5.4 Application of Deconstruction-4

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 Warburton, Vico, Condillac.


Derrida and Warburton, Vico, Condillac

Of Grammatology concludes by placing this reading of Rousseau’s Essay within the context of three other eighteenth-century texts that deal with similar topics: WiIliam Warbuton’s The devine legation of Moses Demonstrated (1741, Giambattista Vico’s The New Science (1744), and Etienne Bonnot de Condillac’s An essay on the origin of Human Knowledge (1746). Throughout part II of his text, Derrida uses Vico in his footnotes as a counterpoint to his exposition of Rousseau’s argument in the Essay, even though Rousseau himself both borrowed from and argued against Vico. Derrida attributes to Vico the rare, if not unique, distinction of having advocated the contemporaneous origin of writing and speech. In the introduction to The New Science he wrote,


“letters and languages were born twins and proceeded a pace through all their three stages. Those stages are simultaneously the three ages of the world, the three kinds of nature and government, and the three kinds of language, all of which are epitomized in the three languages of the Egyptians. These correspondences may be diagrammed as follows:[1]


Historical Age

Kind of Language

Egyptian version

  1. The age of Gods:

Divine government

by oracles



  1. The Age of Heroes: aristocratic common wealth based on the

assumption of

superior nature

  1. The age of Men:

Popular commonwealths and monarchies based on the assumptions of equality in human nature.

1. Mute language of

signs and physical

objects, which have

natural relation to

ideas expressed

2. Heroic emblems,

images, metaphors,

natural descriptions



3. Human language

using commonly

agreed upon words

by which the people

fix the meaning of

laws that nobles and

priests and kept


  1. Hieroglyphic or





  1. Symbolic






3. Epistolary or vulgar

Vico anticipates that by using his theory of the stages of history and language, scholars of any language, ancient or modern, should be able to advance philological knowledge beyond any previous expectation. Furthermore, he declares, it is now possible to claim with confidence that early peoples were poets who spoke in poetic characters.[2] This discovery is “the master key” to the new science of man.


Despite his immense learning, Vico appears to be unaware of William Warburton’s monumental defense of Moses against the Deists. William Warburton’s discussion of the origins of writing in The Divine Legation of Moses Demonstrated is indicative of the transition in the treatment of writing and writing systems that was occurring in this period. Warburton’s work, which at one point discusses the origin and development of writing, shows an affinity with seventeenth-century works on writing systems — it outlines a number of different writing systems. In particular, Warburton discusses the ideographic and pictographic writing systems of the Mexicans, Egyptian hieroglyphics and Chinese writing as representative of three stages in the development of writing representing images or ideas. These systems are fundamentally different, he argued, from systems which use writing to represent sounds or words. The Divine Legation introduces an interest in the theory of writing and the importance of the relationship between writing and speech. In book II, he describes the process of the development of writing:

Men soon found out two ways of communicating their thoughts to one another; the first by SOUNDS, and the second by FIGURES: for there being frequent occasion to have their conceptions either perpetuated, or communicated at a distance, the way of figures or characters was next thought upon, after sounds (which were momentary and confined), to make their conceptions lasting and extensive.[3] (Warburton 1788, II:388)



In book IV, section 4, Warburton offers a history of writing in order to show that Egyptian hieroglyphics constitute an important proof of the antiquity of Egypt. His thesis is a lucid and succinct statement of the opposite position from Vico’s:

There are two ways of communicating the conceptions of our minds to others; the first by sounds, and the second by figures. For there being frequent occasion to have our conceptions perpetuated, and known at a distance, and sounds being momentary and confined, the way of figures or characters was, soon after that of sounds, thought upon to make those conceptions lasting and extensive. The first and most natural way of communicating our conceptions by marks or figures, was by tracing out the images of things. To express, for instance, the idea of a man or horse, the informer delineated the form of each of those animals. Thus the first essay towards writing was a mere picture.[4]


This distinction indicates a fundamentally different interest in writing from the seventeenth-century scholars: here, writing is a way of representing conceptions, and is thus secondary to thought. Warburton also put forward a theory that the type of literature composed in a given language at a given time is related to the written form in which it was recorded. He states that in primitive times, when the only visual form (and the most natural way) of representing language was with pictures, the dominant form of literature was one of action, that is, stories were illustrated with gestures and so on. As picture writing evolved, Warburton claims, metonymy and metaphor `came into being. Although it would have better served his theological interests to argue, as Vico had, that the metaphorical character of primitive languages had a divine origin, Warburton is sufficiently committed to his belief in the representational origin of writing—a picture of a horse representing a horse, for example—that he takes the opposite view from Vico’s.


