Linguistics And Philosophy Of Language Essays

Margaret Cameron and Robert Stainton's welcome anthology 'treats linguistic content across the history of Western philosophy of language, from Plato through Brentano's student Marty' (1). The book is organized around two questions:

Q1:  What varieties of linguistic content did the author or period countenance?

Q2:  What metaphysical groundings for linguistic content were considered? (1)

The volume opens with Deborah Modrak's essay on Plato's theory of definition, which is a useful tour through the dialogues' methods and assumptions. Modrak argues that Plato is tacitly committed to a two-tiered account of definition and, by extension, reference. At the first tier are 'names and senses as expressed in linguistic definitions and the referents of words' (16). At the second, we find the same names and their true definitions. The second-tier primary referents of these names are the Forms, whereas their secondary referents are ordinary objects. Although prima facie plausible, this interpretation seems hard to ground in the texts. Most obviously, one wonders whether Plato would welcome the Fregean terminology of sense and reference or the distinction between primary and secondary referents.

Francesco Ademollo's 'Names, Verbs, and Sentences in Ancient Greek Philosophy' focuses on two questions. First, what exactly is the distinction the ancients draw between onomata and rhemata? Ademollo argues that in Plato's Cratylus (though not necessarily in other dialogues) onomata are names, whereas rhemata are verbs (36). This contrasts with other readings, which take onomata to be subjects or names and rhemata to be predicates. If Ademollo is right, Plato's usage in the Cratylus anticipates Aristotle's in De Interpretatione. Ademollo's second question concerns sentence signification: is a sentence a name, or not? On Plato's view, a sentence is not a name, but for the Stoics, inspired perhaps by Aristotle's notion of pragma, sentences name states of affairs.

The question of the signification of the sentence continues to occupy medieval thinkers, as Margaret Cameron shows in her especially clear and useful contribution. Cameron focuses on Abelard and the Stoics, noting that, although there is no evidence the Stoics influenced Abelard, they arrive at similar positions and for similar reasons. Both are 'anti-realists' who want to introduce the notion of a proposition in pursuit of a deflationary metaphysics. Both analyze away categorical statements ('dogs are mammals') as disguised conditionals ('if something is a dog, it is a mammal'). In the case of the Stoics, this allows them to do away with general concepts (61). For his part, Abelard has no problem with concepts, which makes one wonder why the Stoics would think that merely going conditional would 'remove any reference to a generic object' (61). Most interesting is the peculiar ontological status propositions are supposed to have. For the Stoics, lekta are not bodies, and since only bodies exist, on their view, lekta at most 'subsist'. For Abelard, a dictum is a 'quasi-thing of the proposition' (69). Abelard and the Stoics both argue for the need to posit 'the sayable' as something more than tokens of sounds or marks on a page even as they try to keep their metaphysics as lean as possible.

Peter Adamson and Alexander Key's focus is the medieval Arabic tradition They present their chapter as describing the clash between the 'autochthonous and pre-existing Arabic bipartite theory of meaning' and the Aristotelian tripartite theory, which arrives on the Arab scene in the seventh century. The bipartite Arab theory countenances vocal form and mental content only, while the Aristotelian view adds a third element: the object in the world. The set-up is a bit odd. As Adamson and Key point out, the two traditions are only superficially incompatible (74). (Only idealists would insist on the absence of the third member of the tripartite view.) In fact, most of the chapter concerns a debate in the tenth century between the Arab grammarian Abū Sa‘īd al-Sīrāfī and a defender of the interloping Greek discipline of logic, Abū Bishr Mattā. What is at stake is, among other things, whether logic is indeed universal or contingent on the particular features of the Greek language (79). Avicenna ultimately achieves a rapprochement by confining logic to the syllogism, definition, and description, leaving 'room for the autochthonous linguistic sciences' of the Arabic tradition (94).

