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Dealing With Derrida

(November 2007)

The objective in this chapter is to get into the mind of Jacques Derrida. On the one hand, he was famous, popular and very, very smart. He sold a lot of books and his books continue to sell. When he died in 2004, then president of France Jacques Chirac referred to him as “the most important philosopher of the twentieth century.”

On the other hand, his work is highly controversial, has drawn criticism in a manner unlike any other philosopher, and his prose in places achieves a certain pinnacle of incoherence.

I think the basic issue in Derrida is the primordial connection between knowledge and reality. Derrida’s position on this matter is that there is none. In human knowledge, there is a fundamental disconnect between the sensible and the intelligible, and the only remedy for this disconnect is a series of imaginary connectors that Derrida himself has discovered, or invented, such as différance, the trace, the supplement, the hymen, etc.

Derrida of course denies that he holds that there is no connection between knowledge and reality.

I never cease to be surprised by critics who see my work as a declaration that there is nothing beyond language, that we are imprisoned in language; it is, in fact, saying the exact opposite. The critique of logocentrism is above all else the search for the ‘other’ and the ‘other of language…’ Certainly, deconstruction tries to show that the question of reference is much more complex and problematic than traditional theories supposed. It even asks whether our term ‘reference’ is entirely adequate for designating the ‘other.’ The other, which is beyond language and which summons language, is perhaps not a ‘referent’ in the normal sense which linguists have attached to this term. But to distance oneself thus from the habitual structure, to challenge or complicate our common assumptions about it, does not amount to saying that there is nothing beyond language. (Cited in The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, Pgs. 16-17)

So, in his own mind, he does not claim there is no connection between knowledge and reality, only that it is “much more complex and problematic than traditional theories supposed.”

I respectfully submit that this is rather self-serving of Derrida, and that his position could be stated as that there is no traditional connection between knowledge and reality, there is no “primordial” connection between them (in the traditional sense). This is tantamount to saying that there is no connection at all, that is, there is no connection as proposed by anyone else in the world except me.

It is important to point this out because Derrida has published over forty books and so there is an immense body of language there that anyone could choose to argue with. But the fundamental problem with all of Derrida’s work is at its very beginning and foundation. He comes to philosophy with an inability to notice the spontaneous and primordial connection between knowledge and reality. The essence of this connection is that between insight and sensory material.

Once one notices this basic disconnect, one is in a position to understand all the oddities of Derrida’s oeuvre. He had a “Humpty Dumpty” problem. Once you sever the natural and primordial connection between knowledge and reality, or “challenge or complicate our common assumptions about it”, then it will take “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” to put the world back together again, and even then, it probably will not work.

Derrida gives an overview of his position on knowledge in his essay, “Structure Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”:

The event I called a rupture … presumably would have come about when the structurality of structure had to begin to be … repeated, and this is why I said that this disruption was repetition in every sense of the word. …… This was the moment when language invaded the universal problematic, the moment when, in the absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse—provided we can agree on this word—that is to say, a system in which the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences. [SSP, ]

He goes on to say:

“When Lévi-Strauss says in the preface to The Raw and the Cooked that he has, ‘sought to transcend the opposition between the sensible and the intelligible by operating from the outset at the level of signs’, the necessity, force, and legitimacy of his act cannot make us forget that the concept of the sign cannot in itself surpass this opposition between the sensible and the intelligible. … The concept of the sign, in each of its aspects, has been determined by this opposition throughout the totality of its history.”

The two elements that form the cornerstone of Derrida’s worldview are given here. One is “the opposition between the sensible and the intelligible”, and the other is the central argument in support of this opposition, namely, “repetition”.

Now we will proceed to show the invalidity of these two elements. However, it is also important to note that Derrida does not adopt them as the result of a long and circuitous rational argument (although he does indeed engage in such at great length). Rather he adopts them as part of his original orientation to the world and knowledge. When Derrida introspectively examines his own process of knowing he does not encounter a “central signified, the original or transcendental signified”. Rather, when Derrida “goes inside”, he encounters “the absence of a center or origin”.

The deeply personal quality of this orientation to the world is what explains all the oddities of Derrida’s philosophy. Throughout his work he relentlessly and resourcefully pursues the justification and elaboration of what is essentially a personal and intuitive view of the world. This is a view of the world in which there is a fundamental disconnect between the sensible and the intelligible, that is between body and mind, between sensory process and thinking process.

The clinical term for this disconnect is dissociation. That is to say, in popular language, when Derrida philosophizes, he is not in his body. We will have occasion in a later chapter to devote considerable attention to dissociation, because it is actually the central subject of this book. The philosophy of Jacques Derrida is in fact merely an introduction to the phenomenon of dissociation which, we will claim, is probably the most important emotional illness of our time.


When Derrida says that, “The concept of the sign, in each of its aspects, has been determined by this opposition throughout the totality of its history.”, he is referring to the Course in General Linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure.

Dates are important here. Derrida was born in 1930 in Algiers, and passed his adolescence essentially hiding from Vichy France officials, since he was a Jew. He came to Paris in 1949 and finished his formal university studies at the École Normal Superior in 1956. His first book, a lengthy introduction to Husserl’s Origin of Geometry, was published in 1962, and it was widely praised and made him famous. In 1963 he gave a well-attended lecture criticizing The History of Madness by Michel Foucault, who had been his teacher and who was at the time the leading intellectual on the Paris scene.

Derrida is part of that intellectual movement that occurred in France right after World War II called “Structuralism”. Structuralism was an intellectual movement of scientism and positivism that had its roots in the linguistics of the early twentieth century, but only became a general intellectual phenomenon in the fifties and sixties in Paris. A key component of structuralism was the adoption by French intellectuals of the Course in General Linguistics as their model of highest intellectual achievement. It became so familiar in those circles that it was generally referred to simply as “the CGL”. Although the CGL was published in 1916, it did not become a canonical text for French philosophy until after World War II. Thus, the career of Structuralism spans about twenty years in France, from 1949 to 1969. We now think of Jacques Derrida as “post-structuralist” because he criticized some key positions of structuralism properly so-called, and, among his peers in Paris in the 1960s was considered an “extremist” in this regard.

The CGL had a curious history. Ferdinand de Saussure was essentially a nineteenth century linguist born in 1857. He studied in Berlin and Leipzig and at the age of 21 published a highly-acclaimed study, Thesis on the Primitive Vowel System in Indo-European Languages. He taught in Paris in the 1880s, but returned to his native Geneva in 1891 for his most mature work. From 1907 to 1913 he taught a course in Geneva on “general linguistics” and died in 1913. He never wrote a book about his work, and his followers were not even able to find his notes for the course after he died. But two of his students were mature linguists in their own right, and they gathered together their notes on his course, and published the CGL in 1916.

At first the CGL was an unremarkable and very technical work of interest only to professional linguists. One of these linguists was the remarkable Russian, Roman Jakobsen, who went to Prague after the Bolshevik revolution (he was originally an attaché at the Soviet embassy in Czechoslovakia), and became the leading figure in the Prague School of formalist linguistics in the 1920s. He became acquainted with the CGL and thought it quite remarkable, and communicated this to his colleagues in Copenhagen.

The Russians and the Danes made common reference to Saussure at the First International Congress of Linguistics at The Hague in 1928. This broadened Saussure’s following among linguists but it was still not a work of general intellectual currency.

