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Différance is a French homophone used in the context of deconstruction. The French word différer means both "to defer or postpone" and "to differ." In an essay of the same name by Jacques Derrida, différance gestures toward many things. One such thing is the idea that words and signs can never fully summon forth what they mean, but can only be defined or explained using more words.

The following gives a summary of Derrida's thoughts upon Différance taken mainly from his address given to the French Society of Philosophy at Sorbonne. [1]

Neither a word nor a conceptEdit

Différance itself, is neither a word, nor a concept, nor a thing. Words and concepts/theories are themselves different from other words or concepts and this difference gives their meaning.

Illustration of différance Edit

For example, the word "house" means what it means more so because of how it differs from "shed", "mansion", "hotel", "building", "hovel", "hours", "hows", "horse", etc. etc., than how the word "house" may be tied to a certain picture of a traditional house. Though not just differences between the word signifier is relevant here, differentials between the picture signified are also covered by Différance. Deferral is also important here, the words that occur after "house" in any expression will revise the meaning of that word, and sometimes dramatically.

So the fuller meaning is always postponed in language, there is never a moment when one can say the meaning is complete and 100%. Think of someone looking up a dictionary for a word, then looking up the words found in that word's definition, and so on, such a process would never end.

Deliberate misspelling Edit

The 'a' of différance is a deliberate "misspelling", though it sounds the same when enunciated. This highlights the fact that its written form is not heard completely, and serves to prioritise writing, see archi-writing (archewriting)

Derrida introduced this portmanteau in the course of an argument against the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, who sought a rigorous analysis of the role of memory and perception in our understanding of sequential items such as music or language. Derrida's différance argued that because the perceiver's mental state was constantly in a state of flux, and differed from one re-reading to the next, a general theory describing this phenomenon was unachievable.

The web of language Edit

We reside, to some extent, in a web of language, or at least one of interpretation, that has been laid down by tradition and which shifts each time we hear or read an utterance- even if it is the same utterance. Différance and deconstruction are attempts to understand this web of language, to search, in Derrida's words, for the "other of language"[2] . This "other of language" is close to what Anglophone Philosophy calls the Reference of a word. There is a deferment of meaning with each act of re-reading. There is a difference of readings with each re-reading. In Derrida's words, "there is nothing outside the [con]text" of a word's use and its place in the lexicon. Text, in Derrida's parlance, refers to context and includes all about the "real-life" situation of the speech/text, cf., speech act theory.

Paradox of différance Edit

It may seem contradictory to suggest that Différance is neither a word nor a concept. However, it is obvious that the difference itself between words cannot only be another word. Since it is of another order, the same applies to concepts. For example, one might say the difference between a "house" and a "home" is that one is a building, and the other a family or social unit. The problem is however, that these differences, "building"/"family" are themselves given meaning by further differences.

Example of word introduction Edit

A clear example of this effect occurred in England during the Renaissance period, when oranges first began to be imported from the Mediterranean. Yellow and red came to be differentiated from a new colour term -- "orange". What was the meaning of these words before 1600? What is their meaning afterwards? Such effects go on all the time in our use of language and frequently, in fact, this effect forms the very basis of language/meaning. Such changes of meaning are also often centres of political violence, as is apparent in the differences invested in male/female, master/slave, citizen/foreigner etc. Derrida seeks to modulate and question these "violent hierarchies" through deconstruction.

Perhaps it is a misconception that différance seeks contradictory meanings. It does not necessarily do so. It can, but what it usually describes is the re-experience, the re-arrival of the moment of reading. Roland Barthes once remarked that those who never reread anything are obliged to read the same text everywhere -- this wry comment summarizes the phenomenon of different experience for each iteration.

We are, keep in mind, discussing just one text -- every text. No distinction is necessarily made between texts in this very "basic" level. The difference/deferral can be between one text and itself, or between two texts; this is the crucial distinction between traditional perspectives and deconstruction.