Joke Spruyt and Catarina Dutilh Novaes provide an informative treatment of medieval theories of syncategoremata. Focusing on the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, they aim to contrast medieval treatments with contemporary views on the logical constants. As they note, medieval syncategoremata include more than the logical constants; at times, the category seems to be a grab bag of everything that is neither subject nor predicate. Where the constants are concerned, the medievals are said to share with Dummett and Davidson a concern for the 'significatio/meaning' of the logical constants. It is hard to evaluate this claim without knowing what Spruyt and Novaes think "significatio" and "meaning" mean. In any case, the dissimilarities are more instructive. The authors note that the medievals, unlike some contemporary philosophers, do not see the categoremata/syncategoremata distinction as revealing anything about the scope of logic or the validity of arguments. Nor do they worry much about giving a precise demarcation of the class of syncategoremata. Spruyt and Novaes claim that this 'fluidity' 'may serve as inspiration for an open-ended conception of logical constants' (118).

Gyula Klima's ambitious 'Semantic Content in Aquinas and Ockham' uses historical figures to mount a philosophical argument. In brief, Klima's thesis is that any position on the identity of concepts that allows for the Cartesian evil demon scenario (or the Putnamian brain in a vat scenario) must be false. Following Claude Pannacio, Klima argues that Ockham distinguishes between semantic content (what a term refers to) and phenomenal content (the set of phenomenal features one uses to recognize something as falling under a kind). For Ockham, semantic content is fixed by causation, whereas phenomenal content is just whatever phenomenal features the subject happens to pick up on.

Klima argues that Ockham's position entails a contradiction, for Ockham counts two concepts as the same just in case they have the same phenomenal content. But then Ockham has to say that we and an envatted person (call him 'Vatman') make the same judgment when we say that 'Vatman is a brain in a vat'. That judgment is true when we say it but false when Vatman says it because Vatman's concepts do not have the semantic content brain and vat. Contradiction.[1]

The way out of the contradiction (and out of the skeptical scenario) is hyper-externalism, which Klima, on the basis of nine quoted words, purports to find in Aquinas. On this view, the way concepts are identified 'has practically nothing to do with their internal or phenomenal properties' (131). Instead, it is constitutive of a concept that it carry or encode information. That, of course, sounds like cold comfort. Suppose I am Vatman and, as a result, I do not have the concepts <brain> and <vat>, but some other concepts. But this just pushes the question back: instead of 'am I a brain in a vat?' I have to ask, 'what concepts do I have?' And nothing about their phenomenal features can answer this question.

To this, Klima replies by shifting analogies. He says that

even if a recorded TV programme could not be distinguished from the live feed of the same by just looking at the screen, the two are not the same, and their difference is detectable precisely by looking at the process of the transfer of information producing the exact same looking, but essentially different, images on the screen (130).

But the cases are importantly disanalogous. In the TV case, we have access to the origin of the signal independently of what image is presented on the screen: we can go and look at the process that produced it. In the case of perception, there is only the screen. Whatever one makes of Klima's arguments, the paper is a stimulating and intriguing contribution.

Lodi Nauta's excellent paper on the Renaissance humanist Lorenzo Valla announces a theme of the later entries in the anthology: the degree to which historical figures anticipate twentieth century developments, especially (for reasons I find totally obscure) ordinary language philosophy and Wittgensteinian meaning-as-use theories. As Nauta presents him, Valla is important for his contribution to the 'growing awareness' that language can influence thought. But Nauta convincingly deflates the claims of other scholars. In particular, he shows that Valla does not conflate words and things, does not define meaning as use, and is not an ordinary language philosopher. The last claim is a bit odd in any case, given that the language Valla lauds is not the vernacular of his day but classical Latin (as opposed to the barbarous neologisms of the scholastics) (145). Nauta argues that Valla simply does not have any desire to map the 'logical geography' of concepts, nor does he purport to solve or dissolve philosophical problems by diagnosing category mistakes.

E. Jennifer Ashworth does a masterly job of canvassing medieval theories of signification, connecting much of her work over the last 35 years. Among the issues she covers are the origins of language, whether things or concepts are signified by words, and the nature of significatio. The title of her chapter, 'Medieval Theories of Signification to John Locke', is slightly misleading since we get only a handful of paragraphs about Locke. Her conclusions about Locke are modest: she claims that it 'makes sense to see Locke as standing in a long tradition' (173) of thinking about signification even if Locke 'very probably' didn't study the 'more sophisticated' discussions (172).

