BMCR 2006.11.05

Heraclitus and Derrida: Presocratic Deconstruction

, Heraclitus & Derrida : presocratic deconstruction. New York: P. Lang, 2005. 186 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0820474924 $61.95.

This relatively small book brings together two of the most provocative and enigmatic voices in the history of western philosophy, those of Heraclitus and Jacques Derrida. Both have been declared difficult to read, if not impenetrable, and characterized as dense and obscure. Derrida himself rarely refers to Heraclitus, and his acquaintance with him in particular and with the Presocratics in general is mediated through the writings of Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger.1 O’Connell’s book is the first systematic attempt to explore the epistemological, linguistic, and semantic affinities between the two thinkers. Her study has a double aim. On the one hand, she argues for a Heraclitean origin of such Derridean staples as deconstruction, logocentrism, and différance. On the other hand, and perhaps more ambitiously, she contends that Derrida’s deployment of these concepts helps us better to understand Heraclitus’ fragments. Heraclitus, in other words, anticipates Derrida, and Derrida illuminates Heraclitus.

The dual focus of the book creates the readerly expectation that it will deal consistently and systematically with the range of conceptual affinities between the two philosophers. What one gets, however, is an assemblage of six chapters, of which the first four concentrate primarily on Heraclitus, with occasional nods at Derrida, while the remaining two perform the sort of thorough comparative analysis one had hoped for all along. It is as if O’Connell has two different kinds of audience in mind, one with no or minimal knowledge of Heraclitean philosophy, which would welcome her close readings of the cited fragments, and the other interested in the specific comparative project she has undertaken to deliver. And while it is true that in the first four chapters she discusses Heraclitean notions that crucially inform her comparative work in the next two chapters, it is also true that this layout inevitably invites tiresome repetition. Thus many Heraclitean fragments are cited and interpreted at least twice, the first time in their proper ‘home’ and the second time in Derrida’s vicinity. Some of them, like DK1, are brought up for discussion three times. But more importantly, this sort of structural organization unduly complicates the task of sorting out the similarities between the two philosophers. For while most of them are conveniently discussed in the last two chapters, some inadvertently find their way into earlier sections, where they are inadequately treated and can be easily missed, as they are buried amidst interpretations of Heraclitean passages. The bibliography is good but not exhaustive, and there is, regrettably, no index.

While the organization of the book’s material serves its aim less effectively than one might wish for, its central thesis is clearly stated and carefully argued, although there are instances where, in my view, O’Connell overstates her case. Here are, according to her, the main points of convergence between Heraclitus and Derrida:

1. Both philosophers are deconstructive in that they adopt a critical stance toward traditional ways of thinking. This recalls Jonathan Barnes’ famous characterization of Heraclitus as a ‘rebel, perhaps, but not a revolutionary,’ someone who criticizes Homer, Hesiod, Pythagoras, Xenophanes, and Hecateus while participating in their modes of discourse.2 In particular, O’Connell claims that one way in which deconstruction works in both philosophers is by foregrounding what has been elided by an author, in order to show that ‘what he does see is systematically related to what he does not see.’3 While this is a well-known deconstructive strategy for reading texts, I remain skeptical as to how and to what extent it reflects Heraclitus’ critique of his predecessors. O’Connell finds some instances of Heraclitus’ deconstructive practice in his ‘statements that criticize people who “do not know how to listen or to speak” (i.e., think clearly, D.19) or in his statements about the mistaken views of influential thinkers, or in the fragments that criticize religious practices’ (115). But there is no compelling reason why this sort of opposition must be termed ‘deconstructive.’ One may reasonably claim that when Heraclitus criticizes others, he simply points out alternative ways of viewing the world, which his opponents have failed to consider, without thereby taking the extra step of showing that his predecessors’ texts deconstruct their own worldviews by inadvertently endorsing the alternatives.

