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Of Grammatology

Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology Corrected Edition, translated by Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.

Originally published in France under the title De la Grammatologie, 1967. First American edition, 1976. Corrected edition, 1998.

Book cover for On Grammatology
Jacques Derrida's essay Structure, Sign and Play on the Discourse of the Human Sciences (1966) and 1967 book De la Grammatologie began a new critical movement: Deconstruction.

The Outside and the Inside

From chapter 2 "Linguistics and Grammatology"; longer excerpt available from The Value of Knowledge: A Miniature Library of Philosophy.

On the one hand, true to the Western tradition that controls not only in theory, but in practice (in the principle of its practice) the relationships between speech and writing, Saussure does not recognise in the latter more than a narrow and derivative function. Narrow because it is nothing but one modality among others, a modality of the events which can befall a language whose essence, as the facts seem to show, can remain forever uncontaminated by writing. "Language does have an oral tradition that is independent of writing" (Cours de linguistique générale). Derivative because representative signifier of the first signifier, representation of the self-present voice, of the immediate, natural, and direct signification of the meaning (of the signified, of the concept, of the ideal object or what have you). Saussure takes up the traditional definition of writing which, already in Plato and Aristotle, was restricted to the model of phonetic script and the language of words. Let us recall the Aristotelian definition: "Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words." Saussure: "Language and writing are two distinct systems of signs; the second exists for the sole purpose of representing the first". This representative determination, beside communicating without a doubt essentially with the idea of the sign, does not translate a choice or an evaluation, does not betray a psychological or metaphysical presupposition peculiar to Saussure; it describes or rather reflects the structure of a certain type of writing: phonetic writing, which we use and within whose element the epistémè in general (science and philosophy), and linguistics in particular, could be founded. One should, moreover, say mode, rather than structure; it is not a question of a system constructed and functioning perfectly, but of an ideal explicitly directing a functioning which in fact is never completely phonetic. In fact, but also for reasons of essence to which I shall frequently return. To be sure this factum of phonetic writing is massive; it commands our entire culture and our entire science, and it is certainly not just one fact among others. Nevertheless it does not respond to any necessity of an absolute and universal essence. Using this as a point of departure, Saussure defines the project and object of general linguistics: "The linguistic object is not defined by the combination of the written word and the spoken word: the spoken form alone constitutes the object".

©1998, Johns Hopkins University Press


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