David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Jacques Derrida on Husserl: Speech and Phenomena

This passage comes from one of Derrida’s earlier works, a short treatise dismissing Husserl’s phenomenology as hopeless due to the nature of language. Ultimately I don’t think it has much to do with Husserl; Derrida is just looking for a place on which to hang his theory of différance, deferrals of meaning, and traces. This is not to say that language doesn’t pose a problem for Husserl, but Derrida’s argument is far more tenuous than it needs to be if you are actually interested in how Husserl’s phenomenology relates to language.

The ideal form of a written signifier, for example, is not in the world, and the distinction between the grapheme and the empirical body of the corresponding graphic sign separates an inside from an outside, phenomenological consciousness from the world. And this is true for every visual or spatial signifier. And yet every non-phonic signifier involves a spatial reference in its very “phenomenon,” in the phenomenological (nonworldly) sphere of experience in which it is given. The sense of being “outside,” “in the world,” is an essential component of its phenomenon. Apparently there is nothing like this in the phenomenon of speech. In phenomenological interiority, hearing oneself and seeing oneself are two radically different orders of self-relation. Even before a description of this difference is sketched out, we can understand why the hypothesis of the “monologue” could have sanctioned the distinction between indication and expression only by presupposing an essential tie between expression and phone. Between the phonic element (in the phenomenological sense and not that of a real sound) and expression, taken as the logical character of a signifier that is animatedin view of the ideal presence of a Bedeutung (itself related to an object), there must be a necessary bond. Husserl is unable to bracket what in glossamatics is called the “substance of expression” without menacing his whole enterprise. The appeal to this substance thus plays a major philosophical role.

Speech and Phenomena VI, “The Voice that Keeps Silence”

Derrida is talking about two aspects of language that Husserl identifies: expression (Ausdruck) and indication (Anzeichen). Expression denotes the aspect of meaning that we give to a linguistic sign. Indication denotes the way in which it empirically points to something else, as well as any contextual and conventional role it may have. When I speak to others, words serve as an indication of my meaning. Husserl believes that within the realm of thought and phenomenology, indication does not have a role to play, and so phenomenology only needs to deal with expression. For me, the meaning is prior to the words, and so I don’t need to worry about what my words indicate. This approach renders language “transparent,” and indeed, Husserl doesn’t talk much about language.

Derrida starts by discussing how, since the mind uses signs that have an indicative role, indication and expression cannot be separated. This is not a new point (Wittgenstein, amongst others, had spent much time here). But he then says, in passages such as the above, that in fact, expression is dependent on indication and in fact expression is nothing more than indication. (The arguments here are fairly arcane and I will not go into them because I’m prepared to grant this point for the sake of my greater argument.) We now have a problem, because indication is incomplete: a sign points to something else, rather than containing any sort of meaning in itself. In other words, all mental relations must also be ones of indication and not of any other type. And since indication can only point to something else rather than contain innate meaning, that meaning is endlessly deferred. Cue Derrida’s larger project and the attack on what Derrida terms “presence,” which seems to be whatever may lie underneath the endless map of signs pointing to one another. And of course Husserl’s project is invalid because the sort of phenomenological bracketing of meaning that Husserl wants is impossible.

But Derrida has cheated. He’s gone from an atomic relation of sign to sign and assumed that because a single signification is bereft of meaning, the entire system must be. This is a negative claim–that no meaning is possible–and he’s achieved it by narrowing the gap on both sides. First, he’s abandoned consideration of the holistic view in which a system of significations could have a meaning which is not contained in isolation in any single signification. (This is basically Quine’s argument in “Two Dogmas of Empiricism“: “The unit of empirical significance is the whole of science.”) Second, he’s insisted that a particular type of meaning, Husserl’s, is the only one possible, so any problem with Husserl’s admittedly naive theory extends to language in general.

So Derrida silently assumes logical atomism and a naive theory of reference, then posits that position as one side of a dichotomy and his endless deferral of meaning as the other, with no middle ground. That tons of philosophers had already discussed exactly that middle ground seems to be of little concern to him. He has used Husserl as a straw man, he has ignored stronger arguments against his position, and he has employed false dichotomies so as to prove himself correct by contradiction. Anything other than pure indication is suddenly “presence” and is automatically invalid. This is pretty lame, especially when it later becomes a trapdoor to transcendence in which you can only get past the endless deferral through “radical” means of some form or another.

There are other problems in his thinking here, but these particular flaws stand out because they seem so representative of Derrida’s entire project and its tactics. He is not the first and will not be the last to commit these fallacies, but as houses of sand go, his is particularly egregious.

(For a more thorough examination of these issues, see Kevin Mulligan’s “How Not to Read.”)

Postscript: I read Martin Hagglund’s chapter on Derrida and Husserl in Radical Atheism, which is indeed a reasonably-written book. He says: “The decisive question for Derrida, however, is whether the structure of re-presentation is a condition for consciousness as such.” Hagglund ignores, however, the question of whether, even if it is a condition, it has the implications for meaning that Derrida claims it does. All this stuff about fundamental presence and ideality remains a strawman.

