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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Sign of a Sign?

Posted by John Holbo on 04/05/07 at 10:05 PM

Chapter 2 of Derrida’s Of Grammatology opens with an epigraph from Rousseau—a “fragment inédit d’un essai sur les langues.” And one hopes, had he gotten around to editing, he would have noticed it does not make a great deal of sense: “Writing is nothing but the representation of speech; it is bizarre that one gives more care to the determining of the image than to the object.” There is a kernel of an obvious right idea here; namely, phonetic alphabets piggyback on phonetic stuff—on sound. There is a (tolerably) clear sense in which, in typical natural language cases, written language is parasitic on the functions and mechanisms of spoken language. A phonetically-based writing system sets up correspondences between shapes and sounds, by way of conveniently plugging into a pre-existent syntax and semantics. But it hardly follows that writing is nothing but representation of speech. If that were true, the only thing we could write about would be sounds. But obviously we can write about all sorts of things—dogs and cats, numbers, the sun. The list goes on.

Rousseau has conflated ‘written language functions by x’ with ‘written language functions to x’. To say that ‘writing is nothing but the representation of speech’ is as silly as saying ‘speech is nothing but the representation of recursive rules of syntax, etc.’ In both cases, you mistakenly take a mechanism by which language manages to represent for the represented object.

In Rousseau’s defense, this seems to be an error other major thinkers have also committed. Derrida quotes Saussure: “Language and writing are two distinct systems of signs; the second exists for the sole purpose of representing the first.” He alleges that Aristotle and Hegel say the same. I’ll take his word for it. Certainly Augustine says something of the sort. Writing represents speech. Speech represents ideas. Ideas represent Ideas in the Mind of God. Something like that. Great chain of meaning; writing is low man on the totem.

Saussure’s error is the same as Rousseau’s. Just to be clear: suppose we have, on the one hand, a congenitally deaf person who has learned to read written English with perfect understanding; on the other hand, let there be a non-English speaker who has been trained to read out English writing (perhaps for the benefit of a blind person), who doesn’t understand a word of what he is pronouncing (see those passages on ‘reading’ in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.) Now, in a perfectly good—but quite ambiguous sense—both of these individuals can ‘read’ English just fine. But if we now ask which of the two reads with understanding of what the written words represent, I think we would be strongly inclined to say: the deaf person. He understands what the language he is reading means. Saussure and Rousseau are (quite absurdly) committed to maintaining the opposite: namely, that the non-English speaker understands the meaning of the English words he is pronouncing, namely the sounds he produces. That is, Rousseau and Saussure are committed to maintaining that a person who, by hypothesis, doesn’t understand a word of English, understands English. That won’t fly.

Actually, there are some interesting complications to explore. Let me canvas a couple, without really digging in as deeply as one might. No one would ever say that spoken language exists only to represent the rules of syntax. Here the conflation of the way language functions, qua representational system, with what it functions to represent, is too obvious to miss. But you might say the following (I take it Saussure and Rousseau and Augustine and others would): speech serves to represent concepts/ideas. So when I say ‘the cat is on the mat’, I am representing, not the cat on the mat, but my idea of the cat on the mat. An alternative view would be: what is represented is the cat on the mat, not my idea. Because it’s not as though I’m only talking about my ideas. I’m taking about the world. This is not an easy case to sort out (to say the least), but one potentially sound objection to the concept view is: just because language functions by means of concepts doesn’t necessarily imply that it exists to represent concepts – as opposed to cats. Complicated.

Second point: we who can both speak and write English find it a bit strange to think of someone reading with no sense whatsoever about the regular correspondences between letter sequences and sounds. We are inclined to say there are some elements of what is being represented by the writing that the deaf reader is missing: namely, the sounds. This is not without practical implications. He isn’t likely to appreciate written poetry, for instance, even if he can be made to appreciate, intellectually, that there is a thing called ‘rhyming’, which ‘make’ and ‘bake’ and ‘sake’ and ‘lake’ do. The orthographic echo is sure to give him at least a hint of what it is that the sound does for people. But it won’t be enough. It’s funny. We may stand to him in very much the relationship that synaesthetics, who associate sounds or shapes with colors, stand to us. A synaesthetic, who finds certain words to be more ‘yellow’ than others, probably can’t help but feel that ordinary speakers are missing something, in not appreciating this association. All the same, it really has nothing to do with the meaning of English that a certain words seem yellow to someone (maybe even to several someones. You could have a community of synaesthetics.) Likewise, it really has nothing to do with the meaning of the written word ‘dog’ that it is associated with a certain sound. The word doesn’t mean any sort of sound. It means a kind of animal.

Take a case like Chinese: a speaker of Mandarin and a speaker of Hokkien can read the same newspaper. Each associates the characters with different sounds. But they don’t disagree about what the characters mean. Multiply examples: Latin, as pronounced at different stages of its career as a language. Any language where sound has drifted, while orthography has remained fixed. Or take the case of homonyms. A single sound corresponding to two different spellings, corresponding to two different words. I doubt we would want to say that it turns out, in these cases, that speech exists just in order to represent written language—that the true face of the word was written. The truth is: a word is neither essentially spoken or written. It’s more abstract than that. So Saussure is just confused: “the linguistic object is not defined by the combination of the written word and the spoken word: the spoken form alone constitutes the object.” No. It clearly doesn’t.

Part of the temptation to say that written words represent sounds is that writing is, historically, and also for every ordinary individual, developmental case, preceded by speech. You learn to ‘sound out’ written words. That is, it’s a kind of code for making sounds. When you are at the learning stage, it is more plausible to say that writing represents sounds. Later, of course, you learn to read so fast that you no longer even process words left-to-right, let alone sound them out. You just take in the gestalt of the whole word, even the whole sentence. That is, you become functionally indistinguishable from the deaf person who never associated the written shapes with sounds to begin with. The relationship between the shape and the system of syntax and semantic no longer runs through the sound system. So now the written words not only do not function to represent sounds. They plausibly don’t even function by means of sounds.

This is all pretty interesting, I think. I’m probably missing something, because I just started thinking about it. But getting back to Derrida: what interests him about his Rousseau epigraph is precisely this (very mistaken) notion that writing is a sign representing a sign. Derrida presents the view like so: on the one hand, there is an alleged unity of sound and sense—phonocentrism. On the other hand, “with regard to this unity, writing would always be derivative, accidental, particular, exterior, doubling the signifier: phonetic “Sign of a sign,” said Aristotle, Rousseau, and Hegel” (p. 29). I don’t want to get into the whole ‘Western thought has sought to repress writing’ thing. That’s pretty obviously not true. And I don’t want to hear about how Derrida means something new by ‘speech’ and ‘writing’—which he obviously does. But then he shouldn’t confuse the issue by presenting all these quotes from classical philosophers, because they were obviously using ‘speech’ and ‘writing’ in the ordinary, not Derridean sense. What I’m curious about is whether Derrida is, in effect, compounding Rousseau’s error. Derrida is at pains to say that he doesn’t want to just reverse the alleged valorization of speech, over writing. Rather, he wants to say that speech turns out to have the same qualities that writing has (which were felt to be inferior.) But the quality in question is precisely this ‘sign of a sign’ thing, which, although serious thinkers seem to have gone for it, is just a simple mistake. Writing is not a ‘sign of a sign’—that is, writing, even in phonetic alphabetic systems, does not exist solely (or even) to represent speech. So even if it were true, as Derrida alleges, that speech is secretly like (despised) writing, it would hardly follow that speech is always a ‘sign of a sign’.

What I really want to know is this: does Derrida really commit himself to the view that language always represents language. That is, the reason there is (famously) nothing outside the text, boils down to this Rousseau thing, plus the thought that speech is secretly like writing? I’m serious. I really really want to know whether, and if so why, Derrida thinks that language always represents language.


Comments

This post misunderstands Of Grammatology in so many ways, I don’t even know where to start.  I’m not going to have time to follow up on any discussion here, so I’ll just point you in the right direction.

“I don’t want to hear about how Derrida means something new by ‘speech’ and ‘writing’—which he obviously does. But then he shouldn’t confuse the issue by presenting all these quotes from classical philosophers, because they were obviously using ‘speech’ and ‘writing’ in the ordinary, not Derridean sense.”

Well, it’s unfortunate that you don’t want to hear about this, but the distinction between writing and arche-writing, between speech and “speech” is indispensable, and not so easily parried.  First off, the “classical philosophers” Derrida cites are not “obviously using ‘speech’ and ‘writing’ in the ordinary, not Derridean sense.” Each of the texts Derrida addresses operate on the basic of a structured opposition between two types of signs, one which signifies directly and one which signifies indirectly.  Derrida uses the words speech and writing (without quotes) to describe this structured opposition, and he uses these terms because they are the terms on the basis of which the opposition is usually articulated.  He uses the words, in short, because the texts he’s citing use those words.  And the texts, in turn, use those words in contradictory ways.  Thus for Aristotle, Rousseau, Saussure, etc. speech is used to describe both an immediate sign and an audible sign, because these thinkers (erroneously, as your initial analysis suggests) equate the two defintions.  Our contemporary understanding of speech, in other words, is the result of this equation that both you and Derrida are trying to undo.

So, if you object to the use of the terms speech and writing, let’s put them out of play for a bit and talk and the opposite between the immediate sign and the sign of a sign.  The fact that neither “speech” (Derrida’s quotes here - speech in the sense of the audible sign) nor “writing” (the graphic sign) inherently corresponds to either side of the conceptual opposition rather confirms than overturns Derrida’s analysis.

Thus, the fact that writing, in practice, may not actually first signify speech on the way to signifying thoughts is irrelevant (and not inconsistent with Derrida’s analysis)...because if you follow Derrida’s analysis of speech, speech too turns out to be already writing (arche-writing, in the sense of a sign of a sign, not in the sense of graphic signs).  Speech, as a supposed signifier of “thoughts” is already structured more like how we thought writing was structured than like how we thought speech was structured.  And thus even if actual writing (graphic signs) does not work by first signifying speech, and we try to theorize how it directly signifies thought, we should end up in the same place as Derrida did when he analyzed speech, i.e. the conclusion that writing too is a signifier of a signifier.  All your initial analysis established is the graphic and audible signs work in the same way, but Derrida’s analysis insists that this way is in both cases as a sign of a sign.  You don’t need the empirical fact of graphic signs signifying audible signs for this to follow logically.

As for your final question, “does Derrida really commit himself to the view that language always represents language,” I would direct you to Derrida’s analysis of the “trace,” the “imprint”
and the “hinge” in Of Grammatology, whereby even something like what we would call “experience” is structured as a sign of a sign, i.e. structured like language, in a certain sense.  Thus the “signs” of which writing and speech are “signs” are not necessarily limited to graphic and audible signs.  “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte” thus doesn’t mean that language has nothing to do with what we call “the world,” except in the sense that what we call “the world” is no longer assumed to work the way we thought it did.

By surlacarte on 04/06/07 at 01:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, surlacarte, I think you misunderstood the post. But perhaps my brusque sidelining of certain issues misled you. I really only meant that these issues are irrelevant to the present question.

I also don’t object to the use of the terms ‘speech’ and ‘writing’. I like ‘em fine. (See my post. I use ‘em.) The question is really a simple one: does Derrida respond to Rousseau by arguing that the latter’s error was not to realize that what he said was true of writing, but not speech - namely, that it is a sign of a sign - was actually true as well of speech. If so, that’s a bad argument. The correct view is not that, because writing is not so different from speech, therefore Rousseau’s points apply to writing and speech alike. Rather, the correct view is that what Rousseau says is true of writing is true of neither writing nor speech. Neither writing or speech is ‘a sign of a sign’.

Putting it more simply (and just for starters): does Derrida think that Rousseau is right about writing, i.e. it is a ‘sign of a sign’? I think the answer is yes, he does think Rousseau is right. But Rousseau seems to be wrong. So Derrida is wrong. Right?

Now I expect you will reinterate that “if you follow Derrida’s analysis of speech, speech too turns out to be already writing (arche-writing, in the sense of a sign of a sign, not in the sense of graphic signs).” And that if I am just going to wave away all that arche-writing stuff, as irrelevant, I am begging the question. But I think you’ve seized the argument wrong way round. I am in the process of following Derrida’s analysis of speech, to the alleged conclusion that speech is already like writing, ergo ‘a sign of a sign’. I am noticing that the argument seems to be problematically tangled up in a false premise about the nature of writing - namely, it is a ‘sign of a sign’. The conclusion that speech is always (already) a sign of a sign in some sense follows the from two premises: 1) speech is like writing; 2) writing is always a ‘sign of a sign’. I am actually pretty willing to grant 1. But 2 is false, so it seems. (Unless you’ve got some argument.)

By John Holbo on 04/06/07 at 02:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I simply disagree about the relevance of the discussion you so brusquely sideline.  It’s necessary to clarify the premises of Derrida’s argument that speech is a sign of a sign, which I think you have gotten wrong.  To explain:

You haven’t disproven that writing is a sign of a sign, or that Rousseau is wrong about this point.  Writing can still be a sign of a sign without being a sign of speech.  In fact, the model of writing as a sign of speech, as Derrida reads it, is just that, a model for the concept of the “signs of a sign.” It is not, at least for Derrida, an empirical claim about the relationship between graphic and audible signs.

As a result, you get the syllogism backwards.  It’s not, as you put it:

1) speech is like writing
2) writing is always a ‘sign of a sign’
Therefore 3) Speech is a ‘sign of a sign’

It’s actually more like

1) Writing is always a ‘sign of a sign’
2) Speech is always a ‘sign of a sign’
Therefore 3) Speech is like writing

In other words, the argument that speech is a ‘sign of a sign’ does not follow from any empirical claims about writing.  It follows from an analysis of the way in which “classical philosophers” talk about speech: their own discourse, despite its best efforts, reveals that the model they set up through their (empirically inaccurate) account of writing fits all signs, including speech.

Now, to prove this would actually require reconstructing the basis on which Derrida equates speech with the “sign of a sign.” And that would require a much more careful reading of Of Grammatology (you know, with quoting and stuff) than either of us has offered yet, much more careful than I have time to get into at this point.  But I do think it would reveal that the argument for speech as a sign of a sign is a lot more complex than simply:

1) Accepting Rousseau’s account of writing as an empirically valid description of graphic signs
2) Assuming that any properties Rousseau ascribes to graphic signs must also apply to audible signs

But, I await evidence to the contrary.

By surlacarte on 04/06/07 at 03:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Derrida uses the words speech and writing (without quotes)

You know, when John wrote

I don’t want to hear about how Derrida means something new by ‘speech’ and ‘writing’—which he obviously does. But then he shouldn’t confuse the issue by presenting all these quotes from classical philosophers, because they were obviously using ‘speech’ and ‘writing’ in the ordinary, not Derridean sense.

he wasn’t asserting that Derrida uses quotation marks when he uses the terms.  Rather, he was quoting the terms, because if he had written “Derrida means something new by speech and writing”, that would mean something like, “Derrida’s acts of speaking and writing mean something new”.

Not all quotation is done by means of quotation marks, of course.  I just quoted something by means of enclosing it in <blockquote> tags, causing it to be indented.  And I quoted you by italicizing what you had written.  And you quoted the very words John enclosed in quotation marks by italicizing them and preceding the italicaized words with the phrase “the words” (that’s how we know you didn’t mean the words “speech”, “and”, and “writing”, see).

All this is, I suppose, perfectly obvious. I just thought it curious that you found it necessary to make clear that Derrida uses the terms under discussion “without quotes”, since no one would have gotten the impression that he did from what John had written, and you had to do the exact same thing that John did to make himself understood, albeit by different means, in order to make yourself understood.

Yours in triviality,

By ben wolfson on 04/06/07 at 03:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You might say that you were referring to the words as symbols (probably the wrong, schemey term) by italicizing them, but, given that he used ‘ and not “, that’s what John was doing too.

By ben wolfson on 04/06/07 at 03:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ben,

My distinction between “with quotes” and “without quotes” was not meant as a criticism of John’s use of quotes, but rather a commentary on the (at least semi-rigorous) distinction between writing and “writing” IN Of Grammatology.  Sometimes in order to distinguish between arche-writing (i.e. the “sign of a sign” whether graphic, audible or otherwise) and writing as graphic sign, Derrida uses quotation marks on the latter.  I was merely trying to indicate the same distinction in my own text.  My criticism of John, as I hopefully clarified in my follow-up post, is that by failing to insist upon the distinction between writing (with quotes) and writing (without quotes), he misstates Derrida’s argument.

In this particular case, I blame Derrida.  Not that the distinction writing/"writing" doesn’t have a certain elegance.  But it definitely causes problems whenever anyone attempts to quote Of Grammatology.

By surlacarte on 04/06/07 at 03:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thank you, ben, that’s a bit of a relief. (I was thinking of writing something similar myself, but it seemed trivial.)

surlacarte, you gloss Derrida’s argument like so:

1) Writing is always a ‘sign of a sign’
2) Speech is always a ‘sign of a sign’
Therefore 3) Speech is like writing

In my post, I have given an argument for why 1 is false (if it is believed on Rousseau-ish grounds.) Is there any reason, besides the bad, Rousseau-ish one, why I should buy 1? I am certainly not going to simply take it as a premise. As to 2, let us suppose you are right that he doesn’t argue for it as I say? Then how DOES he argue for it. It is just as implausible as 1, on its face.

It seems to me - and I have included only a few quotes and stuff, I admit - that the chapter on “Linguistics and Grammatology” is presented as if it contains an argument for the crucial claim that language is necessarily ‘a sign for a sign’. It seems to me that Derrida argues that what Rousseau says about writing must actually be true about language generally, ergo all language is a sign of a sign. If you do not think that is how the argument goes, in broad outline, then can you at least give a hint as to how you read the chapter?

What role do you take the Rousseau position to be playing in Derrida’s presentation, if it is not the role I am proposing for it?

Also, do you concede that my argument against Rousseau’s claim is a good one? That is, it is wrong that written language represents the sound of spoken language. So whatever the argument may be that writing is ‘a sign of a sign’, it isn’t Rousseau’s.

By John Holbo on 04/06/07 at 03:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

[Warning in advance: I’ve gotten a bit worn out and haven’t finished this response.  In fact, the part I left out at the end is probably the most crucial question.  The end will follow shortly, tonight or tomorrow, so take this as a to be continued]

Well, despite my best intentions to work on other things, I opened up Of Grammatology.  But I actually do really appreciate the chance to brush up on my Derrida, and your latest response, John, presents your objections very clearly and systematically, so let me do my best to, first, support my claims with textual evidence, and second respond to your points one by one.  [Apologies, by the way, for starting my first comment off in such a polemical manner.]

First, the crucial passage from Of Grammatology (p. 41 in Spivak’s translation):

Writing is not a sign of a sign, except if one says it of all signs, which would be more profoundly true.  If every sign refers to a sign, and if “sign of a sign” signifies writing, certain conclusions--which I shall consider at the appropriate moment--will become inevitable.  What Saussure saw without seeing, knew without being able to take into account, following in that entire metaphysical tradition, is that a certain model of writing was necessarily but provisionally imposed (but for the inaccuracy in principle, insufficiency of fact, and the permanent usurpation) as instrument and technique of representation of a system of language.

I take the first sentence to mean that the attribution of the descriptor “sign of a sign” to writing can never be made on the basis of any property specific to writing.  It must be a universal characteristic of the sign in general, or not a characteristic of the sign at all.  Such a universal claim could never be founded (or undermined) on empirical arguments about the way that people who can hear (or who can’t hear) use speech and/or writing, because such arguments would necessarily be contingent on the specificity of the medium.  The reason, in short, that writing is a sign of a sign must be the same as the reason that speech is a sign of a sign, and this is certainly not the case if we say that the reason writing is a sign of a sign is that writing is a sign of speech.  The same logic clearly would not apply reciprocally to speech.

What, then, is the significance of Saussure’s treatment of writing as the exclusive domain of the sign of a sign, despite Derrida’s objection that either all signs are signs of signs, or none are?  Derrida makes this clear in the final sentence of the quoted passage - “a certain model of writing was necessarily but provisionally imposed ... as instrument and technique of representation of a system of language.” Saussure uses the model of writing as a sign of a sign as a means of explaining how language, as a system of differences, works.  The significance of Saussure’s account of writing thus does not lie in the accuracy in fact or principle of its statements about graphic signs (note the portion of the passage I just omitted: “but for the inaccuracy in principle, insufficiency of fact, and the permanent usurpation").  Instead, it lies in the fact that, drawing on this erroneous account of graphic signs, Saussure is able to arrive at a conceptualization of the sign in general (whether graphic, audible, or otherwise) which is even more profound than he could have imagined (i.e. which he “saw without seeing").  The value of the account is conceptual rather than propositional: it reveals nothing about actual writing, and thus isn’t falsifiable on the basis of what it reveals about actual writing.

Now, it still doesn’t follow that the concept of the sign of the sign actually corresponds in any real way to any real system of signs.  On the one hand, even if we could not prove that any signs were signs of signs, Of Grammatology would remain an invaluable explication of Saussure and Rousseau, whose texts are clearly structured by the logic of the sign of the sign in suprisingly complex ways that exceed empirical claims about graphic signs.  But that’s still a bit of a cop-out, and it is a legitimate question to ask whether and how and why actual writing and actual speech do correspond to the logic of the sign of a sign which Saussure and Rousseau thought to be a unique property of graphic signs.

So, that brings me to your latest comments.

First, you state that, in your post, you have given an argument for why the Rousseau-ish grounds for believing that “writing is a sign of a sign” is false.  I don’t refute that.  Based on the passage from Derrida I quoted above, I doubt that, in principle, he would either.  I say “in principle” because I suspect that there’s more going on in your particular choice of examples (the deaf man, and the Chinese Box) than either of us quite grasps [the resemblance to the deaf man in Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lie,” for example, is interesting].  Nonetheless, this is certainly not where I would want to focus my commentary, so I will grant, wholesale, your claim that the Rousseau-ish grounds for calling writing a sign of a sign are inadequate.

Continuing, you ask if, absent these bad reasons for calling writing a sign of a sign, there are any good reasons.  My answer is yes, but I will acknowledge that Derrida may not directly answer the question.  It seems, though I may be missing something, that the burden of Derrida’s argument is on proving that speech is a sign of a sign, since the writers he addresses already treat writing as a sign of a sign.

This is not a problem, however, unless your original account of Derrida’s premises is correct.  As long as Derrida does use the ready-made equations “writing=sign of sign” and “writing=speech” to prove “speech=sign of sign,” Derrida’s claims about speech still need to be evaluated independently.  And this ultimately will turn back upon the question of whether writing is or is not a sign of a sign, because the arguments about why speech is the sign of a sign will hopefully tell us something about writing (graphic signs) too.  So in fact we may need to reverse the order of the premises:

1) Speech is a sign of a sign because of properties x, y, and z
2) Writing shares properties x, y and z
Therefore, 3) Writing is also a sign of a sign

[Or treat premises 1 & 2 independently; in either case, the point is that the premise about speech is never dependent on the premise about writing, so the accuracy of the latter is not relevant to the accuracy of the former, though the reverse may be true]

This takes us, precisely to “Linguistics and Grammatology,” which, I’m quite glad you observe, “is presented as if it contains an argument for the crucial claim that language is necessarily ‘a sign for a sign.’” The burden of our either of our arguments is to reconstruct the logic of this claim…

[I’m going to pause here.  I know I haven’t defended the part of my argument you’re most skeptical about, and I will, but this comment is getting long and I’d like to submit it and take a break.  The answer, when I return, will likely have something to do with “articulation,” “the absence of the referent” and the “transcendental signifier.” To be continued...]

