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Gregory Desilet Gregory Desilet is author of various writings on language and culture, such as Cult of the Kill: Traditional Metaphysics of Rhetoric, Truth, and Violence in a Postmodern World and Our Faith in Evil: Melodrama and the Effects of Entertainment Violence. See also:, which hosts an eulogy for Derrida. In this essay for Integral World Desilet questions Wilber's understanding of Derrida.


Derrida and

Ken Wilber and “Post-Metaphysics” Integral Spirituality

Gregory Desilet

What follows is an account of what I discovered and the conclusions that can be drawn about Wilber's reading of Derrida... in relation to a more general assessment of his integral spirituality approach.

At an Integral Spirituality book signing in Boulder (November, 2006) Ken Wilber and I had a brief exchange about postmodernism and specifically his understanding of Jacques Derrida. Based on comments he made during the talk prior to the signing, I was most interested in his response to the question: “Do you believe Derrida errs by offering what amounts to a false critique of absolute transcendence?” Wilber answered “Yes,” without hesitation. Derrida's approach, Wilber believes, contains a fundamental flaw in his specious critique of transcendence, epitomized in his deconstruction of the transcendental signifier/signified. Wilber claimed that Derrida himself came to understand the overstatement of his case and in an interview published in Positions (1981) reversed himself by acknowledging the transcendental signifier/signified's necessary role in language.

Jacques Derrida

The relevant passage in the interview centers on the topic of translation. In Derrida's discussion he admits, according to Wilber, that the “transcendental signifier/signified” is ultimately necessary in order for translation to be possible. Since the critique of the transcendental figures prominently in the foundation of deconstruction, this admission undermines the radical thrust of Derrida's work. For Wilber, Derrida's admission marks his grudging capitulation to the inescapable role of absolute transcendence in systems of meaning. Since Derrida is famous for extending his critique of language and “the text” to include the “textuality” of Being, his deconstruction of the transcendental signifier/signified also initiates a thorough disillusionment with the possibilities for any form of absolute transcendence. These broader implications of Derrida's views explain Wilber's interest in the passage in Positions.

Being familiar with Derrida's work, I was fairly certain he did not, and would never, make any such admission or reversal as Wilber was suggesting. A few days after this meeting I located my copy of Positions and found the passage Wilber had referenced. What follows is an account of what I discovered and the conclusions that can be drawn about Wilber's reading of Derrida and the implications of that reading in relation to a more general assessment of his integral spirituality approach. The passage Wilber refers to occurs near the beginning of the interview. I have divided it into four segments with commentary. The excerpt begins as follows:  

. . . from the moment that one questions the possibility of such a transcendental signified, and that one recognizes that every signified is also in the position of a signifier, the distinction between signified and signifier becomes problematical at its root.

Here Derrida establishes the context of his remarks as one in which the possibility of a transcendental signified is questioned. In this questioning Derrida asserts that the possibility for any signifier to function as a transcendental signifier is fundamentally linked to the possibility for a clear separation between signifier and signified. This separation is complicated, in Derrida's view, by the fact that every signified also behaves as a signifier (for a thorough explanation of Derrida's reasons for this assertion see his discussion in Limited Inc., 1988). Thus, for Derrida, the problem of the transcendental signifier and the transcendental signified are inextricable and interchangeable (thus the use of the phrase “transcendental signifier/signified”).

Of course this [distinction between signifier and signified] is an operation that must be undertaken with prudence for: a) it [the operation of clearly distinguishing between signifier and signified] must pass through the difficult deconstruction of the entire history of metaphysics which imposed, and never will cease to impose upon semiological science in its entirety this fundamental quest for a "transcendental signified" and a concept independent from language; this quest not being imposed from without by something like "philosophy," but rather by everything that links our language, our culture, our "system of thought" to the history and system of metaphysics;

The operation of drawing a distinction between signifier and signified must “pass through the difficult deconstruction of the entire history of metaphysics . . . which will never cease to impose upon semiological science . . . this quest for a 'transcendental signified'.” Again, Derrida underscores the inextricable connection between the problem of marking a clean separation of the roles of signified and signifier and the quest for a transcendental role. 

b) nor is it a question of confusing at every level, and in all simplicity, the signifier and the signified. That this opposition or difference cannot be radical or absolute does not prevent it from functioning, and even from being indispensable within certain limits—very wide limits. For example, no translation would be possible without it.

