T h e To w e r o f B a b e l a n d L a n g u a ge From Rashi to Derrida Caro L.
The BeginningAfter the flood, the descendents of Noachdecided to settle in the land of Shinar.They (meaning all of humankind) had only one language – - They decided to build a city and a tower up tothe sky –
Why? - - - - -“They said , ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth.’”
What ’s in a name?What does “make a name for ourselves” mean?Traditionally, the rabbis considered this desire asign of arrogance on their part -They wanted to “make a name for themselves” aspeople who could build a tower so grand it couldreach the heavens – it could reach God.
A New ApproachContemporary philosophers see the account of the Tower ofBabel not as a religious story, but as a parable about thenature of language.The philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) wrote aboutthe Tower in terms of linguistics – the study of language.While the rabbis considered this story an example of humanarrogance in trying to reach God,Derrida thought of it as an example of humans’ aspirationsto perfectly convey meaning through a unified language –an exercise doomed to failure.
What does that really mean?Derrida’s contemporaries were concerned with studying howlanguage conveys meaning, and how meaning gets lost intranslation.Earlier philosophers had tried to create a sort of perfectlanguage to use to talk about the structure of language – ametalanguage.Like the builders of the Tower, these linguists failed to reachtheir goal of a perfect language. Derrida saw this failure ashistory repeating itself.A perfect language (a system of words that perfectly conveysmeaning) is impossible – humans can only approximate it.According to Derrida, perfection is the exclusive realm ofGod and any attempt to reach it will fail.
Destruction/DeconstructionAfter the people built the tower, God came down toexamine it (He saw that people, given the opportunity, woulduse their collective power for self-aggrandizement.He said (to his angels) “Come, let us descend andconfuse their language, so that one will not understandthe language of his companion.“He did so and scattered them over the face of theearth, ceasing the building of the tower.The tower was therefore named Babel ( becausethe language was confused
Destruction/DeconstructionTo traditional Jewish thinkers like Rashi, this story wouldsignify the arrogance of humans and the humility of God –With the people attempting to construct a monument totheir “name” when given the chance,and God demonstrating humility and understanding inseeking counsel with his angels (Rashi:and setting an example for justice by going to survey theevidence before judging (Rashi:
Destruction/Deconstruction Derrida, on the other hand, saw this not as religious allegory(God does x in this story to teach us y)But as a literary example of theinevitable deconstruction of systems of meaningthe impossibility of perfect translation (languagemerging with meaning)•the impossibility of a true metalanguage
The “Little” Tower of Babel, c. 1593 Pieter The Elder Bruegel