By surlacarte on 04/06/07 at 05:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, I’ll await part II, surlacarte, thank you for part I. Let me just sign off for tonight myself with a clarification. I said I was setting certain things to one side and I could have been clearer about exactly what and why. I should have said: I’m setting to one side Derrida’s historical claims about how phonocentrism has dominated Western thought/philosophy. I don’t buy it, but, at least for blog purposes, I set to one side any attempt to discuss all of Western civilization. It’s quite enough to worry about (nevermind what everyone has allegedly thought since Plato) what Derrida thinks we should think. This thing I am setting aside may creep back in, because I think the problem with claims like ‘speech is like writing’ is that they are actually rather trivial, whereas Derrida thinks they are radical. So, for example, my problem with surlacartes’ first formulation was really not just that I doubted the premises, but that I would have been willing to freely grant the conclusion AS a premise. But I really don’t care about that. I care, specifically, about arguments for ‘all language is a sign of a sign’. Which is what surlacartes is now focusing on, so fine.

Moving right along, it does make a bit of sense to me - in the abstract - to reverse the order of argument, as surlacartes suggests, thereby making the Rousseau point an ironic curlicue of an afterthought, rather than a dubious premise, but I really am not seeing the x, y and z that will then get us ‘all speech is a sign of a sign’.

By John Holbo on 04/06/07 at 08:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, one last point: surlacarte characterizes my arguments as ‘empirical’ - as opposed to the purely conceptual arguments that, allegedly, we will be getting from Derrida. But, just for the record, I don’t think my argument is empirical. It hasn’t actually been empirically tested, nor need it be (I hope). It’s a pure, conceptual thought-experiment. It is somewhat medium-specific, yes, since it’s a thought-experiment about writing. But that doesn’t make it empirical. I take it that general reflections about language are likely to be no more nor less empirical than the arguments I offer, then.

By John Holbo on 04/06/07 at 08:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, there is an important way in which speech (or writing) represent ideas.  They do so in the same way that we could say a book of sheet music represents music.  Peter Elbow, for example, suggests that we view a piece of writing as a set of directions, transmitted from person #1 to person #2, for reconstructing in person #2’s mind the mind of person #1.  One of the things in person #1’s mind might be assertions about the state of the world, but not everything in his piece of writing might be.  For example, most of what’s in a novel is not an assertion about the world but a construction of a world that might be held up as a model or exemplum of certain aspects of the real world.

The question I have is this: are we using “representation” properly when we say that sheet music represents music?  Sheet music certainly represents *ideas* about how music might be made, ideas transmitted from one person to all people in a socially conventional manner. 

(One other point: there is an important sense in which writing can be or can avoid representing speech.  Mina Shaughnessy investigated this in depth in her brilliant *Error and Expectation*, in which she demonstrated that most of the errors made by “basic writers” are errors of the translation of speech into writing—that is, basic writing errors occur when the writer writes a transcription of how s/he speaks.)

By on 04/06/07 at 09:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What I think about this is here, via the method of poetastic analysis.

Seriously, my problem with “the sign of a sign” is that sometimes writing or speech appear to be play acts.  (I know that this is heavily covered Theoretical territory.) Adam has been into this area recently with music vs noise and weird saturnian hexagons, but in short, the words in a poem are only partly signs of signs.

Not that I know anything about Derrida’s argument in particular.

By on 04/06/07 at 11:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, I grant that there has to be some sense in which speech represents ideas, not just objects. What I object to is the suggestion that language only represents our ideas - our idea of the dog, as opposed to the dog itself. I don’t think that turns out to work.

The sheet music analogy has some interesting features. I thought about using it, comparing my hypothetical non-English speaker who can pronounce English sentence with a musician who performs a score. I don’t think it is really right to say that sheet music represents ideas about how music might be made. If you want that sort of thing, read some music criticism. Sheet music, on the other hand, represents series of notes, which are sounds and not ideas (although of course if you were brain dead you couldn’t read music). If sheet music were about ideas, then I think it would have to assert something - or at least entertain some claims - and I don’t think it does.  Sheet music consists of a set of imperatives, which are obeyed if a set of notes are generated; not a set of claims which could turn out to be true or false.

By John Holbo on 04/06/07 at 11:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Oops, my second link above should have been to here.

By on 04/06/07 at 11:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It is, of course, perfectly possible that viewing sheet music may cause ideas about how music might be made. But that is different than saying the sheet music represents those ideas. (My sentence ‘the cat is on the mat’ may cause you to think all sorts of cat-related thoughts. But my sentence doesn’t represent those thoughts.)

By John Holbo on 04/06/07 at 11:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

For example, the thought most reliably caused by utterances of ‘the cat is on the mat’ is ‘why do analytic philosophers always use that sentence as an example?’ All the same, the sentence does not REPRESENT this thought.

By John Holbo on 04/06/07 at 11:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Alright, folks, I have fallen asleep with the lights on and woken back up, which means part of me isn’t entirely sure that I slept.  But I’m back to finish what I started.

First off, some quick comments on recent comments.

1) John, my primary interest here was to “reverse the order of the argument” rather than to necessarily defend the reversed argument, so while I’ll still take a stab at the latter (I think I’ve committed myself to doing so), I’m content with your concession either way, since I think it leaves us right where we should be - pouring over Derrida’s words, instead of battling over the logical consistency of misunderstood excerpted sentences, which is the mainstay of facile criticisms of deconstruction (not that I’m necessarily accusing you of doing this exactly, but think about the most common responses to “il n’y a pas de hors-texte")

2) On the word “empirical,” this may not be the best choice of words on my part.  The reason for the word choice is that medium-specific arguments are always empirical in a certain sense insofar as they assume a historically, culturally, and biologically specific model of how the medium works that is somewhat contingent - specifically, phonetic writing, as well as the human apparatus of sensory perception and sign production that happened to evolve.  The point, in any case, is to distinguish between arche-writing and the particular form of graphic signs (really should be using the grapheme) that “predominates” in “our culture.”

3) I won’t get into the sheet music thing, since I’m unclear what that helps clarify.  It seems like a substitute for going back to the text?

Now, for going back to the text.

Here are 3 ways in to speech as sign of a sign:

1) Articulation and the phoneme

A great portion of Derrida’s analysis of speech in “Linguistics and Grammatology” takes place on the level of the phoneme, which is somewhat difficult to explicate for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the primary position it is intended to undermine (the natural relationship of speech and sense) is not something we even think we believe in any more.  Whereas as Heidegger talks about the “voice of Being” as if their were still some direct relationship between speech and being, post-Saussure, we’re already somewhat out of this position anyway, which is somewhat the point.  So, to an extent, my argument about the phoneme will still have to be something more like a model than a proposition.

Anyway, part of the presumed difference between speech and writing that makes speech seem like natural or direct signification has to do with articulation, i.e. the breaking up or spacing of the plenitude of experience into discrete elements.  To say that writing is always already articulated is standard fare: when you look at this post on your computer screen, you don’t see a series of pixels or a large mass of black lines and curves.  You see letters.  You can’t not see letters.  There is no direct sensory experience in writing, since the world already makes itself present in the form of the articulated trace, the division into discrete elements.  Derrida’s analysis of phonetic writing pays a great deal of attention to elements like the period, the space, and the comma which can be said either, on the one hand, to space or articulate speech, breaking up the fullness of the speech stream into units like the word and the sentence, or, on the other hand, reveals that speech is always already articulated, which is the final conclusion.  Thus the phoneme as sign of a sign: not the sign of a presence, like the speech stream, but the sign of a trace of that presence, the presence itself never really making itself “present” at all.

2) Duration, langue/parole, absence/presence

I’m making a bit of a leap by connecting Derrida’s analysis of duration to his analysis of presence and absence, but I think it’s justified.  One argument commonly made in privileging speech over writing is that writing, by giving duration to speech (or to discourse, if we’ve rejected the claim that writing is first a sign of speech) removed it from the context in which it was articulated.  Thus writing is at the root of Saussure’s distinction between langue and parole, i.e. between language and utterance.  Writing is a sign of a sign insofar as we attempt to ground its meaning in the moment of its production (or reception, for that matter): we imagine the written text as a sign for the full presence of the speech act, which grounds its meaning.  It matters not whether the speech act actually involved speech (phonemes).  Speech is the category in which we conceptualize a fully present discourse in which langue and parole co-occur.  Of course, the trajectory of Derrida’s analysis is to deny speech this full presence.  Partially this is accomplished through the idea of articulation - even in the context of articulation, there is no direct experience of the speech stream, which is always already articulated into phonemes.  There are other ways to make this argument which are probably more familiar, so I won’t pursue this much further.  Regardless, speech would be a sign of a sign if its meaning was always guaranteed by a moment of the speech act and by a full presence of the voice which could never in fact be made present, and which never in fact appeared as fully present in the first place.

3) The absence of the referent

In the model where writing signifies speech which signifies thought, what is thought anyway?  Certainly not a full presence.  Most often, it ends up being conceptualized as something like an inner monologue.  So even if writing doesn’t signify outer speech, speech and writing are both thought of as signifying an internal discourse, which signifies what?  This is in a sense the limit of the hermeneutic model - even if you can reproduce the “original thought,” the original thought is not a full presence, but something that in turn must be interpretted.  Unless there is a direct relationship between thought and experience or, as you suggest in your original post, some other transcendental signifier like the “mind of God,” then the “great chain of meaning” never comes to an end.  It matters not whether writing is the “low man on the totem pole” or on par with speech - in either case, the logic of the chain of meaning (which is the logic of the supplement) is essential to the way speech and writing work.

That’s my best for now.  The text itself is much more complex than this, and there are a variety of arguments that fit into and don’t fit into the question of speech as sign of sign to varying degrees.  The point is to work through each of these claims carefully without jumping on the validity of the supposed end point in the abstract.

By surlacarte on 04/06/07 at 02:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Use” vs. “reference”!!!1!!1!

Wheeeeee!

But wait—is it really “use versus reference”?

No, I think it’s “"use" vs. “reference"” all right.

By John Emerson on 04/06/07 at 04:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

???
Doesn’t this comment pretty much wrap up the ridiculous discussion of quotation marks?

By surlacarte on 04/06/07 at 07:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I wasn’t discussing quotation marks, I was referring the discussion of quotation marks.

By John Emerson on 04/06/07 at 08:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

oh

By surlacarte on 04/06/07 at 08:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Unless there is a direct relationship between thought and experience or, as you suggest in your original post, some other transcendental signifier like the “mind of God,” then the “great chain of meaning” never comes to an end.  It matters not whether writing is the “low man on the totem pole” or on par with speech - in either case, the logic of the chain of meaning (which is the logic of the supplement) is essential to the way speech and writing work.”

Laying my cards on the table somewhat: I don’t buy this stuff about the chain of meaning, for more or less Wittgensteinian reasons. It’s a mistake to assume it must be ‘interpretation all the way down’. Wittgnestein would say this merely stands a bad metaphysical explanation on its head, rather than standing back from bad metaphysical explanations (which is what you should do.) The whole chain of meaning thing seems to me an unwarranted speculative leap, on Derrida’s part. And my original sense was that the Rousseau argument was somewhat papering over the lack of a better argument at this juncture.

But I’m just telling you what I think, not why I think it. I’ll try to follow up more later.

By John Holbo on 04/06/07 at 08:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I haven’t digested surlacarte’s lengthy posts, but let me try something on you [John] directly.

The way you present it, the original problem is that Rousseau thinks that writing represents speech, which itself represents the world (or maybe our ideas, which represent the world).  In any case writing is supposed (as surlacarte puts it in his/her first post) to signify indirectly where speech signifies directly.  I think we all agree that this is wrong.  Writing and speech are on the same footing as far as degree of “directness” is concerned.  The question is how to put the point.  John says neither speech not writing is a “sign of a sign” while surlacarte’s Derrida says they both are.  We have traded an agreement for two disagreements. 

Here’s what I think is happening.  John, you seem to be using both “is a sign of” and “represents” to mean something like “denotes”.  But there are more kinds of “representation” (and, perhaps, of “being a sign of” something) than semantic denotation.  (Goodman’s The Languages of Art is an interesting attempt at an exhaustive catalogue).

Why does this matter?  Let’s look at your example of the non-English speaker and the congenitally deaf person: “But if we now ask which of the two reads with understanding of what the written words represent, I think we would be strongly inclined to say: the deaf person. He understands what the language he is reading means.” Naturally I see your point.  But I’m not sure this helps.

Look at what I emboldened.  As we use it, the word “word” is ambiguous.  Does it mean “inscription-type” (or “sound-type"), or does it mean “concept (i.e. as reliably associated, in the relevant contexts, with a particular inscription- or sound-type)”?  I think this ambiguity is significant and indeed useful (if that’s the word I want).  That is, I think one of our problems arises when we see it and attempt, as it seems Saussure does, to disambiguate by distinguishing sharply between the physical type and the concept and sticking a referential relation in between them to keep them at arm’s length.  On this view, the physical sign “dog” refers to the concept “dog”, which itself has Fido and Ren and Santa’s Little Helper as referents.  Saussure thinks he needs to say this in order to capture the arbitrariness of the sign (but I’m no Saussure expert).  We’ve agreed that we don’t want this.

But the way you use the concepts (the words?) “written words” and “represent” here, John, makes me think that’s what you too are doing, albeit unintentionally, when you demand that it is the deaf person and not the non-English speaker who understands what “the written words” “represent”.  We would do better to say, as I had us say above, that the two cases are on a par: the d.p. understands the words/concepts (could recognize their referents when presented, etc.), while the n.-E. s. understands the (in his case merely sonic) referents of the words/inscriptions, i.e., what they (in this sense) represent (otherwise he wouldn’t be able to produce the right sounds when presented with the corresponding inscriptions).

Normally these two sorts of representation happen at the same time, and we feel no need to pick one as the primary one.  We miss this if we pull them apart as you do (that is, and don’t put them back together again).  Naturally we want to see ourselves, and our words/concepts, as (pace Rorty) “representing”, or at least referring to, the world rather than other signs.  But that doesn’t mean we should pull the two senses apart and crown one as primary.

In other words, the settled ambiguity of “word” (and the corresponding one of “represent") means that the distinction you insist upon (not, again, that it’s not real) has been, if you like, pre-aufgehoben.  I like it that way; let’s leave it (as long as we don’t get confused).  It can’t be irrelevant, for example, that I don’t think that guy would read aloud very well if he didn’t understand the meaning of the words/concepts as well as the (in his case merely sonic) reference of the words/inscriptions.  After all, that’s one reason computers don’t “read” aloud very well.

I also think this is the same thing which confuses me about your (manner of) resistance to Knapp & Michaels.  They insist, like Saussure, on the arbitrariness of the sign (the sand-poem qua inscription), telling us that it for it to be meaningful it requires interpretation, where that means something like divination of authorial intention (which, ex hypothesi, there isn’t here).  You counter by finding a (literally) unintended meaning in the sand-poem qua meaningful sign, however manifested, making the subsequent train-wreck inevitable.

But let’s not get into that again.  My point is just that your rejection of the “ubiquity of interpretation” is unnecessary (for our purposes, including Wittgensteinian rule-following ones as in PI §201) in just the same way as your rejection of both (i.e., even when presented as a correction to Rousseau, putting speech and writing on a par, as we demand) speech and writing as “signs of signs”.  To say that each is a “sign of a sign” (or, say, that there is no “hors-texte") need not mean anything like that language can’t represent the world, but (maybe) simply that it doesn’t represent either the Cartesian or the platonic world-in-itself.  Which it doesn’t.

Similarly, again, the “ubiquity of interpretation” need not be feared if we understand what it means.  It’s not the necessity of giving life to dead signs (as in K/M, or Kripkenstein); it’s that of aligning our meanings with those already there in the living ones (and, not coincidentally, of aligning our beliefs with the facts in inquiry).  Or in other words, in my sense the later Davidson is just as “hermeneutic” as are Gadamer et al.

Now that I know what I think (I think), let me have another crack at what surlacarte said.

By Dave Maier on 04/06/07 at 09:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve never actually read Derrida, but since this is just a blog, and on the basis of a rough aquaintence with Hiedegger and Wittgenstein, I’ll take an amateur stab anyway. Speech and writing are “signs of signs” by virtue of the fact that both are necessarily encoded, i.e. differentially articulated. But that means that they pick out features of experience/the world precisely on the basis of their being encoded/articulated. Which means that those features that are picked out, including the means by which we interact and thereby communicate with one another, themselves partake of a sign-character: hence, speech/writing is always a “sign of a sign”. (In structuralist jargon, this is called “double inscription").

Derrida is by no means denying the existence of an independent world, nor of any distended experience/thought. That “there is no inset-plate” simply means that reference is always a more complex matter than we would take it to be. That is, that even the most complex account of reference is not quite complex enough. The “joke” is that he is not denying that reference occurs: it’s not a matter of “lingustic idealism”, nor of any “pure” constructivism. Rather, the “point” is that any reference is itself subject to re-contextualization/redifferentiation, such that the process begins all over again. And that de-stabilizes any purely semantic account of “meaning” and any idealization of the modal-relational or illocutionary “conditions” which would suffice to guarantee or authenticate it. Derrida is at once renewing and problematizing the Heideggerian account of Being as what “gives” beings and of the “ent-framing” by which that would occur and be received. The upshot is that rather than attempting to secure “meaning” ontologically and thereby certify knowledge epistemologically, Derrida is engaged in questioning the conditions of communication by which knowledge is at once set into the world and subject to the same encoding processes/practices, and further questioning the relations of inclusion and exclusion by which who, what, and where are raised into discourses claiming the “authority” of knowledge.

But basically, I don’t think that there’s a lot new or original with Derrida. The criticism of a representational account of meaning and language as the basis of knowledge and the foundation of social relations goes all to way back to Hegel’s criticism of Kant. To put it in a rough quasi-Wittgensteinian way, what is it about our words/meanings that represents “things” other than the ways in which we use them? Would there be a special property of words and their “grammar” that could guarantee their correspondance to a unique world, independent of the social exchanges of those who use them to communicate? How would reference function independently from the faillible understandings of those who use words to communicate with and understand one another?

By on 04/06/07 at 11:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Inédit” means “unpublished.” Indeed, the Collins Robert includes no mention of “unedited” as a meaning of this word—it either means “[hitherto] unpublished” or “new” (in the context of publishing).

Curse those faux amis! Of course you realize that this error—even if you were conscious of it and did it in jest—completely and absolutely destroys, undercuts, and invalidates everything else you say in this post.

By Adam Kotsko on 04/07/07 at 11:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Suppose I invented another writing system for English.  A picture of a banana was the word “the.” And so on… every separate word had a picture.  Then I would say, my banana-picture is the sign of a sign.  It is a sign of the word “the.” The printed word “the” is also a sign of the word “the.” And the pronounced word “the” in speech is ALSO a sign of the word “the.” Phonocentrism is the mistaken believe that somehow the pronounced word “the” is a more direct sign than the banana or the written word “the” is.  That’s pretty much the gist of what Derrida is saying.  Whether the metaphysical consequences follow from this is another question… That is, the leap from phonocentrism to logocentrism. 

The fact that phonetically based alphabets seem to are as transcriptions of spoken language is a confusing factor.  What happens is that then the written system can function all by itsef, as Holbo’s “deaf person reading” example shows.  Suppose I learned banana language as a purely visual medium and never thought about the sounds behind those pictures.  The characteristic of the banana language is that it can function as a sign system without any sound.  The fact that spoken language uses the medium of sound is an accident.  Sign systems as a whole--the argument runs-- are more like writing than speech in the sense that the sign can function in the absence of a speaker sound the words.  Take all the conceivable ways of representing English, signs of signs--only the spoken language needs sounds.

By on 04/07/07 at 07:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

For the record: I knew, even before Adam left his comment, that ‘inédit’ means unpublished.

By John Holbo on 04/07/07 at 08:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dave, I don’t want to argue too strenuously about the deaf person vs uncomprehending pronouncer cases. I actually meant to emphasize that ‘read’ is quite ambiguous, hence there will be a certain tendency for it to make all associated terms, like ‘about’, ‘understands’, even ‘refers to’ ambiguous as well. It is possible to say that the written words mean sounds (like notes in sheet music). The mere complexity of the case is enough to scotch the Saussure/Rousseau view as unworkable. I’ll settle for that.

The real question that I genuinely am interested in is whether Derrida is, in some sense, a ‘linguistic idealist’ as you put it. I think he is. And that this is his problem. I think he is commmited to denying that reference to extra-linguistic reality occurs. (I realize he actually doesn’t want to be committed to this. But it seems to me he is, and that’s the trouble.) The short version is that it is possible to speak loosely about everything as a text, because everything is interpretable - the dog as well as ‘the dog’. But there is an important difference between what the dog means and what ‘the dog’ means. Namely, the arbitrariness of the sign applies to the two cases rather differently, and Derrida misses the difference. I’ll try to write more later.

By John Holbo on 04/07/07 at 08:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Saussure is rather tricky on the linguistic sign. Here’s a passage from the Course in General Linguistics (Baskin translation, McGraw-Hill, 1966, p. 66)

The linguistic sign unites, not a thing and a name, but a concept and a sound-image. The latter is not the material sound, a purely physical thing, but the psychological imprint of the sound, the impression it makes on our senses.

He then undertakes a brief discussion, introducing a simple diagram illustrating his point that “the linguistic sign is then a two-sided psychological entity” in which “the two elements are intimately united, and each recalls the other.” He then introduces his example—“tree” and “arbor”—some variants on the two-sided diagram, and finally introduces his famous trio of terms, sign (for the whole thing), signified (for the concept), and signifier (for the sound image) (p. 67). He does not, so far as I can tell from this translation (not of Saussure himself, as we know, but of lecture notes taken down by students), talk of the signifier as representing the signified. Rather, the two are associated, and it is through their association that they constitute a sign representing some object or state of affairs in the world.

As far as I can tell, it is quite common for discussions of these matters simply to forget that the Saussurian linguistic sign includes the concept and to talk as though the sign were the sound itself (not even the sound image of Saussure’s signifier). Much of the preceding discussion seems to go that way, though I think Dave Maier was getting at this sort of thing in pointing out that there are various kinds of representation. Whether this has much bearing on Derrida’s argument is something I’ll leave to others.

But I want to make a few more remarks. Linguists distinguish between phonetics and phonemics. The former is about the acoustic properties of the speech stream; it is about physics. The later is about the linguistically relevant properties of the speech stream; in a sense, it is about Saussure’s psychological imprint. As an acoustic entity, the speech stream is fairly continuous; in particular, it is all but impossible to identify discrete phoneme boundaries on a sound spectrogram. You can’t take a tape recording of speech and cut it into discrete pieces such that each piece contains the sound of a single phoneme. They tried that after WWII and, much to their surprise and displeasure, discovered that the snippits could not be reassmbled in a different order so as to sound different words. The discontinuity, the phonemes, has to do with how we hear the speech stream.

Which implies that there is more than one way to hear a speech stream. If you don’t speak, e.g. Japanese, it will, as the saying goes, sound like Greek to you. It is not only that you don’t know how to associate the signifieds of Japanese with the appropriate signifiers, but that you cannot even properly hear the signifieds. (Note that linguistic and non-linguistic sounds are analyzed by different regions of auditory tissue.) And if a speaker of Japanese confuses /l/ and /r/ that is because the difference between those sounds is not phonetically significant in Japanese and so the speaker has trouble hearing any difference.

There is thus something of a “gap” between the actual sound of the speech stream and our subjective apprehension (perception) of it. But that is true on the concept side as well—perhaps this is what John Holbo had in mind when pointing out that both dog and ‘the dog’ are interpretable. How is it that we can recognize and distinguish trees and dogs? For that matter, how is it that dogs and monkeys can do it? For that problem has nothing to do with language itself; it’s a problem about perception.

We don’t have some immediate apprehension of the external world. We perceive it with sensors that have various limitations and analysers that work in specific ways. Why, for example, is it relatively easy to recognize photographs of faces when they are presented in normal orientation but somewhat difficult to do so when the images are presented up-side down? The images are the same. Why should our perceptual and analytic equipment be so sensitive to orientation?

So what? On the one hand, perception is such a very difficult and subtle business that I don’t think complacency about it is warranted. Nor is it simply about perception. We talk about all sorts of things that can’t be apprehended by the senses—e.g. truth, justice, and the American way. How is it we can do that at all? But I don’t think the notion of an infinite regression of signs representing signs is a terribly useful way of thinking about these difficulties.