This segment appears to be the part where Wilber sees Derrida admitting that translation would not be possible without the transcendental signifier/signified. In arriving at his interpretation Wilber appears to do the following:  In part “b” of Derrida's two part response, he reads the sentence—"For example, no translation would be possible without it”—such that the antecedent for the preposition "it" becomes “the transcendental signified” (which concept is featured in part “a” of the response). But a careful reading shows that the antecedent for "it" in the previous sentence is "this opposition or difference.” And “this opposition or difference” is that between the signified and signifier—a difference that remains fundamentally problematic for Derrida as he explains in the next sentences.

In effect, the theme of a transcendental signified took shape within the horizon of an absolutely pure, transparent, and unequivocal translatability. In the limits to which it is possible, or at least appears possible, translation practices the difference between signified and signifier. But if this difference is never pure, no more so is translation, and for the notion of translation we would have to substitute a notion of transformation: a regulated transformation of one language by another, of one text by another. We will never have, and in fact have never had, to do with some "transport" of pure signifieds from one language to another, or within one and the same language, that the signifying instrument would leave virgin and untouched. (20).

When Derrida says, "translation practices the difference between signified and signifier” he prefaces this with the crucial words “In the limits to which it is possible, or at least appears possible . . .” Derrida goes on to note that “this difference is never pure” (i.e., clear to the point of being a difference calculable to the measure of unequivocal transparency). In other words, the difference between signifier and signified always remains problematic and thereby so also does translation.

When he states, “In effect, the theme of a transcendental signified took shape within the horizon of an absolutely pure, transparent, and unequivocal translatability,” Derrida describes the presuppositional landscape within which the transcendental signified becomes possible in traditional metaphysics. Derrida calls into question precisely the metaphysics corresponding to this “theme” and “horizon.” Contrary to this metaphysical framework, Derrida proposes that the limits of signification (and thereby communication) indicate another necessity—namely that a pure transparency of signifier and signified or of text and translation is not possible. This is consistent with his claim that “we will never have, and in fact have never had, to do with some 'transport' of pure signifieds from one language to another, or within one and the same language.” In summary, in these passages Derrida explains why he subscribes to the view that all interpretation is translation and all translation is transformation. Consequently, the transcendence that would enable pure transparency is, for Derrida, out of the question—or at least irreducibly problematic.

"Wilber's reading is a bad misreading. in fact, it is a misreading that twists what Derrida says into its opposite."

Wilber's reading is a bad misreading. In fact, it is a misreading that twists what Derrida says into its opposite. The possibility for such a misreading serves only to reinforce Derrida's claim that language can never guarantee a particular understanding. (And, consistent with this claim, the reader should remain alert to the possibility that the reading I propose as an alternative to Wilber's offers no guarantee of transparency with Derrida's text. Nevertheless, it is a reading that recommends itself because it does not require believing Derrida abdicated his entire project in one sentence, as Wilber too easily assumes). Wilber's misunderstanding—and the potential for that misunderstanding—verify that a problematic difference between signifier and signified is always in operation and insures that interpretation is little more than a species of translation. This interpretive “translation” always accomplishes transformations—and thereby potential misreadings—not only between languages but within the same language.

