A Critique of Pure Meaning

Wittgenstein and Derrida
Ruth Sonderegger
‘Misunderstandings are also good, since they may help what is
most sacred to find expression’ (F. Schlegel, Lucinde)
‘The firm, seemingly brutal, grasp, is an element of salvation’
(W. Benjamin, Passagenwerk)
In what follows I argue that Derrida and Wittgenstein have closely related views
on linguistic meaning, both directed against varieties of objectivism, and that, if I
am right, it can be shown clearly how Derrida’s attempt to represent speaking
and understanding as interpretation constitutes a significant advance beyond
Wittgenstein. I think it important to bring out this advance beyond Wittgenstein,
since a productive confrontation of Wittgenstein and Derrida as philosophers of
language is possible only with this difference in view.
1. Against Gegenstandstheorien (‘Object-Theories’) of Linguistic Meaning
Both Derrida and the later Wittgenstein start from reifying picture- or object-
theories of linguistic meaning. Both want to break down what, after Derrida,
we might call the ‘axis of presence’, which plays a fundamental role in all tradi-
tional theories of meaning. By this I mean the axis which connects (or is supposed
to connect) the various traditional guarantors of identity of linguistic meaning –
paradigms, understood as represented objects or as mental representations – with
particular uses of signs in particular situations (i.e. with the applications of these
paradigms). For the most controversial question here has always been how such
connections can exist, how paradigms conceived as objects can guarantee
(absolute) determination of linguistic meaning in the infinitely varied and
constantly changing situations of their application. Such definiteness of meaning
was the goal of Husserl, against whom Derrida argues in his early works, as well
as of Wittgenstein in the Tractatus, which the Philosophical Investigations subjects
to a critical, if not devastating, discussion.
Husserl tries to save the ideal of absolute determination of linguistic meaning
with a combination of intentionalism and objectivism, a combination one
constantly meets with in the context of objectivist theories of meaning. It is
European Journal of Philosophy 5:2 ISSN 0966–8373 pp. 183–209. © Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1997. 108 Cowley Road, Oxford
OX4 1JF, UK, and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
intentionalist in that Husserl ascribes the determination of linguistic sense to the
purposes of the speaker, a sense which the hearer can approach only in an in-
finite series of approximations. Understanding is accordingly an endless business
of groping about in the dark. If the question of meaning is raised from within this
intentionalist framework – what is ‘really’ or ‘truly’ meant – the ultimate author-
ity is always the speaker, the subject, who discloses a sense which is somehow
already present in consciousness. This kind of intentionalism is supported by a
kind of objectivism, so that, as far as the speaking subject is concerned, trans-
parency and determinateness of sense are guaranteed once and for all, and her
authority is invulnerable to mistakes and (self-) misunderstandings. To prevent
the bestowal of meaning being subjective, which is always the danger when all
authority is given to the speaking subject, Husserl furnishes the subject’s
consciousness with ideal objects of meaning, which must be intended by the
communicator if meaning is to be breathed into the dead signs.
Derrida’s claim about this relation is that intentionalism without metaphysical
objectivism is unthinkable,
whether ideal objects of meaning secure the objectiv-
ity of sense (Sinn), as in Husserl, whether the meaning-guaranteeing objects are
ordinary objects in the world, or whether they are representations of such objects.
In all these different variants of the play between intentionalism and objectivism
the crucial element – which both Wittgenstein and Derrida attack – is the attempt
to think of the use of signs as a solitary activity and to anchor it in the scientific,
metaphysical or divine objectivity of paradigms for the use of signs: paradigms
or authorities which are already there when signs come to be used. If the mean-
ing-bestowing subject becomes uncertain, the idea is that she simply turns her
gaze towards the (objectively) ordered world or the realm of ideal objects of
meaning. But this at once raises the question of how a human being can think an
ideal object of meaning or recall it correctly through an object in the world or a
mental picture of one. Thus the problems of the intentionalists do not begin
merely when the hearer does not perfectly capture the speaker’s intention and
understanding becomes endless approximation, but with the very goal of
absolute objectivity or transparency of the paradigms to be thought or recalled,
and in relation to the power ascribed to these paradigms actually to direct linguis-
tic use. The break comes between the intentionalist pretension to determinate
meaning and its achievement, between the paradigm which is supposed to make
meaning possible and the use of signs modelled on that paradigm.
Wittgenstein goes a little further and shows that the problems which Derrida
exposes in Husserl do not go away even if one gives up the idea of ideal objects
of meaning and makes real objects in the public world the guarantors of linguis-
tic meaning.
There is one way of avoiding at least partly the occult appearance of the
processes of thinking [such as Husserl’s ‘thinking’ (Meinen) a meaning-
object, R. S.], and it is, to replace in these processes any working of the imag-
ination by acts of looking at real objects. Thus it may seem essential that, at
least in certain cases, when I hear the word ‘red’ with understanding, a red
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image should be before my mind’s eye. But why should I not substitute
seeing a bit of red paper for imagining a red patch?
The problem remains that the ‘paradigmatic objects’ are as little able to regulate
their application as the ideal objects of meaning: they do not determine the range
of cases to which they apply, and can be interpreted in quite different ways. In
either case then – that of Husserl’s ideal objects of meaning or that of the publicly
visible paradigm made of paper – it is illusory to believe that a certain application
is forced on us by the paradigm.
These problems become even more dramatic
when we realize that our memory of a representational image may, in very
human fashion, let us down. ‘When we work with a sample instead of our
memory there are circumstances in which we say that the sample has changed
colour and we judge of this by memory. But can we not sometimes speak of a
darkening, for example, of our memory image? Aren’t we as much at the mercy
of memory as of a sample?’ (PI 56). We must then have a more trustworthy
measuring device than our memories: an objective paradigm for the paradigm –
and this obviously ushers in a regress. Husserl, therefore, seems entirely consis-
tent when he ascribes to the speaker ideal objects of meaning which by definition
cannot get darker, do not need to be construed or interpreted, but rather have
objective being sui generis.
But this denial of the problem ‘by decree’ is, of course, not a solution to which
Wittgenstein and Derrida could agree. Their strategy is rather to keep attacking it
so that it becomes clear to the reader that any attempt to explicate the meaning of
linguistic signs from some position preceding the activity of sign-use is unten-
able. The attempt either produces infinite regresses of interpretation or necessi-
tates resort to some kind of ideal guarantor of meaning which, at any rate as
Derrida and Wittgenstein see it, is impossible without appeal to incoherent meta-
physics. ‘You have no model of this superlative fact, but you are seduced into
using a super-expression’ (PI 192).
If Wittgenstein’s remarks on the understanding of instructions like ‘always
add two’, of referential explanations like ‘that is TOFF,’
or on the interpretability
even of mathematical symbols such as ‘+’, are taken into account as well, the
critique of objectivistically conceived guarantees of meaning (that is, of objec-
tivistically conceived meaning) so far summarized is valid not only for objects in
the literal sense, or their representations, but also for expressions of rules, and
meaning-explanations of all kinds. But that does not mean that Wittgenstein or
Derrida think that language is an unregulated chaos. The fact that the passage
from objects that would bestow and regulate meaning, and from pre-existent
mental paradigms, to ideal objects of any kind, leads only to deeper confusion is
for them enough to show that the traditional way of approaching the question
should be revised. Instead of continuing to ask about a point of origin – whether
it be ‘a subject or a substance, (. . .) a thing in general, a being that is somewhere
present, thereby eluding the play of différance’
– by which the endless identical
repetition of a meaningful sign can be regulated – they turn the question around.
Why do we understand words and, with them, persons and states of affairs, again
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and again and every time, even though our utopian desires for absolute certainty
and precision have never been completely realized and never will be? What is it
– to speak with Derrida – that regulates this disorder (cf. Diff 4)?
Derrida and Wittgenstein both begin their critique by calling into question the
search for a meaning-authority preceding and independent of the process of
using signs, by casting aspersions on the questions regarding who or what deter-
mines the meaning of linguistic signs.
Instead of asking who- or what-questions,
they ask how the process of sign-using is regulated and by asking this new ques-
tion they come to the thesis that, outside and independent of the process of sign-
use there is no guarantee of linguistic meaning, that this process itself produces
(and changes) what are called paradigms, examples or models for the use of
signs. Instead of seeking it before or above the process of sign-use, Wittgenstein
and Derrida demonstrate that it is itself produced in the process of repeated use
of signs.
Thus one comes to posit presence – and specifically consciousness, the
being beside itself of consciousness – no longer as the absolutely central
form of Being but as a ‘determination’ and as an ‘effect’. A determination
or an effect within a system which is no longer that of presence but of
différance, a system that no longer tolerates the opposition of activity and
passivity, nor that of cause and effect, or of indetermination and determin-
ation, etc. . . .’ (Diff 16)
2. The Importance of Repetition for Wittgenstein’s and Derrida’s
Private Language Arguments
Both Wittgenstein’s thesis, that the meaning of a sign is its use in the language,
and Derrida’s, that signs become significant and meaningful only in a play of
references between particular occasions of the use of signs, which he calls
‘différance’, need some further explication if it is to become clear to what extent
their explanations are less objectivist than others.
