Logocentrism

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Logocentrism is a term coined by the German philosopher Ludwig Klages in the 1920s. It refers to the tradition of "Western" science and philosophy that situates the logos, ‘the word’ or the ‘act of speech’, as epistemologically superior in a system, or structure, in which we may only know, or be present in, the world by way of a logocentric metaphysics. For this structure to hold true it must be assumed that there is an original, irreducible object which the logos represents, and therefore, that our presence in the world is necessarily mediated. If there is a Platonic Ideal Form then there must be an ideal representation of such a form. According to logocentrism, this ideal representation is the logos.

Logocentrism in linguistics[edit]

With the logos as the site of a representational unity, linguistics dissects the structure of the logos further and establishes the sound of the word, coupled with the sense of the word, as the original and ideal location of metaphysical significance. Logocentric linguistics proposes that ‘...the immediate and privileged unity which founds significance and the acts of language is the articulated unity of sound and sense within the phonic'.[1] As the science of language, linguistics gains its scientificity by way of this semiotic phonology. It follows, therefore, that speech is the primary form of language and writing is secondary, representative and, importantly, outside of speech. Writing is a ‘sign of a sign’ [2] and therefore is also basically phonetic.
Jonathan Culler in his book Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction says:

Traditionally, Western philosophy has distinguished ‘reality’ from ‘appearance’, things themselves from representations of them, and thought from signs that express it. Signs or representations, in this view, are but a way to get at reality, truth, or ideas, and they should be as transparent as possible; they should not get in the way, should not affect or infect the thought or truth they represent. In this framework, speech has seemed the immediate manifestation or presence of thought, while writing, which operates in the absence of the speaker, has been treated as an artificial and derivative representation of speech, a potentially misleading sign of a sign.(p. 11)

This notion that the written word is a sign of a sign has a long history in Western thought. According to Aristotle (384BC-322BC), ‘spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words’.[3] Also, to Rousseau (1712–1778): ‘writing is nothing but the representation of speech; it is bizarre that one gives more care to the determining of the image than to the object’.[4]

Logocentrism and de Saussure[edit]

De Saussure (1857–1913) follows this logocentric line of thought in the development of his linguistic sign and its terminology. Where the word remains known as the whole sign, the unification of concept and sound-image becomes the unification of the signified and the signifier respectively.[5] The signifier is then composed of an indivisible sound and image whereby the graphic form of the sign is exterior.

According to de Saussure in his Course in General Linguistics, ‘the linguistic object is not defined by the combination of the written word and the spoken word: the spoken form alone constitutes the object’.[6] Language has, he writes, ‘an oral tradition that is independent of writing’.[7]

Logocentrism and Derrida[edit]

French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) in his book Of Grammatology responds in depth to what he believes is Saussure’s logocentric argument. Derrida deconstructs the apparent inner, phonological system of language, stating in Chapter 2, Linguistics and Grammatology, that in fact and for reasons of essence Saussure’s representative determination is ‘...an ideal explicitly directing a functioning which...is never completely phonetic’.[8] The idea that writing might function other than phonetically and also as more than merely a representative delineation of speech allows an absolute concept of logos to end in what Derrida describes as infinitist metaphysics.[9] The difference in presence can never actually be reduced, as was the logocentric project; instead, the chain of signification becomes the trace of presence-absence’.[10]

'That the signified is originarily and essentially (and not only for a finite and created spirit) trace, that it is always already in the position of the signifier, is the apparently innocent proposition within which the metaphysics of the logos, of presence and consciousness, must reflect upon writing as its death and its resource.' [11]

Logocentrism in literary theory[edit]

Inherent in Saussure’s reasoning a structuralist approach to literature began in the 1950s [12] to assess the literary text, or utterance, in terms of its adherence to certain organising conventions which might establish its objective meaning. Again, as for Saussure, structuralism in literary theory is condemned to fail on account of its own foundation: ‘...language constitutes our world, it doesn’t just record it or label it. Meaning is always attributed to the object or idea by the human mind, and constructed by and expressed through language: it is not already contained within the thing’.[13]

There is therefore no absolute truth outside of construction no matter how scientific or prolific that construction might be. Enter Derrida and post-structuralism. Other like-minded philosophers and psychoanalysts in the vein of post-structuralism include Nietzsche, Heidegger and Freud.[14] Literary critic Roland Barthes (1915–1980), with his essay The Death of the Author (1968), converted from structuralism to post-structuralism.

