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Stuart Dalton

Gadamer and Derrida on the Ultimate Nature of Language

Many have argued that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the work of Gadamer and Derrida, that there are essential differences in their thought that preclude any dialogue between the two.1 I disagree. Without denying that there are important differences in their thinking, I maintain that there are also significant points of contact, and we can better understand their differences by arriving at them through previously established similarities -- through a nexus of agreement that binds their philosophies together. In this way their differences can be approached from a common ground that will facilitate understanding and also provide a point of contrast for the areas of disagreement.

One such area of common ground can be found by considering their views on the ultimate nature of language. Gadamer and Derrida share, on the whole, very similar views on this topic. And where their views differ, understanding their sameness first can help to clarify those differences. In addition, their positions on language help to delineate the nature of their projects as a whole. An investigation of language can clarify where Gadamer and Derrida are trying to accomplish essentially the same thing, and where they are trying to do radically different things. It can clarify the extent to which they are working on the same level.

My approach in this essay will be first to lay out Gadamer's views on language, and then to see to what extent Derrida's position corresponds to Gadamer's or departs from it. In the end I hope to show that Derrida is following or duplicating Gadamer in most of his thinking about language, but diverging from Gadamer's path at crucial junctures. I also hope to show that those divergences point out crucial differences in their thought.

1. Gadamer ^

The question that guides Gadamer in Truth and Method is, «How is understanding possible?» (TM xxx)2 He is not attempting to provide a method that will allow us to verify correct understanding, but rather an explanation of the very possibility of understanding in general. Truth and Method is not about the truth of method, or even about method at all. It is, on the whole, a very un-methodical book. Its concern is not methodological or practical but rather «philosophic: not what we do or what we ought to do, but what happens to us over and above our wanting and doing» (TM xxviii).3 Gadamer situates his investigations on a transcendental level. They seek, he claims, to ask a philosophic question «in the same sense» that Kant asked: «what are the conditions of our knowledge, by virtue of which modern science is possible, and how far does it extend?» (TM xxix)

In order to answer this question concerning the possibility of understanding in general, Gadamer turns repeatedly to the notion of dialogue. He describes the process of understanding as a conversation because he believes that the text (which can be any object, event, or person) contributes just as much as the reader/interpreter. Both have a voice in the conversation. The interpreter must project her prejudices onto the text, and then be prepared to have those prejudices adjusted and corrected as they are reflected back to her by the text. She must work through those prejudices by determining their applicability to the text at hand. In this process she must be prepared for the text to surprise her -- to tell her something new (TM 269). She must be open to the text's alterity, but also intent upon fusing her own horizons with those of the text. And she must be willing to adapt as those horizons change over time, since both she and the text are historically effected beings. Understanding requires the interpreter to be an active participant in a dialogue that has no end.4

Gadamer explains that he deliberately chose the concept of dialogue as a way of following Hegel -- without following him all the way. The dialogue he has set forth is (by definition) «dialectical,» but he takes pains to distinguish it from dialectical logic in the Hegelian sense. While he thinks that Hegel's philosophy defines an important road-not-taken by most of the hermeneutic tradition, he also believes that it is a dangerous road, which one must follow with great care (Hegel himself called it the «way of despair»).5 Gadamer wants to explore the mediated nature of understanding while still remaining free from «the embrace of the synthetic power of the Hegelian dialectic,» which he believes has roots in the «'logic'that developed from the dialectic of Plato» (TM xxxvii). Understanding must be possible through a mediation that is not a synthesis, a conversation that preserves the identity and the individuality of the participants.

«Dialogue» is offered as such a mediation. It is a more humble alternative to the powerful logic of Hegelian dialectic, a finite movement of mediation that -- though surely not as impressive as the infinite and totalizing movement of Absolute Spirit -- nevertheless has the advantage of being able to explain how understanding is possible for finite human beings. Gadamer names four particular aspects of «dialogue» that differentiate it from Hegelian «dialectic.» In dialogue: (1) the concept of «the whole» is always relative; (2) history is what effects one's being, not the object of absolute knowledge; (3) understanding is always finite; (4) there is always a textual «other» that remains and that does not get completely assimilated in the event of understanding (xxxv). So interpretation is not a digestive activity for Gadamer. He emphasizes that it includes «elements of conflict» that do not trouble the calm surface of dialectic (TM 261n). Though he is deliberately following Hegel in certain aspects of his philosophy, one of Gadamer's primary projects in Truth and Method is to differentiate his version of mediation from Hegel's version of synthesis, and to steer clear of the latter's pitfalls.

