Table of Contents

Voice and Phenomenon, alternately translated into English as Speech and Phenomenon, is a work by Jacques Derrida originally published in 1967. This work is Derrida's most famous study on Husserl's work in phenomenology and the result of writing on the subject that Derrida began in his master's coursework.

Themes

Surveying Derrida’s reading of Husserl in Voice and Phenomena a testing of the limits and bounds of the sign may be found as applied by Derrida to the limits and powers of signification of phenomenology. Derrida considers the sign in its generative form as well as in the context of phenomenology’s philosophical examination of the metaphysics of the affirmative. At times Derrida takes up an almost playful license inching near the twin monsters of equivocation and amphiboly in pushing his reading of Husserl to the limits, but Derrida in pushing limits works illustrate the principle role of signification in phenomenology as active and creative in shaping experience.

It is important in considering the sign as it relates to experience and consequently its relation to truth. A pivotal moment in Derrida’s contribution to phenomenology occurs when Derrida presents “the activity of signification what, having no truth itself, conditions the movement and concept of truth.”(1) This is a position of signification which holds signification as fundamentally an activity of production rather than an activity of recording. He finds this in the way that Husserl could be read so as to be seen to consider the sign without an essential unity assumed to be incarnate within the sign. Derrida finds this not as Husserlian, but as his own move through critique of Husserl.

As both a reader and phenomenologist Derrida works to balance two roles in this work, the first being the presentation of a theory of signification informed by a reading of Husserl and the second being a presentation of fresh contributions to phenomenology through his critique of Husserl. Often the first role is subordinated to the second.

Part of Derrida’s critique lingers on ways that Husserl’s presentation of signification is vulnerable to the traps of traditional metaphysical and lingers within the traditional metaphysical framework. Derrida spends some time lingering in the divergence considering indication, its reduction, and the relation of indication to expression. That indication covers all kinds of non presences is problematic and reflective of the problems that arise from tradition metaphysics and its dualisms.

Expression though does not relegate indication to an auxiliary role. That expression is with an “other” even though it is the arbiter of truth, indication still plays a role with expression as the two evaluate together. Though indication may seem inessential as it occasionally marks relevance, while expression contains the productive activity of manufacturing and conditioning truth there are differing privileges associated with each indication and expression. The relation and divergence of indication and expression are primal to the place and relation in which phenomenology and metaphysics interact subsuming phenomenology to the providence of traditional metaphysics.

The deconstruction which is so dominant in the popular American readings of Derrida is seen here to be mere technique introduced by Derrida to further his phenomenological critique. It is his method for whittling down to the movement giving the two signs, it is a process of recognizing the movement and it continues to the extent possible. Derrida comes through here to the crisis. The extent to which we may rest in the divergence that he labels différance, provided that we may rest there at all seems to be a problem of our finitude or at the very least our lack of infinitude.

The différance is no-thing. It is process, it temporalizes, it originates origins and in every way it bind the sign to the moment. To linger on the différance is to consider the crisis as a moment is to attempt to direct the crisis upon itself. That signs accessible in finitude are driven in their production in finitude by the infinitude of the difference is endemic of metaphysics. It is the problem of Descartes and Spinoza. The evasion of the infinite from accessible description in the finite, it is a problem that drove the German mathematician and scholar of the infinite Georg Cantor repeatedly to the asylum.

Spinoza in The Ethics where he brings down the Euclidian methods of geometric demonstration upon problems of metaphysics and from metaphysics ethics in the shadow of Descartes gives the subject of the infinite one of its greatest treatments in the scope of consequences it poses to language in the western canon. In the final portion of the Ethics when Spinoza discusses existence in any species of eternity that Spinoza rejects what he takes as the popular conception of eternity as an infinite span of time and substitutes existence itself as the definition of eternity. Similarly God remains the singular existing substance and God’s existence is eternity. God is the sole infinite thing and efficient cause of all finite things and finite things are in God. God is not in finite things though. Finite things arise from the expression of God’s attributes, and this expression may be manifest as the causal order of events in the Common Order of Nature.

The temporalizing nature of the process of the différance in Derrida binding expressive and indicative signs in time as the différance itself escapes and lies outside of time. The treatment of infinite versus finite existence of things lies beyond the treatment of signs as expressive or indicative, or in their relation with the différance. Considering the problems of metaphysics in Spinoza as characteristic of the probable inescapability of the crisis in Derrida offers something though.

Looking again to Spinoza, A singular substance and efficient cause may seem problematic given the typical empirical paradigm of physical reductionism and the search for the smallest component of existence. In the Common Order of Nature is typical to seek understanding of things by breaking them into their constituent parts, for example taking apart a mechanical clock movement to understand the structure of the springs, wheels, and gears that allow a clock to keep accurate time. This reductionism appears to progress ad infinitum.

