Friday, December 2, 2011

Impossible Precision

On Tuesday we discussed the idea of deconstructionism in Derrida’s post-modernist philosophy. I was very intrigued about studying his work because of a previous English class I had taken in which we used structuralist and post-structuralist perspectives to analyze texts.

Structuralism is seen as largely a criticism of communication – particularly in writing – because that is how it is often applied. However, it is actually an examination of the formation and expression of thought. Our language is made up of signifiers for signs – such as the arbitrary word “tree” to signify the particular plant that is ascribed to. From a structualist perspective, as we gain more signs for each part of the tree, we gain a distinctive understand of its components. We no longer see trees as trees but as oak, poplars, and chestnuts. We no longer know it as a tree but as a trunk, bark, leaves, branches, etc. The more signs we understand and perceive the more distinctions that are possible between all of the trees parts, and as a result, the further it can be broken down. It then follows that the language which a person uses to communicate has an influence on their thinking. You cannot truly perceive the leaves as leaves without knowing the name (or signifier) for them.

Following this understanding further, you can posit that language does not just giver precision to thoughts, but can limit them within arbitrary confines defined by that particular language (the way signifiers and signs interact). For instance, the Russian language does not define colors so broadly as blue, yellow, red, etc. Russian speakers have different terms for specific types of blue and red built into their language as a fundamental component – this lends to them an ability to more greatly express colors and distinguish between them – as if they could see them better than an English speaker.

Derrida understands this and takes it a step further, saying that without signs there is no meaning. Signs allow for the categorization and understanding of the world. As the signs, and their signifiers become more and more in the complexity of each grows (the degree to which each is complex is dependent on its relationship with other signs). This is where is famous line that “there is nothing outside of the text” comes from. He then uses this to turn the system and networks of meaning that compose the entirety of human intellect. He, in particularly, critics writing – especially philosophical writing – in his reactive, deconstructionist perspective which explains the ways in which these signs make precise, simply, direct communication impossible.

A main point of Derrida’s philosophy is that we repress the inexhaustible number of meanings each sign has by lying to ourselves and saying that the meaning is simple and understood. There is no way for the meaning of words to be completely nailed down. It is a futile effort according to Derrida, and any attempt made by the author or speaker to gain control of context is equally vain. Once projected out into the world, our attempts to express our notions – whether in writing or speech – are separated from us and for the world to view as they will. There is no way for them to be altered in the aftermath.


  1. I think that you are bringing up a good idea. I am still trying to find the connection between this and other existential thoughts. I think that I am missing something completely.

  2. I understand what you're pointing out about structuralism and it makes sense logically. Signs that we assign are similar to the assignation of value, which are concrete for the individual, but are not universally concrete. I makes sense. I guess I just find it straight-forward and slightly obvious. What does do you think this concept of structuralism means? Am I missing an essential point that defends the necessity of structuralism?


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