De la Grammatologie by Derrida


Jacques Derrida's (1930–2004) initial philosophical influence was the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. He published an introduction and French translation of Husserl’s The Origin of Geometry in 1962.

However, Derrida distanced himself from Husserl's transcendental phenomenology in three main area: language, time and ideal objects. His critique was based on the one-sided presence in the husserlian analysis: in language, the expressive meaning in consciousness, in time, the self-presence of the instant, in ideal objects, their intuitive presence.

Derrida argues that presence is linked to absence and otherness. He rejects Husserl's phenomenological self-presence of consciousness as an abstraction disconnected from concrete human presence in a particular life. 

Derrida taught a 1964-65 course on Heidegger in the École Normale Supérieure called ‘Heidegger: The Question of Being and History’. It outlined how, on the subject of historicity, Heidegger broke with Hegel and Husserl and also his critique of Western thought. It was from Heidegger that Derrida derived his notion of deconstruction. Heidegger uses Destruktion in the sense of dismantling; Derrida employs the word to mean both destruction and dismantling.

In Being and Time, Heidegger states the aim of Destruktion is to:

“arrive at those primordial experiences in which we achieved our first ways of determining the nature of Being—the ways which have guided us ever since.”

For Derrida deconstruction cannot show primordial truths, but only temporary adequate truths.

Derrida wrote essays on philosophers such as Husserl, Heidegger, Levinas, Claude Lévi-Strauss, de Saussure, Plato and Rousseau. These studies present examples of deconstructivist readings. He also addressed the relationship between deconstruction and religion in On the Name and The Gift of Death.


De la Grammatologie (1967) is a post-structuralist text which deals less with the text and more with the reader and context, meaning the influence of culture and society on our understanding of the world.

The book introduces the concept and application of deconstruction. Derrida states that philosophical tradition had fallen into a trap of binary opposition in which words were defined by their opposites. Deconstruction challenges this binary thought process, particularly that of speaking and writing. His methodology is to demonstrate how each term can be used to deconstruct its opposite.

The book commences with an analysis of Saussure's Course in General Linguistics and the two components of sound (signifiant) and meaning (signifié). Contrary to Saussure's hierarchy of speech over writing, Derrida argues that written symbols are also signifiers at the same level as sounds. 

Derrida goes on to criticise structuralism underlining that it relies on totalitarian assumptions by presuming absolute truths. He also questions how we derive meaning from language in a criticism of how Western philosophy uses it. Structuralism has deprived speech of its meaning by using Saussure's signifier to point to another signifier, which evacuates its meaning. He insists that what we say does not have the same meaning(significance) for everyone. This implies that texts are unstable, not absolute.

The second half of the book deals mostly with Rousseau and his Essay on the Origin of Languages. Derrida shows how Rousseau sets up binary categories which purport to demonstrate that a supplementary idea comes from outside to contaminate a supposedly pure meaning: writing supplements speech, articulation supplements accent, need supplements passion, north supplements south...

"This relationship of mutual and incessant supplementarity or substitution is the order of language. It is the origin of language, as it is described without being declared, in the Essay on the Origin of Languages."

Through this binary construction the signifier points to another signifier in a corrupting relationship which dispossesss it of meaning.



In the 1960s Structuralism followed Phenomenology as the next philosophical approach and Derrida pitted the two against each other.

Phenomenology was a rejection of the platonic rationalist approach in favour of a method which aimed to comprehend experience through a description of its genesis from an origin or an event. The structuralists deemed this a false problem since experience could only be a result of structures which are not in themselves experiential. 

Derrida questioned this reasoning by pointing out that a structure had a genesis and could not be understood without this beginning. At the same time synchronic structures have a history and in order to develop must have a diachronic, complex origin. 

Derrida set about demonstrating the types and variations of this complex origin and their consequences. He began determining in literary and philosophical texts aspects which run against their structural unity or authorial meaning. This aimed at discovering their structuring and destructuring effects.

Binary Opposition

Deconstructionism reacted against binary opposition in language analysis. It seeks to subvert the assumptions of dual oppositions on which dominant Western thinking is based. 

This was firstly a rejection of Hegel's thesis-antithesis-synthesis model on the grounds that there does not exist a natural process of synthesis since the end result will always contain a trace of the original binary structure. Avoidance of binary opposites as inherent structure is designed to liberate analysis and interpretation from the traditional thinking premise in Western philosophy.


Logocentrism favours speech over writing. Derrida rejects the concept that the written word is only the transcription of the spoken word. He then proceeds logically to argue interpreting the written text is equivalent to the interpretation of what is said, so that both texts and speech are subject to interpretative responses. The final goal of this rejection of the written/spoken hierarchy is that the meaning of a text can be read differently from what the author composed. Reading becomes interpretation.


Derrida emphasises that meaning is not absolute and static, but evolves in time and space. Language is also derivative in that words derive their meaning from other words, rather than from an exterior truth. Meaning is an unstable force, something unrecognised by Western philosophy based on logocentrism, the belief that writing and language indicate some external reality. Derrida believes, instead, that linguistic signs are different from their concepts. 

The basis of his deconstruction theory is differénce, a word he coined to mean both defer and differentiate. Difference refers to the contrasting meaning of words as between happiness and sadness. Deferring means that the meaning of words defers to the meaning of other words. (If we look up the dictionary entry of a word we may have to consult the meaning of some words in the definition.) This indicates that meaning is not fixed. 

A principal goal of deconstruction is to reject the concept of fixed meaning. It does this by breaking the binary boundaries and analysing the origin of ideas. It is a process of questioning rather than searching for truth. Deconstruction does not seek to undermine structures, but rather to shed light on the logic of those systems in order to understand them better. This process opens up possibilities, but does not allow arrival at a specific conclusion. It us about process, not content:

"Deconstruction is not a dismantling of the structure of a text, but a demonstration that it has already dismantled itself. Its apparently solid ground is no rock but thin air.” J. Hillis Miller

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