"Plato's Pharmacy" takes off from the Phaedrus, a Platonic dialogue in which the function and the value of writing are explicitly discussed. (Johnson here summarizes the dialogue.)
Socrates' condemnation of writing and his panegyric to direct speech as the proper vehicle for dialectics and Truth have for centuries been taken almost exclusively at face value. "Platonism" can indeed be seen as another name for the history of strongly stressed metaphysical binarity. What Derrida does in his reading of Plato is to unfold those dimensions of Plato's text that work against the grain of (Plato's own) Platonism. Although Derrida does not make his procedures explicit, he can be seen to intervene along the following routes:
1. Translation. It can be said that everything in Derrida's discussion of the Phaedrus hinges on the translation of a single word: the word pharmakon, which in Greek can mean both "remedy" and "poison." In referring to writing as a pharmakon, Plato is thus not making a simple value judgment. Yet translators, by choosing to render the word sometimes by "remedy" and sometimes by "poison," have consistently decided what in Plato remains undecidable, and thus influenced the course of the entire history of "Platonism." When one recalls the means of Socrates' death, one begins to see just how crucial the undecidability between poison and remedy might be. But the notion of translation at work here cannot be confined to the exactitude or inexactitude of the rendering of a single "word." By focusing on the translation of pharmakon, Derrida strikes at the heart of philosophy itself:We hope to display in the most striking manner the regular, ordered polysemy that has, through skewing, indetermination, or overdetermination, but without mistranslation, permitted the rendering of the same word by "remedy," "recipe," "poison," "drug," "philter," etc. It will also be seen to what extent the malleable unity of this concept, or rather its rules and the strange logic that links it with its signifier, has been dispersed, masked, obliterated, and rendered almost unreadable not only by the imprudence or empiricism of the translators, but first and foremost by the redoubtable, irreducible difficulty of translation. It is a difficulty inherent in its very principle, situated less in the passage from one language to another, from one philosophical language to another, than already, as we shall see, in the tradition between Greek and Greek; a violent difficulty in the transference of a non-philosopheme into a philosopheme. With this problem of translation we will thus be dealing with nothing less than the problem of the very passage into philosophy. (71-72)Plato's "original" text is thus itself already the battlefield of an impossible process of translation.
2. Anagrammatical texture. Derived from Saussure's discovery of the anagrammatical dispersal of certain proper names in Latin poetry, this expression designates the systematic insistence of the word pharmakon and its relatives in Plato's text. Beginning with the passing mention of a mythical figure named "Pharmacia," and continuing through the word "pharmakeus" (sorcerer, magician), Derrida also notes the absence of the word "pharmakos," which means "scapegoat." In this way, a signifying chain belonging neither entirely to Plato's text nor entirely to the Greek language enables Derrida to reflect on the very relation between individual discourse and language itself.
3. Laternal association. By following all the senses of the word pharmakon, Derrida brings into play many other contexts in which the word is used by Plato, thus folding onto the problematics of writing such "other" domains as medicine, painting, politics, farming, law, sexuality, festivity, and family relations.
4. Myth. In amassing a detailed account of other Western myths of writing, Derrida shows the overdetermination of certain structures in the supposedly "original" Platonic myth of Theuth.
5. Writing: literal and figurative. Paradoxically enough, Plato resorts to the notion of "writing in the soul" in order to name the other of writing, the self-present Truth that speech -- not writing - is designed to convey. This return of writing precisely as what returns throws the explicit opposition between speech and writing - and between literal and figurative - askew.
6. Family scenes. The insistence of a paternal and parricidal vocabulary leads Derrida to reflect both on the relations between paternity and language and on the ambiguities entailed by the fact that Plato, a son figure, is writing, from out of the death of Socrates, of Socrates' condemnation of writing as parricide. (xxiv - xxvi)
The Father of the Logos
- The story begins like this:Socrates: Very well. I heard, then, that at Naucratis in Egypt there lived one of the old gods of that country, the one whose sacred bird is called the ibis; and the name of the divinity was Theuth. It was he who first invented numbers and calculation, geometry and astronomy, not to speak of draughts and dice, and above all writing (grammata). Now the King of all Egypt at that time was Thamus who lived in the great city of the upper region which the Greeks call the Egyptian Thebes; the god himself they call Ammon. Theuth came to him and exhibited his arts and declared that they ought to be imparted to the other Egyptians. And Thamus questioned him about the usefulness of each one; and as Theuth enumerated, the King blamed or praised what he thought were the good or bad points in the explanation. Now Thamus is said to have had a good deal to remark on both sides of the question about every single art (it would take too long to repeat it here); but when it came to writing, Theuth said, "This discipline (to mathema), my King, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories (sophiterous kai mnemonikoterous): my invention is a recipe (pharmakon) for both memory and wisdom." But the King said . . . etc.
