Lecture 5:6

Lecture 5
Derrida and Differance
1. Jacques Derrida 1930-2004
• Born in Algeria
• 1952 Enters ENS
• 1962 Introduction to translation of Husserl’s
Origin of Geometry
• 1966 Johns Hopkins conference
• 1967 Speech and Phenomena, Of Grammatology
• 1992 Cambridge affair
• 2002 Visit to York
• Obituary: www.guardian.co.uk/obituaries/
OG - 'Deconstruction of
• Main aim of the book (OG 70)
– To make enigmatic what one thinks one understands by
the words ‘proximity’, ‘immediacy’, ‘presence’ (the
proximate [proche], the own [propre], and the pre- of
presence), is my final intention in this book. This
deconstruction of presence accomplishes itself through
the deconstruction of consciousness, and therefore
through the irreducible notion of the trace (Spur), as it
appears in both Nietzschean and Freudian discourse. (p.
Writing ‘inaugurates the destruction. Not the
demolition but the de-sedimentation, the deconstruction, of all the significations that have
their source in that of the logos. Particularly the
signification of truth. All the metaphysical
determinations of truth ...... are more or less
immediately inseparable from the instance of the
logos ....’ (OG p. 10)
Logocentrism as ‘phonocentrism’ (OG 11-12),
which is ‘the historical determination of the meaning of
being in general as presence ........ (presence of the
thing to sight as eidos, presence as
substance/essence/existence, temporal presence as
point of the now or of the moment, the selfpresence of the cogito, consciousness, subjectivity,
the co-presence of the other and of the self,
intersubjectivity as the intentional phenomenon of
the ego ..)’
Speech and writing
• ‘phonocentrism’ – implies priority of
speech (phone) – voix
• ‘grammatology’ – theory of ‘writing’
• Traditional position: speech is prior to
JD holds that actually writing reveals the
fundamental character of language
better than a ‘phonocentric’ approach.
• ‘Writing in general covers the entire field of linguistic
signs’ (OG 44)
• ‘I would rather wish to suggest that the alleged
derivativeness of writing, however real and massive,
was possible only on one condition: that the ‘original’,
‘natural’ etc. language had never existed, never been
intact and untouched by writing, that it had itself
always been a writing. An arche-writing whose
necessity and new concept I wish to indicate and
outline here’ (OG 56).
Writing vs science, presence
• ‘This arche-writing, although its concept
is invoked by the themes of ‘the
arbitrariness of the sign’ and of
difference, cannot and can never be
recognized as the object of a science. It
is that thing which cannot let itself be
reduced to the form of presence. The
latter orders all objectivity of the object
and all relation to knowledge’. (OG 57)
• These questions about speech and
writing concern language; but what is
JD’s conception of this?
‘One says ‘language’ for action,
movement, thought, reflection,
consciousness, unconsciousness,
experience, affectivity’ etc. (OG 9)
• But JD recognises that this is not the
traditional picture
The traditional picture
(e.g. Locke)
• (i) ‘Pure’ thoughts (ideas, feelings,
are expressed in
• (ii) Speech by speakers in a language
which can then be recorded in
• (iii) Writing (which is a ‘signifier’ of a
Derrida’s critique
• (i) The very idea of a pure thought
which is conceived as available to a
thinker (‘present’) without presupposing
language, is a myth
• (ii) The best way to think about the role
of language here is by thinking in terms
of language as ‘writing’, not speech.
‘the movement of the signifier’
• ‘nothing escapes the movement of the
signifier and …., in the last instance, the
difference between signifier and
signified is nothing.’ (OG 22-3)
• What does this mean?
‘Signified’? What?
JD continues: ‘this proposition of
transgression, not yet formulated into a
careful discourse, runs the risk of
formulating regression itself’ (OG 23)
But he writes:
‘signified (sense or thing, noeme or
reality)’ (OG p. 18)
• Preferred interpretation:
signified as: ‘sense’ ‘noeme’
connect with criticism of
‘transcendental signified’ - conception of
‘pure meanings’, ideas etc.
