Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters


Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_307
For Jacques Derrida, Claude Lévi-Strauss – like Ferdinand de Saussure, Plato, Aristotle, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau – among others, excluded writing “as a phenomenon of exterior representation, both useless and dangerous” (Derrida 1981). This, of course, was a metaphysical judgment safeguarding the reduction of the exteriority of the sign and difference for the sake of the sameness of voice. To Saussure, for example, the logocentric favoring of the seeming presence of one (the phone) over the absence of the other (the graphe) must have been justified by the model of “phonetic-alphabetic” script used to delimit language, a “type” sustaining the impression of presenting speech while simultaneously erasing “itself before speech” (Ibid., p. 25). Conversely, Derrida has tried to show “there is no purely phonetic writing, and that phonologism is less a consequence of the practice of the alphabet in a given culture than a certain ethical or axiological experience of this practice” (Ibid., p. 25) that posits the resistance of difference. Within this practicability of metaphysics, its pedagogy of the cultural politics of the sign, the implication is clearly as follows:

Writing should erase itself before the plenitude of living speech, perfectly represented in the transparency of its notation, immediately present for the subject who speaks it, and for the subject who receives its meaning, content, value. (Ibid., p. 25)

The most significant point for Derrida is “not only not to privilege one substance – here the phonic, so called temporal, substance – while excluding another – for example, the graphic, so called spatial, substance – but even to consider every process of signification as a formal play of differences” (Ibid., p. 26).

The enigmatic modification deconstituting and dislocating the “linear expressivity” of the sign reinforces the need to ask the question, How does “grammatology” incite a rethinking of difference and destabilize the traditional boundaries of “writing” and “text” or “textuality” in the deconstructive sense of the articulation of a “non-” or “anti-disciplinary object,” when there seems to have been a neutralization of “every substance, be it phonic, graphic, or otherwise?” (Ibid., p. 26). We may possibly receive the following answer from Derrida: “Of course it is not a question of resorting to the same concept of writing and of simply inverting the dissymmetry that now has become problematical” (Ibid., p. 26). And, to be more specific, the broader and more radical redefining of the concept of writing that is proposed to encompass every kind of expression, communication, and coding (phonic, graphic, artistic) “can be called gram or différance” (Ibid., p. 26). The distinguishing characteristic of this “semio-scriptology” would be the “play of differences” and meaning deferrals involving the interweaving of syntheses and references, but not to the extent that a “simple element” of its significo-psychic generation would be “present in and of itself, referring only to itself” (Ibid., p. 26) as the auto-affective arbiter of complete, unmitigating and unrelenting, sense.

As such, the “text” or “textuality” of this writing is a chaining of signs, not simply sign functions standing in for a (cultural) center of mediated meaning, but “only, everywhere, differences and traces of traces,” (Ibid., p. 26) within which the “gram” would come to be the most general sign and semiology would be therefore reconstituted as grammatology. This is the clarification of the outline Derrida has presented for the science of a new writing. Since the gram “is a structure and a movement no longer conceivable on the basis of the opposition presence/absence” (Ibid., p. 27) and flourishes within the codic play of differences, it is as différance that the grammatological conversion of semiology takes place via deconstruction. There are some crucial sticking points however that we must address.

