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BY Donald DeMarco
I had finished my morning coffee and found myself staring at the empty travel cup. Two words caught my attention: "Caution Hot!"
These words are emblazoned on the cup primarily to prevent lawsuits. They also warn the consumer about a liquid temperature that could create a certain degree of discomfort.
But now they have lost their point of reference. They are merely words, detached from what they were intended to signify, deconstructed from that modest structure that once linked them to reality.
On the wings of my imagination, I was now transported to an au courant classroom, where my text is Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory, which obliges me to reject "the commonsensical belief that objects exist independently of ourselves in the external world and that our information about them is generally reliable" (p. 55).
"Hot" does not refer to anything hot or even anything at all. Or, as another deconstructionist has put it, "Words are vacuum capsules to be filled in by the listener."
Thanks to the powers of the imagination, I now breathed in the atmosphere of a fashionable and influential world where deconstructionists, poststructuralists, postmodernists and nihilists are having their day.
"There is no knowledge, no standard, no choice that is objective," states Barbara Herrnstein-Smith, former president of the Modern Language Association. I was now free of any obligations that reality might impose on me. The universe had receded, and I was left to interpret words solely according to my whims. I was now free to interpret "Caution Hot!" as a warning to St. Louis Cardinals pitchers when facing David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox in the World Series.
It is quite a trick to make reality disappear. David Copperfield once made the Statue of Liberty disappear before a horde of "witnesses." These "witnesses," however, hardly witnessed what was really going on. They were covered by a retractable curtain while sitting on a grandstand that slowly and silently rotated 180 degrees. When the curtain lifted, they had an unobstructed view of New York Harbor. The still-existing statue was at their backs. Mr. Copperfield did display the courtesy of making Lady Liberty re-appear, something that deconstructionists are loathe to do.
Copperfield’s grand illusion, nonetheless, is child’s play in comparison with what is going on in certain circles of academe. Deconstructionists and their kin are aiming at making reality disappear — and for good. Yet this is an old story.
Perhaps the earliest known deconstructionist is the ancient sophist Gorgias of Leontini (483-376 B.C.). Being more concerned with rhetoric than philosophy, more enamored by words than reality, he wrote a satirical treatise entitled Of Nature or the Nonexistent, in which he used the power of the word to deconstruct the world. He reasoned as follows: Since nonexistence is nonexistence, nonexistence is. As a consequence, its contrary, existence, is not. Therefore, nonexistence is, and existence is not. Gorgias went on to assert that even if anything did exist, we could not know it. Moreover, in the unlikely event that we could know something, we could not communicate it.
The error in Gorgias’ thinking is the grammatical confusion between two different uses of the word "is." In one sense, "is" refers to the fact that something exists: John is. The statue is finished. The second use is as a copula to link a subject with a predicate: Nothing is going to happen. A unicorn is nonexistent. Gorgias treated the first use as if it were the second, thereby according non-reality to reality.
Education is not to be identified with trickery. This is why the classics will always have an important role to play in higher education. Socrates is still worth emulating. In Plato’s dialogue, Euthydemus, the Gadfly of Athens, lets his sophist associates know exactly what he thinks of their gamesmanship: "I call it a game, because if one learned many such things or even all of them, one would be no nearer knowing what the things really are, but would be able to play with people because of the different sense of the words, tripping them up and turning them upside down, just as someone pulls a stool away when someone else is going to sit down, and then people roar with joy when they see him lying on his back."
Higher education is costly. We should hope for better dividends than what is derived by subsidizing tricksters to knock pupils on their backs. Plato and Socrates remain part of permanent literature and need to be summoned again and again whenever literary trickery gets out of hand. Education is about reality, just as the words "Caution Hot!" are used to alert consumers to the temperature of coffee.
I look forward to tomorrow’s coffee, at which time I will be drinking in both coffee and reality at the same time.
Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International.
He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Canada,
an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut,
and a regular columnist for
St. Austin Review. Some of his recent writings may be found
at Human Life International’s Truth & Charity Forum.