EDIT : I have accepted an answer for the time being

I have accepted an answer to this question. The answer and subsequent comments exchange has given me some more insight into my question. It does not, however, answer it from the perspective of formal logic. I am still curious about this aspect of my question. Stated more directly: How could Derrida's argument (or the interpretation of it given in the quoted passage below) be analyzed in terms of a logical system?

Ultimately, I am trying to understand why this kind of thinking was so vehemently opposed by Searle and others and would be interested in a response from a different methodology and discipline than Poststructuralism itself.

Since I am unfamiliar with Postmodern philosophy I have been reading Deconstruction: A Reader. In the introduction the author makes a claim that I find to be somewhat dubious. He states the following:

Consider the following universal system: Universal system

Imagine a system in which all the system of the world (A to Z) are related. In order for this system to be a system (for it to be systematic) it must be closed. A to Z must be related in clear and predictable ways in order for their relation to be systematic and this means that there must be a discernible limit to the action of the system. Therefore the system must be closed. So, let us call this system of system the universal system and its aim is to relate all known system to one another. There are two consequences from this description. First, if there is indeed a limit to the action of the system, something must exist outside the system. Whenever we draw a limit we are defining what is inside the limit by presupposing an outside of the limit. Thus, if there is something outside the limit of the universal system (and it must have a limit in order to be a system) then the system cannot be 'universal' because it leaves 'something' unaccounted for. Secondly, what is it that the universal system does not account for? Which system lies outside the closed field of systematic relations described by the 'universal system'? The answer is the system itself. The universal system cannot account for itself as a system. To do so would be to recognize the impossibility of maintaing the limit to the universal system and so to admit that it is neither systematic nor univeral. In this way the universal system, far from regulating all systems, would have to admit that no system can be truly systematic because it is not possible to maintain the rigorous purity of a limit. The universal system demonstrates the impossibility of the system per se, and so undoes the logic of a 'properly' maintained inside and outside.

It would seem to me the author is trying to state that a universal system, by definition, has to exclude something in order to maintain its completeness. But why? If it is a universal system (a set of all sets?) then why must there be a "discernible limit to the action of the system". And if the system "is closed" how can this be the case? If the system is universal then it includes everything there is to include.

Further it seems the author's usage of the words limit is more like a boundaries between two zones (the system and not the system) rather than actual limit. So yes, "something must exist outside the system" and "whenever we draw a limit we are defining what is inside the limit by presupposing an outside of the limit". But if this is actually true then by what right do we have to call this system of systems a universal system in the first place?

Furthermore, why can the universal system not account for itself? If this is the missing piece (Derrida's "supplement") then it seems the author is implying that what lies beyond the limits of the universal system is itself. This make no sense to me. In fact, this appears to be a paradox.

It seems to me that the author is making some kind of informal reference to Godel's Incompletness Theorem. I do not have the proper background in the mathematics behind this (or formal logic for that matter) but as I understood it, Godel's theorem applies to the arithmetic portion of axiomatic systems. How does that apply in this case?

And the bigger problem to me is that how does any of this extend to discussions on sociology, language, consciousness, and so forth? Ultimately, the author is going to use this logic to define the relationship between many different kinds of systems (social, political, scientific etc) and do not see how this is possible given the description above.

I would be most interested in a response that answers this question from the perspective of formal logic.

  • 3
    I would recommend reading Derrida's "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences." What this author says is related to what Derrida says there, but Derrida describes himself much differently. Apr 1, 2015 at 12:45

1 Answer 1


I know Derrida better than I know formal logic, but i'll do my best to incorporate that perspective.

What I think this author leaves unmentioned, which is most important to understanding this configuration Derrida's thought, is the concept of a system's center, as it is called in "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences", or the transcendental signified as it is called in Of Grammatology. The center is not simply an important piece of a system, and it would be difficult to illustrate its relations in a diagram like the one above. The center grounds the systematicity of the system, which is to say that it is the reason the system holds together as a unified whole and is intelligible as a single entity.

The paradox (Derrida would say the aporia) of the center is that it must be both inside a system (at the center, no less) and beyond it, transcending it in order to ground it. To use a topological or architectural metaphor, what grounds a structure must be outside of it or independent of it in order to offer support (think of the earth in relation to a building) yet it must have a point of contact and that force must suffuse and sustain the entire structure.