By Bill Benzon on 04/08/07 at 01:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for the Saussure lesson, Bill.  I have that book somewhere - I should read it before shooting off my virtual mouth.  Clearly I was wrong to conflate the writing vs. speech and sound (inscription) vs. concept issues in Saussure.  I like the idea of a “two-sided psychological entity,” though maybe I would say “intentional” rather than “psychological.”

I still await John’s explanation of how to interpret dogs.

By Dave Maier on 04/09/07 at 01:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Dave, though I note that I didn’t make the comment specifically for you or for anyone else. Given that we’re dealing with signs of signs—perhaps indefinitely in both directions—I just wanted to provide a little clarification about Saussure. Although it’s been some time since I traveled among people professing semiotics and structuralism, etc. it’s been my experience that even very sophisticated people think that the Saussurian sign is only the signifier so that one might then think of the signifier as being the sign of the signified (which, in turn, represents something in the external world).

Whether or not Saussure’s actual idea makes any difference in the context of this discussion, that I’ll leave to those who’ve read Derrida more closely than I have.

By Bill Benzon on 04/09/07 at 04:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I apologise in advance for the incivility of my presuming both to contribute to this discussion in advance of any formal introductions and to sense some ulterior motives — prejudices, even — animating some of the remarks made throughout the course of this discussion.

(I apologise, too, for the convoluted nature of my opening apology; I’m re-reading Austen’s Pride and Prejudice at the moment, and I just love the way they spoke back then—or should I say, the way such a manner of speaking is represented by Austen’s written-down version of her idea of how her characters’ would speak if they were to speak in the manner of contemporary, real-world speech?)

I’ll begin by recounting my affective response to the relevant parts of the discussion. First up, I enjoyed the original post, especially its requests for guidance and gestures of openness to feedback, which is what immediately prompted me to consider writing a response. Then I was quite taken aback by the confrontational and seemingly uncharitable tone of surlacarte’s first reply. Then I was impressed by John Holbo’s relatively civil, non-inflammatory response to that reply. This oscillation of sensation continued — paralleling the turns taken by each of these two contributors — until surlacarte modified his/her tone and offered an excellent (if necessarily insufficient) account of D’s Grammatology.

In other words, in this discussion John Holbo seemed the picture of academic civility and tolerance, whilst surlacarte seemed unwarrantedly aggressive and opposed to the spirit of questioning evinced by John Holbo’s initial post.

Then I read this: “The real question that I genuinely am interested in is whether Derrida is, in some sense, a ‘linguistic idealist’ as you put it. I think he is. And that this is his problem. I think he is commmited to denying that reference to extra-linguistic reality occurs. (I realize he actually doesn’t want to be committed to this. But it seems to me he is, and that’s the trouble.)”.

So much for the gestures of openness and the requests for guidance. It seems John Holbo is already well guided by his prior assessments of Derrida’s character (sorry, philosophical commitments) and has no real interest in opening his reading to any form of guidance that seeks to disabuse him of such prejudices. (Is there a lesson here on the occasional non-coincidence of sincerity and civility?)

Thanks are owed to Dave Maier, john c. halasz and Bill Benzon (and surlacarte) for their respective illuminations on the issue. Dave Maier’s insistence that a great deal of the discussion has hinged on a very particular, unstated conception of “representation” is very much to the point. john c. halasz provides an excellent overview of the implications of D’s various arguments — despite never having “actually read Derrida” — for any “theory” of language and reference. And Bill Benzon’s point about the signifier being the “sound-image” is a cardinal one. (BTW, Bill Benzon, I wonder if you could confirm a suspicion for me? I’ve long suspected, but never had the patience to confirm, that Saussure never once in the Course uses the term “referent”; do you know if this is true? I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that Saussure denies the existence of reference or referents, etc. It just strikes me that many commentators on Saussure — Barthes amongst them — include the concept of “the referent” within his theory of the sign, when I don’t think he even introduces the term, let alone defines or elaborates on it....)

Back to the central questions:

does Derrida really commit himself to the view that language always represents language. That is, the reason there is (famously) nothing outside the text, boils down to this Rousseau thing, plus the thought that speech is secretly like writing? I’m serious. I really really want to know whether, and if so why, Derrida thinks that language always represents language.

It’s interesting, John Holbo, that you ask these questions in light of your reading of Chapter 2 of the Grammatology. Can one assume that in entering Chapter 2 you had first gone by way of Chapter 1?

However the topic is considered, the problem of language has never been simply one problem among others, But never as much as at present has it invaded, as such, the global horizon of the most diverse researches, diverse and heterogeneous in their intention, method, and ideology. The devaluation of the word “language” itself, and how, in the very hold it has on us, it betrays a loose vocabulary, the temptation of a cheap seduction, the passive yielding to fashion, the consciousness of the avant-garde, in other words — ignorance — are evidences of this effect. The inflation of the sign “language” is the inflation of the sign itself, absolute inflation, inflation itself. (p.6)

By a slow movement whose necessity is hardly perceptible, everything that for at least some twenty centuries tended toward and finally succeeded in being gathered under the name of language is beginning to let itself be transferred to, or at least summarized under the name of writing. By a hardly perceptible necessity, it seems as though the concept of writing — no longer indicating a particular, derivative, auxiliary form of language in general (whether understood as communication, relation, expression, signification, constitution of meaning or thought, etc.), no longer designating the exterior surface, the insubstantial double of a major signifier, the signifier of the signifieris beginning to go beyond the extension of language. In all senses of the word, writing this comprehends language. Not that the word “writing” has ceased to designate the signifier of the signifier, but it appears, strange as it may seem, that “signifier of the signifier” no longer defines accidental doubling and fallen secondarity. “Signifier of the signifier” describes on the contrary the movement of language: in its origin, to be sure, but one can already suspect that an origin whose structure can be expressed as “signifier of the signifier” conceals and erases itself in its own production. There the signified always already functions as a signifier.... This, strictly speaking, amounts to destroying the concept of the “sign” and its entire logic. Undoubtedly it is not by chance that this overwhelming supervenes at the moment when the extension of the concept of language effaces all limits. (pp.6-7)

To affirm in this way that the concept of writing exceeds and comprehends that of language, presupposes of course a certain definition of language and of writing. If we do not attempt to justify it, we shall be giving in to the movement of inflation that we have just mentioned, which has also taken over the word “writing” and that not fortuitously. For some time now, as a matter of fact, here and there, by a gesture and for motives that are profoundly necessary, whose degradation it is easier to denounce than it is to disclose their origin, one says “language” for action, movement, thought, reflection, consciousness, unconsciousness, experience, affectivity, etc. Now we tend to say “writing” for all that and more: to designate not only the physical gestures of literal pictographic or ideographic inscription, but also the totality of what makes it possible; and also, beyond any signifying face, the signified face itself. And thus we say “writing” for all that gives rise to an inscription in general, whether it is literal or not and even if what it distributes in space is alien to the order of the voice: cinematography, choreography, of course, but also pictorial, musical, sculptural “writing”. One might also speak of athletic writing, and with even greater certainty of </b>military or political writing</b> in view of the techniques that govern those domains today. All this to describe not only the system of notation secondarily connected with these activities but the essence and the content of these activities themselves. (pp.8-9)

There is a great deal to note in these passages (and much in what I was forced to omit). I’ve emboldened a few key words to try to indicate some of the things that are at stake here. Note:

(1) that the “devaluation” of the word language via its “inflation” (which is an “inflation of the sign itself") “betrays” “ignorance”. Why might that be the case?

(2) that the concept of “writing” does not merely replace that of “language” but “is beginning to go beyond the extension of language”. Given that the inflation of “language” already amounts to an “absolute inflation” such that it includes the “totality of [a historico-metaphysical epoch’s] problematic horizon” (p.6), what does it mean to say that the concept of writing goes beyond such an inflation?

(3) that “signifier” and “sign” are part of only a series of terms (including “derivative”, “auxiliary”, “exterior”, “insubstantial”, “accidental”, “secondarity") which Derrida uses to recall the concept of writing; that Derrida suggests the comprehension of language by writing destroys the very “logic” of “the ‘sign’”, and he indicates a distance from that logic through the depiction of “signifier of the signifier” as describing the “movement” (not structure) of language and through a focus on the function (not meaning) of the signified within the “logic” of writing. Is it really the case that Derrida’s primary object here is to formulate a theory of language, (semio-linguistic) representation and reference, that his invocation of “the signifier of the signifier” is a proposition that “language always represents language”?

(4) that “writing” comes to encompass not only linguistic and graphic signs but also “action, movement, thought, reflection, consciousness, unconsciousness, experience, affectivity, etc.” and “the totality of what makes [inscription] possible”, “all that gives rise to an inscription in general”, where inscription is (roughly) equated to a process or practice or movement of “distribut[ing] in space”, and so “writing” also encompasses “military and political writing”, which is to say “the essence and content” of the “activities” of warfare and politics as such. Does the concept of “writing” that’s being invoked here seem to have much at all, by now, to do with signifiers and signifieds?

Every critic who reads Derrida’s Grammatology reads Chapter 2. Few critics seem to bother to read Chapter 1 and Chapter 3 (let alone Part II!), or if they do, they nevertheless see Chapter 2 as proposing a “theory of language and signification”. Consequently, they largely ignore the fact that the book is more a “critique” of Heidegger (see Chapter 1, esp. pp.18-24) than of Saussure, that it is in no way a theory of language but rather a genealogical tracing of the theme and the valuing of presence throughout the history of philosophy (where “presence” is shorthand for a whole chain of values including “origin” and “originality”, “interiority”, “essence”, “necessity”, “priority”, “nature”, “man”, “science” and many others). If it is a “theory” of anything, it is a “theory” of institutions and institutionality, of technics and technology, of organisation and context(uality). I sometimes wonder what would have ensued if, instead of “writing”, Derrida had written “techne”!

So, why the turn to Saussure if not to critique his theory of the sign and thereby propose a counter-theory? Because Saussure’s is one of the privileged examples that both challenges and succumbs to the metaphysical valuing of presence. In “critiquing” Saussure Derrida does many things, but he hardly proposes an alternative theory of signification. He demonstrates, of course, exactly how Saussure manages to challenge and fall prey to the lure of presence. But he also also “performatively” challenges the metaphysical yearning for a “science of man” by picking out at least three different formulations of the speech/writing opposition in Saussure’s attempt to ground a science of signs. Each formulation contradicts the others and, consequently, neither speech nor writing is able to remain — to the exclusion of the other — the stable object of Saussure’s general linguistics (or semiology). By identifying these contradictory formulations and by refusing to resolve those contradictions, Derrida effectively highlights the invisible desiring-work of the metaphysical demand for a particular kind of science of the (humanistic) object. Cue chapter 3: “Of Grammatology as a Positive Science”.

By on 04/11/07 at 02:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

rob, I don’t think that there is anything dishonest about exploring a specific question in my post - and trying, as you recognize, to keep an open mind about whether my answer to that question is correct - while also entertaining certain hypotheses about the overall character of Derrida’s philosophy (not the man himself, as you suggest - I don’t treat linguistic idealism as a personal character flaw).

I take it it’s normal - good even - to read a philosopher with some notion of what they are up to overall. Do you disagree? You seem to agree because you suggest that I should actually consider Derrida’s philosophy more broadly. But if that is so, then where is the harm in me considering Derrida’s philosophy more broadly, i.e. as a form of linguistic idealism? (You may say this is a WRONG view of Derrida; apparently you would say that; but that is a different point. I never said I was assuming my overall view was RIGHT. I am in fact exploring this narrow point to test my larger hypothesis, which seems to me a perfectly scrupulous way to proceed.)

In answer to your question as to whether it is reasonable to assume I arrived at chapter 2 via chapter 1, i.e. I’m not just faking it ... well, the answer would seem to me to be this: it certainly isn’t reasonable to assume that I’m NOT arriving at 2 via 1. After all, it isn’t like you could reasonably expect me to tell you everything I’ve read in a single post. If there were something I said about 2 that were inconsistent with 1, on the other hand ...

Which brings us to: I don’t really see that the considerations you bring up challenge my picture of Derrida. Let me give you the brief version. The moves go like so.

Derrida stupidly thinks that only language exists. (ha! standard anti-Derridean opening gambit.)

Aha! (counter-move!) But by ‘language’ Derrida means something much broader, more metaphysical than our ordinary usage would suggest. (At this point it would be fair if the Derridean were to concede: if you use ‘language’ to mean ‘everything that exists’, more or less, then you should shoulder your share of the blame when you get peppered with complaints that you think language is all that exists. You could have avoided that problem, by using a different term. You actually seem to agree with this point, rob. Good.)

But now we still have a problem. If ‘language’ just means ‘everything’ - if everything is language - then we actually lack any way to talk about language any more. We have no word for that subset of everything that is language (in the ordinary, not the metaphysics of presence sense.) That is, we have lost track of linguistic difference, in the sense of the difference of language FROM non-language.

It may not be absolutely compulsory to call this ‘linguistic idealism’, but it seems to me useful as a way of tracking the fact that we are at risk of losing track of ‘linguistic difference’, in the difference FROM sense.

I think at this point the Derridean will want to argue that this ‘difference’ is an illusory sense of difference that is well lost, and I would like to argue the contrary. And that would be an argument worth having.

(This is probably too compressed to be clear, but I’ve gotta run.)

By John Holbo on 04/11/07 at 02:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for the response, John (if I may).

I too have to run, but I’ll try to get back to you in the morrow.

By on 04/11/07 at 03:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John Holbo writes:

we who can both speak and write English find it a bit strange to think of someone reading with no sense whatsoever about the regular correspondences between letter sequences and sounds. We are inclined to say there are some elements of what is being represented by the writing that the deaf reader is missing: namely, the sounds. This is not without practical implications. He isn’t likely to appreciate written poetry, for instance, even if he can be made to appreciate, intellectually, that there is a thing called ‘rhyming’, which ‘make’ and ‘bake’ and ‘sake’ and ‘lake’ do. The orthographic echo is sure to give him at least a hint of what it is that the sound does for people. But it won’t be enough.[end John Holbo]

I was in a museum on a recent trip to Italy and in each room they had a stand with brass tablets with explanations of the art works in braille.

By on 04/11/07 at 07:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hi John

Reading over my post again, I do think there’s perhaps a bit more Elizabeth Bennett (prior to Darcy’s first proposal) in it than is warranted. Even so, let me try to clarify why your pursuit of the topic might strike some as a little objectionable (by which I mean “able to be objected to"). You’ve just written the following:

I take it it’s normal - good even - to read a philosopher with some notion of what they are up to overall. Do you disagree? You seem to agree because you suggest that I should actually consider Derrida’s philosophy more broadly. But if that is so, then where is the harm in me considering Derrida’s philosophy more broadly, i.e. as a form of linguistic idealism?

What rankles is not so much the original post (see my previous compliment on it) but your statement — after a series of posts providing much advice on how to read Derrida, such that his argument should not be reduced to a form of “linguistic idealism” — that you believe Derrida’s argument amounts to linguistic idealism. If you still insist on holding that belief after the excellent directions from surlacarte, Dave Maier, john c. halasz, etc., then it seems to me that you’re not really asking for people to aid your reading or to give you an answer to the question, “does Derrida really commit himself to the view that language always represents language?” You’re not really asking for an answer to that question (at least, not one that responds with a negative), since you’re already firmly committed to the belief that he does. What you’re really doing is provoking an argument.

Now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong at all with provoking an argument, even arguments for the sake of argument. I get a great deal of entertainment out of participating in them (as I’m sure many others do). It’s the pretense at openness, of wanting to learn from others rather than to challenge them, that strikes me as worthy of comment. Again, this is not because I think there’s something immoral about it; it’s a rhetorical strategy that can reap great rewards and I use it when I think I can get away with it. In picking up on it here I mean merely to expose it for the rhetorical strategy that it is, to show that your initial questions are actually answers or conclusions to an unarticulated question, and to help us begin to state and address those unarticulated questions.

Consequently, it may be true that you are looking to learn (as it were) from others, insofar as you want to test your “larger hypothesis”, but the narrow point is, to my mind, so thoroughly determined by the larger hypothesis that no one will learn anything at all. At the same time, it seems too that the larger hypothesis (i.e. the “some notion of what they are up to overall”?) amounts to a generalisation of the narrow point. And so what we get is a closed circular logic that does not “want to hear about how Derrida means something new by ‘speech’ and ‘writing’” because the logic (1) being complete, has no need for that knowledge and (2) would be exposed as circular and misguided if it confronted that knowledge.

This brings us to the question of how to read the “sign of a sign” bit and of your proposed “moves” in the game between “the Derridean” and “the anti-Derridean”. Here I have to insist once again from the beginning that Derrida is not elaborating a theory of language or meaning or signification; he is offering a genealogy and a critique of the metaphysical valuing of presence, hence of a certain concept of science* (among many other things). Your sketch of the moves continues to present the Derridean point as though it were a reflection on the scope of language rather than on the conditions of possibility for writing to be taken as the stable object of a science. And so the “but ‘by language’ Derrida means something broader, more metaphysical” bit, such that “‘language’ just means ‘everything’”, misses the point. The comprehension of “language” (which already includes “everything") under “writing” is a double gesture that:

(1) suggests that the “origin” or “structure” or “condition of possibility” of “writing” is the same (not the right word; you probably know that; whether stating that it’s not the right word is just another move in the game, I can’t say) as that of speech, existence, “everything”, or at least of “everything that presently is“ (can’t remember the ref.). This is not the same as saying that everything is language or that language is everything, nor is it the same as saying that Derrida gives the signifier “language” a different signified, such that “‘language’ just means ‘everything’”.

(2) recalls the historico-metaphysical treatment of writing as secondary (not primary), exteriority (not interiority), derivative (not original), as technological (not natural), as accidental (not necessary), as structured by absence (not presence) and self-difference (not self-identity) etc., etc., etc. The comprehension of “everything” under writing is thus not the reduction of everything to a form of signification but an affirmation of everything that metaphysics has sought to exclude from authentic thought, existence, etc., and it is the precursor to a demonstration that such “qualities” or “values” are what “define” the “origin” or “structure” or “condition of possibility” of “writing” (hence speech, existence, “everything”, etc.). One might even go so far as to say that Derrida’s move is an inversion of the idea that everything is language, insofar as the term “language” continues to recall the notions of “interiority”, etc. whereas the appeal to “writing” is an affirmation of “exteriority”, etc.

(*I think it may turn out that this is one of the unarticulated objections you have to Derrida’s argument. We’ll see, I guess.)

With this “notion of what Derrida is up to overall” in place, it becomes possible to return to the “sign of a sign” bit (also called earlier the “signifier of a signifier"). Two passages from chapter 1, however, will also assist:

With an irregular and essentially precarious success, this movement [more or less, the privilege of the phonè] would have tended, as towards its telos, to confine writing to a secondary and instrumental function: translator of a full speech that was fully present (present to itself, to its signified, to the other, the very condition of the theme of presence in general).... (p.8)

The logos of being, “Thought obeying the Voice of Being” [Heidegger], is the first and the last resource of the sign, of the difference between the signams [signifier] and signatum [signified]. There has to be a transcendental signified for the difference between signifier and signified to be somewhere absolute and irreducible. (p.20)

When Derrida argues that “writing is not a sign of a sign, except if one says it of all signs”, I take this to be a challenge both to the idea that there is some “full speech” that is the immediate and transparent expression of logos (i.e. thought) and to the idea that the logos, hence signified, does not itself already exhibit the features of or conditioned by exteriority, derivativeness, absence, etc., etc., etc. I take it, in other words, to be a critique of the idea of the transcendental signified, and therefore of the absolute and irreducible difference between the signifier and the signified**. When I say “I take this to be...”, I mean that I impute it; I presume that, since everything that has come before this moment as well as what comes after indicates that Derrida is not proposing a “theory of the sign” but something else altogether, this statement is not to be read as a central proposition in a theory of language. The alternative here, of course, is to presume that he is proposing a theory of the sign and therefore to critique him for his linguistic idealism.

(**This is perhaps a second cause for your concern. Maybe we’ll get to revisit it.)

Rather than proposing a theory of language, Derrida is suggesting that such a theory (or, rather, a theory of writing and therefore a theory of language) is, in a sense, impossible even if it is imperative: “the constitution of a science of a philosophy of writing is a necessary and difficult task” (p.93); “all this [a series of points about the connections between writing, power, institution and much more besides] refers to a common and radical possibility that no determined science, no abstract discipline, can think as such.// Indeed, one must understand this incompetence of science which is also the incompetence of philosophy...” (p.93). So you are right that “we have a problem” with regard to talking about language, but not for the reasons you’ve outlined.

As for “want[ing] to argue that this ‘difference’ [difference of language FROM non-language, or FROM sense] is an illusory sense of difference that is well lost”, I’m sorry if I must disappoint you again. It is absolutely paramount to consider the differences of language from non-language, etc. That’s what the comprehension enacted by writing is all about: the insistence on differences. It’s just that such differences may never be absolute and irreducible, and this is why the construction of a science of language constitutes a problem.

Sorry if I’ve left these last two points a little vague, but I’ve spent way, way, way too long on these two posts.

By on 04/11/07 at 10:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

rob, I don’t have time even to read your comment just this second, but I’ll respond to the first few lines of it, and get back to the rest later (I hope). I understand that I can be unduly rascally at times, sacrificing straightforwardness for some dubious sense that I might be able to muster a ‘hidden up the sleeve, then suddenly out’ flourish, as it were. (But I think no fan of Derrida should object too strenuously to that.)

I understand that people are arguing against the view I maintain - i.e. that in some sense Derrida is a linguistic idealist. I just don’t think they are right. That is, I did try to take seriously what people said. I’m still thinking about it. To tell the truth, I have actually changed some stuff in this thing I’m writing, off-line, because I realized my post didn’t really get it right, as people pointed out. But my view - which you are, of course, more than free to disagree with - hasn’t really fundamentally changed, as a result of reading all the comments. I’ll try to get back again later.

By John Holbo on 04/11/07 at 11:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Maybe this will help: I do see, and admit, that there is a simple sense in which the ‘linguistic idealism’ charge gets it exactly wrong. But I think my version of the charge is more sophisticated. (I haven’t really laid it out, so I would be very shocked if you bought, sight unseen. But that’s my reason for ignoring what I take to be objections only to a fairly simple version of the charge. I think my souped-up version has extra special features.)

By John Holbo on 04/11/07 at 11:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, one thing to consider, is the first half of _On Grammatology_, especially the parts about Peirce.  While arguably a lot of the two halves ends up the “same” I find the first half much clearer because of the way it focuses in on the signs.  It’s really hard to call this linguistic idealism without seriously qualifying onself.  (And of course Peirce himself is sometimes called an idealist)

It seems to me though that Derrida is very much a realist in a more traditional sense but is focused on how our signs never allow us direct access to this reality.  There is this problem always intervening.  One could call this the problem of the sign of a sign.  However an other way to think of it is to just say everything is mediated.  But to say everything is mediated doesn’t entail linguistic idealism, as I understand it.  There’s always that “other.”

Where I think the confusion often arises is because Derrida argues that reference to this “other” (the reality) and then reference to the signs themselves can’t easily be separated.  It is, in a certain sense, undecidable whether we’re talking sense or reference, to put it in slightly different language.

That’s close, I suppose, to linguistic idealism, but it seems there is that essential difference that is key to his thought.

(I don’t know, maybe others here will disagree)

By Clark on 04/11/07 at 11:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Okay, John — in that case, I’ll hold my tongue until I see the souped-up version.

By on 04/12/07 at 12:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What Clark said. Exactly what Clark said.

I was waiting for the more detailed charge before mentioning both Peirce and the notion of mediation.

Some people here might be familiar with Chris Norris’s numerous attacks on “postmodernism” (and some Anglo-American philosophy) for its “anti-realism”. Norris always argues, however, that Derrida’s is a critical realism a là Kant.

By on 04/12/07 at 12:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It seems to me though that Derrida is very much a realist in a more traditional sense but is focused on how our signs never allow us direct access to this reality.

I have not read Derrida (that’s technically not true, but will do), but isn’t this sort of belief pattern generally a recipe for skepticism?  There’s reality, but it’s over there, and we can’t get to it/directly access it—this opens up the space for all sorts of skeptical arguments.

