PHILOSOPHY 312: DERRIDA UN-LIMITED

(CONTEMPORARY EUROPEAN PHILOSOPHY)

Professor Hugh J. Silverman

Department of Philosophy

Stony Brook University

Spring Semester 2006

Mon & Wed 5:20-6:40


Protocol # 2

Introduction Continued: Deconstruction and Différance

January 30, 2006


These notes are prepared by Joe Son and Arsalan Memon (Teaching Assistants). They do not replace attendance in the class which is mandatory. They are to serve as a reminder and to assist students in understanding the readings and what is presented in class. (HJS)


            One of the most important themes at work in the “Letter to a Japanese Friend” is the question of translation. In particular, how does one translate “deconstruction” in Japanese without losing the “construction” and “destruction”? Another important theme is the question of friendship: “what is a friend?” “How many friends can one have?”  And “what does it mean to be and have friends?”  The very title ‘friend’ is elaborated further in Derrida’s book Politics of Friendship (Published: 1997).

 

Deconstruction is not an analysis, a general critique, a critique in the Kantian sense, a method, a procedural instrument, a set of rules or principles, an act, an operation, a movement, or a Heideggerian epoch. Rather, it is a theory of reading. But now the question is: What does it mean to read a text?  By “text” it doesn’t mean just a written text, it could be a film, body, person, idea, building or anything that can be taken as a text. Text comes from the Latin word “textus,” which means a “structure,” a “context,” a “fabric.” In addition, from the past participle of “texere,” it also means to “weave.”  So how is a text read?

 

A text has within itself certain features that deconstruct it. Deconstruction is nothing per se, but what is being deconstructed is everything. Derrida tried to further explain deconstruction in his 1968 lecture, “Différance.” He delivered this lecture to the Société française de philosophie (The French Philosophy Society). Initially, one difference that comes to the fore is that we are reading it as a written text, but originally it was delivered in the form of speech. [1] The marking out of difference has already begun before any explicit mention of difference. Professor Silverman said one thing that is worthwhile mentioning here: “every time you read Derrida’s text, the first and the last word of any of Derrida’s essays is very important. And also, the title itself is significant. It is not an accident.” This ties-in with the first sentence of “Différance”:

 

“I will speak, therefore, of a letter” (Margins of Philosophy, 3).

 

First thing to notice here, if you have read Descartes’ Meditations or his Discourse on Method, you will spot it. “Je pense, donc, je suis” or “I am thinking, therefore, I am,” claims Descartes. Usually it is written in Latin, “Cogito ergo sum.” And Derrida’s sentence in French: Je parlerai, donc, d'une lettre.  The word “ergo” or “donc” translates into English as ‘therefore.’

 

Juxtaposing Descartes - Derrida:

Je pense donc je suis” |  Je parlerai donc d'une littre.

 

Derrida is putting Descartes in question when he begins his sentence with an “I” and then formulates it as if he is making an argument akin to that of Descartes’. Usually in a logical argument [2] , you have a premises and then at the end you have a conclusion, the conclusion is always indicated by a “therefore.”

 

Secondly, this was a lecture that was orally delivered. Derrida is speaking and at the same time, he is saying, “I will speak.” That is, he is speaking, but he states that he will speak. But what will he speak of? He will speak of a letter, the letter “a.” It is the first letter of the alphabet. So, in a way, one of Derrida’s concerns is about “beginnings.” The “a” that is in question is the “a” of différance. When Derrida spoke to the members of the French philosophy society, they could not mark the difference between différence and différance. There is no difference between their pronunciation, even though one is with an “e” and the other with an “a.” Phonetically, that is, the difference between them remains inaudible. In other words, in speech or in speaking, there is no difference, but when it is written, that the difference between différence and différance can be deciphered. Derrida is playing upon the distinction between différence and différance to make a point about writing and speech.

 

In semiology, (the general science of signs) the relationship between speaking and writing is always understood in a binary way. The whole edifice of Western metaphysics is built upon this binary pair. Speech has always been privileged and took primacy within philosophical traditions and traditional cultures.  Derrida looks at the traditions of speaking synchronically [3] and diachronically [4] . Derrida wants to ask the question of their difference: “what is the difference between speech and writing?” When one asks the question about the difference between a binary pair, one is led to ask the question: “what lies in between them?” There is in fact, a difference by shifting from speaking to writing. He says that there is a priority of "speaking" that allows for the speaking/writing binary pair to be even possible. There is a shift of concern from speaking to writing (which is opposed to speaking) and that allows the thinking between "speaking" and "writing" (which Derrida calls "arche-writing" or "ecriture" or just simply "writing"). Note a similar movement from identity to difference, to the place between identity and difference, namely: "difference."

 

 END SECOND LECTURE



[1] Joe Son (J.S.): Binary pair: speech/writing

[2] AM: A logical argument would be following: All men are mortals  Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

[3] Language of a particular time, without reference to its historical context.

[4] Language that changes historically throughout time.