«Logocentrism and the Gathering Λόγος: Heidegger, Derrida, and the Contextual Centers of Meaning1 Jussi Backman University of Helsinki Abstract ...»
This is the accepted manuscript of an article published in Research in Phenomenology 42
(2012): 67–91, available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/156916412X628757.
Please do not cite this version.
Logocentrism and the Gathering Λόγος:
Heidegger, Derrida, and the Contextual Centers of Meaning1
University of Helsinki
Derrida’s deconstructive strategy of reading texts can be understood as a way of
highlighting the irreducible plurality of discursive meaning that undermines the traditional Western “logocentric” desire for an absolute point of reference. While his notion of logocentrism was modeled on Heidegger’s articulation of the traditional ontotheological framework of Aristotelian metaphysics, Derrida detects a logocentric remnant in Heidegger’s own interpretation of gathering (Versammlung) as the basic movement of λόγος, discursiveness. However, I suggest that Derrida here touches upon a certain limit of deconstruction. As Derrida himself points out, the “decentering” effect of deconstruction does not simply abolish the unifying and focalizing function of discourse. Insofar as deconstruction involves reading and interpreting, it cannot completely evade narrative focalization. Rather, both Heidegger and Derrida can be understood as addressing the radical contextuality of all discursive centers and focal points, as well as the consequent impossibility of an ultimate and definitive metanarrative.
I want to thank Björn Thorsteinsson for his insightful comments on an earlier version of this paper.
Keywords logocentrism, deconstruction, metaphysics of presence, contextuality, narrativity Jacques Derrida stands today as one of Heidegger’s most prominent philosophical heirs.
This is a role that he himself always readily acknowledged, emphasizing, however, that responsible inheriting does not mean a simple reaffirmation of what has been handed down. The intrinsic heterogeneity of every philosophical inheritance, its textual quality in the wide Derridean sense, rather necessitates a critical response, “a filtering, a choice, a strategy”—a selective reading.2 This strategy makes Derrida, in the words of Elisabeth Roudinesco, a “faithful and unfaithful heir.”3 Derrida’s faithful/unfaithful double aspect is particularly manifest in his readings of the Heideggerian corpus, which in spite of its seminal importance in Derrida’s own philosophical formation was not preserved intact from the effects of deconstruction.
In 1967 Derrida describes his strategy with regard to Heidegger in the following manner:
...despite this debt to Heidegger’s thought, or rather because of it, I attempt to locate within Heidegger’s text—which, no more than any other, is not homogeneous, continuous, everywhere equal to the greatest force and to all the consequences of its questions—the signs of a belonging to metaphysics, or to what
Jacques Derrida and Elisabeth Roudinesco, De quoi demain: dialogue (Paris: Fayard/Galilée, 2001), 21;
translated by Jeff Fort as For What Tomorrow…: A Dialogue (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), 8.
3 Derrida and Roudinesco, De quoi demain, 14; For What Tomorrow…, 2.
4 Jacques Derrida, “Implications: Entretien avec Henri Ronse” , in Positions (Paris: Minuit, 1972), 18–19;
translated by Alan Bass as “Implications: Interview with Henri Ronse,” in Positions, 2nd ed. (London:
Continuum, 2004), 8.
Heidegger’s discourse is to be searched for signs, for elements that potentially retain it within the limits of what Heidegger himself attempts to delimit as (traditional, Western, Platonic-Aristotelian) “metaphysics,” basic aspects of which were identified by the later Heidegger as “ontotheology” and by the earlier Derrida as “logocentrism.” Let us take a brief look at these closely related notions.