Benjamin Hill ('Locke on the Names of Modes') argues that, for Locke, 'certain kinds of naming literally create new thought' (199). In the case of modes, 'the name makes the idea possible' (200). This claim runs counter to the dominant reading of Locke, which takes ideas to be logically prior to language. Hill argues that modes are an exception. On Hill's reading, an idea of a mode is 'formulated by a linguistic act working in conjunction with an act of the understanding' (188).[2] To his credit, Hill recognizes the substantial textual evidence to the contrary. For example, Locke claims that there are ideas of modes that lack names (II.xvii.5-7); if so, no act of naming can be necessary for the construction of the idea. But Hill claims that the 'textual situation looks to be a wash', with evidence on both sides. Hill instead offers a theoretical, rather than textual, argument for his conclusion. If an idea of a mode is to be its own archetype and hence 'regulate predications' (192) it must persist 'for years and decades' (196). Moreover, the idea must be capable 'at least in principle, of being used by any number of thinkers' (194). Ideas fail both requirements since they are fleeting and 'purely subjective entities' (196). Language and naming, Hill concludes, have to be brought in as 'supports' for the idea. I confess I had a hard time seeing the evidence for these two requirements in Locke's talk of archetypes. One might also worry that Hill's conclusion can be accommodated by the more pedestrian reading of Locke. There is nothing mysterious in language acting as an aid to memory or helping to preserve the definitions of terms over time. None of that would show that language makes ideas possible rather than the other way around. Nevertheless, Hill's essay is an intriguing one philosophers will want to grapple with themselves.

Michael N. Forster's 'Herder's Doctrine of Meaning as Use' seeks not only to establish the precise form of Herder's theory of meaning but to contrast it with competing forms of use theories, such as those of Davidson and Wittgenstein. Unlike some later use theorists, Herder is an atomist, not a holist; it's the use of a single word, not its relation to all others, that constitutes its meaning. But Forster's Herder is also a 'quasi-empiricist' who thinks that 'meanings or concepts must of their very nature be anchored in perceptual or affective sensations' (218). This is true even of syncategoremata like 'not'. Forster suggests that when one sees a cat sitting on a chair and then sees it jump off, one has a 'sensory illustration' of 'not' (220). But at this point, I begin to lose my grip on what Herder's alleged use theory is supposed to amount to: it seems to collapse into a version of the traditional tripartite (word, mental stuff, thing) Aristotelian view. Indeed, some of the texts Forster adduces to show that Herder holds that meaning is use seem susceptible to the kind of deflationary treatment we see Nauta apply to Valla.[3] Still, Forster's wide-ranging essay contains some intriguing arguments against later forms of the meaning-is-use position.

In addition to its substantive development of its subject's views, Patrick Rysiew's 'Thomas Reid on Language' mounts an effective attack on those who would recruit Reid into the ranks of ordinary language philosophers. Like Nauta, Rysiew does a fine job taking the air out of the hyperbolic bloviations that surround his chosen figure. (At this point in the volume, the reader begins to wonder whether there is any figure in the history of philosophy who hasn't been claimed as the anticipator of some recent trend or other. How long before Plotinus starts doing X-phi?)

Perhaps the most intriguing feature of Reid's view is his position on what can be taken as primitive and what needs philosophical explanation. Reid criticizes Locke's and Berkeley's explanations of the signification of general terms only to declare that their mistake was to try to explain one of our fundamental cognitive abilities at all (238). And among our fundamental abilities are social acts, such as asking and answering questions (239).

In the final chapter, Laurent Cesalli discusses Anton Marty's 'Pragmatic Semantics'. One of Brentano's first pupils, Marty uses his teacher's broadly scholastic set of terms and notions. Marty develops a twofold picture of language: words are aimed at indicating the speaker's 'mental life' and, at the same time, at 'triggering corresponding mental states in the hearer' (254). Although Cesalli doesn't make the connection, this part of Marty's view fits with a tradition that runs from Aristotle and Sextus Empiricus to Locke and Berkeley, namely, treating signification as indication. (In this volume, only Ashworth discusses this tradition, on 161.) Cesalli concludes by claiming that, although 'the reception of Marty's Sprachphilosophie was not exactly a spectacular one', he did exercise some influence on the Linguistic Circle of Prague. More broadly, Cesalli claims that Marty's work is of interest because it 'presents remarkable similarities with Grice's intentionalist semantics' and with the meaning-as-use doctrine (262). But once again, the rush to find points of similarity with twentieth century claims strikes me as a distraction and a cause of distortion.

