Jacques Derrida and Logos


The Problem with Origins

Following his tour de force presentation of “Structure Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” in 1967, Jacques Derrida astonishingly published three books: De la Grammatologie. Collection Critique (1967), L’écriture et la différence (1967), and La Voix et le phénomène: Introduction au problème du signe dans la phénoménologie de Husserl (1967). These books were a remarkable outburst of philosophical re-thinking of modern philosophy through a re-reading of foundational texts. Sadly for Americans who did not speak French there was nearly a decade before translation: Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs was translated by David B. Allison in 1973. Of Grammatology was translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in 1976 and published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, the site where Derrida had made his American debut. Two years later, Writing and Difference was translated by Alan Bass. Perhaps because of the lags in translations and publications, American explicators tend to discuss these seminal reputation-making books in toto, generalizing the content into a discussion of Derrida’s intellectual project. But, that said, this trio of books, consisting a collections of essays, all attack the presence of metaphysics laced through modern philosophy. The relationships among these books posed a problem of even the early readers as translator Alan Bass pointed out,

Derrida first says that De la grammatologie can be considered a bipartite work in the middle of which one could insert L’écriture et la différence. By implication, this would make the first half of De la grammatologie —in which Derrida demonstrates the system of ideas which from ancient to modern times has regulated the notion of the sign—the preface to L’écriture et la différence..The last five essays of L’écriture et la différence, Derrida states, are situated or engaged in “l’ouverture grammatologique,” the grammatological opening. According to Derrida’s statements a bit later in the interview, this “grammatological opening,” whose theoretical matrix is elaborated in the first half of De la grammatologie —which, to restate, systematizes the ideas about the sign, writing and metaphysics which are scattered throughout L’écriture et la différence —can be defined as the “deconstruction” of philosophy by examining in the most faithful, rigorous way the “structured genealogy” of all of philosophy’s concepts; and to do so in order to determine what issues the history of philosophy has hidden, forbidden, or repressed. The first step of this deconstruction of philosophy, which attempts to locate that which is present nowhere in philosophy. i.e., that which philosophy must hide in order to remain philosophy, is precisely the examination of the notion of presence as undertaken by Heidegger.

“Presence,” therefore, precedes everything and permeates philosophy which, as Derrida pointed out, attempts to expel it but, like philosopher Edmund Husserl, always return to lean upon what is essentially a belief system. From a Derridan perspective, this metaphysical system of thought is dependent upon “logos,” language, the word, expressed as the sign. The sign, in turn, was based upon the assumption of the existence of equally metaphysical concepts such as “essence, truth and the foundation of belief” but most importantly a “presence.” The speaker whose immediacy gave authenticity to the word/sign and weight to the signifier. In Of Grammatology, Derrida noted that the idea of “presence” is the desire for something beyond language itself or a transcendental signifier of Logos. Logos implies something beyond any mere speaker; logos implies something far grander that guarantees word: idea, world spirit, God, some point of origin from which speech emerged. The problem for philosophy is that the discipline attempts to erase or eradicate writing, conceived of as “secondary” to speech and gives itself over the the presumption that philosophy is not mere writing but transcends marks on a page. But, Derrida warned, “..the wandering outcast of linguistics has indeed never ceased to haunt language..”

This “haunting” of philosophy by logos needs to be recognized and Derrida’s philosophical project is to re-read and to undermine philosophical texts with the plan of finding internal contradictions embedded in the supposedly perfectly transparent revelation of pure thought (speech). According to Derrida, phonocentricism, or the centering and privileging of the voice (primary, present) over writing (secondary, absent) controls structural linguistics and orders the field of study without being acknowledge. In returning to his duel with Claude Lévi-Strauss, he insisted that the “logocentric epoch” or the “structuralist turn,” is founded upon the concept of a structure which, in turn, depends upon the center or the concept of a center. Furthermore, this Center is (Heidegger) Being or Presence, the ontological ground, the source of origin making certain, reassuming the value of speech. Indeed Logocentrism relates to centrism, or the assumption that the structure has a center. The ultimate center, then, is an authorizing presence, made manifest by the human desire to posit a central presence, logos, in the heart of language and this desire is a longing for a center. Reason, in this case, coils back upon itself. The desire for the center predates the center and once centrality is willed into the structure, the center is outside itself.