By ben wolfson on 04/12/07 at 01:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I have to agree with Ben. That’s part of the reason why I classify Derrida as an idealist. I don’t think he is as rigorous about it as Kant himself, either. That is, he does not end up, like Kant, a transcendental idealist but empirical realist. He is more an empirical idealist. (I’m not asking you to believe this. I’m just telling you that I think this.)

Here is another short argument to the same conclusion (this isn’t going to be the whole story.) Suppose someone attacked Berkeley for absurdly not believing in rocks and trees and such.

That’s the classic objection to Berkeley’s idealism, after all. But it isn’t a good one. Berkeley truthfully replies that he believes in rocks and trees. He just has a somewhat different account of what their natures are, and the nature of our access to them, such as it is.

The objector might volley back: well, then, what’s the difference between my idea of a tree and a tree? Ordinarily, we do acknowledge some difference. Do you, Berkeley, still have the ability to draw some such distinction? And if not, isn’t that a problem? (Note the nature of the problem. By redefining ‘idea’ to mean something very general and metaphysical, we risk losing the capacity to talk about something more ordinary, which we really do need to talk about somehow. We no longer have a word for what we used to call ‘ideas’.)

A related problem. Suppose someone said: We might as well call Berkeley a materialist, since he thinks there’s only one kind of thing - namely, the kind of thing trees and rocks are made of. And that is obviously material stuff. So he must be a materialist.

Here the issue is that Berkeley is, clearly a monist. Given that: why call your monism ‘idealism’ rather than ‘materialism’? That is, why pick a term that seems to imply an opposition that you don’t believe in? Well, I think there is a pretty good reason. Berkeley thinks that the sorts of relations that obtain between trees and rocks and such can be understood on the basis of a model that we only ever used to apply to what we used to call ‘ideas’. Since we have, in effect, expanded from that explanatory base, it is reasonable to stick with the one what brung you, as it were, and call the position ‘idealism’. (Although if it absolutely killed you to call it ‘idealism’, then call it what you want. What matters is the monistic view, not the label you stick on it.)

Now: I think all this goes for Derrida, mutatis mutandis. Like Berkeley he is a kind of monist, with language - more specifically, writing - playing the same role in his philosophy that ideas do in Berkeley’s. I think this doesn’t work because it doesn’t turn out that this sort of monism is a good idea. I call him a ‘linguistic idealist’ by way of indicating this character of his position, as I see it. I think the problem is that, by construing the whole universe on the basis of a linguistic model, you lose the ability to model the difference between those parts of the universe that are linguistic (in the old sense of the word) and those that are not.

Does that make any sense? (Sorry, rob, I still haven’t read your long comment. I promise to find the time, in between these intermittent bout of writing long responses to it, in effect.)

By John Holbo on 04/12/07 at 02:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Also, I have obviously left out the key ingredient: namely, the proof that losing track of this difference is some big problem. Derrida would pretty clearly say: it’s a pseudo-difference that is well lost. And then the real action starts.

By John Holbo on 04/12/07 at 02:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, now I’ve read Rob’s long comment (albeit a bit quickly.) I’ll say this much: I do get it about how he “is offering a genealogy and a critique of the metaphysical valuing of presence, hence of a certain concept of science (among many other things).” When I say he is using ‘language’ broadly, that’s what I mean (with comment box approximateness, naturally). Talking about speech is a way of talking about a value of presence. Talking about how everything is coming up writing is a way of saying this value is undergoing critique and deconstruction. I get that. I think what I am saying is consistent with acknowledging that.

By John Holbo on 04/12/07 at 02:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John Holbo writes: The objector might volley back: well, then, what’s the difference between my idea of a tree and a tree? Ordinarily, we do acknowledge some difference. Do you, Berkeley, still have the ability to draw some such distinction? And if not, isn’t that a problem? [end John Holbo excerpt]

The difference between my idea of a tree and a tree is that the tree presents itself as being there whether or not I will it. I can imagine a tree, produce an idea of a tree, and then banish it from my thoughts, or turn it into an ice cream cone. I can’t do that with a tree! I look at a tree. I close my eyes. I command myself: “When you open your eyes, I do not want you to see the tree you were just now looking at.” I open my eyes and there is the same tree, more or less (a leaf might have fallen while I wasn’t looking, who knows). I can’t wish it away. What we call “reality” is that area of idea production that presents itself as necessary. Here’s how Fichte puts it: “In brief, we may say that some of our presentations are accompanied by the feeling of freedom, others by the feeling of necessity.” (First Introduction to the Science of Knowledge in Heath and Lachs, 6)

By on 04/12/07 at 01:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, John, it seems you have me somewhat at a disadvantage: for I do not know why you think Derrida is a “linguistic idealist”, whereas you do know, but you’re not telling. Consequently, I’m fighting blind (as it were). I might as well be trying to guess the number between 1 and 2 (to an unspecified decimal place!) that you’re thinking of.

In lieu of an argument as to why Derrida’s Grammatology is not linguistic idealism, then, I’ll make the following observation: what’s going on between us isn’t so much a difference in opinion over Derrida’s possible “linguistic idealism” (I still don’t really know what that is, seeing as you keep saying that all my counters to the claim don’t really challenge your “souped-up” version of the claim) but rather a difference in the ways we approach and practice philosophy.

We are both reading Derrida in order to determine, as you’ve said before, “what he’s up to overall”. But it seems to me that the latter phrase for you can only mean “his theory”, or rather his “metaphysics” or his “ontology”: his conception of the nature of reality and of existence. And this theory will be revealed by way of a close reading and engagement with his text.

Now, it is my belief, which may or may not be shared by you or by others, that no amount of “close reading” or disciplined reasoning will get you to the pure form or stable meaning (the transcendental signified) of Derrida’s text, and this is not because that signified is locked away in Derrida’s late head; Derrida also is unable to get at that stable text. Rather, I would argue that that text must, i.e. necessarily, be “filled” in some way; it cannot not be approached without some presuppositions in place.

If, in other words, you install “linguistic idealism” at the basis of Derrida’s argument ("by construing the whole universe on the basis of a linguistic model"), then you will end up discovering — surprise, surprise — that Derrida is a “linguistic idealist” (okay, I’ll dispense with the quotation marks from now on). To put it another way, if you read for signs of Derrida’s linguistic idealism, you will be able to find passages, arguments, etc., that may function as “evidence” of that linguistic idealism.

I’m not arguing here that anyone and everyone can read anything and everything into any and every text, but rather that the nature of Derrida’s (though not only Derrida’s) work (e.g. the fact that it contains very little in the way of “positive” statements), the nature of the kinds of arguments that can be made after Heidegger (i.e. after the thought of ontological difference), in conjunction with the contradictory protocols of competing forms or practices of philosophy (analytical, speculative, critical, phenomenological, etc., etc.) and with the context(s) that may be formed through reference to the history of interpretations of Derrida’s work (as idealist, as nihilist, as relativist, as post-structuralist, as Heideggarian, etc., etc.) — all this means that Derrida’s work is relatively open to different readings.

In light of that fact — or let’s just say, “possibility” — I choose to read Derrida, along with every other philosopher, as though he were the very best, the most widely-read and highly-perceptive thinker of his time (which, perhaps not surprisingly, I believe is not too far from the truth in any case). Consequently, I read Derrida as coming after (in the sense of taking from and working on the basis of what is “right” in) Kant, Hegel, Marx, Heidegger, Wittgenstein and whoever else had some incredibly profound ideas about the world. Insofar as I pretty much take it for granted that linguistic idealism is problematic (at least, if by that term is meant some kind of denial of the force of materiality, or the idealisation of the natural world, or the denial of the necessity of pragmatics), I therefore assume that Derrida thinks so too and that this thought is to be presumed as underlying his various arguments.

I concede: there is a certain circularity to the above argument about “doing” philosophy. It is premised largely on ideas that I have taken from Derrida. I can, if you like, attempt to justify the reasonableness of that circularity (which is to say, the set of presuppositions that I bring to the task of reading Derrida, and of reading philosophy generally), but I don’t want to do it if it’s not going to have any effect.

In any case, I would argue that the best way to test your hypothesis that Derrida’s Grammatology is a form of linguistic idealism would be to read that text against that hypothesis, as though it weren’t linguistic idealism. Certainly, it seems that nothing I can say will do a better job of testing your hypothesis.

I concede too: my knowledge of pre-critical philosophy is sketchy at best, and so your Berkeley example didn’t mean much to me. What does make sense is the following:

I think the problem is that, by construing the whole universe on the basis of a linguistic model, you lose the ability to model the difference between those parts of the universe that are linguistic (in the old sense of the word) and those that are not.

Also, I have obviously left out the key ingredient: namely, the proof that losing track of this difference is some big problem. Derrida would pretty clearly say: it’s a pseudo-difference that is well lost.

I’ve already listed numerous reasons why I think it’s false to see (or to read) Derrida as “construing the whole universe on the basis of a linguistic model”. I do believe, though, that there is a sense in which one implication of his argument is that the difference between “those parts of the universe that are linguistic (in the old sense of the word) and those that are not” evades a rigorous, absolute and irreducible specification. I also believe not only that this is a problem, but that Derrida also says it’s a problem (see earlier post, re: impotence of science). The difference between you and me (and Derrida?) is that when I (Derrida?) say it’s a problem I (Derrida?) do not mean in the “end of the world” sense or in the sense of it being a problem that must be finally overcome; I mean it in the sense that it presents a challenge to thought and a practical or pragmatic problem for the study of language.

Consequently, you only need to prove to me that “losing track of this difference is some big problem” if you mean that chaos and catastrophe will ensue if that difference is “lost”. What you do need to prove to me is that “Derrida would pretty clearly say: it’s a pseudo-difference that is well lost”.

By on 04/12/07 at 09:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Linguistic idealism” as a label is likely a symptom of John’s having been educated in analytic philosophy.  I get the feeling that they have all kinds of really reified labels for philosophers—not as in everyone already has his place, but as in there’s a certain limited set of labels under which every actual philosopher will fall.  Simply going from the apparent literal meaning of the components of the labels will not get you far.  You fail to understand John for the same reason that you probably couldn’t just dive right into Scotus’s Quodlibetal Questions.

By Adam Kotsko on 04/12/07 at 09:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ah, thank you Adam Kotsko. Analytic philosophy — that explains a lot of things.

(Hey, I can do the labelling thing too!)

By on 04/12/07 at 09:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

For the sake of convenience, let’s stipulate that I’ve successfully executed the standard ‘Adam is guilty of precisely the thing he accuses me of - of which I am innocent!’ maneuver. (I have never failed to successfully perform this move before, so I think this is a reasonable stipulation. Curious readers can request a full rhetorical performance in writing. Do not fail to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope.) Let us proceed with the philosophical part of the program.

What’s unclear about the term ‘linguistic idealism’? I picked it precisely because it is not a technical term of art. I think it is due to Bernard Williams, but the general meaning seems to me rather intuitive and readily graspable, in general outline, by anyone moderately familiar with, say, the history of modern European philosophy after Descartes and, especially, after Kant. A linguistic idealist takes ‘language’ to play the role that Kant assigned to the categories. Is this not tolerably clear, as starting points go? This is a real question, not a rhetorical question.

By John Holbo on 04/12/07 at 10:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And by sticking language in scare quotes, I actually indicate that there is something scary, i.e. ‘scary’, i.e. approximate about this usage, which will need to be sorted out. (We scare because we care, you might say.) At any rate, I do not propose that linguistic idealism is the view that ‘language’ - the word - will play the role Kant assigned to the categories.

By John Holbo on 04/12/07 at 10:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This thread has finally done what the Holbonic posse always wanted Valve threads to do—host a sustained conversation on a serious philosophical topic.

The very outcome the ToS and I have been working all these months to keep from happening. Curse you, Rob!

By John Emerson on 04/12/07 at 10:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And somehow it happened despite the fact that John missed a blindingly obvious point—Derrida’s positing a generalized “sign of a sign” structure to language, not claiming that written signs exclusively refer to spoken signs!  Surely Derrida would agree with John that written words can refer directly to dogs, etc.  Despite referring to Saussure, the basic insight of structuralism and its critique was totally missed!  (This only refers to the post; I didn’t read the post because it seemed to be doing something that I don’t believe is possible on blogs.)

By Adam Kotsko on 04/12/07 at 10:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, can you tell me what the basic insight of structuralism and its critique is? Just the short version? (I have a sneaking suspicion that I am going to respond: yes, that’s the thing I was saying is a mistake. But on the off chance that I actually have missed Derrida’s basic insight, it would be better for me to be apprised of it sooner, rather than later, to save myself from more philosophical embarrassment.)

I certainly don’t deny that Derrida is positing a generalized ‘sign of a sign’ structure to language. That’s my point. I claim this is not a correct view. (And it doesn’t improve if you say it is really a metaphysical view. Yes, then it is not a correct metaphysical view.)

I also think there is a sense in which Derrida does deny the possibility of ‘direct reference’, e.g. to dogs. Do you think Derrida is actually some sort of direct reference theorist? If so, how so?

As to the post, I agree with you: it does seem to be doing something you don’t believe is possible on blogs. What do you make of that?

rob, if the Berkeley thing doesn’t work for you, you’ll just have to wait until I have time to give a longer presentation. I think the Berkely case gives you a correct outline of what I am thinking, so if you see a flaw in the outline, then please explain. The key to my argument is outlining varieties of meanings of ‘meaning’, only some of which Derrida’s view seems capable of handling, because he has lost track of the distinction between language and non-language. So, to seem forceful, the argument against Derrida needs to be the tip of an moderately small iceberg worth of reflections on the meaning of ‘meaning’.

I see that you will reply that he hasn’t lost track, he has problematized. But it seems to me that he has problematized in an unsatisfactory way. That is, he offers a highly speculative theory or explanation, where he has no business doing so - and at precisely the point where he is most trying not to do so.

By John Holbo on 04/12/07 at 10:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I suppose one thing that Adam could say is that, since he has a strong impossibility proof, the post must be an illusion. But I don’t think that view can be sustained. I can think of strong objections to it.

By John Holbo on 04/12/07 at 11:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"You’ll just have to wait until I have time to give a longer presentation.”

:-)

By John Emerson on 04/12/07 at 11:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John is right that I am weaseling out. In my defense: the reason I didn’t mention it at all in my post was because I had a sense that writing a post that said, in part, ‘I have a cool argument that refutes you, but it’s a secret’ was not very punk rock. Still, it slipped out in comments, so here we are. I swear to you: the beetle in my box is a very cool beetle.

By John Holbo on 04/12/07 at 11:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

By “direct reference,” I mean that the written word “dog” can refer to a real dog just as the spoken word “dog” can.

I’m sure you understand the structuralist thing, but you got way too hung up on a rather dumb point about “hey, writing doesn’t just refer to speech!” It’s not as though Derrida’s argument hangs on that.  Doesn’t he himself refer to Chinese characters in Grammatology?

And you simply asserted that the word “dog” refers to [whatever real non-linguistic entity I can somehow drop into this sentence] when you know for a fact that that’s precisely the point that’s at issue.  Yes, Derrida contradicts the common-sense view of language.  Derrida knows that, everyone knows that.  Just straight-out asserting that this contradiction of common sense is an error does not, in my opinion, count as a serious argument.  (Not to say that Derrida can’t be wrong, just that after reading your post, I’m still closer to Derrida’s camp than to yours.)

And in fact, I would say that it’s not entirely stupid to say that a written word “represents” a spoken word, at least in Western systems of writing.  Yet you treat this, also, as a completely obvious error—“the written word “dog” means, you know, dog! Or else all we could write about was speaking!” That’s also a nonsensical argument.  The scheme underlying this “sign of a sign” thing was that writing introduces one more layer until you get to the signified—the written sign must be translated into its spoken equivalent, which then gets redirected to its referent.  I don’t see why you would think it’s so obvious that the process would just get hung up at the translation from writing to speech.  It doesn’t need to “take time,” or it’s not as though the person reading a written text normally lacks access to the spoken equivalent in a given language.  (I’m not advancing the Rousseauian view here, just saying that your construal of it struck me as really bizarre and unconvincing.)

By Adam Kotsko on 04/12/07 at 11:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As for the impossibility issue, I’ll admit to not having read all these comments in detail.  Yet it appears that even after these nice people have left such long comments for you, you’re playing the old game of “but the core suppositions of my post are still totally correct, and here are the epicycles to prove it.”

(Maybe there are some key posts that I skimmed too fast.  If there are, then my postulates indicate that they don’t exist, so I wouldn’t be able to see them, even if they were pointed out to me.)

I hope that if I were to write a post about how I’m reading through the Tractatus and said something that struck you as dumbassical, I wouldn’t get into this endless cycle of “No, actually I think you’re misunderstanding the thrust of my post.” (That’s more of an extreme example, though, since I don’t even know formal logic.)

I guess my ideal for a discussion would be a few incisive remarks, after which everyone retreats to their books.  But never would anyone be allowed to say “thanks” or “that’s helpful”—and especially not to combine the two.  It’s not like internet discussions need to be mutual grooming sessions, even if most of us do have lice.

By Adam Kotsko on 04/12/07 at 11:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, Adam, is your objection that I am making claims without arguments - and it is never alright to make claims without arguments (even when you clearly label them as such)? That seems to be the burden of your first comment. Or is your objection that it is never alright to make arguments for your claims? (That is, we should just incisively remark. But there can be no dialectical give and take.) That seems to be the burden of your second comment.

I am inclined to see these two positions as in some degree of mutual tension.

(I have some responses to your other complaints as well, but first I’d like to sort out: is it absolutely necessary to argue for everything; or is it absolutely forbidden to argue for anything ever. Because I will have to tailor my presentation depending on which it is you really think.)

On the off-chance that you think it is something alright to offer arguments, sometimes alright to make claims, and sometimes alright to make incisive comments, followed by a retreat into your books - I suggest a fundamental rewrite of these last two comments, to reflect whatever it was you were actually trying to say.

By John Holbo on 04/12/07 at 11:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Regardless of what ideally should have been the case, in this blog post, you advanced certain assertions, some of them backed up by arguments.  Those were just the facts on the ground—what was done was done.  If we were to tailor this conversation to my preferences, it might have gone like this --

Holbo: “Derrida’s view of language is wrong!”
Kotsko: “It’s because it contradicts common sense, isn’t it?”
Holbo [stretching]: “Well, looks like it’s time to go back to reading.”

I guess it could be more incisive, but again, I’m working with the material I’ve been given.

I’m skeptical of the “dialectical give and take” here.  In the Platonic dialogues, this procedure most often seems to result in a glorified monologue by Socrates, with partners occasionally chiming in about how right he is.  (This is doubtless more true of the later dialogues, but as Wittgenstein says of the earlier ones, they prove nothing and clarify nothing.)

By Adam Kotsko on 04/12/07 at 11:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A linguistic idealist takes ‘language’ to play the role that Kant assigned to the categories. Is this not tolerably clear, as starting points go? This is a real question, not a rhetorical question.

Thank you. Now at least I know what you mean by the term.

Suppose someone attacked Berkeley for absurdly not believing in rocks and trees and such. That’s the classic objection to Berkeley’s idealism, after all. But it isn’t a good one. Berkeley truthfully replies that he believes in rocks and trees. He just has a somewhat different account of what their natures are, and the nature of our access to them, such as it is. The objector might volley back: well, then, what’s the difference between my idea of a tree and a tree? Ordinarily, we do acknowledge some difference. Do you, Berkeley, still have the ability to draw some such distinction? And if not, isn’t that a problem? (Note the nature of the problem. By redefining ‘idea’ to mean something very general and metaphysical, we risk losing the capacity to talk about something more ordinary, which we really do need to talk about somehow. We no longer have a word for what we used to call ‘ideas’.)

You know, re-reading this made me suddenly realise that the unit on the study of language that I’m soon to teach contains not a single rock or tree in it! I am definitely going to have to rectify that, since I believe (following Derrida) that everything is language, and so I can’t differentiate between words and things. I hadn’t noticed it before, but now that Derrida has said that the word for everything is “writing”, my wife keeps thinking I’m complimenting the refrigerator whenever I praise Paul Auster’s novels.)

Your Berkeley example doesn’t convince me of anything: after Berkeley “redefines” the word “idea” to mean whatever he redefines it to mean, the word for what we used to call “ideas” is “ideas” (still). I haven’t suddenly become incapable of teaching writing, nor of distinguishing between music and painting, art and science, good students and bad students, etc., simply because I understand Derrida’s claims about the speech-writing opposition, arche-writing, differance, etc. And I can’t see any reason why that can or should be seen as a contradiction between principle and practice. (Do I need to spell out the irony in your linguistic idealism charge?

Here the issue is that Berkeley is, clearly a monist. Given that: why call your monism ‘idealism’ rather than ‘materialism’? That is, why pick a term that seems to imply an opposition that you don’t believe in? Well, I think there is a pretty good reason. Berkeley thinks that the sorts of relations that obtain between trees and rocks and such can be understood on the basis of a model that we only ever used to apply to what we used to call ‘ideas’. Since we have, in effect, expanded from that explanatory base, it is reasonable to stick with the one what brung you, as it were, and call the position ‘idealism’. (Although if it absolutely killed you to call it ‘idealism’, then call it what you want. What matters is the monistic view, not the label you stick on it.)

Now: I think all this goes for Derrida, mutatis mutandis. Like Berkeley he is a kind of monist, with language - more specifically, writing - playing the same role in his philosophy that ideas do in Berkeley’s.

Here’s what I know about Berkeley: the introduction to philosophy books I’ve read (plus the few discussions of him I’ve come across in non-elementary sources) say that he’s a “monist”. This is fabulous, because this fact saves me from having to read his work, from having to think, from being challenged by it, and from considering the many unexpected ways that it might add to (my) knowledge, (my) existence, etc. It also means that, were I to decide to read his work, I would already know in advance that he’s a monist and that knowledge would help me to find the bits that prove he’s a monist. And were I to decide that I wanted to take Berkeley to task for being a monist, I wouldn’t have to put too much effort into it, since the argument is fairly able to be formulated in advance and I could probably find a few dozen other people who’ve already said it, and so I could be pretty certain that I’ll be able to find someone who will agree with me and will publish my paper.

Here’s (some of) what I know about Derrida: to call Derrida a “monist” is so utterly ludicrous that I can only believe that it is a view formed in the same way that I formed the above view that Berkeley is a monist, but in this case the references appealed to are far less rigorous than those on Berkeley and the thought put into formulating the view less rigorous still.

However, I am absolutely certain, John, that you will find a place of publication where, on the contrary to being embarrassed by the lack of rigour put into your reading of Derrida, you will be applauded for it.

BTW, no ill-will is intended in the above; it’s all just writing, after all.

By on 04/13/07 at 12:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The later dialogues includes the Philebus, where Socrates ends up admitting he was wrong (as was his discussion-partner) and adopting a modified position, which both he and his interlocutor agree is much closer to the right view than what either of them started with. (Davidson says, in his Gadamer essay, that this is the only time Socrates does this. Which is why it was interesting enough to dissertate on, for both himself and for Gadamer.)

The middle dialogues are where you get the really lame “dialogues” where the other guy just keeps nodding along. Probably what you were thinking of. Just wanted to throw out the Philebus bit; can’t see why the Republic is so popular, while poor Philebus is hardly read.

(Since I already mentioned Davidson—isn’t the whole “linguistic idealism” problem what Davidson is attacking with his “third dogma of empiricism”? Holbo’s said that he thought lit folk needed to know more about Davidson; perhaps a good reason to do this sooner rather than later?)

By on 04/13/07 at 01:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, I clearly don’t think Derrida is wrong because what he says contradicts common sense. If that were my argument, I could have stated it quite simply, couldn’t I? I wouldn’t need to go back to do more reading, right? (Am I right, or am I right?)

Look, Adam, you are too eager simply to insult me, frankly. (It would be really dumb of Holbo to say Derrida is wrong because it isn’t common sense. Therefore I’ll say that. Because Holbo is really pissing me off.) You might consider less unproductive modes of engagement. Try them on for size.

