Rousseau and Derrida on Liberty and Language the First Institution: Excerpt

I’ve now finished writing and revising a draft of this paper for a collaborative project mentioned in previous posts, and sent it to my collaborator. I won’t give details until the project is complete, but the general idea is that two authors write a paper each on Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages, one from a Chomskyan perspective and one from a Derridean perspective.  These papers will be followed by replies by both authors to the other paper. This will be an online publication in a very new experimental venue, which I think is a really valuable thing to do, though it has to be said not the best thing for ‘professional’ recognition, anyway I’ve been working hard on things for more established venues, so a reasonable mixture I believe. Anyway, the co-authored book should be online before long. Work in progress I’ve already posted won’t feature much in the final version, as the reasons for picking out those passages and posting them, in this case are reasons why they don’t fit into the final long essay, and have some separate interest.

I’m posting the introductory and concluding parts by way of a summary.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau takes an idea of antique provenance, 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 the  New Science, though given the closeness in time, it could be said that both Vico and Rousseau are the products of an Enlightenment reaction to classical rhetoric theory, natural law, civil society, and historical views of humanity. One way of thinking of the The Essay on the Origin of Languages would be as a extraordinarily concise and deep summary, and rewriting, of the New Science, taken in conjunction with Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws. The Essay is not a text greatly discussed in succeeding decades, but there is a range of philosophical work going up to Friedrich Nietzsche by way of German Idealism, including Wilhelm von Humboldt’s theory of language and Søren Kierkegaard on the possibilities and limits of communication, which seem to follow up the Essay, if more from accidental resonance than deliberate reference.  As Jacques Derrida indicates in Of Grammatology, Rousseau’s thought about language can be found dispersed across his texts, so any influence on later thinkers about language and communication might be through various conduits. These indirect relations parallel the relation between Rousseau and Giambattista Vico, overlapping that of Montesquieu and Vico, which is never made clear by Rousseau or Montesquieu and may again as much a matter of an accumulation of resonances and echoes as direct influence.

The story of language in the Essay is in  part on an essay on music, and includes a discussion of liberty, so in this context language encompasses issues of melody and harmony in speech and political institutions based on liberty. The discussion of the origin is a complex one in which language as distinguishing feature of humanity does not appear in nature, since language is the first social institution.


The readings of Rousseau and Lévi-Strauss in Derrida, the harmonisation of them and the emphasis of differences, brings out an ethical and political tension between written law as oppressive, denying nature, and speech as the place of liberty, liberty existing within the community where everyone’s voice can be heard by everyone else. That utopia of the speaking community intersects with a Marxist belief in liberation from class structures and a Freudian belief in the speaking cure where desire can lose its alienated forms.

To some degree, Derrida refers to the intellectual atmosphere of Paris in his time as a student and academic, his own early adherence to Maoism and the widespread interest in combining Marx with Freud, and maybe Foucault’s resistance to all forms of institutionalisation already apparent in History of Madness. Derrida’s suggestion is that if the utopian possibilities of language are themselves based on an exclusion and suppression of the forces in language, then that utopia must be question. There has always been law, there has alway been the non-natural in human society, there has always been non-spoken language, and trying to conceive of humans without them is to conceive of humans without community or language, or any development of natural faculties through society. From this point of view Rousseau was right to believe that liberty is conceived in language, since the existence of language is deeply interwoven with the existence of negotiable social institutions and laws, with the existence of community itself. Rousseau’s limitation is that he has difficulty in recognising that freedom is always a second birth, because like language the moment of its institution is always a repetition of a previous moment. There can be re-examination of the past, but there is no perfect point of critique to be found in an ideal community of language, law and self-government, in the past or in the rationalisations made in the present, which in practice inform our vision of the past. Derrida helps show that the  existence of political liberty is deeply bound up with this these layers of indeterminacy, the impossibility of a flawless language and therefore of the flawless articulation of a pure community. Since the temptations of absolute community are always there, the language of politics must be a constant engagement with and differentiation from such limit situations.