Does the phrase "il n'y a pas de hors-texte" amount to the same thing in literary criticism and philosophy?

There's a lot of bad google hits on this phrase, and I haven't read On Grammatology [p158] cover-to-cover. It seems to me that though, metaphysics aside, it could mean something quite licentious in understanding literature, the idea that absolutely any existing fact can be used to create sense from reading, such that everything is semantic.

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    Depends on whom you ask. Rorty infamously claimed (in so many words) that there is no essential difference between philosophy and litcrit.
    – user20153
    Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 20:18

3 Answers 3


My understanding is that the key to understanding the phrase is surprisingly simple. According to Michael Wood in the London Review of Books:

"It did not hold, as many of its detractors thought it did, that there was no reality apart from language, and it’s wrong to translate Derrida’s famous ‘Il n’y a pas de hors-texte’ as ‘there is nothing outside the text.’ A hors-texte is an unnumbered page in a printed book. Derrida is saying that even the unnumbered pages count, just as an outlaw, in French an hors-la-loi, has everything to do with the law, since it makes him what he is." LRB Vol 38, 3, emphasis added.

Understood as such, it's not really such a strange idea, that the things outside of the text itself can and do give meaning to it in an ever-evolving way. In a philosophical context we can understand it to assert the idea that context is always present, and isn't necessarily stable.

  • // , Ah, that word "hors-texte" makes more sense with cultural context. Commented Nov 17, 2020 at 2:58
  • That being said, there could also be a meaning that there is nothing that would be assumed or not mentioned in the text explicitly already.
    – Frank
    Commented Jan 1, 2023 at 4:21

Derrida once explained that this assertion [means] there is nothing outside context.

source - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Derrida#Philosophy

So inasmuch as literary criticism and philosophy are different contexts one might suppose the phrase could be taken and developed differently. However, the original context is Derridean and quite specific. By observing as far as possible the source the original meaning is protected. Where it is taken next, or whether it is deconstructed in situ, is something further.

Of Grammatology, page 158 - http://www.mohamedrabeea.com/books/book1_3997.pdf

the reading must always aim at a certain relationship, unperceived by the writer, between what he commands and what he does not command of the patterns of the language that he uses. This relationship is not a certain quantitative distribution of shadow and light, of weakness or of force, but a signifying structure that critical reading should produce.

What does produce mean here? In my attempt to explain that, I would initiate a justification of my principles of reading. A justification, as we shall see, entirely negative, outlining by exclusion a space of reading that I shall not fill here: a task of reading.

To produce this signifying structure obviously cannot consist of reproducing, by the effaced and respectful doubling of commentary, the conscious, voluntary, intentional relationship that the writer institutes in his exchanges with the history to which he belongs thanks to the element of language. This moment of doubling commentary should no doubt have its place in a critical reading. To recognize and respect all its classical exigencies is not easy and requires all the instruments of traditional criticism. Without this recognition and this respect, critical production would risk developing in any direction at all and authorize itself to say almost anything. But this indispensable guardrail has always only protected, it has never opened, a reading.

Yet if reading must not be content with doubling the text, it cannot legitimately transgress the text toward something other than it, toward a referent (a reality that is metaphysical, historical, psychobiographical, etc.) or toward a signified outside the text whose content could take place, could have taken place outside of language, that is to say, in the sense that we give here to that word, outside of writing in general. That is why the methodological considerations that we risk applying here to an example are closely dependent on general propositions that we have elaborated above; as regards the absence of the referent or the transcendental signified. There is nothing outside of the text [there is no outside-text; il n’y a pas de hors-texte]. And that is neither because Jean-Jacques’ life, or the existence of Mamma or Thérèse themselves, is not of prime interest to us, nor because we have access to their so-called “real” existence only in the text and we have neither any means of altering this, nor any right to neglect this limitation. ...

  • you gave two translations. the first ("There is nothing outside of the text) is unequivocally wrong.
    – user20153
    Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 20:59
  • 1
    @mobileink That does seem to be the issue at the heart of the question. Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 22:53
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    indeed. let's not forget Derrida was an incorrigible punster. My french is mostly textbook french, so I don't know, but I'll bet a native speaker could find lots of ways to read it. Big difference between "hors-texte" and "hors de texte", "hors du texte", "dehors de texte ", etc.
    – user20153
    Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 23:05
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    Yes, he probably plays with this, saying one needs to take Jean-Jacques' context into account, but the only available context is in the text. That seems like a Derridean move. So, one endeavours to grasp the meaning as best one can, by a careful reading. Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 23:45

The answer that I prefer is the one offered by Derrida himself: that only the ‘context’ is stable and real, that is to say can be said to exist. By this one may may say the individual and his/her ‘situation’. This is the hors-texte! The “nothing’” is the text itself. It only “becomes real”, in the manner of Descartes, who proposed that an idea never amounted to much until someone turned into a “machine”, in short entered it into a positive relation to ‘physis’. Thus a text only becomes ‘real’ when it enters the mind of a human with sufficient ‘understanding’ to effect his/her being-in-reality, aka “context”.

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