- Let us cut the King off here. He is faced with the pharmakon. His reply will be incisive.
- Let us freeze the scene and the characters and take a look at them. Writing (or, if you will, the pharmakon) is thus presented to the King. Presented: like a kind of present offered up in homage by a vassal to his lord (Theuth is a demigod speaking to the king of the gods), but above all as a finished work submitted to his appreciation. And this work is itself an art, a capacity for work, a power of operation. This artefactum is an art. But the value of this gift is still uncertain. The value of writing - or of the pharmakon -- has of course been spelled out to the King, but it is the King who will give it its value, who will set the price of what, in the act of receiving, he constitutes or institutes. The king or god (Thamus represents Ammon, the king of the gods, the king of kings, the god of gods. Theuth says to him: O basileu) is thus the other name for the origin of value. The value of writing will not be itself, writing will have no value, unless and to the extend that god-the-king approves of it. but god-the-king nonetheless experiences the pharmakon as a product, an ergon, which is not his own, which comes to him from outside but also from below, and which awaits his condescending judgment in order to be consecrated in its being and value. God the king does not know how to write, but that ignorance or incapacity only testifies to his sovereign independence. He has no need to write. He speaks, he says, he dictates, and his word suffices. Whether a scribe from his secretarial staff then adds the supplement of a transcription or not, that consignment is always in essence secondary.
- From this position, without rejecting the homage, the god-king will depreciate it, pointing out not only its usefulness but its menace and its mischief. Another way of not receiving the offering of writing. In so doing, god-the-king-that-speaks is acting like a father. The pharmakon is here presented to the father and is by him rejected, belittled, abandoned, disparaged. The father is always suspicious and watchful towards writing.
- Even if we did not want to give in here to the easy passage uniting the figures of the king, the god, and the father, it would suffice to pay systematic attention - which to our knowledge has never been done - to the permanence of a Platonic schema that assigns the origin and power of speech, precisely of logos, to the paternal position. Not that this happens especially and exclusively in Plato. Everyone knows this or can easily imagine it. But the fact that "Platonism," which sets up the whole of Western metaphysics in its conceptuality, should not escape the generality of this structural constraint, and even illustrates it with incomparable subtlety and force, stands out as all the more significant.
- Not that logos is the father, either. But the origin of logos is its father. One could say anachronously that the "speaking subject" is the father of his speech. And one would quickly realize that this is no metaphor, at least not in the sense of any common, conventional effect of rhetoric. Logos is a son, then, a son that would be destroyed in his very presence without the present attendance of his father. His father who answers. His father who speaks for him and answers for him. Without his father, he would be nothing but, in fact, writing. At least that is what is said by the one who says: it is the father's thesis. The specificity of writing would thus be intimately bound to the absence of the father. Such an absence can of course exist along very diverse modalities, distinctly or confusedly, successively or simultaneously: to have lost one's father, through natural or violent death, through random violence or parricide; and then to solicit the aid and attendance, possible or impossible, of the paternal presence, to solicit it directly or to claim to be getting along without it, etc. The reader will have noted Socrates' insistence on the misery, whether pitiful or arrogant, of a logos committed to writing: ". . . It always needs its father to attend to it, being quite unable to defend itself or attend to its own needs" (Phaedrus).
- This misery is ambiguous: it is the distress of the orphan, of course, who needs not only a attending presence but also a presence that will attend to its needs, but in pitying the orphan, one also makes an accusation against him, along with writing, for claiming to do away with the father, for achieving emancipation with complacent self-sufficiency. From the position of the holder of the scepter, the desire of writing is indicated, designated, and denounced as a desire for orphanhood and patricidal subversion. Isn't this pharmakon then a criminal thing, a poisoned present?
- The status of the orphan, whose welfare cannot be assured by any attendance or assistance, coincides with that of a graphein [letter] which, being nobody's son at the instant it reaches inscription, scarcely remains a son at all and no longer recognizes its origins, whether legally or morally. In contrast to writing, living logos is alive in that it has a living father (whereas the orphan is already half dead), a father that is present, standingnear it, behind it, within it, sustaining it with his rectitude, attending it in person in his own home. Lifting logos, for its part, recognizes its debt, lives off that recognition, and forbids itself, thinks it can forbid itself patricide. But prohibition and parricide, like the relations between speech and writing, are structures surprising enough to require us later on to articulate Plato's text between a patricide prohibited and a patricide proclaimed. The deferred murder of the father and rector.
