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Philosophy and Language

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Derrida On Language

Peter Benson tells us what language is and isn’t according to Jacques Derrida.

Early in the Twentieth Century, philosophy diverged into two camps: analytic and Continental philosophy. Since then they have pulled up their drawbridges, ceased communicating, and, like groups separated by mountains or oceans, the languages they speak have become mutually incomprehensible (a condition which does not deny the possibility of bilingualism). Despite this separation, they have in fact often been developing in parallel ways along their respective paths.

Analytic philosophy went through a phase of believing that immediate experiences could be recorded in a basic language of sense data that could then be used as a foundation for all intelligible propositions (this idea is called ‘Positivism’). Bertrand Russell’s ‘Logical Atomism’ was one form of this idea. The disintegration of this project in the face of insuperable problems led to an increased emphasis on language itself, no longer treated as unproblematically revealing the world. This ‘linguistic turn’ strongly marked the subsequent history of analytic philosophy, as pursued in mainly the English-speaking world.

Meanwhile, on the (European) Continent, a parallel development took place. Phenomenology, a philosophical approach initiated by Edmund Husserl, proposed that the nature of things would be revealed in experience provided only that everyday assumptions were temporarily set aside. Once that’s done, the structure of reality could then be lucidly described. In a reaction to this, the subsequent continental linguistic turn drew heavily on theoretical linguistics, particularly the ideas of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, whose Course on General Linguistics was published posthumously in 1916. Its wide influence, however, began only much later, in the 1950s, when Claude Lévi-Strauss used its categories to analyse anthropological data. This initiated the movement known as ‘Structuralism’, the aim of which was the application of a unified methodology, based on linguistics, in all the human sciences.

This was the prevailing situation when Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) began his philosophical career. It is therefore entirely understandable that he should have embarked on a detailed critical analysis of the theories of Saussure and other linguists, showing their similarity to an earlier flurry of theories about language which had emerged in the Eighteenth Century. These discussions form the substance of his 1967 book Of Grammatology, one of the works that established his controversial reputation, and his reputation as a controversialist. Under his analyses, the certainties of Structuralism began to seem less convincing. Hence Derrida is correctly described as a ‘Post-Structuralist’. This, as far as it goes, is a much more accurate designation than ‘Post-Modernist’ – a very vague category, which seems to be capable of meaning almost anything and applying to almost anyone from the time of Nietzsche onwards.

Jacques Derrida thinking
Derrida thinking

Derrida’s ideas have frequently been misrepresented, quite often by the very people who purport to be admirers of his. For this reason it is necessary to emphasize certain obvious points to make it absolutely clear what he is not saying. It may disappoint some people, but Derrida is not the extreme relativist he is often made out to be. He does not deny the difference between truth and falsity. Nor does he claim that sentences can be taken to mean whatever we want. Nor does he assert that there is no relation between language and reality. Any of these claims would be bizarre, to put it mildly, so it is surprising that they should be attributed to him, unless he had made some specific statements to that effect, which he hasn’t. Raymond Tallis, for example, launched an extensive criticism of Derrida in Chapter 6 of his book Not Saussure (1995), but he repeatedly takes Derrida to be implying more than he actually says. Tallis claims that “Derrida denies… that beyond or behind signs there is a fundamental… reality that is simply ‘there’ and with which one can make direct contact” (p.166). This is true as far as it goes, but it is the possibility of “direct contact” with reality that Derrida denied, not the existence of reality as such. So, too, when Tallis writes “The very idea that there is an external world – from which meanings ultimately arise – simply present to consciousness is repudiated” (p.188), it is the “simply present to consciousness” clause that Derrida would question, not the existence of an external world. None of the many quotations from Derrida given by Tallis go any further than this. But the end result of unjustified extrapolation of Derrida’s views is the claim, in an anti-Derrida polemic quoted with approval by Tallis (p.xx), that he “denies the distinction between fact and fiction, observation and imagination, evidence and prejudice.” This would be alarming if true. But, as Derrida repeatedly demanded to know, on what page of which of his books has he ever said any such thing?

The Problems of Presence

Derrida’s Of Grammatology is specifically concerned with language. But what do we study when we study language? Such a complex phenomenon has many aspects, and can be investigated on many levels. For example, we use the word ‘linguist’ to designate someone who knows a great many languages, but we also use the word to designate a student of linguistics – which is the study of the general characteristics of all languages, along with their histories and differences.

