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David Potts on Derrida's "Of Grammatology"

David Potts on Derrida's "Of Grammatology"

6 Mins
February 28, 2011

This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 1999 online "CyberSeminar" entitled " The Continental Origins of Postmodernism ."

The following is a summary of Derrida’s thought as presented in Part I, Chapter 1, of his book Of Grammatology. This book is apparently the closest Derrida has come to writing a systematic statement of his philosophy, of which the opening chapter gives an overview.

I must say that getting a handle on Derrida is not coming easy to me. What follows is a “work in progress,” of which I would welcome questions, criticism, comments, etc.

1. All of Western intellectual history, from the birth of philosophy (3) (and of alphabetic writing (3, 10)) on, has been a “logocentric epoch” (4). “Logocentrism” refers to belief in a “logos,” which can usually be thought of as reason, although it is not simply mental, being “the origin of truth in general” (3). Derrida speaks of “logos” instead of “reason” in order to capture this notion of a guaranteed correspondence or connection with reality and also because he wishes the term to cover the gamut of historical conceptions of reason, from the “pre-Socratic” to the “post-Hegelian” (10-11). Being “the origin of truth” (or “constitutive” of truth (14)) means the logos will usually somehow be constitutive of reality itself. For example, Derrida’s paradigm of logos is the thought of God (11, 13, 15), which contains the [Platonic] ideas from which worldly things are created (11). But one way or another, logos is always the principle in virtue of which the objects of thought are intelligible and by means of which we may grasp them.

2. Signs (e.g., words of natural language) have two components: signifier, the physically instantiated symbol; and signified, the thought. These are always distinct, even when they are at their closest and are only “discrepant by the time of a breath” (18).

3. What certifies the validity of any signified is ultimately the logos. For instance, if what is signified is the thought that cats are mammals, and if the logos is the thought of God, then this particular signified is valid if and to the extent that one’s thought that cats are mammals mirrors the thought of God. Such mirroring is of course not automatic but requires that we purify our own thought through reason (i.e., by participating in God’s logos) to bring it as close as possible to that of God.

4. There is thus a sort of hierarchy of signification. Signifier refers to signified, but since not all signifieds are created equal; a signified may refer in turn (as signifier) to another, higher signified as validation. The stopping point of this process must be a “primum signatum: the transcendental signified” (20), supplied through the logos, a highest signified that needs no validation. Without a transcendental signified, the very notion of sign (as combination of signifier and signified) would collapse into a vicious regress of signifiers.

5. Now the heart of self-validation is presence. That is, no fact needs to be validated if it is immediately present to us; its presence is its validation. For example, the basic reason we cannot doubt our own existence is that we are present to ourselves (which is what is going on in the cogito argument (12)). Therefore what marks the higher signifieds in the chain of signification is their higher degree of presence. Indeed the essence of the signified is presence (18). Moreover, and by the same token, the essence of being is presence (12). To be valid and to be real are the epistemic and metaphysical sides of the same coin of presence.

This book is the closest Derrida has come to writing a systematic statement of his philosophy.

6. Thus “the epoch of the logos” implies an entire “philosophy of presence” (12-13, 23), an epithet by which Derrida characterizes the whole history of Western philosophy. All of the distinctions and oppositions fought out in Western philosophy have been determined by the “logocentric” framework described above. The only such distinction of which Derrida gives more than a hint is Plato’s distinction between the intelligible and the sensible (13). The ideas are intelligible, i.e., immediately graspable by (present to) the mind through “an absolute logos.” Physical things are merely sensible traces of the intelligible ideas. Therefore the former are fit only to be signifiers of the latter, and only the latter have real being. The intelligible/sensible distinction thus provides a natural and even necessary elaboration of the logocentric “metaphysico-theology” (13).

7. Speech is superior to writing in the hierarchy of signification because the voice is closer to thought and thus to presence (18). We think spoken words, inner speech, not writing. Written signs in fact--on the logocentric view--are merely signifiers of spoken signs. Thus logocentrism “debases writing” as “mediation of mediation” (12-13).

8. Logocentrism, since it seeks presence, abhors all signifiers and tries to “efface” them by pretending there is unity between signifier and signified (20). Any separateness of the signifier must represent a fall from pure presence, pure being. Preference for speech over writing is a key element of the ploy to forget the separateness of the signifier. But this unity is an illusion which ultimately cannot be sustained. Heidegger’s radical questioning of being in Being and Time has shown that it is “pre-comprehended” (i.e., prior to and presupposed) by all language and even all concepts; yet nothing can be grasped without language and concepts (20-21). Therefore logocentric linguistics can never reach the pure presence of being and must be reduced to incoherence if it tries. Meanwhile, Heidegger’s failure to answer “the question of being” through any more fundamental inquiry only confirms the untenability of the “onto-theology” of logocentrism (22).

9. The “closure” (or bounds) of the logocentric epoch lies in the recognition of this radical incoherence: the concepts of being, truth, sense, logos, and so forth, cannot be made good within the logocentric framework. It is the work of deconstruction to expose the tail-swallowing nature of these concepts and thereby reveal the bankruptcy of logocentrism (10, 14). Deconstruction does not attack the concepts of the logocentric epoch from the vantage point of a new epoch but from within the logocentric epoch--the only place from which they can be conceived at all (24).

