5.1 Application of Deconstruction-1

Application of Deconstruction:

In order to show how Deconstruction works in philosophy, Derrida introduces in his Of Grammatology some great thinkers and linguistics like, Saussure, Levi-Strauss, and Rousseau and applies deconstruction to their thought. In this section we will discuss about Derrida and Saussure.

Derrida and Saussure

In order to show, how Deconstruction is applied in Philosophy, Derrida offers in Part I, chapters 2 and 3, a reading of Saussure’s A Course in General Linguistics by considering the implications of that text and its legacy for an affirmative science Of Grammatology. Derrida explains that he has given privileged attention to Saussure not only because of Saussure’s continuing importance in contemporary linguistics and semiology, but also because Saussure holds himself at the limit of the structure of thought that he initiates. Like Heidegger, he remains within the limits of the metaphysics that calls out for the kind of deconstructive reading to which Derrida subjects it; but also, again like Heidegger, Saussure himself has ‘scruples’ and hesitations concerning those limits. Saussure, then, is important for Derrida, first, because his explicitly limited view of writing calls out for a grammatological critique; and, second, because his own text provides the means for that critique, which describes this way:

Unless my project has been fundamentally misunderstood, it should be clear by now that, caring very little about Ferdinand de Saussure’s very thought itself, I have interested myself in a text whose literality has played a well known role since 1915, operating within a system of readings, influences, misunderstandings, borrowings, refutations, etc. What I could read—and equally what I could not read—under the title of A Course in General Linguistics seemed important to the point of excluding all hidden and “true” intentions of Ferdinand de Saussure.[1]

This reading of Saussure is simultaneously a demonstration of deconstructive processes always at work everywhere, an exposition of how close Saussure himself came to understanding those processes, and a critique of Saussure’s moral and metaphysical denunciation of writing, which keeps him confined by the very limitations he was able to see. It is ironically fitting, because of its favorable attention to speech at the expense of writing, that Saussure’s Course survives as a posthumous and disputed reconstruction of his lectures. In 1907, 1908-9, and 1910-11, Saussure taught a course on general linguistics at the University of Geneva. Because he kept few written notes from the course, it has had to be reconstructed from notes taken by his students. After his death in 1913, two of Saussure’s colleagues, Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, who had not attended the lectures, decided to produce a text based chiefly on notes from 1910-11, but incorporating earlier material as well. Although Saussure’s influence was made possible by Bally and Sechehaye’s work, it is now apparent that they misrepresented Saussure’s thought in a number of key respects, including misunderstanding his concept of the phoneme and giving inadequate consideration to his argument for the arbitrariness: of the sign. A recent critical edition of the Course has at last made available al. of the student notes from which the text was constructed. The arguments in the Course that are most important for Derrida are these:

  1. Language is a system of signs.
  2. The sign has two components: the form that signifies (the signifier) and what it signifies (the signified).
  3. The link between these two components is arbitrary, which “is the organizing principle for the whole of linguistics, considered as a science of language structure.”
  4. The signifier and the signified are relational or differential entities.
  5. Language, then, is not simply a nomenclature; there are no fixed universal concepts or signifiers.
  6. Each language is a distinctive and arbitrary way of organizing and conceptualizing the world.[2]

These concepts become part of Derrida’s positive science Of Grammatology. What is most problematic for Derrida is chapter VI of the Course, “Representation of a language by writing.” Like Rousseau, Saussure values most what is original and natural. In the language that is speech, whereas writing sets out to usurp what is primary and to promote a forgetfulness about the origins. Although it pretends to be an aid to memory, writing in fact opposes or displaces living memory with its own artificiality, secondariness, and supplementarity. Here, Derrida points out, Saussure has made the same discovery that Plato came upon in the Phaedrus:

writing signifies forgetfulness, because it is a mediation and the departure of the logos from itself. Without writing, the [logos] would remain in itself. Writing is the dissimulation of the natural, primary, and immediate presence of sense to the soul within the logos. Its violence befalls the soul as unconsciousness.[3]