As to Wittgenstein: he also said that ‘if Plato’s dialogues leave you cold, that means you aren’t reading them in the right spirit. For they were the very opposite of cold when they were written.’

Speaking of the right spirit. And speaking of Wittgenstein: suppose I were inclined to make the (ahem) dumasstical objection that the trouble with the early Wittgenstein is that he can’t even explain why it is that, given that a certain spot is green, it can’t also be red. He would have to be pretty dumb not to know that a spot that is green can’t also be red, huh? What an asshole, huh? So if I said that about him, it would just be one of those stupid, anti-intellectual Holbo tricks. Right?

Whereas, in fact, the so-called ‘color exclusion problem’ was what induced Wittgenstein himself to abandon the Tractarian framework. He realized that he could not reduce all necessity to logical necessity, because he could not reduce ‘color-exclusion necessity’, if you will, to logic.

So, far from being a dumasstical objection, it is a good objection. Furthermore, if you do not see this, you not only do not understand Wittgenstein, you mistake the spirit in which he philosophized. Now in crediting Derrida with the prospect of being wrong in certain technical ways, I do not see myself as insulting him. I see myself as taking him seriously. I am treating him like I treat other thinkers, including Wittgenstein, whom I take seriously. You, Adam, are free to take a different sort of view - a more general ‘arguments suck!’ philosophy of philosophy. But if you do take that attitude, I will ask you not to pretend that Wittgenstein, of all thinkers, can be roped in on your side of the debate. And if you project that philosophy onto Derrida, by way of shielding him from potential technical objections, I will also ask you to refrain, in future, from pretending you think that Derrida ALSO needs to be respected because somehow he has technical philosophical arguments, or refined conceptual considerations at his mental fingertips, that need taking seriously by those who are interested in philosophy. If none of his ideas bear technical scrutiny, in any rigorous, rational sense, then the notion that Derrida has provided intellectual grounds for challenging common sense will simply fall away, more or less. Perhaps he has, instead, written some nice, romantic poetry? Is that fair?

But what I am really saying is just: calm the hell down. You get pissed because I do my little passive-aggressive pseudo-innocently socratic schtick. But have you noticed: I NEVER start it. If you will address me in a respectful, productive way, I do not snark (beyond a certain tolerable minimum.) On the other hand, if you just haul off and call me an idiot, more or less, I will feel free to make fun of you in my signature style. That just the way we roll, here in the narrow-minded analytic philosophy business.

By John Holbo on 04/13/07 at 01:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, I wrote my response to Adam while the other two responses showed up. Daniel, yes, my thinking is more or less Davidsonian.

rob, you’ve turned all grumblecakes on me, and we were doing so well. How do you know my view is absurd, if I may ask? (Especially since I’ve more or less made a point of not telling you what it is, in any but the sketchiest detail?)

By John Holbo on 04/13/07 at 01:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You could read Berkeley’s Dialogues, rob, since you say you don’t know much about pre-critical philosophy; they’re short and interesting, and all over the net for free.  This one has the virtue of including the preface.

(I know the point of your comment wasn’t really that you wanted to know about Berkeley or something like that, but it’s still true that Berkeley is interesting.)

By ben wolfson on 04/13/07 at 01:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

rob, you’ve turned all grumblecakes on me, and we were doing so well. How do you know my view is absurd, if I may ask? (Especially since I’ve more or less made a point of not telling you what it is, in any but the sketchiest detail?)

I’m going to theorize that the tendency exhibited in the parenthetical statement is actually objectionable, and excuses at least some of Adam’s ire.  If you’ve got a souped-up argument, give the damn thing; if you don’t yet have it formulated, maybe the discussion should be tabled.

By ben wolfson on 04/13/07 at 01:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, Ben, I have freely conceded that not providing it is very annoying of me. (I’m actually doing my best to write up a version of my argument as we speak.) I don’t know what else I can say.

I did think that the Berkeley comparison was somewhat substantive and am a little dismayed that rob has taken it as an excuse to not take me seriously. (I’m not a monist myself, but some of my best friends are monists. I think it’s important to be tolerant of the intellectual lifestyles of monists.)

By John Holbo on 04/13/07 at 01:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks ben. I’ll bookmark and maybe I’ll get a chance to look sometime.

BTW, I’ve unchecked the “Notify me...” box — is that enough to unsubscribe me from this thread?

By on 04/13/07 at 01:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rob? Can you hear me? CAN YOU HEAR ME! (I guess unchecking the box must have worked. Alright then.)

By John Holbo on 04/13/07 at 01:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think that’s enough, actually; when you get emails indicating that a new comment’s been posted, there should be a link at the bottom which, if followed, will remove you from the update list.  Follow that link.

By ben wolfson on 04/13/07 at 01:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Oy vey! Haven’t we all gotten our knickers into a twist! Aside from thanking rob for his well-spoken contributions, I’ve been scratching my head in trying to figure out just what the Holbo objection amounts to. Bishop Berkeley scarcely helps, (nor, no thanks to Swifty, does Fichte). The issue takes place in a much later historical problematic. But once we’re on to old Ludwig,- (aside from noting that red-green was not the only consideration, but also the problem of logically specifying spacio-temporal locations and that funny little Italian guy scatching his chin,- and, er, noting how odd it is that he seems to have re-produced Fichte in reduced form with that business about kicking away the ladder),- he did have this to say about old Bishop Berkeley: it’s not as if, having put his underwear on and then his pants, he did not realize that he was still wearing his underpants when he was wearing his pants. I dunno if that helps…

By on 04/13/07 at 01:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

thanks ben

By on 04/13/07 at 02:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

john, I was mostly just pointing out that accusing philosophers of not being able to handle really basic stuff, with their accounts, is not code for calling them idiots.

By John Holbo on 04/13/07 at 02:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Wow this is a lot to read. (Great party John, sorry I came late and only brought this lousely tangential comment.)

Luther, you wrote “there is an important way in which speech (or writing) represent ideas.” Do you mean here “all speech/writing represents ideas” or do you mean “some speech/writing represents ideas”? The latter seems irrefutable to me while to former seems wrong.

By Nate on 04/13/07 at 03:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s ok, Nate. You can put your tangents in the cooler over there. I sent some of the others out for tangents a while ago but they aren’t back yet.

By John Holbo on 04/13/07 at 05:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, I was actually just smirking about your promise of something longer and less laconic.

Someone should give me a cookie for mostly staying out of this thread.

By John Emerson on 04/13/07 at 07:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John Emerson, if it is within my power to stipulate that you have a cookie, I say: make it so!

By John Holbo on 04/13/07 at 07:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Daniel writes:

The later dialogues includes the Philebus, where Socrates ends up admitting he was wrong (as was his discussion-partner) and adopting a modified position, which both he and his interlocutor agree is much closer to the right view than what either of them started with. (Davidson says, in his Gadamer essay, that this is the only time Socrates does this. Which is why it was interesting enough to dissertate on, for both himself and for Gadamer.)

The middle dialogues are where you get the really lame “dialogues” where the other guy just keeps nodding along. Probably what you were thinking of. Just wanted to throw out the Philebus bit; can’t see why the Republic is so popular, while poor Philebus is hardly read.
[end Daniel]

I must object! Although I will take you up on the suggestion to pay more attention to Philebus. But still I must object! The Gorgias contains the longest and best criticism of Socrates I’ve ever seen. No nodding along there! It’s put in the mouth of Callicles. Run, do not walk, to Gorgias 481a-486a and the discussion following. Think of it this way: Callicles in the Gorgias is what Thrasymachus in the Republic wishes he could be. On my end, I will renew my acquaintaince with Philebus.

By on 04/13/07 at 08:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John,

There’s a difference between claiming Wittgenstein is wrong (non-dumbassical, at least in principle) and getting Wittgenstein wrong (mostly dumbassical).  I used the Wittgenstein example solely because you did your dissertation on him, thus qualifying as an expert.  Then I parenthetically noted some particular qualities of the Tractatus that present special problems for me in particular, thus amplifying the difference between your (high) level of expertise and my (very low) level of expertise.  If this particular aspect of my post was taken as an insult, I’m baffled.

Your claim that Derrida depends on the claim that “writing is a sign of a sign” in the restricted sense of “written signs only represent their spoken equivalents” is incorrect.  It seems clear to me that Derrida would not embrace that claim.  His procedure is based on the fact that the claim is very frequently made in the Western tradition, not on the truth of that claim.  Therefore, writing an entire post mostly based on the premise that Derrida is wrong about this whole “writing only ever represents speech” thing is… well, let’s just say it’s getting Derrida wrong.

(On a sidenote, I’m disappointed that I didn’t get more credit for the line “and I’ve got the epicycles to prove it.")

By Adam Kotsko on 04/13/07 at 10:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, I appear to have misunderstood you. I took it you were upset that I was accusing Derrida of elementary errors and inferring that I was meaning to call him an idiot by implying that he was wrong about such simple stuff - the word ‘dog’ vs. dog, etc.

Now. My “claim that Derrida depends on the claim that “writing is a sign of a sign” in the restricted sense of “written signs only represent their spoken equivalents” is incorrect.  It seems clear to me that Derrida would not embrace that claim.” [this is Adam I’m quoting here, criticizing me.]

If you scroll up to here, I think you will find that I freely conceded one half of this point a week ago, to surlacarte. (Of course it is understandable that you missed that. But that’s why I didn’t get half of what you were accusing me of.) That is, I conceded that Derrida is not taking ‘Rousseau is right’ as a major premise, or anything like that. I shouldn’t have hinted at that to begin with. It was rather a foolish thing to suggest. But it is true that Derrida agrees with Rousseau, in a strong sense. And that won’t do. And you are right that there is a weak sense in which Rousseau’s point can be granted, but that isn’t relevant. Derrida is not agreeing just to a weak sense, near as I can figure. Derrida believes that ‘all language is a sign of a sign’ This is a generalization and metaphysicalization of Rousseau’s error.

(Nota bene: This is a claim, not an argument. The difference is: I am not claiming I am at the moment providing you with a reason to believe me. I am merely informing you of what I believe. I feel doing so is intellectually legitimate, so please do not respond that I am not providing an argument.)

Derrida writes: “In all senses of the word, writing thus comprehends language. Not that the word ‘writing’ has ceased to designate the signifier of the signifier, but it appears, strange as it may seem, that “signifier of the signifier” no longer defines accidental doubling and fallen secondarity. “Signifier of the signifier” describes on the contrary the movement of language ... “ (p. 7)

Please note the strength of that ‘in all senses’ formulation. I think he does mean it. And:

“For some time now, as a matter of fact, here and there, by a gesture and for motives that are profoundly necessary, whose degradation is easier to denounce than it is to disclose their origin, one says “langyage for action, movement, thought, reflection, consciousness, unconsciousnessk, experience, affectivity, etc. Now we tend to say “writing” for all that and more: to designate not only the physical gestures of literal pictographic or ideographic inscription, but also the totality of what makes it possible; and also, beyond the signifying face, the signified face itself.” (p. 9)

It is because of passages like this that I think Derrida maintains the view I attribute to him: namely, language always means something that is, itself, language-like, i.e. when that something means in turn, it means in a linguistic sort of way. This I deny. The reason is in a sense simple. ‘Pheasants’ means pheasants (let’s say, a bit simply). This relation is arbitrary, semantic in character. Pheasant tracks mean pheasants. Here the meaning relation is ‘natural’ (don’t be frightened by the word. I didn’t capitalize it or do anything fundamentally scary with it.) That is, there is a sense in which the meaning relation is non-arbitrary. This is a different sort of meaning than the other sort. Derrida misses this. (I’m simplifying. This isn’t really a full argument.)

And the next move is to suggest that somehow categories themselves - pheasants and tracks and so forth - are linguistically constructed, so the Derridean position is justified when we, as it were, go Kantian about the categories of language. I don’t think that turns out to work. It turns out to be a piece of unwarranted speculation. I’m not going to give that argument tonight. But the first bit: natural vs. non-natural meaning (I’m borrowing terms from Grice, although my account isn’t really Gricean.) Derrida misses this sense of linguistic difference: difference between meaning that is linguistic and meaning that is not. (In the latter case you could say ‘implication’. Fine. My point is: implication is not linguistically conventional in the way that Derrida needs it to be. The explanation of why pheasant tracks mean pheasants is not remotely Saussurean.) That’s what I argue, anyway.

(Lucky rob isn’t here. He’s go spare over ‘natural’ meaning, no doubt.)

This comment is composed in great haste. I reserve the right to repent - without any feeling of guilt, and at great leisure - what is probably an unclear condensation of thoughts I am trying to work through.

By John Holbo on 04/13/07 at 11:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What is natural meaning? How is it different from being semantic in character? Is it the notion of ‘arbitrary’?

I’m finding these concepts a bit vague, and I don’t know that it is because of the fact they are in a comment box.

By Anthony Paul Smith on 04/13/07 at 11:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I am pleased to be (partially) wrong on the Plato point; Gorgias has jumped in my reading list. Thanks!

By on 04/13/07 at 11:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The arbitrariness is a big part of it. It’s not as though it’s simple or perfectly clear or unproblematic, Anthony.

Clouds mean rain. These spots mean measles. The fact that the economy is poor means more unemployment. This move means that black is check-mated.

All this is ‘natural’ meaning. Cases like the last one are a bit surprising because we think: chess is a pure, conventional system. How can chess meaning be ‘natural’? Well, given the conventional rules (which could of course be different), given this position (which could of course be different), black is checkmated. That last bit isn’t true by additional convention but follows ‘naturally’ from the conventions plus the position. Put it this way: the rules are conventional. What the rules MEAN is not conventional.

This is significant for literary theory, where the assumption tends to be that whatever is ‘made true’ by the text could hardly be governed by ‘natural meaning’. So there is no attempt to theorize ‘meaning’ - in the relevant, hermeneutic sense, the sense critics are concerned with - in a way that admits the possibility that natural meaning might be a big part of it.

This isn’t a proof that Derrida is wrong. And it isn’t a claim that this ‘natural’ meaning relation is some pure thing, cleanly abstracted from human thoughts and interests and so forth. Patently it isn’t that. Nevertheless, it is a different KIND of thing than is often considered possible, according to certain theories of meaning, of literary interpretation.

By John Holbo on 04/13/07 at 11:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This “natural meaning” concept is interesting, and is something that probably would not have occurred to me, given that I spend my whole day in my pajamas writing next to the fireplace.  (I’m still not convinced, on first principles, that I have a body.)

Let’s grant for a moment that “natural meaning” exists.  It seems reasonable enough.  Does that kind of meaning function linguistically?  That is, does it function through differentiation?  After all, if the sky was always cloudy, it wouldn’t mean anything—it’s only because of the difference between a cloudy and a clear sky that we’re able to discern the meaning of cloudiness.  And one is at least implicitly comparing pheasant tracks to other sorts of tracks (and to untracked ground).  Thus the phenomenon of natural meaning would seem to support, in at least some ways, the generalized account of language that Derrida suggests.

The problem is with the “arbitrary” element.  I don’t think one should read it in a strong sense as “wilfully imposed.” The sign “dog” emerged out of a long history and can’t be changed in any straightforward way—it’s not like the pope could just declare, “From now on, dogs are called blogs!” or something.  That’s what “constructivism” means—not that it can be shaped at will, but that it emerges through history, in excess of something that we will provisionally call “nature.”

Of course, to extend Derrida’s ideas into a realm where he doesn’t explicitly venture, “natural meaning” itself is a product of history in a certain sense—it’s possible that the evolutionary process could’ve gone differently in some relatively trivial way so that pheasants would be basically the same, except with a different kind of footprint.  And while our atmosphere makes it necessary that, say, a clear sky will appear to us to be blue, etc., the whole system as it currently stands is the process of a long “history.” Of course, over time we’ve learned that humans can intervene in the history of climate or of the evolution of species—I’m sure that pigeons as a species are much different from how they’d be if humans hadn’t built modern cities, for instance, and obviously there’s global warming.  (We might hope that someday humans will intervene more “consciously” into such histories, but even then, it doesn’t seem like the results will be simply identical to our intentions.)

Simply put, using language in a broad sense like Derrida does, does not seem to me to exclude something like “natural meaning”—indeed, it seems to invite an interpretation of it.  Derrida obviously focussed much more on the interpretation of (mainly philosophical) texts, doubtless partly because of his training and competence, but also because of what I imagine is a disposition toward thinking that “human” or “artificial” things are more interesting—I happen to share that disposition.

Coming back to the chess example as “natural” meaning, it seems clear that there are possible sequences of chess moves that were not foreseen by the creators of chess—indeed, whole realms of strategy that have yet to be discovered.  Derrida’s approach to texts, finding the unintentional consequences of the “system” that the author sets up, does not seem to be in contradiction to this kind of “natural meaning” either.

Synchronically, of course, the consequences “naturally” follow—just as at a given moment, it’s not considered to be questionable whether a given type of footprint corresponds to a pheasant or whether certain types of clouds imply certain types of weather, all interpreted based on a differential system (this is “the basic structuralist insight").  Diachronically, however, systems of signification change, often in unpredictable ways (this is the basic critique of structuralism).

(My God, I’ve written a comment of Holbonic length!  Am I now myself participating in a type of conversation I think is impossible?  Will I be able to read this comment after posting it?!)

By Adam Kotsko on 04/13/07 at 12:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But John H., if I understood rob correctly (which I clearly may not have), he’s saying that the Derrida quotes on pg. 7 and 9 that you refer to are actually Derrida characterizing a position that he disagrees with.  In other words, what you’ve taken to be Derrida’s position is actually Derrida’s characterization of the prevailing non-Derridean position.

John H: “Perhaps he has, instead, written some nice, romantic poetry? Is that fair?”

No one cares about poetry, even though it’s commonly used as a metaphor for “speech without meaning” even as speech is considered to be signs that in the end refer to material things.

In general, I think that these blow-ups (rob’s “unsubscribe me!”, Adam’s “you refuse to admit that you don’t know what you’re doing!") get the very nature of academic blog-comment interaction wrong.  If you think that John is all wrong, and that he’s not taking your comments seriously enough, wait for the book.  Or the article, or the next blog post.  John isn’t writing a blog post which will be your only chance ever to show him how he’s wrong.  He appears to be writing partial rough drafts of academic pieces, which you’re always going to get another swing at.

By on 04/13/07 at 12:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d be very surprised if John was working on a book on Derrida.

In any event, harsh criticism ("you don’t know anything at all, do you?!?!?!") is not necessarily the same as taking one’s ball and going home.  Indeed, continuing to talk to someone even in light of such complaints is a kind of salutary “hope against hope” that we could really use more of.

By Adam Kotsko on 04/13/07 at 12:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m mostly in agreement with what Adam has said, so I’ll just wait and see your response to that. The only thing I would add is that ‘natural meaning’ seems to be a particularly bad name for this. In so far as it assumes a kind of ‘nature’ that goes uninterrogated and upon further reflection has less to do with the naturalness (since the difference between nature and artifice is hardly clear cut, and in fact the work of urban ecologists would suggest that there is really more of a continuum than two separate identities since the human is also natural). That’s all secondary though and would lead us far away from the subject at hand (though to places I think might be as interesting as I think it brings out the groundless speculation within common sense on these issues). The only thing it does add is that, if you are going to try and publish this (and I’m not Derridean so I’m not adding my two cents on that) you may want to try and find a different name for this, especially if you don’t want it to be tied to Grice.

By Anthony Paul Smith on 04/13/07 at 02:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

1. Rob, if you’re still listening, I can’t really help you on “referent.” I’ve never read the entire Course and what I have read was some time ago—except, of course, for what I looked up for this discussion. You may be correct, though. “Referent” doesn’t feel very Saussurian and, if there is any place to use the term, it would have been in the passage I quoted from.

2. “Meaning,” of course, is a tricky term. Every time I decide to rail against a literary criticism driven by the search for meaning I throw my hands up in despair of the term, as I fear it’s used in various senses which are not properly distinguised. In any event, I want to comment on one of your comments, John, though I have no sense of how my comment bears on the overall discourse that’s been developing. Here’s the passage:

The arbitrariness is a big part of it. It’s not as though it’s simple or perfectly clear or unproblematic, Anthony.

Clouds mean rain. These spots mean measles. The fact that the economy is poor means more unemployment. This move means that black is check-mated.

All this is ‘natural’ meaning.

While I think that “clouds mean rain,” “spots mean measles,” and the economy example are reasonable examples of ordinary usage, I find it a bit odd to be using them as examples of “to mean” in a philosophical discussion of language and meaning. The two quoted examples might be paraphrased thus: “clouds imply that rain may come,” and “those spots indicate measles.” All I’ve done is to eliminate tokens of “mean” from the assertions; the paraphrases still retain a distinctly ‘mentalist’ caste—which might be of interest to students of Lakovian cognitive metaphor—which is fine. We’re dealing with common associations between clouds and rain, on the one hand, and spots and measles on the other; these associations are conventionally understood to reflect unspecified causal processes operating in the world, processes presumed to be natural. What “mean” is NOT doing in those sentences is asserting a relationship of synonymy or substitutability between the two terms. The world “cloud” does not mean the same thing as the world “rain,” and so with “spots” and “measles.”

It seems to me that this is rather different from the chess example. There is no causal physical process involved in chess—whether crude (rain and clouds) or subtle (spots and measles). Sure, chess pieces are moved about on a board, but the physical pieces and board aren’t necessary; the rules can be indicated and manipulated in purely symbolic fashion.

And now it gets nasty. We might also say that “clouds are a sign of rain” and “spots are a sign of measles”—the latter sure sounds like a diagnostic heuristic.  Would we say that “this move is a sign that black is check-mated”? That seems distinctly odd. That move is what constitutes (this particular instance of) check-mate.

So, John—and this has just occured to me in the process of making this comment (which has been going on longer than I’d anticipated)—in asserting that Derrida is a linguistic idealist, are you saying that his position makes it impossible for him to distinguish between the chess example OTOH and the cloud and spots examples OTOH? In treating the chess example as like the others, are you too a linguistic idealist?

I don’t deny that there is are well-motivated connections between the chess move and checkmate, on the one hand, and the spots and measles, on the other. But I think the nature of the motivation is different in the two types of case.

By Bill Benzon on 04/13/07 at 05:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Grice on meaning, for those with jstor access.

By ben wolfson on 04/13/07 at 05:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ok, not having read Of Grammatology and also not having read all of the comments I am somewhat hesitant to drop in. That said (of course!) it seems to me that Holbo’s claims, unless I am completely misunderstanding them (which is totally possible) rely on a basic metaphysical assumption of indexicals. That is, when something is referred to directly (the cat on the mat) somehow it gains a definite status that is not the case when spoken about in other ways. I am unclear how this conception does not completely fail in light of differance. that is, the indexical nature of certain signs would not seem to grant them any special ontological status. Rather they function via the signified/signifier relationship and thus fully depend on their difference within a system to signify. If this is really getting it wrong I would be really curious. (also note, that despite defending Derrida, I have no special relationship with him)

Point 2: Linguistic idealism. It strikes me that, at least as I have understood your definition, linguistic idealism seems a better weapon used against the structuralists than Derrida. (again, maybe I just need to wait for the book). My understanding is that Derrida is tearing any type of linguistic certainty down. If there is confusion it could relate to “there is no outside of the text” which is better translated as “there is no outside-text.” if there was a “the text” it could be understood as having a transcendental status, however this is not the case. rather there is text and it is not something that can be escaped from. I take this also to have echoes in Quine and Davidson (though I could be mistaken about that) Thus essentially making my first point all over again.

By the way, I am very interested in intersections between analytic and continental philosophy and bring nothing but a Gadamerian good will to this conversation (despite it being about Derrida). that’s a joke…

By on 04/13/07 at 05:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t have time to follow-up right now, but I am gratified the conversation has picked up.

By John Holbo on 04/13/07 at 07:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John Holbo owes us an account/argument for why Derrida is a “linguistic idealist”. Hopefully, he’ll post it on the internet, if not here, then with a link to someplace not behind a firewall.