- The Phaedrus would already be sufficient to prove that the responsibility for logos, for its meaning and effects, goes to those who attend it, to those who are present with the presence of a father. These "metaphors" must be tirelessly questioned. Witness Socrates, addressing Eros: "If in our former speech Phaedrus or I said anything harsh against you, blame Lysias, the father of the subject (ton tou legou patera). Logos -- "discourse" - has the meaning here of argument, line of reasoning, guiding thread animating the spoken discussion (the Logos). To translate it by "subject" as Robin [French translator of Plato] does, is not merely anachronistic. The whole intention and the organic unity of signification is destroyed. For only the "living" discourse, only a spoken word (and not a speech's theme, object, or subject) can have a father; and, according to a necessity that will not cease to become clearer to us from now on, the logoi are the children. Alive enough to protest on occasion and to let themselves be questioned; capable, too, in contrast to written things, of responding when their father is there. They are their father's responsible presence.
- Some of them, for example, descend from Phaedrus, who is sometimes called upon to sustain them. Let us refer again to Robin, who translates logos this time not by "subject" but by "argument," and disrupts in a space of two lines the play on the teckne to logon [the work of the word]. (What is in question if the tekhne [work] the sophists and rhetors had to have pretended to have at their disposal, which was at once an art and an instrument, a recipe, an occult but transmissible "treatise," etc. Socrates considers the then classical problem in terms of the opposition between persuasion [peitho] and truth [alethia]:Socrates: I agree - if, that is, the arguments (logoi) that come forward to speak for oratory should give testimony that it is an art (tekhne). Now I seem, as it were, to hear some arguments advancing to give their evidence that it tells lies, that it is not an art at all, but an artless routine. "Without a grip on truth," says the Spartan, "there can be no genuine art of speaking (tou de legein) either now or in the future.
Phaedrus: Socrates, we need these arguments (Touton dei ton logon, o Sokrates.) Bring the witnesses here and let's find out what they have to say and how they'll say it (ti kai pos legousin).
Socrates: Come here, the, noble brood (gennaia_, and convince Phaedrus, father of such fine children (kallipaeida to Phaidron), that if he doesn't give enough attention to philosophy, he will ever become a competent speaker on an subject. Now let Phaedrus answer,
- It is again Phaedrus, but this time in the Symposium, who must speak first because he is both "head of the table" and "father of our subject" (pater tou logos).
- What we are provisionally and for the sake of convenience continuing to call a metaphor thus in any event belongs to a whole system. If logos has a father, if it is a logos only when attended by its father, this is because it is always a being (on) and even a certain species of being (paraphrase from the Sophist), more precisely a living being. Logos is a zoon [living being]. An animal that is born, grows, belongs to the phusis. Linguistics, logic, dialectics, and zoology are all in the same camp.
- In describing logos as a zoon, Plato is following certain rhetors and sophists before him who, as a contrast to the cadaverous rigidity of writing, but held up the living spoken word, which infallibly conforms to the necessities of the situation at hand, to the expectations and demands of the interlocutors present, and which sniffs out the spots where it ought to produce itself, feigning to bend and adapt at the moment it is actually achieving maximum persuasiveness and control.
- Logos, a living, animate creature, is thus also an organism hat has been engendered. An organism: a differentiated body proper, with a center and extremities, joints, a head, and feet. In order to be "proper," a written discourse ought to submit to the laws of life just as a living discourse does. Logographical necessity (anangke logographike) ought to be analogous to biological, or rather zoological, necessity. Otherwise, obviously, it would have neither head nor tail. Both structure and constitution are in question in the risk run by logos of losing through writing both its tail and its head:Socrates: And what about the rest? Don't you think the different parts of the speech (ta tou logou) are tossed I hit or miss? Or is there really a cogent reason for starting his second point in the second place? And is that the case with the rest of the speech? As for myself, in my ignorance, I thought that the writer boldly set down whatever happened to come into his head. Can you explain his arrangement of the topics in the order he has adopted as the result of some principle of composition, some logographic necessity?
Phaedrus: It's very kind of you to think me capable of such an accurate insight into his methods.