When Condillac appropriated Warburton’s history, he kept much of Warburton’s language but silently altered his view of the origins of metaphor:

When mankind had once acquired the art of communicating their conceptions by sounds, they began to feel the necessity of inventing new signs proper for perpetuating them, and for making them known at a distance. Their imaginations then represented nothing more to them than those same images, which they had already expressed by gestures and words, and which from the very beginning had rendered language figurative and metaphorical. The most natural way therefore was to delineate the images of things. To express the idea of a man or of a horse, they represented the form of each of these animals; so that the first essay towards writing was a mere picturc.[5]



By locating metaphor at the point of the origin of language, Condillac, like Vico, is able to conceive of the original style of language as poetical, because it began with depicting the most sensible images of our ideas. By inheriting this debate on original language as mediated by Condillac, Rousseau was able to overcome his pre-Saussurean position in history. Condillac provided him with a sense of the arbitrariness of the sign and with a rudimentary conception of deconstruction.[6]

This legacy of Condillac is more fully sketched in Derrida’s The archeology of the Firivolous: Reading Condilac (1973), which elaborates on the allusions to Condillac at the end Of Grammatology. In this later book, Derrida quotes with obvious approval from one of Condillac’s letters to Gabriel Cramer:

You want me to explain the prerogative of arbitrary signs over natural ones and why the arbitrary signs set free the operations of the soul that the natural ones leave necessary. That is the most delicate point of my system on the absolute necessity of signs. The difficulty has all its force and is so much better founded since I did not anticipate it. That is what causes me to be a little tangled on this whole matter. I even notice that I have said more than I wanted to, than I meant.

An even more striking anticipation of Derrida’s formulation of deconstruction is a passage from Condillac’s Essay, to which he seems to allude without directly citing it:

Sometimes after having distinguished several ideas, we consider them as forming only a single notion; at other times we prescind from a notion some of the ideas of which it is composed. This is what we call to compound and decompound our ideas. By means of these operations we are capable of comparing them under all sorts of relations, and of daily making new combinations of them.

Condillac also appears to have anticipated the perversion Of Grammatology both by its Derridean disciples and by those who would make war on what is ultimately a feature of language. First, Condillac describes the strategies of such a writer as Rousseau or Heidegger or Derrida, who finds that “every style analogous to the character of the language, and to his own, has been already used by preceding writers,” leaving him no option but to “deviate from analogy.” But “in order to be an original, he is obliged to contribute to the ruin of a language,” which in earlier generations he would have worked to improve. Although “such writers may be criticized, their superior abilities must still command success.” But because their defects are easy to copy, soon “men of indifferent capacities” rush to acquire what reputation they can, even by imitating those defects. “Then begins the reign of subtle and strained conceits, of affected antitheses, of specious paradoxes, of frivolous turns, of far-fetched expressions, of new-fangled words, and in short of the jargon of persons whose understandings’ have been debauched by bad metaphysics.”[7]



[1] Michael Payne, Reading Theory, An Introduction to Lacan, Derrida and Kristeva, Cambridge, p. 152

[2] Michael Payne, Reading Theory, An Introduction to Lacan, Derrida and Kristeva, Cambridge, p. 152

[3] As quoted in Michael Payne, Reading Theory, An Introduction to Lacan, Derrida and Kristeva,, p.153

[4] Quoted in Michael Payne, Reading Theory, An Introduction to Lacan, Derrida and Kristeva,, p.153

[5] As quoted in Michael Payne, Reading Theory, An Introduction to Lacan, Derrida and Kristeva, p. 153

[6] This legacy of Condillac is more fully sketched in Derrida’s The archeology of the Frivolous: Reading Condilac (1973).

[7] These phrases, quoted from Condillac quoted by Derrida himself, indicate how well he knows the perils of his own project and influence