Wilber's misreading betrays his strong attachment to belief in a particular tradition of absolute transcendence while confirming the intimate connection between this belief and the metaphysics underlying notions of transcendence implicit in the transcendental signifier/signified. In the wake of Derrida's broad deconstruction of metaphysics, any metaphysical position that explicitly or implicitly provides a substantial role for forms of absolute transcendence is a metaphysics that necessarily resurrects all the problems and dead-ends of traditional metaphysics that postmodern philosophers have labored to escape.

In his integral spirituality Wilber appears to form an essential connection between forms of absolute transcendence and what he understands by the notion of “enlightenment.” In our discussion Wilber explained to me that this was the reason for the significance he attached to (in his view) Derrida's reversal regarding the transcendental signifier/signified. The necessity for this reversal confirmed Wilber's belief in the possibilities for and necessity of forms of absolute transcendence in signification and thereby also the parallel role of absolute transcendence in the peak understanding attained in enlightenment.

But by embracing any form of absolute transcendence in his philosophical outlook, Wilber necessarily retains traditional metaphysical distinctions between emptiness and form, the real and the manifest, and Being and time—much as does Heideggger, despite Heidegger's apparent reconceptualization of Being and time. Wilber, like Heidegger, appears to factor temporality into the life of Being only to the extent that it can later be factored out, as an ingredient that has been duly accounted for and found to be, in the last analysis, appropriated within a mode of Being and understanding as transcendence. 

Appendix II (“Integral Post-Metaphysics”) of Wilber's book Integral Spirituality clarifies key questions about the subtleties of his position in relation to deconstruction. Up to a point in this appendix he does well and I agree with much of what he says. For example, he is right to understand, following postmodern insights, that anything that might be meant by "enlightenment" must take into consideration the collapse of the rigid dichotomy between spirit and matter and between time and Being. He understands that the universe is evolving (always) and that matter is co-extensive with spirit at every level and in every stage. With respect to the question of “enlightenment,” Wilber correctly identifies the problem of temporality as posed by many postmodernists:

Even if Spirit is defined as the union of Emptiness and Form (where Emptiness is timeless, unborn, unmanifest, and not evolving, and Form is manifest, temporal, and evolving), the “temporal” or “world-of-Form” part puts stress on the meaning of Enlightenment that is not easily remedied. The manifest world of Form is evolving and becoming more complex. . . . And therefore whatever Enlightenment I may attain today is not going to be as FULL as an Enlightenment I might attain a decade, a century, a millennium from now. If I maintain otherwise, I revert to Enlightenment being defined only as a realization of the timeless and unborn, and then I must deny that Spirit is also the world of manifest Form, and thus I have a very dualistic Spirit (236).

In paragraphs following those above Wilber considers the evolution of levels of human consciousness as slowly adapted “Kosmic habits” and eventually arrives at a definition of “enlightenment” as a “type of end limit of the fullest and highest spiritual realization possible” within a fixed temporal span. The precise definition goes like this:

Enlightenment is the realization of oneness with all states and all structures that are in existence [in the evolving Kosmos] at any given time (241) [emphasis added] (see also 95).

By “any given time” Wilber means more specifically “in any given era of time” since any other understanding immediately raises problems of the following sort: “I experienced enlightenment at 6:32a.m. but by 7:38a.m. it slipped away. Sufficient change occurred in the Kosmic evolution that I must now search for enlightenment again.” This extreme example points out the difficulty surrounding what may be meant by or what may count as “enlightenment” when it is rooted in concessions to time and change. This problem alone suffices to introduce considerable skepticism into any particular individual claim to ultimate “enlightenment” in models that grant time a pervasive role in the Kosmic fabric. Wilber acknowledges the problem in his discussion of the “Sliding Scale of Enlightenment” in Chapter Four (94-95), but he believes his approach to spirituality provides a remedy for this problem.

