The Fulfillment of Meaning: Peirce vs. Derrida
In this post, I want to explain the problem I see with Derrida’s “concept” of différance. To be more specific, I want to explain the problem I see with the linguistic horizon or paradigm in which Derridean différance emerged. I’d like to say up front that I actually believe différance accurately maps the nature of meaning from within a certain set of linguistic presuppositions, which is to say that Derrida’s “picture” of meaning is both true and untrue depending on how you look at it.
Let’s begin by getting a little familiarity with the linguistic paradigm that Derrida was working in. Ferdinand de Saussure’s work in linguistics had the biggest influence on Derrida concerning the nature of meaning. For Saussure, a concept, a “signified”, was just one half of the binary structure of a sign, the other half being the word, i.e., the “signifier”, that represents the signified, e.g. the word “tree” represents the concept of a tree.
Now, every sign exists on two axes: the diachronic axis and the synchronic axis. The former is basically the semantic history and development of the sign and the latter is its relation to all of the other signifiers which currently belong to the language it is a part of. The diachronic axis shows that a sign (the unity of signifier and signified) has had different meanings throughout the course of history; this establishes that there’s really no such thing as a fixed, stable, transcultural and ahistorical concept, for example, the concept of femininity has undergone drastic transformations diachronically (historically). The synchronic axis shows that the structure of any semiotic system is more fundamental than any one sign within it — this is the fundamental insight of Saussure’s linguistic structuralism. In fact, a sign can only mean what it means by way of the differences between itself and all of its synchronic counterparts, i.e., all of the rest of the signifiers currently in the structure. This means that a signified (concept) is never “substantial” (in the sense that it requires no other concepts in order to be or to signify). Simply put, signs have a referential or differential nature opposed to a substantial or identical one. Saussure described his differential theory of language in the following way:
“In the language itself, there are only differences. Even more important than that is the fact, although in general a difference presupposes positive terms between which the difference holds, in a language there are only differences, and no positive terms. Whether we take signification or the signal, the language includes neither ideas nor sounds existing prior to the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonetic differences arising out of that system. In a sign, what matters more than any idea or sound associated with it is what other signs surround it.”
(Course in General Linguistics, Part Two, Chapter IV, Section IV, p. 118)
*“Signification” here means the signified and “signal” means the signifier.
Now, let’s get an idea of what différance is. This is the term Derrida coined to signify the dual “nature” of meaning. Meaning always consists of difference and deferral. For Derrida, the meaning of a word is always differentiated and deferred: differentiated by the differences between itself and the rest of the words in the language; deferred by the fact that its meaning is not present in the moment it’s spoken, and this is because its meaning is nothing but other words (signifiers) that are absent in the moment of speech. For example, take the word “tree”, now suppose that a child asks you what the meaning of the word “tree” is, all you can do is appeal to other words or “traces”: “plant”, “roots”, “leaves”, “seeds”, “fruit”, “trunk”, “bark”, “branches”, “sap”, “wood”, etc. But the meaning of the word “tree” is still just as absent because the words that comprise the meaning of all the words just mentioned are absent (differentiated/deferred) — and this is the play of différance. This means that there’s nothing that secures the meaning of our lives because there’s nothing that secures the meaning of the words we use to make sense out of our lives. It also means that meaning is never fulfilled, reached or embodied. From the Derridean perspective, meaning never finally means. Meaning becomes the attempt to catch a shadow. This is not to say that Derrida thought that there’s no such thing as meaning at all. He just thought that we’re perpetually on the verge of fulfilled meaning, but that whenever we try to take hold of it it slips right through our fingers. Here’s a visual formation of this dyadic model of the sign in the play of différance (the arrow has a double signification: it signifies both the deferral of the meaning of one signifier to another and the difference between the signifiers):
signifier ➔ signified = signifier ➔ signified = signifier ➔ signified = signifier ➔ signified = signifier (so on ad infinitum).
Insofar as meaning is conceived as the never-ending play between signifiers and signifieds, we can never say that meaning has connected to entities in the world. Here are some of Derrida’s own words on différance:
“Essentially and lawfully, every concept is inscribed in a chain or in a system within which it refers to the other, to other concepts, by means of the systematic play of differences. Such a play, différance, is thus no longer simply a concept, but rather the possibility of conceptuality, of a conceptual process and system in general. For the same reason, différance, which is not a concept, is not simply a word, that is, what is generally represented as the calm, present, and self-referential unity of concept and phonic material.”
(Margins of Philosophy, ‘Différance’, p. 11)
“We shall designate by the term différance the movement by which language, or any code, any system of reference in general, becomes “historically” constituted as a fabric of differences.”