On the basis of the above function, différance is incompatible “with the static, synchronic, taxonomic, ahistorical motifs in the concept of structure” (Ibid., p. 27), and yet, contrastingly, it is not “astructural.” Derrida insists on this, because the “systematic and regulated transformations” (Ibid., p. 28) in the specificity of its general workings are able to develop, in certain cases, “the most legitimate principled exigencies of ‘structuralism’” (Ibid., p. 28). That would be, for example, in the extended concatenation of syntagmatic units of expression whose traces are deferred and multiplied to some degree within the differential or fragmented proportionality of discursive or narrative structures. And here we come to the crux of the matter we must next follow to gauge the ethicity of the sign in this mode of an always already immanently refracted referentiality, as Derrida defines it. It cannot be said, from this vantage, that some “present and in-different being” (Ibid., p. 28) in any shape or form “precedes différance or spacing” (Ibid., p. 28), for example, a subject “who would be the agent, author, and master of différance,” (Ibid., p. 28) or upon whom différance would impose itself. Why? Because, to Derrida, “Subjectivity – like objectivity – is an effect of différance, an effect inscribed within a system of différance” (Ibid., p. 28). We can now begin to evaluate the implications of this claim – the effectivity of why and how it is made – for the phenomenality of the writing of Being, the being written, all that relates deconstruction and the institution of pedagogy in the cultural politics of the sign and its ethicity. Since, it would seem, at least for the moment, that the ethico-axiological agency of the “being present” of the sign, its being as presence, is forever undercut as such, and with it is summarily extinguished the metaphysical light of both the educational edifice of a valuation of truth and the psychological comfort of a sense of origin.

The most affable text for engaging the complexity of these ramifications is “Différance,” the lecture Derrida addressed to the Société Française de Philosophie on January 27, 1968. (Although the text of this discourse has appeared in many different places, the version of “Différance” I will be using is found in Derrida (1973).) As is noted in the preamble to the discourse “proper,” the French verb différer, like the Latin differre, suggests two meanings of association, “to differentiate” and “to delay,” thus relating the idea of difference in two unsimilar ways:

On the one hand, it indicates difference as distinction, inequality, or discernability; on the other, it expresses the interposition of delay, the interval of a spacing and temporalizing that puts off until “later” what is presently denied, the possible that is presently impossible. Sometimes the different and sometimes the deferred correspond [in French] to the verb “to differ.” This correlation, however, is not simply one between act and object, cause and effect, or primordial and derived.

In the one case “to differ” signifies non-identity; in the other case it signifies the order of the same. Yet there must be a common, although entirely différante, root within the sphere that relates the two movements of differing to one another. We provisionally give the name différance to this sameness which is not identical. (Ibid., p. 129)

Using the letter “a” from the present participle of the verb différer, e.g., “différante,” Derrida constructs the noun différance, a new word, a “nonword” that is, in his estimation, a “non-concept” – profoundly ametaphysical – precisely because it cannot be either “narrowed down” or “fixed” to a single part of both of its meanings. It is perhaps the “penultimate” of deconstructive terms, if that were possible in this poststructural sense, given that the difference of différance is only perceptible in writing, since the change of spelling is inaudible – the “e” for which the “a” is substituted being silent to the (French) ear. Thus, the “semanteme” that is “neither a word nor a concept” (Ibid., p. 130) expresses both meanings of differentiation as spatiotemporality and as the movement that structures each kind of dissociation in the “middle voice” between passivity and activity like the penumbra of an irreducible origin of production. It is perhaps the offspring of the monstrosity Derrida predicts at the end of his famous lecture at Yale University, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (1966), deconstruction already having given form in itself to a species of non-species marking the unnameable in the alterity of a philosophical subject metaphysics cannot stomach or mouth. And here it would be tempting – yes it is – to consider différance an operating principle, to criticize it as the ambivalent counterpart to a philosophy of origin upon which the Other must rely or fall. But this would also be to misunderstand, not to do justice to the interpretative formativity of a “doubling commentary” Derrida has said is possible at some minimal parameters of signification (see Derrida 1988. The chapter entitled “Afterword: Toward an Ethic of Discussion” is most clear about the misrepresentation of Derridean undecidability and the play of the sign), by representing différance as external to identity instead of it being always already within the non-indicative self-relation of the being written of Being, modifying the here and now “at the zero point of the subjective origin” (Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, p. 94). What it is that it does to the sign – for our purposes the trace of the writing of the Self as Other – is evident in the semiological prospectus of signification: the structural necessity of its repeatability or reiteration, beyond a single, unitary point of expression. If we acknowledge, as we should, a “sign” can signify only through the force of repetition, the consequences of différance render the sign relational rather than identical (e.g., not the selfsame, or “iconic,” possessing the properties of its “referent”), thus bringing indication into line with expression to undo the Husserlian idea of a “pre-expressive intentionality” of pure consciousness. This line of argument decenters the subject, which brings it out of the shell of the Cartesian cogito that shelters its attempt at realizing the security of a self-discourse with itself – what Derrida shows to be an instance of noncommunication, because in the equating of self-hood with self-presence, the Other is effaced to the point where an inner monologue with one’s “Self” is not really an instance of transmissibility at all, but the self-deceptive verification of the desire for auto-affection or an attempt at the reduction of différance. In order to ascertain the existence of itself, a subject must refer outside of itself to the world of the signs of the Other using the resources of what does not begin “within” itself, therefore striving to refrain from obliterating itself just as it seems to have authenticated the uniqueness of its (own) existence. It is this relational aspect that Derrida makes us aware of about the ethical grounding of différance by referring to the constitutive function of the sign trace of the Other, the deferring difference between presence and repetition, self and nonself, which reveals itself as undecidability at the proliferative core of identity.

