Schellingians and French Continentals don’t speak to each other

In the past day, I’ve come across two essays by Schelling specialists (one in German, the other writing in English) who want to make allegiances between the late Schelling and Levinas–and keep on insisting that Levinas valorizes something like a Schellingian notion of the eternal, despite all the myriad places Levinas opposes himself to the ontotheologies of the eternal (infinity is not the eternal in Levinas or anyone else).

Then there’s this wonderful footnote in Bruce Matthews’ otherwise helpful introduction to English translation of The Grounding of Positive Philosophy (SUNY Press, 2007):

Contrary to Derrida and other Post-Structuralists, Saussure called upon the subject as the central agent responsible for providing an actual ground [my emphasis] for self-consciousness and meaning. According to the official version of Saussure’s Cours, it is the individual person who speaks words: “The vocal sound is not a word except to the exact, constant extent that a meaning is attached to it […]. Though is what delimits units; sound itself does not delimit them in advance; there is always a relation to thought”…Derrrida based his readings on the vulgate version of Saussure’s Cours … In this inaccurate version of Saussure’s lectures, the role and importance of the thinking and speaking subject hardly even appear. In the quote above, taken from the critical edition of Saussure’s works, the significance of a meaning conferring consciousness clearly emerges. In light of the fact that the critical edition had been available since 1957, that is, since before Derrida began to deconstruct the Structuralists, Derrida was repeatedly challenged to correct his reading of Saussure. Unfortunately he never addressed the issue” (p. 217, n. 47).

Quite damning: Derrida was not only wrong, but [breathe deeply for the concern trolling] “unfortunately” refused to correct himself. This all to remark in the introduction that Saussure’s speaking subject, like Schelling, is “capable of making positive determinations of meaning through its power to make assertions,” thus getting out of the negative relation of signs in his “concept of language as a diacritical system of signs” (p. 24). Again pretty damning, if not for the fact that Derrida produces numerous quotations in De la grammatologie and invented the term “phonocentrism” for exactly Saussure’s attempt to absolve “consciousness” of any place within the system of signs he portrays. Otherwise put, the assertion that Saussure’s speaking subject is “capable of making positive determinations of meaning through its power to make assertions” is as good a definition as I’ve seen for what the early Derrida means by the term in all of his works of the period. Why bring Derrida up for critique–with the ironic added touch of suggesting shoddy scholarship at the same time–if you don’t know the work you’re criticizing, which is all about speaking/writing and the privileging of the former?


  1. Yeah, Matthews looks a little silly here. Still, it would be interesting to investigate the ‘French Schelling’ – I’m thinking of Merleau-Ponty’s chapter on Schelling in the Nature lectures, and Dews’ section on Derrida and Schelling in Logics of Disintegration.

    1. Excellent point. (I smell a future edited collection ripe for the picking.) And I forgot about Dews’ chapter, which I’ll have to look at now. There is indeed a subterranean Schellingianism, of course, in French philosophy (indeed, I’m trying to make those links), not least through the work of Heidegger. And inasmuch as Foucault, Derrida et al. put themselves–for lack of a better word–in opposition to Hegel, they were joining with Schelling’s critique of negative philosophy. I just came across a bit of Schellingians who were mentioning Levinas, Foucault, Derrida, etc. the last couple of days and missing the mark quite a bit (but they can get me back since I’m writing on Schelling this week and can hammer my missteps in turn).

      1. If you want to trace the “subterranean Schelligianism” in French philosophy the best place to start is the French spiritualists, notably Maine de Biran, Victor Cousin, Ravaisson (who attended Schelling’s Munich lectures) and Bergson. Janicaud has written a bit on this I think. In any case this, along with influence of Hyppolite’s reading of Fichte and of course the Spinozist influence, explains a lot of what’s behind Deleuze’s notion of pre-personal life/the plane of life/the plane of immanence. I’m writing a book chapter on this actually 🙂 Whether you can relate it to Foucault and Derrida is a different story, and I guess primarily depends on if you read them ontologically.

        Unfortunately the connections between 20th c. French “post-structuralist” ontologies and Schelling’s late philosophy are harder to discern than with regards to the naturphilosophie and the identity philosophy. But the possible comparisons between the late Schelling and some of the late 20thc. French thinkers on the critique of Hegel and negative philosophy, along with the real/actual distinction seem to be endless.

    1. Thanks Kyla. Yes, I know a bit of that history, though Bergson I think comes through Ravaisson, right? And there’s Rosenzweig for Levinas. And Deleuze mentions Schelling in key places (many picked up by I.H. Grant) as you well know. (There was this thing, especially with the 90s and early Aughts translations of Schelling, to note in the introductions all his relevances to recent thinkers, some tenuous, other not of course.) I’ll have to look for the Janicaud–I don’t recall that at all.

      Ah Andrew I’d love to see some of that when you’re done with that.

  2. I think this is largely a question of adherence to authority. Matthews is convinced that Saussure is right in his assertion that the subject is capable of an arresting positive meaning. Derrida saw that of course and labeled it phonocentrism/logocentrism, i.e. the idea that the subject only believes to be capable of arresting positive meaning (which nevertheless implies that the subject operates under the assumption that it’s producing meaning). So Matthews is wrong in believing that Derrida never treated that issue (when his critique of Saussure is largely based on that issue, which is correct) but the real question is: whose treatment of the issue is correct in terms of whether this is actually something happening. Is there really something like a subject “capable of making positive determinations of meaning through its power to make assertions”? Matthews and Saussure say “yes” (and say it’s in the _Cours_ and that Derrida should have picked it up from there and considered its importance), Gratton and Derrida say “no” (and say that’s phonocentrism and that it’s a flawed notion of meaning).

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