Jacques Derrida: Basic Writings
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Jacques Derrida: Basic Writings

Barry Stocker, Barry Stocker

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Jacques Derrida: Basic Writings

Barry Stocker, Barry Stocker

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One of the most influential and controversial thinkers of the twentieth-century, Jacques Derrida's ideas on deconstruction have had a lasting impact on philosophy, literature and cultural studies.

Jacques Derrida: Basic Writings is the first anthology to present his most important philosophical writings and is an indispensable resource for all students and readers of his work. Barry Stocker's clear and helpful introductions set each reading in context, making the volume an ideal companion for those coming to Derrida's writings for the first time. The selections themselves range from his most infamous works including Speech and Phenomena and Writing and Difference to lesser known discussion on aesthetics, ethics and politics.

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Part I


Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak


The extract comes from the beginning of Of Grammatology which may be Derrida’s most widely read book. The translator Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is a notable writer on colonialism, post-colonialism and gender. She is a leading representative of the most radical-left and Marxist orientated readings of Derrida.
The extract sets up some of Derrida’s central arguments about metaphysics, writing and the nature of his own deconstructive philosophy. The reference to the ‘the end of the book’ is not a literal claim that books are disappearing. It refers to certain ideas of the Book, derived from religious texts, particularly the Bible, which refers to ‘books’ in its etymology. Scientific rationalist encyclopaedic texts, such as Diderot’s eighteenth-century Enlightenment Encyclopaedia, and in particular Hegel’s Encyclopaedia of Philosophical Sciences (1830) are seen in terms of attempts to present absolute truth. The ‘Book’ in that sense is metaphysical. The Book is opposed to Writing, in an opposition between logocentrism and the substitutability of signs. Logocentrism is the determination of an entity as its full presence. It relies on metaphors of what stands in the real entity, or truth, but needs to deny its reliance on metaphor. Historically these metaphors have included: the truth of the soul, the book of nature, the writing of God. The distinction between signifier and signified, exemplified by Saussure’s linguistics, is an example of logocentrism because it assumes that the signifier, the material existence of a sign, merely stands for the signified, the pure ideas or concepts contained in words. Writing reveals itself as the signifier of the signifier, in which words are only defined by other words; a signifier only stands for another signifier and not something behind signification. This is a comment on how language works freed of metaphysical assumptions, it is in no way a metaphysical claim that language of any kind is more real than the physical world. Derrida makes clear here his adherence to a Nietzschean kind of empiricism in which the empirical, or the non-philosophical, always exceeds abstractions in their content, in a focus on perspective, evaluation, difference.
Logocentism turns writing, the signifier of the signifier, into something secondary in its ‘phonocentrism’. Phonocentrism makes speech and the voice metaphysically primary. Logocentrism looks for a living presence of truth and finds it in speech which is understood as the immediate presence of the soul, or the consciousness, that speaks. Phonocentrism emphasises: the presence of the thing to sight as eidos, or form; pure presence as the presence of substance, existence, and ousia, or spirit; the point of the now in temporal presence; the self-presence of consciousness; the co-presence of the other and the self; intersubjectivty as an intentional phenomenon of the Ego. Phonocentism is threatened by the emphasis on logical forms and pure symbolism of ideas outside normal language, which can be found in Leibniz. Then growth of recorded speech threatens the assumption of phonocentrism that speech is always the immediate expression of an inner intention. The growth of the language of computer programming and biological awareness of programming in cells has a similar effect, because it shows forms of language and communication of information which do not refer to speech at all.
Metaphysics claims to be scientific and to provide foundations for science. However, science is not governed by logic. The laws of science are not derived from logical laws, and therefore refer to an empirical diversity which cannot be reduced to a pure system of rules or incorporated into a total system. Science is always concerned with the empirical world and that always exceeds abstract unities.