Socrates: But to this you will surely agree: every discourse (logos), like a living creature (osper zoon), should be so put together (sunestenai) that it has its own body and lacks neither head nor foot, middle not extremities, all composed in such a way that they suit both and other and the whole.
- The organisms thus engendered must be well born, of noble blood, "gennaia," we recall, is what Socrates called the logoi, those "noble creatures." This implies that the organism, having been engendered, must have a beginning and an end. Here, Socrates' standards become precise and insistent: a speech must have a beginning and an end, it must begin with the beginning and end with the end: ""t certainly seems as though Lysias, at least, was far from satisfying our demands: it'' from the end, not the beginning, that he tries to swim (on his back!) upstream through the current of his discourse. He starts out with what the lover ought to say at the very end to his beloved!". The implications and consequences of such a norm are immense, but they are obvious enough for us not to have to belabor them. It follows that the spoken discourse behaves like someone attended in origin and present in person: Logos: "Sermo tanguam persona ipse loquens," as one Platonic Lexicon puts it. Like any person, the logos-zoon has a father.
- But what is a father?
- Should we consider this known, and with this term - the known - classify the other term within what one would hasten to classify as a metaphor? One would then say that the origin or cause of logos is being compared to what we know to be the cause of a living son, his father. One would understand or imagine the birth and development of logos from the standpoint of a domain foreign to it, the transmission of life or the generative relation. But the father is not the generator or procreator in any "real" sense prior to or outside all relation to language. In what way, indeed, is the father/son relation distinguishable from a mere cause/effect or generator/engendered relation, if not by the instance of the logos? Only a power of speech can have a father. The father is always father to a speaking/living being. In other words, it is precisely logos that enables us to perceive and investigate something like paternity. If thee were a simple metaphor in the expression, "father of logos," the first word, which seemed the more familiar, would nevertheless receive more meaning from the second than it would transmit to it. The first familiarity is always involved in a relation of cohabitation with logos. Living-beings, father and son, are announced to us and related to each other within the household of logos. From which one does not escape, in spite of appearances, when one is transported, by "metaphor," to a foreign territory where one meets fathers, sons, living creatures, all sorts of beings that come in handy for explaining to anything that doesn't know, by comparison, what logos, that strange thing, is all about. Even though this heart is the heart of all metaphoricity: "father of logos" is not a simple metaphor. To have simple metaphoricity, one would have to make the statement that some living creature incapable of language, if anyone still wished to believe in such a thing, has a father. One must thus proceed to undertake a general reversal of all metaphorical directions, no longer asking whether logos can have a father but understanding that what the father claims to be the father of cannot go without the essential possibility of logos
- A logos indebted to a father, what does that mean? At least how can it be red within the stratum of the Platonic text that interest us here?
- The figure of the father, of course, is also that of the good (agathon). Logos represents what it is indebted to: the father who is also chief, capital, and good(s). or rather the chief, the capital, the goods. Pater in Greek means all that at once. Neither translators nor commentators of Plato seem to have accounted for the play of these schemas. It is extremely difficult, we must recognize, to respect this play in a translation, and the fact can at least be explained in that no one has ever raised the question. Thus, at the point in the Republic where Socrates backs away from speaking of the good in itself, he immediately suggests replacing it with its ekgonos, its son, its offspring:. . . let us dismiss for the time being the nature of the good in itself, for to attain to my present surmise of that seems a pitch above the impulse that wings my flight today. But what seems to be the offspring (ekgonos) of the good and most nearly made in its likeness I am willing to speak if you too wish it, and otherwise to let the matter drop.Tokos, which is here associated with ekgonos, signifies production and the product, birth and the child, etc. This word functions with this meaning in the domains of agriculture, of kinship relations, and of fiduciary operations. None of these domains, as we shall see, lies outside the investment and possibility of a logos.
Well, speak on, he said, for you will duly pay me the tale of the parent another time.
I could wish, I said, that I were able to make and you to receive the payment, and not merely as not the interest (tokous). But at any rate receive this interest and the offspring of the good (tokon te kai ekgonon autou tou agathou).
- As product, the tokos is the child, the human or animal brood, as well as the fruits of the seed sown in the field, and the interest on a capital investment: it is a return or a revenue. The distribution of all these meanings can be followed in Plato's text. The meaning of pater is sometimes even inflected in the exclusive sense of financial capital. In the Republic itself, and not far from the passage we have just quoted. One of the drawbacks of democracy lies in the role that capital is often allowed to play in it: "But those money-makers with down-bent heads, pretending not even to see the port, but inserting the sting of their money into any of the remainder who do not resist, and harvesting from them in interest as it were a manifold progeny of the parent sum (tou patros ekgonous tokous pollaplasious), foster the drone and pauper element in the state."
