Derrida: Metaphysics

What are we doing this week?

  • Roll up your sleeves: this week we're getting to work on Derrida's "metaphysics" (literally, "beyond physics": the principles that underpin the reality we experience and that physics measures).
  • I am going to explain why Derrida isn't saying that language is meaningless or that it can mean whatever you want it to, and I'm going to explain some of his most famous terms and phrases.
  • After that, we're going to have our first look at how to bring philosophical ideas into conversation with the Bible in a way that seeks to do justice to both.

The videos

There are five videos this week: 1-3 on what Derrida says and 4-5 on how to bring him into conversation with the Bible.

Tip for super-busy people: you can get by with just videos 2 and 4 if you just want to learn what Derrida means by "there is nothing outside the text", and how to bring that into conversation with the Bible.  

1) Deconstruction is not meaninglessness but openness

In this video you'll learn:

  • What Derrida really thinks about language and meaning.
  • Why it's wrong to attribute to him the view that language is meaningless or can mean whatever you want it to.
  • Why you can't get your hair cut on a building site.


2) "There is nothing outside the text"

In this video you'll learn:

  • What this most famous of Derridean phrase really mean.
  • What Heidegger has to do with your next cup of tea.


3) Logocentrism and différance

Derrida introduces two notions to describe what he sees as the dominant view of meaning and language in the Western tradition: "logocentrism" and "phonocentrism". I explain "logocentrism" in the video, and I'll say a quick word about "phonocentrism" here. All the way back to Plato, Derrida argues, the West has privileged speech ("phone" in Greek means "sound", "voice" or "speech") over writing. Speech is immediate and authentic, always in the presence of the speaker; writing is delayed and mediated, and therefore inferior. OK, with that detail in place you're good to go...

In this video you'll learn:

  • What characterises the metaphysics that Derrida rejects, and how he talks about his own position.
  • Four diagrams showing what différance isn't, then (finally!) one showing what it is.


4) "Is God outside the text?"

In this video you'll learn:

  • How the question "is God outside the text?" is a great illustration of the wrong way to bring Derrida and the Bible into conversation.
  • What theologians mean by the "Creator-creature distinction", and why it is fundamental to understanding a biblical view of the world.
  • How the Creator-creature distinction "diagonalizes" logocentrism and différance.


5) The Trinity and différance

In this video you'll learn:

  • How the doctrine of the Trinity gives a distinctively Christian response to an age-old philosophical problem.
  • What the big deal is with "equal ultimacy", and why it's crucial for getting to grips with a biblical account of the world.
  • How the Trinity "diagonalizes" Derrida's options for dealing with the question of the one and the many.


Supplied readings

1) Derrida, "Différance"

If you haven't realised it yet, let me tell you now: reading Derrida is hard. This essay is not for the faint-hearted, but it will give you a good sense both of how Derrida writes and what he says about metaphysics and différance.

Jacques Derrida "Différance", trans. Alan Bass, Margins of Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp 3-27.

If you don't have time for the whole thing, I've pasted an important passage below so that you can dip your toe in the water.

Now this principle of différance, as the condition for signification, affects the totality of the sign, that is the sign as both signified and signifier. The signified is the concept, the ideal meaning; and the signifier is what Saussure calls the "image," the "psychical imprint" of a material, physical--for example, acoustical--phenomenon. We do not have to go into all the problems posed by these definitions here. Let us cite Saussure only at the point which interests us: "The conceptual side of value is made up solely of relations and differences with respect to the other terms of language, and the same can be said of its material side... Everything that has been said up to this point boils down to this: in language there are only differences. Even more important: a difference generally implies positive terms between which the difference is set up; but in language there are only differences without positive terms. Whether we take the signified or the signifier, language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system. The idea or phonic substance that a sign contains is of less importance than the other signs that surround it."

The first consequence to be drawn from this is that the signified concept is never present in and of itself, in a sufficient presence that would refer only to itself. Essentially and lawfully, every concept is inscribed in a chain or in a system within which it refers to the other, to other concepts, by means of the systematic play of differences. Such a play, différance, is thus no longer simply a concept, but rather the possibility of conceptuality, of a conceptual process and system in general. For the same reason, différance, which is not a concept, is not simply a word, that is, what is generally represented as the calm, present, and self-refernetial unity of concept and phonic material. Later we will look into the word in general.

The difference of which Saussure speaks is itself, therefore, neither a concept nor a word among others. The same can be said, a fortiori, of différance. And we are thereby led to explicate the relation of one to the other.

In a language, in the system of language, there are only differences. Therefore a taxonomical operation can undertake the systematic, statistical, and classificatory inventory of a language. But, on the one hand, these differences play: in language, in speech too, and in the exchange between language and speech. On the other hand, these differences are themselves effects. They have not fallen from the sky fully formed, and are no more inscribed in a topos noetos, than they are prescribed in the gray matter of the brain. If the word "history" did not in and of itself convey the motif of a final repression of difference, one could say that only differences can be "historical" from the outset and in each of their aspects.

What is written as différance, then, will be the playing movement that "produces"--by means of something that is not simply an activity an activity--these differences, these effects of difference. This does not mean that the différance that produces differences is somehow before them, in a simple and unmodified--in-different--present. Différance is the non-full, non-simple, structured and differentiating origin of differences. Thus, the name "origin" no longer suits it.

2) John Frame: Creator-creature distinction and Trinity

Two very short extracts by Reformed theologian John Frame, one on the Creator-creature distinction and a second on the importance of the Trinity for a Christian view of reality.

Further reading and listening

For more detail on the topics raised in the videos above, you might want to listen to the episode on Derrida's metaphysics that I recorded for the Reformed Forum "Philosophy for Theologians" podcast. Here is the episode URL, and a direct link to the Mp3.

Leslie Hill, The Cambridge Introduction to Jacques Derrida (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

  • One of the best one-volume introductions to Derrida. A deeply researched and well written book that focuses on Derrida’s engagement with literature. Hill explains Derrida’s thought precisely and carefully.

John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief  (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013). Part 1 chapter 3: God's lordship as a unique worldview.

  • An accessible introduction to three postmodern thinkers and a reflection on how their thought might inform church practice.  Ask yourself: what are the biblical principles of a Christian view of the world that shape distinctive answers to common philosophical questions?

James K. A. Smith, Who's Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006). 

  • Ask yourself: how does Smith bring Derrida and Christianity into conversation? Is he presenting a Christian "Derrida", a Derridean "Christianity", or something else?

Bible passages

For your further study and meditation, Bible passages particularly relevant to the concerns of this week's material are:

  • Genesis 1 and John 1:1-14 (in relation to the Creator-creature distinction)
  • John 17 (in relation to the Trinity)