The logical move Spinoza made was to take God as the cardinality, or magnitude of existence. By either of God’s broad attributes of though and extension any finite thing or class of things may be described through its mode of expression of these attributes, as they causally occur within the common order of nature. God is taken outside of space and time as the substance that exists as eternity. Any given finite thing has some measure of an existence in eternity, and finite existence necessitates existence in the essence of God.

As the single truly existing substance, God must be the efficient cause of God as the existence of God necessarily depends upon the cause of God. In the same manner that Spinoza equates existence with eternity, in substance is the efficient cause of substance tautologically. The Common order of nature follows as a manifestation of existence though it is not itself existence. Spinoza putting God outside of the Common Order of Nature avoided the problems faced by the atomist in putting forth the smallest as the simplest, by constructing a simplest from the totality of everything rather than the building block of everything.

Problematic though to Derrida it would seem from reading Spinoza is a sense of staticity in the treatment of that beyond finitude as substance. The différance with respect to its temporalizing and origin originating powers seems to in signification affect the manner in which expression conditions truth. Without the ability to rest in knowledge of the différance, the implication arises of greater and lesser conditioned truths.

The consideration in phenomenology of phenomena as they interact with consciousness, in the general rather than in respect to any particular consciousness or to a specific “my” consciousness in large part rests on the consequences of signification with respect to the possibility of intersubjectivity. The sharing of accounts of experience, the sharing of meanings, and the extent to which expressive signs as conditioners of truth may carry shared meaning is the continuation of the crisis.

With respect to the Cartesian problem, Descartes truly rocked the foundations of philosophy in the seventeenth century with his Meditations. The effects of the ideas presented in Descartes’ works on philosophy lead the way to the peak of the conflicts between skepticism, empiricism, and rationalism which came to a head with Locke, Hume, and Kant. Few secular philosophers since the triumvirate of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle have had the tremendous impact on western philosophy that was seen in the aftermath of Descartes. Like a hailstorm in a cornfield, Descartes leveled the field of philosophical inquiry and brought about changes that would affect philosophical practice to this day.

When trying to establish or analyze the impact that Descartes had on modern philosophy, it is important to look not only at the works he produce, but also to look at the environment in which his works flourished to really get a feel for how Descartes philosophy got to such a dominant position in the history of philosophy. Many philosophers who would be revolutionaries simply don’t get to make the impact that Descartes did, for better or worse. To understand what changes Descartes brought in his wake you have to understand how far his wake stretches.

Descartes’ famous experiment in the most extreme skepticism he was capable of imagining was a key step towards wiping the slate clean not only for Descartes’ own philosophy, but for the rebirth of secular philosophy in Europe. Descartes differed from previous philosophers who may have potentially attempted similarly ambitious feats but were forgotten or marginalized in his compelling presentation and assembly of his system which came at a time when economic, political, and social developments in France and the rest of Europe primed the intellectual environment to receive Descartes’ contributions. Western philosophy was ready and willing to accept a revolutionary change in direction, and Descartes was available to provide a spark for change.

The magnitude of Descartes’ change may be just as important as the spread. Most previous skeptically derived philosophical systems presented to the western world prior to Descartes, like that of Sextus Empiricus, tended to devolve into varying forms of nonjudgmental relativism, failing to provide the appeal of a solid conclusion which has traditionally been considered the end goal in most philosophical work. Descartes broke out of this trap with a monumental demonstration based in logic demonstrated the possibility of building upon a clean slate like the one that he had provided.

Many of the problems in metaphysics though arise out of Descartes’ attempt at a solution as much as they arise of his framework of extreme skepticism at the beginning of the meditations. Husserl’s Cartesian Mediations took up an extensive treatment of the subject. Much of the revolutions incited within philosophy by both Descartes and Husserl though rests in their methodology, and Derrida’s critique of Husserl too innovates in the application of method. Much of what Derrida is doing is the metawork of metaphysics in his work on phenomenology.

The intersection of metaphysics and language, of the différance and signs is possibility of sharing through language. The ability to discuss and encounter either agreement or disagreement with respect to a common subject, and the extent to which there may be common subject to discuss in the first place.