Derrida’s view on metaphysics is an explicit rejection, but that does not exclude metaphysics, since in rejecting metaphysical positions a metaphysical position is taken. Derrida recognizes that deconstruction always falls back into metaphysics. Anti-metaphysical thought goes back to the Ancient Greek sceptics (most notably Sextus Empiricus), and has always been caught in the paradox that it offers another metaphysics. Antimetaphysical metaphysics, in Derrida, and elsewhere, is nominalist. Nominalism is the position according to which names of types of things (common nouns) and types of property (adjectives) are just names grouping objects and do not refer to any underlying real kinds. Nominalism as an explicit tradition goes back to the Medieval philosopher, William of Ockham. In recent analytic philosophy Nelson Goodman is its most distinguished representative, though Quine started as a nominalist and the position he eventually adopted of ‘conceptualism’ retained nominalist aspects. Not all empiricist philosophers are nominalists, Charles Peirce for example was a strong realist. Some of Derrida’s predecessors in Continental European philosophy were strongly anti-nominalist, including Hegel, Husserl and Heidegger. Derrida distanced himself from all three in the respect that he insisted on a Nietzschean empiricism which is implicitly nominalist. The paradox of adopting a metaphysical position in rejecting metaphysics was one felt deeply by the logical positivists who gathered in the Vienna Circle after the First World War. The logical positivist began with the belief that they could eliminate metaphysics through the reduction of all knowledge and all meaning to logic and empirical observation. This heroic empiricism did not last, partly because of the ambiguities entailed around the reality of scientific laws, or laws in general, can bring both laws of logic and empirical science into question; and the ambiguity of ‘anti’ metaphysics having to take up metaphysical positions. Struggles with these problems are very noticeable in the classical logical positivist texts of Rudolf Carnap and Moritz Schlick. Carnap, contrary to Derrida, regards philosophy as the logic of science, and in a completely opposite approach to Derrida focuses on issues of logical structure in language and knowledge. His progress towards a more pragmatic and historical version of his thesis might be taken to confirm Derrida’s scepticism about a logic of science. Carnap’s focus on logic and logic of language leads him to pose questions of knowledge and of ontological assumptions in terms of what language we are using, again converging with Derrida in the belief that there is no clear separation to be made between the assumptions of language and assumptions about knowledge and metaphysics made in that language. This aspect of Carnap is taken further by Quine in ‘On What There Is’ (1948) and ‘Ontological Relativity’ (1969) which both emphasise that ontological questions are pragmatic and formal questions of what kind of entities are assumed in the language we have.
A stronger ‘analytic’ precedent for Derrida might be found in Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein was close to the Vienna Circle for a while, and his form of anti-metaphysics belongs with them in some respects, but Wittgenstein was also deeply impressed by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and his philosophy must therefore be seen in the context of Continental European philosophy. In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Wittgenstein 1961 [first published 1921]) Wittgenstein advocates pure logical and pure empirical science, but also deals with the question of what can be shown but not said and the paradoxes of communicating anti-metaphysical positions. The structure of reality and language are seen as the same, in a way which is logocentric from Derrida’s point of view, but which does not make any attempt to bring the structure into presence except in the way that the Tractatus is composed and in the style of its lapidiary propositions. This is Derrida’s territory. The later Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations himself acknowledges metaphysical aspects of the Tractatus. The alternative is still rooted in the Tractatus, the assumption that the structure of reality is described in describing the structure of language. The structure becomes complicated and ramified, so that it is no longer a unified architectural monument, through an emphasis on perspectives, evaluations and differences within language in its different language games which provide context for words and the plurality of meanings they contain. As with the Tractatus the philosophy is partly communicated by style and a fragmentation of the text into short aphoristic passages.

