Various definitions and explanations of logocentrism, in general and in context of Derrida in particular, seem to be either incomprehensible or logically invalid. The narrowest definition states that logocentrism is a belief that there are thoughts inside human minds, the words of oral speech are signifiers of that thought, and written words are signifiers of spoken words. According to that definition, logocentrism "privileges" (whatever that means) speech over writing.

Then there is a more general definition that logocentrism is a belief that there are things like "truth" or "reality", that they exist on their own, regardless how we use words to describe them.

Then Derrida argues that logocentrism is a widely held belied in the West, and this somehow reveals the Western belief in "metaphysics of presence", the idea that presence of being is somehow more important, "privileged" over absence or difference.

Just how does logocentrism as privileged speech over writing entails the metaphysics of presence? What is Derrida's reasoning?

  • "How does logocentrism ... entails the metaphysics of presence?" Surely this is about the assumption of the reality of the meaning of words, whereas deconstuction points out that different people may understand different things by those same words. (Written words are even more suspect because they are without expression or intonation of speech and farther from original context.) – Chris Degnen Jan 18 '15 at 1:23
  • I'm not overly familiar with Derrida, but is that paraphrasing of the "metaphysics of presence" a fair one? My understanding of that term (as I've only tangentially encountered it in metaphysics) is of the privileging of the spatiotemporal present (what is near and available to us now) in linguistics, with issues like absence and difference being cached out in terms of that kind of "presen/-t/-ce". – Paul Ross Feb 24 '15 at 14:38
  • @ross: "Presen/-t/ce"? – Mozibur Ullah Feb 24 '15 at 16:58

Your view might hold to a narrow interpretation of logocentrism with a written and spoken word; Derrida, one may argue, is not so strict in his interpretation of what is the “text”.

One of the ongoing problems with any interpretation/comparison with any Derridian concept is there are no exact meanings to Derrida. Derrida can argue that it is not the written word but the text. “There is nothing outside of the text”. A text for Derrida can be either written or spoken, it can be anything that conveys meaning.

Jacques Derrida defines logocentrism as the belief in “perfectly self-present meaning” which exists in the spoken word between a speaker and listener. Robert Magliola (Derrida on the Mend) states:

“By ‘metaphysical determinations of truth’ Jacques Derrida means all judgements and measurements of ‘truth’ which are logocentric, that is, centered on a concept of truth as logos. And by ‘logos’ he means truth defines as the expression (or “signifier”) of an originating factor (or “signified”), no matter what that factor may be (and it is clear Derrida holds that the Western tradition, in one way or another, is logocentric). In its most classic form, logocentrism posits a ‘transcendental signified’ (or absolute Origin) whose ‘voice’ (or transcendental signifier) is so immediate and essentially ‘proximate’ to its ‘other half’ (its ‘originating factor’, that is, the Origin), that the two ‘halves’ constitute a supreme Identity.”

David Loy (Non-Duality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy) agrees that all Western traditions are a search for the transcendental signified.

For Derrida there is no transcendental signified. Western logocentrism may be the search for the transcendental signified, but for Derrida, it is only a search as there are only signifiers.

Garver and Lee (Derrida & Wittgenstein) state of Derrida’s view: “Significance lies only with the arrangement of elements, never with elements themselves.” Magliola would agree with this. Derrida has stated, as quoted above, that his negation is a critique of the proposition, of the verb “to be”. By his own definition his “negative theology” is not meant as a means of viewing, interpreting, or finding some hyperousiological being, it is rather meant as an analysis of the language (whether written or spoken) of theology. Since language, or even more elementally, the thought of “to be”, has as a requirement a signifier and signified, we are in duality. Any analysis by Derrida is never outside the text. Since a text always requires a perceiver and perceived, Derridan analysis is always dualistic. Derrida can never escape from his deconstrucive quagmire because his own logic becomes caught up in his own word games. Derrida’s negative theology can be likened to holding up a mirror to theology- although a useful tool to see philosophical text from another angle, that’s all it is, a tool, and what we see in the mirror should not be mistaken for another reality or theology. We understand the absurdity of mistaking Derrida’s mirror world for another reality if we hold up a mirror to Derrida’s mirror and see the infinite regression of reflections in both mirrors. David Loy states

“The irony in this is that Derrida, while believing that he has refuted any transcendental signified, has in effect reconstituted an equivalent in the truth-claim of the host text, because that is the only way his own deconstruction can make any truth claim....every signified is only a function of other signifiers; all we can ever have in language is a general circulation of signs.”

Although we may find some truth in the text it eventually can disintegrate into absurdity as we bounce from one signifier to another endlessly.

Garver and Lee agree with this. They state: “If there is no ‘originary’ semantic relation, then it means nothing for a semantic relation to be contrasted as ‘supplementary’ rather than ‘originary.’”

Derrida’s signifier/signified are caught up in a endless circulation. David Loy states: “For Derrida, what is problematic is the relationship between name and concept; so it is not surprising that he concludes with an endless recirculation of concepts.” Derrida argues that there is no reality outside the text. Matilal and Gambhirananda argue that the text is only the text and not reality. David Loy says:

“That Derrida’s freedom is too much a textual freedom, that it is overly preoccupied with language because it seeks liberation through and in language...” Thus although Derrida’s deconstructions and differance can be useful as tools for language analysis - and as a corollary, philosophical analysis - we should remember that they are tools, and not machines in themselves.

...“There is no Real for Derrida, merely endless proliferation, constant deferral of meaning...the recognition that we are bounded by words, and that these words will get us nowhere. There is no end, no whole, no origin. The process may be all, but this neither reifies or deifies it.”

This highlights one of the central differences between the Derrida and the East. Derrida is focused on the process, especially as it relates to the use of language, or the text, or more broadly signifiers and signifieds. He sees nothing beyond the text. The Eastern philosophers see language as something that can only hint at describing something and because of its endless circularity of signs never define it. They see that which Derrida sees as a process as something that is an impediment.

Derrida believes that there is “...no ‘language’ available at all but logocentric language.” David Loy states:

“The irony in this is that Derrida, while believing that he has refuted any transcendental signified, has in effect reconstituted an equivalent in the truth-claim of the host text, because that is the only way his own deconstruction can make any truth-claim. The motivation behind all interpretation is the belief that there is some truth to be discovered in the text, or --what amounts to the same thing-- that some truth is to be derived from criticizing it. As Sankara argued, the demonstration of error presupposes some truth, and whether that truth is a transcendental signified or a function of other signifiers makes no difference. Derrida eliminates the presumed origin of supplementation without realizing that this origin was also the origin of all truth, and this second loss infects all subsequent supplements all the way back to him.”

The philosophical frustrations that occur in the West lie in the fact that Western philosophy rests in large part on language and its manipulation to present its thoughts and ideas. In a sense, Derrida has realized this with his writings and differance, but his writings are so wed to his idea that there is “nothing outside the text” that he does not distinguish between the text and the problem in the text. As a result, the postmodern tradition that Derrida offers is always caught up in his closed circle of signs. He can never go beyond language, as by definition, there is nothing beyond. The Eastern traditions of Nagarjuna and Sankara (and some Western traditions) have shown the inadequacies of language in some metaphysics and have used negation as a way to point to understandings that can lie beyond language. Yet, despite all Derrida’s statements and denials, one is left with this last statement of Derrida’s (as quoted by Joy in Loy) “...for the infinite is ‘doubtless neither one, nor empty, nor innumerable’.”

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