Logocentrism is, to put it simply, a term describing a particular sense of the relationship between thought, speech, and writing. But no term about a relationship so complex will be itself simple, and so this is a dense one. It may be helpful, then, to start at the beginning. But it is in a sense difficult to talk about the origin of the term; a combination of the ambiguous Greek logos, meaning any of “a word, saying, speech, discourse, thought, proportion, ratio, reckoning” and kentrikós, meaning “of or pertaining to a cardinal point,” it first appeared in academic writing around 1929 as the German Logozentrisch in the work of philosopher and psychologist Ludwig Klages. The Oxford English Dictionary, which defines “logocentric” as, simply, “centered on reason,” claims the word was first used in English by theologian V. A. Demant in 1942 and Dictionnaire Le Robert cites its first use in French in 1942 (BDLT 5). In their use, it was generally employed to describe thinkers preferring speech to writing as communicative technologies. The reason it is difficult to talk about its origin, despite this information, is that we cannot possibly understand “logocentrism” as it stands in relation to philosophy and media theory without thinking of it as used by French theorist Jacques Derrida.
Today, logocentrism is thought of as a primarily Derridean term. Per Derrida, logocentric thought is thought that privileges the “logos” as the central principle of philosophy. The distinction between speech and writing here is essential: logocentrism views thought as something essential that is mediated for the purposes of discourse, first through speech, and then later through writing. Speech is thus the original signifier of meaning, while writing is merely a signifier of a signifier (see semiotics). Logocentric thought privileges speech for this characteristic as well as its interiority – “thinking to oneself” is typically thought of as internally “hearing oneself speak” rather than “reading one’s own writing.” This thought process establishes speech as the primary human medium and writing as a secondary technology – a hierarchy that philosophers, linguists, and media theorists from Plato to Saussure will discuss in great detail. Derrida’s philosophical contention against logocentrism will provide elucidating insight into the nature of such an ordering. But first, we must understand his argument.
Derrida criticizes logocentric thought for relying on an uninterrogated metaphysical assumption. This kind of assumption relies on the forced closure of structures, a closure which will produce a tendency towards positive truth values. That is to say, the logocentric project asserts the exteriority of the signifier to the signified and assigns the notion of “presence” to the very essence of the signified. The mediation of the signified through signification, at each step, distances and defers meaning, always making our position in relation to knowledge more and more remote. The closer the signifier is to the signified, then, the better it will be able to communicate the essence of the signified (OG 18) (see immediacy). This constitutes a closure of structures in that it fails to question the exteriority of the signifier to the signified and the assignation of presence to the essence of the signified. This discussion brings out one of the main tenets of logocentric thought: the notion that in mediation, translation, and distancing from the signified, something is “lost”. Such a notion immediately connects the philosophical and metalinguistic concept of logocentrism to issues of media theory. According to Derrida, while this kind of thought has come to be taken for granted in philosophical practice, it is in fact a bold metaphysical claim – one he will come to characterize as a “metaphysics of presence,” and one that warrants a criticism and requires a defense.
Derrida questions the “metaphysics of presence” which underlie logocentrism by applying the concept of “trace.” Trace is related to but distinct from previous structuralist, Saussurean discussions of binary opposition. Per Saussure, the units of language have value or meaning only in terms of opposition to another unit; each unit is defined against what it is not (CGL 115). Good can only be understood by its relation to evil, and presence to absence, and so on. But while it establishes an important conceptual link between a sign and what it is not, this link is conceived of in terms of positive and negative in the logical sense. In Margins of Philosophy, Derrida claims that “An opposition of metaphysical concepts (speech/writing, presence/absence, etc.) is never the face-to-face of two terms, but a hierarchy and an order of subordination (MP 195).” So, binary opposition establishes dualisms between terms that by their very nature privilege one term in the binary over the other – but practitioners of binary opposition fail to recognize the hierarchical nature of their work. Binary opposition wishes to establish that a word has meaning qua its relation to its opposite. But this implies that when we take a sign, we acknowledge that it is “this” and not “that.” Derrida instead recognizes that any “present” sign will necessarily bear the trace of that which it is not: what it differs from, what it defers from, and that on which its presence is contingent. That is to say, in any present, there must also be the trace of the absent which defines it (OG 18).