For example, Wilber believes that problems of shifting meaning (in understanding) and ambiguity (in interpretation and communication) can be resolved by appeal to a system of "Kosmic addressing." This system provides a precise and repeatable way of pinning down the meaning of certain terminologies by tying those terms to experiential performance operations. In other words, if persons perform actions A, B, C, etc.,they will have experience E (enlightenment). This process takes the form: “If you want to know this, do this” (267). An injunction prompts an experience (an action) which calls forth the awareness or knowledge in question. Finally, the validity of this knowledge experience must ultimately be subjected to the test of a community of those who have already performed the injunction and achieved the experience. This kind of “addressing” falls back upon remnants of British analytical language philosophy and the roots of positivism and the more sophisticated evolution of these views in speech act theory (Austin, 1962; Searle, 1969, 1979) and the Wittgensteinian radical operationism of the Blue and Brown Books (1958) and Philosophical Investigations (1953).

Deconstruction exposes the unwarrantable assumptions in these systems. The problem arises from the consistently verifiable evidence that no set of words (including the language of gestures and actions) provides one (and only one) set of instructions for how to follow their "meaning." Through different temporal readings and contexts, words consistently fail to rise to the standard of functioning as a set of instructions guaranteeing univocal meaning.  

Derrida (Limited Inc., 1988) has demonstrated that there is no way around the pervasive problem of multiple readings (and corresponding forms of uncertainty). This impasse explains statements of his such as "communication is (im)possible” (possibly possible and possibly impossible but certainly insolubly problematic) and that while there remain metaphysical alternatives “there is no escape from metaphysics.” For Derrida, there is not now nor can there ever be a “post-metaphysics” in the sense Wilber describes because there can be no escape from the problem of undecidability created by the possibilities for multiple readings. (For a deeper exploration of the complexity of the problem of multiple readings and the question of truth see Desilet, 2002, chapter five).

Wilber grants that his system of addressing “makes everything absolutely relative to everything else” and that “since there is no fixed center of the universe, or even foundational level (it's turtles all the way down), then the location of any phenomenon or thing or event or process or holon can only be specified in relation to a set of each other” (254). For him, where there is no ground, no given, and no “myth of the given,” there is no metaphysics. But Wilber asserts further that this loss of foundational ground does not entail the loss of a science of meaning or a precision of naming. In the absence of rock bottom foundations his Kosmic addressing comes to the rescue:

“Without signifying the Kosmic address of both the perceiver and the perceived, any statements about the world or about reality are simply, categorically, absolutely meaningless . . . You need to specify the Kosmic locations of both the perceiver and the perceived in order to be engaged in anything except metaphysics” (257).

Here Wilber takes a page from Einsteinian physics and draws this parallel:

“Exactly as in Einstein's special theory of relativity, things become absolutely relative to each other. Not merely relative, but absolutely relative. (As everybody knows, Einstein's theory is badly misnamed; he thought about calling it things like absolute theory or invariance theory. The idea is that there is no fixed point anywhere in the universe that can be considered center; each thing can be located only relative to each other; this still creates absolutes and universals, but in a sliding system of reference to each other and to the system as a whole at any given time, with time itself being set by the invariant speed of light)” (253).
"Wilber misses a crucial part of the Derridean deconstructive critique of understanding, signification, and communication."

But here Wilber misses a crucial part of the Derridean deconstructive critique of understanding, signification, and communication. The problem concerning understanding and awareness is no longer, as in Kantian frameworks, one of access to an ontologically inaccessible “thing-in-itself.” Rather, with Derrida, the problem becomes one of choice as in the undecidability between multiple closely competing alernatives and the constant shifting of these through temporal unfolding. In Derrida's terminology these issues relate to questions of repetition and iterability that are inextricable not only from every mode of signification but also from every mode of understanding and discernment insofar as these constitute awareness that can be transmitted from person to person and/or rely upon a set of instructions that can reliably lead persons to the experience of that awareness.