Wittgenstein’s conception of linguistic meaning is anti-objectivist in that he
affirms a two-fold non-objectifiability of the rules or paradigms of sign-use. What
he calls the ‘rules’ of use are vague in two ways: first, they take the form of collec-
tions of examples, every demand to complete which he rejects as absurd; and,
second, because of the openness of these rules in respect of future (innovative)
uses. But he does not conclude from this non-explicability of the rules that rules
play no part in speaking. Speakers can cope with ‘vagueness in the rules’ (PI 100),
since their knowledge of the rules is of a different kind from that which those who
are looking for completely explicable conventions have to assume. It is in fact an
ability, non-formalizable, only partially explicable, and it cannot be imparted to
others through explanations and definitions, but primarily through training,
demonstration and use in relevant contexts. According to Wittgenstein, then,
mastery of a language is a practical ability. One can talk about it and elucidate it
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verbally, but it must reveal itself as a capacity to speak and understand, which
can never be reduced to what can be said about it.
Knowledge of the meanings of
one’s own language is characteristically shown by an ability to say in a particular
situation whether, or that, something is an assertion, an agreement or a declara-
tion of love, and not an ability to define what an agreement or declaration of love
is. Wittgenstein elucidates this with the remark: ‘We are not prepared for the task
of ‘thinking’ the use of the word, e.g. of describing it. (And why should we be?
What is the use of such a description?)’ (Z no. 111).
Explicit propositional knowl-
edge, knowledge that . . ., is possible only on the basis of a non-objectifiable
knowledge, which is basically a practical know-how as well as a knowledge of
one’s way around the referential network of a language.
Such a thesis naturally leads Wittgenstein to enquire how speakers learn,
retain and together share in the complicated referential network of a language.
The peculiar thing about this holistic and differential network is that it is neither
the product of subjective acts of will, nor does it take the form of perceptually
observable resemblances between the occasions of the use of a sign, since simi-
larities exist everywhere, in some respect or other. Although the speakers of a
language follow rules which enable them to see resemblances, these resemblances
are not objectively given prior to the rules but constituted through them.
Wittgenstein says that speakers are able to find their way around this regulated
irregularity only because they are trained or brought into line for a certain prac-
tice of reiteration. I think we should understand Wittgenstein’s thesis in this way:
languages not only depend on constant use and repetition, but also on a plurality
of speakers as the sole condition of their being learnt. And that also means that
every language is a structure which precedes its individual speakers. This impos-
sibility of a private language for a single subject is not so much founded on the
fact that human beings cannot perfectly remember rules and their use, for that
goes also for a plurality of subjects. (With regard to this problem it makes no
difference whether one thinks of examples of a private language of sensations,
such as Wittgenstein’s example in PI 261, or of a descriptive language for public
objects.) Rather, the impossibility of a private language is founded on the fact that
languages are structured in such a way that there are no rules or paradigms in the
first place which speakers have to recall correctly or which could as it were dictate
to one of them the correct usage. Wittgenstein argues that patterns, examples or
expressions of rules do not precede the practice of reiteration, but are part of it.
And since solitary rule-following can be interpreted only according to the
implausible model of a person recalling an original, timeless, definition, which
can be clearly separated from the process of use and precedes it, it cannot be the
way into language. Since a subject by herself cannot found a speech practice, the
only way into language is the detour via at least one other speaker as representa-
tive of an already established speech practice of using signs.
This connection between repeatability and the thesis that a practice of repeti-
tion cannot be established by one speaker, is denied by the representatives of the
weak Private Language argument. They say only that a sign first gets a meaning
when it is repeatable in the sense that there is a publicly ascertainable connection
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between the sign and an event or object, so that third parties can ascertain and
repeat this connection. The representatives of the strong Private Language argu-
ment claim against this not simply that a single person cannot establish such a
repeatable connection alone; they – together, one might say, with Derrida – have
a different interpretation of the concept of repetition, and thus reach the conclu-
sion that a person cannot follow a rule on just one occasion and that he cannot do
so alone. As regards the idea of recurrence, they stress not only the publicly acces-
sible connection between a sign and what it stands for, but above all its repeated
use in a practice, on which the formation of meanings and their regulation
depend. They go beyond the requirement that repetition must be possible, and
claim that there must always already have been repetition. Only in that case –
where there is an existing linguistic practice – can there be a criterion for correct
repetition, one that does justice to the complex family relationships of the
language. On the basis of this interpretation of the idea of repetition they arrive
at the thesis that one person alone cannot speak (rather than the less fundamen-
tal idea that two people would make fewer mistakes than one). Whereas
Wittgenstein – ignoring his own insight into the intrinsic connection between the
process of application and the paradigms which are the product of this process –
oscillates between the strong and the weak Private Language argument, Derrida,
as I shall show, leaves no doubt about the validity of the strong argument against
the possibility of a language for a solitary speaker.
It is interesting that Derrida does not distinguish the two aspects of the strong
thesis – that we cannot talk about a language unless there is both frequent follow-
ing of a rule and also the following of it by more than one person – but sees both
as implied by the concept of repetition, which for him is the central idea. One
might say that in it he distinguishes the aspect of repeatability from that of repeated-
ness, as two aspects of a single thing. As Derrida sees it, the question of the neces-
sity of repeatedly using a sign cannot be separated from the question of whether
a single person alone can do this. Characteristically, he does not follow
Wittgenstein in understanding the argument against a solitary speaker as an
argument for the intersubjectively valid usages of a linguistic community.
Derrida ties his thesis about the repeatability (i.e. the necessary openness) of
language rules, to the experience that the absence or death of a speaker or writer
alters nothing of the intelligibility of a text or an utterance, so that the meaning
(in so far as it relates to what counts as repetition of a sign) cannot depend on her
private sensations, intentions or intuitions.
This implies that there is no code – an organon of iterability – that is
structurally secret. The possibility of repeating, and therefore of identify-
ing, marks is implied in every code (my emphasis), making of it a commu-
nicable, transmittable, decipherable grid that is iterable for a third party,
and thus for any possible user in general.’
The passage makes it clear that Derrida does not conclude from the necessary
publicity of the rules of use for a sign that a single speaker would thereby be
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enabled to establish publicly recognizable connections between signs and partic-
ular situations of use, and also to decide according to public criteria whether a
sign had been correctly used. Rather, he defends the thesis that the repeatability
of signs cannot be separated from their necessary repeatedness, that is, that a
subject by herself can neither establish a repeated practice nor check her own
performance, unless there is already a pre-established public and knowable
connection between a sign and its occurrence.
The reason for this – as we have already mentioned in connection with
Wittgenstein – is that the rules for the use of signs come into being only in the
practice of use itself and because even the discovery of a new rule of use is bound
up with familiarity with a language, which could not be produced by a subject
This implies that the subject (. . .) is inscribed in language, is a ‘function’
of language, becomes a speaking subject only by making its speech
conform – even in so-called ‘creation’, or in so-called ‘transgression’ – to
the system of the rules of language as a system of differences, or at very
least by conforming to the general law of différance, . . . (Diff 15).
One cannot know what kinds of resemblance are in question in the repetition of
signs without being familiar with a language, and there are resemblances or rela-
tionships whose point becomes apparent only when one knows a word in its vari-
ous indefinable, i.e. verbally incompletely explicable, and alterable contexts of
use. That means that it is never enough to know a definition – even a public one
– which precedes the process of use. Again, in a language rules do not precede
use, they come with it. A subject would already have to be involved in a practice
of use if she wanted to teach herself a language, since the complex family rela-
tionships contain public criteria only for those who already know their way
around a language. Thus Derrida speaks of the histories of use of a language as
‘a kind of writing before the letter, an archi-writing without a present origin,
without archi-’ (Diff 15).
Where Wittgenstein and Derrida go beyond their shared opposition to
Gegenstandtheorie-models of meaning and the possibility of private languages,
their respective strengths are remarkably complementary. Wittgenstein’s
strength is, in my view, in his analysis of the specific element of ‘knowledge’ of
languages as an ability, which can dispense with theoretical explanation, without
thereby becoming knowledge of an inferior kind. In describing this ability
Wittgenstein repeatedly speaks of shared usage or the usages of a linguistic
community. Behind these phrases lie three distinct and, to some extent, problem-
atic points: (i) Talk of usage implies a capacity which a person cannot teach
herself. (ii) At the basis of language there must be agreement with those from
whom one learns it; one cannot both learn and at the same time dispute it.
(iii) Language rules in the proper sense are shared usages of a linguistic commu-
nity as a whole. As against this, Derrida’s strength lies in his having reminded us,
in the face of all the emphasis on community, of the importance of difference in
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usages and the necessity for interpretation. Derrida’s limitation lies primarily in
his overlooking the aspect of knowing how. . . . This has led him repeatedly into
unnecessary paradoxes, and has exposed the new dimension of opposition to
objectivism, which his emphasis on interpretation has made possible, to needless
criticism. My contention is, then, that in order to assess the validity of Derrida’s
arguments, one must first do justice to Wittgenstein, and show how far his talk of
shared usage is successfully directed against the need for endless interpretation.