This reveals a contradiction inherent in the method of Saussure in that he defines terms in terms of their opposites while still attempting to maintain their status as independent units. Derrida will maintain that insofar as any present signifier bears within it traces of absent signifiers, no signifier can possibly be either entirely present or absent. It is only by privileging presence and marginalizing absence that the thinkers Derrida criticizes can attempt to maintain their grasp on immediate and given meaning, because the trace of absence in any present signifier implies the nullification of the possibility of absolute knowledge (OG 66). Such deliberations can give us valuable, problematizing insights into the goals of metaphysical thinking in the history of Western philosophy. In Limited Inc., Derrida writes that metaphysics is:
The enterprise of returning ‘strategically’, ‘ideally’, to an origin or to a priority thought to be simple, intact, normal, pure, standard, self-identical, in order then to think in terms of derivation, complication, deterioration, accident, etc. All metaphysicians, from Plato to Rousseau, Descartes to Husserl, have proceeded in this way, conceiving good to be before evil, the positive before the negative, the pure before the impure, the simple before the complex, the essential before the accidental, the imitated before the imitation, etc. And this is not just one metaphysical gesture among others, it is the metaphysical exigency, that which has been the most constant, most profound and most potent (LI 236).
Logocentric thought, which we may wish to characterize as thought which does not adequately attend to the contradictions inherent in its own medium (discourse), has then always held as its ultimate end the apprehension of some kind of transcendental and absolute truth. Derrida makes a critical step in philosophy by simply attending to his medium in critical terms outside the realm of the hermeneutic.
In their introduction to Friedrich Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz write,
Beginning in the Age of Goethe—not coincidentally one of the formative periods of German history—stable cultural references such as authorship, originality, individuality, and Geist, all accessible by way of standardized interpretation practices, cut through and homogenized increasing social complexity; this could only occur, however, because a naturalized language now seen as a lucid carrier of meaning cut through and homogenized the different media. In short, people were programmed to operate upon media in ways that enabled them to elide the materialities of communication (G/F/T xxii).
Derrida’s project, slightly predating Kittler’s, is similarly concerned with the programming of people to “elide the materialities of communication” – and, while their methodologies differ radically, each arrive at the conclusion that such programming gives false faith in the status of language as a “lucid carrier of meaning.” Critical thought about logocentrism is really about attentiveness to the materiality of communication and the implications of such a project. Extant, specific languages make communication material, and exploring the interplay of terms within a linguistic system is what Derridean deconstructive projects hinge upon. During the Enlightenment, or Age of Reason (logos), and shortly after, this was crucially ignored, thus highlighting and cementing logocentrism’s status as a given axiom, or maybe myth, underlying Western thought.
Now, we may return to the previously mentioned question of the ordering of media. While the implications of Derrida’s project are commonly discussed as they relate to philosophical practice and literary theory, it may be helpful to take a step back and return to the basic formulation of the term as it relates to two key media, speaking and writing, and their purportedly associated sensory data channels, hearing and seeing. While the “logos” in logocentrism is crucially not referring just to speech, the concept of the perceived difference between speech and writing points to a key component of Derrida’s ruminations on the privileging of presence in Western thought. Media theorists from Plato onward have often spoken about the supposed dichotomy between speech and writing in terms of hierarchy and competition (see orality). In criticizing logocentrism’s privileging of speech on the grounds of the metaphysics of presence, Derrida does not wish to assert that writing is in some sense superior or more essential. It would make no sense at all to attack the metaphysical axiom of the essentiality of presence and then simply make the opposite metaphysical claim, privileging absence. Rather, Derrida wishes to bring into question the need for, or even the possibility of, having such a hierarchy at all. And, should we be convinced by his criticism of logocentric thought, it will seem to be the case that a rethinking of the relationship between the mediums of speech and writing is in order.
— Michael Harrison
Ward, Graham. “Barth, Derrida and the Language of Theology.” Cambridge, UK; Cambridge UP, 1995.
Derrida, Jacques, and Gayatri Chakravorty. Spivak. “Of Grammatology.” Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1976. Print.
Saussure, Ferdinand De. “Course in General Linguistics.” Ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. Trans. Wade Baskin. New York: McGraw-Hill Book, 1966. Print.
Derrida, Jacques. “Margins of Philosophy.” Chicago: U of Chicago, 1982. Print.
Derrida, Jacques. “Limited Inc.” Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1988.
Kittler, Friedrich A., Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, and Michael Wutz. “Gramophone, Film, Typewriter.” Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1999.