Gadamer turns his attention to language in Part Three of Truth and Method. The first two parts of the book, he says, have spelled out some of the particular details of the conversational process; now it is time to step back from these details and consider the larger picture. Part Three completes Gadamer's explanation of the dialogue that makes understanding possible by situating the entire process within language.

Gadamer argues that language and thought are coextensive (e.g., 401, 417). Thinking finds itself always already within language, immersed in it, unable to extricate itself from the medium and examine it from a distance. Thinking is always already in language, and language is always already in thought. They cannot be separated; they always find themselves together.

Language is not, therefore, merely a handy tool for exhibiting concepts that have been pre-formed and stored away by thought (e.g., 429, 406). Thought cannot so easily master language and shape it into a tool, a tool to which it can turn when it feels so inclined, but which it can always put away again when its utility has been exhausted. Thinking is in no position to exert such operations on language; it cannot get language in its grasp. Rather than serving as mere exhibition equipment ready-to-hand for thought, language participates in the very process of concept formation that occurs in thought.

The interpreter does not use words and concepts like a craftsman who picks up his tools and then puts them away. Rather, we must recognize that all understanding is interwoven with concepts and reject any theory that does not accept the intimate unity of word and subject matter (403).

Thus, Gadamer denies that thinking can ever get «behind» language and take possession of some more fundamental ground, from which to anchor and secure language. Thinking does not precede language, but neither does language precede thought. They both occur together, without ground, hovering in a circular movement over an Abgrund. The hermeneutic circle describes this groundless motion, as well as the impossibility of separating the partners that are caught in its orbit (TM 266-271). Gadamer thinks that another way of saying all of this is simply: «understanding is interpretation» (since interpretation is already assumed to be linguistically situated) (403). There is no understanding -- there is no thought -- that is not linguistic.

The idea that language is coextensive with thinking implies a very broad, inclusive view of what constitutes language. Gadamer declares quite directly that «being that can be understood is language» (Sein, das verstanden werden kann, ist Sprache) (xxxiv, 474). What exactly does this mean?

First of all, a confusion in the English translation needs to be cleared up. In the translation language is described as a «verbal» phenomenon. But the word that gets translated as 'verbal' is consistently some form of Sprache, which refers to language in general -- not just its spoken form. So a better translation of sprachlich, for example, would be 'linguistic' rather than 'verbal.' 'Verbal', however, is an adequate translation, as long as it is understood in its broad etymological sense of «having to do generally with words,» or «being linguistic in nature,» rather than in the more narrow, modern sense which limits it strictly to speech.

The necessity of reading sprachlich in this way is evident not just from a consideration of definitions and etymology, however, but also from numerous texts in which Gadamer uses the term. Consider just one:

What has come down to us by way of verbal tradition (sprachlicher Überlieferung) is not left over but given to us, told us -- whether through direct retelling, in which myth, legend, and custom have their life, or through written tradition... The full hermeneutical significance of the fact that tradition is essentially verbal (das Wesen der Überlieferung durch Sprachlichkeit charakterisiert ist) becomes clear in the case of a written tradition... (389-390)

Gadamer then proceeds for the next six pages to discuss at length the fact that writing is not derived from speech, and that written texts have an «ideal» nature that grants iterability and radical separation from both authors and readers.

Writing is no mere accident or mere supplement that qualitatively changes nothing in the course of oral tradition. (TM 391).

In actual fact, writing is central to the hermeneutical phenomenon insofar as its detachment both from the writer or author and from a specifically addressed recipient or reader gives it a life of its own. What is fixed in writing has raised itself into a public sphere of meaning in which everyone who can read has an equal share. (TM 392)

But that language is capable of being written is by no means incidental to its nature. Rather, this capacity for being written down is based on the fact that speech itself shares in the pure ideality of meaning that communicates itself in it. (TM 392)

It is obvious from these texts (and others) that Gadamer is not excluding writing from his theory of language, nor in any way privileging the spoken over the written (or the written over the spoken).