There are several examples of how a center of the universal system has been imagined, and all of them reveal this same aporia. It has been common since the Enlightenment to imagine that natural causality could be the guiding force of all reality, determining everything from the motion of planets to the motion of atoms, and dictating consciousness through the activity of the brain. But such explanations leave a necessary gap in their accounting of the universal system. If everything in nature has a cause, then the universe itself, in order to be natural and subject to the absolutism of this explanation must have a cause. What could have caused it? Its cause must be outside of the universe. This aporia shows the simultaneous immanence and transcendence of the center, or the notion of a limit having an outside, as the author you mentioned described it.

Many thinkers portrayed God as a solution to this aporia, by causing all natural existence, and being causa sui, or cause of Herself in turn. But this only displaces the problem, as the entire history of mysticism and theology attests in its different configurations of the immanence and transcendence of God. (Immanuel Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason showed how both scientific thought and religious thought face this same aporia in attempting to grasp universality.)

With respect to logic, as your question asked, it would be necessary to ask the question of the ground of logic. That is, what makes logic a system? What makes it true? What makes it applicable universally? Universal and necessary truth is intrinsic to the idea of logical systematicity, and the Principle of Sufficient Reason (itself a fundamental logical principle) insists that everything true have a sufficient reason why it is true. As you probably know, the Empiricist tradition attempted to ground logic in experience - we learn of syllogistic reasoning and other basic logical principles through seeing that they work every time we try them. But Hume and Kant pointed out that this is faulty logic because logical truth is accompanied by the conviction of its universality and necessity, and these two traits could never be learned from finite experience.

Ultimately, another aporia faces logic at its roots. If it were grounded empirically, either learned through the senses or written somehow in our psychology or the gray matter of our brains, then it would be impossible to account for its universality or necessity. If these principles are eternal, static entities or Ideas, like immobile Gods, it is unclear how they ever enter reality - how do we ever become conscious of them and how do they come to shape phenomena in the world? To fully elaborate this aporia it is necessary to consider the metaphysical notion of a first principle as it was articulated most powerfully by Aristotle and Hegel. The principle cannot be static but must both explain and be the cause of all the individual change and motion which exists.

  • There's a lot to unpack here. I'll start with a few of my first questions. 1. Why can't the universe itself be its own support? Why must there be something outside? What reason do I have to believe that this is not the case? You touch on this in your explanation but can you expand? 2. With regards to logic are you suggesting that all logical systems are built upon assumptions (axioms) which the structures rest but that these axioms themselves cannot themselves be proven without referring to other axioms (thus forming an aporia?).
    – syntonicC
    Apr 1, 2015 at 20:36
  • 1. Think of the idea of a universe which is it's own support as a displacement of the problematics which come from having a God who is causa sui as the ground of all existence. Part of what Derrida's thought brings out is that this structure of aporia repeats itself no matter how philosophical discourses attempt to configure themselves or rearrange their elements. To understand how empirical thought confronts an aporia, think of Kant's description of the antinomy of causality - either the chain of natural causes is infinite, or there is a first cause... Apr 1, 2015 at 23:34
  • ...if the chain of causes is infinite, this fails to satisfy the demands of reason - how could something exist without having a beginning? how could it be without first coming to be? But a first cause is no greater satisfaction to the demands of reason. If we choose something which is part of this universe, than it is a natural thing and by definition must have a cause. This is why the universe cannot ground itself, as you say - really that is a contradiction in terms, like saying that something is caused and causeless, because that natural things have a cause is a priori... Apr 1, 2015 at 23:38
  • ...if you choose something outside the universe, like God, then it is not necessary to claim that it must be caused, but we can never have any evidence that such a thing in fact exists, precisely because it is beyond any possible perception. This is what Kant calls the antinomy of reason as it relates to the category of relation (which includes causality), and what Derrida would call aporia. Apr 1, 2015 at 23:40
  • 1
    Your comments have been helpful in clarifying the passage I cited. Additionally, the Derrida lecture you linked to made things much more clear to me. I would like to discuss this further but that would take a lot of your time. If you would like to move this to chat at any point and continue the discussion there I would be up for that. I have accepted your answer to my question.
    – syntonicC
    Apr 8, 2015 at 21:32

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