Merrill Ring

In my continuing though sporadic attempts to learn something about deconstruction, I came across a book by Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. Culler is a literature professor at Cornell, has written a lot on recent (literary) theory, and is widely referred to, by philosophers as well as by other literary theorists. This particular book seems to me quite useful and readable.

After a longish (and interesting) first chapter about reading, Culler turns in Chapter 2 to deconstruction. After beginning by citing some abstract definitions of deconstruction, he says "These descriptions of deconstruction differ in their emphases. To see how the operations they invoke might converge in practice, consider a case that lends itself to brief exposition, the Nietzschean deconstruction of causality." [Note: what Culler talks about is not a Nietzschean but rather Nietzsche's 'deconstruction' of causality.]

For anyone curious about deconstruction, Culler presents a wonderful opportunity: the introduction of a paradigm case of deconstruction from which one can learn what the activity is. However, the outcome of pursuing that opportunity is not what Culler imagines. Nietzsche's deconstruction of causality turns out to be a philosophical mess and if that case is paradigmatic, as Culler presents it, then deconstruction turns out to a quite confused intellectual activity.

In what follows I do not distinguish Nietzsche from Culler. I assume that Culler gets him right. In the long run, of course that would have to be looked into.

Culler starts the presentation of his exemplar with what looks to be a reminder. "Causality is a basic principle of our universe. We could not live or think as we do without taking for granted that one event causes another, that causes produce effects." The trouble begins in the next sentence. "The principle of causality asserts the logical and temporal priority of cause to effect."

In invoking 'the principle of causality', Culler does not have in mind what is usually meant by philosophers when they speak of the principle of causality. For we mean the principle that every event has a cause. (It should be noticed that the philosopher's principle of causality is what he was referring to in his opening sentence.) However, Culler speaks of the principle of causality as asserting "the logical and temporary priority of cause to effect."

Thus what Culler has in mind, and what he will take to be the object of Nietzsche's deconstructive activity, is not the idea that every event has a cause, but rather the principle that causes precede effects.

This claim about causation is certainly something that we philosophers are familiar with. Hume, perhaps more than anyone, reminded us that precedence of cause to effect is part of what is meant when we human beings say 'X caused Y'. On the other hand, it is not at all apparent what Culler means when he speaks of the "logical" priority of cause to effect. Hume's aim was to remind us that causes have a "temporal" priority - if X is to be the cause of Y, X must precede Y in time. One guess as to what Culler has in mind when he speaks not about temporal priority but logical priority concerns the word "must" in the formula 'to be a cause X must precede Y in time'. But that modal term is not intended to say that causes have a logical priority in time - rather it asserts that it is logically necessary that causes have temporal precedence to effects.

So much for clarification, both of what is important and what is not. The upshot of Culler's stage setting is that we must presume that Nietzsche's deconstruction of causality is the deconstruction of the principle that, necessarily, causes temporally precede effects. There may be more to the activity, but that is all that a reader is given reason to anticipate.

What is it, then, that Nietzsche held in connection with the principle of the temporal precedence of causes? The following is presented by Culler as Nietzsche's view. "But ... this concept of causal structure is not something given as such but rather the product of a precise tropological or rhetorical operation, a ... chronological reversal."

This sentence presents one of the main claims in the argument. What must first be noticed is that it concerns the way in which we (human beings) come to have what is called "that concept of causal structure". 'That concept' is surely intended to refer to the previously mentioned principle that what we can call a 'cause' is, must be, something which precedes in time what we call its effect(s). Only now Nietzsche refers to the principle as about causal "structure". And of course one can see why he takes it to specify something structural about causality. The concept of causality includes a principle which structures the temporal relationship between what we can speak of as a cause and what we can think of as its effects. Causes precede effects.

The key claim of Nietzsche's in the quoted sentence certainly amounts to a specification of how it is that we come to build into the concept of causality the principle that causes precede effects - or more briefly how it is that we come to have that principle.

I would like you to observe that there is nothing in Nietzsche's words about how Hume, or for that matter any other philosopher, came to believe a (perhaps dubious) principle about causality, namely that causes must precede effects. Instead Nietzsche is making a claim about the concept of causality, or at least about a piece of it. It is a claim about us, about human beings who have that concept and not about philosophers who try to understand the concept. So if is what is transpiring here is a deconstruction of causality, a paradigm of deconstruction, then deconstructing must have something to do with concepts and with the human beings who have them and not with philosophical attempts to understand those concepts.

The discussion, then, is about how we come to possess a certain concept. Now all of us recognize that theme: shall we be rationalists or empiricists about concept acquisition? Here then is where we start doing philosophy. But I have worries - will Nietzsche keep it straight between the concept's being ours (we human's) and not a philosophical creation and philosophical accounts of how we come to have a certain principle built into our concept?

Nietzsche supplies in that crucial line two options for how the concept of causality (or the relevant feature of it) is acquired - and it is clearly suggested that one of the options is to be rejected, the other to be accepted.

The principle of temporal priority, it is said, is "not something given as such". Nietzsche must be thinking that the most likely answer to the question of how we come to have the concept/the principle of temporal priority is that we learn from experience that causes precede effects. The task of deconstructing causality, then, is to be understood as sited in a context which presupposes that the entrenched position, the opponent's view, is empiricist. What is being fought against is the myth of the (sensorily) given. Deconstruction here is opposing the idea (and expecting it to be the dominant idea) that we build up our concepts from sensory experience.