By the same token, Gadamer does not exclude any other form of interpretation from the linguistic sphere, or assign it a status that is less than that of speaking or writing. Performance, as in music or a play, has the same basic linguistic nature as does reading a text, he argues (399). «Verbal interpretation [Sprachliche Auslegung] is the form of all interpretation, even when what is to be interpreted is not linguistic in nature [wo das Auslegen gar nicht sprachlicher Natur] -- i. e., is not a text but a statue or a musical composition. We must not let ourselves be confused by forms of interpretation that are not verbal [nicht sprachlich sind] but in fact presuppose language [in Wahrheit die Sprachlichkeit doch voraussetzen]» (398). All possible forms of interpretation -- of understanding -- are linguistic in nature, and occur in language. It is in this sense that all being which can be understood is language.

This suggests that Gadamer's philosophy includes a concept of «language in general» which transcends all particular languages. This transcendental form of language (which, again, is coextensive with reason) would make possible the translation from one given language into another, and it would also be the means whereby reason escapes from the confines of any particular language. There is a «superior universality [überlegene Allgemeinheit] with which reason rises above the limitations of any given language [gegebenen Sprachverfassung]. The hermeneutical experience is the corrective by means of which the thinking reason escapes the prison of language [Bann des Sprachlichen], and it is itself verbally [sprachlich] constituted» (402). Thus, the thought that is coextensive with language would take place not on the level of a particular (natural or technical) language, but rather on a transcendental level of language that is not confined to the particular «conventions of meaning that have become sedimented in language» (401). Gadamer maintains that since «there are basically no bounds set to understanding... the verbal form [sprachliche Erfassung] in which this understanding is interpreted must contain within it an infinite dimension that transcends all bounds. Language [Die Sprache] is the language [die Sprache] of reason itself» (TM 401). Clearly that language which is the language of reason itself is a transcendental form of language in general, which would make possible any particular system of language.6 For this reason the fact that we often feel at a loss for words, or unable to adequately express an idea or feeling, does not deny the universality of language (in its general sense). Rather, it merely demonstrates the limitations of a particular language.

This «transcendental» form of language is not a transcendens pure and simple, but rather something more like a «quasi-transcendental.» Gadamer seems to situate this (quasi)transcendental not over and above all of human experience, but rather in the «in-between» space of human understanding. Hermeneutics, Gadamer has told us, occurs in the «in-between» that separates the text's familiarity and its strangeness: the possibility of its proximity within our own historically effected horizons and its persistent, irreconcilable alterity. Because hermeneutics operates in this intermediate region its task is to clarify the conditions of the possibility of understanding (TM 295). One of these conditions now appears to be language (in general), as the universal medium in which all understanding and thought takes place. Such a general language situates the hermeneutic conversation, and makes it possible. Thus, the event of understanding that always occurs «in-between» does not occur in a mysterious void, but rather in a linguistic context that is always already meaningful.

At this point, the question naturally arises whether this «general» concept of language is so general as to be meaningless. Gadamer would argue that such is the case only if one assumes that the meaningfulness of a given system can be established from a position outside of that system, from a transcendent vantage point which grants one a perspective of the whole. Gadamer (and Heidegger) both reject this assumption. They argue that the situatedness of finite human beings within a hermeneutic circle does not eliminate meaning and truth and reduce us to arbitrariness and confusion. The situatedness of human being is not cause for despair. The point is not to try and break out of the circle, but rather to come into it in the right way (cfr. 266-267).

From Gadamer's perspective, what appears meaningless is rather the assertion that language must be less than coextensive with thinking, and that somehow understanding can escape from language and take root in a non-linguistic ground. The very form of such a critique, Gadamer argues, would appear to be contradictory:

[T]he critical superiority which we claim over language... says nothing about the essential connection between understanding and language. In fact it confirms this connection. For all critique that rises above the schematism of our statements in order to understand finds its expression in the form of language. Hence language always forestalls any objection to its jurisdiction. Its universality keeps pace with the universality of reason (401).

2. Derrida ^

The closest thing to a «method» or a «model» in Derrida's philosophy, that would match up with Gadamer's model of «dialogue,» would be the activity that Derrida calls «deconstruction.» «Deconstruction» connects with «dialogue» in interesting ways. It can be seen as a form of dialogue itself, and envisioning it along these lines helps to clarify its conservative side, the element of continuity that is emphasized in it.