(Margins of Philosophy, ‘Différance’, p. 12)
Notice that Derrida never even mentions objects or beings in relation to the play of différance. I believe this is consistent with Saussure’s linguistic presuppositions. Derrida’s concept of meaning is really just what you get if you follow Saussure’s differential theory of language to its logical conclusions. Derrida’s take on the play of meaning has always struck me as being correct, but if and only if Saussure was correct, and I don’t believe he was. This is due to my familiarity with Charles Sanders Peirce’s concept of the sign. In my opinion, Peirce is the greatest semiotician of all time as well as the greatest philosopher America has produced thus far. Peirce established a triadic, as opposed to a dyadic, model of the sign. Peirce showed that semiosis involves three elements: 1. the representimen, 2. the interpretant, and, 3. the referent. Peirce’s representimen corresponds to Saussure’s signifier and Peirce’s interpretant more or less corresponds to Saussure’s signified. The key difference between Peirce’s model of the sign and Saussure’s model is that Peirce believed that referents (beings) are actually part of the very structure of semiosis. It is in the referent that meaning finds its fulfillment, its end, its consonance.
The fulfillment of meaning in the referent is supported by phenomenology. Heidegger offers us many insights on this particular subject.
“But in significance itself, with which Dasein is always familiar, there lurks the ontological condition which makes it possible for Dasein, as something which understands and interprets, to disclose such things as ‘significations’; upon these, in turn, is founded the Being of words and of language.”
(Being and Time, Division 1, Chapter 3, Section 18, p. 121)
The phenomenon being described here is that the world was always already jointed before human beings ever attached conventional and arbitrary signifiers to these joints. These joints are the referential points of significance that Dasein circumspectively copes with in its average everydayness. Thus, the rhizomatic structure of referential totalities (systems or networks of assignments) contains within itself the potential to gives rise to conventional language. The rhizomatic structure of the world itself is the ground of the possibility of the rhizomatic expressions of it. To express this in a different way, the world is determinate before the emergence of conventional language. Words don’t determine entities, rather it’s the determinacy of entities that makes words possible. If language was truly the condition of having significant and determinate experiences, then there would be no way to explain the behavior of animals. Birds, reptiles, mammals and insects all are capable of dealing with different entities in different ways. Bears obviously recognize fishes as food — they also understand that rocks don’t make for good eating. The environments which animals live in are significant to them much in the same way as our social environments are to us, yet animals don’t have elaborate systems of conventional signifiers (perhaps there are some examples of certain animals using conventional signals, e.g., urine in territorial marking; however, this would only confirm my point).
Ever since Saussure made his way into France, the French have had a signifier fetish. Lacan was the most fetishistic in this sense. They act has if the world resolves around signifiers. It should be stated that there’s a sense in which the signifier (and the signified) make the referent possible (Peirce would affirm this), but only in the sense that, as far as conventional semiosis is concerned, the three elements of the sign make each other possible. But we must draw a distinction between the as of the referent and the what of the referent. The as aspect of it is simply the fact that it’s an element of a semiotic process, i.e., referent qua referent. But the what aspect of the referent is what the referent is. The whatness of the referent is the referent qua determinate entity. The signifier and the signified are conditions of the as of the referent but not of its what.
Combining Peirce’s semiotics with Heidegger’s concept of truth (and the apophantic role propositions play in relation to it) is very helpful when considering the nature of conventional meaning. Heidegger’s account of what makes a proposition true stands in sharp contrast to the traditional theory of truth, i.e., the correspondence theory. I believe that the greatest attempt to ground the correspondence theory was undertaken by Wittgenstein in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. In this text, Wittgenstein attempted to establish that a proposition is true when it resembles (represents) a particular state-of-affairs (an arrangement of objects). Wittgenstein thought that there is a kind of isomorphic relation between certain propositions and certain states-of-affairs which make the propositions true. He said, “In the picture and the pictured there must be something identical in order that the one can be a picture of the other at all.” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 2.171) Ultimately, Wittgenstein’s early work failed, and he went on to give a much better description of language in Philosophical Investigations (this description of language has much more in common with early Heidegger’s thoughts on language). In Being and Time, Heidegger phenomenologically describes what makes propositions true. What follows is his description:
