“Logocentrism” is a term often associated with the philosopher Jacques Derrida and with “deconstruction,” an approach to thinking for which Derrida is mainly responsible. Although the term “logocentrism” was not originated by Derrida, he certainly made it famous.
“Logos” is the Greek term for “word.” “Logocentrism” thus implies the centrality of the word. According to Derrida, almost the whole history of western philosophy, beginning with Plato, is an attempt to find a solid, stable ground for meaning. A focus on the spoken word – the word that emanates from a speaker’s mouth – has long seemed an appealing way to imagine that meanings can be stable and secure. If I say something to you directly, while speaking to you, you are much less likely to misunderstand me than if you happen to come across something I have written.
Anything I write soon becomes separated from me, and I cannot control how anything I write is eventually interpreted. Someone may read something that I write and come to a completely different interpretation of it than the meaning I originally intended.
In contrast, when I speak something directly to another person, I am physically present to make sure that my meaning has been understood and interpreted “correctly.” I can tell from the way a person reacts to what I have said whether that person has interpreted my words correctly. If the person seems to misunderstand or misinterpret my meaning, I can always explain the meaning more fully and more clearly. If the person is unsure of my meaning, he can always question me and ask me to provide fuller explanations.
Thus, the spoken word seems to be associated with clarity of meaning, whereas the written word often leads to diverse interpretations, including some meanings that the originator of the written words may never have “intended.”
For this reason (according to Derrida), the spoken word has always been glorified as the ideal form of the use of language in Western culture. It has always been privileged. Our culture has tended to be “logocentric” because it has long celebrated spoken speech as the ideal use of language. In spoken speech, there seems to be no separation between the words and mind, between speech and speaker.
However, as soon as language is written down and circulated, the possibility of multiple interpretations becomes almost inevitable. And then interpretations of the interpretations are possible. And then interpretations of the interpretations of the interpretations are possible, and so on. Suddenly meanings, which are ideally stable and certain, become unstable and uncertain.
Derrida argues that all language actually resembles more the condition of writing than of speech. In other words, all language is unstable; there are nothing but interpretations of interpretations of interpretations of . . . ., etc. Or, as Derrida famously put it in his book Of Grammatology,
Il n'y a pas de hors-texte (which is usually translated as "There is nothing outside of the text").
Of course, there is a fundamental paradox at the heart of any claim that interpretations can never be stable and certain – a paradox often illustrated by Derrida himself, who often became very irritable when he felt that he had been “misinterpreted” or “misunderstood,” as in his famous battle with the philosopher of language John Searle.