For Derrida the entire western tradition of thought—from the ancient philosophy of Plato to the Romantic philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau, and even the modern linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and the anthropology of Claude Levi-Strauss—favors speech, the spoken word over writing, the written word. Derrida call this Bias Logocentrism. Logocentrism comes from the greek word “logos”, that means word truth reason and law. The ancient Greeks thought of logos as a cosmic principle hidden deep within human beings, within speech and within the natural universe. Logocentric believe that TRUTH is the voice, the word, or the expression of a central, original and absolute cause or Origin.


For instance,

In the new testament, the word is god.

God is the word

He is the God-Word.

A Word-God,

A Super-Word.



The Gospel of St. Jones declares:

In the beginning was the Word

And the word is with God.

And the word was God.



And as western Philosophy proceeded down through the centuries everything in the universe was seen as the center of this one transcendent cause—this transcendental signified. In order to know what a transcendental signified is, we must first know what a “signified” is. The word “signified” contains the word “sign”. A “sign” is a word. The sign “cow” is made up of the sound “cow” which is the signifier—and the concept or meaning of “cow”, which is the signified. (The actual animal is called the referent).[4]


A transcendental signified is a meaning that lies beyond everything in the whole universe. After all, transcendent simply means that which is beyond everything else. For instance, the logos, the God-Word, supposedly lie beyond the entire universe. But though the god-word, dwells beyond the structure of the universe, the god-word is thought of as centering and limiting the free play of the universe. He makes sure that cows never turn into cantaloupes. He makes the rules. He makes good and evil. Yet, though he makes the rules, the God-word is beyond the rules. He just sits down there—up beyond the rules, the God-word is beyond the rules. Though he is beyond the structure of the world, He is its Center. He Centers it.


During the long history of philosophy, other names have stood for an inner transcendental signified—names such as the Ideal, the world spirit, Mind, the divine will, Consciousnesss, etc. (such terms are usually capitalised). In the western philosophy these inner principles and the words or expressions which express them are central and involve a metaphysics of presence. Metaphysics is talk about transcendental signifieds, original moments, golden ages, transcendental principles, or an unarguable meaning for an utterance or text because it is divine. The metaphysics of presence is the notion that there is a transcendental signifier, a God-word that underlies all philosophical talk and guarantees meaning. It’s like when I am talking with you now. It seems as if my talking with you is a present, direct expression of my thoughts, my emotions, even my spirit. My talk is how I present my thoughts and feelings to you. When I talk with you I seem to verbalise my true self. My words come directly from myself. They seem like a perfect one-to-one fit for my thoughts, feelings, and intuitions.[5]


Just like the uttered Word, the logos, the Son, is believed by Christian theologians to be the perfect expression of God. So the yearning for presence seems to be tied in with this favoring of language over writing, with logocentricism. In fact Derrida says that the whole history of logocentricism, is one vast metaphysics of presence. All the names related to fundamentals, to principles, or to the center have always designated an invariable presence. Thus meaning is more distant in writing, when I write it to you. That is precisely the central and seemingly natural assumption that Derrida unmasks or deconstructs in Of Grammatology. In his reading of a work by the swiss linguistics, Derrida showed how Saussure sets up a binary opposition between speech and writing, and favors speech over writing, with logocentricism.


It was in his A Course in General Linguistics that Saussure defined language as made up of a system of signs. As we have seen, a linguistic sign like “cow”—which is the signifier—and the concept or meaning of “cow”, which is the signified. (The actual animal is called refferent). Derrida’s first argument with Saussure is that he regards the signified—the meaning—as more important than the sound “c-o-w”, the signifier. For sausser the tangible sound only gives us access to the intangible meaning. Sound is outer, meaning is inner.[6]


