- “But It Is Above All Not True”: Derrida, Relativity, and the “Science Wars”
Und darum: Hoch die Physik! Und höher noch das, was uns zu ihr zwingt,—unsre Redlichkeit!—Nietzsche
The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a center. It is the very concept of variability—it is, finally, the concept of the game [jeu]. In other words, it is not the concept of some thing —of a center starting from which an observer could master the field—but the very concept of the game which, after all, I was trying to elaborate.1
This statement by Jacques Derrida has been endlessly circulated in recent discussions around the so-called “Science Wars,” in the wake of Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt’s Higher Superstition, and then Alan Sokal’s “hoax article,” both of which comment on it.2 This circulation, I shall argue here, is a symptom of a broader problem affecting the current cultural landscape and shaping the opinions of a significant portion of the scientific community. Arguments analogous to the one to be offered here concerning Derrida’s work can be made for other figures prominent in recent debates, such as Gilles Deleuze, Jean-François Lyotard, and Michel Serres. My choice of Derrida is due mainly to the extraordinary prominence of the statement cited above and of his work or rather name in general in these discussions. Even given Derrida’s status as an icon of intellectual controversy on the Anglo-American cultural scene, it is remarkable that out of thousands of pages of Derrida’s published works, a single extemporaneous remark on relativity made in 1966 (before Derrida was “the Derrida” and, in a certain sense, even before “deconstruction”) in response to a question by another French philosopher, Jean Hyppolite, is made to stand for nearly all of deconstructive or even postmodernist (not a term easily, if at all, applicable to Derrida) treatments of science. Derrida has commented more extensively and in more grounded ways on mathematics and science, and on the philosophical grounding of both.3 He also makes use of mathematical and scientific theories, concepts, metaphors, and so forth (most famously, Gödel’s concept of undecidability) in his work. In addition, his work is fundamentally linked to the question of technology via the question of writing, which defines his work throughout. Both in his actual claims concerning mathematics and science he refers to and in reflecting on the relationships between his work and mathematics and science, Derrida himself is cautious and circumspect, and offers a number of disclaimers. He emphasizes instead the centrality of his engagement with philosophical and literary texts for his work.4 One might argue that mathematics and science play a more significant role in his work than Derrida is willing to claim, or perhaps than he perceives. He certainly acknowledges the possibility and indeed unavoidability of intersections between the problematics of his own work and mathematics and science, and even says that “science is absolutely indispensable for deconstruction.”5 Neither Derrida’s more substantive discussions of mathematics and science, however, nor his caution in this respect, are considered by his recent critics in the scientific community. These critics instead appear to base their views of Derrida’s ideas, and those of other figures just mentioned, on indiscriminately extracted, isolated references to science or on snippets of his texts, without placing such statements in the context of his work.
The problems at issue may, then, be seen as problems of reading. At stake here are, first of all, the most elementary and the most traditional norms of reading. Such norms would be routinely applied by scientists in reading scientific texts but are massively disregarded by most scientists who commented on Derrida and other authors mentioned above.6 I shall, therefore, consider the circumstances, contexts, and meanings of Derrida’s remark on relativity more carefully than has been done previously, although more recently some among these circumstances and contexts have been pointed out and partly (re)considered, including by some scientists. Secondly, and more significantly, at stake is the question of reading non-scientific texts, such as Derrida’s, when these texts engage or relate...