3. Criticizing the Shared Practice
Wittgenstein’s talk of shared practice or shared linguistic usage and customs is
controversial because in it he combines distinct arguments about linguistic
behaviour in ways that are hard to disentangle. At first his talk of practice and
usage is used to draw attention to the practical – in contrast to the cognitive –
character of language mastery.
He rightly keeps pointing out that this capacity
has more to do with practical abilities than with forms of cognitive knowledge.
(Think, for example, of capacities like finding one’s way in a city without a map,
acquiring connoisseurship of wine, or mastering musical instruments, becoming
at home with local or context-specific habits of small talk.) Shared usage plays
quite a different role in those situations where the agenda is one of language-
learning. In these contexts usage is the touchstone for a child’s correct or incorrect
following of a rule; it is the criterion for what is part of a particular language and
what not. The mere fact that we, as members of a linguistic community, proceed
in such and such a way is, in this situation, the justificatory norm for following
the rule in this way and not otherwise, it is the standard against which the chil-
dren are brought into line. If a teacher judges that the pupil has continued the
series correctly, she has nothing better to appeal to than the fact that she herself
does it in the same way, ‘as we do it’ (PI 145). In defence of this Wittgensteinian
thesis – that one has at first to conform blindly to an established speech practice
– in the sense that there is no other way in which a language can be learnt at all,
I have made use of Derrida’s concept of iterability.
However, Wittgenstein’s attempt to extend (or the way he extends) the valid-
ity of the ‘shared practice’ argument beyond the situation of being taught a
language is to my mind questionable. He rightly emphasizes that a doubt about
whether the rule was correctly followed, or the repetitive practice correctly
extended, can be formulated only on the basis of a foundation free from doubt,
and that this is lacking where the language learner does not blindly accept it
from her teachers. But Wittgenstein ignores an important aspect of our linguis-
tic practice when he appears to describe that indubitable foundation as the
shared usage of a homogeneous linguistic community, which simply needs to be
brought into play in cases of doubt in order that one may again find solid ground
under one’s feet. Although it is important and right to draw attention to the fact
that learning a language requires that certain linguistic usage must first be
repeated blindly for the basic distinction between correct and incorrect use to get
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a hold, it is nevertheless a distortion to think of the linguistic behaviour of more
or less adult speakers in terms of this scenario of language-learning. In contrast to
the situation of beginners, where what counts as correct allows of no doubt (as
distinct from any uncertainty that the beginner might of course feel), the subsequent
discernment of correct and incorrect use is very closely associated with words like
‘interpreting’, ‘construing’, or justifying’. These words would lose their point if it
was always obvious and uncontroversial what was to count as correct and incor-
rect in a particular situation, as though one merely had to examine the shared
usage and remind one another of it in order to possess an uncontroversial shared
criterion of decision. The very fact that those words have a place in our language
is bound up with the fact that the understanding of an utterance can be contro-
versial or at least open; that sometimes the persons concerned cannot agree which
rule covers the case in question. To deny this is to return to an objectivist concep-
tion of language.
In this context the epithet ‘objectivist’ means that the meaning of signs or utter-
ances is assumed to be already present in the shared usage, in the sense that one
can assure oneself of it simply by having recourse to one’s own linguistic practice.
In communication this foundation is neither shifted, questioned or created anew.
Shared usage thus becomes that ultimate authority on linguistic meaning which
other philosophers have located in the intention of the speaker or the interpreter’s
will to understand. This is not to deny the awareness of contingency which is
revealed in Wittgenstein’s emphasis on our way of life (whatever that may be) as
the guarantee of shared linguistic usage. But this awareness of contingency seems
to disappear when he assumes that shared forms of life are so homogeneous and
uncontroversial that their contingency is apparent only to the outside observer,
whereas from the internal point of view of the speakers of a language everything
is correct and uncontroversial just as it is. This argument rests, of course, on the
untenable assumption of a closed and clearly bounded language game, whereas
a language actually has fuzzy boundaries, and within it there are limits to regula-
tion as well as differences concerning (shared) forms of life. The strongest system-
atic argument as to why Wittgenstein should have taken this into account more
clearly, and why Derrida rightly insists on it, would be that a single absolutely
common language would mean the end of all language. It must therefore be
shown, as against Wittgenstein, that once language has been learnt, blind rule-
following and multiple interpretability are systematically related to each other.
Before we follow Derrida’s argument to this effect, I shall refer to some passages
from the Philosophical Investigations, to give a number of arguments that support
the claim that Wittgenstein himself fell victim to just the objectivist misunder-
standing identified here.
First, it is noticeable that Wittgenstein’s examples, which he uses to develop his
contentions about rule-following, are chosen in the light of two kinds of question:
When can it be said that a learner has understood certain rules? and, How does
one cope with a person who says she has some private language-rules? However,
there are two other very common situations – much discussed in traditional
hermeneutics – which are not even touched on by Wittgenstein: (i) two adults, i.e.
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people already familiar with a language, discuss the meaning of what one of them
said and/or the understanding of the other; (ii) a reader tries to understand a text.
In both these cases two more or less mature speakers communicate with each other
and either do not share a particular understanding, or have no idea how to achieve
a coherent and certain understanding of a text, or of the other’s utterance. It would
not be enough to conclude from the selective nature of his examples that
Wittgenstein was interested only in criticizing the possibility of a private
language, or in a critique of understanding as a mental occurrence, together with
the corresponding critique of intentionalism. Certainly he draws false conclusions
from his insights into the process of language learning, but at the same time he
himself makes remarks that speak against these conclusions. By ‘false conclusions’
I mean above all his extension of the communality required by the learning situa-
tion to language as such. As soon as the asymmetry between teacher and pupil in
the learning situation is emphasized, it becomes at once clear that it cannot be the
paradigm for language use in general. Wittgenstein suggests that one needs only
to be an initiate of a language for the rest to follow by itself. As if when one has
been initiated into what the members of a linguistic community have in common,
serious misunderstandings and changes of meaning no longer occur. ‘It is what
human beings say that is true and false; they agree in the language they use’ (PI
This kind of remark should astonish us all the more because it was precisely
Wittgenstein who enabled us to see certain aspects of pluralism in our linguistic
usage. Whoever asserts, as he does, that our linguistic usage is not always
bounded by rules (PI 84), or insists that the future of language rules is essentially
open and languge rules should not be compared with ‘rails laid to infinity’ (PI
218), or takes into account the fact that we sometimes alter rules ‘as we go along’
(PI 83), has already to some extent provided for plurality. If these remarks of
Wittgenstein are taken seriously, even the unquestioned foundation of all sign-use
leaves room for unregulated and alterable boundaries – which in turn means
scope for misunderstanding, or simple failure to understand, and so the need for
interpretation. These cannot in every case be treated as excluded by the context or
through our shared and equal understanding of what is unregulated. But this is
precisely what he presupposes, to the extent that the openness and alterability of
linguistic usage, of which Wittgenstein himself has reminded us, is never treated
as a serious problem. He seems in fact to hold that this openness and alterability
can create difficulties only at the level of linguistic theory, that ‘normal’ language
use by contrast copes with them quite unproblematically, and that the openness
and alterability of a language are not even known as such by its speakers.
In my view this also explains the remarkable fact that Wittgenstein – at least as
far as I know – never discusses a single case in which equally qualified speakers
within a community argue about an utterance or a particular practice (discounting
the fact that the text itself has largely the form of a dialogue). When he comes to
discuss the case where two cultures (not, and this is typical, two speakers of a
single culture, since clearly he cannot conceive of such differences within a single
culture) have, perhaps, two quite different conceptions of the practice of giving
orders, and ventures to ask himself which of them is right (cf. PI 206), he leaves the
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question unanswered. But to hope that language looks after itself by producing
existing usage as a reliable criterion for deciding who is right in disputed cases, is
naive. It is precisely the person who refuses to hypostasize a system of rules preced-
ing the process of communication, and takes the latter itself as his authority, who
cannot ignore variations in sign-use while quietly hoping for a higher authority to
make everything all right. For such a person there is no such authority.
Although Wittgenstein may be right in his assertion that people do not come to
blows over linguistic rules, he is wrong to say that there is never any dispute (cf.
BGM 323) about whether the rules have been followed. Such disputes merely stop
short of violence. We are in fact all thoroughly familiar with disputes or uncertain-
ties regarding the meaning of particular words, utterances or texts. Such disputes
about meaning, however, always involve, at the same time, disputes about what is
the right thing to say in a certain situation, what is defensible as a true assertion, or
what the contribution of a (philosophical) text is with regard to the clarification of
a substantial problem. It is when these differences can no longer be resolved by
appeal to uncontroversial shared rules, and teacher-pupil relationships give way to
a genuine plurality of interpretations and understandings among equally compe-
tent people, that adjectives like ‘justified’, ‘correct’ and ‘true’ acquire the meaning
they have in our language, a meaning that cannot be exhausted in every case by
appeal to a shared use of words or ‘shared human forms of action’. Wittgenstein
may then be countered with the objection that the radical normative kernel of these
words can be understood properly only where we are not in agreement over truth
and correctness, or discover (in disputing such things) that the basis of our tradi-
tional justifications can be questioned. That such disputes are possible only on the
basis of something indisputable does not make them less serious.