It might have been important in Nietzsche's day to object to an empiricist account of how the principle that causes precede effects is acquired, of how it is to be justified. And it might even be breathtaking to a literary theorist of today. But hardly any philosophers are running around today who would accept, much less promulgate, the empiricist line about this matter. About this issue the vast majority of us are already Kantians (of whatever variety.) And because that is so, because Kantianism in this matter has won out over empiricism, we might anticipate that what Nietzsche and deconstruction has to say on this subject will not be very striking.

There is more however. For Nietzsche produces a positive account of how the principle in question is acquired/justified. The positive claim is that the principle that causes must precede effects is produced ("the product of") by a "precise" (why 'precise'?) "tropological or rhetorical operation, a ... chronological reversal".

There are several things to be said about that positive thesis. First, I think it is an attempt to say that the principle is not to be understood as acquired or justified by anything like logic. Rather, we are to talk about rhetoric, not logic.

But leave that for now. What I chiefly want to call to your attention is that though the thesis rejects the standard empiricist answer to the question of how we come to have the idea that causes must precede effects, an answer which refers to what is given in sense, what is given in experience, that thesis is none the less not otherwise a Kantian answer. For it suggests that we do, after all, come to have the concept from experience - only it is not directly acquired from experience but through a (perverse? literary?) rearrangement of actual experience, a temporal reorganization of what is given. What we seem to have in Nietzsche is a new and unusual form of empiricism.

In Culler's text there is next presented the example which is to show us how the concept really does come about, how we come to have it, how the principle can be justified or at least explained. The example is about pain and a pin. Walking barefoot through the hall, one screams; after hopping about wildly one returns to the scene of the pain and looks around: and discovers in one's trail a thumb-tack. We tell a friend 'Stepped on a tack this morning - then terrible pain in the foot.' We have discovered the cause, what hurt us. Consider, however, Nietzsche's account: "Suppose one feels a pain. This causes one to look for a cause and spying, perhaps, a pin, one posits a link and reverses the perceptual or phenomenal order, pain ... pin, to produce a causal sequence, pin ... pain."

In one way we should have no qualms about Nietzsche's description of how experience goes, of the order of experience. What we must realize, however, is that that description of experience is held to be not just the discovery of what caused a particular event but the account of how it is that we acquire the concept of cause with its built-in principle that causes precede effects. For those of us with a Kantian bent (which I think on this topic includes most philosophers today) that is simply crazy. In fact, our search down the hallway for the cause of the pain in the foot, presupposes the principle that causes have temporal priority - that is why we search back down the hallway where we have already been rather than looking down the hall where we have not yet been or waiting two days to see what comes to exist in the vicinity of our pain. If Nietzsche thinks that the causal principle is a generalization of our experience in the hall, as it is obvious he does, then he has a lot of talking to do about why we conduct ourselves as we do.

And that further talking must include a discussion of how it is that we human beings all individually decide to engage in that precise reversal and marvelously come to the same conclusion that causes precede effects. In short, Nietzsche here shares with the traditional empiricists the idea that concept acquisition is an individual matter and so is then faced with the quite amazing outcome that we all agree in these broad features of our concepts.

Recall that Culler was presenting the example from Nietzsche of the "deconstruction of causality" as a paradigm example of deconstruction. The outcome of the investigation, however, is that causality, the concept of causality, was not in the least involved here. That is, there was no deconstructive criticism of a concept at all. Rather one philosophical account of how a certain concept is acquired was rejected in favor of another one - and the new one shares with the old one empiricist assumptions about concept formation (and shows no awareness of Kant and Kantian views at all.) That is striking, for deconstruction seems to promise more, namely a criticism of concepts that we human beings have rather than just a rejection of what some philosophers have had to say about those concepts.

Culler continues. "Let us be explicit about what this simple example implies. First, it does not lead to the conclusion that the principle of causality is illegitimate and should be scrapped." As far as I can see, only some one who did not pay attention to what actually goes on in Nietzsche's example could think that the illegitimacy of the concept might conceivably be an outcome. For the principle itself, that causes precede effects, was never in question. All that was up for grabs was a particular philosophical account of how we human beings have come to have that principle.

Culler goes on to give an additional reason for not rejecting causality itself (or the principle of causal priority) on the basis of the deconstruction. "On the contrary, the deconstruction itself relies on the notion of cause: the experience of pain ... causes us to discover the pin and thus causes the production of a cause." But those pieces of causation involved in the story are not what saves the principle of causality from rejection here. That conclusion, that causality is saved because it is something relied upon in the deconstructive inquiry, is a completely overblown idea of what is actually in question in the example. (And anyway, there was not the "production of a cause" in our adventures in the hallway but the discovery of a cause. Of course Culler's way of putting is no doubt an important part of the deconstructive view.)

The remainder of the paragraph, worked through, reveals continuing confusion on Culler's part about what was at issue was in the example and also a continuing inability to see that there is a difference between the concepts that are the subject of philosophical inquiry and the outcomes of those inquiries, i.e. the particular (and often peculiar) philosophical views about the nature of those concepts investigated.

What Culler goes on to do in the remainder of the relevant text is to attempt to bring out certain typical deconstructive attitudes as a consequence of the present example. These are such matters as the deconstructive critic must use the very notions being deconstructed; that the aim of the deconstruction is to deny the notion of any justification even though it must play a role in the criticism; and a bunch of stuff about how the outcome of deconstruction is an anti-hierarchization view, an attack on metaphysical privilege. The problem, of course, is that because of the complete confusion of what the issues are in the bit of deconstruction concerning causality none of these consequences are at all relevant or interesting.