Derrida explains that deconstruction is an attempt to delimit the metaphysical tradition from the inside. An excellent way to conceive this activity is in terms of an immanent conversation. The deconstructive voice engages the voice of the tradition in a dialogue, the purpose of which is to release other voices that the tradition has silenced. The goal of deconstruction is to extend the conversation, to multiply the voices that contribute to it, to expand the content of its concern. Deconstruction wants to start a dialogue that will work upon itself in an immanent, ex-plosive reaction that liberates voices and proliferates discussion. The «discourse» of deconstruction, Derrida explains, «irreducibly belongs to the system of metaphysical oppositions,» and seeks within that system to engage it in a dialogue that will generate «a force of dislocation that spreads itself throughout the entire system, fissuring it in every direction and thoroughly delimiting it» (FS 20).7 The system must be fissured only so that it can be expanded, so that newly liberated voices can join in the conversation. Thus the work of de-construction is ultimately constructive.8

Derrida denies that such a constructive work can be achieved by anything but a conversation that engages metaphysics from the inside. He regards as naive any attempt to simply «destroy» metaphysics; such attempts always implicate themselves in their own destructive cycle (SSP 280-282). There is no «Trojan horse» that can be wheeled in from outside the gates of the metaphysical city, concealing utterly foreign conceptual weapons capable of destroying the unsuspecting citizens (CHM 36). We are those very citizens, Derrida argues, and we cannot pass beyond the city walls. There are two reasons for this, corresponding to two ways of seeing our situation within the metaphysical tradition. First, (conceiving our situation negatively), we are simply incapable of effecting a radical break with the metaphysical tradition -- there are no non-metaphysical tools for us to use, no non-metaphysical language for us to speak (P 19, 24). Second, (conceiving our situation positively), we cannot pass beyond the walls of the city because we do not want to. Deconstruction, conceived as conversation, focuses on this affirmative vision of our situation. If we want to engage the metaphysical tradition in a conversation that it will understand, then we must use the language of that tradition. Thus, deconstruction situates itself within metaphysics and adopts its terms and concepts to «destroy [but in a constructive way] the old machinery to which they belong and of which they themselves are pieces» (SSP 284). «The movements of deconstruction do not destroy structures from the outside.» Instead, they operate «necessarily from the inside, borrowing all the strategic and economic resources from the old structure» (G 24).

To use the resources of the old structure without being implicated in its exclusionary logic requires careful strategies. Derrida describes these strategies in terms of «doubling.» Deconstruction must be a «double science» (cfr. DS 173-286). The metaphysical tradition within which it works is a binary system of opposing concepts arranged in hierarchies of dominance and submission, superiority and inferiority, for example: «remedy/poison, good/evil, intelligible/sensible, high/low, mind/matter, life/death, inside/outside, speech/writing» (DS 24-25). The conversation effected by deconstruction must employ the language of metaphysics not merely to reverse these metaphysical oppositions, but also to displace them (P 41-42, SEC 21). If deconstruction were content to stop with the first movement of reversal, it would not bring anything new to the conversation. It would only rearrange the speakers, assigning to them new roles in a new hierarchy of oppositions. It is only through the second movement, which displaces the hierarchy, that deconstruction successfully opens up the conversation -- not only to the voices that were formerly assigned unprivileged positions in the dialogue, but also to other voices that were given no place at all.

Like Gadamer, Derrida also wants to distinguish his «method» from Hegel's dialectical logic. Deconstruction, conceived as a conversation, is a mediated -- but not a synthetic -- process. The Hegelian dialectic is the example par excellence of the metaphysical tradition as a silencing of voices. In its «conversation» all voices are eventually drowned out, until only the voice of the Absolute Mind is left (to commune with itself). Deconstruction opposes this movement. The «economy of différance, » to which deconstruction leads (and which I will discuss later on), is not a dialectical economy (DS 6n-7n). Différance derails the Hegelian machine. The Aufhebung is «displaced,» dirempted, «constrained into writing itself otherwise» (D 19-20). «If there were a definition of différance, it would be precisely the limit, the interruption, the destruction of the Hegelian relève wherever it operates» (P 40-41).

