Derrida on Rousseau and Derrida’s Philosophy

From work in progress on a collaborative project which should be available  online  by the end of the year, more details nearer the time.

Judging by the attitude to my previous work on Derrida, this will be more popular with non-Derrideans who wish to situate Derrida in the history of philosophy, and related intellectual history, than with Derrideans, some of whom (most, all?) really do not like my approach at all. ‘Derrideans’ are of course very welcome to read this, but for those who do not already know my work in this area at all,  a summary of my approach. I have enormous respect for Derrida, but stand back more from Derrida than most of the more pro-Derrida commentators, feel less interested in and engaged by some of Derrida’s texts than most ‘Derrideans’, and don’t have any leanings at all towards emulating his style and not very many for emulating his argumentative strategies, important and fascinating though I often find them.

My previous  publications on Derrida: Derrida on Deconstruction (Routledge 2006), Jacques Derrida: Basic Writings (Routledge 2007), ‘Contradiction, transcendence, and subjectivity in Derrida’s Ethics’.

Derrida’s ‘The linguistic circle of Geneva’ is largely on Rousseau, with a small part on Saurrusre.  though in the passage below the starting point is the linguistics of Noam Chomsky.


 One is authorised to speak of a linguistics of Rousseau only on two conditions and in two senses:

1. On the condition and in the sense of a systematic formulation, one that defines the project of a theoretical science of language, in its method, in its object, and its rigorously proper field. This might be accomplished by means of a gesture that for convenience’s sake could be called an “epistemological break,”  there being no assurance that the stated intention to “break” has such an effect, nor that the so-called break is ever a—unique—datum in a work or an author. This first condition and first sense should always be implied by what we will entitle the opening of the field, it being understood that such an opening also amounts to a delimitation of the field.

2. On the condition and in the sense of what Chomsky calls the “constants of linguistic theory”: in that the system of fundamental concepts, the exigencies and norms that govern the linguistics called modern, such as it is entitled and represented in its scientificity as in its modernity, is already at work, and discernible as such, in Rousseau’s enterprise, in its very text. Which, moreover, would not only be (and doubtless would not at all be) to interpret this text as the happy anticipation of a thinker who is to have predicted and preformed modern linguistics. On the contrary, is this not a question of a very general ground of possibilities, a ground on which might be raised all kinds of subordinate cross-sectç¨ions and secondary periodisations? Is it not a question of both Rousseau’s project and modern linguistics belonging in common to a determined and finite set of conceptual possibilities, to a common language, to a reserve of oppositions of signs (signifiers/concepts) which first of all is none other than the most ancient fund of Western metaphysics? The latter is articulated, in its diverse epics, according to schemas of implication that are not as easily mastered as is sometimes believed: whence the illusions of the break, the mirages of the new, the confusion or crushing of layers, the artifice of extractions and cross-sections, the archeological lure. The closure of concepts: such would be the title that we might propose for this second condition and this second sense.

(Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, 140)


The epistemological break is mentioned largely in order to clear away any idea of a clean break between science and pre-science, which Bachelard appears to be assuming. At the end of the quoted passage it is suggested that the break is an illusion. The break is an illusion, at least in the case of Rousseau, because the ‘science’ is the repetition go metaphysical ideas, it is text in which we find pre-scientific concepts are still at play, because that is the only way the science can be formed. Derrida is suggesting that science never escapes from metaphysics, or at least that the moment o a science is a moment in metaphysical concepts become part of a scientific enterprise. The Bachelardian understanding itself has rather Idealist tendencies in which the emergence of sincere is signified by the organisation of the discourse rather than experimental testing of concepts in the empirical world. There is a double suggestion in Derrida about the status of Rousseau’s essay on language, first that it is an investigation of the way that ideas of language emerge from metaphysical ideas, and that it is part of the tendency to be challenged, the tendency to conceive of breaks which are themselves metaphysical and allow the continuation of metaphysical terms in science.

Another aspect is that the theory of the origin of languages has a double quality, it is explained twice, in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality  and in the Essay  on the Origin of Languages, which Rousseau claims is a continuation of the Discourse on Inequality, but who has separated it from that context, so that we have an account of language as part of inequality and as isolated from that aspect of society, suggesting some ambiguity between language as a separate social institution and as mingled with other social institutions. What Derrida is suggesting, amongst other things, is that the knowledge of language is itself a knowledge of knowledge, that language is where there is knowledge and the concept makes no sense without language. Language and knowledge do not just belong to consciousness for Derrida, genetic code is a kind of language for Derrida. One reason why the Derrida essay refers to the Geneva Circle is that it is an essay about the circularity in interpretation, knowledge, and language, all of which are at stake in the discussion. The acknowledgements of Chomsky’s work is a way of putting that mixture of scientism and rationalism in the context of hermeneutics and genealogy. Hermeneutics here referring to the Heidegger of Being and Time, since that is what hermeneutics meant to Derrida. Being and Time includes a famous discussion of circularity, of the inevitability that understanding (a grasp of what is) depends on interpretation (seeing something as something), and that interpretation depends on understanding. The hermeneutic circle is not offered by Derrida as a model of knowledge, as his major work on aesthetics, Truth in Painting, shows Derrida was concerned with the idealism inherent to seeing circularity in concepts, that is that we are in danger of a closed circle of concepts which are explained with reference to each other in a closed system. Derrida’s suggestion that we look at Rousseau’s theory of language in a Cartesian systematic way in the passage above, is really a diagnosis of how a Cartesian approach brings metaphysics in science, in a less critical manner than if we avoid the closed system inherent in the idea of an absolute break between pre-science and science. The genealogical aspect is the aspect that Derrida is more comfortable making explicit in his philosophy, though his texts always include the Heideggerian concern with how concepts are deponent on each other, and circle round a presumed origin in time and in logic. The Nietzsche genealogical references bring out the transformation concepts over time, and even within a limited time, in the historical and social life of concepts, in the divisions about how they should be used. The model for this is the opposition between a morality of good and evil and a morality of good and bad in the first essay of On the Genealogy of Morals, where it is suggested that the idea of good changes over time, and that there are social conflicts about the use of the term good, depending on whether its opposite is supposed to be ‘bad’ or ‘evil’. There is a materialism and empiricism in this approach, which does not seem obviously Idealist. Derrida does not so much look at Rousseau from a genealogical point of view, as look at him as a genealogist. Derrida’s discussion of philosophical concepts is more Heideggerian than Nietzschean, if Nietzsche frequently appears that is as part of the circulation of concepts round an origin, only known through the concepts it originates, rather than as the source of a historical-contextual approach to philosophy. Derrida’s account of Rousseau in the passage above, transforms him from a historical thinker engaged with social forces, in however a speculative and general manner, to a thinker who is concerned with a more internalist account of concepts and of language, with abstract conditions of possibility. There is an oblique critique of Chomsky as a rationalist in discussing what it would be to fit Rousseau within Cartesianism, from the point of view of working on texts, on their economy and contractions. For Derrida the materialism and the empiricism is within the text itself as a physical object in tension with its ideational existence.