Derrida points out that just as the western metaphysics of presence cherishes the idea of an inner bond between inner meaning and outer sound. Thus Sausser’s linguistics, a science which is supposedly free of God-talk, simply repeats the ancient pre-scientific assumptions of God-talk. Speech, according to Saussure, is natural and direct, immediately intimate and present to thought and meaning. But Saussure degrades writing, asserting it veils language, that it is not a guise for a language but a disguise, that it is artificial, perverse, pathological, evil, degenerative and only used in absence of speech.[7]


Saussure also argues that just as speech is a way of representing inner meaning, writing is simply a means of representing speech. If speech is a sign of inner meaning—then writing, a sign of speech is twice removed from inner meaning—a “sign of sign”. Thus, for Derrida, the first stage is to see that Saussure privileges speech as central and natural because it is closer to inner meaning—just as the logos, the word and the Son are close to God. He marginalizes writing as perverted and evil. All that is needed for the second stage is a deconstructive reversal, revealing how writing can be central in Saussure’s own text.[8]


And that is what Derrida unravels next. He reminds us how, on the one hand, Saussure says there is a natural bond between sound (the signifier) “c-o-w” and meaning (the signified) “cow”—as if meaning (the signified) depends upon some sort of natural correspondence with the sound c-o-w.


But Sausser also said that the link between the (sound) signifier “c-o-w”, and its signified meaning is just due to chance. In French one says “vache”, in Swahili one says “ng’ombe jike”, in Arabic “baqara”, in Japanese “meushi” to signify “cow”. So there is nothing essential in the sound “c-o-w” that relates it to its meaning.


In fact on the level of sound, “c-o-w” gains its identity only because it is slightly different from “Mao”, which is only slightly different from “sow”, which is slightly different from “bough”, which is only slightly different from “bout”. The sound “cow”, in other words, depends upon its difference from these other sounds, these other signifiers—to distinguish itself from them. So the (horizontal) difference between sound and sound is what shapes the sound of language, not some vertical, intimate correspondence between sound and meaning.[9]


There is only this vast interwoven system of differences. A sound is what it is, only because it differs from other sounds in the same language. It gains its being through being different from them. Similarly on the level of meaning, the concept “cow”, the signified, has no meaning in-and-of-itself. Our concepts distinguish themselves only through their difference from other concepts. The concept “boat” gains its identity by being different from the concept of “ship” or “yawl”. So on the level of the concept, the signified, also there is only a system of differences. And there is no stable foundation to the system of difference which the language is. For instance if you don’t know English, and want to know what a cow is, you would have to look up “cow” in the dictionary. But under the entry “cow,” instead of finding a meaning that would satisfy your search for a meaning, since you don’t know English, you would only find a bunch of other sounds: Cow, The mature female of domestic cattle, or of other animals, as the whale, elephant, etc.[10]


But in order to know the meaning of the sounds “cattle”, “whale”, and “elephant”, you would have to look up their meanings, their signifieds, but you would find only more lists of signifiers, more sounds! A whale is a large mammal that lives in the sea, but then what is a mammal, what is a sea….? So one never arrive at a stable signified, a stable signified, a stable meaning that is capable of providing a foundation for the entire system in meaning. Because every potential meaning turns out to be just another sound, searching for yet another potential meaning. One never reach meaning—there is only an endless chain of sounds.


It’s just like our system of triangles. There is no comfiguration of triangles which can ground the system, make it stable. Each wave of triangles that seems to become present has arisen from a past wave and is dissolving into a future wave. Derida points out that Saussure, in trying to describe how language is just a vast tissue of differences, must employ a graphic system—writing—as an example. For writing is just a play of differences.


