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Leithart and the Disappearing Context

July 17, 2009

Peter Leithart, in Solomon Among the Postmoderns, begins to articulate his understanding of Derrida and the “vaporous text.”  Leithart understands Derrida’s deconstruction as texts within an ever widening context.  According to Leithart, for Derrida everything written has a context that, itself, comes from contexts that are not self-contained in itself.  For example, Leithart writes:

For someone to understand your thesis in detail… a reader will have to follow up your footnotes and bibliography, catch your erudite allusions to Shakespeare and Goethe, read your text in light of other texts.  Your texts become an intertext, a node in a network of texts… What is the Aeneid without its complex relations with Illiad and the Odyssy? Does Dante make sense to a reader who is unaware of the Aeneid or of medieval theories about the afterlife? (p. 96).

This is Derrida’s concept of differance. For there to be any understanding of texts there must be an eschatology of texts (which Derrida rejects), in which all contexts come to an end.  Derrida’s view, however, is that contexts breed contexts, ever expanding, therefore deferring meaning forever.

Enter Solomon.

For Leithart, Solomon admits to [severe] limits to our knowledge and understanding.  The extent of man’s life and knowledge is short.  Yet, Leithart observes, Solomon can still make “I know” statements like “I know there is nothing better than to rejoice and to do good in one’s lifetime” (Eccl. 3:12).  I know that everything God does will remain forever (3:14).  He writes:

Blaise Pascal, that most Solomonic of philsophers, recognized two dangers in knowledge: “to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.”  Enlightenment philosophers fell into the latter danger, and in reaction some postmoderns have verged into the former (and many more postmoderns are blamed for doing this when they really don’t) (p. 99).

How can Solomon make such “I know” statements?  Leithart observes that it is because Solomon limits the vaporous character of reality to “under the sun” or “under heaven” (3:1, 1:3, 9, 14, 2:11, 17-18).  “One of things Solomon says he knows is that God will bring all wickedness to judgment (3:16-17).  He knows this, but he doesn’t know it by observation of the world.”  He believes like Abraham that, “God who is the Judge of all the earth will do right.”

For Christians, Leithard writes:

After all the shards and fragments of revelation through the prophets, God has spoken to us in his Son: he has spoken the Word that is his Son, his final word (Heb. 1:1-2), into the world.  Within this world under the sun, there is a Word from the world beyond the world under the sun, and that Word stands forever.

Amen.

Hopefully, Leithart will explain further his paranthetical statement:

Blaise Pascal, that most Solomonic of philsophers, recognized two dangers in knowledge: “to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.”  Enlightenment philosophers fell into the latter danger, and in reaction some postmoderns have verged into the former (and many more postmoderns are blamed for doing this when they really don’t)

It seems to me that postmodernism is the dark conclusion of the Enlightenment’s error of “admitting nothing but reason.”  Leithart seems to give postmodernism a pass on that accusation.  I am not convinced.

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