Then Jakobsen spent the years of World War II in New York where he met Claude Lévi-Strauss, and the two of them shared ideas. Lévi-Strauss later reported:

“At that time I was kind of a naïve structuralist. I was doing structuralism without even knowing it. Jakobsen showed me the corpus of a doctrine that had already been constituted in linguistics, and that I had never studied. It was an illumination for me.” [Dosse I, 22.]

His adoption of structuralism as a model for his own science was thoroughgoing:

We should like to learn from the linguists how they succeeded in doing it, how we may in our own field, which is a complex one–in the field of kinship, in the field of social organization, in the field of religion, folklore, art, and the like–use the same kind of rigorous approach which has proved to be so successful for linguistics. [Structural Anthropology, 8]

He thereby “elevated linguistics to the rank of a pilot science, of an initial model, basing anthropology on the cultural and social, rather than on the physical.” [Dosse, I, 23.] This was a major turning point in the history of anthropology. The publication of The Elementary Structures of Kinship in 1949 “was one of the major events of postwar intellectual history, and a touchstone for the founding of the structuralist program.” [Dosse, I, 18.]

This “baptism” of the CGL as the model for all social science was completed by the publication in 1956 of an article by Algirdas Greimas, “L’actualité du saussurisme” in Le Français moderne (no. 3, 1956). Greimas (1917-1992) was a Lithuanian who had studied linguistics in France before the war, taught in Alexandria, Egypt from 1949 to 1958, but spent his summers in Paris and was a close friend of the Parisian structuralist luminary, Roland Barthes. He finally got a teaching position in Paris in 1965. He remained a hard-core Saussurian structuralist throughout his life. During the fifties and sixties the evolving definition of a total semiological program encompassing all the human sciences was justified and encouraged by Saussure’s definition of semiology as the “science that studies the life of signs at the heart of social life.” [Dosse, I, 45]

The complete dominance of structuralism over intellectual life in Paris during the 1960s can hardly be exaggerated. Dosse refers to 1966 as the “annus mirabilis”. The number of structuralist books and articles was prodigious. Foucault (The Order of Things) “was selling like hotcakes”. “The year 1966 was one in which the apprentice structuralist reader had to read constantly. Every day brought another work to the harvest; a number of reprints came out that were also considered indispensable reading for a good structuralist.” [Dosse, I, 319.] And Foucault could say:

We are coming to an age that is perhaps one of pure thinking, of thinking in deed, and disciplines as abstract and general as linguistics or as fundamental as logic, or even more, literature since Joyce, are activities of the mind. They do not replace philosophy, but are the very unfolding of what philosophy was in the past. [Dosse, I, 330-331.]

And further:

The breaking point came on the day when Lévi-Strauss for societies and Lacan for the unconscious showed us that meaning was probably only one sort of surface effect, a shimmering, a froth, and that what profoundly coursed through us, what existed before us, what maintained us in space and time, was the system.


In regard to language, Saussure distinguished between “the referent” on the one hand–the thing in itself–and the sign on the other hand. And, in regard to the sign, he distinguished between the internal aspect of it–what we usually call “the concept”– that he called “the signified”, and the external expression of the concept, the “signifier”. Saussure claimed that the phonic signifier (“speech”) was primary and the written signifier (writing) was merely a substitute for speech.

Although Derrida accepted the ontological priority of “the system of differences” that makes up Saussure’s definition of language, he also devoted a great portion of his work to disagreeing with the primacy of speech over writing.

In “Différance”, Derrida cites the key reference to Saussure:

“The conceptual side of value is made up solely of relations and differences with respect to the other terms of language, and the same can be said of its material side . . . Everything that has been said up to this point boils down to this: in language there are only differences. Even more important: a difference generally implies positive terms between which the difference is set up; but in language there are only differences without positive terms. Whether we take the signified or the signifier, language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system. The idea or phonic substance that a sign contains is of less importance than the other signs that surround it.” [Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, trans. Wade Baskin (New York: Philosophical Library, 1959), 117-18, 120]

And he goes on to comment:

The first consequence to be drawn from this is that the signified concept is never present in and of itself, in a sufficient presence that would refer only to itself. Essentially and lawfully, every concept is inscribed in a chain or in a system within which it refers to the other, to other concepts, by means of the systematic play of differences. Such a play, différance, is thus no longer simply a concept, but rather the possibility of conceptuality, of a conceptual process and system in general. For the same reason, différance, which is not a concept, is not simply a word, that is, what is generally represented as the calm, present, and self-referential unity of concept and phonic material. [SP, 140]

And here is where Derrida by-passes the sensory component of knowledge. It is a foundational exclusion and affects all of his thinking.

However, we might introduce a realist criticism immediately. When Saussure says, “Whether we take the signified or the signifier, language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system…”, he might be correct about the prior existence of ideas. (Sounds, albeit unorganized, always existed.) But if we ask where do ideas come from, then we are led to the absolutely prior existence of the human mind and the act of insight in regard to language. Knowing itself is what must exist “before the linguistic system.”

The “signified concept” is produced by the act of knowing. In its first instance, it is indeed “present in and of itself in a sufficient presence that refers only to itself.” In and of itself, insight does not specify the material form; it only specifies that some material form is appropriate. The knower — a community of knowers — must select a material form. This is why people who use signifiers such as “horse”, “cheval”, “caballo”, “Pferd”, “equus” and the like can eventually agree that they are all referring to the same thing.

Saussure did understand that language is constructed by “a social contract” in which a community of persons comes to agreement on what sounds and marks will be associated with what concepts. But for him, “language” (vs. speech) was the only object that could be scientifically explained, and consequently he enclosed his linguistics within a restrictive study of “the code” and did not devote any attention to the conditions of its appearance and signification. This included the speaking [or writing] subject: “Language is not a function of the speaking subject, but the product that the individual passively records.” [CGL, 30] [Dosse, I, 49-51]

A methodological formalization is entirely legitimate and it makes it possible to go quite far in describing languages. But when it is transformed from being just methodological into being descriptive of reality as such, it produces a seriously distorted worldview.

So this was the milieu that Jacques Derrida was exposed to during his formative intellectual years, and it was an intellectual climate that supported the complete disembodiment of thinking.

The End of Structuralism

One structuralist of the sixties lived long enough to recognize its limitations in the late seventies.

Tzvetan Todorov (b. 1939) arrived in Paris from Bulgaria in 1963. In the sixties he was an orthodox structural formalist, but in the late seventies became a strong advocate of the “subject” semiology of Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) as opposed to the “object” semiology of Saussure. Bakhtin never left Russia and his work was unknown in France until after his death. In taking up Bakhtin’s work, Todorov repeated his description of how reading Dostoevsky implicated and transformed the reader, thus restoring the complexity and the reality of the living subject to the study of language. For Todorov, the reader-author dialogue became the maker of meaning; literature and ideological study became much more than simply decoding internal textual coherence.

Todorov attributes his change of perspective to the fact in the sixties his fascination with formalism was basically a rejection of what was going on in his native Bulgaria, where literary history was purely event-oriented and completely external to texts. … In addition, given the implacable ideological dogmatism of Stalinism…Todorov had wanted to free himself by taking refuge within the text itself, its grammatical categories, and its rhythm, and to keep as far as possible from the leaden ideology that was suffocating literary studies. (M. Bakhtin, the Dialogic Principle, 1981) [Dosse, II, 324-235.] When he came to France and experienced a more democratic political milieu, his need to escape from the outside world in the structures of the text diminished, and he started to reflect on the subject and meaning. The work of Bakhtin was a guide for him.