The theory of language that is at work when Derrida deploys his deconstructive method is also quite similar to Gadamer's. This can be seen first of all by examining Derrida's critique of Husserl in Speech and Phenomena. Here Derrida argues that Husserl's attempt to separate consciousness and language, (in order to allow consciousness to achieve pure presence-to-self, unmediated by language), is a failed attempt that falsifies the nature of the sign and the nature of language in general. Consciousness and language cannot be so easily separated. In reality they are «difficult to discern,» and «their indiscernibility introduce[s] nonpresence and difference (mediation, signs, referral back, etc.) in the heart of self-presence» (SP 15). Consciousness is not something that occurs prior to language, outside of its influences. There is not a pure «presentation» in thought that precedes the «impure» re-presentation of signs. Derrida argues that such a «pure,» unmediated perception «does not exist» (SP 45n). «There never was any 'perception'» in this pure sense (SP 103). Instead thought is always already a matter of re-presentation that occurs within language. Language is not merely an «unproductive» tool that pure thought may use, but does not really need (SP 33). It is involved in thought, it contributes to thinking, and consequently the two cannot really be separated.

[T]here is every reason to believe that representation and reality are not merely added together here and there in language, for the simple reason that it is impossible in principle to rigorously distinguish them. And it doesn't help to say that this happens in language; language in general -- and language alone -- is this. (SP 49-50)

(This sounds very much like, «Being which can be understood is language.»)

Elsewhere, Derrida confirms and expands on the theory of language that he outlined in Speech and Phenomena. «The fact of language,» he argues, «is probably the only fact ultimately to resist all parenthization» (CHM 37). Language cannot be «bracketed» in order to investigate something more profound («reason») beneath its surface. In fact, the order of reason is a linguistic order; it is inextricably tied up with language from beginning to end (CHM 35, D 16). No «origin» can be identified for the interwoven cord of thought and language: such supposed «origins» are really after-effects that are generated by the ensemble of thought and reason (DS 21). Language cannot «emerge from itself in order to articulate its origin» (FS 27). Language is a «system» of differences, of differential signs with no original or central «transcendental signified» (SSP 280). This system is finite, though not totalized. Within its finite field there are infinite possibilities, due to the «overabundance» of the sign and its «movement of supplementarity» (SSP 289-290, FS 25).

Such a «system» of language is very broad and inclusive. Again, this is similar to Gadamer's view of language. The well-known «principle» of deconstruction that there is «nothing outside the text» does not mean that words only connect with other words and have no reference. It is not a denial of objective reality, but rather an affirmation of a broad view of language, and hence of textuality.

To allege that there is no absolute outside of the text is not to postulate some ideal immanence, the incessant reconstitution of writing's relation to itself... . If there is nothing outside the text, this implies, with the transformation of the concept of text in general, that the text is no longer the snug airtight inside of an interiority or an identity-to-itself... but rather a different placement of the effects of opening and closing. (DS 35-36)

Deconstruction is «limited» to textual analysis only because it conceives of the whole world -- of all being which can be understood -- as a text (DS 32-33, P 34).

Derrida affirms that by «language» he means «action, movement, thought, reflection, consciousness, unconsciousness, experience, affectivity, etc.» (G 9). So it would appear that his broad conception of language does not assign a privileged position to any form of language or linguistic experience. Except, that is, for one glaring exception. Derrida's discussions of the unique nature, and apparently privileged status, of writing are well known (cfr. SEC 3-12). The same passage quoted above from Grammatology goes on to say the following: «Now we tend to say 'writing' for all that and more: to designate not only the physical gestures of literal pictographic or ideographic inscription, but also the totality of what makes it possible» (G 9). Writing presents a strange exception to what is otherwise an equality among all forms of linguistic expression and experience in Derrida's theory of language.

This particular difference, this divergence in a theory of language that is otherwise quite similar to Gadamer's, points to an even larger and more important difference in their thinking about the (quasi)transcendental nature of language. For Gadamer there is a general form of language that transcends all particular languages. This general language allows thought to escape from the confines of particular languages, and their «sedimented» categories. It assumes a (quasi)transcendental position in the in-between space of hermeneutics -- between the text and its interpreter, the familiar and the strange -- and thereby grants to thinking a critical dimension. For Derrida there is also a critical, transcendental dimension to language; for him, however, this takes the form not of «language in general,» but rather of a particular aspect of language. The (quasi)transcendental for Derrida is «writing,» or more precisely, «archi-writing.»9