One might object that Wittgenstein’s remarks which I have criticized were not
meant to have such a wide application. Perhaps he was merely concerned to
show that some very small area of agreement is necessary if there is to be any talk
of differences or divergences. Analogously, what he says about disputes over the
use of words should be understood simply as bearing on the arbitrariness of
signs, i.e. that the written or spoken form of a sign is purely accidental. (It is
certainly true that no one argues about whether a particular action should be
described as ‘walking’ or ‘lawking’.) But not all misunderstandings can be
ascribed to the obstinacy of opponents, which would allow one to complain that
such hair-splitting would soon disappear under the pressures of practice.
If this
is true, interpretation could no longer be understood as the ‘exile’
of under-
standing; rather it would complement blind understanding.
4. Linguistic Meaning as Inscrutable Mystery – A Wittgensteinian
Critique of Derrida
We have argued against Wittgenstein that the forms of life and the usage in which
the speakers of a language participate are not shared in such a strong sense that
one could say they are the place where meaning is stored and can be inspected. If
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we are right, then we have already also established Derrida’s contention that
understanding is a production of sense and that the meaning to be understood is
not simply there in the utterance or text in question – or in a common form of life.
Understanding is an active process of bringing forth, not a passive reproduction.
This defence of interpretation as against blind understanding has two extensions
in Derrida: one, to my mind problematic, which leads to an unnecessary para-
and one which directs attention to the productive element in understand-
ing and thereby leads to a more radical anti-objectivist position than that held by
Derrida at first denies the existence of linguistic sense by claiming that linguis-
tic signs would have no clear meaning (or none at all) if closely inspected.
Linguistic meaning thus becomes in his view a paradoxical phenomenon,
the repetition which goes to constitute a sign is both the condition of the possi-
bility and the condition of the impossibility of meaning. We have already
discussed why it is the condition of the possibility in following his argument
against private languages. Its being a condition of the impossibility of meaning
results from the fact that we never find a repetition of exactly the same use of a
sign, but only an approximate repetition of a sign in constantly changing
contexts. Hence Derrida substitutes the concept of ‘iterability’ for that of repeti-
tion, which combines the ideas of repetition and alterity.
From Wittgenstein’s point of view there is no paradox here, since not even he
denies that the repetition is a perpetual shifting, and he uses the example of spin-
ning twine to illustrate the history to the use of the concept ‘number’: ‘And we
extend our concept of number as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And
the strength of the twine does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs
through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres’ (PI 67). For
Derrida, however, this lack of a thread extending through all uses of a sign makes
all concepts – not only those of ‘sign’ or ‘meaning’ – paradoxical, because of his
rigid theoretical ideal. According to this, it is part of the concept of a concept that
it must be absolutely transparent and explicable: ‘Every concept that lays claim to
any rigor whatsoever implies the alternative of “all” or “nothing” ’ (AW 116).
Hence, as we have reconstructed Derrida’s concept of repetition, this requirement
of absoluteness must naturally lead to unanswerable claims for justification, and
Derrida knows only too well that they cannot be met even approximately, that
they rather reduce the possibility of securing what is sought after – viz. meaning
– since it is impossible to conceive of either a beginning or an end of the shifting
repetitions. Like Wittgenstein, Derrida holds that the individual links in the chain
of concept applications are not bound together by an element they have in
common. But unlike Wittgenstein, he insists that the application of signs is never-
theless bound up with the idealizing presupposition of some constant element,
some abiding particle of past applications, that is inherited by those to come.
‘Iterability supposes a minimal remainder (as well as a minimum of idealization)
in order that the identity of the selfsame be repeatable and identifiable in, through,
and even in view of its alteration. For the structure of iteration (. . .) implies both
identity and difference.’
But with this very idealization Derrida ultimately
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affirms the paradox that he himself, in his readings of texts by Hegel, Rousseau,
Husserl and Apel, has unremittingly exposed in all its contradictory implications
– and not merely by way of the argument that a gradual approach never reaches
the goal striven for. Over and above this he stresses that these philosophers’
linguistic theories have to flirt with an end that is less a fulfilment than a termi-
nation of all language, that is, the end of the shifting repetition which is constitu-
tive of language. ‘What is understood as telos must therefore be rethought. And it
is precisely to the extent that this relation to telos is also intricate, complex, split,
that there is movement life, language, intention, etc. Plenitude is the end (the
goal), but were it attained, it would be the end (death)’ (AW 129). And Derrida
makes positive use even of this unattainability of the ideal, this endless deferral,
since to demand an attainable ideal would be to demand the end of language. But
to see an irredeemable idealization at work means the opportunity to acknowl-
edge an aporia. What distinguishes Derrida from opponents like Husserl or Apel
is in the first place simply the acknowledgement of enduring a paradox, whose
destructiveness was dissolved by those opponents in a metaphysical act.
According to Derrida, the problematic thing is not pleading for an idealizing
telos, but rather failing to see its subversive effect.
It could in any event be said, in Wittgensteinian vein, that Derrida’s assertion
about the inevitability of an aporia is itself made in ignorance of the fact that it
rests on an avoidable metaphysical claim. It is Derrida’s claim that, in speaking,
we assume that there is an explicable rule, or law, which all cases of application
follow: while in fact there neither is nor can be such a rule. It is a striking fact that
he sticks to this argument despite acknowledging the common intuition: ‘Even if
in “reality” or in “experience” everyone believes he knows that there is never “all
or nothing”, a concept determines itself only according to “all or nothing” ’ (AW
16). Derrida’s thesis must then be that self-understanding and the claim made by
speakers to the effect that what they say has a clear sense, really implies (in the
eyes of Derrida the theoretician, that is) an assumption that the rules for the use
of signs admit of precise and complete explication. There seem to be two models
for this kind of explicability, which Derrida fails to distinguish: (i) if the common
factor among the various occasions of the use of a sign is no longer discoverable,
one would then have to know the entire history of the use of a sign, from begin-
ning to end, because only if one had a view of the entire history of its use would
it be clear what counts as use of the sign. Since this model depends on a God-like
view of an entire and completed history, which would effectively mean the
impossibility of language, he usually favours a second model, (ii) according to
which the common factor among the various occasions of the use of a sign is
conceived as an idealization, as an idealized smallest common denominator,
which speakers assume is explicable when they assume that what they say has a
clear sense. The idealized smallest common denominator would be something
like the meaning rules, the thread running through all uses (cf. PI 67), thanks to
which the various uses can be identified as uses of a single sign.
Now Wittgenstein himself made many attempts to show that the concepts of a
particular group of speakers do not imply any ideal of absoluteness. Two objections
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must be made against Derrida from his point of view: the first is that Derrida
ascribes to speakers a theoretically explicable ideal of exactness, modelled on
physical measurements and descriptions. From this point of view all repetition is
problematic, since there is no upper limit of exactness for what is measurable, and
if one will not here accept approximate values, but insists on a more exact philos-
ophy, one entangles oneself in an infinite regress, at whose ‘end’ one must
presuppose a divine surveyor.
But since Derrida explicitly acknowledges this metaphysics to be unavoidable,
and the charge of being metaphysical therefore fails to disturb him,
Wittgenstein’s second objection is more important – namely the one already
expounded, to the effect that perfect explicability of meaning rules is a mistaken
requirement for our knowledge of meaning, since this is not knowledge in a
merely propositional sense, but essentially also a know-how. Wittgenstein’s
objections to the concept of interpretation are justified when his argument is
directed against a particular sceptical opponent – very like Derrida – and he says
that the lack of a smallest common denominator for all cases of application of a
rule, or the absence of a rule of meaning which itself exactly regulates its own
employment, is no reason for asserting that every application is merely an inter-
pretation of the rule and that the rules themselves are an idealized construct
which can never be grasped. Thus he says, ‘If every application were only an
interpretation, both the interpretation and what it interprets would hang in the
air (PI 198). Where he counters the request for the complete explanation of the use
of a word (PI 139, 147) or for the teasing out of the essential element among indi-
vidual uses (PI 210, BB pp. 19f) with the argument that, as speakers, we can find
our way in even the most complex semantic conditions, his well-founded argu-
ments apply against Derrida too.