In general, one comes away from the volume struck by the sheer diversity of views, motivations, and programs over the centuries. Correspondingly, of course, there is the danger of anachronism: we cannot assume that views that rose to prominence only in the last hundred years or so can be read back into historical figures. Some of the essays take this danger as their explicit theme; others, unfortunately, fall victim to it.

I should mention one last feature that will vex some readers. Central terms, such as 'meaning', 'signification', 'sense', and even 'linguistic content' itself, are too rarely defined. Such terms are often (and in some cases only) philosophical terms of art and not the pre-theoretical common property of all competent speakers. Lacking a definition of these terms, it is impossible to tell whether two authors really disagree. When Locke says that words 'properly and immediately signify nothing but Ideas, that are in the Mind of the Speaker' (Essay III.ii.4), is he saying something Reid, or Aristotle, or Herder would object to? The irony, of course, is that Locke, Reid, and others are concerned with language partly because they want to warn against just this predicament.

However that may be, I recommend this volume and hope that it will spur further research into what has been, until very recently, the invisible history of the philosophy language.


1] One might wonder whether Ockham would accept that there is a contradiction here. For Klima's Ockham, two judgments are the same just in case the phenomenal contents of the concepts are the same; same judgment, same truth value, regardless of what the concepts refer to. But if that is Ockham's view, he has bigger problems than Descartes's demon. Surely the extensions of the terms -- the semantic content -- are relevant to truth values. When Vatman and I say 'Vatman is a brain in a vat', we are talking about totally different things (brains and vats in my case; whatever causes certain of Vatman's experiences in his case). As a result, the judgments Vatman and I make do not contradict each other anymore than the judgments of two people who assert and deny, respectively, the sentence 'I washed my car yesterday'.

[2] This is only one of four claims made by Hill's linguistic reading, but it is 'the central one, and the others follow from it as corollaries' (188).

[3] For instance, one text Forster adduces (twice: 201, 205) is from Herder's On Diligence in Several Learned Languages (1764): 'Whoever learns to express himself with exactness precisely thereby gathers for himself a treasure of determinate concepts. The first words that we mumble are the most important foundation stones of the understanding'.

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Philosophy and Language

Derrida On Language

Peter Benson tells us what language is and isn’t according to Jacques Derrida.

Early in the Twentieth Century, philosophy diverged into two camps: analytic and Continental philosophy. Since then they have pulled up their drawbridges, ceased communicating, and, like groups separated by mountains or oceans, the languages they speak have become mutually incomprehensible (a condition which does not deny the possibility of bilingualism). Despite this separation, they have in fact often been developing in parallel ways along their respective paths.

Analytic philosophy went through a phase of believing that immediate experiences could be recorded in a basic language of sense data that could then be used as a foundation for all intelligible propositions (this idea is called ‘Positivism’). Bertrand Russell’s ‘Logical Atomism’ was one form of this idea. The disintegration of this project in the face of insuperable problems led to an increased emphasis on language itself, no longer treated as unproblematically revealing the world. This ‘linguistic turn’ strongly marked the subsequent history of analytic philosophy, as pursued in mainly the English-speaking world.

Meanwhile, on the (European) Continent, a parallel development took place. Phenomenology, a philosophical approach initiated by Edmund Husserl, proposed that the nature of things would be revealed in experience provided only that everyday assumptions were temporarily set aside. Once that’s done, the structure of reality could then be lucidly described. In a reaction to this, the subsequent continental linguistic turn drew heavily on theoretical linguistics, particularly the ideas of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, whose Course on General Linguistics was published posthumously in 1916. Its wide influence, however, began only much later, in the 1950s, when Claude Lévi-Strauss used its categories to analyse anthropological data. This initiated the movement known as ‘Structuralism’, the aim of which was the application of a unified methodology, based on linguistics, in all the human sciences.