In Todorov we see the “escapist” premise of structuralism brought to the surface, and although his escapism has specific reference to Stalinist dogmatism in Bulgaria in the sixties, general structuralism also had an escapist agenda, although it was more complicated, as we shall see.

Todorov’s publication of M. Bakhtin, the Dialogic Principle only took place in 1981, but the end of structuralism started long before that.

On the morning of May 10,1968, Paris awoke to barricades in the streets, and ten million workers all over France on strike. Since many of the central actors were students, they were well aware of the dominance of structuralism in the university, and they were not happy with it. Structuralism’s failure to be in touch with reality was readily apparent. One of the key slogans of the student part of the May 1968 crisis was, “It is clear that structures don’t take to the streets.” The failure of the leading intellectuals of the time to have any clue that the protests of 1968 were about to take place was convincing evidence that they were out of touch with reality. The list of professors whose lectures the students disrupted included some really famous names: Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes. Lévi-Strauss was dismayed by events and left town entirely. The chickens of Foucault’s celebration of having arrived at “an age that is perhaps one of pure thinking” had suddenly come home to roost.

François Dosse claims that Structuralism “was contestatory and corresponded to a particular moment in Western history.” [I, xx.] The rebellious “counter-cultural” dynamic had an intellectual component in France that it did not have in the United States. A central issue in Paris was authoritarianism in the universities. What was an intellectual movement in Paris was a more general cultural movement in the United States, as the hippies and “the Woodstock generation” protested what they saw as political and social authoritarianism in America. In both cases the Vietnam war was an important manifestation of the defectiveness of the old world-view.

So in Paris there was “a specific political moment characterized by disenchantment and a particular configuration of knowledge requiring a revolution to successfully carry through a reform…” [Dosse, I, xx.] For these intellectuals, ontologizing structure in the name of Science and Theory became an alternative to traditional Western intellectual models.

Derrida and Husserl

Throughout the structuralist period there was a basic disagreement between structuralists on the one hand and existentialists and phenomenologists on the other. Jean Paul Sartre for existentialism and Paul Ricoeur and Maurice Merleau-Ponty for phenomenology were among the notable dissenters from the structuralist worldview.

The work of Edmund Husserl (who had died in 1938) was a key defense of the primordial connection between knowledge and reality, and so Derrida’s “deconstruction” of Husserl was a key defense of the structuralist separation of knowledge and reality.

So, in reviewing Derrida’s deconstruction of Husserl, we have to keep in mind the background fact that the underlying issue is not necessarily Husserl, but the primordial connection itself between knowledge and reality. Husserl might have defended the connection badly, and Derrida’s deconstruction of him might have been valid. But since he was deconstructing a bad defense, his argument does not touch the background question. This is case no. 1: that Husserl was wrong, and Derrida was right about Husserl but wrong about reality.

A second possibility is that Husserl’s defense was valid and Derrida’s deconstruction was invalid. This is case no. 2: that Husserl was right and Derrida was wrong, simply.

A third possibility is that Husserl’s defense was somewhat faulty and Derrida’s attack was completely wrong. This is case no. 3: that Husserl was wrong, and Derrida was more wrong.

I like case no. 3, but in any case, we end with the position that knowledge is primordially connected with reality. And so any exercise of reasoning that ends with the position that it is not has to be faulty in its essence.

As a preliminary note on Derrida’s reading of Husserl, I offer the comment of some one who has spent much more time on Derrida than I have:

Derrida’s “conclusions”, his claims to have undermined this or that venerable opposition, turn out again and again to have been arrived at by modifying a claim by Husserl – which, whether true or false, is comprehensible – to the effect that certain possibilities are essentially and so necessarily possible. The modification is the claim that necessarily possibilities are “inscribed” in the “structure” of their bearers. Why, we may wonder, have those who find Derrida’s conclusions so agreeable made no effort to explain the modification ?

The importance in Derrida’s writings of essential and necessary possibilities was pointed out, approvingly, by Silvano Petrosino in Jacques Derrida e la legge del possibile (Naples: Guida editori, 1983), pp. 158ff. My account of Derrida’s merry way with modal concepts (“How not to Read: Derrida on Husserl”, in Continental Philosophy Analysed, Topoi, 1991, pp. 199-208) made points which were already perfectly familiar to my two colleagues and friends, Jacques Bouveresse and Anne Reboul. It forms a part of a criticism of Derrida’s grasp of Husserl’s thought. For other criticisms, see Joseph Claude Evans, Strategies of Deconstruction. Derrida and the Myth of the Voice (Minneapolis, Oxford: University of Min-nesota Press, 1991), Part I and his “The Rigors of Deconstruction”, (in European philosophy and the American Academy, pp. 81-98), especially pp. 86-88.

[Kevin Mulligan, “Searle, Derrida and the Ends of Phenomenology” (The Cambridge Companion to Searle, ed. Barry Smith. Cambridge University Press, 2003) 261-286.

So, there is a literature on problems with Derrida’s basic arguments.

However, in his dealing with Husserl, Derrida starts at a point that everybody agrees on, that phenomenology starts with a “principle of principles” that “primordial presence to intuition is the source of sense and evidence, the a priori of a prioris.” He adds:

This means that “the certainty, itself ideal and absolute, that the universal form of all experience (Erlebnis), and therefore of all life, has always been and will always be the present. The present alone is and ever will be. Being is presence or the modification of presence. The relation with the presence of the present as the ultimate form of being and of ideality is the move by which I transgress empirical existence, factuality, contingency, worldliness, etc.” [SP, 53-54.]

However, Husserl’s choice of the words “present” and “presence” to indicate the ground of all knowledge has some very unfortunate consequences. That choice sets up a confusion between two completely different meanings of the word “presence.”

One meaning is “phenomenological presence”. This refers to the immediate access to being in the original act of knowledge. It does not refer to time at all. So, phenomenological presence might be better expressed by calling it presence-to-being. That would save it from being confused with the other meaning of “presence”, what we should call “temporal presence”, that is, the occurrence of an event at a particular moment in time.

Derrida also mentions in this passage in Speech and Phenomena that this living presence is “the now”. This reinforces the confusion between presence-to-being and occurrence-at-a-particular-moment-in-time. It is also unfortunate that Derrida has to use the word “form” in the phrase “the universal form of all experience”. What he wants to refer to is the “universal basis of all experience”, which is not a form. It is an act. But this word-slippage is also quite telling, and one of the many clues in Derrida’s work that he is confusing the order of abstract concepts and the order of actual reality.

The confusion between presence-to-being and occurrence-at-a-particular-moment-in-time would also be avoided if we used the word “insight” in the above comment. That would leave us with a text that reads something like this:

Phenomenology starts with a “principle of principles” that insight is the source of sense and evidence, the a priori of a prioris. This means that the certainty, itself ideal and absolute, that the universal basis of all experience (Erlebnis), and therefore of all life, has always been and will always be the immediate apprehension of being in the original act of knowing. This immediate apprehension of being always is and ever will be. Being is always accessible. The immediate access of being to insight is the move by which I transgress empirical existence, factuality, contingency, worldliness, etc.

But the confusion between presence-to-being and occurrence-at-a-particular-moment-in-time is thoroughgoing in the conversation between Derrida and Husserl. It is ever-present.

