"There is no outside-text".

Since I am reading so much about Jacques Derrida it is only fitting to post on his philosophy. I am doing this for two reasons: (1) so that if I am wrong someone out there can correct my understanding and (2) if someone comes along later doing research on the subject this may help.

The first area of Derrida’s thought upon which I’d like to comment is his statement “there is no outside-text” (il n’y a pas de hors-texte). This last week a classmate of mine mentioned this statement (see here). He applied it to the study of biblical text by saying that essentially, if we follow Derrida, there is no reason to try to understand things like (a) authorial intent, (b) intended audience, (c) historical context, and so forth. There have been some biblical scholars–namely folk like John Sailhamer and Ray Lubeck–who have said “read the text”. Their argument is that we have the text, but we do not have the author, or the audience, or the historical events surrounding the composition of the text. We have the text so study the text.

If we interpret Derrida to say “there is no outside-text” as if it is applicable to only to how we approach things like studying biblical literature or other literature we will miss the point. Derrida is not saying that (a) there is no way of understanding things outside of written text, as if having a live one-on-one conversation is meaningless or (b) that if we are seeking to reconstruct meaning in a written text that all we have is “text” and therefore author, audience, and context are meaningless. This is missing the point of Derrida’s statement as I understand most scholars of his work to understand him.

Rather, Derrida is correcting what he perceived to be a mistaken notion since at least the time of Plato to the present, namely that verbal communication is more direct than written communication. Most scholars of language have understood audio-communication to have a shorter distance between signifier and signified. In other words, we can move from the speaker’s intent to the words used with less resistance. All the words that come from a speaker’s mouth have to point toward is back to the thought of the speaker.

This has led many to degrade written communication as even further away from the intent of the communicator. If written communication is marks-and-dashes that function as signifiers for audio words then the process is as such:


As we see from this model writing is at least an additional step away from verbal communication. Derrida rejects this. He does not see verbal communication as being as more direct than written communication. Both verbal and written communication have an infinite distance of possible means of interpretation between the thought and that which is communicated. Even psychoanalysis cannot retrieve the pure signified.

If verbal communication, or hand signals, or facial expressions must be interpreted these are no better than written text. Therefore, “there is no outside-text”. Derrida does not mean there is nothing outside of writing; he means that everything, like text, can be interpreted multiple ways and is never a pure signifier of the signified.

As an example, let us consider a lie. Is a lie spoken any easier to understand than a lie written? There are so many factors that go into uncovering the truthfulness of a statement and whether or not a statement matches the thought that was in the speaker’s mind. OR have you misspoken? Did you say something that you did not mean? If so, then we can see the distance between your “thought” (the signified) and your statement (the signifier) still has a great gulf fixed between the two.

This is not to say all communication is meaningless. Nor does Derrida say that we should not attempt to understand a speaker or writer because miscommunication happens. What he does want to avoid is the idea that language somehow purely encapsulates thought and that verbal communication is in need of less interpretation than the written form.