Key Theories of Jacques Derrida


Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) came to prominence in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the publication of Of Grammatology (1967), Writing and Difference (1967) and Margins of Philosophy (1972). Derrida’s name is inextricably linked with the term ‘deconstruction‘. Largely because of this, or rather because of some interpretations of what deconstruction is, he must be counted as one of the most controversial of contemporary European thinkers. The controversy surrounding Derrida can be traced back at least as far as the late 1970s, when he was engaged in a dispute with the American analytic philosopher, John Searle. The dispute concerned one of Derrida’s essays, Signature Event Context (in Derrida 1982). In this essay Derrida offered a reading of the English philosopher J.L. Austin‘s (1911—1960) theory of ‘speech acts‘ (see, Austin, 1975). According to Derrida, Austin makes great play upon the role that intentions and literal meaning have in securing meaning. But, Derrida points out, neither intentionality nor literal language alone are sufficient conditions for the generation of meaning. What also needs to be attended to, Derrida argues, is the issue of ‘iterability‘. Iterability is the possibility of repetition. A word can be repeated many times and must be susceptible to being repeated in order to be a word and hence be meaningful. However, this repetition is never the ‘same’ in as far as all utterances of necessity occur in specific and ever changing contexts. Due to these contextual factors the possibility of repetition cannot be governed solely by a speaker’s intentions or by way of reference to literal language. In Reiterating the Differences Searle criticised this argument by seeking, among other things, to reaffirm the role of intention in meaning in a manner that he thought was true to the spirit of Austin’s work. Derrida’s response, Limited Inc. (1988b), sought to point out that Searle had not really grasped his argument. However, Derrida made this point by comprehensively citing and at one and the same time (at least as far as Searle was concerned) distorting the arguments in Searle’s text by situating them in a different context. Whatever the merits or otherwise of Derrida’s and Searle’s positions, one effect of the dispute was to contribute to the already marked divisions that characterise the relationship between continental and analytic philosophy. At its worst, this has led some analytical philosophers to deny Derrida the title of’philosopher’ at all.

Derrida is a controversial figure for other reasons more worthy of consideration. Foremost among these is that he is a thinker who has sought to challenge a number of what he argues to be deeply rooted presuppositions that dominate philosophical practice. This challenge, or more accurately the perception of its importance on the part of some readers, led to Derrida’s popularity in the late 1970s and early 1980s with an audience that one would not readily define as ‘philosophical’ in the institutional sense of the word. Many English readers of Derrida came from university literature departments in the USA and UK. Perhaps this readership perceived in Derrida’s approach a means of challenging the importance that philosophers sometimes claimed for their subject within the university system. Whereas studying literature, for example, in the end depends upon the existence of fictional works that the critic then analyses, philosophers have generally thought their subject to be free of any ‘literary’ aspect and have got on with inquiring into the nature of knowledge, truth, metaphysics, morality and so forth. Thus, they have tended to view literal language as the principal tool for arriving at precise and reliable accounts of these issues and metaphor as a secondary issue, susceptible to literal paraphrase or conceptual analysis. Derrida’s emphasis of the stylistic and literary aspects of philosophical discourse could therefore be seen as having an instrumental value for those with an interest in challenging philosophy within the university system. Derrida’s writings are also marked by an engagement with structuralism, a field familiar to literature scholars due to its increasing importance in the literary criticism of the 1970s. In spite of this, Derrida’s work situates itself within the context of philosophy, and demonstrates an especial interest in the work of canonical philosophers, such as Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche, Husserl and Heidegger.