- Now, about this father, this capital, this good, this origin of value and of appearing beings, it is not possible to speak simply or directly. First of all because it is no more possible to look them in the face than to stare at the sun. On the subject of this bedazzlement before the face of the sun, a rereading of the famous passage in the Republic is strongly recommenced here.
- Thus will Socrates evoke only the visible sun, the son that resembles the father, the analogon of the intelligible sun: "It was the sun, then, that I meant when I spoke of that offspring of the Good (ton tou agathon ekgonon), which the Good has created in its own image (hon tagathon egennesen analogon heautoi), and which stands in the visible world in the same relation to vision and visible things as that which the good itself bears in the intelligible world to intelligence and to intelligible objects."
- How does Logos intercede in this analogy between the father and the son, the nooumena and the horomena?
- The Good, in all the visible-invisible figure of the father, the sun, or capital, is the origin of all onta, responsible for their appearing and their coming into logos, which both assembles and distinguishes them: "We predicate 'to be' of many beautiful things and many good things, saying of them severally that they are, and so define them in our speech (einai phamen te kai dioizomen toi logoi(.
- The good (father, sun, capital) is thus the hidden illuminating, blinding source of logos. And since one cannot speak of that which enables one to speaking (being forbidden to speak of it or to speak to it face to face), one will speak only of that which speaks and of things that, with a single exception, one is constantly speaking of. And since an account or reason cannot be given of what logos (accounts or reason: ratio) is accountable or owing to, since the capital cannot be counted nor the chief looked in the eye, it will be necessary, by means of a discriminative, diacritical operation, to count up the plurality of interests, returns, products, and offspring: "Well, speak on (logo), he said, for you will duly pay me the tale of the parent another time - I could wish, I said, that I were able to make and you to receive the payment, and not merely as now the interest. But at any rate receive this interest and the offspring of the good. Have a care, however, lest I deceive you unintentionally with a false reckoning (ton logon) of the interest (,I>tou tokou).
- From the foregoing passage we should also retain the fact that, along with the account (logos) of the supplements (to the father-good-capital-origin, etc.), along with what comes above and beyond the One in the very movement through which it absents itself and becomes invisible, thus requiring that its place be supplied, along with differance [Derrida's neologism] and diacriticity, Socrates introduces or discovers the ever open possibility of the kibdelon, that which is falsified, adulterated, mendacious, deceptive, equivocal. Have a care, he says, lest I deceive you with a false reckoning of the interest (kibdilon apodidous ton loon tou tohou). Kibdeleuma is fraudulent merchandise. The corresponding verb (kibdeleuo) signifies "to tamper with money or merchandise, and, by extension, to be of bad faith."
- This recourse to logos, from fear of being blinded by any direct intuition of the face of the father, of good, of capital, of the origin of being in itself, of the form of forms, etc., this recourse to logos as that which protects us from the , protects us under it and from it, is proposed by Socrates elsewhere, in the analogous order of the sensible or the visible. We shall quote at length from that text. In addition to its intrinsic interest, the text, in its official Robin translation, manifests a series of slidings, as it were, that are highly significant. The passage in question is the critique, in the Phaedo of "physicalists":Socrates proceeded: -- I thought that as I had failed in the contemplation of true existence (ta onta), I ought to be careful that I did not lose the eye of my soul; as people may injure their bodily eye by observing and gazing on the sun during an eclipse, unless they take the precaution of only looking at the image (eikona) reflected in the water, or in some analogous medium. So in my own case, I was afraid that my soul might be blinded altogether if I looked at things with my eyes or tried to apprehend them with the help of the senses. And I thought that I had better have recourse to the world of idea (en logois) and seek then the truth of things. . . . So, basing myself in each case on the idea (logon) that I judged to be the strongest . . ."
- Logos is thus a resource. One must turn to it, and not merely when the solar source is present and risks burning the eyes if stared at; one has also to turn away toward togos when the sun seems to withdraw during its eclipse. Dead, extinguished, or hidden, that star is more dangerous than ever.
- We will let these yarns of suns and sons spin on for a while. Up to now we have only followed this line so as to move from logos to the father, so as to the speech to the kurios, the master, the lord, another name given in the Republic to the good-sun-capital-father. Later, within the same tissue, within the same texts, we will draw on other filial filaments, pull the same strings once more, and witness the weaving or unraveling of other designs.