In Derrida's view, there can be no system of addressing that escapes the law of iterability and its consequences (for a full account of this law see Derrida, 1977, 234). Iterability splits and divides the signifier through spatial/temperal difference and deferring. The moment of signifying or denoting any “Kosmic address” simultaneously splits address identity by way of repetition as it moves forward in recontextualization through time and space. Since Wilber claims to have left behind modes of transcendence and enlightenment entirely divorced from space and time, he remains vulnerable to Derrida's deconstructive arguments arrayed around the problem of iterability. And Wilber has clearly not sufficiently confronted this problem.

From a deconstructive slant, the limitations of human communication and understanding disclosed by the conditions of life and imposed by the constraints not only of signification but also of Being and time suggest that enlightenment as a transcendent, totalized awareness of the Kosmos (at any given point in time) is not possible. And, even if such enlightenment were somehow possible, there could be no way of verifying with certainty (either for others or for oneself) that it had been achieved. And even assuming it had been achieved, there could be no reliable way of communicating to others how precisely to go about achieving it themselves.

“Enlightenment" as a state of FULL or peak awareness and oneness with the Kosmos is not possible in a postmodern deconstructive cosmology. The nature of “what is” is such that “oneness” is not of the essence of “what is.” What is “one” is also always simultaneously divided in the forever-elusive “two” or “many” of difference and otherness. In this view, the fabric of the Kosmos is such that the possibility of “enlightenment,” as Wilber defines it, precludes the possibility of the Kosmos itself. The kind of transcendence Wilber advocates is excluded by the very nature of Being.

In this postmodern metaphysics/cosmology time (as difference or change) and Being (as sameness or permanence) interpenetrate each other all the way through and at every point—which, as Derrida points out, does not prevent the existence of a functioning world. Indeed, a functioning world requires this inextricable link between time and Being. And this link produces undecidability as part of its essence. Modes of understanding, signification, and communication are always troubled by—but not destroyed by—undecidability.

At certain places in his discussion Wilber seems to grasp the postmodern approach to oppositional tensions as interpenetrations simultaneously essentially different and essentially related (where one side can never be reduced to the other and where one can never occur without the other). He also seems to offer a postmodern approach to “truth” when he says, for example, that “truth” is merely the “myth of the given” and that there are instead “just various degrees of falsehood” (249); and further, that “this means that in the manifest world [which Wilber acknowledges is not essentially divorced from the unmanifest world], there are no perceptions [givens], only perspectives [points of view]” (255). 

Yet Wilber's understanding of postmodernism remains short-sighted as he continues to insist that it does not imply what Derrida believes it implies. Ultimately Wilber adheres to his own form of a “myth of the given” in the belief that, for all practical purposes, clear, transparent communication and translation—as described in his Kosmic addressing system—are attainable.

Nevertheless, an absence of certainty in communication persists, as can be verified on a daily basis in attempts at communication (as Wilber's misreading that provides the occasion for this commentary readily illustrates and for which my commentary does not serve as ultimate repair). But this absence of certainty is nothing to lament. The conditions of temporality and tensions of difference underlying this undecidability are precisely what make life, movement, change, experience—and any apprehension of the Kosmos whatever—possible. Despite his sophistication, Wilber appears to have missed the point of deconstructive postmodernism.

Moreover, the paradoxical quality of division/relation that characterizes primary oppositional tensions in postmodern deconstruction should not be confused with what is referred to in integral approaches as the “double I” structure of the postmodern subject. This “double I” structure, as described by Wilber and other like-minded integral thinkers such as Roland Benedikter (2005), establishes a contrast between a “normal self” or ego and a “higher self” or “witness.” According to integral theory, the “normal self” always manifests as a construct and thereby remains open to deconstruction whereas the “witness self” emerges as the performing agency or medium of deconstruction and therefore remains “undeconstructible.” Descriptions of this “witness self” make use of notions of the “pure” in phrases such as “pure action of consciousness,” “pure flowing attention,” “pure activity,” and “pure intensity.” Such expressions of purity are also of a piece with expressions of “wholeness” and “indivisibility.”