“Ontotheology” is basically Heidegger’s term for the twofold structure of Aristotelian metaphysics as ontology (the study of being5 qua being) and theology (the study of the supreme being). For Aristotle, there is no single determinate sense of “being as such” that would encompass all instances of “to be.” A “scientific” ontology in Aristotle’s sense is therefore achievable only by way of theology, which completes ontology with an account of the metaphysical God, the supreme entity, as the model of ontological perfection for all other beings. The only feature common to all things that are said to be is their situatedness in different hierarchies of being-more-or-less (such as actuality/potentiality, substantiality/predicability, or essentiality/contingency), and the universal point of reference for these hierarchies is the specific being whose being consists in pure actuality, pure substantiality, and pure essentiality. The supreme entity thus provides the only determinate “unity of being.”6 In Heidegger’s historical narrative, this ontotheological approach to the question of the general meaning of “to be” in terms of a paradigmatic and ultimate instance of “to be” persists in different forms throughout the metaphysical tradition, from Plato to Nietzsche.7 According to Heidegger’s central thesis, the ideal of I use “being” to translate Aristotle’s τὸ ὄν in the general and
sense and Heidegger’s infinitival Sein;
“beings” or “a being” is used to translate τὰ ὄντα and das Seiende. Following the practice of the Emad and Maly translation of Contributions to Philosophy, I use the hyphenated “be-ing” to render Heidegger’s archaic orthography Seyn.
6 Aristotle, Metaphysics, ed. W. D. Ross, vol. 1–2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924), Γ.1.1003a21–32, Γ.2.1003a33– b19, Ε.1.1026a23–32, Λ.7.1072a19–b30, Λ.9.1074b15–1075a10. On the theology of Book Λ as the culmination of the science of being qua being, see Joseph Owens, The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian “Metaphysics”: A Study in the Greek Background of Mediaeval Thought, 2nd ed. (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1963), especially pp. 453–54. However, Owens considers even Book Λ to be inadequate in terms of the requirements for first philosophy outlined in the first books of the Metaphysics.
7 For Heidegger’s account of ontotheology, see, for example, Martin Heidegger, “Die seinsgeschichtliche Bestimmung des Nihilismus” [1944–46], in Nietzsche, vol. 2., 6th ed. (Stuttgart: Neske, 1998), 311–15; translated being inherent in the tradition is constant presence (bestämdige or ständige Anwesenheit, for Heidegger, the implicit sense of Aristotle’s οὐσία, “substance” or “entity”)8 in the sense of a determinate and self-identical accessibility to intuitive awareness (νοῦς); hence Derrida’s idiom “metaphysics of presence.” The perfection of the supreme entity can be regarded as consisting precisely in different aspects of an ideally constant presence/accessibility, such as self-sufficiency, completeness, simplicity, and uniqueness.
The term “logocentrism” was originally coined by the philosopher of life Ludwig Klages to designate the Platonic tendency to subordinate the dynamic unity of life or “soul” to “spirit.”9 For Derrida, it denotes the (no less Platonic) tendency to subordinate the full material reality of discourse and language to λόγος in the sense of an ideal “logical” meaning-structure—and, ultimately, to subordinate all discursive structures to a “transcendental signified,” to λόγος in the sense of an ultimate central “meaning” that would no longer refer to anything other than itself and would thus provide a self-sufficient and permanently accessible center for discursive chains of references.10 In his seminal 1966 paper at Johns Hopkins, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” Derrida asserts that in Western philosophy and science, “structure—or rather the structurality of structure—although it has always been at work, has always been neutralized or reduced, and this by a process of giving it a center or of referring it to a point by Frank A. Capuzzi as “Nihilism as Determined by the History of Being,” in Nietzsche, vol. 4: Nihilism, ed.
David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 207–10; “Die onto-theo-logische Verfassung der Metaphysik” [1956–57], in Identität und Differenz, 12th ed. (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2002), 31–67 [hereafter, ID]; translated by Joan Stambaugh as “The Onto-theo-logical Constitution of Metaphysics,” in Identity and Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 42–74.
8 See, for example, Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit , 18th ed. (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2001), 25–26 [hereafter, SZ]; translated by Joan Stambaugh as Being and Time, revised by Dennis J. Schmidt (Albany, NY:
State University of New York Press, 2010), 24; Einführung in die Metaphysik [1935/53], 6th ed. (Tübingen:
Niemeyer, 1998), 147, 148, 154 [herafter, EM]; translated by Gregory Fried and Richard Polt as Introduction to Metaphysics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 206, 207, 216.
9 Ludwig Klages, Der Geist als Widersacher der Seele, vol. 1: Leben und Denkvermögen (Leipzig: Barth, 1929), XXI, 121, 129–30, 144, 217, 232, 374, 472, 511. Cf. Egon Pöhler, “Logozentrisch,” in Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, ed. Joachim Ritter and Karlfried Gründer, vol. 5 (Basel: Schwabe & Co., 1980), 502–3.
