Thinking about Thought.
Jacques Derrida’s Deconstruction held Logocentrism accountable to itself. But he refrained from discussing much about the prime mover of all speech and writing: Thought.
Words by William Cooper.
Jacques Derrida’s opposition to Logocentrism — the superiority of speech over writing — was central to his critique of the authoritarian nature of various philosophical systems, which he named Deconstruction. The French postmodernist called this authoritarian superiority the ‘metaphysics of presence’, arguing that writing has always been described as the lesser form of speech, which he saw as unfair and inherently contradictory.
Derrida exposed a fundamental contradiction, that speech, or the ‘Logos’ cannot be preserved through time without writing. Speech is instant but can only be preserved by writing it down. Without writing, civilisation would not progress because speech is easily forgotten, no matter how powerful the speech itself. Therefore, just as much as writing is dependent on speech for purpose, speech is dependent on writing for preservation. Writing, according to Derrida, is therefore a ‘supplement’ of speech.
Derrida coined this realisation the ‘logic of supplementarity’, exposing how Logocentrism is fundamentally flawed by the very thing it desires to exclude. In proposing self-identity and exclusion from something, a concept is contaminated with what it is trying to exclude. Thus, no identity is ever complete or pure.
Whilst Derrida exposes the internal contradiction of Logocentrism, he omits from realising a third part that is fundamental to this philosophy. Indeed, it has been excluded entirely for thousands of years: the concept of thought itself.
Speech, writing and thought occur in a triangular continuation that encompasses the fundamental freedom of expression. It seems pointless to discuss the hierarchy of speech and writing when thought is completely excluded from the hierarchy altogether. Indeed, there would be nothing to talk or write about if thought was not the prime mover. The hierarchy should therefore surely place thought at the peak of the hierarchy. Moreover, especially in the 21st Century, speech and writing are widely inverted. Speech only occurs when the pre-emptive thoughts are written down and edited.
Thought fundamentally is not the same form of communication as writing and speech. Speech is instant communication between the speaker and their audience, whether it be another person or a crowd. Writing is the communication between the writer and their audience but writing has the distinct ability of preserving itself (unless destroyed) through time.
Thought, in contrast to these two, is the internal communication the thinker has with himself/herself. Thought can be preserved, but only for as long as the thought is pertinent in the mind of the thinker. After this, the thought is forgotten. Both speech and writing can be stored as thought and, depending on the importance of the writing or speech, it will be preserved as essence of thought for as long as the thinker is alive.
The hierarchy of these three is never constant, and context is essential to understanding which hierarchical form it takes. Fundamentally however, both writing and speech originate in thought, although there can be a delay in which thought is translated into either speech or written word. The basic cycle is something like this:
1. A person formulates a thought. The origin of this can either be organic, or due to an external stimulus.
2. The person then edits this thought in their mind in real time.
3. If the thought is deemed valuable to the thinker, they will either say it aloud to either themselves, another person, or an audience, or write it down in order to preserve it.
4. If they have spoken their thought and it is deemed valuable by the audience, they will either write the thought down (a delayed but superior reaction to point three. The extra step of speaking the thought further formulates the idea, making is superior in value and complexity). If they have written it down, they will either translate it into speech, or maintain it as writing.
5. Ultimately, if the thought has value, it will inevitably translate into written word. However, each thought leads naturally into another one. Writing can then provide the external stimulus for another thought, and so the cycle repeats itself.
There are exceptions to this however. A person may be forced to copy writing, therefore copying another person’s thoughts. Nevertheless, this still requires internal thought and deliberation because it is vital to read what you then write in this circumstance. There are many things that are of written word but wouldn’t be copied.
Similar to this, a person may be forced to say something without thinking, whether copying another person’s speech or writing, or by using words that are inherently natural to say, such as ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘hello’, and ‘goodbye’. These spoken words require no pre-emptive thought; they are automatic responses.
So, whilst the hierarchy of speech and writing is constantly revolving, thought remains constant as the prime mover and so the superior. However, thought is only superior from the perspective of the thinker. Externally, thought has no validity in this hierarchy at all, because thought alone can not be expressed, unless translated into speech or writing.
Therefore, as previously mentioned, context is paramount. Depending on the context and perspective of a certain social situation, the hierarchy shifts entirely. Fundamentally though, thought is the essential component without which, society would not progress. A person can choose to formulate thought, even when alone, into speech or writing.
Even writing these words, I the writer am alone, but am choosing to formulate my thoughts into written word. I can also choose to speak my thoughts as a preliminary measure to make sure they are formulated correctly, however this usually occurs when I have no means to write my thoughts down.
Thought is paramount because the individual has total autonomy over their mind. Although external forces heavily influence thought, the individual has the ultimate decision as to what they think about. Writing and speech do not possess the capability for the individual to exert total autonomy over them. This is because they are external to the person, and so are no longer autonomous, but dependent on the morality of society to deem whether they are acceptable or not.
One could think freely that, for example, Adolf Hitler was a hero and a great man. However, as soon as this is spoken or written down, it is automatically, and correctly, deemed unacceptable by society. But, if it remains pure thought, then it is not susceptible to the moralistic realm of society, and so can remain valid, but only in the form of thought.
This is why thought is superior, but fundamentally flawed, in comparison to speech and writing. Thought is superior because the thinker remains autonomous and in full control of their thoughts. They can formulate whatever thoughts they choose to, however acceptable or unacceptable they would be if translated. However, if everyone remained in the realm of thought, society would not progress. Complex communication is a fundamental human characteristic, and so speech and writing are superior in the social realm.
Ultimately, depending on what realm the individual finds themselves in in that moment, the hierarchy of thought-speech-writing shifts. Speech and writing revolve depending on necessary utility and the complexity of the thought but exist solely in the social realm.
Thought exists exclusively in its own, internal realm. It only becomes connected to speech and writing if the individual is willing to express it as such. If not, then the thought remains internalised and isolated.
Thought in this sense therefore is undoubtedly superior to speech and writing because it gives the individual the ability to transcend between two realms of communication: internal and external.
Nonetheless, thought is imperfect. An individual can think whatever they desire, which on the one hand is a purest freedom there is, but on the other, can produce dangerous forms of communication, if externalised.