Writing and Difference

by Jacques Derrida

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In 1967, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida burst upon the scene of philosophy and literary theory with three major publications: Writing and Difference, La Voix et le phenomene: Introduction au probleme du signe dans la phenomenologie de Husserl (Speech and Phenomena, 1973), and De la grammatologie (Of Grammatology, 1976). In 1966, Derrida had presented the most influential essay to be published in Writing and Difference, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” at the now-famous structuralism conference at The Johns Hopkins University. Among other offices, Derrida has been Director of Studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, as well as a visiting professor at the University of California, Irvine. More than a dozen of his books have been translated into English. Derrida’s writings constitute an attack on the tradition of Western metaphysics, or what he calls the “metaphysics of presence.” Together with his books of 1967 and a set of three major publications in 1972, including Positions: Entretiens avec Henri Ronse, Julia Kristeva, Jean-Louis Houdebine, Guy Scarpetta (Positions, 1981), Writing and Difference constitutes an explicit, logical statement of Derrida’s philosophical position. He later deviated from this earlier, analytical style and adopted the nonlinear, innovative style of Glas (1974; English translation, 1986) and La Carte postale: De Socrate a Freud et au-dela (1980; The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, 1987).

Writing and Difference is a collection of eleven essays written between 1959 and 1967 and translated into English by Alan Bass. As Derrida explains in an interview published in Positions, Writing and Difference consists of two parts. Though the essays in each part are arranged in the order of their original publication, the fifth essay, “‘Genesis and Structure’ and Phenomenology,” which appears almost at the center of the volume, was written in 1959. Moreover, the whole book could be inserted in the middle of Of Grammatology, so that the first half of the latter book would constitute a preface to the former. This arrangement is important to bear in mind, because the essays in Writing and Difference make numerous references to the history and theory of the sign discussed in the first half of Of Grammatology. The second half of the latter text, devoted to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Essay on the Origin of Languages,” would thus become a twelfth essay in Writing and Difference. To complicate matters even more, Derrida says that this arrangement can also be inverted, so that Of Grammatology is inserted within Writing and Difference, because the first six essays of the latter book were published first. The last five essays of Writing and Difference are engaged in what Derrida in Positions calls the grammatological opening of the major principles of Western philosophy.

As Alan Bass explains in his introduction, this grammatological opening “can be defined as the ’deconstruction’ [the undoing, or de-constructing] of philosophy by examining in the most faithful, rigorous way the ’structured genealogy’ of all of philosophy’s concepts; and to do so in order to determine what issues the history of philosophy has hidden, forbidden, or repressed.” In Writing and Difference, Derrida sets out to deconstruct what he calls the “logocentric” tradition of Western metaphysics. The “logos,” a Greek term defined as the inward rational principle of consciousness, verbal texts, and the natural universe, is privileged in Western philosophy. The privileging of logos involves the idea of “presence.” In Of Grammatology , Derrida uses the term “phonocentrism,” the privileging of voice, to describe the notion that meaning is primarily...

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present within the speaker rather than within writing. Writing, he points out, has traditionally been considered secondary to speech.

Derrida attacks the notion of presence by subverting the structure of oppositions behind it, such as those between speech and writing, meaning and form, soul and body, intelligible and sensible, nature and culture. In the history of philosophy, these oppositions constitute a hierarchy in which the first term is given priority as belonging to logos and thus being of a higher presence. In On Deconstruction (1982), Jonathan Culler lists some concepts that depend on the value of presence: “the immediacy of sensation, the presence of ultimate truths to a divine consciousness, the effective presence of an origin in a historical development, a spontaneous or unmediated intuition . . . [and] truth as what subsists behind appearances.” Derrida argues that presence is “always already” divided within itself by the “play” of difference.

Derrida says that one should read Speech and Phenomena before his two other books of 1967, for it questions the history of metaphysics at its most decisive point: Edmund Husserl’s transcendental philosophy. One of the major objects of Derrida’s philosophy is to undermine the reality of the transcendental. In the last essay of this book, “Differance,” Derrida coins the term differance, which is based on the French verb differer, to differ (in space) and to defer (to put off in time, or postpone). He uses this term as a means to show how presence, along with truth, transcendentality, consciousness, and other logocentric notions, is rendered absent through a movement of difference and deferral, or that movement in writing through which all meaning is split within itself both temporally and spatially. Derrida thus gives writing priority over speech. As Alan Bass notes, Speech and Phenomena could be attached as a long note either to Of Grammatology or to Writing and Difference.

Derrida says that his writing is “entirely consumed in the reading of other texts.” Reading Derrida himself is made difficult by his dense and punning style and by his challenging of accepted notions of meaning and the process of reading. Since Writing and Difference does not form a closely woven whole but rather a loosely strung collection of essays, the reader can begin with any one of the essays and still follow the book’s overall design and argument.


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Culler, Jonathan. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism After Structuralism, 1982.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction, 1983.

Ellis, John M. “What Does Deconstruction Contribute to Theory of Criticism?” in New Literary History. Winter, 1988, pp. 259-280.

Gasche, Rodolphe. The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection, 1986.

Harland, Richard. Superstructuralism: The Philosophy of Structuralism and Post-Structuralism, 1987.

Magliola, Robert. Derrida on the Mend, 1984.

Norris, Christopher. Derrida, 1987.

Staten, Henry. Wittgenstein and Derrida, 1984.

Ulmer, Gregory L. Applied Grammatology: Post(e)-Pedagogy from Jacques Derrida to Joseph Beuys, 1985.


Critical Essays