Rousseau on Language the First Social Institution

Draft material from a collaborative project on Rousseau and Language. Further details when the project is published online not very long from now.  The process of drafting and redrafting is very current and very intense, and this is far from final material, it also omits parts which make less sense before the essay is completed. I will just say that I am looking at Derrida’s reaction to Rousseau and my collaborator, who initiated this project is looking at Chomsky’s reaction.

Rousseau picks up on an old idea, that language is a defining feature of humanity, and turns that from an attribute to a pervasive aspect of human existence, not separable from its many aspects, bringing together music, poetry, passions, communication, history, political institutions, physical geography, human physique, and social conditions. His position has precedent, notably the work of Giambattista Vico in New Science. One way of thinking of the Essay on the Origin of Languages would be as a extraordinarily concise and deep summary of the New Science, seen in conjunction with Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws. It’s not a text greatly discussed in succeeding decades, but there is a range of philosophical work going up to Nietzsche via German Idealism, including Humboldt’s theory of language and Kierkegaard, which seem to follow up the Essay. The influence is that of resonance rather than direct reference, in which maybe the more obvious influences and from the longer texts of Rousseau. That would parallel the relation between Rousseau and Vico, overlapping that of Montesquieu and Vico, which is never made clear by Rousseau or Montesquieu and may again be more a matter of an accumulation of resonances and echoes rather than a direct influence.

The story of language in the Essay is in large part on an essay on music, and finishes with a discussion of liberty. It starts with that classic idea of language as the distinguishing feature of humans and then moves onto language as communication and understanding, overcoming the anxieties inherent in the use of gestures.

For Rousseau, language is the first social institution

 Speech distinguishes man from the animals. Language distinguishes nations from each other; one does not know where a man is from until after he has spoken. Usage and need make each learn the language of his country; but what causes this language to be that of his country and not of another? In oder to tell, one has to go back to some reason that pertains to locality, and precedes even morals: speech, being the first social institution, owes its form only to natural causes.

(Rousseau, Essay on the Origin of Languages, Chapter One)

The quotations shows Rousseau deepening the sense that it is the defining attribute of humans.

One complication which Rousseau sees in language is the relation between speeches and gestures.  Gestures are associated by Rousseau with anxiety about communicating in speech

Our gestures signify nothing but our natural uneasiness; it is not about these that I want to speak. Only Europeans gesticulate while speaking. One would think that all the force of their speech was in their arms. They further add to this the force of their lungs, and all this is hardly of any use to them. When a Frenchman has quite strained himself, quite tormented his body to say a lot of words, a Turk removes his pipe from his mouth for a moment, softly speaks two words, and crushes them with one aphorism.

(Essay on the Origin of Languages, Chapter One)

Gestures also appear as decisive means of communication avoiding the diversion of speech. Some of the  examples Rousseau gives are rather disturbing though, Tarquinus Superbus cutting off the heads of poppies to communicate an order for the massacre of leading citizens is a gesture of tyranny. He first gives the related example of Thraysbalus the seventh century BCE tyrant of Miltetus, who according to Herodotus (Histories 5 92f), and in reversed form by Aristotle (Politics 1284a), gave advice to Periander, tyrant on Thebes, on how to administer his state by cutting off the flowers of poppies in a field in front of Periander’s messenger. The story about Tarquinius and the the poppies is from the sixth century BCE, so may well be a Roman legend copying what may well be a Greek legend from a century before. These details are apparently diversion from Rousseau’s purpose in Origin, but the issue is distinguishing imitation from origin is an issue for Rousseau who is concerned with the first and the original event of language and therefore of social institutions. The status of the origin is also at stake in these stories of tyrants using gestures instead of words, suggesting that the first form of language, gesture, is the expression of unlawful force. It is the Tarquinius version of the story (In Livy’s History of Rome, Volume 1, Book 1), which has become better known. It’s most notable appearance in later literature is in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, as discussed by the present author chapter 2 of Kierkegaard on Politics (Palgrave 2014, but should be available from the 22nd November this year), and it has a wider cultural resonance even for those unaware of the ancient stories in the phrase ‘tall poppy syndrome’. So Rousseau’s example is full of resonance in his own time, and has acquired more resonance since.