3 min read

Yep I'm still banging on about Derrida

I just properly read Newton Garver's introduction to my dodgy pdf of Voice and Phenomenon (called Speech and Phenomena in this older version). From the limited information I can find online, he seems to have been a Wittgenstein scholar. This introduction was written in 1972 for the first publication of the book in English and the theme is 'no, seriously, this guy talks weird but he is making an actual argument, let me contextualise him within Anglo philosophy'.

Probably something gets lost during the contextualisation, but it's still helpful as a stepping stone. Anyway, he has a nice analogy. Garver sets up Husserl and Derrida as a pair similar to early and late Wittgenstein:

His penetrating consideration and ultimate rejection of the basic principles of Husserl's philosophy of language is the historical analogue of Wittgenstein's later consideration and rejection of his own earlier work, The Tractatus Logicophilosophicus. In both cases a work belonging to the first historical movement in the philosophy of language of the twentieth century is examined and found unintelligible, at least partly on its own terms; and the alternative to the rejected theory is one that belongs to the second movement, according to which rhetoric and the context of actual communication are an essential and ineradicable feature of all linguistic meaning.

Husserl and early Wittgenstein are both working in the early twentieth century when mathematical logic is undergoing huge developments, and take logic as a template for language. In this view there is a sort of core of internal logical primitives that mean something independent of context, and this is what gets pulled apart by the later pair, in different ways. Later Wittgenstein attacks the idea of pure atomic facts, Derrida attacks pure internal meanings:

In its negative component, the core of Derrida's analysis, or "deconstruction," is a sustained argument against the possibility of anything pure and simple which can serve as the foundation for the meaning of signs. It is an argument which strikes at the very idea of a transcendental phenomenology. The move is parallel with Wittgenstein's rejection of the idea of simples (which is also the core of the negative component in his later work); but whereas the simples that Wittgenstein came to reject were logical atoms, or objects free from any contingent or empirical properties, the simples that Derrida rejects are the simples of transcendental phenomenology rather than of logical atomism, viz., experience that is pure in the sense that it can be fully understood as it is found in our private mental life, without reference to transient circumstances or actual empirical objects.

Garver also has a nice concise formulation of the idea of différance:

Différance is a complex essential characteristic of signs, being composed of (a) an actual difference which makes the sign possible, but which can be instituted and understood only in terms of (b) other times and circumstances in which the instituted difference systematically appears.

So for a spoken language, for a start you've got to have sounds that can be heard as different by humans. That's the 'perception'/'empiricism' side. And also you have to systematically use them in different ways, at different times. That's the 'ideality'/'rationalism' side. Importantly you need both, so différance leads to a blurring of both categories:

In the sound system of a language, according to structuralist phonology, the sounds that are ultimately differentiated linguistically are phonemes. Derrida's remarks imply that phonemic difference is a matter of différance rather than either actual acoustic difference as such or ideal difference as such: both the above features are, essentially and indissolubly, involved in the differentiation of phonemes.

This why Derrida goes on about time a lot. I found that a confusing jump at first, but it's starting to make sense. He's using Husserl's discussion of retention and protention against Husserl's own arguments for immediate presence... I should follow this again more carefully.

Also to think about:

  • the connection between différance and discretisation. You want to keep the auditory difference between phonemes, which pushes towards making them distinct from each other with no confusing intermediate cases... so that's half of the différance concept. I think the 'ideal distance' part is also relevant but I'm not quite seeing it right now.
  • I still can't shake the idea that différance is actually useful as a concept, I should actually be able to apply it to some concrete example in a way that makes some feature of the example clearer, instead of just writing these endless boring notebook notes. I guess that was the direction I was trying to aim in with my visual programming notes. But I'm not there yet.