Husserl, Derrida, and the Phenomenology of Expression

By Crowell, Steven Galt | Philosophy Today, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Husserl, Derrida, and the Phenomenology of Expression


Crowell, Steven Galt, Philosophy Today


Does not expression resemble more closely this extreme exposure [of the face] than it does some supposed recourse to a code? -Emmanuel Levinas

In the Logical Investigations Husserl distinguishes between "indicative" and "expressive" signs in order to locate that aspect of linguistic comportment that can be detached from empirical and psychological factors and so enter into the theory of pure logic. Expressive signs reveal the stratum of meaning (bedeuten), an act that informs language and exhibits structures that underlie logical concepts and laws. The same interest in the logically and epistemologically relevant aspects of the linguistic order is found throughout Husserl's works. In Formal and Transcendental Logic, for example, Husserl continues to "leave out of consideration the pointing tendencies belonging to words" in favor of their quality of expressing a meaning. The spoken or written phenomenon "is something we distinguish from the word itself' (FTL 20); the word is a type, an ideal unity, and "has" its meaning only as such an ideal unity. Thus "language has the Objectivity proper to the objectivities making up the socalled spiritual or cultural world, not the Objectivity proper to bare physical Nature" (FTL 20). Experience and Judgment develops the same view. All objectivities, including those of bare physical nature, have "objective sense" (i.e., are noematic unities of meaning), but such sense "is not, in the true sense, a predicate of the object."2 Linguistic objects, however, exhibit "sense as a predicate, as a determination . . . belonging to their being itself," while at the same time, it "belongs to the essence" of such linguistic objects "not to be otherwise than in real embodiments whose significance they constitute" (EJ 268). Such being is a fusion, an animation:

To the verbal articulations and forms of the locution there correspond articulations and formations of the sense or meaning. The latter, however, does not lie externally beside the words; rather, in speaking we are continuously performing an internal act of meaning, which fuses with the words and, as it were, animates them. The effect of this animation is that the words and the entire locution, as it were, embody in themselves a meaning, and bear it embodied in them as their sense. (FTL 22)

The phenomenologist, then, never questions whether language as such is best understood in terms of the concepts of sign and expression, concepts which implicate language in a double ideality. On the one hand, there is the ideality belonging to the sign as such; the token/type relation that sustains the possibility of iteration and repetition. On the other hand, there is the ideality belonging to expression or meaning as such, i.e., the ideality of "spiritual" formations that neither reduce to physical embodiment nor exist apart from such embodiment. Husserl tends to concentrate on the ideality of expressed meaning and thus to efface the sign as sign. Jacques Derrida, on the contrary, has argued that sign and meaning are intertwined in such a way that the indicative function of linguistic signs is a condition for the supposedly independent expressive function. He sees this as reasserting the rights of the body over the spirit, the letter over the logos; as rejecting Husserl's subordination of language to the metaphysics of presence (spirit, being, intuition). As I will suggest in this essay, the upshot of the Husserl-Derrida debate appears to be a stalemate.3

Judging by Husserl's published works, one might assume that expression is exclusively the province of linguistic signs. The Logical Investigations, for example, defines "expressions" as "meaningful signs" in such a way as to "exclude much that ordinary speech would call an `expression"' (such as "facial expressions and the various gestures that involuntarily accompany speech") since "such `expressions"' are not "phenomenally one with the experiences made manifest in them in the consciousness of the man who manifests them, as is the case with speech. …

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