Il n’y aura pas de nom unique, fût-il le nom de l’être. Et il faut le penser sans nostalgie, c’est-à-dire hors du mythe de la langue purement maternelle ou purement paternelle, de la patrie perdue de la pensée. Il faut au contraire l’ affirmer, au sens où Nietzsche met l’affirmation en jeu, dans un certain rire et dans un certain pas de la danse.

Depuis ce rire et cette danse, depuis cette affirmation étrangère à toute dialectique, vient en question cette autre face de la nostalgie que j’appellerai l’espérance heideggerienne. Je ne méconnais pas ce que ce mot peut avoir ici de choquant. Je le risque toutefois, sans en exclure aucune implication, et le mets en rapport avec ce que La parole d’Anaximandre me paraît retenir de la métaphysique : la quête du mot propre et du nom unique. Parlant du “premier mot de l’être “(das frühe Wort des Seins: το χρεών), Heidegger écrit: “Le rapport au présent, déployant son ordre dans l’essence même de la présence, est unique (ist eine einzige). Il reste par excellence incomparable à tout autre rapport. Il appartient à l’unicité de l’être lui-même (Sie gehort zur Einzigkeit des Seins selbst). La langue devrait donc, pour nommer ce qui se déploie dans l’être (das Wesende des Seins), trouver un seul mot, le mot unique (ein einziges, das einzige Wort). C’est là que nous mesurons combien risqué est tout mot de la pensée [tout mot pensant : denkende Wort] qui s’adresse à l’être (das dem Sein zugesprochen wird). Pourtant ce qui est risqué ici n’est pas quelque chose d’impossible; car l’être parle partout et toujours au travers de toute langue.” Telle est la question : l’alliance de la parole et de l’être dans le mot unique, dans le nom enfin propre. Telle est la question qui s’inscrit dans l’affirmation jouée de la différance. Elle porte (sur) chacun des membres de cette phrase : ” L’être / parle / partout et toujours / à travers / toute / langue /.

Jacques Derrida.


There will be no unique name, be it the name of being. And we must think this without nostalgia, that is, outside the myth of a language purely maternal or purely paternal, of the lost homeland of thought. We must on the contrary affirm it, in the sense that Nietzsche puts affirmation into play, in a certain laugh and a certain dance step.

From this laugh and this dance, from this affirmation alien to any dialectic, comes into question that other face of nostalgia that I shall call Heideggerian hopefulness (espérance). I am not unaware of how shocking this word may appear in this context. I risk it nevertheless, without excluding any of its implications, and put it in relation to what “The Anaximander Fragment” [Das Spruch des Anaximander] seems to me to retain of metaphysics: the quest for the “proper” noun/word (le mot propre) and the unique name. Speaking of the “first word of being” (das frühe Wort des Seins: το χρεών [necessity]), Heidegger writes: “The relation to the present, deploying its order in the very essence of presence, is unique (ist eine einzige). It remains exemplarily incomparable with any other relation. It belongs to uniqueness itself (Sie gehort zu Einzigkeit des Seins selbst). Language should therefore, to name what presents itself in being (das Wesende des Seins), find a single word, the unique word (ein einziges, das einzige Wort). Here is where we measure how risky is every word of thought [every thinking word: denkende Wort] that is addressed to being (das dem Sein zugesprochen wird). However, what is risked here is not something impossible; for being speaks everywhere and always through every language/tongue.” This is the question : the alliance of speech and being in the unique word, in the at last proper name. This is the question that is inscribed in the played/performed affirmation (affirmation jouée) of la différance. It bears (on) each element of this sentence: “Being / speaks / everywhere and always / through / every / language /.”

Jacques Derrida.

« La différance » in Théorie d’ensemble, Seuil, 1968, p. 66.

Although for GA, Jacques Derrida’s notion of la différance is second in importance only to René Girard’s conception of the mimetic origin of the sacred, I never had the opportunity to discuss these matters with him, even indirectly. As Richard van Oort can tell you, although Derrida had promised to participate in Anthropoetics’ special issue on deconstruction (IV, 1: Fall 1998), and I still have somewhere a brief letter to that effect bearing his signature, when he arrived in Irvine for his annual visiting professorship, rather than spending an hour on the freeway, I asked Richard, who was then a doctoral student intending to take his course, to make the first contact, a procedure that no doubt failed to show the great man an appropriate level of deference. The fact is, however, that what Derrida was undoubtedly prepared to do was to answer questions about his ideas, not engage in a discussion where they might be challenged, and recognizing this fact, he gracefully withdrew from the issue. We had no further contact.

This is regrettable because although today it is not uncommon to hear Derrida dismissed as a mystificateur by those who emphasize his irritating preciosity over his philosophical genius, this does no service to human thought. As a parenthesis in the new TOOL, I therefore propose to comment briefly on the final paragraphs of his seminal essay/lecture on la différance. A sympathetic analysis demonstrates both the quasi-anthropological insight of this “last metaphysician” and his desire to “save” and transcend metaphysics (I dare not speak of a Hegelian Aufhebung), as well as what seems to me the obvious fact that GA answers this desire as far as possible while extracting the kernel of Derrida’s intuition from the mystifying language in which he envelops it. For with all his genius, his loyalty to the metaphysical tradition, so different from Girard’s healthy skepticism, made Derrida incapable of dealing with the paradoxical nature of the enigma that could only be clarified in a language structurally different from the language of the sacred that he borrows, with irony and bad conscience, from Heidegger.