This was the prevailing situation when Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) began his philosophical career. It is therefore entirely understandable that he should have embarked on a detailed critical analysis of the theories of Saussure and other linguists, showing their similarity to an earlier flurry of theories about language which had emerged in the Eighteenth Century. These discussions form the substance of his 1967 book Of Grammatology, one of the works that established his controversial reputation, and his reputation as a controversialist. Under his analyses, the certainties of Structuralism began to seem less convincing. Hence Derrida is correctly described as a ‘Post-Structuralist’. This, as far as it goes, is a much more accurate designation than ‘Post-Modernist’ – a very vague category, which seems to be capable of meaning almost anything and applying to almost anyone from the time of Nietzsche onwards.


Derrida thinking

Derrida’s ideas have frequently been misrepresented, quite often by the very people who purport to be admirers of his. For this reason it is necessary to emphasize certain obvious points to make it absolutely clear what he is not saying. It may disappoint some people, but Derrida is not the extreme relativist he is often made out to be. He does not deny the difference between truth and falsity. Nor does he claim that sentences can be taken to mean whatever we want. Nor does he assert that there is no relation between language and reality. Any of these claims would be bizarre, to put it mildly, so it is surprising that they should be attributed to him, unless he had made some specific statements to that effect, which he hasn’t. Raymond Tallis, for example, launched an extensive criticism of Derrida in Chapter 6 of his book Not Saussure (1995), but he repeatedly takes Derrida to be implying more than he actually says. Tallis claims that “Derrida denies… that beyond or behind signs there is a fundamental… reality that is simply ‘there’ and with which one can make direct contact” (p.166). This is true as far as it goes, but it is the possibility of “direct contact” with reality that Derrida denied, not the existence of reality as such. So, too, when Tallis writes “The very idea that there is an external world – from which meanings ultimately arise – simply present to consciousness is repudiated” (p.188), it is the “simply present to consciousness” clause that Derrida would question, not the existence of an external world. None of the many quotations from Derrida given by Tallis go any further than this. But the end result of unjustified extrapolation of Derrida’s views is the claim, in an anti-Derrida polemic quoted with approval by Tallis (p.xx), that he “denies the distinction between fact and fiction, observation and imagination, evidence and prejudice.” This would be alarming if true. But, as Derrida repeatedly demanded to know, on what page of which of his books has he ever said any such thing?

The Problems of Presence

Derrida’s Of Grammatology is specifically concerned with language. But what do we study when we study language? Such a complex phenomenon has many aspects, and can be investigated on many levels. For example, we use the word ‘linguist’ to designate someone who knows a great many languages, but we also use the word to designate a student of linguistics – which is the study of the general characteristics of all languages, along with their histories and differences.

Derrida’s concern is to find the underlying “condition of all linguistic systems” (Of Grammatology, p.60) – in other words to uncover the minimal conditions that make language of any kind possible. In Derrida’s view, all linguistic theories, from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Centuries, have given undue importance to speech rather than writing. Of course, it is indeed probable that spoken language existed before written language. Even this, however, is not certain. Mightn’t marks made on a stone, imbued with meaning, have come before intelligible vocal utterances? But Derrida is not primarily concerned with this historical question. Rather, he believes that thinking about the characteristics of written signs more readily reveals the distinctive features necessary for any linguistic phenomenon. Concentrating on speech, by contrast, readily leads to misleading assumptions which can be summed up in his phrase “the philosophy of presence” (p.12).

