Monday, October 27, 2008

Hortatory sentences

An enormously fruitful suggestion from Hilary Putnam’s recent Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life (Indiana UP, 2008). Discussing I And Thou, Putnam says that

when Buber writes about the impossibility of describing or theorizing about God, he is not engaged in ‘negative theology,’ as one might at first suppose; his sentences are hortatory, not descriptive, and they are meant to suggest, to point, to invite to a certain mode of being in the world, not to prove or demonstrate. (pp. 66–67)For years I have argued that Derrida’s sentence “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte” or Foucault’s “[T]ruth isn't outside power, or lacking in power. . . . Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint” are self-refuting.

There is nothing outside the text. If the previous sentence is in a text then it refers only to an element of that particular text; it establishes nothing whatever about truth-assertions as such. So too for Foucault. If truth indeed is power then is that an assertion of a truth? If so it is not true but only an exercise of domination. But if it is true then at least one truth-assertion stands outside relations of power; namely, that one; and if one why not more?

Perhaps, though, what Putnam suggests about Buber is true also of Derrida and Foucault. They are not describing how truth-assertions operate. They are exhorting their readers to think of them that way.