Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) studied with Foucault at the Ecole normale superière (university for educating future humanities academics in Paris) though became more of a rival than an ally in philosophy. Some of his early work, particularly Of Grammatology continues Foucault’s early interest (when Derrida was his student) in discourses of the knowledge of nature.
The title ‘of grammatology’ refers to a science of writing, and was only used very occasionally before Derrida. Derrida does not advocate a science of writing, but rather picks up on the word to discuss how any idea of science, including a science of language, is conditioned by the nature of writing since knowledge is something that is written and is caught in a relation between writing and what is written.
This issue may seem marginal most of that time, but comes to the fore more in writing about writing. Derrida looks at how one understanding of writing, particularly in the Middle Ages, has been to construct a book which is the book of nature, in which a book duplicates what is in nature, which itself has some theological origin.
The idea of a book of nature, along with any idea of sacred knowledge beyond the strict limits of religion, that is the exclusion of theology from science is something that Derrida thinks of as disappearing in the seventeenth century (or beginning to disappear, eighteenth and early nineteenth century science is still influenced by the idea of a natural theology in which the laws of nature and initiated and unified by God) .
The disappearance itself leads the way to an interest in what writing is and how writing may be about itself as much as any external object represented. Derrida partly engages with this through a discussion of the autobiography of the the Swiss-French Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778),The Confessions.
What Derrida emphasises about it is that Rousseau keeps staying within the reality of autobiographical writing and gives us a sense of writing detached from external reality. For Derrida this conditions all writing, since writing can only refer to what is represented in writing, words can only be explained by other words.
Derrida does not say that natural reality outside writing is an illusion, he is saying that writing is a theme for writing and that writing can never stand completely outside itself, by representing some reality completely independent of what can be brought into writing. This is the source of Derrida’s famous and notorious comment that ‘there is nothing outside of the text’. The point is not to deny objective reality, but to point out that texts are alway s explained by more text.
‘there is nothing outside the text’
There is nothing outside of the text. And that is not because Jean-Jacques’ life [referring to the life of Jean-Jacques Rousseau as described in his autobiography The Confessions], or the existence of Mamma or Thérèse themselves, is not of prime interest to us, nor because we have access to their so-called “real” existence only in the text and we have neither any means of altering this, nor any right to neglect this limitation. All reasons of this type would already be sufficient, to be sure, but there are more radical reasons. What we have tried to show by following the guiding line of the “dangerous supplement,” is that in what one calls the real life of these existences “of flesh and bone,” beyond and behind what one believes can be circumscribed as Rousseau’s text, there has never been anything but writing; there have never been anything but supplements, substitutive significations which could only come forth in a chain of differential references, the “real” supervening, and being added only while taking on meaning from a trace and an invocation of the supplement, etc. And thus to infinity, for we have read, in the text, that the absolute present, Nature, that which words like “real mother” name, have always already escaped, have never existed; that what opens meaning and language is writing as the disappearance of natural presence.
Derrida does not draw any conclusions about nature or science from this, but he does argue that his way of thinking about writing is better suited to science than any way of thinking about writing which makes words the transparent representation of an idea. Scientific language tends to work more like a set of instrumental rules for using words.
This becomes particularly clear in mathematics, symbolic logic and computer code. Nature itself contains a kind of non-representation writing as in DNA code. The rules have meaning through their use not through representation which Derrida suggests fits with his way of writing about philosophical and literary language as always being concerned with language, with substitutions of one word for another, rather than eliminating the materiality of language in writing which somehow engages in a pure representation of things as if the things could be completely present in the writing.