But I’ve been puzzled as to exactly what he thinks the problem is. Surely, it can be that Derrida somhow denies the effects of material causality. And I don’t think it’s quite that Derrida is denying those ordinary bits of syntax by which ordinary referential statements are made,( though syntax is not exactly the strong point of Saussurian linguistics). I thought perhaps it might have to do with some account of the interrelation between semantics and reference, since it’s the former that Derrida seems to be constantly destabilizing. Or perhaps,- and this now seems the most likely source of objection,- it’s that Holbo thinks that there is a clear line of demarcation between linguistic meaning, as constituted through the intentionality that characterizes everything “mental”, and the extra-linguistic, (hence non-mental) world, and that he can give a clear and applicable account of that line of demarcation, whereas Derrida is projecting linguistic meaning onto an extra-linguistic world, in effect, atavistically “re-enchanting” that world and reading the signs of that world off of his own projection. But then why invoke “natural meaning”, what I would call natural signs, - pheasant/tracks, fire/smoke,- as if to counter the claim that language is a “sign of a sign”? Isn’t language a nexus of meaning-implications, and when we “read” a natural sign, don’t we take it up into that nexus and make it part of its implicature, (which is not to deny that such natural relations really exist or to claim that they are sheerly constructed)? (Indeed, isn’t natural science itself a kind of discourse, such that it’s not material causality, but our knowledge of it, historically mutable and revisable, that’s dependent upon and taken up into our language(s)? And don’t our natural languages themselves always already attempt to align themselves in their recurrent usages with the features and causal relations of worldly “things”, even though that’s by no means all that they “do”?) Is the counter-claim then that there must be clear and distinct, discrete semantic meanings that somehow of themselves reflect or represent natural kinds, which only arbitrarily attach to their tokens or signifiers, in order for there to be reference at all? But then how would such an innate semantics be generated and how would it come to be attached to our words from without their variable usages? It’s not that our thoughts are sheerly reducible to words/language, let alone signifiers, but it is most plausibly the case that the relation between words/language and our thinking is chicken-and-egg, and neither our thinking, nor our access to the world could be what it is without that relation, which, yeah, includes the “effects” of material signifiers or tokens, (which is just a broadly anti-Platonic point).

The claim that all our experience, activity, and knowledge of and in the world is mediated through our meanings and concepts could be construed very broadly as a Kantian one, but I fail to see why it should be regarded as bearing skeptical implications, unless one is still hung up on notions of an in-itself and on knowledge as “grounded” in certainty. Indeed, I’d thought that Wittgenstein had already put paid to such “skepticism”.

By on 04/13/07 at 08:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve not (yet) had time to read all the comments.  I just want to make a comment on “linguistic idealism.”

I think the problem is that one just has to be very, very careful when one uses this term so as to not simply treat Derrida as one of the normal idealists of say the late 19th century or even earlier.  I think bringing Berkeley in, for instance, is dangerous because Berkeley has no room for the Other.  Yet the Other is key to Derrida.

I think what Derrida is offering is a third path between the two poles of idealism and realism as traditionally thought. If you allow but two categories then you’ll always have problems because in some ways Derrida’s an idealist and in others a realist.  If you’re going to use these terms you just have to be careful to qualify them.

I’d note a parallel to Peirce again.  Peirce often attacked Hegel but noted a lot of similarities as well.  So Peirce was quite willing to call his own thought “objective idealism” even though in other ways he was a scientific realist.  I think the pragmatist third way between the poles of idealism and realism is very much what Heidegger initiated in Continental thought.  (Which isn’t to ignore the differences and even the differences between figures like Peirce and Dewey)

The way many Peirceans like to talk about the term is as “semiotic realism” rather than “objective idealism” even though they end up being synonyms.  This is partially because of the error of “idealism” being applied to Peirce uncritically. 

Semiotic realism points out that signs (of which language is a subset) act.  Ideas act.  Thus Peirce (and I’d argue Derrida - especially in his latter writings) are very much realists in the scholastic sense.  That is universals are real and act.

But Derrida is explicit that language isn’t all there is.  The problem is that “is” as students of Heidegger have noted.  There are simply different senses of it.

By Clark Goble on 04/14/07 at 02:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

One other quick point about skepticism.  In one sense, yes, Derrida does open up a lot of skepticism.  You can see this in his debate with Gadamer over charity of interpretation.  Roughly have can we have a charity of interpretation if we don’t have some “end” to signs (some unmediated sign) that allows us to know with certainty that speaker and listener understand the same thing?

On the other hand though I think the argument against skepticism from Being and Time applies to Derrida’s thought as well.

By Clark Goble on 04/14/07 at 02:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Colin (sorry no message numbers to pick out your comments).  I think your point about indexicals is dead on.  However remember that Peirce, who invoked indexical signs, also held that all signs are general.  So can a sign that is an index pick out particulars?  I don’t think it can.  Rather it is left to the listener to choose which to pick out.  But this is Derrida’s point about undecidability.  There is always a point of indecision where a decision must happen.

I agree on your point about the outside as well.  I’m not sure Derrida’s oft misunderstood phrase is at the bottom of the misunderstanding.  However it certainly is the case that Derrida is almost entirely concerned with this “outside” and less the text.

Quoting Derrida might be in order.

<blockquote>One of the definitions of what is called
deconstruction would be the effort to take this limitless
context into account, to pay the sharpest and broadest
attention possible to context, and thus to an incessant
movement of recontextualization.  The phrase which for
some has become a sort of slogan, so badly understood,
("there is nothing outside the text” [il n’y a pas de
hors-texte
]), means nothing else:  there is nothing
outside context.  In this form, which says exactly the
same thing, the formula would doubtless have been less
shocking.  I am not certain that it would have provided
more to think about. . . .

. . . A few moments ago, I inisted on writing, at
least in quotation marks, the strange and trivial formula,
“real-history-of-the-world,” in order to mark clearly
that the concept of text or context which guides me
embraces and does not exclude the world, reality, history.
Once again (and this probably makes a thousand times I
have had to repeat this, but when will it finally be heard,
and why this resistance?):  as I understand it (and I have
explained why), the text is not the book, it is not
confined in a volume itself confined to the library.  It
does not suspend reference--to history, to the world, to
reality, to being, and especially not to the other, since
to say of history, of the world, of reality, that they
always appear in an experience, hence in a movement of
interpretation which contextualizes them according to a
network of differences and hence of referral to the other,
is surely to recall that alterity (difference) is
irreducible.  Différance is a reference, and vice-versa.
(Limited Inc, 136-37)

By Clark Goble on 04/14/07 at 03:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A brief note on John’s chess examples, which interests me very much.

To say ‘this move means that black is in checkmate’ is one sort of locution, an identification of the way the rules of the game apply to the pieces on the board.  I have no problem with ‘means’ being used in the sentence there; that’s perfectly sensible.  But to say, as (for instance) the commentator at a tournament might, ‘this move means that black is in trouble’ is a different sort of locution.  It’s an interpretation of a situation that, unlike the checkmate situation, is capable of a number of interpretations; it’s one reading amongst possible others.  It may, for instance, be wrong: the commentator’s next statement might be ‘but with that superb move black turns the table on white, and it’s mate in three moves’.  This latter statement wouldn’t invalidate the first statement; it would speak rather to the way that interpretation is a fluid and complex business.  (Equally, depending the player, the commentator’s next statement could have been ‘and now black has lost his queen ... it’s all over for black’).

The appeal of Derrida to English departments wasn’t, I’d say, that he contributed something to the study of how individual signs signify (all the dogs, rocks, tracks etc adduced in this post), but that he seemed to offer new ways of reading complex open-ended texts, texts that had shown themselves capable of multiple and sometimes contradictory interpretation by, precisely, reading them for their open-endedness, the fluidity of interpretation.

By Adam Roberts on 04/14/07 at 06:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

<blockquote>Hey!  My comment seems to have been nudged into the Limited Inc left-maginalisation.

By Adam Roberts on 04/14/07 at 06:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

<blockquote>Hey hey!  That comment too!

By Adam Roberts on 04/14/07 at 06:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hey hey hey!  That one too!  It’s an infinite regression ... I’ll never get out of here now.

</blockquote></blockquote></blockquote>

By Adam Roberts on 04/14/07 at 06:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Looks ok to me Adam.

By John Holbo on 04/14/07 at 06:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

As to your interest in the case: thank you muchly, I’ll try to follow-up.

By John Holbo on 04/14/07 at 06:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam—There was a problem with an html tag that wasn’t “closed.” I fixed it. The margins should be back to normal.

By Bill Benzon on 04/14/07 at 07:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks Bill; and though it spoils my infinite regression gag, that wasn’t much of a gag in the first place.

By Adam Roberts on 04/14/07 at 09:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Is there anything problematic about the fact that the very notion of natural meaning is not an example of natural meaning? It would seem, and I’m just asking here, that there would be something to the fact that our understanding of natural meaning is by necessarily, not arbitrarily, facilitated or mediated by non-natural meaning.

By Anthony Paul Smith on 04/14/07 at 11:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, I’ve restored and enhanced your regress.

Oh, the unstability of The Text!

By Bill Benzon on 04/14/07 at 11:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I gotta run but this bit of Adam’s comment of some time I didn’t bother to check:

Let’s grant for a moment that “natural meaning” exists.  It seems reasonable enough.  Does that kind of meaning function linguistically?  That is, does it function through differentiation?

caught my attention; I’m a bit suspicious of trying to apply the concept of “functioning” to natural meaning.

By ben wolfson on 04/14/07 at 12:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Natural meaning” seems to indicate the consequences that “naturally” follow when some given conventions, or states of affairs in what we can provisionally call nature, are in place.  (It is a problematic use of the word “natural,” obviously, since what we would normally call “nature” is part of the base on which the superstructure of natural meaning is generated, a base which also includes conventions that we would never call “natural.")

The question of whether natural meaning functions seems to turn partly on whether we regard natural meaning as always-already “there,” even though natural meaning is in excess of the underlying conventions/states of affairs.  I was assuming that an act of interpretation was necessary to generate natural meaning, even if it could retroactively be “checked” to see if it really is the natural meaning.  This act of interpretation would necessarily work through a differential system of signs.

By Adam Kotsko on 04/14/07 at 02:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

re: Adam Kotsko. it depends what you mean by interpretation (or rather, based on which philosophy), but at least in the Gadamerian sense, i would suggest, natural meanings do not require interpretation. (this would also relate to why charges of linguistic idealism might apply better to gadamer than derrida). i think that natural meaning might serve as a sort of anti-text in which understanding is based on situational awareness. in retrospect, this might be a poor conflation. maybe it would be better to say that the distance between the text and its interlocutor in natural meaning is by necessity very close so the level of textuality is quite low.

moving on. i think that holbo’s claim that derrida is a linguistic idealist rests on the metaphysical claim that language does refer to something other than language. this has to be a metaphysical claim as there is no way to be sure of this from within language. in other words when i make the claim, ‘the cat is on the mat’ i can no more say that i am stepping outside of language than in any other utterance. all language is contextually based, hence the whole sign of a sign thing: differance. and, at least in my understanding, differance applies equally to both spoken and written language. thus in accusing derrida of idealism holbo has had to revert to an idealism of his own (this may have already been stated… the thread is long!). i feel like there is a connection to White Mythology here, but i can’t parse it now, maybe it will occur to me later.

now (if i haven’t dug myself in deep enough) I have a question for John Holbo: is there an unwritten Kripkean basis for your critique of Derrida? If there is i think that the more we dig into this the more problematic you will find it.

By on 04/14/07 at 03:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I mean “interpretation” in the barest possible sense as something like processing the given data according to the given conventional rules.  (Kind of a pre-philosophical sense, I suppose.  I wasn’t trying to drag Gadamer in or anything like that.)

By Adam Kotsko on 04/14/07 at 03:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

fair enough :)

certain words, in certain contexts can carry a lot of weight, as I’m sure you know. i was just being cautious.

By on 04/14/07 at 09:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Colin, I suspect (from experience) that the basis for John’s critique of Derrida is less Kripkean than 1) Searlean and 2) Wittgensteinian.  Now in some ways Wittgenstein and Derrida are playing on the same team, so a critique of one based on the other should probably take the form of “that’s not going to do what we want” rather than “that claim is incorrect” (not that everything has to be one or the other).  I imagine something like this to be the sense of rob’s plea for interpretive charity, above (4/12, 9:09 PM), which I second (though I don’t think rob calls it that).

For a taste of what this might look like (while we wait for the promised Holbonic opus to emerge), take a look at Martin Stone’s articles in The New Wittgenstein and The Literary Wittgenstein (and Valve event thereon, in the sidebar).  Good stuff, esp. the first one ("Wittgenstein on Deconstruction").

For me (2) is irredeemably incompatible with (1), but I know John thinks otherwise.  This (Searle) is surely where the “linguistic idealism” charge is coming from.  Let’s see what John says.

John’s also mentioned Davidson, which might make a second reason for interpretive charity here; and of course (?) the same “same team, different strategy” thing applies here too.  Daniel (4/13, 1:03 AM) is certainly correct that Davidson’s attack on the scheme/content distinction (the “third dogma of empiricism") is a propos here.  But I don’t know what John thinks, as he hasn’t talked about Davidson much here.  I am all aquiver with anticipation.

In general, as others have suggested in their own ways, I think it will be tricky to peg Derrida as a “linguistic idealist” while at the same time keeping that label firmly affixed to an incorrect position.  Let us be on the lookout for slippage of this sort.  (And read what Clark said at 4/14 2:54 AM.  And thanks for the subsequent Limited Inc quotation; that’s very helpful (Adam K: pbbt!).) I say this as someone particularly sensitive to (i.e., tired of) such accusations (of “linguistic idealism,” often, nowadays, with clucking noises about “getting past (i.e., abandoning) the linguistic turn” and returning to good old fashioned metaphysics, scientific of course) from realists.  Not on my own behalf, except vicariously of course!  I mean towards things like Davidson’s own version of interpretivism (where, as on my own reading, it hip-checks realism into the boards, as Bérubé might say; say, where is that guy?  I thought this would be right up his alley.  Must be the wrong time of year.).

Even more to the point here, though I do not expect John to bring it up, is John McDowell’s explicitly Wittgenstein-inspired slogan that “the realm of the conceptual is unbounded” (Mind and World ch. 2).  That one really makes the realists crazy.  And it’s not just the Searlean kind of realist who objects—it’s also the kind of realist that I think some of us (quite reasonably; I myself am ignorant) think Derrida is; which indeed makes him look more like a skeptic than an idealist.  I mean the sort of realist who agrees that there is a real world out there, but that our language does not allow us (given its necessary gaps and ruptures and whatnot) to grasp it.  That’s the skeptical language of failure rather than the idealist language of success.

By Dave Maier on 04/14/07 at 09:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I suspect the problem some have with “natural meaning” is that it seems wrapped up in Aristotle’s ideal “language” where there is a 1-1 correspondence between word and entity.  That is a perfect expression of natural kinds.  I think there fair reason to be skeptical of that.

By Clark Goble on 04/15/07 at 01:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rob,

If you’re still reading, I just want to add a word of thanks for picking up the discussion where I left it off.  I hit the “unsubscribe” button right before your comment and happened to check back tonight, and I found your insights helpful.  Were this not buried underneath an excessively long trail of comments, I would be interested in taking up a minor point regarding your claim that the analysis of language in Chapter 2 of Grammatology can be subordinated to the analysis of metaphysics in Chapter 1.  I do think the two are related, but I don’t think it’s fair to subordinate the former to the latter.  Sure, Derrida is not offering a theory of language or writing or the sign so much as a critique of the possibility of such (as is clear in Chapter 3), but, as I think you’d readily acknowledge, neither is he offering a theory of metaphysics.  The point being that the critique of a linguistics based on the metaphysics of presence (Chapter 2) and the critique of a metaphysics based on the subordination of writing to speech (Chapter 1) are on equal footing.  This is important because I’m concerned that one of the ways literature departments may be trying to conjure away Derrida’s ghost is to hand his body over to departments of philosophy (not being in a department of philosophy, I can’t say whether the reverse is true)

By surlacarte on 04/15/07 at 05:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ll try to respond again later, but probably in a fresh post. This one seems to me to have gone rather well but been a bit starved for sustenance, in that it fed first of my ‘linguistic idealism’ aside - which, was nothing in the post itself; and now has moved on to ‘natural meaning’ - which, again, I haven’t really explained in any satisfactory detail. (Thanks for the generally good conversation, but I am conscious of having not made enough food for the party. I honeslty didn’t know so many people would show up.)

Moving backwards: surlacarte, I must confess, I don’t like the whole ‘handing his body over to the philosophy department’ thing. Isn’t the man supposed to be a philosopher? (If I treat him as a philosopher, I’ll be accused of disciplinary poaching; if I treat him as a non-philosopher, I’ll be accused of not taking him seriously as a philosopher.) In general, it seems to me that surlacarte is defending Derrida by saying what he’s trying to do, which I grant, but which isn’t really an argument to the conclusion that he really does what he is trying to do. (I could say something about what’s wrong with rob’s criticisms at this point, but he’s checked out, so I’ll let that go.)

Clark, the view I am sketching does not seem to me even a metaphysical realist view, let alone one that would involve some highly specific 1-1 correspondence. That is, it isn’t some kind of extreme metaphysical realism thesis. So far as I can tell, I have helped myself to premises like: chess exists. I haven’t offered, say, a metaphysical theory of the conditions of possibility of chess.

Dave’s comment requires more response than I can muster. There is a certain danger of falling victim to the narcissism of small differences, negotiating Wittgenstein vs. Derrida. Dave sees this about me and he is probably right. I don’t really think I’m a Searlean, however. I need to find a way to get around to playing my Davidson card more clearly.

Colin has me, I hope, exactly wrong. There is a hidden anti-Kripke basis to my points. That is, I want to say that one of the problems with the position I am critique is that at a certain point the critic will say ‘but you can’t say that without being Kripke’. And then you point out that this isn’t right. (Which is to say: I see what Colin suspects, but the point is to avoid it. Not that I’ve shown how, of course.)

Adam K., I think you need a more generous notion of ‘interpretation’. We’re talking hermeneutics. I agree with Ben W. that thinking about meaning ‘functioning’ is not right. There is something to the idea that ‘natural meaning’, in my sense, is inflected with human categories - mostly what we choose to focus on of the form ‘x means y’ is a reflection of our interests. There is a temptation to try to recover a sort of Kantianism about ‘natural meaning’ at a higher level, on the basis of this evidence that the coils of our human interests and ways of though lie over everything. This is what Anthony is on about, above. This is also how I predicted people would respond, above. I think this is in fact a rather natural way to argue against what I have suggested, but I don’t think it works. But not for any short, sharp reason. It takes some work. (I’m working on it.)

By John Holbo on 04/15/07 at 07:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not trying to recover a Kantianism, I’m just seeing a Kantianism there that and it hasn’t been explained to me how it can get out of the Kantian paradigm or if it even can. If not, I don’t think it will provide a very good tool for criticizing Derrida, but I’m not the one to make that particular case. So, if you would, please explain to me how it, you know, works in a non-Kantian way.

By Anthony Paul Smith on 04/15/07 at 01:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Clearly my comment is not objecting to philosophers talking about Derrida, but rather literature departments disowning him.  Thus the whole “critique of metaphysics/critique of linguistics on equal footing thing.” Come on, Holbo, it helps to read.

And I haven’t claimed to offer a defense of Derrida, merely an explication.  I objected to your specific criticisms of Derrida because the reasoning they criticized could not be attributed to Derrida.  Again, the point being that it helps to read.

By surlacarte on 04/15/07 at 04:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No expertise here, but is Derrida really such a skeptic, even if he apparently plays up the insinuation of a skeptical tone, concerned solely with the uncertainty, disruption, failure of meaning/communication, and thus by implication the unfullfilment of any knowledge of the world, (rather than critizing the notion of knowledge as a fulfillment as mistaken)? Isn’t he just as much concerned with the transformation of meaning, with how meaning becomes other, following out Heidegger’s take on the temporality of Being or the temporal horizon of any occurrence of Being? Wouldn’t the skeptical reading result from a residual attachment to the notion of invariant meaning and truth in traditional philosophy? (As inapplicable?) In other words, might he not be affirming something after all, even if it’s not what some would want?

By on 04/15/07 at 06:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

surlacarte, I guess what bothered me more was that your comment seemed to reduce my intellectual interests to a knee-jerk of the English department. (Forgive my prickliness, if that was not your intention. But I get this sort of thing a lot, I feel.) What exactly is your point about the ‘equal footing’. I dont’ get it. (I think I get it about the equal footing. Derrida is offering considerations that are supposed to be mutually reinforcing. But I don’t see how my points are inconsistent with this.)

Anthony, the short answer is that there will be a fundamental question: where are KINDS? That is, is the existence of types of things - cats, dogs, trees, pheasants, numbers, trousers, murders - something to be explained with reference to the subject side or the object side. Do minds construct types or do they just sort of exist independently out there. Roughly there is an idealistic - constructivist - model. And a realist model. Are you with me? I want to say, in a Wittgensteinian way: both positions are unwarranted. To say it is ‘interpretation all the way down’ is no more (and no less) warranted than to say ‘it’s natural kinds all the way down’. It’s just not the sort of thing anyone is in a position to assert. I think Derrida ends up on the idealist side of this problem. He ends up being a kind of linguistic constructivist, even though that’s not actually what he’s TRYING to be. Now, the fact that Wittgenstein himself is sometimes read as being a linguistic constructivist - an idealist, rather than what I take him to be - is some indication of how right Dave M. is to say that I need to watch out for narcissism of small differences, when I say that Wittgenstein is totally right and Derrida totally wrong.

This is inadequate, but maybe it will do to give a clue.

By John Holbo on 04/15/07 at 08:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

“But I don’t see how my points are inconsistent with this."

Yes, John, that’s why the comment was directed to Rob and not to you, and why I called it a “minor point.”

OK, I’m officially unsubscribed again.

By surlacarte on 04/15/07 at 09:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If you don’t give me another cookie, I’ll start commenting.

By John Emerson on 04/15/07 at 09:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I want to say, in a Wittgensteinian way: both positions are unwarranted. To say it is ‘interpretation all the way down’ is no more (and no less) warranted than to say ‘it’s natural kinds all the way down’. It’s just not the sort of thing anyone is in a position to assert.

To the extent that empirical evidence matters (e.g. about folk taxonomy) I’d agree with this.

By Bill Benzon on 04/15/07 at 09:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John Emerson, take it away.

surlacarte, this doesn’t really matter, but since you were responding to rob, responding to me, I felt somehow implicated in the whole business.

By John Holbo on 04/15/07 at 09:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, it seems to me that when you say Derrida is a Kantian idealist without qualifications then I think a lot follows.  Now if one starts to qualify such claims (as I think one must with either the pragmatists or the Heideggarians) then I’ve typically less concerned with the “idealist” label being thrown around.

Note my only concern is really a terminological one.  As I said, I fully agree there are senses in which Derrida is an idealist.  (Just, as I said, there are for Peirce) I actually don’t think bringing in Kant is too far out of line.  But I think the Kant is more Heidegger’s deconstructed (or reconstructed) Kant than the actual Kant or the Kant of the neo-Kantians.

So I guess what I’m saying is that to see a Kant there is undoubtedly not mistaken.  It’s just that one has to be careful what one means by that.

By Clark Goble on 04/15/07 at 09:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m still listening, mostly because I’m starting to enjoy seeing the intergalactic lengths that John Holbo is willing to go to in order to attribute idiocy and ignorance as the basis of Derrida’s thought. Now it seems the problem is that Derrida doesn’t know about (or believe in?) indexical signs. Derrida hasn’t read Peirce, is that it?

Here’s my criticism of John Holbo, in a nutshell: he wants Derrida to be wrong. John’s miffed about the way that Derrida seems to have attracted a lot of attention and to have inspired a generation of philosophers (and literary critics and legal scholars and so on) to turn its attention towards the desperately neat and tidy categories of analytic thought in order to make a mockery of them, and John wants to do something about it. John figures that the best way to do this is to read Derrida’s work as a metaphysics, so that he need find only one little chink in the chain in order to write ("hee, hee”, he giggles to himself) the whole thing off as a massive waste of intellectual effort.

