20 October 2012

Empiricism and Lévi-Strauss's Scandal, or What did Derrida See?

In a previous post I tried to call attention to how Derrida, in his "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," attempts to present Lévi-Strauss's definitions of the natural and the cultural and the non-categorizable-ness of the incest prohibition as a decenetring, a decentralising, a point around which metaphysics is torn along the stitches. I argued that the fact that incest prohibition appears to be both natural and cultural is, instead, quite explainable employing logical categories and common-sense observation, that is, from inside the very structures this "scandal" is supposed to deconstruct.

Let me quote Derrida's paraphrase of Lévi-Strauss's definitions once more:

[T]hat which is universal and spontaneous, and not dependent on any particular culture or on any determinate norm, belongs to nature. Inversely, that which depends upon a system of norms regulating society and therefore is capable of varying from one social structure to another, belongs to culture.

Now isn't the difference between natural and cultural as defined above reminiscent of the supposed difference between analytic and synthetic statements? Analytic statements are those which are true by some intrinsic property (like "A=A"), that is, their truth-value is "not dependent on any particular" well, not culture, but world, or state-of-things, or circumstance--that is, which are universal, and natural in Lévi-Strauss's sense. Synthetic statements rely on outside facts for verification, like the statement "this is a blog." The truth-value of such statements is "capable of varying from one" circumstance "to another"--in other words, they are cultural according to the above definitions.

With this connection in mind, it should come as no surprise that there are things that are both analytic and synthetic, just like incest prohibition is both natural and cultural. The near impossibility of drawing a border between the two sets has been superbly illustrated by W. V. Quine in his "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" (in From a Logical Point of View), where he shows the circular nature of nearly all attempts to demarcate analytic from synthetic statements. In the end, he suggests rejecting this dichotomy altogether as the first dogma of empiricism.

I think here is a telling difference between the Continental and the Analytic branches of philosophy here. Quine, belonging to the latter one, sees accepting and operating in this dichotomy as a central and grave problem (a "dogma"), but he treats it mainly as an erroneous presupposition. Derrida, who can be classified as belonging to the Continental tradition, sees something much more grandiose growing out of the faulty categories Lévi-Strauss stumbled upon. The unsustainability of the definitions, in his system, immediately leads beyond logos, beyond metaphysics, and--in a quite Heideggerian vein--, beyond what can be talked about.

It was a matter of five years that Lévi-Strauss couldn't read Quine's book (his The Elementary Structures of Kinship was submitted in 1948 and published a year later; Quine's book appeared in 1953); a five years, it seems, most fortunate for Derrida.