For instance, the marks #, @, % mean nothing in-and-of themselves. They have no essential features. They gain their identity only through there difference from other elements in there system. Thus Saussure says that language is a system of differences with no stable positive elements, no unchanging linguistic atoms that might provide a foundation for language.[11]


But if language, made up of sound and meaning, is just a play of differences, and if the relation between the sound “c-o-w” and its meaning changes from language to language, then how can Saussure still claim that there is a natural bond between sound and meaning..? How can he privilege speech as the natural presence of meaning, and trash writing as evil and absent from meaning…? After all, as Saussure himself explains, both the meanings and sounds of speech are systems of difference, just like writing. The sound “c-o-w” is different from “bough” or “wow”. And the meaning of “cow” is different from “bough” or “wow”. And the meaning “cow” is different from “horse”. It is the play of difference that makes the sounds. And this play of difference in speaking is just like the play of difference in writing. For in writing an “r” means nothing in itself, but is what it is because it is different from “t” or “I”. So it could be said that speaking is like a form of writing. This is deconstructive reversal—to invert the hierarchy that favors speech as natural and central and to reveal how writing, which had been seen as perverted, pathological and derivative, can be central and not marginal.[12]


But Derrida does not stop at this. For to do so would be just replace speech with writing. What he does next is to show that neither the word “speech” nor the word “writing” is adequate to describe the more abstract play of differences which they both are; both speech and writing are just a play of difference. So Derrida is not simply reversing the hierarchy—making writing central and speech marginal. What he does next is to put both terms, writing and speaking, under erasure, or in French sous rature[13]


Derrida indicates that concepts are under erasure (a correction made by erasing) by drawing an “X” through them. To put a binary opposition under erasure you write the words, but then mark a big black “X” over them, thus:


Speech Writing


It is a device Derrida borrowed from the philosopher Martin Heidegger, and it simply means that both “Speech” and “Writing” are inadequate to describe the more general play of differences common to both. But in discussing the matter, he simply cannot do without them. So they must be used. And putting them under erasure allows Derrida to have his cake and eat it too, so to speak. It allows him to use a word or concept and simultaneously indicate its highly inadequate nature.. Thus Derrida’s next step, then, is to invent an expression which shows that speaking and writing are just the spoken and written forms of the play of difference, a non-existent form of “writing” he calls it arche-writing.[14]


Arche writing is not merely writing on a page, graphic marks or sounds. It is not the Roman alphabet. It is not any kind of “mraking” that can be made with the voice, with pictures, with hieroglyphies, with cuneiforms, with Chinese characters, with choreography, with musical notations, with the forms of sculptures in space, which can be marked with an awl[15] on oak, with pen on paper, with fingers on sand, with hands on clay, by the contrast of lights and shadows on film. Arche writing is not a thing. It is the pure possibility of contrast, of difference. Arche writing makes possible the play of differences. It does not exist as a thing, yet makes all these possible. Arche writing is not a concept, nor even a word which can be defined. It is like the play of the triangles, the possibility of differing that underlies the play. And Of Grammatology is the science of Arche writing.[16]


Sassure’s project is important for Derrida because Saussure was on the verge of understanding language as logocentric metaphysics. He saw without fully understanding a point of convergence of the new science of linguistics with philosophy of language. Semiotics has given sustained attention to that convergence; and as Derrida proceeds to examine the contributions of these fields, his own text manifests the strains produced by concurrently opening philosophical discourse up to the contributions of linguistics and alerting linguistics to the metaphysical implications of its most recent discoveries.[17]


Derida credits the American Philosopher C.S. Peirce, the founder of semiotics, with having gone “very far in the direction that I have called the de-construction of the transcendental signified.”[18] Although Peirce died in 1914, the year before the publication of Saussure’s Course, Derrida sees in his semiology an advance over Saussurean linguistics. In his disarming assertion, “We think only in signs,” Peirce had come to see logic as the science of signs. In his view, a sign (or representamen) is that “which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity” and is, therefore, “anything which determines something else (its interpretant) to refer to an object to which itself refers (its object).”[19] For Peirce, grammar, logic, and rhetoric are but three branches of the science of semiotics. Although semiology, as proposed by Peirce, is more comprehensive than linguistics, the tenacity of the linguistic sign is such that its operations remain the model for semiology. Thus, Roland Barthes claims that “linguistics is not a part, even if privileged, of the general science of signs, it is semiology that is a part of linguistics.”[20] This reversal, which submits semiology to linguistics, is for Derrida exemplary of logocentric metaphysics [21].


