I played with deconstruction a little bit this semester. It probably wasn’t a good idea; I didn’t feel I had a firm grasp on Derrida; his ideas squirmed away from me like slippery little fish. But it seemed like so much fun, like such a powerful tool; how could I resist? It was like fire beckoning, or the primitive call to throw rocks off a cliff, or the closed box full of some unknown something. It was seductive to be sure; that didn’t stop it from being a bad idea.
One paper I wrote shortly after attempting to read Derrida was about conversion and the binary between internal and external reasons. Internal reasons are one for which an agent has something in his or her subjective motivational set, some desire or inclination, that gives him or her motivation to act. An external reason has no such component in the agent’s subjective motivational set, so while the agent may recognize the logical validity of the external reason, he or she has no reason to act on it. Here is the pertinent argument:
McDowell’s counterexample of conversion is similar to Williams’s example of the reluctant soldier. In both cases, the agent is initially unmotivated to do something which others in his social group thought he should do. Williams solves the problem of the soldier’s change of heart by saying his internal reasons changed through deliberation. McDowell proposes that the community standards which define an “ethical upbringing” and “suitable modes of behaviour” (McDowell 101) are the way of ‘considering the matter aright,’ and that through conversion, and agent may come to accept reasons which had previously been external to him. McDowell does this to establish the existence of external reasons. But if the reason is external, in that the motivation to act based on it came from the community rather than the individual, and if the reason becomes internal through conversion, that reason is at once both external and internal. Instead of only making room for the existence of external reasons, McDowell has proven the slipperiness of these categories. His conversion example can be taken a step further to show that the binary of internal and external reasons is a false dichotomy. The binary between internal and external reasons is broken as soon as an external reason is accepted as an internal reason by an agent. Instead of only one or the other, a reason will fall on a continuum, at some point on an internal to external reason axis. A reason may be both internal and external, with differing degrees of motivation for the agent.
Note the “slipperiness of categories” and the “false dichotomy.” Oh, this post-structuralism was heady stuff!
But as under the influence of any intoxicating concoction, my inebriated brilliance did not stand up to sober scrutiny. My professor did not accept my slippery categories or broken binaries. My inspired continuum was rejected in favor of the original definitions made by real philosophers, and the good doctor was not be moved beyond them. He stayed securely within the box, and I, deflated, and dependent on him for my grade, packed my slippery categories back away and excised them from the next draft of the paper.
It didn’t hurt the paper to drop that fun little contradiction, that brilliant logical twist. Because really, it wasn’t that brilliant. It was not even original. Sadly, I must confess it was the shoddy work of a script kiddie, not the elegant script of a true hacker. I’m not a real post-structuralist, remember? I can’t even claim understand post-structuralism.
The destruction of the binary using self-contradiction and deconstructive post-structuralist techniques is just a trick, a clever little game that means nothing and everything at the same time. It is as pointless to use in an argument as an appeal to authority; in either situation, the person deploying one of these tactics is doing so to shut down the discussion. Neither move is constructive. With post-structuralists there is at least a playful recognition of their counter-productiveness. Yes, they are throwing the chessmen off of the board; it’s because they realize it is an empty game. Look, they say, see the fantastic pattern of the scattered fall. Generally those who appeal to authority have is no such light hearted self-awareness; instead there is earnestness or closemindedness or some combination of the two. They have no sense of levity and would be insulted to be accused of participating in mere game.
I may be too timid to ever be a real post-structuralist. I am no superman. But I am willing, here and there, to call out the games I play for the games that they are, even if I have to deny some authority in the process. And so I say to Derrida, So long, and thanks for all the fish.
Adams, Douglas. So Long, And Thanks for All the Fish. Del Rey. 1985.
McDowell, John. “Might There Be External Reasons?” Mind, Value, and Reality. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998. 95-111.
Whipple, Rachel. “Implications of Conversion for the Internal/External Reason Binary.” Unpublished student paper for Philosophy 413. 2012. And yes, I know it’s unreadable.
Williams, Bernard. “Internal and external reasons.” Moral Luck: Philosophical papers 1973-1980. Cambridge University Press, 1982. 101-11.