10. What is needed is a wholly new conception of language which puts writing first. Rather than signifying signifieds in a series terminating ultimately in a transcendental signified, written signifiers according to the new conception signify only other signifiers (7), not because of a failure of the signifieds but because there is no need of them. There is only a perpetual chain or circle of signifiers, an endless “play of signifying references” (7), which is never anchored to anything. “This, strictly speaking, amounts to destroying the concept of ‘sign’ and its entire logic” (7). The key concept is differance (with an “a”), which implies both difference and deferance (23). Every signifier is inherently different from what it signifies, and we should uphold this difference, not seek to erase it in a misguided quest for presence. By the same token every signifier defers recognition of what it signifies, and we must embrace this also.

11. So there is no logos, no truth, no ground. These and all the other basic concepts of “logocentrism” are illusions of a dying epoch. Can there be a new epoch that successfully discards them and embraces writing and “differance”? Derrida hedges about this (e.g., 14). Such a prospect must appear to us “as a sort of monstrosity” (5). For now we are still locked in the current epoch. We must use existing concepts but at the same time erase them, make them visible but cross them out (23, 24, illustrated at 19) to show that we recognize their inescapable embeddedness in logocentrism. But it is to be hoped that, with enough deconstruction, logocentrism may eventually be transcended altogether.

12. Two differences from Foucault. (a) Though both speak of “epochs,” Foucault’s epochs are typically about 200 years long. Derrida speaks of only one epoch, which spans Western history from the birth of Greek philosophy to the present. (This is the same span of history that Heidegger wishes to “de-struct.”) Derrida thus believes that what governs his epoch is something more fundamental than the “epistemes” that govern Foucault’s. (b) Whereas Foucault constantly refers to the facts of other epochs in a way that requires him to possess an extra-historical vantage point he denies to the rest of us (a point amusingly exposed by Derrida in “Cogito and the History of Madness”; e.g., “everything transpires as if Foucault knew what ‘madness’ means” (Writing and Difference 41, emphasis original), Derrida refuses to step outside the confines of our own epoch and emphasizes that deconstruction operates within and upon the logocentric framework.

13. Note the key role played by the notion of “purity” in point 8 above. The “logocentrist” project fails because the pure presence of being is inevitably distorted by the process of linguistic or conceptual signification. Thus the diaphanous model shows up as a premise--as it almost invariably does--when it comes to giving a reason why objectivity is impossible in general.

William Thomas wrote:

In Chapter 2 of his “Against Deconstruction,” John Ellis analyzes Derrida’s epistemology of “differance” and the free play of signs. He notes that Derrida derives his vocabulary from a reading of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, but argues that Derrida simply misunderstands Saussure.

For one thing, when Saussure writes of “differance,” Ellis argues that there is no doubt that he means differentiation, and not temporal deferance. Saussure’s theory of concepts, as Ellis summarizes it, points out that concepts, although they have objective referents, are categories formed in contrast to other, specific, conceptual categories. For instance, Ellis writes, “If anyone takes BLACK as playing against every other word in English, indiscriminately, then he does not understand its meaning. It is when he knows that a uniquely relevant contrast is with WHITE and also knows how that linguistic contrast is relevant to the corresponding contrasts in visual experience, that we are sure he understands it.” Derrida plays on the French verb differer to make concepts be deferred as well as differentiated, but this is simply a gross error (Ellis 54).

Ellis also argues that while Derrida makes much of Saussure’s view that conceptual categories themselves have an “arbitrary” character, it must be understood that for Saussure, “arbitrary” does not mean “wholly unconstrained” but rather, something we might translate into Objectivist terms as “optional.” Thus, for instance, forming the concept GNU (a kind of African antelope) is something one might or might not do depending on one’s linguistic needs, context of knowledge, etc. (Saussure would probably go on to argue that GNU is not really fully linguistic until assimilated into a language as a widely accepted term, but that is another matter.)

David L. Potts wrote:

In case there’s anybody who does not know about it, I want to mention the Postmodernism Generator web site. At this absolutely hilarious place you can have generated a postmodernist scholarly article, complete with bibliography, at the click of a link. The papers are randomly generated--a brand new one every time you click the link--by a software generator called the “Dada Engine,” created by Andrew Bulhak at Monash University in Australia. The output is practically indistinguishable from published postmodernist scholarly papers.  

A more serious recommendation is an article by David Stove (who is also Australian, by the way) titled, I think, “What’s Wrong With Our Thoughts?” The paper forms the last chapter of his book The Plato Cult. Stove thinks that most of the history of philosophy is filled with egregious falsehoods and that their progenitors should not be treated with reverence, and he isn’t shy about saying so. In this essay, he asks how it is that thought can go so far wrong as to be “pathological.” He uses as examples passages from Plotinus, Hegel, and Foucault. Therefore he is not talking about postmodernism specifically but the phenomenon of “thought gone wrong” generally. I don’t personally agree with all of his analysis, but he makes you think about the history of philosophy, about why so much of it is so wrong, and about what an appropriate attitude toward it should be. He’s also a very funny writer, which doesn’t hurt.  

David L. Potts
About the author:
David L. Potts
History of Philosophy