For the post-structuralist the writer must be present in a kind of absence, or ‘dead’, according to Barthes; just as the reader is absent in a kind of presence at the ‘moment’ of the literary utterance. Post-structuralism is therefore against the moral formalism of the Western literary tradition which maintains only The Greats should be looked to for literary inspiration and indeed for a means of political control and social equilibrium.

Modernism, with its desire to regain some kind of lost presence, also resists post-structuralist thought; whereas Post-modernism accepts the loss (the loss of being as ‘presence’) and steps beyond the limitations of logocentrism.

Logocentrism in non-Western cultures[edit]

Some researchers consider that logocentrism may not be something which exists across all cultures, but instead has a particular bias in Western culture. Tedlock’s study of stories in the Quiché Maya culture[15] leads him to suggest that the development of alphabetic writing systems may have led to a logocentric perspective, but this is not the case in all writing systems, and particularly less prevalent in cultures where writing has not been established. Tedlock writes, “The voice is linear, in [Derrida’s] view; there is only one thing happening at a time, a sequence of phonemes,”[16] and this is reflected in writing and even the study of language in the field of linguistics and what Tedlock calls “mythologics (or larger-scale structuralism)”,[17] “are founded not upon a multidimensional apprehension of the multidimensional voice, but upon unilinear writing of the smallest-scale articulations within the voice.”[18] This one dimensionality of writing means that only words can be represented through alphabetic writing, and, more often than not, tone, voice, accent and style are difficult if not impossible to represent. Geaney,[19] in writing about ming (names) in early Chinese reveals that ideographic writing systems present some difficulty for the idea of logocentrism, and that even Derrida wrote of Chinese writing in an ambivalent way, assuming firstly that “writing has a historical telos in which phonetic writing is the normal ‘outcome’”,[20] but also “speculat[ing] without irony about Chinese writing as a ‘movement of civilization outside all logocentrism’”.[21]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Derrida, p. 29
  2. ^ Derrida, p. 29
  3. ^ (Derrida, p. 30)
  4. ^ (Derrida, p. 27)
  5. ^ (Derrida, p. 31)
  6. ^ (Derrida, p. 31)
  7. ^ (Derrida, p. 30)
  8. ^ (Derrida, p. 30)
  9. ^ (Derrida, p. 71)
  10. ^ (Derrida, p. 71)
  11. ^ (Derrida, p. 73)
  12. ^ (Barry, p. 38)
  13. ^ (Barry, p. 42)
  14. ^ (Barry, p. 64)
  15. ^ (Tedlock)
  16. ^ (Tedlock, p. 322)
  17. ^ (Tedlock, p. 323)
  18. ^ (Tedlock, p. 323)
  19. ^ (Geaney)
  20. ^ (Geaney, p. 251)
  21. ^ (Geaney, p. 251)

References[edit]

  • Barry, P (2009), Beginning theory: an introduction to literary and cultural theory, 3rd edn, Manchester University Press, New York.
  • Derrida, J (1976), 'Linguistics and Grammatology', Of Grammatology, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, pp. 27–73, (CRO— CQU Library, HUMT20012 Code).
  • Geaney, J (2010), 'Grounding “Language” in the senses : what the eyes and ears reveal about MING (names) in early Chinese texts', Philosophy East & West, vol. 60, no. 2, pp. 251–293.
  • Tedlock, D 1979, ‘Beyond logocentrism: trace and voice among the Quiché Maya’, Boundary 2, vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 321–333.

External links[edit]