The linguistic foundation for la différance is Saussure’s famous dictum that in language there is nothing but differences. This is obviously true at the boundaries of the physical components of language; a phoneme can only be defined as such by comparison with contrasting phonemes, whence the practice of minimal pairs to distinguish them as elements of contrasting words. We note, for example, in contrast to the English phoneme set, the absence in Spanish of a distinction between “b” and “v” (v de vaca y b de burro), or between “r” and “l” in Japanese. And if we consider paradigms such as colors, similar boundary confusions are equally possible. And so on.

But aside from the fact that one need not think about red and green to call something blue, or gorillas and lions to call something an elephant, the fundamental flaw in this understanding of language is that the primary difference in language that must precede all others is not between elements of a paradigm but between the sign and its referent. The first word is a sign because it is no longer a “practical” gesture of appropriation nor is it an “instinctive” signal; in its persistence as a communication the aborted gesture acquires a meaning transmissible to the other members of the group. It is this difference, which inaugurates the sign as a wholly new category of being, that creates the representational doubling of signifier and signified that in turn allows differences within the first category to designate different worldly objects via the second. But the original deferral that allows for difference, la différance, is the deferral of appropriation and thereby of the practical, “horizontal” world of instrumentality, which creates the néant, the empty scenic space, into which the new dimension of meaning can emerge.

Derrida develops his “non-concept” of la différance over fourteen pages. The “misspelling,” which in French cannot be heard, and is therefore an artifact of writing, the form of language that does away with “presence” and becomes therefore for Derrida its canonical form, is the central symbol of the lack of a proper name for the sign-in-general.

But in the essay’s surprising conclusion, reproduced above, the author returns with great nostalgia of his own to Heidegger’s nostalgic hopefulness (espérance) for the single word of metaphysical Being. If we read Derrida sympathetically while nonetheless refusing to accept that the only possible expression of this paradox must be itself paradoxical, the intuition expressed in this passage can be reformulated in much clearer anthropological terms.

What is the mystery evoked in reference to this “one word,” the nostalgia for which Derrida rejects yet cannot avoid evoking in a secondary nostalgia for the hope it continued to inspire in Heidegger? Clearly one could go on in this vein as so many have, my own text nostalgically evoking in turn Derrida’s nostalgia as a reminder that metaphysics never really leaves us, that the absence that founds it is of its very essence, und so weiter. But having had the good fortune to study with someone whose impatience with philosophy was so to speak the contrapositive of his anthropology, I understand that rather than remaining complacently in the world of concepts we are obliged to do our best to ground them in reality.

Clearly in thinking of the one word Derrida, at least, if not Heidegger, is thinking of the name of God, which for Jews is ineffable, or to take God at his word in Exodus 3, inexistent: the only “name” he gives, in what I consider to be the most important passage of the Bible, is the proposition “I am that I am.” But this understanding of the one word represents a great historical insight. Revelations such as this, or John’s later rival insight that In the beginning was the word . . . and the word was God, help to explain the aura that surrounds the question, but at the price of incorporating into the scene of origin a level of understanding which at that point could have only been that of a deity.

At the origin of human language, the “one word” these gentlemen are seeking was simply the aborted gesture of the originary event, which in reality was no doubt repeated a number of times before its status as a sign acquired the communal recognition necessary to the establishment of a sacred culture around the scene of representation.

As described in the previous Chronicle 534, the hypothetical originary event is concrete and easily imaginable, and above all it is plausibly motivated rather than the result of some unfathomable cosmic decision by God, Being, or The Anthropic Principle. This should not be taken to mean that I consider Derrida, or even Heidegger, to be mere mystifiers. These thinkers came at the end of the great tradition of metaphysics and were straining great intellectual powers to seek a way out of it. But they failed to realize that reaching this goal requires the addition of a new anthropological dimension to their conceptual analysis. Their language, like that of Sartre and the other major philosophical minds of the 20th century, is, following in the footsteps of the more empirical-minded Husserl, but open as the latter was not to the resentful dissatisfaction of Nietzsche, an attempt to think through what Kant had recognized as the aporias of thought itself. But “thought” is not an autonomous entity, and its categories must finally be grounded in the reality of human existence, in a scene that is not merely internal to the individual consciousness, as for Sartre and phenomenology in general, but situates the human mind in the sole context in which it can exist and has ever existed, which is that of a linguistic, cultural human community.

Once this is done, one realizes in all humility that the “end” of metaphysics in no way brings with it the solution to the world’s problems. I remain convinced after 35 years that GA, if only as demonstrated by its complete absence from the contemporary scene of public discourse, is bound to play an important role in the “history of thought.” But the effect of its “discovery” on the general welfare, if any, is wholly unpredictable. It is an instrument of freedom, as are all such discoveries, but only faith can provide the espérance that adding it to the mix will make things better. It is nonetheless clear to me that it represents an objectively higher level of human self-consciousness, one that in no way trivializes the results of the human sciences, but that may hopefully influence their future choice of research subjects.

The fascination of Girardians for the discovery of “mirror neurons” is understandable, but the neuroscientists, for their part, show no signs of making use of the humanistic understanding of mimesis that “mimetic theory” provides. Let us hope that these scientists’ eventual exploration of the neurological substrate of the scene of representation, both individual and collective, will take place in a more cooperative environment. Only then will we truly be able to speak of the end, or more prudently, of the Wendung (turning point) of the metaphysical era.