Derridaís Of Grammatology

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) was an Algerian-born French philosopher who made important contributions to the philosophy of language, aesthetics, and phenomenology. He taught at the Sorbonne from 1960-64, at the École Normale Supérieure from 1960-84, and at various American universities, including Johns Hopkins, Yale, and the University of California at Irvine. His major works include De la grammatologie (1967, Of Grammatology), L'Écriture et la différance (1967, Writing and Difference), La dissémination (1972, Dissemination), Positions (1972, Positions), Marges de la philosophie (1972, Margins of Philosophy), and La carte postale de Socrate à Freud et au-delà (1980, The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond).

Of Grammatology (1967) is an examination of the relation between speech and writing and of the ways in which speech and writing develop as forms of language. According to Derrida, writing has often been considered to be derived from speech, and this attitude toward the relation of speech and writing has been reflected in many philosophic and scientific investigations of the origin of language. However, the tendency to consider writing as an expression of speech has led to the assumption that speech is closer than writing to the truth or logos of meaning and representation. Derrida argues that the development of language actually occurs through an interplay between speech and writing, and that because of this interplay, neither speech nor writing may properly be described as being more important to the development of language.

Of Grammatology is divided into two parts. Part I is entitled "Writing before the Letter," and Part II is entitled "Nature, Culture, Writing." Part I describes traditional views of the origin of writing, and explains how these views have subordinated the theory of writing to the theory of speech. Part II uses this explanatory method to deconstruct various texts in such fields as linguistics (Saussureís Course in General Linguistics), anthropology (Lévi-Straussís Tristes Tropiques), and philosophy (Rousseauís Essay on the Origin of Languages).

"Logocentrism" is the attitude that logos (the Greek term for speech, thought, law, or reason) is the central principle of language and philosophy.1 Logocentrism is the view that speech, and not writing, is central to language. Thus, "grammatology" (a term that Derrida uses to refer to the science of writing) can liberate our ideas of writing from being subordinated to our ideas of speech. Grammatology is a method of investigating the origin of language that enables our concepts of writing to become as comprehensive as our concepts of speech.

According to logocentrist theory, speech is the original signifier of meaning, and the written word is derived from the spoken word. The written word is thus a representation of the spoken word. Logocentrism asserts that language originates as a process of thought that produces speech, and it asserts that speech produces writing.

Logocentrism is promoted by the theory that a linguistic sign consists of a signifier which derives its meaning from a signified idea or concept. Logocentrism asserts the exteriority of the signifier to the signified. Writing is conceptualized as exterior to speech, and speech is conceptualized as exterior to thought. However, if writing is only a representation of speech, then writing is only a "signifier of a signifier." Thus, according to logocentrist theory, writing is merely a derivative form of language that draws its meaning from speech. The importance of speech as central to the development of language is emphasized by logocentrist theory, but the importance of writing is marginalized.2

A signifier may be interior or exterior to other signifiers, according to their relation to the signified. Logocentrism asserts that speech has a quality of interiority and that writing has a quality of exteriority. However, Derrida argues that the play of difference between speech and writng is also the play of difference between interiority and exteriority. Writing cannot be fully understood if it is viewed merely as an external representation of speech. Logocentrism is inadequate if we want to understand the full importance of writing.

The play of difference between interiority and exteriority reveals that writing is both exterior and interior to speech and that speech is both interior and exterior to writing. This play of difference between speech and writing also means that interiority and exteriority are erased. The outside is, and is not, the inside. Outside and inside become inadequate concepts to describe speech or writing.

According to logocentrist theory, speech may be a kind of presence, because the speaker is simultaneously present for the listener, but writing may be a kind of absence, because the writer is not simultaneously present for the reader. Writing may be regarded by logocentrist theory as a substitute for the simultaneous presence of writer and reader. If the reader and the writer were simultaneously present, then the writer could communicate with the reader by speaking instead of writing. Logocentrism thus asserts that writing is a substitute for speech and/or an attempt to restore the presence of speech.

Derrida describes logocentrism as a "metaphysics of presence" that is motivated by a desire for a "transcendental signified."3 A "transcendental signified" is a signified that transcends all signifiers, and it is a meaning that transcends all signs. A "transcendental signified" is also a signified concept or thought that transcends any single signifier but that is implied by all determinations of meaning.

The "transcendental signified" may be deconstructed by an examination of the assumptions that underlie the "metaphysics of presence." For example, if presence is assumed to be the essence of the signified, then the proximity of a signifier to the signified may imply that the signifier is able to reflect the presence of the signified. If presence is assumed to the essence of the signified, then the remoteness of a signifier from the signified may imply that the signifier is unable, or may only be barely able, to reflect the presence of the signified. This interplay between proximity and remoteness is also an interplay between presence and absence and between interiority and exteriority.