I know that this is how John’s approaching the task, because I got to read an earlier draft of the script, which I reproduce below:

JOHN thinks out loud about his task for the day

JOHN: Today I must expose the folly of Derrida to the world. I’ll do this by reading, much as it pains me to read, an isolated section of one of Derrida’s books; the one about writing seems an easy target.

John opens Of Grammatology

JOHN: Let’s see; Derrida has written here that everything is a “sign of a sign”. Now, I know (from Searle, who knows a thing or two about Derrida) that Derrida is a linguistic idealist, and so whenever I read the word “sign”, I know that Derrida means “the linguistic sign”, Peirce’s “symbol”. Now, Derrida says that everything is a “sign of a sign”; therefore he thinks everything takes the form of a linguistic sign, a symbol, that the referents of our words are simply more words, more symbols. Therefore, Derrida is a linguistic idealist. QED.

What an idiot is that Derrida! Symbols aren’t the only kind of signs. Doesn’t he know about indexical and iconic signs? Good thing I’m not one of those silly people who was taken in by all this deconstruction nonsense.

John leans back into his chair and sips on his hot cocoa*

I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed (in a very different way) the contributions from the others, and I’d like to thank you all for helping to elaborate the issues (apologies for not mentioning everyone by name):

Bill Benzon, thanks for getting back to me on the referent. Guess I’ll just have to stop being lazy and read the Course all the way through to confirm.

Clark Goble: thanks for citing the passage from the Afterword. I had been planning on suggesting to John that if he wants to critique Derrida for the latter’s “theory of meaning”, he could at least bother to read “Signature Event Context” (but then, Searle’s already shown the world how illogical that paper is, hasn’t he?). And I think you’re right to draw attention to the problem of the “is” (the question of being).

surlacarte:

If you’re still reading, I just want to add a word of thanks for picking up the discussion where I left it off.  I hit the “unsubscribe” button right before your comment and happened to check back tonight, and I found your insights helpful.  Were this not buried underneath an excessively long trail of comments, I would be interested in taking up a minor point regarding your claim that the analysis of language in Chapter 2 of Grammatology can be subordinated to the analysis of metaphysics in Chapter 1.  I do think the two are related, but I don’t think it’s fair to subordinate the former to the latter.  Sure, Derrida is not offering a theory of language or writing or the sign so much as a critique of the possibility of such (as is clear in Chapter 3), but, as I think you’d readily acknowledge, neither is he offering a theory of metaphysics.  The point being that the critique of a linguistics based on the metaphysics of presence (Chapter 2) and the critique of a metaphysics based on the subordination of writing to speech (Chapter 1) are on equal footing.  This is important because I’m concerned that one of the ways literature departments may be trying to conjure away Derrida’s ghost is to hand his body over to departments of philosophy (not being in a department of philosophy, I can’t say whether the reverse is true)

Thanks for kicking things off in the first place! I agree that it’s not entirely right to subordinate Chapter 2 to Chapter 1. I really only mean it as a corrective to the kind of gung-ho attack on Derrida’s “theory of language” that most “critics” of Derrida seem to want to pursue. Derrida is most definitely not proposing a metaphysics which would then serve as the basis for critiquing Saussure. I actually think that the relation between those two chapters is complicated, even chiasmatic (to risk sounding slavishly Derridean). In one sense, Saussure is an example of the privileging of presense, etc. outlined in Chapter 1. But in another sense, the “expansion” of “language”, etc., traced in Chap. 1 is enabled by Saussure, and so Saussure is not just one example among others — the two chapters, as you say, are on equal footing. What tends to get neglected, to my mind, is the extent to which Chapter 1 amounts to a kind of diagnosis of a particular historical moment, an analysis of an event. The Grammatology is thus an intervention within a network of (inter)disciplinary values and practices, such that (and this goes back to something Rich Puchalsky implied) Derrida is both working with and working on the terms provided by the specific histories of the various disciplines invoked.

Both “language” and “writing” are used in the Grammatology (I know, surlacarte, that I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know; hopefully, though, others are listening) because they are what we have been given to use. Derrida’s affirmation of writing is a strategic gesture, rather than a metaphysical claim. What Derrida ultimately seeks to characterise as “origin”, “structure”, “condition of possibility”, etc., etc. (even though these terms are no longer sufficient) is actually unnameable and unthinkable as such — which is as much as to say that it’s not “writing” either. Nor differance, nor supplement, nor pharmakon, nor deconstruction, etc. Consequently, “writing” in the Grammatology is not “writing”, even though “everything” is possible by virtue of “writing”. Derrida uses the term “writing” in his work because the term brings with it (potentially) a whole series of “qualities” that idealism (for instance) has always sought to deny or repress or devalue: “if I persist in calling that difference [effectively or approximately, “self-difference” or “non-self-identity"] writing, it is because, within the work of historical repression, writing was, by its situation, destined to signify the most formidable difference” (p.56, cf. also the mention of the “chain of non-synonymous substitutions” in “Differance"). This, of course, is precisely the sort of thing that the John Holbo’s of the world don’t want to hear, because it would mean that they no longer have a key term that they can seize from Derrida’s work in order to inflate into a metaphysics and an ontology.

* Of course I’m aware of the irony of presuming your prejudice in this way! At first I didn’t want to believe that John’s posts were following the script, but he’s been too persistent in saying patently silly things that I can no longer ignore the truth.

By on 04/15/07 at 09:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Clark, I have tried to be clear that these comments are rather approximate. As Plato would say, my use of ‘linguistic idealist’ must be forever crying on its author - me - for help. That’s why Plato held, in the “Phaedrus”, that the true philosopher only leaves comments, never makes posts.

(Nietzsche: “Socrates, the philosopher who never had his own blog. He only left comments at other people’s sites.")

At any rate: you are right. It all has to be filtered through Heidegger. Quite so.

By John Holbo on 04/15/07 at 09:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

heavens, rob is back!

By John Holbo on 04/15/07 at 09:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I can only say, since I didn’t get my second cookie, is that this is exactly the kind of discussion I’m happy to have been able to avoid by being a total failure in life.

By John Emerson on 04/15/07 at 09:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, forgot to say:

Isn’t [Derrida] just as much concerned with the transformation of meaning, with how meaning becomes other, following out Heidegger’s take on the temporality of Being or the temporal horizon of any occurrence of Being? Wouldn’t the skeptical reading result from a residual attachment to the notion of invariant meaning and truth in traditional philosophy? (As inapplicable?) In other words, might he not be affirming something after all, even if it’s not what some would want?

Yes (yes). One of the great ironies is that all the things that Derrida is presumed to have “deconstructed” (read: destroyed or denied) are actually things that Derrida has sought to affirm. Or rather, he seeks to affirm their possibility of being otherwise, hence transformable, hence ameliorable, more open to the other, more just.

By on 04/15/07 at 10:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rob: “Here’s my criticism of John Holbo, in a nutshell: he wants Derrida to be wrong.”

Here’s my criticism of rob in nutshell: it doesn’t matter whether he is right about his criticism of me. After all, it’s obviously true that he wants Derrida to be right. (Not that motive - especially bad motive - isn’t a factor in these debates. But that sort of ad hominem stuff is secondary.)

Also, I’m not a Searlean. Also, rob has misrepresented my presentation of Derrida’s argument. One thing I was careful to be clear about in the post, and subsequent comments, is that obviously Derrida is using ‘sign’ in a non-standard sense. So I’m not making the bad argument that Derrida thinks only words (in the ordinary sense) exist.

Also, if you want to take the line that Derrida is right - or deep, or important - for unnameable, unthinkable reasons, at least don’t then call people idiots because they can’t see this obvious truth. You should be more patient with me, rob.

By John Holbo on 04/15/07 at 10:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

rob, since you’re reading again, pity a poor fool who’s been trying to follow this thread and tell me: when JH quotes pg.s 7 and 9 of Of Grammatology above, it is correct that you’re contending that he’s mistaking the view that Derrida is criticizing for the view that Derrida actually holds?  Or did I just completely misinterpret your comments?

By on 04/15/07 at 10:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John — you’re not getting a little shirty, are you?!

Rich, there’s a bit in my next-to-last post where I tried indirectly to respond: “The Grammatology is thus an intervention within a network of (inter)disciplinary values and practices, such that (and this goes back to something Rich Puchalsky implied) Derrida is both working with and working on the terms provided by the specific histories of the various disciplines invoked.”

Consequently, the passages from D. that JH cites need to be read as quasi-historical claims, rather than as metaphysical claims. In other words, it happens that “language” has been been inflated to encompass everything. Derrida thinks this is problematic. To the extent that one might say it also happens that writing comes to comprehend language, Derrida would see it as equally problematic if that event weren’t taken or followed in terms of very different logic to the logic that has underpinned the inflation of language. The two specific passages that JH cites can, I think, be read as expressing D’s view, but only if “writing” is understood more or less as the opposite of language (I say, “opposite” to proceed quickly). If you read the term “writing” as pretty much another word for language (as conceived on the basis of the linguistic sign), then the passages would not be representing D’s view.

Does that clarify, if not absolutely then maybe just a little?

By on 04/15/07 at 10:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I give John Emerson a cookie.

By John Holbo on 04/15/07 at 10:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You understand that I could have made this thread even worse than it was, don’t you?

I’m just protecting my easement with these few little posts.

By John Emerson on 04/15/07 at 10:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That clarifies a little—I took the Derrida’s “it appears, strange as it may seem, that “signifier of the signifier” no longer defines accidental doubling and fallen secondarity” to be describing (quasi-historically, as you write) what other people believe or seem to do (thus the"strange as it may seem") and, in the second quote “a gesture and for motives that are profoundly necessary, whose degradation is easier to denounce than it is to disclose their origin” to mean that he was describing a process by which people were acting as if something like linguistic idealism was what they believed, which was degraded even though it seemed necessary—though Derrida was going to explain through the rest of the work why it wasn’t necessary.  Hopefully it’s something like that, because I don’t understand the sense in which ‘writing’ is more or less the opposite of language.

That would get somewhere because it would be a reason (understandeable to me, anyway) why John’s quotes didn’t necessarily mean what he thought they meant.

Please go easy on the bad-faith-diagnosing; even if you’re right and JH is ever so wrong, of course anyone would like to be the person who proves Derrida (or any other well-known thinker) wrong.  That’s how advances are made: by proving past views to be wrong.  At any rate, JH can not be sipping cocoa; the weather in Singapore probably doesn’t drop below 80 degrees F.

By on 04/15/07 at 11:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I understand, John. I think the thread is going astonishingly well. Admittedly, the quality of bad ad hominem arguments is slipping a little here at the end, with rob’s latest. I’m tempted to ask him to step aside and watch how it’s done. I could totally demolish myself, in an ad hominem vein. Monstrum in fronte, monstrum in animo, as the man said. The passive-aggressive style I favor betokens all sorts of inner demons. Narcissism of small differences, with me over-eager to occupy the sort of position Derrida himself wants to occupy - is only the tip of the iceberg. Obviously I only attack Theory because, in a sense, I want to be the true inheritor of the mantle of post-Kantian German idealism, via Wittgenstein. I scourge it with charges of romanticism because I am a late-romantic. Why, then, try to pretend I’m just some uptight analytic philosopher? It doesn’t even look plausible.

But we were talking about you, John Emerson, and the whole question of ‘ease’. To quote Marcus, from Titus Andronicus:

“Shall I speak for thee? shall I say ‘tis so?
O, that I knew thy heart; and knew the beast,
That I might rail at him, to ease my mind!”

A motto for our thread, mayhap.

By John Holbo on 04/15/07 at 11:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve always been confused as to why you deploy the “charge” of romanticism precisely as a charge.  Everyone knows that German idealism (including what you call “romanticism") is the true heir to the Enlightenment.  You can spend your whole life masking your feelings of inadequacy by writing these precious, wordy little posts—or you can endure the labor of the negative, paying your penance by spending the next decade working your way through the Science of Logic.

Surely we all know you’re going to choose the former—and write a longwinded apologia, complete with illustrations from old DC comics.  (Always DC!  My God man, don’t you realize that Stan Lee was the real innovator?  Do you get a perverse pleasure from choosing the wrong side every damn time?!)

By Adam Kotsko on 04/15/07 at 11:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hey, kids! Hegel’s Logic!.

By ben wolfson on 04/15/07 at 11:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not going to read the Logic, for strictly Kierkegaardian reasons.

When I was a child, I read only “Marvel” comics. Now that I am a man, I am taking up the childish things I missed. (Not that I put the other childish things away. Besides, I’ve made plenty of Kirby posts about his work at Marvel.)

I’ve never lodged the Romanticism thing as a charge, except insofar as I suspected that people would fail to admit something that there was no shame in admitting. It probably sounded like I was lodging it as a charge because the assumption would be that, coming from me, whatever it is must be a negative charge. (Such such are the wages of my aggressive nature. Plus you have that problem with italics, you know, Adam.)

By John Holbo on 04/15/07 at 11:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Ben. I forgot about that one.

By John Holbo on 04/15/07 at 11:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You could address the part where I called German idealism and German romanticism the true heirs of the Enlightenment, whereas you have always defined romanticism as anti-Enlightenment.  (And hence called, say, Zizek anti-Enlightenment, even regarding it as axiomatic that he can’t be an Enlightenment thinker and therefore anything he says that’s pro-Enlightenment undercuts him—when in his very first book he says that he’s trying to reassert Enlightenment and sees Lacan as carrying forward its project!  For example.  Plus I think I remember you saying Derrida is a romantic—when he, too, is trying to carry forward the Enlightenment.)

By Adam Kotsko on 04/15/07 at 11:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Just to be clear: when I say I’m not going to read the Logic, that means: I not going to read it AGAIN. Diminishing returns and all that.

By John Holbo on 04/15/07 at 11:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Did you study the Phenomenology in detail first?  Because you have to attain Absolute Knowledge before you are even in the proper subjective position to so much as begin to think about understanding the Logic.  (As for diminishing returns: this is a penance, remember?)

By Adam Kotsko on 04/15/07 at 11:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The view that studying the Phenomenology is a necessary prelude to further study of Hegel doesn’t seem to be held by at least Hegel scholar I’ve encountered.

By ben wolfson on 04/15/07 at 11:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, the short version is: I’ve always identified romanticism with the Counter-Enlightenment, and the Counter-Enlightenment is not simply anti-Enlightenment. It’s a sort of turning back from within the Enlightenment. So I take Zizek and Derrida to be paradigm Counter-Enlightenment thinkers. The game is always: show that, taken to its canny limits, the Enlightenment tips over into some sort of uncanny something or other (there are minor and possibly even major variations on this theme). You can say: this is the Enlightenment. Fine, fine, but understand: Counter-Enlightenment is the standard term for this species of Enlightenment move, if you want to insist on calling it ‘Enlightenment’.

Now there is a major qualification to be made: I’m talking about romanticism as it expresses itself philosophically. Romantic poetry - Wordsworth, say - is not necessarily trying to beat the Enlightenment at its own game. But Romantic philosophy - Schlegel and co. - most definitely are. As are Zizek and Derrida (well, Derrida. I’m more skeptical that Zizek just doesn’t have an Enlightenment bone in his body. In his spirit, that is. Spirit is a bone, after all. He’s a joker.)

By John Holbo on 04/15/07 at 11:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What do you mean by “turning back”?  I don’t understand why saying “Enlightenment turns out to be more complicated and, specifically, more self-defeating in some ways than its initial champions suspected” is a step backward instead of an increase in understanding.  Is it just axiomatic that Enlightenment can’t be self-undermining?

By Adam Kotsko on 04/16/07 at 12:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

By ‘turning back’ I mean, more or less, ‘more self-defeating in some ways that its initial champions suspected.’ This thought defines the Counter-Enlightenment, to a significant extent. There is more to it, but that’s a big part of it.

By John Holbo on 04/16/07 at 12:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

As to whether it is axiomatic that the Enlightenment can’t be self-undermining: since I haven’t said it is axiomatic that the Counter-Enlightenment is misguided, I’m not sure why you would attribute that thought to me.

By John Holbo on 04/16/07 at 12:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, when you say, “obviously Derrida is using ‘sign’ in a non-standard sense," what do you mean?  That is, what is the “standard” sense of sign?  It seems to me that Derridas playing with many different conceptions of “sign” but that what he ultimately is playing with is the Peircean conception (which he explicitly says comes closest to deconstruction).  Certainly there are other notions of sign.

The issue of the trichotomy of signs in Peirce (index, icon, symbol) is interesting.  I’m not at all prepared to agree that Derrida only accepts the symbol and ignores the rest.  Now I do think that one of the big differences between Peirce and Derrida may be over the nature of icons as well as over the replication of the type-token relationship.  However I’ll fully admit that I’ve been thinking through that for years and am still not convinced of the actual distinctions between them let alone which side I’d come down upon.

Put an other way, the idea that there is no indices in Derrida seems hard to accept, especially given the quote from Limited Inc. I gave above which seems pretty much what Peirce meant by index.  Especially in the form of “speech act” that one finds in Peirce.  (I put that in scare quotes since it’s definitely not Searle’s speech act theory)

BTW - talking about Hegel.  I’m giving it an other go since I always feel I know just enough Hegel to be dangerous.  I’ve never bothered reading in depth because I always come away feeling about Hegel probably the way some here feel about Derrida.  However a friend suggested I read Robert Solomon’s In the Spirit of Hegel along with the Phenomenology.  So we’ll see…

By Clark Goble on 04/16/07 at 12:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

One last quick comment.  I think the reason I worry about idealism as a label, John, is that it is so often associated with a metaphysics of full presence - the very thing Derrida seeks to deny.  Now if one allows for an idealism that takes vagueness (in the Peircean sense) as an irreducible feature of signs then I’d not mind the idealism label.  After all the point about signs for either Derrida or Peirce is that one can’t separate out the “mind” or “person” from them.  In that sense the label “idealist” is correct.  However because of the irreducible nature of signs as vague and existence as general then most of the moves traditional idealists take will be rejected. 

Thus one can’t consider Derrida an idealist in the vein of Plato, Kant, Berkeley, Hegel or others.  There is a totality in how those philosophers think about idealism that Derrida sees as wrong.  Given how that totality is part and parcel of how idealism is thought of, that’s why I tend to get nervous around the term. 

The very focus on the privileging of speech as presence is thus an attack on idealism.  (Much as one can see Heidegger’s critique of Plato and light in the same terms)

By Clark Goble on 04/16/07 at 12:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Dammit, Clark! I was going to make comment 150 and do a little victory dance - sort of a ‘we’re not Unfogged, but no. 2 tries harder’ kind of a dance. But, no! YOU went and double-posted.

As to your question (ahem): I’ll try to get back a little later. Short answer: I’m sort of relying on a rough, ordinary sense that signs are the things we would ordinarily call ‘signs’: words, symbols, representations. One way to misread Derrida is as asserting, absurdly, that all that exists are words, in more or less the ordinary sense. So if you kick a rock, you have refuted Derrida. I’m not making that argument. I am only really helping myself to an ordinary sense of ‘signs’ by way of making clear I’m not making that bad argument. More, I do not say.

The Pierce case is interesting and I should probably look at it again. You are right to bring it up. Pierce, I recall, uses ‘smoke means fire’ as one of his examples, but obviously that sort of indexing is a bit different than, say, ‘now’ means now, or ‘I’ means I. The latter is conventional, as the former is not. So you can have indexicals - even an account of indexicals - without it ever occurring to you, clearly, that there is such a thing as natural meaning, in my sense. Natural meaning doesn’t equal indexicals. (This is probably complicated.)

As to Hegel: I’m not sure that anyone has ever found a better use for Hegel than becoming dangerous. So maybe you know enough already ...? (Just a thought. Still, the Solomon is probably good. I wouldn’t know, really.)

By John Holbo on 04/16/07 at 01:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, I’m going to jump into this once more, just to improve upon my ignorance. I’ve never read Derrida, since, aside from not much liking that style of hyper-intellectualized formalism and resenting the “imperialism” of Derrida over everything else, as grist-for-the-mill, I’ve found my own needs met by Wittgenstein, on the one hand, and Heidegger vs. Levinas, on the other. (Just to lay all my cards on the table and thereby prove that I’m not operating with a full deck, I come at this all from a Marxist/meta-Marxist perspective). But still a couple of comments. I’ve always found the “Saussurian” conception of the sign too “thin” to be doing quite the work that it was expected to be doing in French structuralism. (This is probably not the fault of Saussure, but of his subsequent abusers, as, according to a footnote in Manfred Frank’s “What is Neo-structuralism”, his “Cours General” was re-edited from its source materials in a critical edition around 1980, and it turns out that Saussure wasn’t intending his new “science” of linguistics in opposition to the prior tradition of Humboldtian philology, but rather as complementary to it. At any rate, that language consists in elements “defined” sheerly through their differences from each other amounts to a methodological proposal for identifying the units of any given natural language, phonemes and morphemes, whether in a well-known one with an evolved tradition of self-analysis, such as Latin or French, or the language of a just “discovered” tribe in the New Guinea highlands: it wasn’t intended as an account of syntax or semantics, let alone, of the meaning-generating capacities of natural language). What’s missing from the account of language as a differential “play” of signs is the Wittgensteinian sense of language as a rule-governed activity, (by which signs become the specific signs that they “are"), and of the basically constitutive “nature” of such rule-governance. (Of course, the very “thinness” of such signs and their “play” lends itself to an aestheticization of language, since words in literature are at once fictive and reduced to the level of “materials” for works of art, which, as such, are fundamentally nonsensical). Equally, what could be seen as missing from such an account is the abstraction of its agents, as with the emergent structure of assignments and references at the beginning of “Being and Time”, by which Heidegger comes across the existence of signs themselves and thereby uncovers the notion of the “worldhood of the world”. In either case, the demarcation of “topological” differences between differing signs/meanings seems to get lost in the consideration of the sheer “play” of differences.

The second comment I want to make is that the sense of Derrida as a sheer “constructivist” surely goes back again to Heidegger and his criticism, if it can be called that, of the technological mode of Being. (It might be worth the reminder that the term “Gestell”, “ent-framing”, was first used in “The Origin of the Art-Work” long before it was applied to designate the technological mode of Being). The technological mode of Being, with all its implication of metaphysical normlessness/nihilism, while in one sense inevitable and, therefore (sic), imperative, is also, in its “essence”, non-technological. Hence the possiblity of a re-configuration of the technological mode of Being from within itself, both with respect to the actual uses of technology and to that “essence” itself, which Heidegger figures in terms of “dwelling and building”, which presumably involves constructing the frameworks by which an altered mode of receiving/co-responding to Being might still be possible. Even as Derrida transfers or extends Heidegger’s “criticism” of the technological mode of Being onto the consideration of “rational” discourses and their institutionalizations, surely the “point” must be that he intends to promote a similar sense of reconfiguration or “Umfunktionierung”, no? So it’s not so much a matter of a construction that has not already occurred, but of a receptive attunement and transformation of the effects of the constructions that have already occurred, eh?

By on 04/16/07 at 03:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John Halasz, to a degree I think the post-Kehr Heidegger and Derrida have a lot in common.  On the other hand Heidegger is primarily concerned with Being considered more as Truth.  Differance and the Other are not Being in the Heideggarian sense.  More the sense of “is” when Dasein is not.  That’s why Derrida says it’s more primordial than Being.  I’ve argued elsewhere that these two conceptions very roughly are akin to Plotinus’ notion of the One as Other and Matter as Other. 

I bring that up simply to note that this difference of focus then changes how technology and other things are conceived.  One example is in terms of the conception of Justice.  For Heidegger Justice becomes a kind of joining or unifying.  For Derrida Justice is the un-joining or dismembering.  That sense of freedom to break apart rather than move together.  Unlike some I think both these moves are always in phenomena.