It is important to clarify first of all that archi-writing is not exactly writing in the usual sense. Rather it is a system of inscription and tracing that occurs at a deeper level (D 13). Just as Gadamer posited a more general form of language that would transcend particular languages, Derrida speaks of a more general form of writing that would transcend what we normally think of as writing (SEC 3). Such a system, Derrida argues, serves to make possible (so-called) «normal» writing (the kind that I am doing right now as I type this essay), as well as all other forms of linguistic expression and experience (in short: all being which can be understood) (SEC 17).10 Archi-writing is a «writing before the letter» (D 15, G 1-94). It designates «not only the physical gestures of literal pictographic or ideographic inscription, but also the totality of what makes it possible; and also, beyond the signifying face, the signified face itself. And thus we say 'writing' for all that gives rise to an inscription in general» (G 9, my emphasis). Archi-writing is the system of inscription that makes all other systems (including language) possible (D 11-12, P 43, FS 15, SSP 278-279).

Derrida uses numerous other terms besides «archi-writing» to refer to this system. Among them are «différance,» «trace,» «re-mark,» «hymen,» «pharmakon,» «supplément,» etc. (cfr. P 43, DS 220-221). Believing that no single word can capture all that is at stake in archi-writing, he uses different terms at different moments in his texts in order to emphasize a particular aspect of the system of archi-writing. It is important to note that all of these terms bear some relation to writing, however.11 All of them reverberate with the echoes of the general system of inscription of which they speak.

To emphasize what I want to emphasize in archi-writing, différance is the most useful term. Différance denotes the «activity» or «movement» of (simultaneously) differing and deferring that is at work in archi-writing.12 It is deployed in a systematic «economy» (D 3, DS 5), which Derrida describes as «the most general structure of economy» (P 8): the economy that makes other economies possible. He provides further clues into the nature of this economy when he tells us that it is «the common root of all the oppositional concepts that mark our language,» and also the «production... of these differences» (P 9). The economy of différance is therefore the «source,» the condition of the possibility of all differences. The «playing movement» of différance generates and underlies the various differences that are then treated by metaphysics as oppositional pairs (D 11).

As the «origin» of differences, the economy of différance apparently «resides» in a space «in-between» differences (D 5, 8-9, DS 222). Within that space «in-between» it creates a «becoming-space» from which new differences can emerge and former differences can undergo changes (P 27). So where exactly is this space? Derrida seems to suggest that the question is not a proper one. The «space» between differences that is «occupied» by the economy of différance is a kind of pre-spatial space (G 290). It is not exactly inside or outside, beneath or above, within or without (SP 102-103, DS 231). It escapes from all of these oppositions because it is the system that constitutes them as differences. Différance is like the Freudian unconscious, which is always deferred but never «present» elsewhere (D 21).

It is clear, however, that the in-between of différance is not the same in-between that is occupied by Gadamer's general language. Whereas Gadamer situated language-in-general in the «hermeneutic space» that intercedes between the interpreter and the text, between strangeness and familiarity, and thus on the level of understanding, Derrida situates the economy of différance -- the general system of archi-writing -- on a more «fundamental» level. Archi-writing does its (playful) work on a level that, according to Derrida, is constitutive of differences in general. It underlies the differences that separate interpreter and text in the process of understanding, but it underlies other differences as well. The becoming space of archi-writing is «deeper» than the hermeneutic space that situates understanding. It is the indeterminate play-space that gives rise to the differences that in turn constitute understanding.

I think that the different «locations» of Gadamer's language-in-general and Derrida's archi-writing are due to the fact that the two philosophers are starting from different questions. Gadamer asks: «What makes understanding possible?» and thus situates his investigation on the level of hermeneutics. But it seems to me that Derrida asks quite a different question. He asks not just what makes understanding possible, but rather what makes all systems possible.13 This questioning of systematicity leads Derrida to a level that is «deeper» than hermeneutics (DS 53). He is looking for a «general system» that is a condition for every particular system (FS 19, GS 167, SSP 280). Despite the manifest diversity of his texts, he thinks nevertheless that, taken together, they form «a certain system» which is «open to the undecidable resource that sets the system in motion» (P 3).14 Language is one of the systems whose possibility he seeks (SEC 18-20); philosophy and metaphysics are others (P 51, QQ 293). Understanding itself can be seen as a certain system, whose conditions remain within a more general system.

