Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

Linguistical phenomenology

Basic themes of linguistical phenomenology are “textual autonomy,” “signification,” “intertextuality,” “deconstruction,” “discourse,” and “space of the text.”


Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Gadamer have been highly concerned with the role and significance of language in the context of phenomenological inquiry. Also the work of Foucault on the nature of language and discourse contributes to certain explorations of the relation between understanding, culture, historicality, identity, and human life. But, perhaps, it is especially in the work of Derrida and his followers where we can speak of a radical linguistical phenomenology. During the 1950s Derrida read the works of Husserl and Heidegger extensively while studying with Levinas and Ricoeur.


Derrida takes issue with Husserl’s idea that signification in language is primarily linked to consciousness and intentional experience. Like Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, he too turns away from the idea of the transcendetal ego. But instead of turning to the question of being (as in Heidegger) or to the lifeworld (as in Schutz) or to prereflective lived experience (as in Merleau-Ponty), or to language and tradition (as in Gadamer), Derrida aims to show that meaning is always primarily linguistical. It resides in language and the text rather than in the subject, in consciousness or even in lived experience. His famous claim that there is “nothing outside of the text” illustrates this well. For Derrida intersubjectivity is therefore intertextuality. In contrast to Husserl’s search for an indubitable ground of human understanding in the cogito, Derrida points out the essentially unstable and undecidable character of the nature of signs. The meaning of a text has an autonomy of its own, and is dependent neither on a subject (author or reader) nor on some external reference to which the text points. Through the method of deconstruction Derrida tries to demonstrate not the invariance of human phenomena but the essential variance, the “differance”, destablizing all meaningful distinctions and discernable identities. The preoccupation of French philosophers with language is also reflected in in the analytic theory of Jacques Lacan, the more semiotic work of Roland Barthes, in the writings of Julia Kristeva and Helene Cixous, and in the meditative writing of Michael Serres.


Some of Derrida’s central notions of texts and writing are gleaned from the work of Blanchot, a friend and contemporary of Levinas. Blanchot has already tried to show that fundamental human understanding is not achieved in the ordinary light of day of everyday existence, but precisely in the space of the text where the person (phenomenologist) dwells as author in the desire to come face-to-face with that what emerges from the dark of the real. Thus a linguistical phenomenology reminds us of the importance of writing, the enigmatic powers of language, the contingencies of interpretive meaning, and the invitational desires of the space of the text in the project of human understanding.