Derrida is old hat these days, but he’s still a thinker worth wrestling with, worthy of better than the dismissal he often gets from some writers. His deconstructive techniques can be put into the service of theology.
In his crucial essay, “Plato’s Pharmacy” he offers what he describes as a “close reading” of a philosophical and literary texts. What is he after are the the “unthought axiomatics” that underlie the text. In this, Derrida is something of a “presuppositionalist” who wants to find the underlying unstated assumptions in a text. Instead of finding these in propositions and axioms, he finds them in recurring metaphors that shape the direction of an argument.
The “Pharmacy” of Derrida’s title comes from the Greek word “pharmakon,” which can mean either poison or remedy/medicine. The word occurs several times in Plato’s “Phaedrus.” Derrida strings these various uses together, and suggests that the image of the pharmakon, especially as applied to writing, has a large role in shaping Plato’s conceptions of language and of reality.
He’s not saying that Plato deliberately strung these things together. Rather, he assumes that Plato’s rhetorical flourishes are not merely rhetorical but substantive. And he’s also assuming that Plato is constrained in what he can say by the Greek language, which has its own built-in structure to it. There are places where Plato is in charge of his linguistic resources and and places where he is not, where the constraints of the language he uses control him.
And he is saying that, even if Plato didn’t recognize the controlling force of the image of pharmakon, it still controlled. Metaphor sets certain parameters and trajectories to thought.
According to Derrida, the “unthought axioms” of Plato’s dialogue undermine his argument. Tracing the uses of this word, the rhetoric and imagery of the text, exposes fault lines in Plato’s argument. He describes it in terms of pulling at a loose thread in a knitted sweater: Eventually, it unravels the whole thing. As Derrida points out, this is the etymological meaning of “analysis.” The text “deconstructs itself,” which is to say, the text has internal contradictions of which Plato is unaware, contradictions that cannot be decided within the framework of Plato’s own thought.
Derrida especially picks at this one: Socrates is skeptical of writing, but we only know that he is skeptical of writing only because Plato wrote down Socrates’s words. Writing is a “pharmakon,” a poison and a cure, a necessary poison. It is poison because, as Socrates fears, it robs one of memory; yet it is necessary because without it there would be no account of what we have forgotten. We wouldn’t even know that we have forgotten without the river of forgetfulness that is writing.
Reason moves along the paths provided by metaphor, and these metaphors are not themselves founded on reason. Derrida’s exposure of unthought axiomatics thus punctures the pretenses of autonomous reason.