In the Margins of Philosophy; Plato to Footnotes

Jacques Derrida was the father of deconstruction.

Footnotes to Plato

2017 will mark fifty years since French-Algerian philosopher Jacques Derrida’s golden year of 1967. In that year, the classic studies Speech and Phenomena, Writing and Difference, and Of Grammatology appeared.

Derrida’s key idea is captured in the title of a later, 1972 collection, Margins of Philosophy. Thinkers have traditionally prioritised the focal over the marginal, the conceptual over the literary, the principle over the example, the timeless over the trivial, and the ideal over all things bodily or political.

Yet, Derrida noted, in order to establish their conceptual systems, thinkers from Plato onwards have felt bound to stud their works with examples, digressions, parentheses, curios, prefaces, notes, metaphors and annexes. We should attend to these “supplementary” margins of philosophy as necessary inclusions in the West’s great intellectual achievements. Doing so shows “deconstructively” how everything may not be as clear, certain or unquestionable as system-building thinkers have hoped.

The result was a singular and powerful collection of articles-become-books on key figures in Western thought: from Plato and Aristotle to Levinas and Batailles.

These texts are animated by a pioneer’s invigorating sense of breaking new ground, pouring new life into dilapidated vessels, and experimenting with new literary-philosophical forms.

Today, we live in a period wherein the margins of philosophical and other academic writings are becoming unprecedentedly central, but in ways Jacques Derrida (who died in 2004) did not envisage. This is the age of global forms of quantitative metrics, already two decades-old and -debated in some sciences. Such platforms position the footnotes, endnotes, in-text references and bibliographies of academic texts—traditional marginalia of intellectual works—as close to the heart of the intellectual matter. Each is predicated on the idea that the importance of an author or article (although perhaps no longer books like Derrida’s 1967 triumvirate) can be scientifically measured. One needs only to count the number of times it/s/he has been cited in other registered, peer-reviewed journals (although again perhaps no longer in chapters or books).

Other authors, including in the Conversation, have questioned the different assumptions that underlie these devices regarding the goals, features and virtues of journals, scholars, articles, chapters and books. That is not our ambition here. It was Albert North Whitehead who said that all of Western thought was footnotes to Plato. These circumambulations turn around the ways the life of the mind, and how scholars defer to textual authorities, have changed from Plato to today, as more of academic research becomes driven by the footnotes.

Topics, authorities, and objects

The ancients were less sure than we are of the value of arguments from authority. Cicero’s Topica is a book devoted to enumerating the argument-types a speaker can use to educate and persuade. In it, appeals to authority are considered “atechnical” or “devoid of art”.

The reason is simple: establishing whether something is true about something, its properties, causes or relations is the direct goal of a persuasive speech or inquiry. Knowing what others have said about this object may serve this end. It cannot achieve or supplant it.

Argument by appeal to authority, we might say, is what Derrida called a “supplementary” mode of proof. Cicero, a genuinely eclectic Platonist, amply avails himself of it, despite the Topica.

Alongside the classical heritage, we are today the legatees of Jewish, Islamic and Christian “cultures of the book”. In these traditions, the Biblical or Koranic texts were thought to be the product of inspired prophets conveying the Word of God or Holy Spirit.

To cite such a Transcendent authority was understandably trumps in the medieval world. The strong emphasis that exists in academic writing on citation, and arguments from authority, might be argued to be a distant, secularised vestige of the scholastic, medieval antecedents of modern universities.

In any event, appeal to authorities through the more specifically modern form of quotation, with chapter, section or page has long been a defining feature of modern academic writing. One unusual consequence of accepting it as natural or unquestionable is that by doing so, we position Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, and nearly all thinkers up to the 19th century (Hegel could be included) as light on scholarly rigour.

The appeal to others’ authority, in place of more direct forms of discovery or invention, has always rubbed up against inquiry’s openness to suspending established opinions for long enough to undertake the search for potentially novel and transformative truths.