With the mind-numbing assertion that the center is not the center, the history of contemporary (or postmodern) deconstruction begins with Jacques Derrida and these three books, De la Grammatologie, l’écriture et la différence, la voix et le phéomène, which in 1967, began with a challenge to both Saussure and Husserl over this fundamental question of presence. Derrida criticized Ferdinand de Saussure for studying only speech rather than that also looking the connection between speech and writing, and in “Structure Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” he criticized Lévi-Strauss who also considered the verbal as being primary and originally and presented writing as dependent, implying that writing was a mere technique, a symptom of civilization and the loss of innocence. According to Derrida, these philosophical rejections of writing were signals embedded in the texts of the broader tendency of logocentricism or the nostalgic longing for the divine mind (God), the impossible self-presence of the full self-consciousness of the subject. This self-consciousness is also a fantasy of being able to say what one means, of controlling words and their intent through the fullness of presence or the totality of existence.

Just as Derrida was unwilling to accept existentialism, the romantic philosophy of self par excellence, he also noted that when constructing his philosophy of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl assumed a principle of the voice or the inner soliloquy–the ability to think and speak simultaneously. Most of us expect that when we speak our speech comes from our own personal “psychic interiority” or the depths of the mind cloaked by the speech act. We think that we speak directly and “naturally,” meaning that we assume that speech is spontaneous, compared to writing. When we write we are at a distance, a remove from the fullness of speaking, reproducing mechanically our second-hand unspoken thoughts. Writing, we assume, is a mere transcript of speech, artificial, not authentic, and alienated, rather than connected. But these assumptions and beliefs, which permeate philosophy, are naïve and rest precariously upon an unsustainable belief system. Derrida explained that, contrary to the assumption that logos pre-exists communication and can be traced back to some kind of primordial paradise, language is no pure and has never been pure. Writing has always preceded speech, not the other way around.

The distinction between speech and writing depends upon difference–speech is different from writing and vice versa, just as presence is the opposite of absence. Opposition is fundamental to Structuralism but, as Derrida said, “The living present springs forth out of its nonidentity with itself and from the possibility of a retentional trace. It is already a trace.” Writing invades the assumed ontology of language/linguistics as difference or “trace,” or distinguishing mark. This “living present,” or the trace, which is always present, is the effect of difference, of spacing between terms. Because of the ineradicable trace, according to Derrida, transcendental meaning through speech is a fiction necessary for philosophy. Modern philosophy depended upon such thinking in that the “metaphysical” is a thought system that allows us to think and depends upon the figure or metaphor of a foundation, a ground, a place to put the thoughts to follow. This first principle or starting point is defined by what is excluded by binary opposition.


Photograph of Japanese woman writing by Kusakabe Kimbei

As Derrida pointed out in “Structure Sign and Play,” it is necessary to structure these neat oppositions in order to control surplus meaning and indeed Structuralism and its entire edifice was “built” on binaries: signifier/signified, sensible/intelligible, speech/writing, diachrony/synchrony, space/time, passivity/activity–these oppositions are axiomatic but the ultimate point of reference, the prime assumption, is the “presence of a presence.” The idea that the present can be frozen is, of course, a convenient fiction. In addition, Derrida revealed, these binaries, far from being mere organizing principles, are actual ideologies, ways of seeing that give preference toward one term over the other. Logos spawns hierarchized oppositions in terms of a superior term, denoting presence and an inferior term, which is fallen. There is something Biblical about binary oppositions: one term is “innocent” and the other is “fallen.”

Derrida’s insight is indicative of his “origins” as a colonial from Algeria, an colonized person in the heart of French intellectual territory, a Jewish man in a Gentile nation. At the heart of his critique of Lévi-Strauss was his ethnocentrism and imposition of cultural superiority over the “natives” of Brazil. But Lévi-Strauss was hardly along in his flawed thinking: previous philosophers had, since Jean-Jacques Rousseau, used a nature/culture opposition, implying an unfortunate evolution of human beings out of an originary Arcadia after living in an innocent state of nature as speakers. The culture of writing becomes a supplement or an excessive appendage, that both adds and substitutes, that is both detrimental and beneficial. However “beneficial” civilization might be, the first term of the pair, “nature,” is still longed for as a kind of lost innocence, and becomes the privileged entity. For Rousseau, nature is self-sufficient but human beings need culture, the supplement, the impure interloper. But for Derrida, there is no original and an un-supplemented or pure nature is impossible, because humans are present.