Since the latter conceives of the mastery of a language as a kind of explicit
knowledge, he is bound to measure it against an inappropriate standard, whose
demands cannot possibly be met by any speaker. Under these circumstances the
undeniable vagueness and changeability of linguistic signs must have aporetic
consequences. But this aporia simply expresses once more the ‘missing link’ of his
reflections, a link that Derrida in contrast to Wittgenstein can encompass only ex
negativo, in connection with the metaphysical tradition of the philosophy of
language, but must nevertheless presuppose in his interesting theses – viz., the
practical dimension of language. Whereas Derrida treats this practical dimension
as the other, ‘exorbitantly’ extending over the horizon of human language,
Wittgenstein ‘discovers’ and describes it as the most ordinary and familiar thing
in the world. ‘Graphematics or grammatography’, says Derrida, ‘ought no longer
to be presented as sciences; their goal should be exorbitant when compared to
grammatological knowledge’.
Wittgenstein is right then to say that when we seek for what holds different
uses of a sign together, we don’t have to decipher in the dark.
But from another point of view – precisely because of the presupposition that
what the other says makes clear sense – interpretations and readings are necessary;
and in respect of this need we must endorse Derrida’s criticism of Wittgenstein.
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5. The Necessity of Interpretation – Derrida’s Critique of Wittgenstein
As a consequence of his critique of intentionalism Derrida defends the thesis that
the sense of utterances and texts is not something already there, but has to be
produced. It is not only that it is not something present like visible objects or
regulated by ‘Bedeutungs-Objekten’ in one’s mind; as linguistic sense it is not
fully present in an utterance or text until the interpreter has produced it in a
dialogue with the speaker or a text. Moreover, what is thus produced is neither a
reproduction nor a deliberate invention.
Since I intend to defend both Derrida’s thesis on the non-presence of linguistic
sense, and Wittgenstein’s claim that language could not come into being unless
there were conformity, i.e. the presence of agreement in judgements, it is impor-
tant first to examine how far the two theses are compatible. Derrida’s thesis is
essentially an answer to the basic blind spot in Wittgenstein, identified above, to
the effect that he acknowledges only so-called blind understanding, and that in
the case of misunderstandings or other problems of comprehension he admits
only the force of generally shared, blindly understood and unthematic rules, and
cannot do justice to his own insight that rules may be changed in the processes of
communication. For according to Wittgenstein such shifts are not apparent in the
practice of speaking and understanding. But the facts are that we do sometimes
misunderstand one another, fail to understand one another and criticise one
another’s understanding, without doubting that we speak the same language
(say, German or English) and without simply denying the linguistic competence
of the one we have not understood. All this goes against Wittgenstein’s scenario.
We may well echo Derrida’s reproach that the description of language he says he
is giving must be incomplete if he can talk only about agreement.
The agreement
on which our language relies concerns quite particular examples learnt from
particular persons and is thus itself particular, not general. The people from
whom we learnt our language and in dialogue with whom we altered it, are
themselves in linguistic contact with other people who understand and judge
things differently. Although we therefore share common usages with most of the
people we communicate with every day, this does not mean that we share all
these usages, or share them with all these people. That is at least one sense of
Wittgenstein’s formula that the vagueness lies in the rule, which we nevertheless
share. It is not only that some use different words than others to say the same
thing, but that the use of the same words is no guarantee of agreement; in fact it
can be a cloak to conceal the growth of misunderstanding.
If we reconstruct the acquisition of linguistic rules in the way just suggested, it
ceases in general to be clear why Wittgenstein can start with the idea that there is
no need for interpretation within a language. An important part of our commu-
nication consists in exposing our own judgements to those of others, both to see
how far agreement reaches and to produce agreement. In this respect communi-
cation is an expression of the fact that we cannot start with the assumption that
we agree (in every respect) when we use the same language, even though this
gives us the means of reaching agreement or at least of clarifying its extent. The
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contention that interpretation is not a significant part of our linguistic behaviour
constitutes a variant of the thesis that understanding is always already present,
and variations in it trifling. It is as though only the shared parts of understanding
constitute language. But that is only the small and important part we rely on
when we want to understand others in their difference, and in their judgements.
That on which we can rely, the base from which we can operate, is always being
rearranged when we reread a text we thought we understood or when we are
confronted with a new expression. These facts have been standardly and tellingly
described through the image of the raft that has to be rebuilt on the high seas
while its crew are still clinging to it. All we have is patchwork, continually disin-
tegrating in new places and having to be mended.
The fact that interpretation, in the sense of production, is essential to under-
standing can best be seen in those cases where either we do not understand why
someone can assert something that we find clearly false, or where we do not
understand what a particular utterance in a particular situation or at a particular
point is supposed to mean (an experience often undergone when reading the
works of Wittgenstein). In the first case we are – in accordance with a current
distinction – inclined to say that we have certainly understood the expression, but
do not accept it; in the second we have no idea what we are supposed to accept,
since we have not understood the utterance or text-fragment itself. And in this
second case we are at once inclined to say that we must first make sense of what
is to be understood – normally by asking questions, or occasionally by criticizing
the speaker or engaging her in justificatory or other stories. Since, according to
what was said above, the speaker and her intention cannot be the ultimate
authority in this case, the shared conversation oriented at questions of validity,
that is the process of communication itself, becomes the place where linguistic
sense is produced. And just as neither the speaker’s intention nor the interpreter’s
will to understand is the ultimate authority, or the guardian of an already fixed
linguistic sense, so there cannot even be any explicit rules of meaning, guaran-
teeing the sense of an utterance. We, that is, the speaker and the interpreter, first
come to understand each other, what we are saying and the rules we are follow-
ing (if we ever do), when we have agreed about the sense of an utterance, i.e. have
jointly produced it.
If one assumes – I cannot defend this further here
– that speakers producing
linguistic sense dispute withone another whether something can be correctly said in
a particular situation (and what the relevant justification in a situation is), then even
the distinction between understanding and asserting becomes problematic; that is,
even where we are inclined to say that we understand an utterance, but find it false,
out of place or superfluous, we have first to produce the sense of the expression
dialogically, and dialogue is a process of judging the truth of each other’s utterances.
Above all, in cases where we do not find something so blatantly false that we
immediately think the speaker to be incapable of judgement, or are confident of
a particular measure of agreement because of the very restricted nature of the
conversation, we shall assume that the other’s utterance, at first hearing seem-
ingly unjustified, has some as yet not understood point, that is, is not simply false
198 Ruth Sonderegger
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but is yet to be understood. This kind of situation is the best encouragement to
take the production of sense further.
In this way the thesis that linguistic sense is not already available, but has to
be produced by the communicators, establishes the point that linguistic sense is
established only in a process of communication about what is uttered, not in
what is uttered itself. We can speak about sense or meaning only when under-
standing, as the terminus of a process, so to speak, has been arrived at.
thesis that understanding involves in every case a mutual judging – and some-
times negotiating – about the validity of an utterance, implies that the process
takes time and is public, which reinforces its difference from the conception of
meaning or the grasping of linguistic sense as the immediate grasp of a (possi-
bly timeless) entity. Linguistic sense thus depends on the individual subject’s
power of judging, though it is inaccessible to a solitary speaker, insofar as
human beings can reach linguistic understanding only in the light of communi-
cation with others.
The distinction between understanding and judging (i.e. the temptation to
distinguish between a meaning that is present and a secondary judgement about
it) crops up again in another important place, namely in understanding a text –
and this is the chief object of Derrida’s attention. As no author is present here to
vouch for the meaning, interpretation has always played a prominent role with
regard to texts, a fact that itself once again shows up the intentionalist prejudices
about linguistic understanding attacked by Wittgenstein and Derrida. Since from
the intentionalist point of view the interpreter has always been free to attribute
‘her own’ sense to the text where there has been no authorial check, we find in the
case of texts the emergence of a contrary but equally mistaken rule of under-
standing, namely that a text should be approached as far as possible ‘from
within’, i.e. in complete independence of the interpreter’s beliefs. Derrida attacks
this supposed neutrality by introducing the thesis of a violent interpretation. His
distinction between a (reproductive) commentary and a productive or critical
cannot be the same as that between understanding and judging, but is
rather a reaction to this mistaken distinction, derived from intentionalism.
Derrida reaches this difference between commentary and critique in connection
with his reading of Rousseau in the Grammatology, i.e. in the process of text-
interpretation. In the section entitled: ‘The exorbitant. A question of Method’, he
justifies his reading as the production of a problem that was bound to remain
hidden from the author (in this case Rousseau) because of the language schema
which governed him. He defends this active reading against the demand that
interpretation should be merely a commentary on or reproduction of a text,
although he allows a connection between the two by ascribing to the commentary
a role, yet to be explained, in productive or active reading. In what follows I shall
attempt to elucidate this difference between commentary on the one hand and
productive interpretation of texts or collections of utterances on the other. I find
the distinction – different from that between understanding and judging – both
plausible and necessary, and shall follow it by asking whether Derrida is right in
calling a productive reading violent.
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What Derrida calls a commentary or philological reading is usually known in
the tradition of hermeneutics as implying the requirement that something like the
author’s intention, or what the text ‘really’ meant in its historical context, must be
reconstructed, in complete independence of the interpreter’s point of view, who
is accordingly to take up a neutral position. It is clear that this is another case of
distinguishing between understanding and judging, and of positing a pre-exis-
tent meaning, located in the author’s intention or in the text itself. Even the idea
that a ‘great’ text always transcends the totality of its interpretations, or must be
applicable or relevant to infinitely many situations, is a variety of this objectivist
misunderstanding, since it lays down in advance that all interpretation must start
from the given text, which is thus made into an Absolute.