Whereas Peirce’s semiotics differs from Saussurean theory by incorporating language into a more comprehensive science of signs, Louis Hjelmslev’s glossematics[22] modifies Saussurean linguistics from within its own theory. While largely accepting Saussure’s principle that language is, above all, form rather than substance, Hjelmslev departs from Saussure’s view that the sign is the basic unit of language. Even before Hjelmslev, linguists had investigated units of language smaller than the sign, such as the phoneme and the seme, which are the distinctive phonetic and semantic units. The prior discovery of these elements made it possible for Hjelmslev to study the combination and interplay of linguistic units, rather than concentrating solely on their distinctive features. Once the authentic form of language that constitutes these combinations emerges, it became possible for Hjelmslev to investigate the form of content. He was careful, however, to remind his readers that the combinatorial units (glossemes) in no way dispense with the distinctive features of language as studied by phonologists, nor did he find it possible to say positively what these units of combination are. For Derrida, Hjelmslev succeeded in finding not only a certain amount of play within Saussurean theory but also in finding that language is more like a game of chess than like the principles of economics. Derrida quotes Hjelmslev’s declaration that “The scheme of language is in the last analysis a game and nothing more.”[23]

Having celebrated the achievements of the Copenhagen School of linguistics—especially Hjelmslev’s isolation of the linguistic system from metaphysical speculation—Derrida proceeds to inquire into the transcendental origin of the linguistic system itself and of the theory that studies it. Is the formalism or scientific objectivity of glossematics simply a concealed metaphysics? In order to pursue this question, Derrida invokes a number of conceptual terms that serve to explore territory beyond or “short-of” the terrain of transcendental criticism or classical reason. These terms are parts of a metaphorical network derived from the physical processes of writing: ‘trace,’ ‘arche-writing,’ ‘erasure.’ Although it is difficult to resist the temptation to ask, “What does Derrida mean by these terms?,” the terms themselves participate in his effort to investigate critically the need to ask ‘what is’ and to answer any such question with a definition that forgets the differential and deferring processes of signification, which Derrida insists is the only way words and concepts receive meaning.[24] These particular terms mark Derrida’s determination “to see to it that the beyond does not return to the within”, which at least is an effort to resist forgetting Saussure’s challenge to remain aware of how processes of signification cannot even be thought about without the first move of recognizing the sign as pointing beyond itself, rather than making what it points to present in itself.[25] If that first move is too easily forgotten, it is not surprising, therefore, that such comprehensive and transcendental concepts as Plato’s eidos, St John’s logos, or Heidegger’s Dasein can too easily be conceived as available – and, above all, present – in those italicized words.


If the reader starts, however, with the recognition that the opposition to such transcendental concepts is productive – that, in Blake’s terms, “without contraries is no progression,” or in Paul de Man’s, that insight can come out of blindness – then it should be possible to uncover the pathway that such concepts leave behind as and when they are opposed. If they leave a track or trace in the text – a footprint for the grammatological detective to follow—then following the track should not be expected to lead back to the source or forward to its presence. Instead, ‘trace’ signifies the minimal element of structure that makes any sense of difference possible. (It may, therefore be thought of as both inside and outside—before and after—the possibility of definition.) It is like the sign, the glosseme, the seme, the phoneme, and the grapheme in that it is another entry in the lexicon of linguistics that seeks an understanding of the atomic elements of structure that make language possible. The trace is the concept hidden beneath those other entries and simultaneously marks the point in Heideggerian discourse where “the meaning of being as presence and the meaning of language as the full continuity of speech” begins to undermine itself. The trace also marks Derrida’s intention in writing Of Grammatology, which he describes with uncharacteristic directness: “To make enigmatic what one thinks one understands by the words ‘proximity,’ ‘immediacy,’ ‘presence’ (the proximate [proche], the own [propre], a.1d the pre- of presence), is my final intention in .this book.”[26] The trace must be thought through before such oppositions as nature and culture, speech and writing, painting and music, upon which the thought of Rousseau rests, can be critically examined.