Derrida’s engagement with structuralism in some ways allows him to be counted among those who are called ‘post-structuralist‘, although this is not necessarily a helpful term for understanding Derrida’s work. Primarily, Derrida mounts an attack upon the purported ‘objectivity’ of structuralist methodology. Thus, in the essay Force and Signification (1967: published in Derrida 1978), he seeks to decode the significance of the structuralist movement and at the  same time question its key presuppositions. The structuralist project seeks to present meaning as a totality that can be easily comprehended, in the sense in which one can overlook the structure of a building while ignoring those who might live or work in it. But in order to do this, Derrida argues, structuralism must negate those elements of meaning that are not susceptible to being analysed in terms of form. To put it another way, structuralism is indebted to something that cannot be accounted for within the structuralist paradigm of meaning. In Force and Signification, Derrida refers to this ‘something’ as the ‘living force’ of meaning. This living force is linked to the metaphorical substitution that occurs when structuralist analysis thinks of the nature of meaning by way of the metaphor of structure. For Derrida, meaning is at work in the ‘movement’ of metaphor itself, i.e. when the substitution of one word for another occurs. But this metaphoric process of substitution is not something inherently structural, for, necessarily, it is fluid, and what is fluid cannot be fixed or frozen in form. In turn, Derrida holds the structuralist view to be characteristic of the Western metaphysical tradition. This tradition, Derrida contends, thinks in a manner that privileges structure. By way of support for this argument we need, perhaps, only to think of the work that the foundational metaphor does for Descartes’ epistemology, or likewise of the formalised conception of the transcendental subject that Kant (1964) presents in the first Critique (or Critique of Pure Reason, 1781).

Privileging structure is for Derrida a key characteristic of the Western metaphysical tradition not merely in so far as it allows for talk about the ‘foundations’ of knowledge, etc., but also because the structural metaphor foregrounds the role of the image in thought. The Western tradition, he argues, thereby cleaves to the view that thought is first and foremost ‘representational’ in nature. Truth, in consequence, is taken to be a matter that concerns the literal and hence formally correct representation of’things’ by way of concepts. On this conception, concepts are by their very nature endowed with the power to ‘illuminate’ the world. In order to conceptualise reality Western metaphysics hence resorts to a metaphorical opposition between ‘darkness and light’. It is this opposition, Derrida argues, which is ‘the founding metaphor of Western philosophy as metaphysics’ (Derrida 1978 p. 27). Derrida also refers to this mode of thought as embodying a ‘heliocentric metaphysics‘. This is a metaphysics in which force is regarded as being secondary to the power of the representational image, in which intensity gives way to the primacy of representation.

For Derrida, metaphor is necessary to all philosophical discourse. Derrida argues that a series of oppositions have been constructed by philosophers that in equal measure depend upon and suppress the role that metaphor plays in philosophical language. The tendency to suppress metaphor is evident when philosophers engage in the analysis of truth and meaning. Philosophers, Derrida claims, traditionally display a tendency to separate the metaphorical language that pervades everyday language from the literal or fact-stating language that they rely upon for elucidating concepts of truth and meaning (a case in point being speech act theory, mentioned above). On the traditional view, literal meaning is taken to embody the proper or ‘true’ meaning of a word. This propriety signifies the consonance between a word and what it refers to. However, for Derrida, privileging literal language in this way ultimately depends upon the metaphorical propensities inherent in everyday language (it is, after all, necessary to define ‘literal’ language negatively: it is not metaphorical). A philosophy that privileges the literal must therefore suppress metaphor as a prelude to equating the literal with the true. Western philosophy, Derrida argues, does just this. It has generally regarded metaphor to be a secondary phenomenon susceptible to being conceptualised within the stable structure or ‘economy’ of literal language.

For Derrida, however, metaphor is no mere ‘accident’ within ‘the text of philosophy’ (Derrida, 1978, p.209). Metaphor is, rather, essential to this ‘text’. What is at stake when philosophers assert the opposition between literal and metaphorical language is the relationship between philosophical talk and everyday language and the extent to which philosophers would like to distance their utterances from the ambiguities inherent in such language. But, if philosophers are already caught up in everyday language as a precondition of their being able to philosophise at all, then one ought to consider whether philosophical concepts are essentially ‘contaminated’ by everyday speech. This issue has cultural and historical implications since, although metaphor as such does not have a history (simply because it is a feature common to all languages and cultures) the conceptual understanding of metaphor is culturally specific and hence has a history. This history is exemplified by Western philosophical thought, the heliocentric discourse that equates universal Reason with ‘natural light’. Derrida notes that this discourse has tended to regard other cultures and their languages as being primarily metaphorical rather than literal/rational. Hence, philosophy has exhibited a propensity to view other cultures as being divorced from the very discourse of the true which it claims to epitomise (see, Derrida, 1978, pp. 266—267). In making this claim, Derrida’s reading of heliocentric metaphysics enacts a shift of emphasis away from the purely ‘philosophical’ domain into that of historical, cultural and political relations. To put it another way, engaging in a critical analysis of heliocentric thinking necessitates a critical engagement with the historical and cultural dimension of philosophical language and concepts.