10 Jacques Derrida, De la grammatologie (Paris: Minuit, 1967), 71–72; translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak as Of Grammatology (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1997), 49.
of presence, a fixed origin.”11 Logocentrism is the desire of discursive thought to transcend discursive structures in order to arrive at a point at which the basic contextualizing movement of discourse—the endless “deferral” (différance) in which meanings always turn out to be constituted by references to other meanings, those meanings in turn referring to others—would cease and be consummated in an immediate disclosure of the nonreferential and undeferred presence of an absolute meaning.12 In this sense, “logocentrism” is another name for “ontotheology.” One of the key insights of Derrida’s earlier work was related to the complicity between logocentrism and “phonocentrism,” a conception of language that privileges the live voice (φωνή) over writing, which, in turn, is regarded as a secondary representation of speech. A written text is a texture of material signs, the meaning of which is never discovered “immediately” but rather is generated in a mediate and indefinite process of reading, interpreting, and reinterpreting. In oral discourse, by contrast, the speaker and her intention are supposedly accessible immediately, without delay or distance, making it possible in principle to attain an “authoritative” interpretation of a discourse by asking the speaker to explain what she meant.13 Similarly, vocalized speech can be regarded as a material representation of an even more original “speech,” the voiceless λόγος of thought described in Plato’s Sophist, in which the soul communicates ideal meanings to itself immediately, without recourse to a material medium.14 This “internal λόγος” is typically conceived of as being independent of linguistic context; conventionality and contextspecificity are introduced into discourse together with the materiality of vocal and written Jacques Derrida, “La structure, le signe et le jeu dans le discours des sciences humaines” , in L’écriture et la différence (Paris: Seuil, 1967), 409; translated by Alan Bass as “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” in Writing and Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 278.
12 Cf. David Wood, Philosophy at the Limit: Problems of Modern European Thought (London: Unwin Hyman, 1990), 48–49.
13 Derrida, De la grammatologie, 15–31; Of Grammatology, 6–18.
14 Plato, Sophist, in Platonis Opera, ed. E. A. Duke et al., vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 263e3– 9).
signs.15 Such phonocentrism is, for Derrida, the basic matrix underlying the distinction between material sign and ideal meaning—the signifier and signified of Saussurean structural linguistics—which in turn makes a “transcendental” signified, i.e., a final, absolutely universal referent, a plausible ideal. The metaphysics of presence, Derrida asserts, is characterized by a phonocentric “debasement of writing and its repression outside ‘full’ speech.”16 By contrast, “grammatology,” the new approach proposed by Derrida, is precisely the attempt to make explicit the ways in which writing exposes the radically (con)textual—i.e., irreducibly mediated and referential—way in which all discursive meaning is generated.17 No form of discourse is able to simply extricate itself from textuality. Put in another way, there is no pure signified; all discursive meaning is contaminated with a signifying element, a reference to something else.
“Ontotheology” is primarily a conceptual tool with which Heidegger seeks to delineate and demarcate certain underlying tendencies of the philosophical tradition up to, and including, Nietzsche. In a similar way, “logocentrism” is meant to capture an inherent feature of Western thought about discourse and meaning in the tradition up to, and including, Heidegger. Derrida notes that Heidegger’s project is incapable of simply abandoning the conceptual resources and the specific discursive structures of the tradition it tries to delimit, remaining to some extent conditioned by them, and that this incapacity is not a simple deficiency: there is no simple twisting free of the tradition. “To the extent In a classical passage of De Interpretatione (in Categoriae et Liber De Interpretatione, ed. Lorenzo Minio-Paluello [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949], 1.16a3–8 [hereafter, De Int.]), Aristotle maintains that written signs are symbols of vocal signs, which in turn are symbols of mental affects (παθήματα), these in turn being ways in which the soul conforms to real things (πράγματα). Whereas letters and vocal utterances vary in different languages, the mental affects they communicate (as well as, of course, reality itself) are the same for all. Cf.
Derrida, De la grammatologie, 21–22; Of Grammatology, 10–11.