Derrida’s concern is to find the underlying “condition of all linguistic systems” (Of Grammatology, p.60) – in other words to uncover the minimal conditions that make language of any kind possible. In Derrida’s view, all linguistic theories, from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Centuries, have given undue importance to speech rather than writing. Of course, it is indeed probable that spoken language existed before written language. Even this, however, is not certain. Mightn’t marks made on a stone, imbued with meaning, have come before intelligible vocal utterances? But Derrida is not primarily concerned with this historical question. Rather, he believes that thinking about the characteristics of written signs more readily reveals the distinctive features necessary for any linguistic phenomenon. Concentrating on speech, by contrast, readily leads to misleading assumptions which can be summed up in his phrase “the philosophy of presence” (p.12).

What, then, is meant by ‘presence’? By this word Derrida refers to any assumption of immediacy, in the literal sense of ‘lack-of-mediation’. Such immediate contact with reality was sought both by the phenomenologists and by Russell and the logical positivists when they attempted to make sense experiences the foundation of knowledge and language. The word ‘red’ would then designate an immediate experience of colour, due initially to the response of certain reactive cells in the retina. However, since ‘red’ is also a universal, referring to all possible experiences of the colour, both real and imaginary, that cannot be a full explication of the word. These are issues which have recurred throughout the history of philosophy from the time of Plato onwards. Philosophers have repeatedly sought to anchor language and knowledge in a moment of direct contact with reality where any doubt would be extinguished. Derrida’s philosophy by contrast has called attention to the inevitable gaps to be negotiated between experience and reality, especially in relation to our use of language, and however small-scale we make our scrutiny. (In his later writings Derrida considers these issues in relation to Justice, conceived as bridging the inevitable gap between the generality of the Law and the particularity of circumstances.) But far from unleashing universal scepticism, Derrida’s is an attitude entirely compatible with the outlook of contemporary science, since all scientific hypotheses are provisional, that is, capable of being revised in the light of further evidence. When a set of hypotheses come to be seen as utterly unquestionable they enter the realm of dogma, which is more commonly found in religious thought than in philosophy.

Indeed, a good way to understand this question of ‘presence’ and its relation to speech is to think about the various attitudes taken by different groups to religious revelation. Despite the strictures of Richard Dawkins and his fellow militant atheists, who tend to lump all religious language into one category, there are actually many approaches to the claims of faith. (I should point out that Derrida himself does not directly endorse any of them: he is not a theologian. I am simply using these differences to exemplify different attitudes to language.)

We have probably all heard people preaching, sometimes on street corners, fired with the conviction that “The Lord has spoken to me!” The dictation of this commanding Voice is something they can neither doubt nor fail to obey. There is little point in asking them, “How do you know it was the Lord?” The claims of immediacy bring unearned certainty. One such hearing of a Voice, a call, is often proclaimed as the founding moment of a religion, such as Moses speaking with God at the burning bush, or Mohammed hearing the words of the Angel Gabriel. Those who follow these prophets, however, have access to the Voice only through the medium of a text, such as the Bible or the Koran. As we know from history, conflict has often ensued around the question of whether these texts can even be translated into a different language – such as the execution of William Tyndale for translating the Bible into English – perhaps because such translation represents a further step away from the source, constituting additional mediation.

However, within the Judeo-Christian inheritance there is also an opposing tradition which, taking the non-immediacy of the texts for granted, seeks through interpretation to bring forth their potential guidance. If you have two Rabbis in a room, goes the Jewish joke, you will have at least three interpretations of any passage of Scripture. (This does not, of course, imply that the passage can be taken to mean just anything at all.) Similarly, the medieval Christian approach to the Bible declared there to be four ways to read each passage: literal, anagogic, typological and tropological. These interpretative traditions have been challenged by fundamentalists, who seek to pin an immediately-known fixed meaning to every word. Fundamentalism is therefore one manifestation of the metaphysics of presence. From Derrida’s perspective, it involves a misunderstanding of the nature of language.

Concentrating on speech can also evoke a further mistaken idea of presence: that two people present to each other in open dialogue may be thought of as an ideal state of communication. Derrida casts doubt on the more optimistic claims about what any such encounter can reveal; as he writes, “We are dispossessed of the longed-for presence in the gesture of language by which we attempt to seize it” (p.141). Indeed, his interest in psychoanalysis, and his reason for believing it to have philosophical significance, lies in its claim that we are never even fully present to ourselves – our conscious minds are ever shadowed by a hidden reverse side.

The Wrongs of Writing

All of these lapses in immediacy become even more clearly evident when we take writing to be the exemplary manifestation of language. In his 1971 essay ‘Signature, Event, Context’, Derrida sets out all the various absences, real or potential, which are implicit in the very existence of writing. As well as the absence from the material mark itself (the sign) of its meaning (the concept to which the sign refers), there is the absence of the producer of the sign. This factor is obscured in the case of vocal signs because the speaker whose voice we hear is likely to be visible to us. But the invention of recording technology has shown that vocal signs too can persist in the absence of their producer. It is in general a distinctive characteristic of a linguistic sign that it is capable of persisting in the absence of its producer, even in the radical absence which follows the producer’s death.