Deconstruction and the history of philosophyEdit

Derrida's neologism is, of course, not just an attempt at linguistics or to discuss written texts and how they are read. It is, most importantly, an attempt to escape the history of metaphysics; a history that has always prioritised certain concepts, eg, those of substance, essence, soul, spirit (idealism), matter (realism), becoming, freedom, sense-experience, language, science etc.. All such ideas speak of a certain thing/idea being present. Différance, instead, works off absence, and, in effecting a concentration of certain thinking, Derrida takes on board the thought of Freud's unconscious (the trace), Heidegger's destruction of ontotheology, and Nietzsche's play of forces.

Differance is not only irreducible to any ontological or theological--ontotheological-- reappropriation, but as the very opening of the space in which ontotheology--philosophy--produces its system and its history, it includes ontotheology, inscribing it and exceeding it without return...Derrida, Différance[3]

Yet he does not approach this absence and loss with the nostalgia that marks Heidegger's attempt to uncover some original truths beneath the accretions of a false metaphysics that have accumulated since Socrates. Rather it is with the moods of play and affirmation that Derrida approaches the issue.

Negative theology Edit

Derrida's non-concept of différance, resembles, but is not, negative theology, an attempt to give a metaphysics without pointing to any existent essence as the most important or as the controlling aspect. The differences and deferrings of différance, Derrida points out, are not merely ideal, they are not inscribed in the contours of the brain nor do they fall from the sky, the closest approximation would be to consider them as historical, that is, if the word history itself did not mean what it does, the airbrushing speech of the victor/vanquished.

Derrida has shown an interest in negative or apophatic theology, one of his most important works on the topic being his essay "Sauf le nom."[4] However, following his presentation of his paper "Différance" in 1968, Derrida was faced with an annoyed participant who said, "It [différance] is the source of everything and one cannot know it: it is the God of negative theology." Derrida's answer was, "It is and it is not."[5]

Différance, life, technics Edit

In Of Grammatology, Derrida states that grammatology is not a "science of man" because it is concerned with the question of "the name of man." This leads Derrida into a consideration of the work of André Leroi-Gourhan, and in particular his concepts of "program," "exteriorization," and "liberation of memory." Derrida writes: "Leroi-Gourhan no longer describes the unity of man and the human adventure thus by the simple possibility of the graphie in general; rather as a stage or an articulation in the history of life—of what I have called differance—as the history of the grammè.[6] Derrida thus explicitly refers the term différance to life, and in particular to life as the history of inscription and retention, whether this is genetic or technological (from writing to "electronic card indexes"). And thus grammatology is not a science of man because it deconstructs any anthropocentrism, in the sense that the inscription in question falls on both sides of the divide human/non-human.

Yet, in the article "Différance," Derrida refers différance not to physis, that is, life, but to "all the others of physistekhnè, nomos, thesis, society, freedom, history, mind, etc.—as physis differed and deferred, or as physis differing and deferring."[7] For the philosopher Bernard Stiegler, this represents a hesitation in Derrida: "Now phusis as life was already différance. There is an indecision, a passage remaining to be thought. At issue is the specificity of the temporality of life in which life is inscription in the nonliving, spacing, temporalization, differentiation, and deferral by, of and in the nonliving, in the dead."[8] What this suggests to Stiegler is that grammatology—a logic of the grammè—must be supplemented with a history of grammatisation, a history of all the forms and techniques of inscription, from genetics to technics, each stage of which will be found to possess its own logic. Only in this way can différance be thought as the differing and deferral of life (life as the emergence of a difference from non-life, specifically as the deferral of entropy), and as the difference from physis through which the human must inevitably be defined (the human as the inauguration of another memory, neither the memory of genetics nor that of the individual, but rather a memory consisting in "inscription in the nonliving," that is, technical memory).


  • "Speech and Phenomena” and other essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973).


  1. "Speech and Phenomena” and other essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973).
  2. Richard Kearney, Dialogues with Contemporary Thinkers, Manchester: MUP, 1984
  3. Derrida and Différance, Evanston: Northwestern University Benchpress, 1988.
  4. Derrida, Jacques. "Sauf le nom." On the Name. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.
  5. Caputo, John. The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.
  6. Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology, Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998, p. 84.
  7. Derrida, Jacques. "Differance," Margins of Philosophy, Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1982, p. 17.
  8. Stiegler, Bernard. Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus, Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 139–40.

See also Edit

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