2. Each philosopher critiques the established tradition of philosophical dualism. With his argument about the unity of opposites, Heraclitus foregrounds the complementarity and relationality of opposite entities, which he views not as discrete and autonomous elements, but as parts of a greater whole. His questioning of entrenched binarisms extends to the blurring of genre boundaries, such as science and philosophy, or philosophy and poetry. Derrida, for his part, rejects the logocentric view of writing as derivative of speech and the metaphysical distinction between the signifier and the signified. He also challenges the logocentric belief in the existence of an irreducible difference between reality and representation, the true and the imaginary, presence and absence.

3. Heraclitean flux and Derridean différance are similar in that both suggest that the meaning of being admits of infinite possibilities. According to O’Connell, in Heraclitus ‘some form of the verb diapherein accompanies every mention of the word harmonie,’ and the verb itself ‘names the principle of cosmic order’ (68). A cognate verb lies at the root of Derrida’s différance, a neologism notoriously difficult to pin down but closely associated with the concept of arche-writing and the idea that signs always refer to yet more signs ad infinitum, since there is no ultimate referent or foundation.

4. Both philosophers employ the categories of rational thought, while rejecting the promise of certain knowledge. For Heraclitus, O’Connell claims, human ways of knowledge are subjective and idiosyncratic, and knowledge of the logos is a ‘human selection and creation,’ not a rational act based upon objectively true perceptions (28). This is not, however, completely accurate. For while Heraclitus commends sense experience and, as O’Connell herself admits, recognizes the workings of irrational psychic forces that prevent most people from attaining understanding, he does not in principle exclude the possibility of apprehending the meaning of the ‘eternal’ and ‘common’ logos, provided one listens carefully to its biddings. It seems to me that O’Connell’s claim is more applicable to Derrida, for whom any text contains points of equivocation and ‘undecidability’ that undercut any semantic fixity.

5. Both Heraclitus and Derrida employ an idiosyncratic writing style, which for O’Connell evinces a ‘poetic sensibility of words in relation to each other, instead of the informative possibilities of words purged of their connotative force’ (14). Heraclitus’ use of various figures of speech, such as metaphor, analogy, synecdoche, metonymy, asyndeton, etc., is also evident, perhaps infamously so, in Derridean prose. In the case of metaphors, both philosophers show how ‘the metaphoricity of language … bring[s] about a certain aporia in the production and expression of meaning.’ (15). Thus Heraclitus refrains from fixing upon a particular account of the logos, and his fragments invite us to consider semantic possibilities generated by the etymological resonances of his words, while Derrida endows language with a metaphorizing function, inasmuch as for him ‘meaning is always a sign of a sign.’

O’Connell’s study is a good exploration of the epistemological and linguistic affinities between Heraclitean and Derridean philosophy. While I do concur with her that there are some interesting and strangely neglected echoes of Heraclitus’ thought in Derrida’s work, I doubt that we can reliably use Derridean paradigms to augment our understanding of Heraclitus’ philosophical production. The latter’s fragmentary nature, in conjunction with its semantic opacity, makes any such attempt look like mere wishful thinking, the result of a desire to use the work of a contemporary, prolific, and slightly less impenetrable author as a tool for the explication of the admittedly arcane fragments of an ancient one. To be fair to O’Connell, she does not naively suggest that Derrida’s work constitutes an interpretative passe-partout whereby we are granted easy access to the mysteries of Heraclitean philosophy. She simply believes that we can use some of Derrida’s epistemological and semantic tools in order to open up new possibilities for reading and appreciating the depth of Heraclitus’ work. The reader will ultimately judge whether those possibilities are actually valid, but it is certain that the boldness and novelty of her proposition will make her book particularly appealing to students and specialists in the contemporary theory of language, literature, and philosophy.


1. For some Derridean references to Heraclitus see, among others, ‘The Original Discussion of Différance,’ in Derrida and Différance, D. Wood and R. Bernasconi (eds.), 93. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988; and Margins of Philosophy, trans. A. Bass, 22. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

2. J. Barnes, Presocratic Philosophers, 61. London: Routledge, 1982.

3. Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, trans. B. Johnson, xv. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.