Saying “I”: Derrida and Husserl

disc-filosofiche« Dire et penser “je”: la vacuité de la présence à soi du sujet de Husserl à Derrida » (“Saying and thinking ‘I’. On the vacuity of self-presence in Husserl and Derrida”)
in Discipline Filosofiche XXV, 1 (« Figures, Functions and Critique of Subjectivity »), 2016

Abstract: According to Jacques Derrida, the tradition of metaphysics is dominated by a basic distinction between presence and absence that plays a fundamental role in Husserl’s theory of meaning and contaminates the core of his phenomenological project. If Husserl’s distinction between indication and expression in the 1st Logical Investigation is credited for opening a ‘phenomenological breakthrough’, his account of the entwinement between the indicative and expressive functions of linguistic signs is accused of restoring and maintaining the metaphysical primacy of presence.

Jacques Derrida

In the last chapters of Voice and Phenomenon, Derrida focuses especially on the cases of indexical or ‘essentially occasional’ expressions, whose concrete meaning is a function of the occasion of their use and which rely on the indicative function of meaning. According to Derrida’s reading, Husserl holds that such indexical meanings like ‘I’, ‘here’ or ‘now’, are necessarily always fulfilled and cannot lack of intuitive fulfilment. Consequently Derrida takes Husserl’s account of the meaning of ‘I’ as an obvious symptom of his inability to move away from the myth of pure expressivity, bringing phenomenology back into the history of metaphysics. Husserl would have failed to acknowledge that indexical meanings, like ideal or objective meanings, can remain unfulfilled and deprived of intuition. This article demonstrates that Derrida’s critique misses the most important point in Husserl’s analysis of the meaning of ‘I’, and argues that indexical or subjective expressions are somehow insensitive to the prospect of intuitive presencing and fulfilment.