Derrida suggests that différance is or can stand for “the juncture – rather than the summation – of what has been most decisively inscribed in the thought of what is conveniently called our ‘epoch’” (“Différance,” p. 130). A poststructural age – that of the irreducible play of the sign – marks the delimitation of onto-theology, the decline of the metaphysics of presence (phono-logocentrism), and the possibility of an ethical opening of the subject toward the difference of the Other. But we must remember however the role of tradition in the formation of new thought. The following are given by Derrida as examples of the turns of difference within the reason of the prototypical thinkers that led to différance: “the difference of forces in Nietzsche, Saussure’s principle of semiological difference, differing as the possibility of [neurone] facilitation, impression and delayed effect in Freud, difference as the irreducibility of the trace of the other in Levinas, and the ontic-ontological difference in Heidegger” (Ibid., p. 130). All of these individuals have no doubt figured greatly in the elaboration of the working of deconstruction, but more importantly the list displays the “discoveries” or “inventions” of varying fields from the history of philosophy to theology, linguistics, and psychoanalysis that have changed or altered perceptions of the ethics of Western metaphysics in their refusal to be subdued or dominated by the dizzying substitutions of master signs within its self-enclosed system of truth and meaning. The exposition of the breadth of the contributions to the theory of différance makes a previous point quite clear: différance is not only “irreducible to every ontological or theological – onto-theological – reappropriation, but it opens up the very space in which onto-theology – philosophy – produces its system and its history. It thus encompasses and irrevocably surpasses onto-theology and philosophy” (Ibid., p. 135). The alogicality of its structure also prevents an afore-planned linearity within the reading of the writing of signs, for example, the ordering of a “reason” of strategy or of finality of purpose, a tacticality toward teleology, “philosophical-logical discourse,” and its symmetrical opposite “logico-empirical speech” (Ibid., p. 135). The alternative to these more or less traditional discourses of epistemological fortitude and forbearance is a “semiotics” of the play of difference as différance, a subject Derrida favors and has little difficulty in handling regarding the elements of difference in the teachings of Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Saussure, Martin Heidegger, and Emmanuel Levinas.


  1. Derrida, J. (1973). Speech and phenomena: And other essays on husserl’s theory of signs (trans: Allison, D. B.) (pp. 129–160). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. (Translations have been modified unless otherwise indicated.).Google Scholar
  2. Derrida, J. (1981). Positions (trans: Bass, A.) (p. 25). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  3. Derrida, J. (1988). Limited Inc. (trans: Weber, S., & Mehlman, J., Ed.: Graff, G.). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Curriculum, Teaching, and LearningOntario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto, OISE/UTTorontoCanada