Against this Derrida, ex-
tending the tradition of what might be called ‘Jewish hermeneutics’,
an active interpretation, which regards understanding as a creative process, as a
‘making sense’ from the interpreter’s standpoint. This kind of interpretation is not
just to be championed in the case of texts, where there is no author available for
questioning; the fact is that no text or utterance is worthy of the name until it has
undergone commentary and acceptance from some alien point of view, instead of
merely being reproduced. Thus interpretation from ‘without’ corresponds to a
double necessity: first, it approaches the text from a certain distance and with a
point of view possibly alien to it because there is no neutral ground for the inter-
preter to stand on (this idea occurs already in Nietzsche and Benjamin, and
entered so-called analytic philosophy much later, through Davidson and Rorty
and second, that speakers understand their own utterances – and texts are texts –
only when exposed to the judgement of others. Since texts and utterances do not
say everything that one needs in order to understand them, and cannot anticipate
what may be raised against them by way of objection or the ways in which they
may be misunderstood, and so cannot guarantee understanding, they are depen-
dent for their meaningfulness on commentaries yet to be written; and since
commentaries themselves are texts in which not everything is said, none of them
has the last word. Linguistic sense is no more to be definitively established in the
most recent commentary than it is in the ‘original’ text. Linguistic sense is located
in further interpretative acts of writing and speaking. When Derrida says
provocatively: ‘There is nothing outside of the text’ (Gramm 158), he means that the
sense of a text can be grasped only in this continual play of references between
text and commentary.
As already indicated, Derrida takes over this awareness of the need for interpre-
tation from certain strands in the tradition of Jewish hermeneutics, to which (follow-
ing E. Jabès above all) he continually appeals. This tradition has long taken its central
concern – which is not God but the sacred text – to be the product of commentary.
It is with this Jewish tradition of the sacred text as ‘surrounded by commentaries’,
that Derrida shares the ‘necessity of exegesis’ and the ‘interpretative imperative’.
By contrast, the Platonic and Christian hermeneutic tradition always sought for
the spirit behind the letter, for the unchangeable divine word as super-intention.
The fictions of a single interpretation, of the text as the sum or location of all inter-
pretations, and of the unsayable as the sum of all that could ever be said, are
200 Ruth Sonderegger
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descendants of that divine word. It is against this that Derrida champions an
understanding which is doubly productive – both creating and changing linguis-
tic sense.
6. Is There Violence in Understanding?
If it is true that understanding is making sense of a text or utterance in terms of
the interpreter’s own horizon, two interconnected questions may arise: 1. Does
not understanding become an arbitrary business if the process includes the situ-
ating of a text or utterance in relation to the particular horizon of an interpreter
and, provided this is the case, 2. Does the opposition – commentary versus inter-
pretation (productive reading) – then still make any sense at all? (It is this very
alternative on which Derrida insists. He even gives it a moral charge, since, in the
case of interpretation, he speaks of violence, and in the face of this violence
demands a particular kind of justice towards the text, an ethics of reading).
the first question it may be said that Derrida expresses himself clearly against
arbitrariness, but without showing why productive understanding is not arbi-
trary. ‘Such “productivity” ought not to signify either “creativity” (for this inter-
pretive reading does not create just any meaning ex nihilo and without prior rule)
or simply “rendering explicit” (producere as setting forth or into the light that
which is already there) (AW 148). The reason why in fact productive reading is
not an arbitrary matter can be made clear by recalling what we have said about
the understanding of utterances: understanding implies adjudicating and
answering a question of truth; i.e. the interplay between the interpreter’s perspec-
tive and that of the speaker or the text is regulated by a relationship to truth. The
interpreter’s perspective must play a part here not just because it is hers, but
because she assumes that it is, from the point of view of validity, the appropriate
one. And just as a critique of a text can be part of its understanding, so under-
standing may involve showing the inadequacy of the interpreter’s perspective.
Rorty should have had in mind precisely this relation to truth (which limits arbi-
trariness) when he made ‘some current purpose’
the basis of valid (historical)
understanding, as should Benjamin when he emphasized ‘nowness’ (Jetztzeit)

both, by the way, brilliant theoretical defenders and practitioners of ‘violent’
Curiously enough, Derrida links precisely this insight into the impossibility of
leaving one’s beliefs behind, with the justification of what he calls commentary
(this commentary being exactly that reading from ‘within’ for which there is no
place according to my argument so far). It seems clear that there cannot be under-
standing without judgement, i.e. no understanding which could be brought to
bear without reference to one’s own truth evaluations. When Derrida goes into
more detail about commentary, he refers to the traditional instruments of philo-
logical criticism or the precise reconstruction of the context of a text, and it is in
connection with this that he inserts his demand for an ‘ethics of reading’ (AW
131), which seems to be something like the postulate of an endless reconstruction
A Critique of Pure Meaning: Wittgenstein and Derrida 201
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of context. This account brings Derrida very close to the problematic hypostati-
zation of an internal understanding, which would have to be something like the
understanding of a text from its own perspective, for which there is no longer
room in our conception of understanding. This raises the question whether what
Derrida calls commentary transgresses or abandons the domain of truth-evalua-
tion in which critical understanding takes place, or whether it takes place
precisely in the name of truth – in which case, in what then are we to see the
difference between mere commentary and productive, active understanding? As
I see it, Derrida clearly champions the thesis that even an exact reading, a recon-
struction of context (e.g. studying the meaning of word-families in ancient texts),
cannot be neutral and is yet conducted in the name of truth: ‘. . . the determina-
tion, or even the redetermination, the simple recalling of a context is never a
gesture that is neutral, innocent, transparent, disinterested’ (AW 131) In my opin-
ion Derrida fails to differentiate convincingly between commentary and interpre-
tation or criticism both in the Grammatology and in Limited Inc; above all he fails
to show how a truth-centred analysis can be described as violent. Certainly it is
not hard to see that people can (and perhaps must) be hurt and texts garbled
through criticism, but these things are done legitimately in the name of truth and
as legitimate acts they are not properly to be regarded as acts of violence at all.
One is of course free to use terms like ‘violence’ or ‘cruelty’ to describe them, but
it would be an empty description because there are no alternatives to them: no
acts of understanding which are beyond ‘violence’ in the sense of the necessity to
judge and to bring the supposedly endless reconstruction of the context of a pecu-
liar case of text to its end, since even commentary takes place not on neutral
ground but on territory assumed to be valid.
As far as I can see, the first plausible suggestion Derrida puts forward for
making sense of the distinction between commentary and interpretation occurs in
‘Force of Law’
where, although he is primarily concerned with special questions
of justice, he keeps returning at intervals to theses about justice concerning under-
standing in a general sense and not just that pertaining to the interpretation and
application of laws. In ‘Force of Law’ Derrida speaks – at first in connection with
the interpretation of laws – about the necessity for bracketing (époché) the juridi-
cal rules when confronted with particular cases. He even makes ‘this moment of
suspense, this period of époché’ (FL 955) into a characteristic of the deconstructive
understanding of juridical norms in the light of particular cases and of under-
standing in general.
Consideration of what this might mean brings us back to Wittgenstein, and to
what he calls being initiated into a language. Derrida’s claim is that laws have to
be examined and to some extent rewritten when they are interpreted in the light
of particular cases and the uniqueness of the persons involved; that even the exist-
ing juridical rules of procedure might have to be put in question by the special
features of particular cases. If this claim is generalized to apply to all linguistic
rules, it would imply that in the light of the particular utterance and the particular
text one’s own horizon of truth must be put in question, although it is at the same
time the sole and necessary foundation of interpretative understanding. As the
202 Ruth Sonderegger
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judge’s decision in the light of the special case ‘must not only follow a rule of law
or a general law but must also assume it, approve it, confirm its value, by a rein-
stituting act of interpretation, as if ultimately nothing previously existed of the
law, as if the judge himself invented the law in every case’ (FL 961), so in the
process of linguistic understanding the uniqueness of one’s interlocutor and her
non-incorporability into one’s own universe of truth are a sufficient reason for
allowing precisely this foundation to be put in question, or at least to be regarded
as extendable. The process of understanding in the full sense then implies a
(partial) questioning of one’s own certainties, i.e. of the foundation of one’s own
interpretation. For it cannot be assumed that there is something in my own hori-
zon of truths that corresponds to what the other person says or writes; one should
at least always take the possibility that there is not into account. Thus the inter-
preter cannot simply appeal to her own rules in the name of truth, but must at
the same time learn the other’s rules, analogously somehow to the way in which
we learned to speak as children.
At such points there will be no advance in
interpretation unless the interpreter lets the other introduce her into a new
‘space’ of truth. And this implies that at such points it is the other who is the sole
and unique judge of what is true or false. Even in the case of texts, especially
philosophical ones, one knows from experience that they cannot simply be
assessed at a first reading; one must first learn the use of particular words or
arguments, allow the text to teach one the contexts in which, for example, one
may use the word ‘différance’ (since Derrida was the first to introduce it).