Western metaphysics, Derrida argues, does not merely prioritise form over force and light (reason) over darkness (unreason). It also emphasises the role of the speaker in the generation and securing of meaning. Thus, this metaphysics also understands meaning as arising from the living presence of a speaker who ‘uses’ language intentionally. In this way, it effectively endorses the view that a timeless conception of the self is the origin of meaning. Western metaphysics, therefore, is also a ‘metaphysics of presence’: it holds that the meaning of words is ultimately linked to the intentions, and hence living presence, of a speaker/subject. For this reason, Derrida also refers to heliocentrism as embodying a ‘logocentrism‘, in other words, it holds meaning to reside in ‘living’ speech (logos) rather than ‘dead’ writing. One could again turn to Derrida’s treatment of structuralism to illustrate this point, especially to the account of Saussurean linguistics offered in Of Grammatology (1967). Here Derrida seeks to show that by conceptualising meaning in terms of the structural paradigm Saussure privileges not only form over force and literal over metaphorical language but also ‘speech’ over ‘writing’. In other words, writing is conceived as a mere adjunct of living speech when it comes to the analysis of meaning. Speech, in contrast to writing, is taken to exhibit all the defining features characteristic of authenticity and originality. As such, speech is taken to ground the concept of truth. On such a model, language is taken to be a ‘vehicle’ of thought that can be manipulated by the living speaker in order to communicate his or her beliefs, intentions, etc.

For Derrida, as we have noted, the stakes of the metaphysical tradition are essentially linked to the question of culture, since this tradition expresses a belief in its own superiority when it comes to establishing the nature of meaning and truth. The ‘phoneticization of writing’, that is, the rendering of the significance of writing in terms of the priority of living speech, marks this cultural epoch. It is an epoch with a lineage that can be traced from Plato to Heidegger. Derrida’s criticism of this tradition is mounted by way of the claim that what has hitherto been designated as ‘writing’ is not secondary. Writing, as he redefines it in Of Grammatology and elsewhere, is given an equal or even primoridal role both in the production of meaning and philosophical discourse. Of Grammatology announces the ‘death of speech’ as it has been traditionally understood (i.e. as the source of meaning). Against the traditional view, Derrida argues, we need to acknowledge the fact that ‘the concept of writing exceeds and comprehends that of language’, since language is already, in a very specific sense, ‘writing’ (p. 37). In making this claim, Derrida uses the term ‘writing’ in a very precise way, namely to designate the condition of the possibility of meaning. Derrida’s introduction of writing the precondition of speech questions the purportedly ‘natural’ status of the relation that is assumed to inhere between thought and language. Language, when it is no longer considered merely as ‘speech’, does not find its essential precondition in the intentions of a speaker — in their presence — but in the possibility of ‘inscription’. This condition of possibility is in turn discussed by Derrida in terms of what he variously refers to as the ‘trace’, the logic of the ‘supplement’, or ‘differance‘. Of Grammatology offers this observation concerning the trace: it is ‘the absolute origin of sense in general The trace is the differance which opens appearance and signification [. . .] no concept of metaphysics can describe it (p. 65). Discussing the trace, therefore, takes us to the limit of metaphysical discourse, although not beyond it. Meaning, Derrida argues, is founded upon a ‘movement’ of difference. To put matters more simply, meaning for Derrida emerges out of ambiguity and ‘undecidability’, not from clearly definable conditions (See Derrida, 1978, pp. 3—27). Meaning, it follows, is not reducible to so-called ‘literal’ language, since inherent in its production is a process of simultaneous differing and deferring akin to the process of substitution that typifies metaphorical language. Derrida’s notion of the ‘trace’ represents an attempt to signify this condition. The trace, Derrida argues, is what provides the condition of possibility of meaning, signification, speech, speakers, and even thought. But the trace is none of these. Rather, the term indicates a fundamental possibility of repetition (iterability) inherent in the production of meaning. Such a possibility cannot be derived from notions of consciousness or presence, or from their purported opposites (unconsciousness or absence), for what it designates is ‘irreducible’ (p. 70). What Derrida is discussing here can perhaps best be grasped in terms analogous to what he discusses under the name of ‘force’ in the essay Force and Signification. The trace is not ‘opposed’ to anything, since it is a term that does not signify a determinate concept, still less something structural. Rather, the trace is what ‘must be thought before the opposition of nature and culture, animality and humanity, etc., [and] belongs to the very movement of signification’ (p. 70). The trace, in other words, is what allows us to speak of the human and the non-human, of what is ‘inside’ (the self-reflexive moment in which we assert our consciousness or our own culturally specific identity) and what is ‘outside’ (the world of empirical experience and also other cultures). In other words, if language involves the giving of names to ‘things’, then the trace is the process of signification that makes this giving possible. The trace thus indicates that meaning itself is, in Derrida’s very specific sense, always already ‘written’ before it can be spoken.