As that minimal element of structure that makes possible differentiation, the trace gives rise to such distinctions as primary and secondary, interior and exterior. “Arche-writing” moves back and forth between these distinctions. The judgment that writing is secondary and exterior to speech requires the signifying movements these distinctions make possible. As the origin of writing, arche-writing may be thought to be the spoken word. But if speech is natural, then it would seem to require a sense already of what is not natural, which in this context must be writing. This particular tracearche-writing—is, then, “the opening of the first exteriority in general, the enigmatic relationship of the living to its other and of an inside to an outside.”[27] Such a non-presence of the other and the simultaneous possibility of thinking of the other as though present gives rise to metaphor. Further, the presence-absence of the trace underlies the play that makes metaphorical ambiguity possible, since ambiguity presupposes the logic of presence, which it proceeds to disobey.

As a development from the trace and arche-writing, the graphological technique of putting a word under erasure [sous rature] makes possible the visualizing of these traces; thus, Derrida introduces this phrase, derived from Heidegger, before proceeding to theorize the trace[28]. Again and again in thinking and writing about Derrida the temptation arises to use such words as “is,” “means,” “identifies”, “says,” as though those words retain something of their pre-Derridean innocence. Because these words have been subjected to Derridean critique—because their metaphysical freight has been weighed—they are crossed out; but being unavoidable indeed, because they make the critique possible—they remain legible. In The Question of Being (Zur Seinsfrage) Heidegger explores the philosophical problems of definition as he attempts to define nihilism. He thus crosses out the word “Being,” while keeping it legible. Derrida’s “trace” and the particular trace that he designates “arche-wrting” are extensions of Heidegger’s textual practice in The Question of Being, lust as most of Derrida’s thought has critical reference points in Heidegger’s texts. Indeed, crossing out while keeping legible is not a misleading metaphor for deconstruction.


[1] Of Grammatology, p. 329

[2] Michael Payne, Reading Theory, An Introduction to Lacan, Derrida and Kristeva, p.133

[3] Of Grammatology, p. 134

[4] Jim Powell, Derrida for Begineers, p.35

[5] Jim Powell, Derrida for Begineers, p.36

[6] Jim Powell, Derrida for Begineers, p.39

[7] Jim Powell, Derrida for Begineers, p.40

[8] Jim Powell, Derrida for Begineers, p.41

[9] Jim Powell, Derrida for Begineers, p.43

[10] Jim Powell, Derrida for Begineers, p.44

[11] Jim Powell, Derrida for Beginners, p.45

[12] Jim Powell, Derrida for Beginners, p.46

[13] Jim Powell, Derrida for Beginners, p.46

[14] Jim Powell, Derrida for Beginners, p.47

[15] A pointed tool for marking surfaces or for punching small holes

[16] Jim Powell, Derrida for Begineers, p.48

[17] Michael Payne, Reading Theory, An Introduction to Lacan, Derrida and Kristeva, p. 134

[18] Of Grammatology, p.49

[19] Michael Payne, Reading Theory, An Introduction to Lacan, Derrida and Kristeva, p. 135

[20] Michael Payne, Reading Theory, An Introduction to Lacan, Derrida and Kristeva, p. 135

[21] Of Grammatology, p. 51

[22] Louis Hjelmslev was a Danish linguist whose ideas formed the basis of the Copenhagen School of linguistics, he developed a new theory on language, coining the word Glossematik (in English, glossematics; the word was partially derived from the Greek “glossa” which means “tongue” or “language”).

[23] Of Grammatology, p. 57

[24] Of Grammatology, p. 70

[25] Of Grammatology, p. 61

[26] Of Grammatology, p. 70

[27] Of Grammatlogy, p. 70

[28]Of Grammatology, p.72