"Differance" is a term that Derrida uses to describe the origin of presence and absence. Differance is indefinable, and it cannot be explained by the "metaphysics of presence." In French, the verb "différer" means both "to defer" and "to differ." Thus, differance may refer not only to the state or quality of being deferred, but to the state or quality of being different. Differance may be the condition for that which is deferred, and it may be the condition for that which is different. Differance may be the condition for difference.

Derrida explains that differance is the condition for the opposition of presence and absence.4 Differance is also the "hinge" between speech and writing and between inner meaning and outer representation.

According to Derrida, "arche-writing" is a form of language that cannot be conceptualized within the "metaphysics of presence." It is an original form of language that is not derived from speech, and it is unhindered by the difference between speech and writing. It is also a condition for the play of difference between written and nonwritten forms of language.

The concept of "arche-writing" is different from the "vulgar" concept of writing. The "vulgar" concept of writing, which is proposed by the "metaphysics of presence," is deconstructed by the concept of "arche-writing."5

Derrida criticizes the linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure and the structuralist theory of Claude Lévi-Strass for promoting logocentrism. Derrida criticizes Saussure for saying that the purpose for which writing exists is to represent speech. According to Saussurean linguistics, the articulation of spoken language depends on a mechanism (which Derrida calls a "hinge") by which ideas are connected to sound-images, and the articulation of written language depends on a mechanism by which written words are connected to spoken words.

Derrida criticizes Saussure's theory of language for promoting both logocentrism and phonocentrism. Derrida argues that writing may be either phonetic or non-phonetic. Non-phonetic writing may be pictorial, ideographic, or symbolic. Writing may also have a multidimensional structure that may not be subordinated to the temporality of sound.6 Writing as a linear realization of vocalization may be conceptualized as an unfolding of a kind of presence, and Saussure's theory of language may therefore be described as a "metaphysics of presence." Saussure teaches that spoken language is a process by which ideas are connected to sound-images, but Derrida explains that a single phonetic signifier may have multiple phonetic values and that these phonetic values may have a range of variation. Derrida argues that Saussure does not consider the range of differences that may occur between phonetic signifiers, and that Saussure's theory of language is inadequate to describe the play of difference between speech and writing. Thus, "grammatology" deconstructs the theory of the relation between spoken and written language that is promoted by Saussure, and it instead explores the true symbolic power of writing.

Derrida criticizes Lévi-Strauss for not adequately recognizing that logocentrism may promote ethnocentrism. Derrida argues that logocentrism may promote ethnocentrism if it encourages the retelling of myths about the origin of language and promotes misunderstanding of the relation between speech and writing. Derrida also argues that the structuralist approach to anthropology may encourage ethnocentrism if it is mainly concerned with comparing different cultures according to their use of writing. An unbiased approach to cultural anthrology must recognize that the use of writing may in some cases become a form of cultural or social domination by which those who use writing may attempt to subjugate those who do not use writing.

Derrida provides an extended commentary on Rousseauís Essay on the Origin of Languages in order to investigate Rousseau's theory that writing is a supplement to speech. He criticizes Rousseauís statement that writing is nothing but a representation of speech. He also explains that the function of writing is not merely to substitute for the presence of speech, and that writing is not merely an effort to recover a missing or lost presence. Writing is not merely a kind of absence that must reappropriate a kind of presence from other forms of language in order to restore presence to itself.

According to Rousseau, writing may become a "dangerous supplement" if it is used as a substitute for speech. Writing may subvert any meaning that may be intended by speech. The substitution of writing for speech also implies that speech is closer than writing to the original nature of language. Thus, Rousseau argues that writing may corrupt the original nature of language.

However, Derrida explains that even if writing is viewed as a supplement to speech, it may still add meaning to speech and may provide a kind of presence. If writing is narrowly regarded as merely a supplement to speech, however, it may be viewed as merely an external addition to speech.

The argument that writing is a supplement to speech may also suggest that there is a loss of presence in speech that must be supplemented by writing. If an absence expands within the presence of speech, then writing may become a means of recovering whatever presence is lacking. Thus, writing cannot properly be viewed merely as absence, just as speech cannot properly be viewed merely as presence. Speech may occur within writing, and writing may occur within speech.

Derrida also explains that writing may occur before or after speech. Writing may in some cases express a passion or need that exists prior to speech. The cry of passion or need may be articulated by singing, shouting, gesturing, speaking, and writing.


1Jim Powell, Derrida for Beginners, (New York: Writers and Readers Publishing, 1997), p.33.
2Ibid., p. 23.
3Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), p.49.
4Ibid., p. 143.
5Ibid., p. 60.
6Ibid., p. 85.


Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.

Powell, Jim. Derrida for Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers Publishing, 1997.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, in collaboration with Albert Riedlinger. Translated by Wade Baskin. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1966.

Copyright© 2002 Alex Scott

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