Of Grammatology: Exergue

  1. The one who will shine in the science of writing will shine like the sun. A scribe (EP, p. 87). O Samas (sun-god), by your light you scan the totality of lands as if they were cuneiform signs (ibid.).
  2. These three ways of writing correspond almost exactly to three different stages according to which one can consider men gathered into a nation. The depicting of objects is appropriate to a savage people; signs of words and of propositions, to a barbaric people; and the alphabet to civilized people. J.J. Rousseau, Essai sur l’origine des langues.
  3. Alphabetic script is in itself and for itself the most intelligent. Hegel, Enzyklopädie.
This triple exergue is intended not only to focus attention on the ethnocentrism which, everywhere and always, had controlled the concept of writing. Nor merely to focus attention on what I shall call logocentrism: the metaphysics of phonetic writing (for example, of the alphabet) which was fundamentally—for enigmatic yet essential reasons that are inaccessible to a simple historical relativism—nothing but the most original and powerful ethnocentrism, in the process of imposing itself upon the world, controlling in one and the same order:
1. the concept of writing in a world where the phoneticization of writing must dissimulate its own history as it is produced;
2. the history of (the only) metaphysics, which has, in spite of all differences, not only from Plato to Hegel (even including Leibniz) but also, beyond these apparent limits, from the pre-Socratics to Heidegger, always assigned the origin of truth in general to the logos: the history of truth, of the truth of truth, has always been—except for a metaphysical diversion that we shall have to explain—the debasement of writing, and its repression outside “full” speech.
3. the concept of science or the scientificity of science—what has always been determined as logic—a concept that has always been a philosophical concept, even if the practice of science has constantly challenged its imperialism of the logos, by invoking, for example, from the beginning and ever increasingly, nonphonetic writing. No doubt this subversion has always been contained within a system of direct address [système allocutoire] which gave birth to the project of science and to the conventions of all nonphonetic characteristics. It could not have been otherwise. Nonetheless, it is a peculiarity of our epoch that, at the moment when the phoneticization of writing—the historical origin and structural possibility of philosophy as of science, the condition of the epistémè—begins to lay hold on world culture, science, in its advancements, can no longer be satisfied with it. This inadequation had always already begun to make its presence felt. But today something lets it appear as such, allows it a kind of takeover without our being able to translate this novelty into clear cut notions of mutation, explicitation, accumulation, revolution, or tradition. These values belong no doubt to the system whose dislocation is today presented as such, they describe the styles of an historical movement which was meaningful—like the concept of history itself—only within a logocentric epoch.
By alluding to a science of writing reined in by metaphor, metaphysics, theology, this exergue must not only announce that the science of writing—grammatology—shows signs of liberation all over the world, as a result of decisive efforts. These efforts are necessarily discreet, dispersed, almost imperceptible; that is a quality of their meaning and of the milieu within which they produce their operation. I would like to suggest above all that, however fecund and necessary the undertaking might be, and even if, given the most favorable hypothesis, it did overcome all technical epistemological obstacles as well as all the theological and metaphysical impediments that have limited it hitherto, such a science of writing runs the risk of never being established as such and with that name. Of never being able to define the unity of its project or its object. Of not being able either to write its discourse on method or to describe the limits of its field. For essential reasons: the unity of all that allows itself to be attempted today through the most diverse concepts of science and of writing, is, in principle, more or less covertly yet always, determined by an historico-metaphysical epoch of which we merely glimpse the closure. I do not say the end. The idea of science and the idea of writing—therefore also of the science of writing—is meaningful for us only in terms of an origin and within a world to which a certain concept of the sign (later I shall call it the concept of sign) and a certain concept of the relationships between speech and writing, have already been assigned. A most determined relationship, in spite of its privilege, its necessity, and the field of vision that it has controlled for a few millennia, especially in the West, to the point of being now able to produce its own dislocation and itself proclaim its limits.
Perhaps patient meditation and painstaking investigation on and around what is still provisionally called writing, far from falling short of a science writing or of hastily dismissing it by some obscurantist reaction, letting it rather develop its positivity as far as possible, are the wanderings of a way of thinking that is faithful and attentive to the ineluctable world of the future which proclaims itself at present, beyond the closure of knowledge.
The future can only be anticipated in the form of an absolute danger. It is that which breaks absolutely with constituted normality and can only be proclaimed, presented, as a sort of monstrosity. For that future world and for that within it which will have put into question the values of sign, word, and writing, for that which guides our future anterior, there is as yet no exergue.

The end of the book and the beginning of writing

Socrates, he who does not write—Nietzsche1
However the topic is considered, the problem of language has never been simply one problem among others. But never as much as at present has it invaded, as such, the global horizon of the most diverse researches and the most heterogeneous discourses, diverse and heterogeneous in their intention, method, and ideology. The devaluation of the word “language” itself, and how, in the very hold it has upon us, it betrays a loose vocabulary, the temptation of a cheap seduction, the passive yielding to fashion, the consciousness of the avant-garde, in other words—ignorance—are evidences of this effect. This inflation of the sign “language” is the inflation of the sign itself, absolute inflation, inflation itself. Yet, by one of its aspects or shadows, it is itself still a sign: this crisis is also a symptom. It indicates, as if in spite of itself, that a historico-metaphysical epoch must finally determine as language the totality of its problematic horizon. It must do so not only because all that desire had wished to wrest from the play of language finds itself recaptured within that play but also because, for the same reason, language itself is menaced in its very life, helpless, adrift in the threat of limitlessness, brought back to its own finitude at the very moment when its limits seem to disappear, whe...

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