Say what? Cambridge debates degree for critic of meaning

May 15, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- Someone once said that academic politics are fierce because the stakes are so small, which might explain the current dispute at Cambridge University.

Tomorrow, the dons of that ancient center of learning about 60 miles north of London will vote on whether Jacques Derrida, the French literary philosopher, should receive a prize of diminishing value in the academic world: an honorary degree.

Objections have been raised against Mr. Derrida in the philosophy and English faculties, and even from academics abroad. Letters bashing Mr. Derrida and his books have been published in the Times. So have letters supporting him and criticizing the bashers as envious mossbacks afraid of a little iconoclastic thinking on the big-ticket questions in life.

In short, some think that Mr. Derrida is a fraud and a huckster of nihilistic theories and that Cambridge demeans itself by honoring him. Others say he is a genius -- even if they can't understand him. Still others say that it doesn't matter what he is; since the offer of a degree has been made, the university has to go through with it to avoid embarrassment.

The last similar embarrassment occurred at Oxford in 1986, when its dons rejected an honorary degree for Margaret Thatcher because they didn't like her politics. Nobody said they didn't understand her.

Mr. Derrida's writing has been called dense. This brief random sample might explain why:

I have often tried, elsewhere, to stress the divisibility and the irreducible dissemination of the envois (sending, dispatches), of the acts of sending. Even what I have called "destinerrance" no longer gives us the assurance of a sending of being, of a recovery of the sending of being.

Obviously it lacks the window-pane clarity George Orwell used to celebrate. But then again, lack of clarity has rarely been a disadvantage for academic philosophers, only for their readers. One of Mr. Derrida's defenders selected a random paragraph from the work of one of the Americans objecting to the honorary degree, Harvard's Dr. Willard Van Orman Quine:

Briefly, our theory of nature is underdetermined by all "possible" observations. This means that there can be a set of H of hypotheses, and an alternative set H' incompatible with H, and it can happen that when our total theory T is changed to the extent of putting H' in it, the resulting theory T' still fits all possible observations just as well as T did.

In France Mr. Derrida is a celebrity, as philosophers sometimes are. According to the U.S.-based Institute for Scientific Information, he is among the 20 authors of this century most frequently cited by academics.

He is the originator of deconstructionism, which holds that language cannot get at the truth about anything because its components, words and phrases, have no fixed and universal meanings. Thus, nothing can really be known or certain.

The Derrida controversy has raised the old question about the value of honorary degrees.

Nancy Cartwright, who holds a chair in philosophy at the London School of Economics, says that honorary degrees are often used to serve political or financial interests of the institutions handing them out. She's from Stanford in California, and says such degrees "are not debased in America because they are not important."

Juan Antonio Masoliver, a literary critic and novelist who teaches Spanish literature at the Polytechnic of Central London, complained thatcolleges "often give honorary degrees to the worst people in the world." (One institution gave a degree to the wife of the late Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, then rescinded it after the Ceausescus were overthrown and shot.)

"They are not important here," he said. "I'm sure Derrida couldn't care less about the bloody honorary degree, but he will have to accept it, if only for the sake of the ones who are supporting him."

Still, it would not be totally without precedent if Mr. Derrida, in the face of all the controversy, decided to turn the degree down. It would be in keeping with the behavior of another French philosopher who probably couldn't have gotten an honorary degree at Cambridge, or Oxford either: the late Jean-Paul Sartre.

Sartre rejected the Nobel Prize.

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