We can never know nature and because we are culture our concept of “Nature” is already a supplement because it is we who have “written” or fabricated it. Like Being, Nature escapes our comprehension and yet the concept of necessary in order to speak of culture. Nature must be sous rature, put “under erasure”–we cannot understand nature but we must have it, erased but nevertheless present. In other words, there can be no concept of “nature” without “culture,” and the “nature” is assumed to pre-exist “culture” has no meaning without the existence of “culture.” In realizing that the terms are weighted in preference, in understanding that these weights are ideological, Derrida pushes philosophy out of the Garden of Logos.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Edmund Husserl and Philosophy

EDMUND HUSSERL (1859 – 1938)

It is the dead date of Edmund Husserl that is of great interest. The fact that the philosopher died in the year 1938 speaks volumes of, not just his fate, but the history of the reception of his work. Like the philosophers of the Frankfurt School, Husserl was a Jewish scholar in Hitler’s Germany and was all but doomed. Unlike the theoreticians at the Institute for Social Research, Husserl apparently made no attempt to leave his homeland. The fact that Husserl and his wife, the daughter of a renowned Jewish scholar, had converted to Christianity mattered little to the Nazis who were obsessed with “blood.” Exclusionary laws passed between 1933 and 1937 pushed Jews out of public life and Husserl was pushed out of his home university at Freiberg by the very man he had mentored, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s complicity with the Nazi regime was but part of a general eagerness on the part of German intellectuals to make a “Faustian bargain,” as it were with Der Führer. As Robert P. Ericksen wrote in Complicity in the Holocaust: Churches and Universities in Nazi Germany,

the Nazi regime actually found enthusiastic support in German universities during the transition of 1933, from students and faculty alike, and Nazis were effective in weeding out Jews and left-wing critics, thoroughly and without mercy. For the rest of the Nazi period, the atmosphere at German universities seems to have been one of enthusiastic support for the new regime and its politics, rather than resistance or criticism.

For what appear to be historical reasons—the interruption of the free flow of philosophical ideas and writing from Germany during the ten year period of the Third Reich—there was a delay in the reception of the philosophy of Husserl. But one must consider also the fact that the thought of Husserl evolved: from a focus on mathematics to logic to psychology, until after decades of deep and complex meditations on the ontology and then on the epistemology of things, he settled on phenomenology as a means to explicate the foundation of reality. Husserl considered his approach to phenomenon as being akin to the transcendentalism of Kant, with whom he found an affinity, and, in his desire to transcend to a universality for a firmly grounded philosophy, he was also akin to Georg Hegel in his absolutism. Husserl’s longing to construct a philosophy of universality began in earnest after the Great War, a war that killed one son and wounded another. He translated his sentiments into a scientific approach to the problem of who we encounter or perceive objects. By rejecting situational interpretations, Husserl attempted to eliminate relativity. The Nazis also despised relativity, but they interpreted the philosopher as being inclusive, which is somewhat different from universal. In the end it was an epistemological system of the universal that was facing a racist ideology of purity and superiority, and, given that his earlier work was tainted with anti-war sentiments, Husserl was simply could not win such a contest.

As Dermont Moran relates in Edmund Husserl: Founder of Phenomenology, although Husserl was forbidden to publish in Germany, the elderly scholar continued an active lecture schedule and he continued to write until he fell ill and died. His former colleagues at his university refrained from attending his funeral, but those who admired his work, such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, gathered together his unpublished manuscripts, which were salvaged for publication throughout the 1950s. Thus Husserl’s oeuvre gradually became available in English in time to filter into American universities so that by the 1960s, graduate students, even those in the arts, could be come conversant with that aspect of his very varied writings with which the philosopher became most identified: phenomenology. And, in turn, phenomenology provided the language for the artists and critics associated with the Minimalist art movement, who were seeking to provide a philosophical framework for reductive shapes which aspired for “objecthood.” Although there is much in Husserl’s thought that seems to relate to the New York art world, from the materialistic formalism of Clement Greenberg and his followers to the very antithesis of Greenbergian formalism, Minimal Art, it is well to remember that Husserl was not translated into English until the 1960s and 1970s and any art world knowledge of his work would have been second hand.

Husserl’s long search for an unshakable ground for philosophy came to fruition in 1907—the year of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Alfred Stieglitz’s The Steerage—when he gave a series of lectures which were developed later as The Idea of Phenomenology. True to his methodical nature, he was more of a note maker than a manuscript writer, Husserl’s follow up books, Ideen I and Ideen II, evolved slowly during and after the Great War. Although there were treasure troves of unpublished work, these are the seminal works for phenomenology. For Fernand de Saussure and for Ludwig Wittgenstein, the proper study of philosophy was language or Logos, which is fully expressed in speech. However, for Husserl the proper domain of philosophy was a special kind of seeing, called phenomenology or that which is based upon discernible phenomena. Given that this is a philosopher who was trained in mathematics and logic and who swerved towards a neo-Kantian perspective, it is clear that Husserl would examine the relationship between the human subject and the world of material culture or objects in the world.