The Living Present has the irreducible originality of a Now, the ground of a Here, only if it retains (in order to be distinguishable from it) the past Now as such, i.e., as the past present of an absolute origin, instead of purely and simply succeeding it in objective time. [Intro to Or Geom, 136-137.]

“Now” here has to be a substitute term for the phenomenological present—presence-to-being–and as such it further indicates that Derrida cannot distinguish between the presence-to-being of insight and the occurrence-at-a-particular-moment-in-time of insight. The word “now” can only properly mean occurrence-at-a-particular-moment-in-time, and so if you use it to mean presence-to-being, that distorts language intolerably.

If you understand that insight is an act, then you understand that when one insight “purely and simply succeeds another insight in objective time”, it quite unproblematically has the same presence-to-being that the previous act had (that distortedly so-called “past Now as such” ). But the language is inherently confusing, because apparently, both Husserl and Derrida were inherently confused about the relation of knowledge to being on the one hand and to time on the other.

So, both of them had to be out of their bodies when they were thinking about these matters. That is the only way you can confuse concept and act.

Therefore, in order to decipher that conversation one has to continually step back and remind oneself about the background question–the connection between knowledge and reality–and recognize that the language of both Husserl and Derrida is, in its essence, irreducibly confused.

This stepping back is particularly necessary for interpreting the following passage:

“… phenomenology seems to us tormented, if not contested from within, by its own descriptions of the movement of temporalization and the constitution of intersubjectivity. At the heart of what ties together these two decisive moments of description we recognize an irreducible non-presence as having constitutive value, and with it a non-life, a non-presence of non-self-belonging of the living present, an ineradicable non-primordiality. ….. Briefly it is a question of (1) the necessity of transition from retention to re-presentation in the constitution of the presence of a temporal object whose identity may be repeated; and (2) the necessary transition by way of appresentation in relation to what makes possible intersubjectivity. …… What in the two cases is called a modification of presentation (re-presentation, ap-presentation) is not something that happens to presentation but rather conditions it by bifurcating it a priori.[SP, 6-7]

[Speech and Phenomena And Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs, by Jacques Derrida. Translated, with an introduction by David B. Allison. Preface by Newton Garver. (Evanston, Northwestern U. Press, 1973)]

What is he saying here? Is he concerned about tying these two moments–“representation” and “appresentation”–to each other? Or is he concerned about tying both of them to “real presence” itself? The thrust of his argument seems clearly to be–in general and from the lines at the end of the paragraph–that he wants to end up with the a priori bifurcation of “real presence” in itself.

But it seems clear that the “irreducible non-presence” that Derrida thinks he has detected here is merely a temporal non-presence. But temporal non-presence in no way means phenomenological non-presence, because phenomenological presence occurs in an act that by its very nature–by our very nature as human, as embodied spirit–occurs over and over again without losing its simplicity and immediacy each time.

So, if we remove the troublesome terms of “present” and “presence” in this comment and substitute the term “insight”, then we discover that yes indeed there are certain connections in the first stages of knowing that need to be explained, but these connections (“transitions”) occur in time, and recurrence in time has no effect on the unity and simplicity of the act of insight. It can, and does, occur over and over again.

In the first case, there is no “transition” at all required to get from insight to “representation” because the act of insight produces the innately representable. It is primordially an empty form. It only needs a material decision about sounds or marks. In reviewing the validity of any piece of knowledge, the knower does not ultimately refer to dictionaries, he or she ultimately refers to the original act of insight. The question of the validity of knowledge is always the question, “Do I really know that?” and the answer to that question is ultimately recall, and repetition, of the act of insight.

The second case is even less in need of a “transition”. Intersubjectivity is made possible by the fact that there are other carbon-based life-forms that have the selfsame simple experience of insight. Their experiences are “identical” to yours. You can establish the fact of this by engaging in eye contact and uttering a grunt.

It is intriguing to try to fantasize how homo sapiens first handled the conversation about conversation. But in present-day life we still run into inaccessible symbolizations that are covered by a “you know” or an “uh huh”, primitive allusions to the shared experience of unformed understanding.

Furthermore, getting it that insight does not need a “transition” to “arrive at” representation or conversation requires you to be thoroughly embodied. If you are in your body, the occurrence of insight is readily verified, and the multiple recurrence of immediate presence-to-being is also easily accounted for. But if you should be so fascinated by your process of thinking–which is an out-of-body experience–that you start confusing your abstract ideas about the act of insight with its actual occurrence, then you run into problems.

The thoroughgoing confusion between presence-to-being and occurrence-at-a-particular-moment-in-time shows up in Husserl’s The Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness, which is the subject of Chapter 5 of Speech and Phenomena, and Derrida expands and compounds this confusion there. He finally makes the argument that past and future (memory and expectation, retention and protention) enter “the zone of primordiality”. That is, they as it were “invade” this zone and “corrupt” it, i.e., radically destroy any possibility of a simple self-identity.

This confusion renders the whole conversation between Derrida and Husserl completely useless for throwing light on the background question: the primordial connection itself between knowledge and reality. (In the following passage I will use the abbreviation “p” for “phenomenological” and “t” for “temporal”.)

One then sees quickly that the presence [p or t?] of the perceived present can appear as such only inasmuch as it is continuously compounded [obviously a “temporal” issue] with a non-presence [t, yes; p, no] and non-perception [this term can only be p, so arguments about its temporality are irrelevant, because perception is an act that unproblematically occurs over and over again, in all its immediacy and simplicity] with primary memory and (retention and protention). These non-perceptions are…essentially and indispensably involved in the possibility of the perceived now. [SP, 64.]

As soon as we admit the continuity of the now and the not-now, perception and non-perception, in the zone of primordiality common to primordial impression and primordial retention, we admit the other into the self-identity of the Augenblick; [well, not if the Augenblick is an act] non-presence and non-evidence are admitted into the blink of the instant [again, not if it is an act]. There is duration to the blink; it closes the eye. This alterity is in fact the condition for [well, no. It’s simply a property of. If you see that what they are calling “presence” is the act of insight, this is obvious.] presence, presentation and thus for Vorstellung in general; it precedes all the dissociations that could be produced in presence, in Vorstellung. [SP, 65.]

For Derrida, Husserl’s confusion is centrally useful for him to arrive at the crowning conclusion, the foundation of all his philosophy, namely that this relation of the now to non-presence “radically destroys any possibility of a simple self-identity.” [SP, 66.]

But both Husserl and Derrida are wrong on this point. To say that “there is a duration to the blink; it closes the eye.” Is to mix up the two kinds of presence. The “blink”—that is, the immediate presence to being—always remains “a blink” even if it has duration, because what it is immediately present to is being, which is not in time. Watching the whole football game does not close my eye. It is an extended blink that results in the affirmation that for the whole duration of its sixty minutes, the football game is.

More of the Same

We can follow Derrida’s basic mistake–the inability to distinguish between presence-to-being and occurrence-at-a-particular-moment– through some other parts of his oeuvre. This should be reassuring, because even if our arguments are sound, it is still somewhat daunting to throw out the whole body of thought of some one who the President of France referred to as “the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century.”

