Jacques Derrida was a philosopher who had a major influence on the development of postmodernism. One of his contributions was a form of analysis called deconstructionism. This form of analysis is built on top of Derrida’s idea of différance. Différance came about from Derrida attempting to answer a question; how is meaning acquired or assigned to a word or phrase? Derrida decided a word must get its meaning from its relationship to other words. More specifically, Derrida postulated that this relationship was based on how the word in question was different from other words. For example how the word ‘dog’ is different from ‘cat’ or ‘wolf’.
Extending this idea, Derrida concluded that since all words acquire their meaning by pointing to other words, any attempt to get at the meaning of a word would lead to an infinite regress. Therefore, he concluded, there is no such thing as complete or total meaning of a word, phrase, or idea.
Derrida’s thought process had led him, and many others, to a conclusion that suggests there is no real meaning, and therefore no truth, to anything. This included the empirical claims of science and the theorems of mathematics. After all, if nothing can truly have meaning, then what can it mean for anything to be true?
Age of the Geek
In the early days of the Internet there was no way to search through all the pages on the web. Finding websites with information relevant to what you were looking for was a matter of random hunting and following links in an occasional web ring. Early attempts at organizing the web were to categorize sites by topic, but these solutions all failed to be useful. Some people started indexing known websites and applying standard database search techniques to them. With these, if you searched for “three dog night” you would get every page indexed that had the words “three”, “dog”, and “night” in them. Hunting through the results for what you were actually looking for was just short of useless.
Two PhD students from Stanford decided to solve the problem of organizing and finding pertinent information on the web. Larry Page and Sergey Brin realized what people needed wasn’t just a way to search for terms they were interested in and get back websites that had those terms in them. The real problem was how to determine the relevance of a website to the terms being searched for. They postulated that links, pointers from one website to another, were how a website acquired the property of relevance, along with the relevance of the website that the link was from. So every website got its relevance from other websites, sound familiar?
To Infinity and Beyond
The problem Page and Brin were trying to solve was similar in structure to the problem Derrida had tried to solve. Derrida had postulated that words acquired meaning by their relationships to other words. Page and Brin had postulated that websites acquire relevance by their relationship to other websites. In both cases, there was the potential for an infinite number of steps to take place. But where Derrida gave up and concluded there could be no such thing as total meaning, Page and Brin decided to actually solve the problem.
Infinity is not an easy concept. Most people have some intuitions about infinity, such as it is a process that goes on and on and never ends. But when we try to rely on our intuitions about infinity instead of the collective wisdom of mathematicians we will inevitably go astray. One paradoxical, but easy to visualize behavior of infinity is that not all infinite processes end in an infinite quantity. If we start with 1 and add 1 an infinite number of times, we get 1,2,3… and we can see that if we continue on the end result of this infinite process is indeed ‘infinity’. Mathematicians call this a divergent series. A convergent series is one where the sum of all infinite steps equals some finite number. The sum 1 + 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 … converges to the number 2 after an infinite number of steps, not ‘infinity’. Proving this requires a little more mathematics, but seeing it and being convinced of its truth does not take much.
Where Derrida relied on his flawed intuitive understanding of infinity, Page and Brin relied on their more rigorous thinking acquired through a study of mathematics. They knew that even though the way they were defining relevance led to infinite regresses, those infinite regresses ended in finite quantities, and with some clever mathematics they could calculate the relevance of websites solely from their relationships without any reference to something ‘intrinsic’. Their solution is known as the PageRank algorithm, and it is this algorithm that ensures sites with the most relevance are the first things Google displays when you use its search engine.
What Could Have Been
Derrida intentionally rejected rigorous thought. He and many other modern philosophers turned away from what has been called ‘analytic philosophy’ which used methods and ideas from science and mathematics to seek truth. Because of this, his ignorance of rational thinking led him into making some easily avoidable errors.
First, when postulating the idea that words acquired their meaning by their difference to other words, Derrida never tried to come up with any alternate explanations for how words could acquire meaning, and he never asked whether his idea was in fact true. Derrida never even tried to determine how he could test this idea, he just assumed it. The first step any scientist would have taken after formulating the idea would have been to find a way to test it. While différance was meant as an ontological explanation of how words acquired meaning, it was also meant to be a psychological description of how human beings learn the meaning of words. In this sense, modern science has shown us that Derrida was wrong; we do not learn the meaning of words through their difference to other words. Had Derrida applied more scientific and rigorous thinking to his thought process, he could have ended up launching a new subfield of psychology, but instead that honor went to someone else.
Second, Derrida’s (chosen) ignorance of mathematics led him to a false conclusion about an infinite process. This misstep led him to creating an entire philosophical foundation based on a falsehood that any first year calculus student could have pointed out. And his disrespect for analytical thought kept him from simply asking anyone in the mathematics department about the nature of infinity. When those in the STEM fields are faced with a problem outside their scope, they seek to either educate themselves in that area or to collaborate with others. This is something many philosophers never seem to do.
Third, when facing a seemingly difficult problem, rather than assuming it was solvable Derrida concluded prematurely that it was impossible to solve. Those in the STEM fields always assume a problem can be solved although they realize that solutions may come from many people working on the problem and so they first work to clarify areas of the problem space so others can tackle the rest. Instead of clarifying, Derrida obscured his work in obtuse prose and received much warranted criticism for doing so.
All of the problems Derrida faced had been solved already in the STEM fields. Had he been open to analytical and rigorous thought instead of hostile to it, he would not have missed so many opportunities to do something truly great.
Derrida and the Google founders faced similar problems, and the solutions both relied on an understanding of the mathematics of infinity. Page and Brin were able to organize and assign relevance to the entirety of recorded human knowledge so anyone could find exactly what they were looking for in milliseconds. The increase in human productivity and wellbeing this created is incalculable. They also became billionaires in the process. On the other hand, Derrida obscured the idea of meaning and truth and reduced the respect a future generation would have for analytical thought. He contributed to opening the doorway to justifying absurd relativism and apologetics of superstitions that ought to have vanished in the light of science and rational thinking. The differences from respecting and using analytical and rigorous thinking versus rejecting it could not be more clear.
References and Further Reading
Wikipedia – Postmodernism
Wikipedia – Jacques Derrida
Wikipedia – Deconstruction
Wikipedia – Différance
Wikipedia – Google
Wikipedia – Larry Page
Wikipedia – Sergey Brin
Wikipedia – PageRank
Brin, Page – The Anatomy of a Search Engine
Wikipedia – Analytic Philosophy