Derrida’s Adoption and Adaptation of Saussure’s Linguistic Theory:
Jacques Derrida adapts, rather than solely adopts, Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistic theory by suggesting that the center of a structure be temporarily ignored/neglected. His idea has thoroughly subverted the Western metaphysics that there does exist a center, or an origin, whatsoever, since Plato, and it further exerts immense impact over the many following writers/critics. Samuel Beckett’s Absurdist masterpiece, Waiting for Godot (1957), David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly (1986), and such theorists as Paul de Man and Harold Bloom are more or less under Derrida’s influence. In a sense, Derrida and his theory of deconstruction have become the “center” of post-strucuralist thought, whereas interestingly for Hazard Adams, Derrida’s “central” position in history goes against his own idea that “deconstruction attacks all notions of center, origin, closure, and “totalization” (1116). In composing this paper, I aim to discuss the amendments Derrida has made on Saussure’s linguistic theory and find out how Derrida’s theory has been completed by relating to and differentiating from that of Saussure’s.
ß The Influence of Saussure’s Conception of Differential System in Language on Derrida’s Concept of Deconstruction
To begin talking about Derrida’s concept of Deconstruction, there is a need to first talk about the major influence Derrida received from his pioneer theorist, linguist Saussure. Derrida’s concept of Deconstruction is a revision of Saussure’s interpretation of the nature of language, to be more specific, Saussure’s differential system in language.
In explaining language structure, Saussure rejects the notion of perceiving language as a structure of human mimicry of the world. Conversely, he proposes a study of langue, which is a linguistic system that is related to the social aspect of language. Within the system, a vocabulary word is a component of two entities: the signifier and the signified. The signifier is a written or spoken constituent, while the signified is a concept that is expressed through the signifier; thus, the combination of the signifier and the signified produces a sign that carries a concept in our minds. However, there is no inherent relationship between the signifier and the signified and this relationship is arbitrary and conventional. Such being the case, how can a word as a sign produce a meaning? According to Saussure, meanings of words are relational, which means meanings are produced upon the comparison between signs. Thence, Saussure’s explanation of language as a system of differences is derived (Bressler 61).
With Saussure’s concept of language as a system of differences, Derrida purports his concept of “Difference.” He explains:
Every concept is necessarily and essential inscribed in a chain or a system, within which it refers to another and to other concepts by the systematic play of differences. Such a play, then—difference is no longer simply a concept, but the possibility of conceptuality. (Derrida 25)
The word “Differance” comes from “differer,” a French word. Raman Selden explains the idea of “Differance” by stating that, “In French, the ‘a’ in ‘difference’ is not heard, and so we hear only ‘difference’. The ambiguity is perceptible only in writing: the verb ‘differer’ means both ‘to differ’ and ‘to defer’” (171). “To differ” is close to Saussure’s concept of differential system in language, while “to defer” is an infinite postponement of achieving a full presence.
Apparently, from the aforementioned exemplification, we can conclude that Saussure’s differential system has a significant influence on Derrida. Nevertheless, to invest further into the discussion of Derrida’s adoption of Saussure’s concept, an important difference between Saussure and Derrida’s thoughts has to be evaluated, which involves their respective interpretations of the necessity for a center.
ß The Difference of Derrida’s Concept of Deconstruction from Saussure’s Conception of a Differential System: The Idea of De-centering
In accordance with Robert M. Strozier’s account of Saussure’s conception of a differential system in language, which states “Saussure’s structure is most clearly tied to a center, and specifically to a subject who is prior to language and the origin of the forms that are induced onto language material to create a structure” (208), we come to realize that the linguistic system that Saussure proposes is a one with an origin or center.
Derrida, on the other hand, rejects the notion that meanings in any form should be related to a center in his concept of deconstruction. This concept of de-centering is exemplified in Derrida’s essay “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” when he emphasizes the necessity of the free play of signification:
Henceforth, it was necessary to begin thinking that there was no center, that the center could not be thought in the form of a present-being, that the center had no natural site, that it was not a fixed locus but a function, a sort of non-locus in which an infinite number of sign-substitutions came into play. (1118)
This absence of a center or origin provides us with freer and infinite possibilities in understanding the meaning of a signification.
Strozier points out the difference between Derrida and Saussure’s explanations of the language system by saying:
Derrida cuts off the relation to an origin and thereby deconstructs metaphysics. What remains is a specific kind of structure: a negative, differential structure, the kind of structure which Saussure develops in synchronic development. (206)
Strozier describes Derrida’s adaptation of Saussure’s conception of differential system in language as a negative, differential system. Apparently, Derrida’s use of Saussure’s concept is exemplified by neglecting the presence of an originating subject—the concept of de-centering.
