When the famous French philosopher Jacques Derrida died in 2004, he left behind a legacy that polarized the intellectual world like no other. Some called him the last intellectual giant of Western civilization and others a frivolous thinker who undermined philosophical thinking.
Derrida was born in Algeria, then a colony of France, in 1930. As part of the anti-Jewish laws of the Vichy government, he was expelled from school when he was 12. Derrida would later recount how this sense of being singled out as a Jew would haunt him for the rest of his life.
From the 1960s onward, Derrida developed a new way of thinking. He called it "deconstruction," a notoriously difficult term to define. He became an icon of postmodernism with his radical anti-realism, blurring the distinction between philosophy, science and literature. He even remained behind a certain aura of mystery because for a while he refused to be photographed.
Deconstruction influenced modern thought from philosophy and literature to architecture and cinema, and challenged many of the assumptions of medieval and modern philosophy. Rather than being a "method," it consists of a number of assumptions about language and reality and what happens at the intersection of the two. It provides an insight into the reality of what is constructed through language in the countless forms of novels, poems, philosophical treatises, oratories, political speeches, memoirs and so on.
Derrida's working assumption was the post-structuralist notion that "signs" emerge within a network of binary oppositions, differences and contrasts. Such terms as black and white, hot and cold have meaning only when they are seen in relation to one another. For Derrida, we can understand good only in relation to evil, beauty in relation to ugliness, etc. This means that instead of establishing hierarchies of cultures and societies, as Eurocentrism does, one needs to understand the binary relations, contrasts and exchanges of human societies.
A fundamental insight of deconstruction is that there is always something that remains "unsaid" in a text. Just like the concept of via negative of medieval philosophy, the "unsaid" opens up an immense intellectual space for any serious thinking. In philosophical theology, via negativa asserts that there is always more to God than what we can say of him. Being infinite, God is beyond all description.
This does not suggest that we can say anything about God. God himself has spoken about himself. Via negativa is like the Hindu neti neti ("neither this, nor that"). It warns against the conceptual trap of falling for what appears to be real at first sight and invites us to reject or "defer" it for that which is yet to be actualized.
In the Islamic tradition, Muslim theologians fought vigorously to defend the transcendence of God (tanzih) against the dangers of anthropomorphism (tashbih). The Mu'tazilites in particular were adamant about safeguarding God's absolute transcendence. Presenting God as the wholly "other" however, runs the risk of cutting him off from the world. An absolutely transcendent God with no relation to this world becomes a "regulatory principle" rather than a divine being. This was the main problem with the god of Aristotle and his followers.
Pure negation is, then, not enough. It needs to be complemented by positive assertion. To use the symbolism of the Islamic testimony la ilaha illa Allah (there is no god but God), saying "la" (no) without saying "illa" (but) is not sufficient. A believer says "la" to all false deities and carnal desires in order to be able to say "illa" to only one God. "La" negates, "illa" affirms. Derrida seems to be stuck with the station of "la" (no)!
Ibn al-'Arabi, the great Sufi metaphysician of the 13th century, argued that neither transcendence nor immanence by itself does justice to God. Each invites metaphysical error and theological impropriety. Instead, he proposed the position of what he called a "true believer" who sees with two eyes.
A true believer is one who sees God and everything else with "two eyes" (dhu'l-'aynayn). With one eye, he sees God as utterly transcendent, remote, sublime and dissimilar. At this level, God is the mysterium tremendum and beyond all utterance and description. Here he is the Lord to be worshipped.
The same believer sees God with his other eye as here and now, always present and intimate. Here he is the supreme friend, the beloved of all lovers, the center toward which all things move.
For Ibn al-'Arabi, it is only by seeing God with two eyes that we can do justice to his transcendence-cum-immanence. Seeing God with two eyes does not lead to duality because we see things with two eyes. What we see with two eyes is not two but one.
Seeing with two eyes means striking a balance between opposites and extremes. It means avoiding fanaticism and reductionism. It adds unity and depth to our vision of the world. It unites while cherishing differences.
Via negativa by itself cannot deliver. An infinite play of signifiers through deconstruction may offer us liberating perspectives. But it does not enable us to find a home in a world of homeless minds, uprooted traditions, and soul-less masses. Derrida's cry of neti neti is a commendable call for rejecting the hegemonic claims of modernism. Yet, we need more than just a "no" in order to have meaning in our lives.