Correlatively, quoting authorities has always been a sincere form of tribute. (This excepts when someone is cited for their incompetence or errors). But writing in order to be cited, rather than to be worthy of being cited, skirts mistaking the ends of inquiry:

… the greatest error of all the rest is the … misplacing of the last or furthest end of knowledge. For men have entered into a desire of learning and knowledge, sometimes upon a natural curiosity and inquisitive appetite; sometimes to entertain their minds with variety and delight; sometimes for ornament and reputation; and sometimes to enable them to victory of wit and contradiction; and most times for lucre and profession; and seldom sincerely to give a true account of their gift of reason to the benefit and use of men …

Socrates in Plato’s Meno discoursed with a slave. This demonstrated that even the lowest-born human being can grasp mathematical truths, which have a very elevated status for Plato. The Greek philosophers consistently skirted censorship for pursuing reasoned inquiries about nature and culture which called into question the authoritative, mythopoetic beliefs of their contemporaries.

The Stoics prescribed philosophical meditations which asked students to aspire to a wholly objective, universal perspective on their experience, as if from above. In such an optic, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius consoles himself that the endless political machinations of his court are as nothing, as the entire courts of the great emperors, with their same machinations, are now forgotten.

The history of forms of modern scientific objectivity is complex. Great distances separate such ancient practices from the forms of objectivity aspired to in the sciences that emerged in Europe after 1600 CE. The very ideal of objectivity, and of pursuing truth without fear or favour, has been subject to powerful sceptical criticism, from Pyrrho to postmodernism and Public Management theory. It is nevertheless difficult to deny all qualitative difference between inquiry seeking repeatedly-demonstrable, impersonal, and (if need be) transformative truths—as against thought pre-shaped by the desire to placate, impress or provoke existing standpoints.

Such supplementary appeals to authority are unavoidable in intellectual thought, Derrida would rightly remind us. Professional groups have always operated by institutionalising forms of deference and credentialisation, another might agree. But problems emerge if the need to cite or be cited to and by authorities is elevated to an unsustainable centrality in scholarly inquiry.

Cicero again: “The authority of those who teach is often an obstacle to those who would learn.”

Of centres and commonplaces

Michel de Montaigne’s essay “On Friendship” was an essay of great interest to Jacques Derrida. It was written as a tribute and (no wonder Derrida liked it) a Preface to several sonnets. The sonnets were by Montaigne’s friend, Étienne de la Boétie, the deceased young author of a famous work on Voluntary Servitude. Montaigne’s celebrated essay, near the centre of Volume 1 of the Essays, begins with the disarming claim that:

Having considered the proceedings of a painter that serves me, I had a mind to imitate his way. He chooses the fairest place and middle of any wall or panel wherein to draw a picture, which he finishes with his utmost care and art. The spaces about it he fills with grotesques, which are odd fantastic figures without any grace but what they derive from their variety, and the extravagance of their shapes.

Everything marginal in Montaigne’s essays, it is suggested, may be confected as so many means to fill in the gaps around the author’s (unstated) central concerns. In an essay or collections of essays, many of which the author tells us are “grotesques and monstrous bodies … without … any other than accidental order”, one thing alone is certain. We need to keep on our toes.

Montaigne frequently laments his poor memory, with crocodile tears. For someone with a poor memory, his essays are laced with a profusion of uncited quotations from classical and biblical texts. If anyone thought to number them (and some modern editions add friendly footnotes), they would make many “donor-citation-rich” articles today look under-worked.

As scholars have argued, Montaigne’s essays were almost certainly produced, like other masterworks of the Renaissance, with the aid of what were called “Commonplace books”. In these notebooks, educated men were prompted to collect the notable sayings of authorities about given subjects: headers like the many traditional intellectual virtues; clarity, breadth, fairness, moderation, learning, scope, wit, insight and caution.

The end of this older citational practice was to equip the memory of individuals with a ready supply of well-formed opinions on a wide range of subjects: so they might approximate to a uomo universale, rather than specialists without breadth.

In the age of the internet, to decrease the unfamiliarity of this citational practice, we can picture to our students a web-page with hyperlinked sub-pages. These would list the notable quotations under the web-page writer’s chosen commonplace headers.

The very unfamiliarity of this lost practice from the long history of higher education, however, serves as its own reminder. Continuing revaluations of the citational margins of philosophy and inquiry form part of a long, rich history of higher education. It is possible that scholars of future generations may think many of our practices, if not like Montaigne’s grotesques or extravagances, then every bit as foreign as we today find the Renaissance Commonplaces.