Of Grammatology Summary
Of Grammatology is considered to be a foundational text in the Post-Structuralist Movement. Unlike the Structuralist Movement which precedes it, post-structuralism is most concerned with the reader of a text and the context in which something is read. Post-structuralism, therefore, takes into account the influence of culture and society on how we come to understand the world around us.
In the first essay, Derrida argues against structuralism and its totalitarian assumptions. He argues that structuralism presumes absolute truths. In addition, he questions how we come to derive meaning from language, and he critiques how Western philosophy uses language. He believes that speech has become dispossessed from meaning through structuralism. In other words, language gets in the way of what we are trying to say. He coins the phrase “signifier of the signifier” to question what is meant by the language we use. This is based off of the linguistic and philosophical terms “signifier” and “signified.” The signifier is what we use to express meaning. Meanwhile, the signified is the concept or idea behind the signifier. Derrida believes that more often than not, structuralism uses signifiers to point to other signifiers. When this happens there is nothing signified, or there is no meaning behind what is being said.
It is a bit ironic that Derrida writes about how Western philosophy has come to lose its meaning through the use of language, because his writing can be so dense and difficult to understand. However, the ideas are quite simple. What we say does not mean the same thing to everyone. Therefore, a text is not stable and absolute.
Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology is a fundamental work of what has come to be called deconstructionist criticism. “Grammatology” is a term borrowed from Ignace J. Gelb, a linguist and ancient historian who first used it in his A Study of Writing: The Foundations of Grammatology (1952). Derrida’s Of Grammatology reexamines and aims to replace traditional Western logocentrism. By logocentrism, Derrida means the identification of the words of a text with the truth the text contains.
From the pre-Socratics to the post-Hegelians, logos (Greek for “word,” “reason,” or “spirit”) has been the origin of truth, its constitutive element. Western culture, influenced by the book of Genesis, and also by Plato, has identified logos with the source of creation itself. The thought of God or some overriding transcendent principle is thus identifiable with logos, while logos at its essence implies creation.
Language conveys signs, and signs contain two elements: the signifier (the physical symbol) and the signified (the thought beyond the symbol). The signifier and signified are ever present, and they are always distinct from one another. They may be distinct only to a small degree, or they may have a wide separation. For example, the coldness of ice cream might make one person think of winter, another person of a summer day at the beach, and a third person of the pain from a sensitive tooth.
It is thus apparent that there is something like a logocentric hierarchy of signification. Things signified have a greater or lesser validity insofar as they approach the universal, or in more metaphysical terms, insofar as they approach a primum signatum—the signified that requires no signification. This first and highest signified validates all those that are lower. Furthermore, the primum signatum is “logologically” essential, and without it a chaos of signifiers would make a sign lose all signification.
Presence validates the signified because one cannot doubt that which clearly exists; the higher the signified, the greater its degree of presence. Cold as signifier of winter has a greater degree of presence for anyone who has experienced winter. It is likely to be more universal than cold as signifier of ice cream if one has never eaten ice cream. Concomitantly, an individual is absolutely real to that same individual....
(The entire section is 1,420 words.)