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Structuralism and Poststructuralism - Jacques Derrida And Deconstruction

presence difference natural saussure

This antirational implication of Saussure's thinking is most fully exploited beginning in 1967 in the work of Jacques Derrida (Writing and Difference, Of Grammatology, and Speech and Phenomenon, all published that year). Derrida contends that if difference makes knowledge possible, it also renders it impossible on its own terms. If the world is differential in the same way language is, then knowledge of that world which operates according to rationalist imperatives and seeks to identify "what is" will necessarily miss the mark. We have to think more complexly about how we know, and we have to rethink what the known world looks like.

Derrida's most interesting advance on Saussure consists of formulating a new concept, which he calls différance. He argues that philosophy has traditionally based concepts of truth on presence—the presence of the thing or of the idea to the mind. Yet when one examines presence, one finds that it is not a simple identity. Presence must exist both in time and in space. In time, it must be distinguished from past moments and from future moments. In space, the presence of a thing can only be isolated and identified by distinguishing it from other objects. In both a temporal and a spatial sense, then, presence arises out of difference. Derrida combines spatial and temporal difference into one process—difference spelled with an a, or différance. This neologism is significant because in French one cannot hear the a when one pronounces the word. The a, in other words, cannot be made present. It thus resembles the way difference in time and space gives rise to presence (of the present moment, of the thing in its presence) without itself assuming the form of presence.

Derrida contends that all being and all thought is made possible by différance. In order for difference to be operative in language, there must, he argues, be at work in being a more primordial process that distinguishes one thing from another in time and space. It has no identity of its own, but it makes all identity possible. All things thus bear the mark or trace of other things from which they differ and to which they relate or are connected in their very constitution. Because this primordial process can never assume the form of presence or of identity, one finds its imprint, when one reviews the philosophic tradition, in the very concepts and categories that would seem to deny its priority. Because all philosophic concepts operate through identification and the naming of presence, they obscure the process of différance. Yet because it is prior and because it constitutes all presence and all identity, its effects are evident in the text of philosophy.

Derrida's method of analysis, called "deconstruction," seeks to locate the fuzzy, anti-identitarian process of différance at work in philosophic and literary texts. He notices places in texts where thinkers lay claim to an ideal of natural substance or of full and self-identical presence that allows them to order their conceptual world. Usually, such ordering consists of a hierarchy in which the ideal of natural substance or of presence is thought to be prior, foundational, or axiomatic, and something else is declared to be derivative, secondary, and lesser in relation to that norm. Such differentiations, Derrida finds, characterize most if not all philosophical thinking. Many thinkers, for example, locate value and truth in what is declared to be more natural in relation to something else that is declared to be artificial, external, additive, or merely supplementary in relation to an internal or prior essence. Even Saussure, Derrida argues, is guilty of this "metaphysical" maneuver. He argues that speech is more central and internal to language because it is more natural, while writing is more artificial, a matter of external notation and convention rather than of natural substance. Yet, Derrida notes, Saussure's own concept of difference should instruct him that what he calls nature is itself differential. Indeed, in order to delineate the natural as a concept, Saussure must differentiate between an inside and an outside. The supposed natural substance of speech is declared to be inside language, while the technical artifice of writing is declared to be an external addition. Saussure's description of language never takes this particular distinction into account, but on it his entire argument rests. Saussure merely assumes it is the case that speech is closer to the natural "inside" of language while writing is an "external" form. If he tried to take the initial distinction between "inside" and "outside" into account, he would be obliged to notice that difference must precede and determine what he calls "nature." And what this means is that nature is not foundational; it derives from and is produced by difference.

What Derrida calls différance thus obliges philosophic knowledge to relinquish its traditional concern with identification and to instead adopt a looser style that makes weaker, less absolutist claims. American philosophers like Richard Rorty (Philosophy and The Mirror of Nature, 1979) notice that Derrida's position recalls arguments made by proponents of Pragmatism, which also favored a less absolutist epistemology and an approach to knowledge tailored to circumstances that would be more experimental in character. Knowledge, for Pragmatism, is what works in a particular historical situation, not what is absolutely and unequivocally true in nature.

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