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Derrida and Language


Jacques Derrida was one of the most influential, heavily criticized, and controversial philosophers of the 20th century. In an open letter signed by 18 academics, it was stated that he did not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigor, that he “attacks upon the values of truth, reason, and scholarship.” Derrida’s work was mainly concerned with grammatology, or the scientific study of writing systems. It may seem unusual for a linguist to be so harshly criticized, but with his study of language he unveils a much bolder and deeper message.

In his career, Derrida was best known for his linguistic analysis he called deconstruction. It was venomously received and criticized, despite being his central legacy. Deconstruction was a sort of critique of writing, but if its only implications were related to writing, then he would not have been as influential or controversial as he was.

From his deep critique of writing unfolded something else entirely: a critical examination of institutions. Derrida himself notes that, “The idea behind deconstruction is to deconstruct the workings of strong nation-states with powerful immigration policies, to deconstruct the rhetoric of nationalism, the politics of place, the metaphysics of native land and native tongue… The idea is to disarm the bombs… of identity that nation-states build to defend themselves against the stranger, against Jews and Arabs and immigrants…”

The importance of Derrida’s work is derived from this critical look at institutions. Social power structures, political systems, political parties, economic systems, religions, bureaucracies, and institutions are, on the surface, made up of buildings, websites, phone numbers, people, documents, things. But what they are essentially comprised of is tradition, a shared language, a shared system of writing, sentences and words that when combined, make up the foundation, theory, goal, and power of institutions. The Bible, Wealth of Nations, Das Kapital, Leviathan, The Origin of Species, are all the words, sentences, theories, goals, or traditions of their respective institutions of Christendom, Capitalism, Communism, modern Democracy, and Darwinism.

All of these institutions and ideas are bound by a theory of language, a convincing language which proponents thought revealed the truth of the world. Each language sparking tradition of separate political philosophies, going on to inspire books, essays, university lectures, commentators, supporters, columnists, detractors.

Jacques Derrida, born in 1930 and died 2004, was the developer of deconstruction, a method of criticizing a text. Derrida thought the history of Western society was logo-centric, presuming there was an objective world-truth which could be acquired through language. This, he argued, was fundamentally mistaken because of the nature of language. Language is undecidable, it is uncertain, inaccurate, no single word can be pinned down to one meaning, and no thing or feeling can be pinned down to one word.

Structuralist language can be separated into signifiers and signified. A signifier would be a sound, picture, or written word registered in the brain. For example, take a tree. In this case, a picture of the tree, the written word tree would all be signifiers, signifying the concept of a tree. The signified is not a real, objective tree, but only one’s personal idea of one. When signifying a tree, people refer to different trees, different ideas, notions, or connotations of a tree, making one objective signified tree impossible because of differences in perception. Rather, it is the shared and conveyed human notion of a tree.

Signifiers create a web of meaning; Derrida thought what gives signifiers meaning were the relative differences between them. The signifier ‘cat’ draws its meaning from other signifiers: mammal, fur, four legged. This creates a structural system, where signifiers point to each other for meaning. If you try and find a word’s definition in a dictionary, you will find more words, each of which have their own definition comprised of words, and if you continue, eventually you will be back at the original word. Derrida built upon these ideas, and claimed that with each signifier, other signifiers were implicitly present. When you think of a pig, you also think pink, big, dirty, farm, among thousands of other things depending on the person. Derrida called this concept différance, the concept that without this reliance upon other words to think of or describe a word, and the differences between them, language would not function.

Derrida’s goals with his linguistics was to reveal the subjectivity of language; meaning differs from reader to reader, time to time, so there cannot be a shared, objective truth that we can all access and understand uniformly. Meaning there cannot be one singular truth that can be revealed by one language, one book, one philosophy, one institution.

Utilizing his ideas of language, Derrida developed deconstruction, a method of criticism based solely upon the author’s text and nothing else. It is a way of revealing a text’s meaning not that of common acceptance. Deconstruction, however, is not exclusive to literature. It is also a way to examine institutions and ideas, especially political or social ones.

Derrida’s philosophy of language is intricately complex and confusing, in a sense helping further his point. Some would call his writings purposely obscure, faking profoundness. Nevertheless, his philosophy is one for our times, representing the skepticism of postmodernity, and the fewer and fewer people accepting the superlative power of institutions, representing the idea that no thing should go without assiduously detailed criticism.

One Response to “Derrida and Language”

  1. Mr. Crossman says:

    Mr. Rockwell:

    Well composed and analyzed. I recall struggling through Writing and Difference in graduate school, and here you are summarizing it so clearly. Sounds like you are ready to teach my APEL course! Maybe I can retire early now.

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