What, then, is meant by ‘presence’? By this word Derrida refers to any assumption of immediacy, in the literal sense of ‘lack-of-mediation’. Such immediate contact with reality was sought both by the phenomenologists and by Russell and the logical positivists when they attempted to make sense experiences the foundation of knowledge and language. The word ‘red’ would then designate an immediate experience of colour, due initially to the response of certain reactive cells in the retina. However, since ‘red’ is also a universal, referring to all possible experiences of the colour, both real and imaginary, that cannot be a full explication of the word. These are issues which have recurred throughout the history of philosophy from the time of Plato onwards. Philosophers have repeatedly sought to anchor language and knowledge in a moment of direct contact with reality where any doubt would be extinguished. Derrida’s philosophy by contrast has called attention to the inevitable gaps to be negotiated between experience and reality, especially in relation to our use of language, and however small-scale we make our scrutiny. (In his later writings Derrida considers these issues in relation to Justice, conceived as bridging the inevitable gap between the generality of the Law and the particularity of circumstances.) But far from unleashing universal scepticism, Derrida’s is an attitude entirely compatible with the outlook of contemporary science, since all scientific hypotheses are provisional, that is, capable of being revised in the light of further evidence. When a set of hypotheses come to be seen as utterly unquestionable they enter the realm of dogma, which is more commonly found in religious thought than in philosophy.

Indeed, a good way to understand this question of ‘presence’ and its relation to speech is to think about the various attitudes taken by different groups to religious revelation. Despite the strictures of Richard Dawkins and his fellow militant atheists, who tend to lump all religious language into one category, there are actually many approaches to the claims of faith. (I should point out that Derrida himself does not directly endorse any of them: he is not a theologian. I am simply using these differences to exemplify different attitudes to language.)

We have probably all heard people preaching, sometimes on street corners, fired with the conviction that “The Lord has spoken to me!” The dictation of this commanding Voice is something they can neither doubt nor fail to obey. There is little point in asking them, “How do you know it was the Lord?” The claims of immediacy bring unearned certainty. One such hearing of a Voice, a call, is often proclaimed as the founding moment of a religion, such as Moses speaking with God at the burning bush, or Mohammed hearing the words of the Angel Gabriel. Those who follow these prophets, however, have access to the Voice only through the medium of a text, such as the Bible or the Koran. As we know from history, conflict has often ensued around the question of whether these texts can even be translated into a different language – such as the execution of William Tyndale for translating the Bible into English – perhaps because such translation represents a further step away from the source, constituting additional mediation.

However, within the Judeo-Christian inheritance there is also an opposing tradition which, taking the non-immediacy of the texts for granted, seeks through interpretation to bring forth their potential guidance. If you have two Rabbis in a room, goes the Jewish joke, you will have at least three interpretations of any passage of Scripture. (This does not, of course, imply that the passage can be taken to mean just anything at all.) Similarly, the medieval Christian approach to the Bible declared there to be four ways to read each passage: literal, anagogic, typological and tropological. These interpretative traditions have been challenged by fundamentalists, who seek to pin an immediately-known fixed meaning to every word. Fundamentalism is therefore one manifestation of the metaphysics of presence. From Derrida’s perspective, it involves a misunderstanding of the nature of language.

Concentrating on speech can also evoke a further mistaken idea of presence: that two people present to each other in open dialogue may be thought of as an ideal state of communication. Derrida casts doubt on the more optimistic claims about what any such encounter can reveal; as he writes, “We are dispossessed of the longed-for presence in the gesture of language by which we attempt to seize it” (p.141). Indeed, his interest in psychoanalysis, and his reason for believing it to have philosophical significance, lies in its claim that we are never even fully present to ourselves – our conscious minds are ever shadowed by a hidden reverse side.

The Wrongs of Writing

All of these lapses in immediacy become even more clearly evident when we take writing to be the exemplary manifestation of language. In his 1971 essay ‘Signature, Event, Context’, Derrida sets out all the various absences, real or potential, which are implicit in the very existence of writing. As well as the absence from the material mark itself (the sign) of its meaning (the concept to which the sign refers), there is the absence of the producer of the sign. This factor is obscured in the case of vocal signs because the speaker whose voice we hear is likely to be visible to us. But the invention of recording technology has shown that vocal signs too can persist in the absence of their producer. It is in general a distinctive characteristic of a linguistic sign that it is capable of persisting in the absence of its producer, even in the radical absence which follows the producer’s death.

Similarly, a sign can persist in the absence of its addressee, the person for whom the producer intended it. In a later book, The Post Card (1980), Derrida considers the example of a post-card addressed to one person and written by another. While it is circulating through the postal system its text can be read by any third party (the postman, for example), so it retains its signifying status in the absence both of the producer of the message and its intended receiver. And yet the message continues to conjure forth these two absent people. The marks on the card are inexorably enmeshed with these three absent elements: producer, meaning, receiver.