Allowing oneself to be thus initiated by the text, with the real bracketing that
that involves of the certainties of one’s own horizon, seems to me the sole plau-
sible way of understanding what a reading from ‘within’ could be. But we
cannot then go on calling it understanding in the full sense, since this always
involves the location of what is understood in one’s own universe of truth.
‘Reading from within’ could no longer be understood in opposition to a ‘reading
from outside’, but would simply refer to one moment in every process of under-
standing: the moment of putting to the test one’s own beliefs in the confronta-
tion with the alterity of a text or utterance. What I have said about the ‘learning’
of the language of the other amounts to a partial justification of the
Wittgensteinian perspective – still within the interpretation paradigm. Just as
we, in our external readings, must expose and criticize the blind spots of the text,
so must we submit to the ‘violent’ initiation into a new language, in order to get
to know the blind spots of our own language, and all this in the name of truth.
It is in this context that Derrida talks about ‘the night of non-knowledge and
non-rule. Not of the absence of rules and knowledge but of a reinstitution of
rules which by definition is not preceded by any knowledge or by any guaran-
tee as such’ (FL 967/69).
If we have established that there can be no understanding from a neutral point
of view, but that one’s own presuppositions and beliefs must be continually taken
into account and put to the test, that is, that one must both speak a language and
at the same time learn another, we must still now also insist that this is done in the
name of truth, not of justice: to ‘reproduce oneself’, i.e. to project one’s own
A Critique of Pure Meaning: Wittgenstein and Derrida 203
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beliefs onto a text, would be just as bad with regard to truth as to reproduce a text
merely in its own terms. Derrida has shown only that justice is relevant in partic-
ular contexts, where questions of justice are directly at stake, or when the full
understanding of individuals in all their uniqueness is at issue, which is not at all
the case in all utterances or texts.
This is why it is at least misleading to call all
acts of understanding ‘violent’.
An interesting consequence of combining interpretation with the necessity of
having to be initiated into a new language by a text, a person or an alien culture,
is that the concept of undecidability, for which Derrida has been criticized so
much, takes on a new role, in that it draws attention to a tension in all under-
standing, which I should like to defend:
The undecidable is not merely the oscillation or the tension between two
decisions, it is the experience of that which, though heterogeneous,
foreign to the order of the calculable and the rule, is still obliged (. . .) to
give itself up to the impossible decision, while taking account of law and
rules. A decision (. . .) that didn’t go through the ordeal of the undecid-
able would not be a free decision, it would only be the programmable
application or unfolding of a calculable process. (FL 963)
Understanding is therefore not supported, as for example in Davidson’s theory
of interpretation, by a network of one’s own certainties, which one may use to
pin down one’s interlocutor; at the very least this interpretative strategy must
be used with the reservation that one may only be producing a replica of
The two reading strategies – the ‘violent’ understanding of a text and the
submission to one – both lead, taken in isolation, to a ‘bad infinity’ in the
Hegelian sense: one either sticks fast in impenetrable arrogance, or remains a
child forever. If these alternatives are taken as a tension, there is no middle way
left, but only conflict. The two possible ways of reading cannot accompany or
succeed, they can only combat each other, and there is no higher court of appeal
for the resolution of this conflict. It is interesting that we have here a new varia-
tion of the conflict between construction and mimesis, which Adorno has called
constitutive for the limited field of production and understanding of works of
Instead of differentiating between violent and non-violent readings it would
be better to think of the whole process of understanding as a violent conflict, an
irresolvable conflict between two moments that are constitutive of the process of
understanding. Such an understanding of understanding would not imply or
require that there are readings and understandings that are exempt from this
general violent conflict; it would rather amount to a clarification directed against
misleading conceptions of the process of understanding, as for example
Gadamer’s conception of understanding as a ‘fusion of horizons’ or
Wittgenstein’s scenario of understanding ‘blindly’. Understanding is not a fusion
of horizons, or a reconciliation between the interpreter and her ‘object’. It is a
204 Ruth Sonderegger
© Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1997
process of mutual questioning. ‘But without this tension or without this apparent
contradiction would anything ever be done? Would anything ever be changed?’
(AW 152).
Ruth Sonderegger Based on a translation by Francis Dunlop
Freie Universität Berlin
Thus I distance myself from those treatments that conflate Derrida and Wittgenstein,
attempting to put Derrida’s philosophy of language on a level with Wittgenstein’s. Cf. Law
(1989), Mulligan (1978), Staten (1985) and Winspur (1989).
cf. AW, pp. 120ff.
BB, p. 4.
PI, 140.
cf. BB, p. 2.
Diff, p. 11.
‘If we answered these questions [that is, questions about Who and What, R.S.], before
turning them back on themselves, and before suspecting their very form, including what
seems most natural and necessary about them, we would immediately fall back into what
we have just disengaged ourselves from’(Diff 14). ‘What is the meaning of a word? Let us
attack this question by asking, first, what is an explanation of the meaning of a word; what
does the explanation of a word look like?’ (BB, p. 1).
Z, p. 301, no. 144; or ‘The application is still a criterion of understanding’ (PI, p. 146).
This asymmetry between the capacity to say in every individual situation whether
something is a promise or a flower, and the always only partial capacity to say what a
promise or an agreement is, is exploited by, e.g., Davidson. He believes that what enables
us to know in particular situations whether something is a promise is of no interest in the
philosophy of language. We should rather make as much use as we can for the theory of
meaning of the capacity to know whether something is a promise, a flower or an assertion.
I think that Derrida’s systematic argument against the possibility of a private
language also refutes Wittgenstein, where he is still playing with the idea that one could
do without it. Interpreters, such as McGinn (1989) or Baker and Hacker (1984), who want
to attribute to Wittgenstein a reserve regarding the strong Private-Language argument,
mostly cite a short extract from Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics: ‘So what does the
idea of consensus show? Doesn’t it mean that a person couldn’t count by himself?
Certainly, a person couldn’t count only once in his life’ (BGM, p. 193). They oppose this to
PI 199, where Wittgenstein – not without some ambiguity – writes: ‘It is not possible that
there should have been only one occasion on which somebody obeyed a rule.’ And the
ambiguity of course lies in this, whether there are two negations in the remark in PI or only
one, as in the quotation from BGM. I won’t enter here into the debate over whether
Wittgenstein actually changed his mind in PI, if he did at all, or whether he would have
distanced himself even further from his initial doubts about the necessarily social nature
of rule-following if he had been able to write more; I will however argue that there are
systematic grounds for believing that Wittgenstein’s remarks must be understood in the
sense of the strong Private Language argument, whatever he himself may have thought.
We shall also follow Derrida in showing that the opposition of mere repetition and shared
A Critique of Pure Meaning: Wittgenstein and Derrida 205
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rule-following understood as a consensus creates a false alternative. It’s not a question of
minimizing the possibility of error, to which we are all subject, by taking a plurality of
speakers into account, but of the thesis that a history of usage cannot start with a defini-
tion, but with the history of usage itself.
SEC, p. 315.
‘The grammar of the word “knows” is evidently closely related to that of “can”, “is able
to”. But also closely related to that of “understand”. (“Mastery” of a technique.)’ PI 150.
Although Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations are mostly written in dialogue
form, he takes no systematic account of dialogue and communication as scenes of under-
standing. His paradigm case of understanding is the situation where a pupil concludes a
training session with the exclamation ‘Now I have understood, now I can go on!’.
And even Kripke, who defends Wittgenstein’s thesis of the necessary agreement with
several speakers, inserts a criticism here: ‘There can be no corrector in the community,
since by hypothesis, all the community agrees. (. . .) I feel some uneasiness may remain
regarding these questions. Considerations of time and space, as well as the fact that I might
have to abandon the role of advocate and expositor in favor of that of critic, have led me
not to carry out a more extensive discussion.’ Kripke (1982), p. 146. Our own concern is to
give prominence to just this criticism.
‘When someone whom I am afraid of orders me to continue the series, I act quickly,
with perfect certainty, and the lack of reasons does not trouble me’ (PI 212).
Derrida distances himself from an understanding of interpretation according to which
the necessity of interpretation is felt ‘as an exile’, and in which one dreams of deciphering
‘a truth or an origin’ which are simply given, removed from all change, criticism or unclar-
ity. See Derrida (1978), p. 292.
This aspect of Derrida’s philosophy of language is exhaustively treated by Ch Menke
(1988). See especially the section ‘Begründungsprobleme der Vernunftkritik’, pp. 193ff.
cf., e.g., Gramm, p. 74: ‘But this condition of possibility turns into a condition of
impossibility’; SEC, p. 328: ‘The condition of possibility for these effects is simultaneously,
once again, the condition of their impossibility, of the impossibility of their rigorous
purity’; SEC, p. 317:’ . . . the code being here both the possibility and impossibility of writ-
ing, of its essential iterability (repetition,/alterity).’
