm of Reason itself:
Since all illusion consists in holding the subjective ground of our judgments to be objective, a self-knowledge of pure reason in its transcendent (presumptuous) use is the sole preservative from the aberrations into which Reason falls when it mistakes its calling and transcendently refers to the object that which concerns only its own subject and its guidance in all immanent use [my emphasis].31
This self-knowledge paradoxically transcends the bounds of that which Kant will allow for “legitimately objective knowledge,” by definition. However, this transgression is not our present concern. The notion of a Reason that is on the one hand closed, in terms of its operating principles, yet on the other, given to transgressing its own legitimate bounds by nature (therein seducing nature, we should recall, under the name of the pure concepts of the Understanding which “give the laws to nature”) leads us necessarily to a profound contradiction within the heart of Reason itself. Kant admits as much and calls this “the antinomy of pure Reason.” The escape from this is of course the constitution of the abyss between two realms: that of things in themselves and that of appearances. The abyss itself is of course neither.
Derrida’s objections might well be raised at this point. This notion of “Reason’s self-knowledge” as though unmediated by the sign, by absence, or a fortiori by writing—empirical or otherwise—is the focus of his analysis itself of the “metaphysics of presence.” In short, the notion of a pure transparency in the heart of Reason is precisely that which is in need of deconstruction. In addition, he is concerned with the abyss which Kant’s system inevitably constitutes and thus a posteriori bridges—bridges which it builds again and again across it by way of analogy.32 The relation between the ‘things in themselves’ and their ‘appearances’ we should recall for Derrida is based on an underlying presupposed unity of the notion of representation. The presentation1 (appearance on the one hand for Kant) is thus unmasked as essentially a representation yet, on the other hand, the presentation2 (in the sense of the thing in itself—the origin of appearances and hence the essentially original presentation) is a result, a derivative presentation based on the presentation of appearance, and hence can be realized as essentially representation. One could exchange the terms of this closed, all-too binary system endlessly with opposing results each time. Such are the antinomies of Reason, as Kant explained before. The point, for Derrida, is that what has been effaced in Kant’s system and in the entire history of metaphysics is its very condition of possibility—the sign itself as essential. The role of writing as the constitution of Being in the most profound sense. We shall return to this. But first let us examine the “essentially unknowable” which Kant does install, paradoxically to be sure, in the heart of Reason itself.
b. The Unknowable Center
Although “Reason contains in itself the source of Ideas” (by which Kant means “the necessary concepts whose object cannot be given in experience”33), there remains nonetheless an essential abyss in the heart of Reason itself which even it can never know a priori. We shall also explore here the center of the pure Concepts of the Understanding, which Kant also confessed remains confined to the darkened abyss of the unknowable. His final word on the sensibility, the Understanding, and indeed Reason as such is the term constitution itself, as we shall see, and it is here that his deduction and analysis rest. His justification for such a terminus is simply that constitution of the human mind as such beyond which or more deeply into which one cannot reasonably pursue. We shall see that this is precisely the realm of Derrida’s concern. But first, the abyss of reason as Kant describes it.
For Kant, the unreachable limits of our proper use of Reason include
... a property of the thing in itself, a property whose possibility we cannot comprehend. I mean we cannot comprehend how the ought should determine (even if it never has actually determined) its activity and could become thus the cause of actions whose effect is an appearance in the sensible world [my emphasis].34
The reasons for this impossibility of comprehension are given explicitly by Kant, and we shall not repeat them here. Suffice it to say that this is the nature of Reason for him. It is the law therefore of the abyss within, that which allows for knowledge as such.
In the heart of the Understanding we find perhaps not the same thing but at least the same short-circuiting of the investigation of the grounds, origins, and conditions of possibility of knowledge and a fortiori metaphysics as such. As he says concerning the pure concepts of the Understanding, “although what they are and precisely how many there are can be exactly determined, why they are just these and not others and from whence they come cannot be known.” Thus he says we have “special concepts originally begotten [another sexual metaphor!] in the Understanding which make possible the objective validity of the judgment of experience.”35 A certain immaculate conception therefore seems to have occurred at this point, as Derrida would say.36 The original “conception” of the concepts themselves is thus announced by Kant, yet denied as a legitimate focus of investigation in our search for knowledge. One might well wonder at the origin of this taboo in the search for origins. For Derrida, on the contrary, the “non-origin of origin” is precisely his focus. It is the place where the said oppositions of metaphysics (such as essence/appearance; inside/outside) are revealed to have their “secret copulating relationship”37 which in turn gives birth (as Kant admits) to that which we, within metaphysics, name concepts as such. Indeed, pure concepts. The non-pure origin of purity and impurity—the distinction itself as an abyss—is also one of Derrida’s primary concerns.
Finally, returning to Kant’s “coitus interruptus” program of investigation here, we find that the reason we have “pure concepts of the Understanding” and “sensible intuitions” as we do—indeed the reason we have nature as such as lawbound according to the pure concepts of the Understanding guided by the necessarily a priori Ideas of Reason—is simply this:
(i) The answer is: by means of the constitution (Beschaffenheit) of our sensibility [my emphasis].
(ii) The answer must be: It (the totality of rules that we call nature) is only possible by means of the constitution (Beschaffenheit) of our understanding, according to which all the above representations of the sensibility are necessarily referred to a consciousness and by the particular way in which we think, namely by rules ... [my emphasis].38
Thus we arrive at the essential constitution (Beschaffenheit) which for Kant is a given—a priori. Hence he not only pursues it no further, he insists that there can be necessarily no answer to such a question as the origin of this “constitution.” In this way the closure is sustained for his system and its security installed a fortiori. Yet, such a constitution of our “nature” is not entirely without its problems, as Kant is the first to point out. The “transgressions” Reason is given to can only be explained as “aberrations,” “illusions,” fictive flights of fantasy, the “pure beings of the Understanding” which necessarily “arise”—unfounded in experience—which cannot therefore be proven to be either true or false; and, finally, the “necessary assumption” of the things in themselves are realms which Kant must have wished he had never discovered. They are the “troublesome” aspects which we must “struggle against by scientific instruction yet with much difficulty.”
This tension within Kant’s system as such, one might argue, is precisely the focus for Derrida’s investigations. That which leads Kant to rely on the notion of constitution (Beschaffenheit) as such, which cannot be known further, since in the process we would always necessarily rely on that same “object of investigation,” is that which Derrida aims to reveal the conditions of the possibility of and in turn, necessarily, the conditions of the—more rigorously speaking—impossibility of.
The limits of metaphysics, for Derrida, far from engulfing this analysis in a reasoned circle,39 extend the opening or the abyss and reveal a certain “inessentiality” in the heart of essence, a certain irreducible absence in the heart of presence; and more than Kant would or perhaps could admit in fact, a certain Desire in the heart of Reason. This however, is not a center or a ground for Derrida but the ungrounded ground of ground, or that which allows for the constitution of the notion of ground itself and in turn for the notion of constitution itself—Kant’s ultimate ground. This “more originary” origin, which is profoundly not an origin for Derrida, is called by him, différance and by us, in the text that follows, The Economy of Différance.