7.14.2005

definings, mines, terms, conditions, mines, truths

from the moment that there is meaning there are nothing but signs. we think only in signs which amounts to ruining the notion of the sign at the very moment when, as in Nietzsche, its exigency is recognized in the absoluteness of its right. -Jacques Derrida, from Of Grammatology

if i were a good derridian, my answer to these questions asked in the last few posts would be as simple as: "there is no outside the text." that's why i am not a derridian. but the majority of my philosophical background has been post-structuralism, and i think an explanation of some of derrida's terms (i didn't realize how much they've informed my recent thinking!) would be useful at this point.

a text is any system of signs. ANY signs. linguistic, written, visual, musical, mathematical. you name it, it's a sign. in fact, by definition, if you can name it, it's a sign. and, for derrida, it's ALL called "writing in general." for him, writing is the process of differentiation, and every perception we have is made possible by differences. anything embedded in a system of differences i a sign. and he calls it all writing, or language.
Heidegger reminds us constantly that the sense of being is neither the word 'being' nor the concept of being. But as that sense is nothing outside of language and the language of words, it is tied, if not to a particular word or to a particular system of language, at least to the possibility of the word in general. -ibid

so, when seb wrote, "we have no word for the idea expressed by 'taste of a mango,'" i realized my mistake. it doesn't matter that we don't have a WORD. we already have a SIGN (it's the phrase 'taste of mango', or the memory of the taste, or the expectation). a system of differences exists that allows us to recognize and communicate 'taste of a mango' as distinct from 'taste of an apple' or 'taste of beef' and as distinct from the 'mango' itself, or 'to taste.' and i call this process linguistic, refering to LANGUAGE IN GENERAL, not necessarily written or spoken communication.

i didn't mean to imply that when we 'speak' (another broad 'in general' usage!) to ourselves that we do it in words or morphemes or proper syntax. but i believe the manipulation of thoughts and concepts occurs in a differentiated space - a sign system - a language. and if that is all thought, then so be it... there is no thought outside of language in general. personally, i hold out hope that there is something outside the text, but maybe it shouldn't be called thought. i certainly don't think knowledge or assignment of truth conditions can exist outside 'the text.' i believe what goes on outside these texts is always a matter of belief, not of knowledge.

i also admit that this 'language in general' vocab is a big change from the philosophy of language stuff (but i think it's critical that the two schools develop a common vocabulary and a dialogue!), and i'm so steeped in it i didn't even realize i was using it til i read seb's last comment. he wrote, "Language is a separate faculty that hooks up morphemes that are learned from the community with these [mental] concepts and knows how to sort them into sentences, lets them influence beliefs, etc. (This is an imperfect process...the concept I associate with a word may be different in all sorts of subtle ways with the concept you have attached to the same word.) So really, "linguistic categories" don't exist, except maybe if you took the conceptual contents of what lots of people thought of when you shouted "BLUE!!!" at them." Language is not external. the formation of a signifier (word, for a traditionally priviledged example) and the thing it signifies (concept, or meaning, usually) occur TOGETHER. saussure wrote that signified and signifier were two sides of the same leaf, but he always said that one came first. it is this priviledging that Derrida deconstructs.
He [Nietzsche] has written that writing - and first of all his own - is not originarily subordinate to the logos and to truth. And that this subordination has come into being during an epoch whose meaning we must deconstruct. -you know.

1 comment:

Seb (verbally) said...

Ahhhh!!! Vocabulary shock!!!

This was very helpful, thanks.

I don't think I can bring myself to use a vocabulary which brings thinking under the heading of "writing in general"--it just doesn't seem...right...to me. So if it's ok with you, I'm going to lay down some provisional definitions that might be a sort of compromise? Feel free to ignore or revise them, of course. But here's how I'm going to talk:

- Instead of "writing in general" or "language" for a "differentiated space of signs," I'm just going to use sign system.
- I'm going to call spoken or written language, with all its mental mechanisms for morphemes and syntax, etc., just plain old language. Adjectivally, "linguistic." I guess in the Derridan framework, this would make language a particular sign system. Am I understanding you?
- Particular signs in a language as defined just above are words, if they are individual morphemes ("mango"), or phrases if they are combinations of morphemes ("the taste of mango").
- In this framework, non-linguistic thought is also a sign system. I'm going to start by calling this just thought, although that might be a mistake. If it gets too mucky, I might switch to unverbal thought
- Assuming thought is a sign system, then the signs within it are, I guess, concepts.
- Other syntax: I guess I'll use double quotes (") for words now, exclusively. How about single quotes, italicized, for concepts? So "mango" is a word. 'Mango' is a concept. Mango is a fruit. Or is going this far just ridiculous?

Phew.

Now I can ask questions!

1) I'm a little unclear (and maybe even a little skeptical) about the signified-signifier/signing relationship in general. Could you elaborate on it, please?

2) Specifically, take the word/sign "mango." What does it signify? Does it signify the concept 'mango', or does it signify a mango? If the latter, what is the place of 'mango' in the "mango"-mango signing relationship?

3) What does the concept/sign 'mango' signify?

4) Suppose again that I'm the feral child mango monopolist. I don't have language, but I have non-linguistic thought. In this sign system, I can form all sorts of concepts, like 'mango', 'flavor-X', even, maybe, 'truth', all by my self! What does this do to the thesis that truth has to be a matter of convention or agreement, when it can be signified in a sign system that can develop completely without convention or agreement?

5) [Philosophy nerd bonus question] Are you familiar with Wittgenstein's critique of defining the meaning of language to be that signified by language? (It involves an infinite regress of interpretation....) If so, is there a Derridan response to his alternative explanation of language as a language-game, where meaning is the result of proper rule following?

Thanks.

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