Zeynep Direk cites Derrida as follows:

“Given that the opening of the form of presence to the ideality implies the possibility of the infinite repetition of this form, a repetitive relation with infinity – a return ad infinitum – must already inhabit the finitude of retention. Therefore, repetition and re-presentation must belong to the very essence of experience.” [Direk’s version of D]

However, this is not correct. The basis of knowledge is not some “opening of a form”. It is an act of grasping. If you stop calling the central moment “present” and call it “insight”, this is clearer. So it is clear that in the above passage that Derrida is using an abstract concept to label the founding act of knowledge, and so he is led astray. The return ad infinitum does not “inhabit” presence. It is merely attached to it as a necessary consequence. Any knower performs this act over and over again. That is, the knower repeatedly performs the whole act in all its simplicity. (“I got it!”)

So, repetition and re-presentation are necessary attributes of the self-same simple act, due to the fact that it is performed in time by an embodied entity. Thus they are not “inside” presence; they are outside it. The only way they could possibly be construed to be “inside” presence is by looking at the idea of presence and the idea of repetition rather than re-enacting their actual occurrence. This is a classic map vs. territory error. The map is completely lacking in the sensory details of the territory. The map does not show the underbrush, the pot holes, the heat and dust and wind on the journey.

In order to include the materiality of phenomenological presence when studying it, one has to be in one’s body. One has to have intimate access to all one’s sensory apparatus. And, if one does not have that access, then one is dissociated. One retreats into one’s head, and mistakes the map for the territory.

For, what does “belong to” mean? It just means a relationship of necessity. Something necessarily associated with an entity can be either “inside” it or “outside” it. I can see how the idea of repetition could be seen as being inside the abstract idea of presence. But, repetition itself is an act. Repetition in actuality is the occurrence all over again at a different time of the whole original event. So, a single, simple original event does not at all lose its identity by occurring again. It still is only what it is: “the presence of sense to a full and primordial intuition”. It is “the whole thing” that occurs over and over.

Furthermore, when Derrida says, that “the opening of the form of presence to the ideality implies the possibility of the infinite repetition of this form in general”, this is only true of the idea of this “opening”. The event of “getting it” itself does not imply anything. It simply is what it is. It is only its occurrence in time that provides an empirical foundation for its being repeated.

Perhaps in logical systems an “implication” can be an “a priori condition”. But in the physical world, an “implication” is never “part of the essence” of anything. An implication is an extrinsic consequence of an essence. First you have to have an essence, what the thing is in itself. And then you have consequences of that essence. Consider the truism, “Where there’s smoke there’s fire.” Fire is certainly an implication of smoke; smoke necessarily implies the existence of fire. One might even say that fire is an a priori condition of smoke. For smoke, you have to have fire. But that still does not mean that fire “belongs to the very essence of” smoke, or that smoke “belongs to the very essence of” fire. Each entity remains absolutely what it is in itself. Smoke is only smoke and fire is only fire. But each one, in its materiality, has a necessary connection to the other.

Derrida by-passes the materiality of “the presence of sense to a full and primordial intuition”. He does not notice it. He is out of his body. He is dissociated.

Zeynep Direk cites Derrida as follows:

The identity of presence, in order to remain secure, must exclude any distance, alterity, difference, division. To justify the claim that in soliloquy communication is impossible, he [i.e., Husserl] makes use of the distinction between “real presence” and “presence in representation” and that calls for, according to Derrida, a deconstruction.

Right. The identity of presence must indeed exclude any distance, alterity, etc. But the act of repetition does not interfere with the identity of insight. Derrida’s extended remarks use the term delay in place of “repetition”.

Here delay is the philosophical absolute, because the beginning of methodic reflection can only consist in the consciousness of the implication of another previous, possible, and absolute origin in general. Since this alterity of the absolute origin structurally appears in my Living Present and since it can appear and be recognized only in the primordiality of something like my Living Present, this very fact signifies the authenticity of phenomenological delay and limitation. In the lackluster guise of a technique, the Reduction is only pure thought as that delay, pure thought investigating the sense of itself as delay within philosophy.

[Edmund Husserl’s Origin of Geometry: An Introduction, by Jacques Derrida, translated, with a preface and afterword by John. P. Leavey, Jr. (University of Nebraska Press, 1989.), 152-153.]

But this is of course wrong. This alterity does not appear in my Living Presence, it rather appears along with it. Even alongside it. The Reduction is indeed pure thought investigating the sense of itself, but not “as delay”, but as occurring with delay. “My Living Presence” is still merely and simply the grasp of being. And it occurs over and over again.

D’s translator provides a helpful gloss on the question:

Pure thought is always delay. Consciousness of this delay, Derrida says, is consciousness of Difference: consciousness of the impossibility of remaining in the simple now of the Living Present as well as the “inability to live enclosed in” a simple undivided Absolute. .…. More abstractly then, an Origin, an absolute Origin, must be a differant Origin — the never-yet-always-already-there as the “beyond” or “before” that makes all sense possible. That Difference, Derrida conjectures, “is perhaps what always has been said under the concept of ‘transcendental’ through the enigmatic history of its displacements.” So, Primordial Difference would be transcendental — as must be, finally, historicity and reflections thereon. (OGeom, Preface, 17-18)

I think by “pure thought”, Leavey means primordial intuition. Well, pure thought in that sense is not delay. The case is only that “pure thought” occurs more than once, and so in this sense it occurs “with delay”. When Leavey uses the phrase “the never-yet-always-already-there”, my question is, “Where does the “never” come from?” It is a gratuitous throw-in.

Therefore when he says that “delay is the philosophical absolute”, the response is: “No. Delay is merely a philosophical instrument.” It is the means by which philosophy gets access to the Origin. JD misuses the term “absolute”. It undergoes slippage in his mind. The logic of the situation only permits him to say that delay is somehow necessarily involved in philosophy. Delay is “a philosophical absolute” only in the sense that it is “absolutely necessary” for doing philosophy. But, what is delayed and repeated in philosophy is the manifestly simple occurrence of the grasp of Origin, over and over again. So delay is not “of the essence” of the Living Present. It is, if you will, only an aspect of its existence. But that only means that while philosophy uses knowledge’s access to timelessness, it is a use that occurs in time.

Therefore, his “because” is also incorrect. He says, “because the beginning of methodic reflection can only consist in the consciousness of the implication of another previous, possible, and absolute origin in general.” But what is true is that “consciousness of the implication of another origin” is very far from “the beginning of methodic reflection”. It is rather a moment somewhere in the middle of that reflection. Such reflection begins with my Living Present in itself, and then goes on to notice that this very same Living Presence has occurred at other times and other places.

The Argument from “Possibility”

“Isn’t the (apparent) fact of the sender’s or receiver’s presence complicated, divided, contaminated, parasited by the possibility of an absence inasmuch as this possibility is inscribed in the functioning of the mark? …… At the very moment “I” make a shopping list, I know … that it will only be a list if it implies my absence, if it already detaches itself from me in order to function beyond my “present” act and if it is utilizable at another time, in the absence of my-being-present-now…” [Limited inc a b c, 48-49]

We can begin to address what is missing from this text (i.e., the seven-eighths of the iceberg beneath the waves) by reciting a little parable:

Derrida arrives at his car one day to find a gendarme writing him a ticket for illegal parking. The officer says, “Sir, your car is illegally parked.” To which Derrida replies, “Isn’t this apparent fact of the illegal occupation of a parking space by my car not complicated, divided, contaminated, parasited by the possibility of an absence of the car inasmuch as its mobility is inscribed in the functioning of its motor and its wheels?” To which the officer replies, “Sir, here is your ticket; you have a date in court.”