Phenomenology begins of course, with the dialectical logic of Georg Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit and ends with Husserl who, many will argue, is the end point of Western philosophy. Given that Husserl regarded philosophy as a universal science and sought to uncover an absolute foundation of knowledge, phenomenology is the totality of human objectivity that creates a “transcendental subjectivity” or a universal ego. It is the human mind who not only recognizes the Other—objects, other people—but which also structures these experiences. This is where Husserl is in agreement with Kant but Husserl, the mathematician, the logician, must cordon off these experiences in such as a way to purify them so that these phenomena can truly be known.

A “phenomenon” is an entity as it appears to the unconscious. All being is being for consciousness. In other words, objects exist independently of consciousness. Kant insisted that, even if this were so, these objects were inaccessible except through mediation; but Husserl asserted that it was possible to recover lost origin by disclosing the (Kantian) constructive activity of consciousness. Although neither Friedrich Nietzsche nor Wittgenstein were interested in recovering lost origins, Husserl’s quest is for clarity and “complete clearness” in philosophy. He believed that phenomenology was a special kind of seeing that could be cultivated through an operation called “bracketing.” Bracketing in math is simply a way of setting off or aside a grouping of numbers with parentheses or square, curly or angled brackets. Bracketing is separating a set of numbers in order to act upon them in a certain manner. And thus is a phenomena can be set aside or apart or “bracketed” from its cultural surroundings, it can be “seen” in a more rigorous or universal or essential fashion. This “reduction” of surrounding noise is referred to by Husserl as an “eidetic” reduction that is capable of transcending the relativity of that which lies outside the brackets.

Possibly because of his disillusionment towards the War or more possibly due to his foundation in logic, Husserl was suspicious of early Twentieth Century pragmatism and its relativity. Worse than the turn towards relativity, Kantian “disinterest” had become fatally entangled with “naturalism” which extended knowledge of nature to the psychic processes as thought they, too, were natural objects. In other words, the natural attitude or reaction of humans was to impose their personal (relative) understandings or interpretations upon a circumstance or thing. These mis-directions that had been allowed in philosophy had caused a crisis that Husserl saw as solvable by a return to the ideal of rational certainty, pioneered by the Greeks. Like those philosophers of the nineteenth century, Husserl admired the Greeks and considered them the first Moderns because the Greeks, in contrast to the other cultures of their era, were able to disentangle themselves from the “mythico-religious” and to attend to the theoretical or philosophical aspects of life. To be sure that one would achieve clarity and rationality, one must take what Husserl called the Natural Standpoint or the phenomenological stance. What we experience from this stance is the “fact-world.” But we are then instructed to doubt this fact world, that is, we are asked to suspend “belief” and make more pure “judgments” about this world.

We bracket the object in this fact-world in that we take the object “out of action”, we “disconnect” ourselves from our “interest” in or knowledge of this object, and thus we detach ourselves from the object. From this attitude of Husserlian disinterestedness, we now possess a “unique form of consciousness.” We now see differently and what we see are the “essences” of things. Husserl calls the result of this “transcendentally reduced experience” to be the self-appearance, the self-exhibiting, the self-giveness of objects themselves. We are and have become directly aware of objects, not just their appearances but their thing-ness, their very existence. In other words, we have bracketed out that which is extrinsic to the object and become fully into its presence and reflect upon the way in which the object is present for the consciousness. Husserl was not so much concerned with the meaning of the objects as with their existence as evidence. Husserl considered himself as an “archaeologist” like Freud, but he did not excavate for meaning but for an origin–what the object is in existence: the being of the object. Rather than a unity, according to Husserl, consciousness then is a flow of realizations in experience of the object that allow the object to come into being for the subject.

Within this flow through a process of “unfolding” of layers or strata of consciousness, what is sought is the ‘foundedness” of the object . The result of the stance of phenomenology would be a “rigorous disengagement” and ”systemic neutrality” towards phenomenon. Ultimately, Husserl’s influence expanded and the method of bracketing would hopefully achieve the certainty and clarity in philosophy that he desired. The philosopher was part of a larger group of philosophers concerned with the mechanisms of consciousness—not psychology—from Bergson to Merleau-Ponty. Thanks to their continued interest in his work, Husserl’s Ideas: General Introduction in Pure Phenomenology was eventually published in English in 1931 but the only work he considered as complete at his death, Die Krisis der eruopäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenoligie, delivered as lectures in 1935 and 1936, would not be published until 1954. Although, with hindsight, we can see Husserl as part of a larger phenomenon played out in the arts as the “new objectivity,” Husserl’s philosophy was, like the art of the Thirties, caught up in the rising tide of the next war. Like many creators of his generation, Husserl would have to wait for a new generation, emerging after the Second World War, to appreciate his ideas. Until then, the world would be propelled into catastrophe by belief systems and ideology that shaped a destructive force in Nazi Germany, which resulted in one of the greatest brain drains in modern times as scholars fled to America.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]