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Différance is a French neologism coined by Jacques Derrida and homophonous with the word "différence". Différance plays on the fact that the French word différer means both "to defer" and "to differ." Derrida first uses the term différance in his 1963 paper "Cogito et histoire de la folie". "The economy of this writing is a regulated relationship between that which exceeds and the exceeded totality: the différance of the absolute excess." Schultz and Fried in their vast bibliography of Derrida's work cite this sentence as where “JD introduces différance” for the first time. The term différance then played a key role in Derrida's engagement with the philosophy of Edmund Husserl in Speech and Phenomena. The term was then elaborated in various other works, notably in his essay "Différance" and in various interviews collected in Positions.

In the essay "Différance" Derrida indicates that différance gestures at a number of heterogeneous features which govern the production of textual meaning. The first (relating to deferral) is the notion that words and signs can never fully summon forth what they mean, but can only be defined through appeal to additional words, from which they differ. Thus, meaning is forever "deferred" or postponed through an endless chain of signifiers. The second (relating to difference, sometimes referred to as espacement or "spacing") concerns the force which differentiates elements from one another and, in so doing, engenders binary oppositions and hierarchies which underpin meaning itself.

For lessons on the topic of Difference, follow this link.

Neither a word nor a concept

According to Derrida, Différance itself, is "neither a word, nor a concept," nor a thing. Words and concepts/theories are themselves different from other words or concepts and this difference gives their meaning. Despite the transcendental overtones of this statement as indicating a condition of possibility of meaning, according to Derrida différance is not transcendental. It is, as Derrida has remarked in his book Glas, a "quasi-transcendental" concept, insofar as the difference between words both engender meaning and forever defer meaning, différance serves as both the condition of possibility and the impossibility of meaning.

Illustration of différance

For example, the word "house" derives its meaning more as a function of how it differs from "shed", "mansion", "hotel", "building", "hovel", "hours", "hows", "horse", etc. etc., than how the word "house" may be tied to a certain image of a traditional house (i.e. the relationship between signifier and signified). Not only are the differences between the words relevant here, but the differentials between the images signified are also covered by différance. Deferral also comes into play, as the words that occur following "house" in any expression will revise the meaning of that word, sometimes dramatically so.

Thus, complete meaning is always postponed in language; there is never a moment when meaning is complete and total. A simple example would consist of looking up a given word in a dictionary, then proceeding to look up up the words found in that word's definition, etc., and such a process would never end. Roland Barthes describes this in his essay "Death of the Author." A language is a self-contained relationship between various signifiers. A symbol is defined by its relation to other symbols, and yet those other symbols are only different from it inasmuch as they have a different relation to each other than it does. But then, what are they in themselves? Where is this elusive "meaning" they are supposed to terminate in?

Deliberate misspelling

The 'a' of différance is a deliberate "misspelling", though it sounds the same when enunciated. This highlights the fact that its written form is not heard completely, and serves to further subvert the traditional privileging of speech over writing, as well as the distinction between the sensible and the intelligible. The difference articulated by the a in différance is not apparent to the senses via sound, "but neither cannot it belong to intelligibility, to the ideality which is not fortuitously associated with the objectivity of thorein or understanding." This is because the language of understanding is already caught up in sensible metaphors ("theory," for instance, in Greek, means "to see").

Derrida introduced this word in the course of an argument against the phenomenology of Husserl, who sought a rigorous analysis of the role of memory and perception in our understanding of sequential items such as music or language. Derrida's différance argued that because the perceiver's mental state was constantly in a state of flux, and differed from one re-reading to the next, a general theory describing this phenomenon was unachievable.

The web of language

We reside, to some extent, in a web of language, or at least one of interpretation, that has been laid down by tradition and which shifts each time we hear or read an utterance- even if it is the same utterance. Différance and deconstruction are attempts to understand this web of language, to search, in Derrida's words, for the "other of language" .This "other of language" is close to what Anglophone Philosophy calls the Reference of a word. There is a deferment of meaning with each act of re-reading. There is a difference of readings with each re-reading. In Derrida's words, "there is nothing outside the context" of a word's use and its place in the lexicon. Text, in Derrida's parlance, refers to context and includes all about the "real-life" situation of the speech/text, cf., speech act theory.

Paradox of différance

It may seem contradictory to suggest that Différance is neither a word nor a concept. However, it is obvious that the difference itself between words cannot only be another word. Since it is of another order, the same applies to concepts. For example, one might say the difference between a "house" and a "home" is that one is a building, and the other a family or social unit. The problem is however, that these differences, "building"/"family" are themselves given meaning by further differences.

Example of word introduction

A clear example of this effect occurred in England during the Renaissance period, when oranges first began to be imported from the Mediterranean. Yellow and red came to be differentiated from a new colour term -- "orange". What was the meaning of these words before 1600? What is their meaning afterwards? Such effects go on all the time in the use of language and frequently, in fact, this effect forms the very basis of language/meaning. Such changes of meaning are also often centres of political violence, as is apparent in the differences invested in male/female, master/slave, citizen/foreigner etc. Derrida seeks to modulate and question these "violent hierarchies" through deconstruction.

Perhaps it is a misconception that différance seeks contradictory meanings. It does not necessarily do so. It can, but what it usually describes is the re-experience, the re-arrival of the moment of reading. Roland Barthes once remarked that those who never reread anything are obliged to read the same text everywhere -- this wry comment summarizes the phenomenon of different experience for each iteration.

We are, keep in mind, discussing just one text -- every text. No distinction is necessarily made between texts in this very "basic" level. The difference/deferral can be between one text and itself, or between two texts; this is the crucial distinction between traditional perspectives and deconstruction.