For Derrida, these “possibilities” always creep into the very center of the actuality of acts—whether acts of utterance or acts of knowing—

If both sender and receiver were entirely present when the mark was inscribed, and they were thereby present to themselves—since, by hypothesis here, being present and being present-to-oneself are considered to be equivalent—how could they even be distinguished from one another? …… [when one writes a note to one’s neighbor] the note is precisely designed to make up for the possible absences and it therefore implies them, and they leave their mark on the mark. They remark the mark in advance. Curiously, this re-mark constitutes part of the mark itself. And this remark is inseparable from the structure of iterability. [50]

…would a performative utterance be possible if a citational doubling [doublure] did not come to split and dissociate from itself the pure singularity of the event? [17] …… We should first be clear on what constitutes the status of “occurrence” or the eventhood that entails in its allegedly present and singular emergence the intervention of an utterance [énoncé] that in itself can be only repetitive or citational in its structure, or rather, since those two words may lead to confusion: iterable. I return to a point that strikes me as fundamental and that now concerns the status of events in general, of events of speech or by speech, of the strange logic they entail and that often passes unnoticed. [17-18]


“… general iterability constitutes a violation of the allegedly rigorous purity of every event of discourse or every speech act. …… given that structure of iteration, the intention animating the utterance will never be through and through present to itself and to its content. The iteration structuring it a priori introduces into it a dehissence and a cleft [brisure] which are essential …… this essential absence of intending the actuality of utterance, this structural unconsciousness, if you like, prohibits any saturation of the context. In order for a context to be exhaustively determinable, in the sense required by Austin, conscious intention would have at the very least to be totally present and immediately transparent to itself and to others, since it is a determining center [foyer] of context. [18]

Différance, the irreducible absence of intention or attendance to the performative utterance, the most “event-ridden” utterance there is, is what authorizes me, taking into account of the predicates just recalled, to posit the general graphematic structure of every “communication”. By no means do I draw the conclusion that there is no relative specificity of effects of consciousness, or of effects of speech (as opposed to writing in the traditional sense(, that there is no performative effect, no effect of ordinary language, no effect of presence or of discursive event (speech act). It is simply that those effects do not exclude what is generally opposed to them, term by term; on the contrary, they presuppose it, in an asymmetrical way, as the general space of their possibility. [18-19]

[Tricky bastard. All of those elements that “are opposed to” that list of “effects” do in fact exist, but they only do so as consequences of the actual existence of any utterance. Therefore iteration does not structure an event of discourse “a priori”, it only structures certain possibilities that result from its occurrence in the first place.]

So we can completely grant “the graphematic structure of every communication”, except that we grant it as a set of consequences of acts created by a conscious intention that is totally present and immediately transparent to itself and to others, a determining center [foyer] of context.

What we actually have in any utterance is an intention animating the utterance that is always “through and through present to itself and to its content.” The fact that the utterance is “iterable” (and we have no problem granting that entirely) has no effect on the intentionality in question, because that intentionality is of this utterance, the one occurring-at-this-moment-in-time, and not at any other moment. Any repetition of this utterance, occurring at some other moment in time, will have, as that particular event, its own proper intentionality and context.

So Derrida’s irreducible confusion of presence-to-being and occurrence-at-a-particular-moment-in-time haunts every phase of his philosophy, and it is a confusion made possible by, and giving irreducible evidence of, his dissociated state of mind. When Derrida does philosophy, he is unable to be in his body.

So, Derrida misconstrues the status of implications. In a system of abstract ideas, an implication can indeed indicate an “a priori condition”. But in the occurrence of material acts, implications are decidedly consequences. Real-presence-in-itself is only what it is. Implications are consequences of its essential nature. JD doesn’t get this because at the last moment, he loses his grip on the act of primordial intuition, and shifts his focus to the mere concept of the activity.

This substitution of abstract idea for material reality is also the key to his analysis of writing. There, delay and repetition come up as “the problem of iterability”.

Take for instance the case of writing a letter. Here, writing is not only intimately related to absence but, is specifically about absence, namely, the absence of the person to whom I am writing. That is to say that the letter is written precisely in the addressee’s absence rather than in spite of her/his absence; I mark the absence of the addressee in the act of writing. Hence absence becomes constitutive of writing in and of itself.

Not so. Absence is not constitutive of writing, it is only a possible consequence of writing. And of course the presence-absence issue with regard to writing has nothing to do with phenomenological presence. It is strictly a matter of temporal presence. Presence and absence refer to material contiguity or non-contiguity in space and time.

In summary then, JD mistakes the relationships both of “delay” and “the implication of other” to the primordial intuition, because he is using the abstract ideas of “presence”, “delay” and “alterity ‘ in his thinking. But if one notices the actuality of the primordial intuition, then “delay” and “otherness”, both merely “happen to it”, as Husserl says, “modifications”.

So, repetition and re-presentation do not belong to the “essence” of “real presence”. They are only necessary consequences of the fact that it occurs in time. And time is purely and only material. If there is no matter, there is no time. The 15 billion years’ history of the universe begins. It begins with “the big bang”. (The mathematics of the “big bang” seems to say that it is not exactly a “bang”. It does not begin as a single point. It rather emerges gradually, and so its actual beginning is, mathematically, impossible to discern.) Its course is the unfolding of matter. Sometimes we like to speak of “eternity” as the alternative to time, and the mistake is made of conceiving of eternity as “time of infinite duration.” But the meaning of eternity as alternative to time is not endless duration, it is non-duration. I like the way we can put that in Latin: Aeternitas non durat.

Let’s review:

  1. Being, the Other, is timeless;
  2. “a full and primordial intuition” is our noetic connection with Being;
  3. primordial intuition is de facto repeated; it is time-bound;
  4. so, the primordial intuition inherently connects the temporal and the timeless.

This means that there is an inconceivable experience at the root of human knowledge. [Derrida has no problem with this; drawing on Hegel and Heidegger et al., he always refers to it as “the impossible”, i.e., what philosophy cannot contain.] What is incomprehensible here is the immediate connection of dasein and Sein. That is of course no reason to doubt the existence of the connection. Its existence is the foundation of this whole conversation. This incomprehensibility is only a reason to accept the limits of rational, conceptual knowledge and the form of knowledge we call “science”, and acknowledge the fact of trans-rational knowledge. The activity that “comprehends” is what we call “thinking”. The activity that merely grasps without being able to conceptualize, that is what we call “awareness”.

Since the content of experience is incomprehensible, the best way to “handle” it would be to note its existence and then shut up about it. (This is what Buddhists recommend.) But Derrida cannot do this. He has no awareness of something that is both inconceivable and real. But he is intensely aware of “the order of signs”. For him, that “order” is cut off both from sense and from the transcendent Other.

“Outside the Text” and Différance

For Derrida the order of signs is “a system in which the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences”, and “the concept of the sign cannot in itself surpass this opposition between the sensible and the intelligible.”

So, for Derrida there is an “irreducible difference” between “the order of the sign” and any origin. He thinks that those who claim a connection are “dreaming”. The realm of “discourse” is “a system in which the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences.” (SSP…)

This is “the opposition between the sensible and the intelligible” and Derrida says that we must not “forget that the concept of the sign cannot in itself surpass this opposition between the sensible and the intelligible. … The concept of the sign, in each of its aspects, has been determined by this opposition throughout the totality of its history.”

