Grammatology as a Positive Science

Grammatology as a Positive Science


“On what conditions is a grammatology possible?” Derrida asks in chapter 3. His search for an answer is guided by the work of Madeleine V. David, whose Le Debat sur les ecritures et I’hieroglyphe aux xvii et xviii siecles (1965) provided Derrida with the occasion for the first formulation of this chapter, which appeared as a review in Critique.[1] In her book and in several journal articles Madeleine V. David began to carry out a philosophical investigation into the history of writing. As in natural science, the first efforts to carry out a history of writing in the eighteenth century had to cope with “speculative prejudice and ideological presumption.”[2] Of Grammatology, however, even more than natural science, was hampered by ideology and theological prejudice because of the powerful link between Judaeo-Christian theology and biblical assumptions about writing. The belief that Hebrew script was first written by the finger of God and that biblical Hebrew was the first of the world’s languages became eventually linked with the belief that Jesus Christ was the incarnation of God’s word and the means by which God makes himself present in the world. Seventeenth and eighteenth century historical linguists and grammatologists had to contend with a theological opposition to what threatened theology’s fundamental ideological investment: the transcendent word, by which God becomes present in history. “In all its forms, overt or covert, this theologism, constituted the major obstacle to all Of Grammatology.”[3]

In an effort to overcome this obstacle, Descartes, Leibniz, and others seized upon Chinese script as a model for philosophical language because it was thought to be free of voice and liberated from history. The ‘Chinese prejudice’ thus arises to fill a European philosophical need. That this language of the other is created to fill what the European mind experiences as its lack is best conveyed by a sentence from Leibniz’s Opuscules et fragments: “Meanwhile [this language of undifferentiated presence] will be a great help—for using what we know, for finding out what we lack, for inventing ways of redeeming the lack, but especially for settling controversies in matters that depend on reasoning.[4] Rather than being considered a distinctive language in itself, Chinese was imagined as a whole and complete metaphysical presence. The other side of this hallucination was the total disparagement of what was thought distinctively European. Thus, the non-European other served only to fill what was designated as the European lack, and this ethnocentrism manifested itself specifically as a logocentrism. Here Derrida begins to make good on his claim, in the opening pages of his text, to provide a critique of the ethnocentric underpinnings of logocentrism. There are, then, wide implications of the hallucination of a non-existent Chinese language that solves the problem of all other language. Ethnocentrism can work in more subtle ways than the assumption of unique power and authority in European culture. Derrida sees in the projection of the longing for presence, completeness, and identity onto the non-European culture, and the corresponding disparagement of what is Western by the Western mind, an equally dangerous form of ethnocentrism. Both forms deny the otherness of the other. The concept of Chinese writing thus functioned as a sort of European hallucination.[5]


The problem, for Derrida, is less the European lack than the European invention of a plentitude in the Other, which denies the Other its linguistic and psychoanalytic (divided) subjectivity. The cost of being the European object of hallucination is nothing less Of Grammatology, therefore, resists being encompassed by the ‘sciences of man’ because it thoroughly suspects—as Lacan had done—the assumption of human identity or unity. Identity assumes sameness always and everywhere. Andre Leroi-Gourhan’s work, which Derrida reviews in this chapter, also emphasizes the productive disruption of this unitary assumption about man that is effected by writing: “To free unity from the concept of man is undoubtedly to renounce the old notion of peoples said to be ‘without writing’ and ‘without history’[6].


But once the assumption of viable unity is disrupted, so is the medium by which it is asserted the book. Derrida, in this carefully structured book, repeatedly announces ‘the end of the book.[7] Derrida is warning that the European hallucination is also invading psychoanalytic theory undetected. He concludes part I with the dreadful prediction that Grammatology, like psychoanalytic theory, will remain walled-in by the metaphysical-theological linguistics of presence. But within the walls of that metaphysics there is thought, which Derrida describes as “the blank part of the text, the necessarily indeterminate index of a future epoch of difference.”[8] The play within the structure of the text gives thought room to work and a profoundly serious job to do.


The goal of deconstruction is to uncover the implicit hierarchies contained in any text by which an order is imposed on reality and by which a subtle repression is exercised, as these hierarchies exclude, subordinate, and hide the various potential meanings. To ‘deconstruct’ philosophy, thus, would be to think-in the most faithful, interior way-the structured genealogy of philosophy’s concepts, but at the same time, to determine from a certain exterior that is unqualifiable or unnamable by philosophy-what this history has been able to dissimulate or forbid, making itself into a history by means of this somewhere motivated repression. Deconstruction is thus conceived as as metascience surpassing the metaphysics of logocentric systems: It inscribes and delimits science; . . . it marks and at the same time loosens the limits which close classical scientificity[9]

[1] Michael Payne, Reading Theory, An Introduction to Lacan, Derrida and Kristeva, Cambridge, p.139

[2] Of Grammatology, p. 75

[3] Of Grammatology, p. 76

[4] Of Grammatology, p. 78

[5] Of Grammatology, p. 80

[6] Of Grammatology, p. 83

[7] Of Grammatology, p. 86

[8] Of Grammatology, p. 93

[9] Michele Lamont, How to Become a Dominant French Philosopher: The Case of Jacques Derrida, The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 93, No. 3 (Nov., 1987), p. 590