• Unwanted interpretation
signified as ‘thing’ or ‘reality’
This view leads to linguistic idealism
Against Husserl
• JD sets out this critique in his critical
discussion of Husserl’s theory of signs
in Speech and Phenomena
• This turns out to be a radical critique of
Husserl’s conception of
phenomenology, esp. of Husserl’s
conception of ‘constitution’ and
Husserl on language
• Indication (‘natural meaning’)
‘spots means measles’
• Expression (‘genuine meaning’)
‘vixen’ means female fox
• Expression and Solitary life
The soliloquy as the paradigm of expression
• Hence expressive meaning is preserved by the Phenomenological
Inner Speech (Voix)
• According to Derrida (in SP = Speech and Phenomena),
Husserl’s position is one which suggests that speech (voix)
has a privileged position as the expression of meaning (SP
Because of the possibility of purely ‘inner speech’ –
(i) Inner speech is not thought of as worldly at all (SP 79)
(ii) Inner speech provides a ‘diaphanous’ expression of
meaning (SP 80)
This absolute proximity of the signifier to the signified,
and its effacement in immediate presence, is the condition
for Husserl’s being able to consider the medium of
expression (i.e. inner speech) as “unproductive” and
“Reflective” (SP 80)
Hence JD takes it that one can use the ‘writing/speech’
distinction as a model for the ‘body/soul’ distinction.
JD’s arguments
(i) Indexicals (SP 94ff.)
The meaning of all indexicals, including ‘I’ and ‘now’, is
dependent upon worldly context – on who is speaking and,
especially, when. So meaning cannot be fixed by ‘inner
speech’ alone; signifiers must be symbols that can occur in
a worldly content.
(ii) There is no unique event of meaning (SP 50)
The meaning of a signifier here and now always depends
on its use on other occasions. Hence signifiers must be
such that the same signifier can be re-used especially by
That leads one to thing of signifiers as paradigmatically
‘written’ (‘iterable’)
• The underlying argument here is that in using symbols to
say (or think) something, it must be possible that one’s
statement (or thought) be mistaken: meaning must not be
dependent on truth.
• Hence meaning cannot be just a matter of connecting
individual signifiers to experiences one-by-one; it requires
rule-governed practices of a linguistic community which
determine the meaning of a statement in advance of
settling the question of its truth.
• (I take this argument from Wittgenstein, not Derrida; but it
seems to me presupposed by JD’s objections to Husserl)
Derrida’s key concept The French verb ‘différer’ means (in English) both ‘differ’
and ‘defer’. JD’s thesis is that meaning essentially involves
both – both difference and deferral
‘Difference’ comes in because of the ‘holistic’ aspect of
meaning – the meaning of one symbol depends on the
meanings of other similar symbols (e.g colour words)
‘Deferral’ comes in because the meaning of a symbol on one
occasion is dependent on its use on other occasions; so it is
‘deferred’ to these other occasions (n.b. useful ambiguity
of ‘defer’ in English, not replicated in French)
Difference and subjectivity
• Derrida’s radical thesis: meaning as difference is what is
fundamental to subjectivity – the possibility of having
thoughts and thus being a ‘subject’:
‘This movement of differance is not something that
happens to a transcendental subject; it produces a subject’
(SP 82)
Derrida against Husserl
• This is a major disagreement with Husserl’s
phenomenology, according to which
‘transcendental subjectivity’ is what is
‘The concept of subjectivity belongs a priori and in
general to the order of the constituted. ... There is
no constituting subjectivity. The very concept of
constitution must itself be deconstructed’ (SP 845)
• Derriderean ‘differance’ involves the use of
symbols on other occasions and by other
speakers/writers. Derrida does not separate
these aspects: ‘Intersubjectivity is inseparable from
temporalisation taken as the openness of the
present upon an outside of itself, upon another
absolute present.’ (SP 84)
Trace (SP 85-6)
• The most difficult feature of JD’s position is his
conception of a ‘trace’. So far I have written of
‘symbols’ as signifiers; but JD’s usual term here is
• What are ‘traces’?