‘This iterability – (iter, once again, comes from itara, other, in Sanskrit, and everything
that follows may be read as the exploitation of the logic which links repetition to alterity)
. . .’ SEC, p. 215.
Derrida (1988), p. 53.
In his critiques of Apel and Habermas, Wellmer – inspired by Wittgenstein – has
shown how one may argue unaporetically against those who make language impossible
through the postulated fulfilment of an idealizing Telos. cf. Wellmer (1986), pp. 81ff, and
Wellmer (1993), pp. 204ff.
Gramm, p. 130.
In respect of this thesis I start from reflections of F. Kambartel and A. Wellmer. See
Kambartel (1989), pp. 121ff, and Wellmer (1995).
Wittgenstein’s criticism of Augustine at the beginning of the PI can be applied to
himself: ‘Augustine, we might say, does describe a system of communication; only not
everything that we call language is this system. And one has to say this in many cases
where the question arises: “Is this an appropriate description or not?” ’ (PI 3).
cf. Wellmer (1995).
We thereby establish the close connection between a dialogical-processual conception
of understanding on the one hand, and a principle of charity (Davidson) or, to put it in
206 Ruth Sonderegger
© Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1997
Gadamer’s terms, a preconception of completeness (‘Vorgriff auf Vollkommenheit) on the
Since the concept of understanding is in German, philosophy of language very closely
bound up with a philosophically appeasing passion for being in agreement (as telos), one
ought – in order to stress the element of process in the production of sense – to speak rather
of interpretation. However the concept of interpretation is problematic too, and it can very
easily be misunderstood monologically, since it always emphasizes merely the interpreta-
tive activity of a single subject, and, in contrast to the view proposed in the present paper,
closely associates this activity with using the text or the speaker to cast doubt on the inter-
preter. But if interpretation is understood – this seems to me the rational kernal even of
Davidson’s ‘theory’ of interpretation – as the close interweaving of interpreting and being
interpreted in a mutually questioning dialogue, I have no objection to the concept.
Understood in this way the concept of interpretation even emphasizes that the under-
standings involved in the conversation must be mutually checked, and that it would be
wrong to cast a spotlight on understanding from one side only.
cf. Gramm, pp. 258ff. and AW pp. 142ff. Support for an active or productive reading
can be found in Derrida’s earlier study of Husserl, and, for example, in his later text, the
Force of Law. cf. Derrida (1973), pp. 88 ff. and Derrida (1990), pp. 937 ff.
Gadamer also champions such a thesis, though otherwise he highlights precisely the
horizon-dependent as against the neutral character of all understanding, when he inter-
prets what he calls the ‘great texts’ in such a way that they ‘always give answers’. Gadamer
(1972), p. 256.
I take over this term from Susan Handelman. See Handelman (1983), p. 98. Both
Nietzsche’s and Benjamin’s conceptions of understanding also concentrate on the elements
of this kind of hermeneutics.
Davidson (1984), pp. 183–198; Rorty (1986), pp. 333–355; Rorty (1989), especially the
first chapter on the contingency of language.
Derrida, Jacques, ‘Edmond Jabès and the Question of the Book’, in Derrida (1978), pp.
64–78, here p. 67.
Derrida speaks of an ‘ethics of reading, of interpretation or of discussion’ (AW, p.
Rorty (1991), p. 87.
Benjamin, Walter, ‘Über den Begriff der Geschichte’, in his Gesammelte Schriften, vol
1.2, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1980, p. 701.
Derrida (1990).
cf. on this Meloe (1986), pp. 113ff.
On the relation between justice and attending to individual persons as unique in
Derrida, see Honneth (1994), especially pp. 209ff, and Critchley (1994), pp. 13ff.
Abbreviations used:
Gramm = Of Grammatology, Derrida 1967.
Diff = ‘Différance’, in Derrida 1982.
SEC = ‘Signatures Event Context’, in Derrida 1982.
AW = ‘Afterword: Toward an Ethic of Discussion’, Derrida 1988a.
FL = ‘Force of Law’, Derrida 1990.
A Critique of Pure Meaning: Wittgenstein and Derrida 207
© Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1997
PI = Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein 1963.
BB = Blue and Brown Books, Wittgenstein 1964.
BGM = Bemerkungen über die Grundlagen der Mathematik, Wittgenstein 1984.
Z = Zettel, Wittgenstein 1984a.
Baker, G. P. and P. M. S. Hacker (1984), Scepticism, Rules and Language. Oxford: Blackwell
Benjamin, W. (1980), ‘Über den Begriff der Geschichte’, in his Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 1.2.
Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
Critchley, S. (1994), ‘Deconstruction and Pragmatism’, in European Journal of Philosophy,
II, 1.
Dasenbrock, R. W. ed. (1989), Redrawing the Lines. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Davidson, D. (1984), ‘On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme’, in his Inquiries into Truth
and Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Derrida, J. (1967), Of Grammatology, tr. G. Ch. Spivak. Baltimore and London: The Johns
Hopkins University Press. Cited as Gramm.
Derrida, J. (1973), Speech and Phenomena, And Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs, tr.
D. B. Allison. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Derrida, J. (1978), ‘Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences’, in his
Writing and Difference. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Derrida, J. (1978a), ‘Edmond Jabès and the Question of the Book’, in his Writing and
Difference, op. cit.
Derrida, J. (1982), Margins of Philosophy, tr. A. Bass. Chicago: The University of Chicago
Derrida, J. (1988), ‘Limited Inc abc’, in Limited Inc. edited by G. Graff. Evanston:
Northwestern University Press.
Derrida, J. (1988a), ‘Afterword: Toward an Ethic of Discussion’, in Limited Inc, op. cit. Cited
as AW.
Derrida, J. (1990), ‘Force of Law’, in Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice. Cardozo Law
Review, vol. 11, Nos. 5–6, July/August. Cited as FL.
Gadamer, H. G. (1972), ‘Semantik und Hermeneutik’, in his Kleine Schriften III. Idee und
Sprache. Tübingen: Mohr.
Handelman S. (1983), ‘Jacques Derrida and the Heretic Hermeneutic’, in M. Krupnick,
Displacement, Derrida and After. Bloomington: Indiana Press.
Honneth, A. (1994), ‘Das Andere der Gerechtigkeit’, in Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philoso-
phie, II.
Kambartel, F. (1989), ‘Versuch über das Verstehen’, in Der Löwe spricht . . . und wir können
ihn nicht verstehen. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
Kripke, A. (1982), Wittgenstein. On Rules and Private Language. Cambridge, Massachusetts:
Harvard University Press.
Law, J. D. (1989), ‘Reading with Wittgenstein and Derrida’, in Dasenbrock ed. (1989).
McGinn, C. (1989), Wittgenstein on Meaning. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Meloe, J. (1986), ‘Über Sprachspiele und Übersetzungen’, in D. Böhler, T. Nordenstam and
G. Skirbekk (eds.) Die pragmatische Wende. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
Menke C. (1988), Die Souveränität der Kunst. Ästhetische Erfahrung nach Adorno und Derrida.
Frankfurt: Athenäum.
Mulligan, K. (1978), ‘Inscriptions and Speaking’s Place: Derrida and Wittgenstein’, in The
Oxford Literary Review, III, 2.
208 Ruth Sonderegger
© Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1997
Rorty, R. (1986), ‘Pragmatism, Davidson and Truth’, in E. LePore (ed.) Truth and
Interpretation, Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson. Oxford/New York: Basil
Rorty, R. (1989), Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rorty R. (1991), ‘Deconstruction and Circumvention’, in his Essays on Heidegger and Others.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Staten, H. (1985), Wittgenstein and Derrida. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Wellmer, A. (1986), Ethik und Dialog. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp. (Engl. translation: Wellmer, A.
(1993), The Persistence of Modernity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.)
Wellmer, A. (1993), ‘Metaphysik im Augenblick ihres Sturzes’, in his Endspiele. Frankfurt:
Suhrkamp. (Engl. translation: Wellmer, A. (1990), ‘Metaphysics at the Moment of its
Fall’, in P. Collier and H. Geyer-Ryan (eds.) Literary Theory Today. Cambridge: Polity
Wellmer, A. (1995), ‘Zur Kritik der hermeneutischen Vernunft’, in C. Demmerling, G.
Gabriel und T. Rentsch (eds.) Vernunft und Lebenspraxis. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
Winspur, S. (1989), ‘Text Acts: Recasting Performatives with Wittgenstein and Derrida’, in
Dasenbrock (1989).
Wittgenstein, L. (1963), Philosophical Investigations, tr. G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford: Basil
Blackwell. Cited as PI.
Wittgenstein, L. (1964), The Blue and Brown Books. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Cited as BB.
Wittgenstein, L. (1984), Bemerkungen über die Grundlagen der Mathematik, Werkausgabe in 8
Bänden, vol. 6. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp. Cited as BGM.
Wittgenstein, L. (1984a), Zettel, Werkausgabe in 8 Bänden, vol. 8. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
Cited as Z.
A Critique of Pure Meaning: Wittgenstein and Derrida 209
© Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1997

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