Derrida’s conception of deconstruction can be seen at work in his reading of Western metaphysics. Deconstruction is a form of critical engagement that aims to reveal the underlying presuppositions upon which structures of meaning depend. Importantly, Derrida stresses that such an engagement is not to be confused with a form of relativism, since it does not entail the abandonment of a concern with the notions of truth and value. What deconstruction does do, however, is question the kind of metaphysical absolutism that is exemplified by the metaphysical tradition. Thus, Derrida notes, it operates ‘without claiming any absolute overview’ of reality. As such, deconstruction does not espouse a universal ‘method’ that can then be applied indiscriminately to any text or argument. In other words, it would be wrong to merely invoke terms like ‘differance’ or the ‘trace’ and use these as if they were instruments that of themselves enable one to ‘deconstruct’ a text. This is because it is the very adequacy of an instrumental view of concepts and terms that is questioned by Derrida’s work. From this it follows that ‘no one, single deconstruction’ exists (p. 141). Deconstruction thus enacts a form of pluralism with regard to meaning and politics alike. Indeed, deconstruction is not inherently ‘political’, if’political’ implies the advocacy of one specific political agenda above another. There is, Derrida argues, a political aspect to deconstruction, but only in so far as the politics of any interpretation will depend upon the context in which it is formulated.

The notion of context is fundamental to Derrida’s view of deconstruction. Deconstruction attempts to show that all concepts are context dependent. Yet it is, at the same time, committed to the view that concepts are governed by conditions that render any determination of meaning according to a universal rule (and hence any single, privileged context) impossible. Derrida’s discussion of his attitude toward Western philosophy is significant in this regard. We should not, he argues, undervalue the importance of tradition, which should be regarded as worthy of jealous conservation’ (p. 141).Derridean deconstruction, it follows, does not entail an abandonment of the values that pertain to the philosophical tradition. On the contrary, deconstruction itself, Derrida claims, both acknowledges and cleaves to the value of truth, the conventions that justify notions such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ interpretation, the importance of conceptual clarity, etc. In this sense, Derrida’s writings are not merely of necessity situated within the conventions and norms that constitute Western discourse; they also remain faithful to that discourse. In so far as Derrida’s works acknowledge this compulsion they effectively endorse an ethical imperative. Thus, we must, he claims, regard the conventions that determine the value of truth as having value precisely because they constitute the inescapable terrain of our own speech, writing and reading. In this, at least, Derrida remains a self-avowedly ‘classical philosopher’ (p. 125).

Source: Cultural Theory The Key Thinkers by Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick, Routledge


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