Derrida has become a figure of extreme fame and extreme notoriety, neither of which phenomena has aided the evaluation of his work. Despite a later reputation for purposeless obscurity or creatively going beyond conceptual truth, depending on the point of view taken, Derrida started off as a scholar of the very formal and rigorous phenomenological philosopher, Edmund Husserl. His first notable publication was a long commentary on Husserl’s short essay “Origin of Geometry.” Derrida claimed that a close study of Husserl was bound to show contradictions between elements that emphasized the historical origin of geometry and the abstract structures of geometry as a discipline. For Derrida, the contradictions cannot be removed without destroying Husserl’s position. This is not something unique to Husserl; all philosophy and all thought rest on contraction. Everything I say is an attempt to communicate the contents of my consciousness to another individual, who cannot grasp the contents of my consciousness. I cannot even grasp the contents of my own consciousness, since during the time of the act of grasping the contents of my consciousness, the contents of my consciousness have changed. The process of time means I may have died before my words have reached the listener or before I have finished grasping the contents of my own consciousness. The possibility of death always undermines claims to transparency of communication and consciousness for Derrida, and awareness of death is a constant factor in his philosophy, drawing on the discussion of death in G. W. F. Hegel and Martin Heidegger.
Philosophy, and all thought, have necessarily tried to ignore and repress contradiction in order to create systems of thought and stable ways of thinking. The repression of contradiction follows a pattern: One of the contradictory terms is regarded as superior, as truth, and the other is regarded as inferior. In the history of philosophy, being has been preferred to non-being, truth to falsity, oneness to difference, and so on. This may not look immediately harmful, but we cannot refer to being without referring to non-being and that gives non-being a being of some kind, as Plato recognized. We cannot escape from the lower term, as it must appear when we are discussing the higher term. The most important discussion in Derrida of this refers to speech and writing as aspects of language and meaning. He examines the privileging of speech over writing in Plato and Rousseau. Plato condemns writing as orphaned from its father, the originator of the words, who remains constantly present in speech. Writing has to be interpreted without reference to the original meaning and is therefore not a reliable expression of truth. Truth is only reliably present in speech, as we know what someone who is speaking means, and we can ask if we are not completely sure. For Derrida, the reduction of language to the presence of truth is “logocentrism,” the centrality of “logos” as the living word of truth. The privileging of speech over writing is “phonocentrism,” the centrality of the spoken word, and is a form of “logocentrism.” “Logocentrism” is another word for metaphysics, and Derrida belongs to a tradition that questions the metaphysical elements of philosophy, while regarding them as unavoidable.
Derrida situates himself with regard to Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, both of whom he regards as precursors of his own deconstructive philosophy. Deconstruction aims to unveil the metaphysical oppositions and hierarchies underlying our thought, and then reverse the hierarchy in order to show its limits. Writing is therefore given priority over speech in Derrida’s texts on that topic, but not with the intention of creating a new metaphysical hierarchy. There is a strategy that shows that all the negative things Plato attributed to writing are in speech, which can therefore be referred to a secondary form of writing, for strategic purposes. Nietzsche and Heidegger are taken as different aspects of deconstruction: Nietzsche as the playful affirmation of difference outside any possible unity in being, Heidegger as the nostalgia for being which can never be brought into presence but is always guiding our thought as an unavoidable presupposition. Jean-Jacques Rousseau has a similar role to Heidegger, in opposition to Nietzsche, as Rousseau’s thought is dominated by a nostalgia for an always-absent nature. The questions of logocentrism and metaphysics are not restricted to philosophy at all. Derrida sees these questions as present in all thought and systems of knowledge. The particular target for him in this field was structuralism in the humanities. Structuralism in linguistics, literary studies, and anthropology are full of logocentric metaphysics, according to Derrida.
The most important work Derrida did on the social sciences is in Of Grammatology (first published in1967), which focuses on Rousseau and the relation of Rousseau with the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and the anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss. He claims that Saussure’s linguistics rests on assumptions on Rousseau’s assumptions about language, in which the inside of language, what belongs to it metaphysically, is the naturalness of the spoken word. Derrida’s discussion of Lévi-Strauss provides the opportunity to question the naturalness and the inwardness of speech compared with writing. Lévi-Strauss looks at “primitive” peoples as natural, which includes a capacity for speech combined with a lack of writing. Lévi-Strauss’s view of primitive tribes is read as following Rousseau’s vision of natural self-containment. However, according to Derrida, Lévi-Strauss’s own texts demonstrate that primitive individuals have writing of a kind and exteriority of a kind (the capacity to see themselves in objects of creation). Writing appears in the examples of wavy lines given by Lévi-Strauss, which are drawn on when the chance to use paper and pen is offered. These lines refer to marks on the body, so there has always been writing of some kind. Exteriority can be seen in the genealogies memorized by Levi-Strauss’s primitives. The genealogies demonstrate that they cannot be living in the natural historyless immediacy of the present that Lévi-Strauss mentions.
For Derrida, all societies, all language, and any kind of self-aware consciousness require exteriority, time, and writing as preconditions. The opposition of nature to society is untenable, since if we can make this distinction, then we are presuming a movement from the natural to the social. If the social emerges from the natural, then there is something in nature that brings about the social. What brings about the social is already social. Derrida argued for this in detail through readings of Rousseau, Saussure, and Lévi-Strauss, by showing the necessary appearance of contradiction in the transition from the social to the natural.
Despite accusations that Derrida is an extreme relativist and a nihilist, the purpose is certainly not to deny the possibility of knowledge, but rather to show that contradictions are at the heart of knowledge and that the constitution of structures of any kind creates a transcendental system opposed to the differences inherent in the empirical. The empirical is full of the variety and transformations of material forces, which contradict any rationality, since rationality contains the transcendence of the empirical. Derrida aimed to challenge the transcendental aspects of philosophy, and all thought, with the empirical but not to deny that this rationalization and system building is necessary. We cannot define the empirical without reference to the transcendental, but we can say that the transcendental is never a pure transcendental universal, it is always a particular force acting on empirical, and is part of this irreducibility of difference.
- Jacques D. (1978). Writing and difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Jacques D. (1989). Introduction to Husserl’s origin of geometry. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
- Jacques D. (1997). Of grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.