(Non)logocentric Logos in Plato's Timaeus: Extending Sallis and Derrida

By Freydberg, Bernard | Philosophy Today, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

(Non)logocentric Logos in Plato's Timaeus: Extending Sallis and Derrida


Freydberg, Bernard, Philosophy Today


In a provocative footnote in Force of Imagination: The Sense of the Elemental, John Sallis, one of Jacques Derrida's well known dialogical partners, writes:

The subordination of language to an ante-rior order of signification is often desig-nated, following Derrida, by the terra logocentrism. Without disputing that this term may in some contexts be effective, there is, on the other hand, a danger of its producing a certain foreclosure. For, in or-der to be suitable, it requires that logos be taken in a late, Hellenistic sense, whereas in the Platonic dialogues-to say nothing of the earlier Greek thinkers-its sense is not detached from that of speech. Further-more, there are passages in the dialogues where the word logos functions in ways that work precisely against what one would call logocentrism.1

One of the great contributions of contempo-rary continental philosophy can be found in its treatment of the history of philosophy, which it honors, with which it wrestles, which it attempts to overcome, upon whose resources it consciously and unconsciously draws, which-in a single word-it always finds thought-provoking. Given this thought-provoking nature of the relation, disputes concerning this history can never be regarded as mere competing claims between thinkers and can so be settled by means out-side this thought-provoking relation. Rather, such disputes call for a kindred engagement into their subject-matter.

In this light, it is no exaggeration to say that no other word has had more thorough-going influence upon this engagement in re-cent decades than the word logocentrism. In his OfGrammatology, Jacques Derrida-al-though clearly influenced by Heidegger-opened up a fresh way of looking at the his-tory of Western metaphysics since Plato. Al-though one cannot hope to do justice to the thought generating and extending from the word in a brief paragraph, it has come to stand for a paradigm in which language is guided by-although clearly distinct from-an overarching logos, a transcenden-tal signifier. In this context, this central guid-ing logos can be understood as "God," or "reason," an understanding that relegates speech to second-order status and writing as once-removed even from speech. This privi-leging of logos has the consequence of cir-cumscribing metaphysics within the domain of presence.

The influence of this thought, of this word, cannot be underestimated: feminist theory, multicultural theory, post-colonial theory, theories guiding ethnic studies, queer theory-all of these areas that had been marginalized by virtue of their absence in the eyes of the dominant Western logos were given voice, finding the opening required in order to make that voice powerfully articu-late.

Sallis' footnote does not dispute the effec-tiveness of the term logocentrism, but calls its scope into question. Nor does any direct discussion of Plato guide this footnote. Rather, it occurs in the context of a discus-sion of "a discourse that would double the sensible-interpret it, as it were-without recourse to the intelligible. What is required is a discourse that would endure the loss of the intelligible, a discourse of signifiers no longer taken to correspond to, and to be guaranteed as such by, signified intelligibles."2

Both Sallis and Derrida have written about (and spoken together about) Plato's Timaeus in a way that sets the role of the chora before us in an entirely new manner,3 yet a manner that has a certain inevitability to it. After reading their work, it is impossible to return to prior readings in which the errant cause is a something of a puzzling and somewhat troubling afterthought that has somehow been drawn into the order of nous in spite of its recalcitrance. It is similarly impossible to avoid seeing how the chora radically destabilizes both the discourse of Timaeus and the cosmos of which he speaks. That Sallis and Derrida may differ concerning the application of the word logocentrism to the Platonic dialogues is clearly less important than their shared service in freeing the dialogue from the traditional interpretations to which it had been subject. …

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