Thus, the biggest divergence in the thinking of Gadamer and Derrida on the nature of language occurs right at the beginning, in the different questions that motivate their thought. I do not think, however, that this initial divergence makes the two philosophies that follow incompatible. Derrida's questioning of the conditions for any system whatsoever, and his subsequent positing of the general system of archi-writing as a (quasi)transcendental source of all differences, does not in any way contradict the explanation that Gadamer has offered, at a different (higher) level concerning how understanding is possible. Gadamer's theory of understanding, which is rooted in temporality and language, would remain just as efficacious and explanatory in a Derridian context.15

In addition, I would argue that just as Gadamer's concept of writing-in-general does not reduce us to relativism and arbitrariness, neither does Derrida's «concept» of the general system of archi-writing. Though archi-writing itself is not a simple «concept,» «[t]his does not prevent it from producing conceptual effects and verbal or nominal concretions» (P 40). Archi-writing, in its (quasi)transcendental position between differences, cannot be assigned a determinate «meaning,» but this does not mean that the differences it generates are «meaningless» (P 14). All the members of the differential pairs (e.g., subject/object, signifier/signified) still exist, they are merely deprived of an ordering center in the form of a «transcendental signified» (P 29). In the place of this ordering center Derrida instead posits the play of différance, which is to be celebrated in «the joyous affirmation of the play of the world and of the innocence of becoming» (SSP 292). Derrida's philosophy does not destroy truth or reason; rather it opens up possibilities for new truths and new fields for reason, new challenges and possibilities for human understanding, new voices to participate in the dialogue.16 Conceived in this affirmative way, deconstruction seems particularly compatible with the dialogue of understanding that Gadamer has outlined.17

Copyright © 2008 Stuart Dalton

Stuart Dalton. «Gadamer and Derrida on the Ultimate Nature of Language». Dialegesthai. Rivista telematica di filosofia [in linea], anno 10 (2008) [inserito il 5 dicembre 2008], disponibile su World Wide Web: <>, [48 KB], ISSN 1128-5478.


  1. See, for example, the essays collected in the volume Dialogue and Deconstruction: The Gadamer-Derrida Encounter, ed. Diane P. Michelfelder and Richard E. Palmer (Albany: SUNY Press, 1989). The encounter between Gadamer and Derrida in April 1981 at the Goethe Institute in Paris, which is reproduced in the first part of this collection, would seem to suggest that even the authors -- Gadamer and Derrida -- believe that their philosophies are incompatible. (However, this conclusion should be held very tentatively, because it is not at all clear that they understood each other, or were even talking to each other.) Richard Palmer recounts their «discussion» in his article, «Improbable Encounter: Gadamer and Derrida,» Art Papers, 10.1 (1986) 36-39. <

  2. TM: Truth and Method, Second Revised Edition, tr. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York: Crossroads, 1991) <

  3. An interesting discussion of Gadamer's position on «method» can be found in Joel C. Weinsheimer, Gadamer's Hermeneutics: A Reading of Truth and Method (New Haven: Yale UP, 1985) 4-59. <

  4. For a good account of the requirements that Gadamerian dialogue impose upon an interpreter, see Georgia Warnke, Gadamer: Hermeneutics, Tradition and Reason (Oxford: Polity Press, 1987) 100-106. <

  5. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977) §78. <

  6. This does not imply, however, that thought can escape from all limits. Human thinking, like human being in general, remains finite for Gadamer. That thought and language have a certain transcendental quality does not make them utterly transcendent. <

  7. Abbreviations for works by Derrida: CHM «Cogito and the History of Madness,» Writing and Difference, tr. Alan Bass (Chicago: University Press, 1978) 31-63. D «Différance,» Margins of Philosophy, tr. Alan Bass (Chicago: University Press, 1982) 1-27. DS Dissemination, tr. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: University Press, 1981). FS «Force and Signification,» Writing and Difference, tr. Alan Bass (Chicago: University Press, 1978) 3-30. G Of Grammatology, tr. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976). GS «'Genesis and Structure' and Phenomenology,» Writing and Difference, tr. Alan Bass (Chicago: University Press, 1978) 154-168. P Positions, tr. Alan Bass (Chicago: University Press, 1981). QQ «Qual Quelle: Valéry's Sources,» Margins of Philosophy, tr. Alan Bass (Chicago: University Press, 1982) 273-306. SEC «Signature Event Context,» tr. Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman, Limited Inc, ed. Gerald Graff (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1988) 1-23. SP Speech and Phenomena, tr. David B. Allison (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1973). SSP «Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Science,» Writing and Difference, tr. Alan Bass (Chicago: University Press, 1978) 278-294. <