Deconstruction and the history of philosophy

Derrida's neographism (rather than neologism, because "neologism" would propose a logos, a metaphysical category) is, of course, not just an attempt at linguistics or to discuss written texts and how they are read. It is, most importantly, an attempt to escape the history of metaphysics; a history that has always prioritised certain concepts, e.g., those of substance, essence, soul, spirit (idealism), matter (realism), becoming, freedom, sense-experience, language, science etc. All such ideas imply self-presence and totality. Différance, instead, focuses on the play of presence and absence, and, in effecting a concentration of certain thinking, Derrida takes on board the thought of Freud's unconscious (the trace), Heidegger's destruction of ontotheology, Nietzsche's play of forces, and Bataille's notion of sacrifice in contrast to Hegel's Aufheben.

"Differance is not only irreducible to any ontological or theological--ontotheological-- reappropriation, but as the very opening of the space in which ontotheology--philosophy--produces its system and its history, it includes ontotheology, inscribing it and exceeding it without return."

Yet he does not approach this absence and loss with the nostalgia that marks Heidegger's attempt to uncover some original truths beneath the accretions of a false metaphysics that have accumulated since Socrates. Rather it is with the moods of play and affirmation that Derrida approaches the issue.

Negative theology

Derrida's non-concept of différance, resembles, but is not, negative theology, an attempt to present a tacit metaphysics without pointing to any existent essence as the first cause or transcendental signified. Following his presentation of his paper "Différance" in 1968, Derrida was faced with an annoyed participant who said, "It [différance] is the source of everything and one cannot know it: it is the God of negative theology." Derrida's answer was, "It is and it is not."

In contrast to negative theology, which posits something supereminent and yet concealed and ineffable, différance is not quite transcendental, never quite "real," as it is always and already deferred from being made present. As John Caputo writes, "Différance is but a quasi-transcendental anteriority, not a supereminent, transcendental ulteriority." The differences and deferrings of différance, Derrida points out, are not merely ideal, they are not inscribed in the contours of the brain nor do they fall from the sky, the closest approximation would be to consider them as historical, that is, if the word history itself did not mean what it does, the airbrushing speech of the victor/vanquished.

Derrida has shown an interest in negative or apophatic theology, one of his most important works on the topic being his essay "Sauf le nom." Derrida, Jacques. "Sauf le nom." On the Name. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.

Différance, life, technics

In Of Grammatology, Derrida states that grammatology is not a "science of man" because it is concerned with the question of "the name of man." This leads Derrida into a consideration of the work of André Leroi-Gourhan, and in particular his concepts of "program," "exteriorisation," and "liberation of memory." Derrida writes: "Leroi-Gourhan no longer describes the unity of man and the human adventure thus by the simple possibility of the graphie in general; rather as a stage or an articulation in the history of life—of what I have called différance—as the history of the grammè. Derrida thus explicitly refers the term différance to life, and in particular to life as the history of inscription and retention, whether this is genetic or technological (from writing to "electronic card indexes"). And thus grammatology is not a science of man because it deconstructs any anthropocentrism, in the sense that the inscription in question falls on both sides of the divide human/non-human.

Yet, in the article "Différance," Derrida refers différance not to physis, that is, life, but to "all the others of physistekhnè, nomos, thesis, society, freedom, history, mind, etc.—as physis differed and deferred, or as physis differing and deferring." Bernard Stiegler argues in his book, Technics and Time, 1, that this represents a hesitation in Derrida: "Now phusis as life was already différance. There is an indecision, a passage remaining to be thought. At issue is the specificity of the temporality of life in which life is inscription in the nonliving, spacing, temporalisation, differentiation, and deferral by, of and in the nonliving, in the dead." What this suggests to Stiegler is that grammatology—a logic of the grammè—must be supplemented with a history of grammatisation, a history of all the forms and techniques of inscription, from genetics to technics, each stage of which will be found to possess its own logic. Only in this way can différance be thought as the differing and deferral of life (life as the emergence of a difference from non-life, specifically as the deferral of entropy), and as the difference from physis through which the human must inevitably be defined (the human as the inauguration of another memory, neither the memory of genetics nor that of the individual, but rather a memory consisting in "inscription in the nonliving," that is, technical memory).


  • "Speech and Phenomena” and other essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973).
  • Of Grammatology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998, corrected edition).


  1. "The economy of this writing is a regulated relationship between that which exceeds and the exceeded totality: the différance of the absolute excess."(Derrida, J., 1978. Cogito and the History of Madness. From Writing and Difference. Trans. A. Bass. London & New York: Routledge. p. 75.) Schultz and Fried in their vast bibliography of Derrida's work cite this sentence as where “JD introduces différance” for the first time. (Schultz, W.R. & Fried, L.B., 1992. Jacques Just Grab his nut sack and cry little boys Bibliography. London & New York: Garland. p. 12.)
  2. See Speech and Phenomena and other essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), "Différance." Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago & London: Chicago University Press, 1982) and Positions, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago, University of Chiago Press, 1971).
  3. "Différance," Margins of Philosophy, 7.
  4. For discussion of this, see Gasché, Rodolphe, The Taint of The Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), p. 317. and Bennington, Geoffrey, Jacques Derrida (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), pp. 267-283.
  5. "Différance," Margins of Philosophy, p. 5.
  6. Richard Kearney, Dialogues with Contemporary Thinkers, Manchester: MUP, 1984
  7. "Différance," Margins of Philosophy, p.6.
  8. Caputo, John. The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997, p. 2.
  9. Caputo, Prayers and Tears, p. 3.
  10. Derrida, Jacques. "Sauf le nom." On the Name. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.
  11. Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology, Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998, p. 84.
  12. Derrida, Jacques. "Differance," Margins of Philosophy, Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1982, p. 17.
  13. Stiegler, Bernard. Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus, Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 139–40.

See also