‘The living present springs forth out of its nonidentity
with itself and from the possibility of a retentional
trace. It is always already a trace. This trace cannot be
thought out on the basis of a simple present whose life
would be within itself; the self of the living present is
primordially a trace’. (SP 85)
Trace in OG
‘The trace is in fact the absolute origin
of sense in general. Which amounts to
saying once again that there is no absolute
origin of sense in general. The trace is the
differance which opens appearance and
signification’ (OG p. 65)
Pure (arche-) trace (OG 62)
(i) ‘Trace’ in French = ‘Trace’ or ‘Track/path’ in English
(ii) ‘The (pure) trace is differance. It does not depend on any
sensible plenitude, audible or visible, phonic or graphic. It
is, on the contrary, the condition of such a plenitude.
Although it does not exist, although it is never a beingpresent outside of all plenitude, its possibility is by rights
anterior to all that one calls sign (signified/signifier,
content/expression etc.)….
(iii) … ‘constitute the texts, the chains, and the systems of
traces’ (OG 65)
What is a trace?
Intuitively: traces are a type of evidence (evidence of the
presence of something/someone); e.g. fingerprint, dna
sample. But this can’t be what JD has in mind.
(ii) Indeed since the ‘pure’ trace ‘does not exist’, it cannot be
an object of any kind (e.g. a symbol etc.)
(iii) If traces aren’t objects, are they perhaps ‘acts’, such as
gestures, cries, movements - acts which have a
‘differantial’ significance dependent on difference and
(iv) This interpretation does not fit JD’s text, but it does fit his
‘philosophical’ aspiration.
‘Naturalism vs. Normativity’
• Here’s a way of thinking about traces as ‘acts’.
Suppose one takes it that meaning (significance) does not
depend on ‘natural’ causal/functional connections; but arises
instead within rule-governed ‘practices’ (language-games etc.)
whose rules specify what ‘should’ be done in terms of
‘differantial’ networks.
Then: if ‘traces’ are ‘moves’ within a practice, something
like JD’s story will come out right. For it will be the practice that
turns out to be fundamental, and the meanings of established
signs (words etc.) will depend on their role within practices.
Will this do? Probably not!
• Here’s a typical passage:
The signified face (? figure), to the extent that it is still
originarily distinguished from the signifying face (?), is not
considered a trace; by rights, it has no need of the signifier to be
what it is. … It is thus the idea of the sign that must be
deconstructed through a meditation on writing. ….
Thus the signified is originarily and essentially …. Trace,
that it is always already in the position of the signifier, is the
apparently innocent proposition within which the metaphysics of
the logos, of presence and consciousness, must reflect upon
writing as its death and its resource. (OG 73)
Metaphysics of the logos
• JD connects ‘logos’ with truth. So is the
deconstruction of the logos a sceptical doctrine about
• Maybe concerning a traditional conception of truth the ‘absolute truth’ of non-linguistic propositions
(Frege’s ‘thoughts’).
• But not, I think, generally: statements etc. can be true
- in their language etc.
Logocentrism and truth
I have never put such concepts as truth, reference and
the stability of interpretive contexts radically into
question if ‘putting radically into question’ means
contesting that there are and that there should be
truth, reference, and stable contexts of
interpretation. I have – but this is something entirely
different – posed questions that I hope are radical
concerning the possibility of these things, of these
values, of these norms, of this stability (which by
essence is always provisional and finite). (Limited
Inc p. 150)
• ‘Supplementarity <differance> makes
possible all that constitutes the property of
man: speech, society, passion etc.’ (OG