Thursday, February 10, 2011

Two French Skeptics

I hope you all caught that interesting paradox towards the end of Dr. Ferguson's lecture yesterday on Montaigne and the experience essay: that Montaigne, champion of the particular, the personal, the experimental (writing essays being a form of testing) was also a faithful Catholic; that he remained a member of the Church he was born and baptized into--precisely because it was customary. Look at what he says about Luther on p. 370: that "he left behind in Germany as many--indeed more--discords and disagreements because of doubts about his opinions that he himself ever raised about Holy Scripture." Is it a case of "better the system you know" than a new-fangled imposition?

What Dr. Ferguson said reminded me of what our Honors College colleague Dr. David Mikics said, in an interview I'd read just a few days before, about another significant (but much more recent) French skeptic: Jaques Derrida, the godfather of deconstructionism. I was fascinated by this (italics are mine):

Derrida once said that nothing meant more to him than being a Jew—although, he added, being a Jew meant so little to him. The ambivalence is telling. Derrida had a fraught relation to religious ritual (he remembered with disgust that, in the Algeria of his youth, members of the synagogue would pay for the privilege of carrying the Torah). Like Freud, he refused to have his sons circumcised. Yet he wrote obsessively about Jewish topics, and his strongest intellectual influence in his later work was the great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas. Lévinas embodied ethics and responsibility, the demand to be one’s brother’s keeper and to love one’s neighbor. These were crucial values for Derrida, and they consorted strangely with his aggressive skepticism about knowledge and truth. I think that, in the end, Derrida believed with Lévinas that ethics, the command to care for our fellow human being, is simply revelation; it cannot be philosophically demonstrated, and so it is immune to skepticism. This idea is profoundly Jewish. Derrida may not have trusted in the covenant—I can’t tell whether he did or not—but he was a Jew who saw the primal fact of ethics disclosed in the Torah and the prophets, rather than in Plato or Heidegger.

So here we have two French thinkers, four centuries apart (Montaigne was born in 1533, Derrida in 1930), both reaching the limits of skepticism and communing with ("embracing" seems too strong a verb) their religious heritage.

Or does skepticism have limits?

Here's the link to the full interview with Dr. Mikics. [RCremins]

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