Language as Writing | Derrida | Philosophy

Derrida’s deconstruction of Husserl and Phenomenology

Superstructuralism builds on a key field of language theory. Husserl is an ‘I’ philosopher. He’s after an especially ‘true’ level of language from an ‘I’ philosophers point of view, he says it is necessarily and exclusively human and draws an absolute distinction between human signs and natural signs. True language then to Husserl is in terms of expression, where meaning is willed and intended by the utterer.  Derrida, on Husserls behalf says –

Expression…is conscious through and through, and intentional.

Meaning thus understood is not just meaning in the sense that words mean, but in the sense that someone means them to mean. This orientation towards ‘expression’ tilts Husserl’s theory of language inevitably towards the use of Voice. But what could have caused the idea that anyone else has a mind in the first place, if not their words, their signifiers?

It is because of these inter-subjective problems in Husserl, that he relegates person-to-person speech to secondary status and discovers ‘expression’ most purely present in the intra-subjective use of Voice, in interior monologue. When one talks to themselves, they understand perfectly and directly the intention that animates the words.

Derrida explains on Husserl’s behalf:
My words are “alive” because they don’t seem to leave me: not to fall outside me, outside my breath, at a visible distance; not to cease to belong to me, to be at my disposition “without further props”.

The inward voice takes place in time, but does not take place in space.

Husserl even admits that what is required for his conception of interior monologue is that one already knows everything one is going to say to oneself before starting to say it. Language has in effect been reduced to a mere appendage and has no real reason for continuing to exist at all.

Husserl’s insistence on all ‘true’ language is necessarily and exclusively human has enabled him to dissolve the existence of objective verbal signs entirely in favour of subjective human ideas. This is good for an ‘I’ philosopher, but highly unsatisfactory from the viewpoint of anyone who wants to consider language as an important reality in its own right.

Derrida and writing

Derrida wants to do exactly that. For Derrida, ‘true’ language is not language at its most human but language at its most language-y, language at its most self-sufficient – even to the extent of being independent of human beings.

Derrida Wrote:
The structure peculiar to language alone, which allows it to function entirely by itself when its intention is cut off from intuition.

Husserl points to an extreme interior monologue of Voice, Derrida tilts all language towards the opposite extreme of Writing.

Writing is language at its most self-sufficient because it is language at its most spatial, writing exists, not insubstantially in the mind, nor briefly and transparently in sound-waves of the air, but solidly and enduringly in marks upon a page. Such marks do not need to be propped up by the presence of their marker; on the contrary, their marker is always essentially absent, and may even be dead. Writing is orphaned and seperated at birth from the assistance of its father.

Writing represents the passage of thought out of consciousness. Derrida has to turn the common-sense way of looking at the world completely upside-down.

Derrida does not deny that the use of speech comes before the use of language for every human. He denies the assumption that we ordinarily make without even thinking about it: the assumption that the original form of a thing is somehow its ‘truest form’. Thus we tend to assume that we could finally explain language if we could only rediscover its most rudimentary beginnings in primitive communication. This assumption comes very naturally to us.

Derrida proposes a radical seperation of historical and conceptual priority. The fact of writing follows from the fact of speech, but he non the less asserts that the idea of speech depends upon the idea of writing. Or to put it another way – writing is the logically fundamental condition to which language has always aspired.

No doubt this is a difficult position to grasp. Consider this analogy-

A tree rises and flourishes by virtue of some deep and inwardly hidden source of life. We tend to imagine a single essential center which was there from the earliest stages of growth. But a tree lives on the outside, by the circulation which flows through its green bark and sapwood, and its center is mere dead heartwood, endlessly supplanted and left behind.

We could consider the language of mathematics too, that if we trace all later developments back to counting with sticks or stones or beads or whatever, we will arrive at the purest and truest form of mathematics as a language. But these have all been supplanted and left behind in the real world in modern times. The square root of minus one does not exist in real world terms at all. Rules have to be made up in order for that to exist at all. In a sense, mathematics reveals its ‘truest’ form in its ‘unnatural’ and most supplementary developments.

The logic of supplements

This is a new centrifugalist way of looking at the world.

The strange structure of the supplement appears…by delayed reaction, a possibility produces that to which it is said to be added on.

Structuralists vision of superstructures, is that culture has become so fundamental to human existence, that there is no possibility of delving down under it. Culture can predominate over a nature which existed before it.

Derrida goes all the way with the seperation between historical and conceptual priority, he overturns our assumptions about origins and culture no less than our assumptions about origins in nature. The logic of supplements also applies to thinking about language itself, as we shall see shortly, but also applies to our way of thinking about meaning within language.

What is in the writers mind has no special priority over the meaning of his words. The writer discovers the meaning of his words upon writing them. The written sign is not only sent it is also received, even the writer is just another reader. There is a surplus of meaning with written words.

Philosophical zombies

Can a something have two meanings at once that make it contradictory? A philosophical zombie is a term or concept that is both dead and alive, it is an undecidable – the Greek word ‘Pharmakon‘ means both ‘remedy’ and ‘posion’, for example. According to Derrida, the Greek language is saying two quite different things about Plato’s text, two very divergent things about writing, simultaneously and undecidably. He finds many more remote meanings with this word, such as perfume, dye and even a scapegoat for the good of the community! The centrifugal movement of meaning within language could not be more plainly demonstrated.

For Derrida, the centrifugal movement of any single word ultimately spreads out across every other word in the whole language.

Derrida refuses to allow any meanings in any mind at all. He gives a very simple answer to a philosophical problem that goes like this –

When we try to look at the meaning of a word in our minds, we never seem to encounter any decisive mental content or image but only absence and emptiness.

Derrida’s answer is – the signified does not exist.

This is very much like David Hume’s statement –

“For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception…. If any one, upon serious and unprejudic’d reflection thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can reason no longer with him. All I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continu’d, which he calls himself; tho’ I am certain there is no such principle in me.”

The signified is merely an illusion that human beings have invented because they feared to face up to the consequences of a materialist conception of language.

There is no movement from signifier to signified, but there is movement from signifier to signifier. Signifiying is signifiers in motion. What’s more – the movement is unstoppable. In the ordinary conception of meaning – the signifiers points away from itself but the signified does not, the signfied represents a terminus where meaning grinds to a halt. In Derrida’s conception – one signifier points to another and another and another ad infinitum.


Derrida describes this state of language as dissemination, no rich harvest of meaning, but rather spillage and waste, endless loss. Language manages to avoid social responsibility and individual irresponsibility, it’s anarchic and unpredictable level of functioning subversive of all rigid proper meanings on the ordinarily socially controllled level. This is the Post-Structuralist mode of language – the mode of the Sign’s real being.


Derrida dispenses with a simultaneous totality of a system of language (as if langauge fell from the skies ready-made) by saying words are not self-identical or fixed in the same place. It’s endlessly unbalanced and out of equilibrium. Derrida’s theory of language still works with differentiation – with a difference, or to be more precise – with différance.

On the one hand, différer indicates difference as distinction, inequality, or discernability: on the other, it expresses the interpretation of delay, the interval of a spacing and temporalising that puts off until ‘later’ what is presently denied.

Différer in this sense approximates to the English verb ‘to defer’, and like the English verb, it brings into play the notion of an action in time.

Oppostions of words do not exist by virtue of their opposition, but rather by the virtue of deferring of the meaning. The meaning is put off only for the present, it still impends, still awaits and in time the meaning that defers will have to flow over into it.

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