He is acutely aware of this enclosure. He also recognizes that he must forge some connection between his world of concepts and the impossible Other.

However, since he has no access to sense, he must turn to his imagination. And so he does so, hugely. He creates a vast, entirely imaginary world that would be easily recognized by someone under the influence of a hallucinogenic drug such as mescalin or LSD.

Non-choice runs through Derrida’s texts. In “structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” concerning the “two interpretations of interpretation”, that which “dreams of deciphering” the truth or origin and that which “affirms free play and tries to pass beyond man and humanism”, Derrida says he does not believe “that today there is any question of choosing.” Or again, in “The Ends of Man”, there is no “simple and unique” choice between two forms of deconstruction, either Heidegger’s deconstruction of onto-theology by means of its own language or the structuralist way–by “affirming absolute rupture and difference.” “A new writing must weave and intertwine the two motifs.” This logic on non-choice is the very foundation, if there is one, of Derrida’s enterprise. It is the notion of the undecidable–that which, by analogy, Derrida says–cannot be decided. By analogy because, as Sarah Kofman notes, undecidability has a reference to decidability, a reference that must be “crossed out”.

[Preface to Edmund Husserl’s Origin of Geometry: An Introduction, by Jacques Derrida, by John. P. Leavey, Jr. (University of Nebraska Press, 1989.), 5-6.]

The “logic of the undecidable” is the “logic of différance”:

Différance already suggests a mode of writing (écriture) without presence and absence–without history, cause, arché or telos–which would overturn all dialectic, theology, teleology, and ontology. This mode of writing would exceed everything that the history of metaphysics has conceived in the form of Aristotelian grammē: the point, the line, the circle, as well as time and space themselves. [Ibid.]

I am one of those “dreamers” Derrida is referring to. But I think that he is the one who is under the influence of a hallucinogenic agent. I think that if you are in your body, you readily grasp the intimate connection between the sensible and the intelligible. This connection is at work in every waking, knowing moment. In this condition, you do not have need of Derrida’s fantasmatic world to explain anything.

But for Derrida, this fantasmatic world is essential.

It is totally false to suggest that deconstruction is a suspension of reference. Deconstruction is always deeply concerned with the ‘other’ of language. I never cease to be surprised by critics who see my work as a declaration that there is nothing beyond language, that we are imprisoned in language; it is, in fact, saying the exact opposite. The critique of logocentrism is above all else the search for the ‘other’ and the ‘other of language…’ Certainly, deconstruction tries to show that the question of reference is much more complex and problematic than traditional theories supposed. It even asks whether our term ‘reference’ is entirely adequate for designating the ‘other.’ The other, which is beyond language and which summons language, is perhaps not a ‘referent’ in the normal sense which linguists have attached to this term. But to distance oneself thus from the habitual structure, to challenge or complicate our common assumptions about it, does not amount to saying that there is nothing beyond language. (Cited in The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, Pgs. 16-17)

Alain Wittman is helpful here.

Derrida deploys “text” as an alternative to the notions of language based on the primacy of speech. The term therefore has a deliberate and distinct materialist charge for Derrida – think text, textile, texture… I’d also add that I think Spivak’s alternative translation for “il n’y a pas d’hors-texte” is far superior – “there is no outside-the-text”. Derrida isn’t claiming that there’s a location outside of text that happens to be empty, he is claiming that no such location exists, that the very notion of text having an exterior is incoherent. [Alain Wittman,]

Sometimes he refers to “the order of signs” as simply “text”: “It is precisely for strategic reasons… that I found it necessary to recast the concept of text by generalizing it almost without any limit that is. That’s why there is nothing “beyond the text.” (Cited in An Allegory of Modernity/Postmodernity Pg 211)

But he is not “declaring” that “there is nothing beyond language” He is only “distancing himself from the habitual structure, to challenge or complicate our common assumptions about it.” I am so relieved.

He is in fact “deeply concerned” with the “other” of language. And so here there is a wonderful paradox in Derrida’s work. He absolutely knows that there is a “referent”. He absolutely knows there is an “Other” of the text. But he does not know how he knows that! This is precisely the condition of the dissociated subject who, due the presence of trauma imprints in his body, is incapable of going to his sensory apparatus when thinking deeply.

Derrida is correct in saying that there is no outside-text, but that only means that there is no text outside text. But once you have defined “text” as all discrete knowledge, that is a mere tautology. Also note that at the beginning of the whole argument, the sensible and the intelligible are presumed to be “opposed”, and so “text” (the intelligible) cannot include the sensible.

And so, even though there is no “text” outside the text, there is reality outside text. There is, on the one hand, sense, and, on the other hand Being. And the way we get to Being is through sense: “the full and primordial intuition”. The way we get to Being is through the body.

And so, since the text has no “outside” for him, the only way he can access the Other is to posit all those “non-concepts” such as différance, the trace, etc. (As non-concepts, of course, they are also “non-text”. How lucky for him!) Using these non-concepts in the analysis of all reality produces yards of turgid and incoherent text:

To prepare ourselves for venturing beyond our own logos, that is, for a differance so violent that it refuses to be stopped and examined as the epochality of Being and ontological difference, is neither to give up this passage through the truth of Being, nor is it in any way to “criticize”, “contest”, or fail to recognize the incessant necessity for it. On the contrary, we must stay within the difficulty of this passage; we must repeat this passage in a rigorous reading of metaphysics, wherever metaphysics serves as the norm of Western speech, and not only in the texts of “the history of philosophy.” Here we must allow the trace of whatever goes beyond the truth of Being to appear/disappear in its fully rigorous way. It is a trace of something that can never present itself; it is itself a trace that can never be presented, that is, can never appear and manifest itself as such in its phenomenon. It is a trace that lies beyond what profoundly ties fundamental ontology of phenomenology. Like differance, the trace is never presented as such. In presenting itself it becomes effaced; in being sounded it dies away, like the writing of the a, inscribing its pyramid in differance. [SP, 154, “Differance”]

The way I read this, “the trace” is nothing at all and purely imaginary. That fits in very well with the realist claim that insight immediately grasps the Other. But, if “the trace” is nothing, then why waste all that language on it?

Passages such as this still end in an aporia. Derrida can declare all he wants to that différance etc. “are not”, are “non-concepts” and do not follow the rules of philosophy or logic; he can even cross them out physically and say they are only used “under erasure”. But they are still words that appear on the printed page or in the spoken lecture, and as such are inside the text and give no access to the Other.

He does not intend to be “imprisoned in language”. He does not want to be imprisoned in language. He just finds himself in that condition.

But différance, the trace, the supplement, etc. are entirely unnecessary. The correct observation is that insight grasps “an Origin, an absolute Origin, the selfsame Origin — the repeated-and-always-already-there as the “beyond” or “before” that makes all sense possible.” So, the nature of human knowledge is that in every act of knowing we grasp the “beyond” or the “before” that makes all sense possible.

Derrida’s oeuvre includes over forty books, hundreds of articles, and covers many subjects, but it all begins here. If you accept the validity of his theory of knowledge that he worked out in dialog with Edmund Husserl, then you have to take his whole body of work seriously. And that would be unfortunate because his work is the tortured and convoluted product of a man not in his body. To deal with Derrida, you have to intercept him at square one.