In ‘Signature, Event, Context’, Derrida emphasises a further necessary characteristic of the linguistic mark: its capacity for iteration. By this he means that the mark must, in principle, be repeatable, and be recognized as ‘the same’ in each repetition. Each repetition will differ to some extent, but ‘a’, ‘A’, and ‘A’ must all be recognized as the same letter. It is this which lifts the mark from its material particularity into being an instance of a universal. As Derrida notes, even a signature, that proof of individuality and identity, must be capable of being repeated, lest its value, its capacity for being recognized, be lost. When the mark of my identity takes a linguistic form it becomes repeatable beyond my control, beyond my absence, beyond my death.

Hence an attention to writing as the exemplary manifestation of language reveals the minimal unit of language (which Derrida calls “the grammè” – hence his word ‘grammatology’) to be always an iterable trace. A ‘trace’ is a mark remaining after the moment of its inscription. In French, the word ‘trace’ also carries as one of its connotations the idea of a trail left by an animal that a hunter might follow. These footprints or flattened foliage indicate the animal (the producer of the grammè) that has now passed; they remain there whether the hunter (the receiver of the grammè) arrives on the scene or not; and it is always possible that their significance may fail to be read (by an inexperienced tracker). So the trail, like the grammè, conjures forth what is absent (producer, receiver, message). This is a striking quality for any entity to have. In general, things are what they are, and nothing else – self-contained elements of existence. But a grammè (once it’s recognised as being a grammè) also brings with it the shadows of things it is not. Saussure had already noted this divided nature of language by saying that, like the sides of a coin, every sign has two indissociable faces: signifier and signified – the latter being the concept evoked by the former. Derrida notes that both of these faces are what he calls idealities rather than material. He is here using the traditional philosophical distinction between ‘ideal’ and ‘material’. In this philosophical sense, ‘ideal’ does not mean ‘the best’, it means anything belonging to the realm of concepts and thoughts rather than the material and the physical. He means therefore that the signifier is not the physical mark in its materiality, but the mark consciously recognised as an instance of an iterable sign. Derrida thereby raises the question of whether our ontology (i.e. our way of categorising the types of entities that exist) needs to be modified in order to accommodate the fusion of absence and presence that is the grammè. It is a question he pursues in various places, notably in his 1968 essay ‘Différance’, and especially in his writings on the thought of Martin Heidegger. A full discussion of these issues lies beyond the scope of this article, but it is worth pondering whether any mark would remain a grammè if it were still inscribed on paper or rock long after every human being had died out. This seems to me a more interesting question than the familiar enigma, ‘If a tree falls in a forest with no-one around to hear it, does it make a sound?’ (The latter question is less puzzling than it appears: the falling tree, by the laws of physics, creates sound waves; and whether this itself is enough to constitute ‘a sound’, or whether ‘a sound’ implies something heard by someone, is a mere matter of definition.)

Jean-Paul Sartre said that human beings introduce nothingness into the world, which otherwise would be “a plenitude of being.” Nor was he the first to make such an observation. In Chapter XI of the Dao De Ching (Fourth Century BCE) it is written:

“Thirty spokes share one hub. Adopt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand and you will have the use of the cart. Knead clay in order to make a vessel. Adopt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand and you will have the use of the vessel.”

This power of absence and nothingness for human purposes is, according to Derrida, multiplied in all sorts of ways by language. But did the source of such a power exist before humans evolved, or did we, as Sartre suggests, bring it into the world? Derrida is ambivalent about this and I remain doubtful whether his philosophy can resolve such issues in any satisfactory way. My aim in this article has instead been to set out those characteristics of language which, in Derrida’s view, are of acute philosophical significance, and to correct some common misunderstandings of his views. Attentive reading of his books (whose difficulty has often been exaggerated) is the best way for anyone to learn more.

© Peter Benson 2014

Peter Benson studied analytic philosophy at Cambridge University, and Continental philosophy in reading groups and seminars in London.

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