The différance beyond finitude and its effect on the two flavors of signification, and leaves the extent to which homecomrades may share a homeworld. Derrida’s introduction of the process of différance in the direction of signification may additionally be taken to implicate metaphysics and its problems. The affirmative focus of phenomenology of eschewing many questions of essence, of void, and of matter while still falling with traditional bound of metaphysics and traditional problems of metaphysics through its encounter with the crisis still has much to take comfort in. The existence of an appearance of at least some minimal degree of intersubjectivity supports the idea that signification as a means of conditioning truth may be taken as a meaningful and useful something.

That phenomenology works around the same problems as traditional metaphysics as an effort to move beyond is representative of the general momentum taken by innovative philosophies as they brace for their encounter with the crisis. Looking back to the Cartesian revolution, the idea that Descartes latched onto though in building his system was utterly simple and nearly impossible to falsify, the idea that thought exists. The idea that though exists seems trivial, but the impossibility of disproving the existence of thought brought to Descartes toolbox an unwavering and indisputable foundation for the further elaboration of his system. The act of mentioning the existence of though as a condition to consider during one’s arguments when performing philosophy almost seems unnecessary as it usually goes assumed that in order to do philosophy there must be a substance of though which exists.

One proof for the existence of though, perhaps the simplest and most certain proof yet discovered, is a simple one by way of contradiction. The proof is that simply in the course of questioning the existence of thought; a person negates the possibility of the nonexistence of though. If though is to not exist, then nothing in existence could conceive of whether or not thought could not exist.

Before Descartes was able to produce that simple proof asserting the existence of though, he embarked on a series of thought experiments producing situations where all possible sources of truth were dismissed through faults revealed by Descartes in an absolutely brutal assault on everything source of knowledge outside of ourselves, and even some sources of knowledge within a person. Many of the scenarios used by Descartes are improbable or may generally be considered impossible and Descartes’ philosophy has received criticism on this point, but what had more of an effect on the development of western philosophy after Descartes was not his conclusions so much as his methods.

His process of rigorously deconstructing a situation, in his case all of existence, and then constructing system from the ashes of the deconstructed situation has been the essence of modern philosophy. Some modern philosophers have emphasized the construction more while others have emphasized the deconstruction, but all of them though have felt his influence in their individual processes. This is not to say though that his impact was a necessarily positive one on philosophy or society.

Taken to its extreme, a type of rationality that can be derived from systems influenced by the Cartesian method could have a shattering effect on social structures and the lives of individual human beings that transcends what we conceive in human history since the beginning of civilization through contemporary times by the potential of its impact in radically changing the condition in which humanity is subject to both with relation to the individual and in relation to others in ways that could potentially move the human condition to what it was in prehistoric times. Optimism with respect to the movement though is something Derrida takes effort to painstakingly critique in his look as signification.

Derrida’s critique of the phenomenological encounter with the crisis really emphasizes our finitude in a way not unlike the skepticism of Descartes, but Derrida in expositing on the différance seems to work more on the importance of recognizing rather than solving the crisis.

The crisis as it stands seems to extend from metaphysics to logic to mathematics, in what could be levied as a challenge to a unified conception of the rational. The problem on deductive completeness in logic as it necessarily must relegate a minimum of one axiom outside of the bounds of a system along with the problem of continuum in the manner in which different infinite quantities may be demonstrated, along with their implications including non-Euclidian geometry and coping mechanisms including finitism present strong challenges to the potentiality of a single unity of rationality.

Considering the relation of sanity to insanity it is possible to consider an alternative to traditional characterizations of insanity that rely on taking sanity as a presence of rationality and insanity as an absence of rationality.

What may become of considering sanity as a condition of well functioning conditioning of truth in expression with successful relations to others through intersubjectivity, while insanity is characteristic of a poor conditioning of truth through signification by an individual and a poor functioning of relations to others involving intersubjectivity.

Considering especially the context of insanity as primarily a legal descriptor of a person’s mental state in contemporary discourse indicating an affirmative defense by putting forth a lack of responsibility of an individual’s part for criminal actions, the role of responsibility to society of an individual in the success or failure of an insanity defense brings to the fore the problem of intersubjectivity in considering sanity. Additionally the efforts of psychology and psychology to characterize mental illnesses in terms of deviances from normal or acceptable behavior indicate a social aspect to sanity that is dysfunctional in the insane in different ways.

The recognition of the crisis in phenomenology as Derrida introduces it is natural and endemic to ordered systems and the recognition of this is a large portion of the value that Derrida brings to phenomenology. The deconstructive tool of différance used within phenomenology brings phenomenology’s position within traditional metaphysics out and highlights much of the value phenomenology offers in the difference of its encounter of the crisis from that undertaken in earlier systems of metaphysics.

Notes

  1. Derrida, Jacques. Voice and Phenomenon, trans. Leonard Lawlor, Northwestern University Press (2011)

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