Making sense of Derrida and his philosophy of language, and failing to put it into words (sorry, the pun was irresistible)


Jacques Derrida was a French Philosopher who developed the rather overwhelming and terrifying (if you ask me) concept that language fails us, as well as challenging the idea of an essential reality. Perhaps the best known out of the post structuralists, he launched a philosophical attack upon the idea that feelings, thoughts, and ideas exist outside of the language we use to express them. I suppose Derrida’s argument scares me, and maybe, well hopefully, others too because of the stark truth that there is no alternative to language to communicate meaning. If language is failing and deceiving us, we are immensely helpless to escape this deception.

Key Concepts
1. It is impossible to tell someone what you really mean: Derrida was deeply concerned with the failure of language. Language is all we have to express how we ‘feel’, yet it is also the very thing that fails to express this ‘feeling’ adequately. Derrida suggests that when attempting to describe a feeling to others the subject will always fail to capture meaning, they will be merely engaging in the process of what he calls differing. What is being described is not being defined by what it is, but by difference. So, to put it simply (if it is possible) when you are describing meaning you are only ever referring to other signs, you are merely free falling down the slippery linguistic system.

For example: you want to tell someone you love them, so, as is procedure, you utter the words “I love you”. However, the moment these words become phonic, they are taken from the real in which they were conceived and placed into the imaginary. I suppose the easiest way to get your head around the concept is to consider the idea that to every single person love surely does not meet the same definition? The meaning of “I love you” is so uniquely arbitrary to everyone, therefore, love has multiple meanings. Every time someone says “I love you” they temporarily become the author of the sentence, they attach to it a new meaning, then, someone else says “I love you” and once again, the words fall into slipperiness and meaning is redefined. So basically, whoever you fall in love with will never actually know, because you will fail to put whatever ‘love’ is into words. See, language is slippery and deceptive, it’s trying to ruin your relationship (okay, the last few sentences are not valid Derridean points, just me, trying to be funny, but hours of reading Derrida does that to you)

2. Words just refer to other words and not thoughts or feelings: to Derrida, nothing escapes this endless play of meaning, and the endless differing that takes place. The concept of ‘play’ is key here. Play refers to how language is right in our grasp and slipping away from us all at once! Look at the word play as a perfect example, play could refer to performance, to action, or to escaping language, for you need no words to play in some circumstances. The multiple meanings of ‘play’ in itself is an example of not only how words refer to other words, but of Derrida’s rejection of a text only ever having one meaning. Leading on to the next point….

3. “There is nothing outside of the text” (NATC 1692) Derrida rejects the idea of an assumed universal truth. For this idealises the idea of something having a centre, and subsequently, something fixed, meaning, fixed. Derrida favours de-centring. He urges a mode of thought that considers the idea of a text having an original presence as elusive. (getting metaphysical now) the very concept of ‘presence’ is reliant upon reconstruction and interpretation and is defined by what is absent, it gets its definition by it’s other, which is exemplary of Derrida’s point that the linguistic system is slippery and based upon differing in space and time, fixed definition is impossible in such a system. Another way to think of the concepts of ‘presence’ and ‘absence’ is the idea that if words refer to other words then how can there be a point of origin? Maybe there never has been, and never can be a ‘present’?

Of course, these key concepts I have constructed are only a very basic attempts to make sense of Derrida and deconstructive theories; spring boards into post structuralism. Derrida’s attack plunged right into the depths of meaning, truth, identity, and philosophy. What I have written is individual understanding and interpretation! I suppose this is okay, because (cue Derridean mode of thought) in essence surely everything is interpretation? In the giant web of meaning where our language habituates if every signifier points to another signifier then the meaning and authorship of words will always be arbitrary?

1. For further reading Derrida’s book Of Grammatology ( a very short video of Derrida discussing deconstruction (
2. In order not to lose all of your sanity… go for a long, leisurely walk and think about everything but Derrida for a while!

Derrida, Jacques. “From Of Grammatology”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd Ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc. 2010. 1688 – 1607. Print.
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My Favourite Poem?

I struggle to believe I will ever be able to single out my ‘favorite poem’. There is a sentimental part of me that desperately wants to , I love that romantic concept of having a ‘favorite poem’ and remaining faithful to it, always bringing it up in conversations’, referring to it in times of great joy or sadness. Unfortunately my scholarly rational is just too overbearing and I just can’t do it. I just don’t think it is possible or fair to choose one poem and place it on a permanent pedestal, It seems everything but progressive. As English scholars the whole point of our work is development, enrichment, substance. Holding onto one poem is holding back. Anyhow surely unless you can say you have read every single poem ever written (in our dreams) how can you personally know what your favorite could be? I like to think of poems that resonate with me, or poems that I passionately despise, but, love them for that very reason as ‘contenders’. I refuse to place any poem on a pedestal out of reach of the grit of criticism and the sound of their reader’s voice. Contenders for favorites elicit discussion rather than imposing recommendation, which may as well be considered as ignorance or stagnation.

Not Waving but Drowning
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
Stevie Smith, 1957

Some men never think of it.
You did. You’d come along
And say you’d nearly brought me flowers
But something had gone wrong.
The shop was closed. Or you had doubts —
The sort that minds like ours
Dream up incessantly. You thought
I might not want your flowers.
It made me smile and hug you then.
Now I can only smile.
But, look, the flowers you nearly brought
Have lasted all this while.

Wendy Cope, 1992

In an Artist’s Studio
One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
that mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel — every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

Christina Rossetti, 1896

We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;
How restlessly they speed, and gleam, and quiver,
Streaking the darkness radiantly!–yet soon
Night closes round, and they are lost forever:

Or like forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings
Give various response to each varying blast,
To whose frail frame no second motion brings
One mood or modulation like the last.

We rest.–A dream has power to poison sleep;
We rise.–One wandering thought pollutes the day;
We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep;
Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:

It is the same!–For, be it joy or sorrow,
The path of its departure still is free:
Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;
Nought may endure but Mutability.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1824

A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all ‘hues’ in his controlling,
Much steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.

William Shakespeare, From Sonnets