The Challenge of Language

My earlier post about language and Derrida eventually developed into an essay…which I’ve reproduced for you here…I’d really appreciate some feedback if possible…thanks!

Heath White, in his book Postmodernism 101 (Amazon), presents his readers with two distinct theories of language. The first is distinctly Platonistic, pointing to Plato’s dialogue, Cratylus, where language and words are naming. “Names, like the word ‘Fido,’ refer to things like the dog Fido.” [1] In contrast, White then explains another perspective that describes language as a sort of chess game, where certain “rules” make words mean certain things. This view of language as a game is thoroughly structuralist. White spends a mere paragraph explaining the postmodern perspective on language.

Meaning as naming points to a sovereign subject who determines the meaning of words. Language and meaning portrayed as a game points to rules to determine the meaning of words, or more specifically, binary oppositions such as white / black, hot / cold, open / closed, and so forth. A more accurate postmodern perspective would hold that, “structuralism is just another attempt … to stave off the threat of relativism by finding some stable ground for meaning…. “Structures too—whether linguistic, familial, social, or philosophical—are ultimately arbitrary and artificial constructions.”[2] This is the essential point of deconstruction as way of viewing the world. According to the deconstructionist, meaning cannot be held together by these structures, these binary oppositions.

These language structures, the rules as White calls them, are not an expression of the way things are, that is, reality. They are instead a product of society and yet also the producer of society. I am a product of language as it was taught to me as a child. “Identity (the archfoundation of all our philosophical and theological foundations) is constructed when people decide that certain distinctions make a difference, and others do not.”[3] Deconstruction challenges the possibility of knowledge. Man cannot escape language in order to determine whether or not his words, his language accurately correspond to the world any more than he can move outside his body in order to determine that what he sees is real.

Max Turner and Peter Cotterell refer to Anna Wierzbicka, who in her book, Lexicography and Conceptual Analysis, wrote a two page definition of the word, “cup,” and a fifty-seven page justification for her definition. “Her definition of a cup starts with a statement of the purpose of a cup, because she thinks this is determinative for understanding its features.”[4] Wierzbicka illustrates quite well that a person can write fifty-nine pages about a cup and never move from the word, the signifier, to the actual object, “cup,” the signified.

For example, one cannot draw a line from the word “cup,” to the object, “cup.” Descriptors could be added, “the one with the handle,” or a synonym used, “the glass,” or perhaps directional language, “the glass to the left of the pile of books.” But the actual object is never attained. Looking at a dictionary shows this point well. Words only go from words to other words. This is because, in fact, the word, “cup,” is an arbitrary entity. Words can only point to other words, never the entity itself. This is Derrida’s point when he writes, “There is nothing outside the text.”[5] There is nothing beyond the arbitrary and contingent systems of language, no stable home for meaning. “All our concepts are contaminated by language; we never do have a point of view outside the play of language.”[6] This is the postmodern critique of epistemology and indeed anyone who claims access to knowledge, including Christians.

Postmodernism in general, and specifically Deconstruction, make traditional philosophy a mere joke: just one form of literature among mothers. Philosophy seeks to understand reality, something that, according to the postmodern, cannot be done. Language is the cage from which humanity cannot escape. But this begs the question. Which came first, the language or the culture? According to postmodern thought, the arbitrary language system is a result of culture and society, and yet, every human being is born into language and trained in the arbitrary “rules” of words. It turns out that the modernist or naturalistic challenge of explaining the existence of consciousness parallels the postmodern challenge of explaining the existence of language.

This perspective can easily be seen in Derrida’s words in an interview toward the end of his life. He deconstructed texts to show the lack of meaning in life, but what Derrida found was that life, the presence of life, cannot be accounted for. “My life is irreducible to what I say and it is certainly the case in, for instance, The Post Card, that I confess that everything I oppose, so to speak, in my texts, everything that I deconstruct – presence, living, voice and so on – is exactly what I’m after in life. I love the voice, I love presence, I love…; there is no love, no desire without it.”[7] Derrida realized that he was a walking contradiction. He condemned the idea of knowing, of there being a presence outside language, yet is fully aware of his own presence, his own life. “I’m constantly denying in my life … what I’m saying in my books or my teaching.”[8]

Thus for the deconstructionist, the existence of language becomes the strongest argument for God’s existence in two ways. The deconstructionist replaces God with language. Language is a result of culture and yet human culture is derived from language, making language an eternal entity. For the postmodern, language cannot be explained away as a result of evolution, because evolution as an essential element of modernism and naturalism cannot withstand the postmodern critique of epistemology. But life, consciousness, language, these are the presence and voice denied by deconstruction.

“There is what I call Necessity, and I write this with a capital ‘N’ – Necessity, as if it were someone, perhaps a woman (nécessité is feminine in French) , a Necessity which compels me to say that there is no immediate presence, compels me to deconstruct . . . . I take into account this Necessity and I obey, I account for, this Necessity. Nevertheless, in my life, I do the opposite. I live as if it were possible . . . to be present with voice, or vocal presence.”[9]

Kevin Vanhoozer describes John 1 as the only example of when a word perfectly corresponded with the object. “In this one case, at least, Word and Author fully coincide. Jesus is the sign of god, the incarnate token of God’s presence, a fully reliable (“exact”) representation of his being (Heb 1.3).”[10] But there is another instance where the spoken word corresponds perfectly with its reference. “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen. 1.3). Secondly, language itself assumes the possibility of knowledge. Genesis 1 also meets the requirements. Creation through the spoken word is “word” corresponding with “reality.” Indeed, creation is the original instance of the word, of language defining reality. Here is where it began. While culture affects language, language was first. The Word was first.

Derrida and Postmodernity are correct in saying that man is trapped by language. Language is another one of those elements that makes humanity human. We cannot escape language, nor can we never go from “signifier” to the “signified.” This is because humanity is a signifier. “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground’” (Gen 1.26). Humanity cannot go beyond language and essentially there is no need either. God already has. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1.1). Jesus the Christ is signifier and signified; both man and God. “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time” (1 Tim 2.5-6).

[1] Heath White, Post-Modernism 101 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos, 2006), 88.

[2] Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in this Text? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1998), 53. (Amazon)

[3] A. K. M. Adam, What Is Postmodern Biblical Criticism? (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995), 29. (Amazon)

[4] Peter Cotterell and Max Turner, Linguistics and Biblical Interpretation (Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1989), 146. (Amazon)

[5] Jacque Derrida, Of Grammatology, (Corrected Ed.; Baltimore, Mar.: John Hopkins, 1997), 159, also 163. (Amazon)

[6] Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning, 63.

[7] Jacques Derrida, “Interview with Jean Birnbaum,” cited in “Learning to Live” by Ramona Fotiade, TimesOnline, Life after deconstruction,, accessed 5/5/2006, 8:54PM.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning, 44.