“Let us suppose that someone with his back turned to the wall makes the true assertion that ‘the picture on the wall is hanging askew.’ This assertion demonstrates itself when the man who makes it, turns round and perceives the picture hanging askew on the wall. What gets demonstrated in this demonstration? What is the meaning of “confirming” such an assertion? Do we, let us say, ascertain some agreement between our ‘knowledge’ or ‘what is known’ and the Thing on the wall? Yes and no, depending upon whether our Interpretation of the expression ‘what is known’ is phenomenally appropriate. If he who makes the assertion judges without perceiving the picture, but ‘merely represents’ it to himself, to what is he related? To ‘representations’, shall we say? Certainly not, if “representation” is here supposed to signify representing, as a psychical process. Nor is he related to “representations” in the sense of what is thus “represented,” if what we have in mind here is a ‘picture’ of that Real Thing which is on the wall. The asserting which ‘merely represents’ is related rather, in that sense which is most its own, to the Real picture on the wall. What one has in mind is the Real picture, and nothing else. Any Interpretation in which something else is here slipped in as what one supposedly has in mind in an assertion that merely represents, belies the phenomenal facts of the case as to that about which the assertion gets made. Asserting is a way of Being towards the Thing itself that is. And what does one’s perceiving of it demonstrate? Nothing else than that this Thing is the very entity which one has in mind in one’s assertion. What comes up for confirmation is that this entity is pointed out by the Being in which the assertion is made — which is Being towards what is put forward in the assertion; thus what is to be confirmed is that such Being uncovers the entity towards which it is. What gets demonstrated is the Being-uncovering of the assertion. In carrying out such a demonstration, the knowing remains related solely to the entity itself. In this entity the confirmation, as it were, gets enacted. The entity itself which one has in mind shows itself just as it is in itself; that is to say, it shows that it, in its selfsameness, is just as it gets pointed out in the assertion as being — just as it gets uncovered as being. Representations do not get compared, either among themselves or in relation to the Real Thing. What is to be demonstrated is not an agreement of knowing with its object, still less of the psychical with the physical; but neither is it an agreement between ‘contents of consciousness’ among themselves. What is to be demonstrated is solely the Being-uncovered of the entity itself — that entity in the “how” of its uncoveredness. This uncoveredness is confirmed when that which is put forward in the assertion (namely the entity itself) shows itself as that very same thing. “Confirmation” signifies the entity’s showing itself in its selfsameness. The confirmation is accomplished on the basis of the entity’s showing itself. This is possible only in such a way that the knowing which asserts and which gets confirmed is, in its ontological meaning, itself a Being towards Real entities, and a Being that uncovers.”
(Being and Time, Division 1, Chapter 6, Section 44 (a), pp. 260–261)
What Heidegger is saying here is that there’s no representation that makes the proposition true, instead it is the disclosure of the state-of-affairs itself from itself that makes it true. Instead of the proposition’s truth being located in a relation of isomorphic resemblance or correspondence (linking up), it’s located in the things themselves. For Heidegger, propositions aren’t true because they correspond. No, they’re true because they point out (disclose, uncover, unconceal, etc.) i.e., they “direct” us to their own truth-confirmations in states-of-affairs. Heidegger says this himself:
“To say that an assertion “is true” signifies that it uncovers the entity as it is in itself. Such an assertion asserts, points out, ‘lets’ the entity ‘be seen’ (apophansis) in its uncoveredness. The Being-true (truth) of the assertion must be understood as Being-uncovering. Thus truth has by no means the structure of an agreement between knowing and the object in the sense of a likening of one entity (the subject) to another (the Object).”
(Being and Time, Division 1, Chapter 6, Section 44 (a), p. 261)
Heidegger is here out-and-out rejecting the correspondence theory of truth and the picture (resemblance) theory of meaning, and he has the truth of experience itself on his side. So let’s be clear: the meaning of a word or proposition is normally and usually connected with beings, and this meaning is not fundamentally conceptual. This meaning is located not in concepts or mental representations, but, rather, in our background practices, i.e., pre-reflective social activities. This concept of meaning is similar to later Wittgenstein’s concept of the language-games in which linguistic meaning is tied up with our everyday activities. As he put it, “The word “language-game” is used here to emphasize the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.” (Philosophical Investigations, Section 23) He also goes on to say, “For a large class of cases — though not for all — in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.” (Philosophical Investigations, Section 43). And the truth of the meaning of the proposition is apophantically affirmed in its actual uncovering (unconcealment) of the state-of-affairs it directs us to. This means that Heidegger’s theory of meaning lines up nicely with Peirce’s, since Heidegger held that there is a triadic structure to meaning. See for yourself:
“The word “clock,” for example, lends itself to the well-known threefold distinction: 1) the audible and visible word form; 2) the meaning of what one generally represents to oneself with the word form; 3) the thing — a clock, this individual clock. Here (1) is the sign for (2), and (2) indicates (3).”
(Introduction to Metaphysics, p. 91)
In this “well-known threefold distinction” we have Peirce’s representimen, interpretant and referent. So, from a Heideggerian perspective, Peirce’s representimen is, of course, a word or a proposition; Peirce’s interpretant turns out to be a background practice for Heidegger (however, in certain unique situations Heidegger would agree that it’s a concept); and the Peircean referent is a phenomenon. If one pays close attention to experience, then one finds in it the fulfillment of meaning in beings. Meaning means. The nature of meaning is drastically reformed when the referent becomes an essential element of it. Derrida, following in the footsteps of Saussure, simply failed to spot the phenomenon of meaning’s rest in confirmation. Peirce’s semiotics allows us to sidestep many of the linguistic problems that emerged from analyzing language from within Saussure’s semiology — particularly Derrida’s différance.