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Philosophy and Literature 26.2 (2002) 334-345

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Philosophy After Joyce:
Derrida and Davidson

Reed Way Dasenbrock

A GOOD DEAL OF ATTENTION has been paid to James Joyce's influence on literature. Few novelists in the twentieth century have escaped Joyce's influence one way or another, and Robert Martin Adams has even dedicated a book, AfterJoyce, 1 to the proposition that the history of prose fiction is most properly divided into two eras, before and after Joyce. One suspects that Joyce would have appreciated Adams's quasi-blasphemous periodizing.

My focus here is Joyce's influence on a different intellectual and cultural realm, philosophy. Joyce's impact on philosophy clearly has not been of the same magnitude. Joyce is not one of those rare figures who have spanned fields or been as important an influence in another field as in his own, unlike Nietzsche, say, or a figure of concern to us here, Jacques Derrida. Joyce's impact on philosophy, thus, is not epoch-changing or field-changing in the way his impact on literature is. Wittgenstein and Heidegger are the two philosophers in the twentieth century whose work have comparably been assessed as epoch-changing. It is worth noting that both men are close contemporaries of Joyce: Wittgenstein, in particular, with his multilingual, Austro-Hungarian, and pan-European character, orientation towards the arts, defiance of so many philosophical conventions, and self-awareness of language, offers a fascinating parallel with Joyce, a parallel already explored to [End Page 334] some extent in the literature. If Joyce, Stravinsky, Picasso, and Le Corbusier, for example, can be said to exemplify modernist literature, music, painting, and architecture, then Wittgenstein is the exemplification of modernist philosophy. But Modernism, or at least so we are told, is out of fashion and out of date, yet Joyce remains our contemporary in ways many of his fellow modernists may not. Nowhere is this more clearly shown than in his continuing presence in contemporary philosophy.

The conventional way of writing the history of philosophy in the twentieth century is to divide it into two camps, one oriented towards mathematics, science and logical analysis, a school of philosophy called the analytic or Anglo-American school, the other oriented towards literature and culture and an engagement with the history of philosophy, called the Continental school. That there are a number of problems with this way of mapping the field is by now widely accepted, but no one has successfully replaced this division with anything generally seen to be more adequate, so we continue to use the terms, if as Derrida might say "under erasure." If contemporary analytic philosophy has a single leading figure, I would assign that position to Donald Davidson; continental philosophy has distinct German and French variants, but clearly foremost on the French side is Jacques Derrida. One of the factors leading to our awareness that this bipolar model of the history of twentieth-century philosophy doesn't work very well has been a body of work pointing out a number of similarities between the work of these two philosophers. 2 But what hasn't been pointed out is that both philosophers are interested in Joyce. Thus, the work of Joyce is one of the places the two currents of philosophy merge or at least come into contact. In my opinion, neither Derrida nor Davidson is or deserves to be a crucial figure in Joyce criticism, but looking at their interest in Joyce allows us to trace a neglected chapter in Joyce's influence on the culture and thought of our time and to assess the similarities and differences between the work of these two philosophers.

Derrida's work on Joyce includes two essays on Joyce, one an address to the 1984 Joyce Symposium in Frankfurt, "Ulysses Gramophone: Hear say yes in Joyce," 3 an essay which Margot Norris included in A Companion to James Joyce's Ulysses (in abridged form) as one of five exemplary or representative pieces of theoretical approaches to Ulysses (representing deconstruction, of course), and an earlier essay on Finnegans Wake, "Two Words for Joyce...


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