Also, Derrida adopts Saussure’s idea that through analyzing the relationships and differences between signifiers, meaning can be located. Apart from Saussure, Derrida applies this theory further to explain the arbitrary and conventional characteristics of the signified, which Saussure perceives as the center of meanings. In doing so, Derrida opposes Saussure’s claim towards the importance of the transcendental Signified.
In brief, Derrida’s concept of deconstruction differs from his predecessor Saussure’s conception of differential system with the introduction of the notion of de-centering.
ß Derrida’s Interpretation of the Transcendental Signified
From the previous chapters, it is stated explicitly that Derrida adopts Saussure’s reasoning that nothing in language is meaningful in and of itself; meanings are derived from a system of difference. Peter Brunette relates this adoption to Derrida’s criticism on the emphasis of the transcendental signified in Western metaphysics, testifying:
Derrida sees this as an almost inadvertent breach of what he calls the “metaphysics of presence,” that system of thought common to the Western tradition since Socrates holding that that which is, is that which is present or capable of being present. (6)
The transcendental signified, with reference to Derrida explanation, “is an external point of reference upon which one may build a concept or philosophy” (Bressler 75). Derrida criticizes the existence of transcendental signified in Western metaphysics by questioning its possibility of being a full presence.
The transcendental signified, furthermore, is said to possess meaning by itself, not by relating or differentiating from other signifieds. If that is the case, transcendental signifieds automatically act as the center of meaning to secondary signifieds, providing the basic structure for secondary signifieds to develop their ideas around the “centers” of truth. This apparently is opposite to Derrida’s concept of de-centering where the desire of searching for a center or origin (logo centrism) is of no necessity.
Although Derrida does not support the idea of “logo centrism,” this does not mean that he is thinking of such outside terms as God, reason, truth, humanity, etc., that function as centers. Derrida understands that “Any attempt to undo a particular concept is to become caught up in the terms which the concept depends on” (Selden 171); thereby, he admits the fact that he must work within metaphysics, and can never escape from exemplifying them. The purpose of Derrida’s concept of de-centering is to show that metaphysical terms (the transcendental signified) can only exemplify their functions by relating and differentiating from their opposites. For example, with the concept of Evil, can Good exhibit it meaning.
In general, the natural desire to have a center or origin restricts the derivation of meanings in the signified. Derrida suggests the deliberate negligence of the transcendental signified, so as, through the free play of the signification, meanings can be obtained from differences. That is why he says:
In the absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse— provided we can agree on this word—that is to say, a system in which the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences. The absence of the transcendental extends the domain and the play of signification infinitely… as soon as one seeks to demonstrate in the way that there is no transcendental or privileged signified and that the domain or play of signification henceforth has no limit, one must reject even the concept of word “sign” itself— which is precisely what cannot be done. (1118)
Literally speaking, Post-structuralism is a continuation of Structuralism. However, when we define Post-structuralism, there is a need to include the explanation of the term Deconstruction, which is a form of re-vision for Structuralism. By merely explaining Post-structuralism as the follow-on of Structuralism seemingly imposes on structuralism an inherent meaning, which renders it to act as the center for Post-structuralism. Thus, when we are to define Post-structuralism, the act of Deconstruction is required to provide the signification, “Post-structuralism,” an infinite space for free play to relate and differentiate from other significations in order to derive its meaning. As a re-vision of Structuralism, Post-structuralism means more than a succession to the former Structuralist trend.
No doubt, Saussure can be regarded as a predecessor of Derrida. But by adapting, instead of merely adopting, Saussure’s theory, Derrida is simply neglecting the full presence of Saussure, and by relating and differentiating his thoughts from that of Saussure; he is able to conclude Deconstruction with a set of concepts such as Differance, the free play of signification and the temporary negligence of the center, the origin, etc.
Bressler, Charles E. Literary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1994.
Burnette, Peter. Screen/Play: Derrida and Film Theory. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989.
Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” A Critical Theory Since Plato: A Reader. Ed. Hazard Adams. Orlando: HBJ, 1992. 1116-1126.
-----. A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds. Ed. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Columbia UP, 1991.
Selden, Raman. A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory. 4th ed. Hertfordshire: Prentice Hall, 1997.
Stronzier, Robert M. Saussure, Derrida, and the Metaphysics of Subjectivity. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1988.