“Square one” in this case means how you are present in your own body. If you are used to that mode of being in your body called “thinking”, then you have to shift from “thinking” to more sensory awareness, because “thinking” itself is actually an out-of-body state.

Buddhism understands this problem.

Thinking is one of the main difficulties we encounter while learning to meditate. Most of us have lived so much of our lives in our heads that it comes as a beautiful gift to be fully aware of the vividness of internal sensations and stimuli from the external world as they impact the senses. The early Buddhist texts make a clear distinction between two principal kinds of thought. The first type of thought is called vitakka-vicâra (directed thought (vitakka) and evaluation (vicâra).) Another very different kind of thinking is papañca, “proliferation”. It is obsessive thought, strings of associations that run on and on, fantasy and concept formation that lead the mind away from things just as they are experienced. Papañca is the monkey mind of Zen imagery.

The state that is the final goal of Buddhism is beyond language, but Buddhist texts say that the careful, clear use of language – Right Speech – is indispensable along the way. Takuan’s “sound of no sound” will not be lost through a meditative investigation into the nature of thought. In fact, learning to understand the origin of those many voices which vibrate within the ear leads us back to it. (

If you do that successfully, then you can see how and why the best use of most of Derrida’s work is as a remarkable clinical study of what happens to the mind as a result of serious dissociation. But we will return to this topic a greater length in a subsequent chapter.

The Realist Alternative

The realist way of looking at the elements of language finds that there are not “only differences” in language. In language the differences are between–oh, let us call them “items”. If you do not have items, you do not have language. And “items” come from acts, acts of knowing.

Let us interpose here a schematic overview of the realist theory of knowledge and language, without going to great lengths to defend it. This overview will make it clear that the difference between realism and structuralism is that realism finds the source of knowledge and language not in a concept but in an act, and this act is always embodied.

In a realist epistemology one notices the involvement of the body in knowledge and embraces it.

To conceive knowing one must understand the dynamic pattern of experiencing, inquiring, reflecting, and judging, and such understanding is not to be reached by taking a look. To affirm knowing, one must grasp the pattern in the unfolding of mathematics, empirical science, common sense, and philosophy … and if one doubts that the pattern really exists, then one can try the experiment of attempting to escape experience, to renounce intelligence in inquiry, to desert reasonableness in critical reflection.

Knowing is an organically integrated activity: on

(1) a flow of sensitive experiences,

(2) inquiry intelligently generates a cumulative succession of

(3) insights, and the significance of the experiences varies concomitantly with the accumulation of insights;in memory’s store of experiences and in the formulations of accumulated insights,

(4) reflection grasps approximations towards the virtually unconditioned and attainments of it to issue into probable and certain

(5) judgments of fact.

[Bernard J. F. Lonergan, Insight–A Study of Human Understanding, 415-416. (NY, The Philosophical Library, 1957.)]

So, knowing is all this. There is no “opposition” between the sensible and the intelligible; there is only intimate connection between them. The central act in all this is insight into sense data, or, the act of understanding. The immediate product of insight is the word. The word has structure. The act of understanding transcends structure. Furthermore, ordinary awareness grasps all this because the activity of knowing has transparency to itself. As it operates, it also reaches back to know itself knowing.

This originating act is not “thinking”. It is what we call “knowing”. “Thinking” is merely the manipulation of the product of knowing. And, since the originating act of knowledge is embodied, it is essential for the inquirer to be fully comfortable in his or her body, when making inquiries into the source of knowledge. Thinking is an out-of-body experience, but knowing is always an embodied experience.

So, in the realist view, knowledge begins in an original act. This first act of knowledge is variously described as

  1. the “simple apprehension”
  2. “insight”
  3. “my Living Present”;
  4. “real presence”
  5. “a full and primordial intuition”;
  6. “grasping an existent in the consciousness of its original being-itself-there” [Origin of Geometry, 62; JD quoting Husserl];
  7. “real-presence-in-itself”
  8. “Getting it.”

This act produces the awareness that something is. That is, it produces both the awareness of an already-out-there-now, and the awareness of being. Insight does not itself produce a specific linguistic term. It merely produces an empty form. We might call it an “Ah!” And when we are aware of the world via seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling and inner body sensations, this selfsame simple “Ah!” keeps occurring over and over again.

Under these circumstances, insight produces expression, and language, and conversation. However, in expression, language and conversation the knowers are always aware that specific linguistic forms are always produced by unitary simple acts of knowing, and in framing a valid world view, recourse is constantly made to those original acts.

In its simpler forms insight might be dramatized by an, “OK, I got it. Horse is. Wow! That’s great!” Of course, once one has a system of concepts–all produced by acts of knowing–then, by intelligently manipulating the combinations of matter revealed by one’s system of concepts, one can have much more complex insights, such as E=mc2 . In some phases of structuralist thought, its proponents liked to say that the subject does not speak language, language speaks the subject. But what are we to say of the basic formula of relativity theory? Did “E=mc2” speak Einstein, or did Einstein speak “E=mc2“?

So, in the realist view of knowing, understanding always precedes language, understanding is what produces language, and understanding is an embodied act. So, the “paradox”, if you will, of knowing and language is the paradox of the human condition as such. We are spirit-in-matter. Insight is the bridge between spirit and matter, it is the unifying act, it is the act that gives evidence of the unity of spirit and matter.

Back to Reality

Having identified the basic problem with Derrida as being out of his body to such an extent that he does not recognize the nature of the foundational act of knowing–the insight into sense data–we can go on to clean up some loose ends.

One of those loose ends is the implication of our work so far that in criticizing Derrida we are criticizing the whole stream of philosophical thought that led up to him. One thing is clear about him: he had read everything. This was of course partly due to the rigors of French university training at the time, but it was also due to his personal cast of mind. The presence of other philosophers in Derrida’s thought is so pervasive that he can be said not to have based his thought on some “reality-as-such” that he approached with his native intellectual equipment, but on the texts of other philosophers, and for the most part, thinkers from the previous one hundred years in Europe.

So, any critique of Derrida is a critique of Nietzche, Freud (in his philosophical speculations), Husserl and Heidegger. What I am saying is that Derrida got the nature of knowledge fundamentally wrong. Now, if Derrida is wrong, then those other four thinkers are also wrong, and I am basically throwing out a very large chunk of continental philosophy of the last two hundred years.

I am happy to do that. I am not saying we shouldn’t read them. I am just saying we should not spend too much time reading them. Once we know that individually and collectively they all end up with the same disconnect between knowledge and reality, then we can spend some time looking for how they fell into that trap, but of greater importance is going back to that intimate connection between knowledge and reality that is the core of human experience, and seeing how that applies to the issues of our time.

If we follow up on the idea that Derrida had a very serious perceptual problem, we can see why those who he sees as “dreaming to decipher a truth or an origin which escapes play and the order of the sign” are in fact not dreaming at all. We are only engaged in a form of knowing to which Derrida did not have access because he was permanently and irreducibly dissociated. That form of knowing is the normal embodied human knowing in which the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is indeed absolutely present outside a system of differences.

This would make Derrida “the Learned Astronomer” in Walt Whitman’s poem.

When I heard the learned astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night air, and from time to time,
Looked up in perfect silence at the stars.

-Walt Whitman

And that would make the best strategy for handling his work when you become sick and tired of it, to “rise and glide out, wander off by yourself” and get in touch “in perfect silence” with your senses. See, hear, taste, touch, smell and notice inner sensation, and see if being is not evident there.