Similarly, a sign can persist in the absence of its addressee, the person for whom the producer intended it. In a later book, The Post Card (1980), Derrida considers the example of a post-card addressed to one person and written by another. While it is circulating through the postal system its text can be read by any third party (the postman, for example), so it retains its signifying status in the absence both of the producer of the message and its intended receiver. And yet the message continues to conjure forth these two absent people. The marks on the card are inexorably enmeshed with these three absent elements: producer, meaning, receiver.

In ‘Signature, Event, Context’, Derrida emphasises a further necessary characteristic of the linguistic mark: its capacity for iteration. By this he means that the mark must, in principle, be repeatable, and be recognized as ‘the same’ in each repetition. Each repetition will differ to some extent, but ‘a’, ‘A’, and ‘A’ must all be recognized as the same letter. It is this which lifts the mark from its material particularity into being an instance of a universal. As Derrida notes, even a signature, that proof of individuality and identity, must be capable of being repeated, lest its value, its capacity for being recognized, be lost. When the mark of my identity takes a linguistic form it becomes repeatable beyond my control, beyond my absence, beyond my death.

Hence an attention to writing as the exemplary manifestation of language reveals the minimal unit of language (which Derrida calls “the grammè” – hence his word ‘grammatology’) to be always an iterable trace. A ‘trace’ is a mark remaining after the moment of its inscription. In French, the word ‘trace’ also carries as one of its connotations the idea of a trail left by an animal that a hunter might follow. These footprints or flattened foliage indicate the animal (the producer of the grammè) that has now passed; they remain there whether the hunter (the receiver of the grammè) arrives on the scene or not; and it is always possible that their significance may fail to be read (by an inexperienced tracker). So the trail, like the grammè, conjures forth what is absent (producer, receiver, message). This is a striking quality for any entity to have. In general, things are what they are, and nothing else – self-contained elements of existence. But a grammè (once it’s recognised as being a grammè) also brings with it the shadows of things it is not. Saussure had already noted this divided nature of language by saying that, like the sides of a coin, every sign has two indissociable faces: signifier and signified – the latter being the concept evoked by the former. Derrida notes that both of these faces are what he calls idealities rather than material. He is here using the traditional philosophical distinction between ‘ideal’ and ‘material’. In this philosophical sense, ‘ideal’ does not mean ‘the best’, it means anything belonging to the realm of concepts and thoughts rather than the material and the physical. He means therefore that the signifier is not the physical mark in its materiality, but the mark consciously recognised as an instance of an iterable sign. Derrida thereby raises the question of whether our ontology (i.e. our way of categorising the types of entities that exist) needs to be modified in order to accommodate the fusion of absence and presence that is the grammè. It is a question he pursues in various places, notably in his 1968 essay ‘Différance’, and especially in his writings on the thought of Martin Heidegger. A full discussion of these issues lies beyond the scope of this article, but it is worth pondering whether any mark would remain a grammè if it were still inscribed on paper or rock long after every human being had died out. This seems to me a more interesting question than the familiar enigma, ‘If a tree falls in a forest with no-one around to hear it, does it make a sound?’ (The latter question is less puzzling than it appears: the falling tree, by the laws of physics, creates sound waves; and whether this itself is enough to constitute ‘a sound’, or whether ‘a sound’ implies something heard by someone, is a mere matter of definition.)

Jean-Paul Sartre said that human beings introduce nothingness into the world, which otherwise would be “a plenitude of being.” Nor was he the first to make such an observation. In Chapter XI of the Dao De Ching (Fourth Century BCE) it is written:

“Thirty spokes share one hub. Adopt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand and you will have the use of the cart. Knead clay in order to make a vessel. Adopt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand and you will have the use of the vessel.”

This power of absence and nothingness for human purposes is, according to Derrida, multiplied in all sorts of ways by language. But did the source of such a power exist before humans evolved, or did we, as Sartre suggests, bring it into the world? Derrida is ambivalent about this and I remain doubtful whether his philosophy can resolve such issues in any satisfactory way. My aim in this article has instead been to set out those characteristics of language which, in Derrida’s view, are of acute philosophical significance, and to correct some common misunderstandings of his views. Attentive reading of his books (whose difficulty has often been exaggerated) is the best way for anyone to learn more.

© Peter Benson 2014

Peter Benson studied analytic philosophy at Cambridge University, and Continental philosophy in reading groups and seminars in London.

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