  8. Derrida also acknowledges that there is no such thing as a single, perfectly unified and homogenous «metaphysical tradition,» but rather multiple systems of metaphysics (DS 5). Thus, deconstruction must actually engage itself in multiple conversations with various systems. I will continue to speak of «metaphysics» as if it were a unitary system only for heuristic purposes, in order to keep the discussion from becoming unnecessarily complicated. <

  9. Two excellent treatments of the (quasi)transcendental nature of Derrida's philosophy are: Irene E. Harvey, Derrida and the Economy of Différance (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986); and Rodolphe Gasché, The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1986). Christopher Norris comments approvingly on both books in Deconstruction and the Interests of Theory (London: Pinter Publishers, 1988) 213-226; and What's Wrong with Postmodernism: Critical Theory and the Ends of Philosophy (New York: Harvester, 1990) 194-207. On the other hand, Richard Rorty thinks that reading Derrida as a transcendental philosopher is a grave mistake. See his «Is Derrida a Transcendental Philosopher?» Yale Journal of Criticism, 2.2 (1989) 207-217. And Mark C. Taylor also disagrees with this approach, though for very different reasons, in «Foiling Reflection,» Diacritics, 18.1 (Spring 1988) 54-65. <

  10. It is my contention that whenever Derrida speaks of «writing» in a way that assigns it a certain privilege or suggests that it has a transcendental status, he is speaking of archi-writing and not «normal writing.» This distinction is not always explicit in his texts. For an example of a reading of Derrida that does not allow for this distinction between «normal writing» and «archi-writing,» (and hence concludes that deconstruction is opposed to hermeneutics on the question of writing), see Wayne J. Froman, «L'Ecriture and Philosophical Hermeneutics,» Continental Philosophy IV: Gadamer and Hermeneutics, ed. Hugh J. Silverman (London: Routledge, 1991) 136-148. <

  11. Derrida notes this fact in DS 221. Rodolphe Gasché also calls attention to the connection between all of Derrida's «fundamental» terms and writing in The Tain of the Mirror, 175. <

  12. Derrida emphasizes that all descriptions of différance -- as well as all the other «fundamental terms» that refer to the system of archi-writing -- are written «under erasure.» All such descriptions are both true and false: they are not «true» of différance when they are understood in their metaphysical sense; but they are true when différance is understood «outside» the metaphysical tradition (to the extent that it is possible to think this way) (cf, D 7, 21). <

  13. Rodolphe Gasché argues for this conclusion in The Tain of the Mirror, 177-185. <

  14. See also the Translator's Introduction to Writing and Difference, ix. <

  15. For another reading of Gadamer and Derrida, one that takes them to be irreconcilably opposed (since Derrida is presumed to be a hopeless relativist), see Gary B. Madison, «Beyond Seriousness and Frivolity: a Gadamerian Response to Deconstruction,» The Hermeneutics of Postmodernity: Figures and Themes (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988) 106-122. Kathleen Wright, on the other hand, brings Gadamer and Derrida together on the question of the relationship between literature and philosophy, and concludes (interestingly) that on this question their supposed disagreement is really not a disagreement at all, (though they do disagree). See «Literature and Philosophy at the Crossroads,» Festivals of Interpretation: Essays on Hans-Georg Gadamer's Work, ed. Kathleen Wright (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990) 229-248. <

  16. Regarding the multiplication of voices see the «Interview with Derrida» conducted by Catherine David in Derrida and Différance, ed. David Wood and Robert Bernasconi (Warwick: Parousia Press, 1985) 107-127. <

  17. For an opposing view, which sees all of Derrida's work as a «dead end,» see the extremely unsympathetic (and acerbic) interpretation found in Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut, French Philosophy of the Sixties: an Essay on Antihumanism, trans. Mary H. S. Cattani (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990) 122-152. <

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