Philosophers are understandably aggrieved when literary critics presume to instruct them in the finer points of textual interpretation. Particularly irksome is the claim of conceptual rhetoricians like Paul de Man that philosophy has not yet caught up with 'elementary refinements' that criticism has long since taken for granted. Deconstruction goes furthest towards contesting the status of philosophy by showing how its concepts finally come down to the 'unmasterable' play of linguistic figuration. There is a striking example of de Man's mercilessly consequential logic - deployed to most 'illogical' ends - in his reading of Kantian aesthetics, collected in the Shapiro and Sica volume. This essay deconstructs the Critique of Judgment by pressing its concepts and categories to the point where they yield up a series of perverse rhetorical manoeuvres at odds with any self-respecting 'philosophic' argument. It is tropes, not concepts, that structure the economy of Kantian reason and enable its crucial transitions from stage to stage of 'enlightened' critique. From the deconstructive viewpoint, de Man's is a reading of exemplary rigour and scrupulous textual awareness. To most analytic philosophers - those trained up, let us say, on the regulative mastery of concept over trope - such 'rigour' looks more like mere semantic juggling, the sort of thing which had better be confined to university departments of literature.
LRB 2 August 1984 | PDF Download