As I rev up for my writing projects in the spring, I have been reading Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s helpful book, Is There a Meaning in This Text? In the first stage of my academic life, I worked at carving a niche for myself through the combination of biblical studies and St. Thomas Aquinas; then I worked at founding a college in the middle of nowhere; at no stage of my progress did I find the leisure to read contemporary philosophy of language. Vanhoozer offers a very nice summary of Derrida, Fish, Ricoeur, and others.
As one would expect, everyone he mentions seems to have a finger on some truth or other. But last night I came across this quotation from Derrida: “A noun is proper when it has but a single sense. … No philosophy, as such, has ever renounced this Aristotelian ideal. This ideal is philosophy.”
Misleading at best. It is true that a word taken in its literal sense has only one literal meaning, but then again the same thing is true, mutatis mutandis, of metaphors: if I say “God is a rock,” then I’m only saying that God is a rock, not that God is a fish or that God is a cloud. The fact that you can always translate a single metaphor into multiple literal statements does not prove that one word always conveys multiple metaphors. I can do the same trick with a word taken literally: it might take several pages amounting to several dozen literal statements to unpack the single word potency in a sentence by Aristotle.
But at worst, Derrida’s claim may be the opposite of what Aristotle meant. If we look at how a word is used over the course of a page of literal prose, Aristotle will look for constantly shifting meanings. This is guy who delineated eleven separate meanings of the word “in,” for crying out loud. One of the most powerful ideas in his philosophy is that every word in every language has multiple non-metaphorical meanings. In fact, the realization that the word “being” has multiple literal meanings may be his most important contribution to philosophy.
Just thinking out loud here. I’m no expert on Derrida, of course: I’m reading about him rather than reading him. But it has been my year-in and year-out experience as a teacher that people have a hard time separating metaphor from analogy, and the problem leads to endless confusion.