I note all of this since these two different focuses will have ramifications when one considers signs.  (To the degree Heidegger even speaks of signs)

John Holbo, my sense is the conversation is waning so I’ll not say too much more.  I’d just say one has to be careful about the meaning of “convention” in Peirce with regards to indexical signs.  I’m not sure that speaking about “I” is conventional, depending upon what one means by this.  There’s a lot of confusion here due to Morris’ adoption of Peirce which changed a lot of Peirce’s ideas about language.  Likewise the Peircean equivalent to speech acts (roughly a Wittgenstein like game-theoretical model) ends up being subtle, especially relative to indexicals.

The issue of natural meanings isn’t necessarily independent of indexes.  What’s tricky about Peirce is that he’s a pretty strong externalist and one has to always remember that when conceiving of mind or the like.  There’s absolutely nothing like Cartesianism in his thought.  (Ditto, obviously for Derrida) So there are natural signs.  Now we can make a sign of a natural sign and indeed arguably the laws of physics as physicists discuss them are just this.  A representation of a natural sign.  But Peirce’s metaphysics entails that those natural signs are such because matter itself has adopting the sign as a habit. 

The best analogy (even though I hate making it) is that of those annoying discussions of memes.  Think of memes being adopted by matter itself.  The meme can be in matter but can then be thought by us.  That’s roughly what Peirce’s scholastic realism entails.  However it’s also his most troubling hypothesis since as soon as people realize he’s committed to a kind of quasi-panpsychism they get upset and consider Peirce a quake.  The resolution is that Peirce doesn’t mean by mind what we normally think of as mind.  So to him, a bee hive is an example of a mind.  It’s all about information and information processing processes that make mind a mind for Peirce.

All of this ties into Derrida and his realism once you realize that by extending the Other into not only other people but universals like justice, forgiveness and so forth, Derrida is making a similar move.  (IMO)

By Clark on 04/16/07 at 01:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

For a very good secondary text on Hegel, try Stephen Houlgate’s Introduction to Hegel: Freedom, Truth, and History. Yes, it’s an introductory text, but a very good one nonetheless. Then there’s Houlgate’s Hegel, Nietzsche, and the Criticism of Metaphysics, which incidentally contains the only criticism of Derrida — albeit, one made merely in passing — I’ve come across that I find inarguable (much as it pains me to accept that fact).

I love Hegel, but I have to admit to never finishing the Phenomenology. Hegel’s all about the Logic, for me…

Back to the matter at hand…

Clark: you are very, very intelligent. I think this needs to be acknowledged.

john c. halasz:

I’ve never read Derrida, since, aside from not much liking that style of hyper-intellectualized formalism and resenting the “imperialism” of Derrida over everything else, as grist-for-the-mill, I’ve found my own needs met by Wittgenstein, on the one hand, and Heidegger vs. Levinas, on the other. (Just to lay all my cards on the table and thereby prove that I’m not operating with a full deck, I come at this all from a Marxist/meta-Marxist perspective).

That’s an admirable attitude; if only many more “critics” of Derrida held it. I just want to take you up on one minor detail: you use the term “formalism”. Even though you use it in reference to Derrida’s style, I think it’s important to stress that formalism, or at least the imperative to formalise, is precisely the (or one of the) targets of Derrida’s critique. This is why I, like Clark, object to attempts to depict Derrida’s arguments as a kind of idealism. Effectively, one could (should?) read his arguments along the following lines: if one pursues the formalist objective, one ends up with “differance” (as one name for what that formalist approach leads us to). How hopelessly uninformative and unworkable is this end result! What, in the end, does it offer us for when it comes to engaging with the world? No doubt “differance” has implications but does that quasi-concept, on its own, provide any hints about what those implications might be? It would be better — no? — to engage “differance” and to imagine the possible implications of “differance” as we ("we" generally, perhaps, but certainly “we philosophers") go about being in the world.

With regard to your second comment (and series of questions), consequently, I say “pretty much”. The last question encapsulates very much what I see as the way (or at least, the one I try to adopt) for engaging differance and for imagining the possible implications of differance. I would only add to it that I think that Derrida is wary of a certain kind of morality (grounded in a form of propriety or authenticity) that has the potential to organise or to mobilise (the reception of?) Heidegger’s questioning concerning technology, and that this plays a part in Derrida’s affirmation of writing.

John Holbo:

Here’s my criticism of rob in nutshell: it doesn’t matter whether he is right about his criticism of me. After all, it’s obviously true that he wants Derrida to be right. (Not that motive - especially bad motive - isn’t a factor in these debates. But that sort of ad hominem stuff is secondary.).... if you want to take the line that Derrida is right - or deep, or important - for unnameable, unthinkable reasons, at least don’t then call people idiots because they can’t see this obvious truth. You should be more patient with me, rob.

John, I think motive is always in some way a factor in these debates, and that to that extent to raise the question of motive isn’t really an ad-hominem move. (Outside of this online debate, I have no idea who you are.) And to the extent that motive, or the necessarily motivated nature of philosophical argumentation, is both inevitable and differential, “motive” constitutes part of (and is constituted within) the network of values, techniques and practices of philosophy within which Derrida attempts to intervene with his genealogical tracing of “presence”. I tried to highlight this fact when I mentioned much earlier what I suspected to be our very different approaches to the practice of philosophy. The point has also been made by others with reference to the “principle of charity”, etc., and implied by my reference to the way that many critics of Derrida seek to base their argument on isolated fragments rather than an emergence within a much broader context of thought and writing (not that the principles of charity or of the systematic nature of philosophy aren’t themselves problematic.)

And so I resorted to caricature of your motive because (1) there’s little else you’ve written to engage with; you’ve not only admitted that you haven’t presented your “real” argument, but you are now refusing to do so ("I am only really helping myself to an ordinary sense of ‘signs’ by way of making clear I’m not making that bad argument. More, I do not say."); and (2) it’s fun and entertaining (I’m no puritan, you know), something to keep me occupied while I wait for the excellent contributions from john c. halasz, Clark Goble, surlacarte, Adam Kotsko and others.

Adam earlier sketched out his ideal for this exchange. Here’s mine:

John Holbo: Look at this! The line from Rousseau about writing as “a sign of a sign” is a bit silly and needlessly reductive, isn’t it? I wonder what the implications of that are for Derrida’s comments about writing comprehend language, etc.?

Person A: Hey, nice catch. That is a rather silly thing to think, isn’t it? Seems to me it suggests that there’s something much more complicated going on in Derrida’s work, therefore, than his merely saying everything is modeled on the sign.

Person B: Yes, yes, well done John Holbo. You’ve given us a way not to read Derrida; we’ll need to take care not to assume that his references to “sign of a sign” recall that silly formulation.

Person C: Derrida’s an idiot and you’re all a bunch of tossers!*

Person D: Person C, why do you persist in wearing that tutu? You look ridiculous!* Person B, absolutely! After all, if “one hopes, had Rousseau gotten around to editing, he would have noticed his definition of writing does not make a great deal of sense”, then surely it’s not too much (1) to hope that Derrida also recognised it as rather silly and needlessly reductive and (2) to read his text accordingly.

John Holbo: [grudgingly] I suppose you’re right…

Person A: As Adam Kotsko is fond of saying, time to hit the books.

* Ideally, of course, these little parries would be far, far wittier than I could ever realise

And, yes — I’ve always wanted to be a scriptwriter.

By on 04/16/07 at 08:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hmmmm, I don’t think this is quality screenwriting, rob. Look at it this way: this thread is the blog equivalent of Bunuel’s “Exterminating Angel”. We all came so fresh to the party, expecting to stay only a few hours, and yet, days later, here we still are, unable to leave. (We’ll be slaughtering the goat soon, if we haven’t already.) Why? What force keeps us here? Your rewrite turns this seething, existential mess - this operating table of a scenario, on which our callow, bourgeois liberal arts educations are peeled back to reveal the skull beneath the skin - into some sort of wish fulfillment Bunuel fanfic, with my various interlocutors manifesting as Mary Sues. (I think there are deep, even primordial reasons why “Exterminating Angel” Mary Sue fanfic has never taken off, as a subgenre.) The short version would be: if you are going to intervene via consideration of motive, you need to be more PLAUSIBLE about it.

In all false modesty, I think my “Titus” quote was much closer to the bone. By referencing this classic (yet still satisfyingly obscure) play, in which the Senecan bodycount attains Tarantinoesque proportions - real late Roman “Grindhouse”, if you will - I was attempting to construct an authentic ‘objective correlative’ of the psychic energies of the thread. Plus I made a pun on ‘ease’. (Where IS John Emerson, by the by?) In this way, I seek to know MYSELF.

As to argument: I stand accused of accepting criticism. (And just last week I was accused of never accepting it - take note, Anthony. Take note.) When it comes to willingness to admit I am wrong, I make no apologies. Confidentially, this is all part of a strategy I have worked out for teaching myself philosophy. Alas, for the rest, I think you may be suffering - among other things - a confusion about how arguments are put together. There is nothing wrong with helping myself to an ordinary sense of ‘sign’ by way of advancing the discussion. Not unless you think I have not characterized the ordinary sense of ‘sign’ in a tolerably accurate way - and if that were the case, you would be free to make objections in a more irenic, corrective spirit.

As to basing one’s reading on ‘isolated fragmants’: how do you propose to do close readings without quotes, rob? Do you think it is true that Derrida does not ever seize on ‘isolated fragments’, i.e. quotes, making them the subjects of discussion? What do you suppose he is up to, worrying these isolated little bits, in his signature style?

As to this value ‘charity’ you invoke. Do you believe you have been charitable to me in your characterizations, rob?

By John Holbo on 04/16/07 at 09:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Clark writes: “I’m not sure that speaking about “I” is conventional, depending upon what one means by this.”

But surely it is conventional, in just the way language always is: ‘I’ doesn’t mean I in German. ‘Ich’ means I in German. (I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, obviously.) Pheasant tracks, which are not conventional in that way, do not function in the same way as ‘I’. This isn’t to say that the two have nothing in common. They are both indices - indicators, indexicals - if you like. But that just shows that the category of indexicals cross-cuts the category of natural meaning that I was proposing is of some importance. I don’t like the ‘meme’ analogy because I don’t see that it is enlightening to say that pheasants are a meme, spread around - in some sort of social fashion - by pheasant tracks. I think I know what you are getting at: the fact that pheasants are regarded as an interesting thing to deduce from the pheasant tracks says something about the perspective of the one who bothers to say ‘pheasant tracks mean pheasants’. A more cosmically-inclined observer might say: pheasant tracks mean the Big Bang happened. Which is also true enough, but not the sort of thing we would think to mention, probably. That we say the one thing, not the other, says something about us. But that isn’t to say that I’m wrong about natural meaning. It is complicated. I certainly don’t want to suggest it’s simple. Maybe it turns out to be an ill-conceived category. But I’m working away at it for the time being.

By John Holbo on 04/16/07 at 10:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The quality of my screenwriting is beneath even that of my jokes, so I’ll readily admit that it is horrendous scripting, indeed.

I admit to being far too ignorant to identify, let alone understand, your many classical references. Kantian and post-Kantian continental philosophy and certain segments of contemporary popular culture are all I know, and I know neither of those as well as others might.

As for the accusation of accepting criticism, no such thing came from me, unless the world had gone horribly Hegelian and the ideal is now the actual. And my “confusion” about how arguments are put together is actually something a little more like a lamentation; I refer you again to what I said earlier about different ways of doing philosophy. At the very least I don’t recall suggesting that there is anything “wrong” with you “helping [your]self to an ordinary sense of ‘sign’ by way of advancing the discussion” — although I did say (and I maintain) that it’s less than productive to presuppose that such a concept of the sign (or even a more non-standard sense of the sign) serves as the basis for Derrida’s thought. I also like to think that the vast majority of my posts on the Grammatology have been put forward in a spirit that is, if not (most probably not) irenic, then at least corrective.

In response to your concluding questions, I think an indirect reference may be insuficient and so I will quote myself directly (I think, possibly for the first time ever!): “not that the principles of charity or of the systematic nature of philosophy aren’t themselves problematic”.

Let’s put it plainly: I do not think that you are being “immoral” for approaching Derrida in this way, nor do I believe that philosophers (or academics generally) work under some incontestable obligation to be “charitable” in their readings of Derrida or of anyone else for that matter. Here’s what I say: if you want to understand why many people might be attracted (for what they would see as “sincere” and “professional” reasons, rather than for other, less “honourable” reasons) to Derrida’s argument, it is not helpful to see his references to writing as positing a monism or as basing everything on a linguistic model. If, on the other hand, you want to point out the “mistakes” in Derrida’s argument, it helps a great deal if you read that argument as a species of some other (false) form of reasoning.

By on 04/16/07 at 10:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What do you have against monism, rob?

Also, I’ll just cut and paste what you yourself quoted, above:

“By a slow movement whose necessity is hardly perceptible, everything that for at least some twenty centuries tended toward and finally succeeded in being gathered under the name of language is beginning to let itself be transferred to, or at least summarized under the name of writing. By a hardly perceptible necessity, it seems as though the concept of writing — no longer indicating a particular, derivative, auxiliary form of language in general (whether understood as communication, relation, expression, signification, constitution of meaning or thought, etc.), no longer designating the exterior surface, the insubstantial double of a major signifier, the signifier of the signifier — is beginning to go beyond the extension of language. In all senses of the word, writing this comprehends language. Not that the word “writing” has ceased to designate the signifier of the signifier, but it appears, strange as it may seem, that “signifier of the signifier” no longer defines accidental doubling and fallen secondarity. “Signifier of the signifier” describes on the contrary the movement of language: in its origin, to be sure, but one can already suspect that an origin whose structure can be expressed as “signifier of the signifier” conceals and erases itself in its own production. There the signified always already functions as a signifier.... This, strictly speaking, amounts to destroying the concept of the “sign” and its entire logic. Undoubtedly it is not by chance that this overwhelming supervenes at the moment when the extension of the concept of language effaces all limits. (pp.6-7)

In short, writing is coming up language in general. And language is coming up everything. (And please don’t quibble that this is oversimple. That’s the point. Anyone who wants the non-simple version can consult the original text right there.) Do you regard it as simply absurd - laughably uncharitable - to read this as saying that Derrida is, in a sense, taking the template that originally applied to writing and applying it to everything? And, since Derrida believes that ‘writing’ has not ceased to designate the ‘signifier of the signifier’, there is a sense in which he maintains that, since now there is writing over everything, everything is a signifier of a signifier. I think you are protesting too much in disavowing all this.

And my point is, simply, that I think it may be wrong to say that everything is a ‘signifier of a signier’. Because of the Rousseau thing, and because the arbitrariness of the signifier is only one sort of meaning relation. Focusing on it causes on to miss other sorts of meaning. Derrida misses the linguistic difference in the sense of difference FROM non-language. I fail to see that this is horribly insulting, as lines of criticism go. (Whether it is right or not is another thing. But I fail to see that it is a proper occasion for so much indignation on Derrida’s behalf.)

And again: what is wrong with monism? (I’m serious. When I called Berkeley a monist, you inferred that I meant to insult him. No, I meant to describe his position. We have a failure to communicate hereabouts if ‘monism’ is taken for fightin’ words.)

By John Holbo on 04/16/07 at 11:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

“Signifier of the signifier” describes on the contrary the movement of language: in its origin, to be sure, but one can already suspect that an origin whose structure can be expressed as “signifier of the signifier” conceals and erases itself in its own production.

Once again I’d direct you to the first half of On Grammatology and Derrida’s use of Peirce.  I think you’re taking him too narrowly.  Derrida appeals to Peirce to note that even as we encounter a sign that encounter is itself mediated.  Thus the meaning of a sign is always an other sign.  This is why Peirce says,

Symbols grow. They come into being by development out of other signs, particularly from likenesses or from mixed signs partaking of the nature of likenesses and symbols. We think only in signs. These mental signs are of mixed nature; the symbol-parts of them are called concepts. If a man makes a new symbol, it is by thoughts involving concepts. So it is only out of symbols that a new symbol can grow. Omne symbolum de symbolo. A symbol, once in being, spreads among the peoples. In use and in experience, its meaning grows. Such words as force, law, wealth, marriage, bear for us very different meanings from those they bore to our barbarous ancestors. The symbol may, with Emerson’s sphynx, say to man, Of thine eye I am eyebeam.

Now of course the problem then gets back to the distinction between signs in general and symbols and whether Derrida ignores the other classes of signs.  I’d simply note that I don’t think Derrida does this and the burden of proof is definitely on those arguing he does.

Anyway, language is simply a subset of sign-processes.  So Derrida’s comments while they apply to language (and that’s his focus) isn’t limited to language.  Which is how I see you taking it.  (Maybe I’m wrong in that) Writing or more accurately arche-writing becomes Peircean semiotics IMO.

Regarding whether it is wrong to “say that everything is a ‘signifier of a signier’" I’d certainly agree.  But Derrida definitely doesn’t argue that since his focus is the Other which is outside of significance but only enters in with an “eruption” which is simply the sign of the Other which then becomes known through mediation and thus the sign of the sign.

As to monism, I think one has to unpack what one means by monism.  I think one could argue that for Derrida he could easily be called a monist for various reasons, much like the neoPlatonists could be called monists.  But first one has to unpack how one is using monism.  That gets us into that issue of presence again.  Often monism is tied to “stuff” that is always present in full presence.  (Think Spinoza or Leibniz) Derrida is a monist of absence if we’re going to talk about that sort of thing. 

Regarding indexes and convention.  One has to always keep in mind the type-token relationship when considering Peirce.  You’re confusing the token for the index with the type or index itself.  Certainly we can use different tokens to represent the index and that can be translated among languages.  But the fact that the token and the sign that moves from token to type is conventional (or can be conventional) says nothing about whether the type itself as a sign is conventional.

By Clark Goble on 04/17/07 at 12:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, regarding the meme analogy.  I don’t think you’re quite getting it.  Peirce really is radical here and this perhaps even more than his synchism is what makes him problematic for so many people. 

Peirce honestly feels that the laws of the universe - physical law of the sort I studied back when getting my physics degree - is really just habits developed by matter.  To the degree habits become fixed then matter becomes more and more like “substance” in the Aristotilean sense.

Needless to say this will freak a lot of people out.

The closest analogy with pheasants I could think of is to consider evolution over millions of years and pheasants as a species developing.  That development is itself a sign process and pheasants are themselves a natural sign in development.  To the degree they are a successful adaptation to the environment then the pheasant, as matter, has acquired a habit and doesn’t change its form.

Yeah, I know, weird.

Anyway the role of convention in this then becomes tricky.  What is natural and what is convention given that Peirce sees everything in terms of habits?  It’s tricky and not at all easy to figure out unless one is already familiar with Peirce.

Obviously for regular discussion it’s easy to discern what is or isn’t convention.  If it’s by human agreement it’s convention.  (And most language is that sort of convention) But it’s also a matter of degree.  As conventions last a long time they can cease to be as conventional.  Give something a few million years of evolution and development and something that was conventional may actually end up encoded in our DNA due to evolutionary success.  Probably not for the sorts of things we talk about as convention - but when we talk about consciousness and indexes then we’re at a very tricky place since this is where so many evolutionary psychologists, philosophers, linguists and cognitive scientists debate.  That is, the relationship between language, learning and evolution.

If you’re interested there was a great book by Tomasello on this from a few years back.  It’s wrong for a variety of reasons.  (Apes learn more than he thought and he pushes autism as a way of studying the evolution of language too much) But there’s a lot to gain from it.  A bunch of us did a multi-blog reading club on it a couple of years ago.

By Clark Goble on 04/17/07 at 12:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think I will make this my last post on your critique of Derrida (which isn’t to say that I won’t occasionally say something in response to contributions from others who have made comments that I have found enlightening). In response to your specific questions, I will try to answer you directly in regards of what I think, but I won’t bother anymore explaining why I think it.

Basically, I think that your explicatory paragraph is not too far from how I would put it. I maintain, however, that there is a crucial move being made in the affirmation of writing over language that you are not doing justice too, that the affirmation of writing is a critique of the inflation of language. I also think that you’re giving the “signifier of a signifier” a much more central and constitutive role in Derrida’s “philosophy” (as distinct from his genealogy) than is warranted.

What I find most objectionable (in the sense of “able to be objected to"), though, is that in the move from explication to criticism you suppress all of the hesitancy ("that Derrida is, in a sense...") that defined your explication. You may (or may not; I have no idea) think that there’s something objectionable or indefensible about a certain degree of equivocation — in which case, I may well count as among the worst of culprits — but I would say that in a sense Derrida’s philosophy is the equivocation (but that’s enough argument from me; I said I would stop saying why I think the things I think). Thus, you go from a set of statements which should (IMO) lead one to suspend the logic of the sign — since Derrida’s move “amounts to destroying the concept of the “sign” and its entire logic”, and in any case, Derrida goes on to demonstrate the contradictions within Saussure’s theory and, also, elsewhere, has cause to cite Peirce (alongside many other thinkers, including Heidegger, whose take on language as a matter of being in the world can hardly have been missed or simply dismissed by Derrida) — you go from all of this erudition, complexity and equivocation to saying that “Derrida” is wrong to say that everything is a “signifier of a signifier” because “the arbitrariness of the signifier is only one sort of meaning relation”. In short, everything else in Derrida’s text says “the arbitrariness of the signifier is only one sort of meaning relation”, yet, for some reason completely unknown to me, you think that when Derrida says everything is a signifier of a signifier (which is not quite what he says, but I’m happy to defend the simple version of Derrida for the sake of indicating that the non-simple version is even less open to your charge), he thinks that the arbitrariness of the signifier is the only sort of meaning relation, that there are only symbols and no indices, etc.

(I also find objectionable your presupposition, in this particular case, that Derrida’s discussion of signs must therefore be primarily (solely?) a treatise on meaning, as though signification weren’t also a matter of things, acts, events, functions, effects, etc. But that is another discussion altogether.)

Now: what I think about your argument that “Derrida misses the linguistic difference in the sense of difference FROM non-language” is that it is — I apologise in advance; I don’t think you’ll like this — silly. I know that Derrida doesn’t spend a great deal of time elaborating “differance”, but he does discuss it briefly, and he does make a great many other gestures towards affirming difference as (more or less) fundamental. The affirmation of writing is (effectively) the affirmation of difference. (All these equivocations of mine! Would you believe me if I told you that I stutter?) In short, the affirmation of writing — against the inflation of language — is a move designed to recover the difference of language from non-language, albeit on the basis of external, contextual, contingent factors rather than on the basis of essential differences. In this way, Derrida seeks to underscore the exigency of distinguishing (in some circumstances) not only between “language” and “non-language”, but also between “language” and “language”, and between “non-language” and “non-language” — the difference of “language” from “language”, etc. To put it another way, while everything “is” writing in general, there is no such thing as writing in general. There are only instances of writing, each instance being specified within or by a network of differences.

Finally, then, my problem with monism (insofar as I’m a “Derridean") is that it amounts to the reduction of a certain radical otherness (in the Levinasian sense, if you like), aka a certain kind of difference (as differance) or differance (as difference), which is also why it is silly (apologies again) to suggest that Derrida is a monist.

I’m certain that you will find that these comments don’t really challenge your argument, but that’s fine, for I am no longer arguing. I’m just telling it like it is.

By on 04/17/07 at 01:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Clark. Color me freaked out. (I really have no opinion, in other words.)

rob, well, that’ll have to do. I figure this thread is winding down somewhat, and it would be better to end on a friendly rather than unfriendly note: so I hope you got something for your typing pains ... besides pains, that is.

By John Holbo on 04/17/07 at 09:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

BTW for those interested in Peirce’s ultimate ontology this essay by Kelly Parker is quite good.  Parker is arguing that Peirce is basically a neoPlatonist in this aspect.  I should note that for those not up on Peirce, Parker’s The Continuity of Peirce’s Thought is arguably the best introduction.

I should also caution that while in some ways Peirce has strong parallels to the neoPlatonist he’s certainly not a proper one.  Far less than say Emerson and probably less than Hegel.  So one has to be cautious (just as one has to with similar claims made about Derrida)

By Clark on 04/17/07 at 07:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry to beat a dead horse.  But for those interested I went through Peirce’s later technical discussion of signs to hopefully show how Derrida and Peirce are doing the same thing and to show why there is always still an index in all signs.

By Clark Goble on 04/21/07 at 12:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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