In Derrida's thinking, however, the “undeconstructible” must never be confused with the “pure” or “indivisible.” Every instance of consciousness—including, insofar as it makes sense to speak of them,“consciousness itself” or “Being itself”—is necessarily already divided. Consciousness and Being are split by difference all the way to the core. And, to the extent the notion of “origin” remains intelligible in a deconstructive approach, “origin” becomes “origins.” Even the origin is divided at its origin. Consequently, for Derrida, nothing counts as “pure.” Similarly, no “absolute transcendence” or “purely absolute other” exists within a metaphysics that already counts division as of the essence of its formulation of Being and origin.

The “other” functions as an “absolute” for Derrida only in the sense of presenting an absolute “opening” as the “yet to come” (what Wilber might regard as the “unmanifest”). The "yet to come,” as that which can potentially come into awareness and experience, cannot be absolutely alien to the self yet neither can it be absolutely known or comprehended at any moment in time. As such, the “yet to come” retains a quality of essential difference from and essential relation to “what is.”

But just as there can be no certain awareness of that which is potentially "out there" and yet to be revealed, there can be no totalized awareness of what has “already come” (the manifest). The manifest, as a function of difference and iterability, always emerges as divided/dividing in its essence and thereby remains untotalizable, undecidable.

Where traditional metaphysics understands transcendence, deconstructive postmodernism understands forms of “quasi-transcendence” in the continual mitosis and reconstitution of self and awareness and the boundaries of both. The “normal self,” contrary to the assertions of integral post-metaphysics, never consists entirely of illusion but instead grounds itself upon the condition of becoming—as an unholy (unwholly) marriage of the tension between the real and the construct. This “what is” and “yet to come” everywhere constitute the structure of the self as well as the Kosmos.

"Despite his sophistication, Wilber appears to have missed the point of deconstructive postmodernism."

With the possible exception of Gilles Deleuze, Derrida stands alone among postmodern theorists in his insistence upon the paradoxical “one that is also two” structure at the core of Being. Consequently, Derrida presents philosophical postmodernism at its best. Although offering no ultimate escape from metaphysics, Derrida's approach offers an escape from traditional metaphysics and its construction of notions of absolute transcendence that easily slide, however unintentionally, toward authorization of modes of certainty that do little more than contribute to predispositions of non-negotiation and systems of exclusionary discrimination. Based on the sobering history of human experience, these systems of exclusionary choice-making lead communities down the destructive trail of rituals of purification, often ending in deadly conflict and the violence of suicide, homicide, or genocide. This trail of death is, in itself, sufficient reason to avoid the traps of traditional metaphysics—a metaphysics that underlies most, if not all, of the world's major religions, including their mystical variations.

Derrida acknowledges that since there would appear to be no escape from metaphysics there can be no escape from violence. A measure of violence is built into the nature of what is. But the violence of transformation may be a preferable substitute for the violence of death-dealing just as the violence of translation may be preferable to the violence of book-burning. This less violent alternative metaphysical stance subverts the exclusionary structure built into the modes of absolute transcendence conjured by versions of traditional metaphysics. For this reason understanding the difference presented in Derridean deconstructive postmodernism remains crucial to overcoming the mistakes of the past and highlights the importance of avoiding the misunderstandings evident in Wilber's (and others') misreadings of Derrida.

Undoubtedly Wilber would not be happy to find his “integral” views associated in any way with “exclusionary” forms of metaphysics. Clearly he wants to dissociate himself from such traditions of thinking and spirituality. Nevertheless, attempts to depart from exclusionary forms of metaphysics cannot succeed by reaffirming orientations that give renewed meaning and prime significance to states of transcendental awareness implied in notions such as “transcendental signifiers,” “pure consciousness,” and “realizations of oneness.” The deconstructive critique of transcendence appears to be a part of Derridean postmodernism that Wilber and other integral theorists have not so much overlooked as underestimated.


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