Update: In addition to NN’s helpful comment below examining a section of “Signature Event Context,” I just found that Jon Cogburn made a similar point in passing last year in the context of a much larger discussion of Derrida, Levinas, and Critchley:

[Derrida’s arguments] seem to constitutively involve the fallacy of false dichotomy at every stage of his career, starting with the ur-false dichotomy between some kind of radical holism and an Augustinian philosophy of language/mind, a false dichotomy no reader of Wittgenstein would make.

That about sums it up. Cogburn also cites the Kevin Mulligan article above while discussing Derrida’s responses to the sort of critique I give here:

A number of years Man and World (now Continental Philosophy Review) published an article where the author criticized Derrida’s interpretation of Husserl (note that every serious Husserl scholar I know agrees that Derrida is a terrible reader of Husserl, e.g. http://www.unige.ch/lettres/philo/enseignants/km/doc/HowNotRead1.pdf ). They invited a response from Derrida, but he just wrote a short note saying he disapproved of the spirit in which the author wrote the critique of Derrida. And this is a maneuver Derrida did again and again. Attacking the motives and personality of people much less powerful than him who had the audacity to suggest that he might be mistaken. And this is what bothers me the most.


  1. Now I feel that I am stalking your comments section.

    Thank you for this interesting post. There is a similar problem with Derrida to be found in “Signature Event Context”. Look at the opening section for example, and you will find this chilling picture:

    “Is it certain that there corresponds to the word communication a unique, univocalconcept, a concept that can be rigorously grasped and transmitted: a commu-
    nicable concept? Following a strange figure of discourse, one first must ask
    whether the word or signifier “communication” communicates a determined
    content, an identifiable meaning, a describable value. But in order to articulate
    and to propose this question, I already had to anticipate the meaning of the
    word communication: I have had to predetermine communication as the vehicle,
    transport, or site of passage of a meaning, and of a meaning that is one. If
    communication had several meanings, and if this plurality could not be reduced,
    then from the outset it would not be justified to define communication itself as
    the transmission of a meaning, assuming that we are capable of understanding
    one another as concerns each of these words (transmission, meaning, etc.).”

    If this was written at the same time as Frege, one might not give it much thought, but is it really reasonable to have this either “a determined
    content, an identifiable meaning, a describable value”, “a unique, univocalconcept, a concept that can be rigorously grasped and transmitted” or no meaning at all? It has the gait of a false dichotomy.

  2. As you know, I’m very fond of Derrida’s work — especially the later stuff, when he could relax into his own groove without combative justifications. But on your chosen terms, this seems fair to me. Whatever Derrida is doing, it’s surely not logical refutation. For whatever one reader’s experience is worth, though, I never accepted that pretense, and so in my case his “fraudulence” felt more like W. C. Fields than like Enron.

    I like the way Cogburn puts it: “So there’s something else in Derrida where he gives his readers a certain way of looking at the world and problem space that ends up being incredibly fruitful for them.”

  3. David Auerbach

    2 February 2011 at 22:28

    Indeed, it could be that Derrida’s bewildering works like Glas will survive as inspired, imaginative creations long after the “clearer” work on philosophy has been forgotten as inconsequential in their context–indeed, long after contemporary philosophical trends have proven evanescent. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time something like that has happened.

    On those terms, I can’t say the weirder stuff really works for me, but that’s just a matter of taste. Different standards apply.

  4. Great post. I agree with Mr. NN (I am assuming the cognomen comes from Wittgenstein), though to be fair to Derrida his little joke is that the different meanings or uses of communication have to communicate with each other — in the way two rooms communicate via a hallway.

    In Responses, I wrote about Derrida’s false dichotomies in his defense of de Man that he likes to treat a view or interpretation or claim as the resultant of two vectors, and then to decompose it into those vectors which then become the false dichotomy.

  5. David Auerbach

    3 February 2011 at 18:19

    nightspore: I think this tactic of Derrida’s might be termed begging the question (with regard to the dichotomy), which is, of course, something of a deferral itself. Did he ever discuss that fallacy?

  6. Out of curiosity, why do you take this to be a passage rejecting the possibility of meaning? Indeed, I don’t see any mention of the word “meaning” at all — though I don’t have the French in front of me to check the translation. The closest this comes to using the word or any related word (that I can find) is when Derrida speaks of the “ideal presence of a Bedeutung.” And there he doesn’t seem to be expressing skepticism about meaning itself, but about meaning’s “presence” — it’s immediacy and transparency. Things can have meaning without that meaning being immediate and transparent.

    • Ausdruck (expression) and signification are both ideally generators of what I intend by the rough term “meaning” (Bedeutung). And while things can have meaning without being immediate and transparent, Derrida never gets around to explaining how that can happen. In critiquing Husserl, there is no non-immediate non-transparent account of meaning available, so your alternative doesn’t apply to this particular case. Derrida’s project here (and, for the most part, elsewhere) is focused on the negative. And here, the negative project doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. He does not establish that immediate and transparent meaning is impossible in the case about which he’s talking.

  7. This is one of the overall dumbest most asinine readings of Derrida on husserl I’ve ever come across in my life

Leave a Reply

© 2024 Waggish

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