Let us once again return to the problem of abstraction. Abstraction has shown itself to be both a utility and a hindrance. Abstraction, according to Saussure, is not only necessary but it is our ability to speak and think: speaking is thinking and thinking is speaking. A child, for example, who draws a person will not draw a fluid human body, where arms, legs, parts of face, and other features run seamlessly together. To the contrary, a kid will draw enclosed body parts next to their spatially logical association; two rectangles or lines, for example, will sit on either side on a larger rectangle, triangle, or stick that represents a body (Just google “child’s drawing” and you will see what I mean). Representation, that which is given to us via the senses, is abstracted into contrasting categories to render that which is given (or the gift) understandable. Difference alone makes meaning possible as well as exchange (cf. Saussure and Durkheim).
Language, therefore, allows one to think and speak but simultaneously fosters meaning and exchange. However, language here (in the Continental “sense”) is meaning via negativa. To find the meaning of a symbol, or sign, one must not reference the positive entity in the external world that the sign signifies but rather the system of other, or different, signs in the language’s vocabulary. The sign is only meaningful because there is a system of contrasting signage that provides the said sign its own identity. Although this method seems, at first, to be illogical, especially to the Anglo-Saxon and American world, which is marked by philosophical movements such as Logical Positivism and Atomism, abstraction and Continental linguistics is preferable to the absent-minded and arbitrary “picking” of the innumerable positive referents we perceive every second, minute, and day.
Language, at this point, is then a negatively defined system of antitheses. Jacques Derrida rightfully recognized this as problematic (and Martin Heidegger certainly did so too but in a different fashion). To define some sign, Derrida noted that one would inevitably fall into an “abyss” of negation, that is each sign (or word) in a developed language system was defined by another or an-other word or set of words, which themselves were subject to definition by negation and subsequent word(s), ad infinitum. Therefore, the sign’s meaning never returned to itself or back to the sign from its abstractive journey of negative definition. This may hard to see if one tries to define terms such as “rock,” “door,” “spoon,” “tree,” or “car”; Derrida himself never held such words in such scrutiny because it was simply impractical. However, when one considers more abstract terms of “home,” “place,” “space,” “time,” “equivalence,” or “difference,” a stable and comprehensive meaning is elusive. And the consideration of political, metaphysical, or epistemological terms, or the vocabulary of philosophy and the academy altogether, is a fruitless endeavor. Words, such as “freedom,” “being,” “knowing,” “exchange,” “act,” etc., are simply impossible to define. Derrida effectively rendered Philosophy impossible.
Meaning, for Derrida, thus only worked in a practical sense by a closed system of language, in which signs constant deferred to other signs in the system. Meaning never finds any rest in a particularly sign but is perpetually shuffled among a system of signs. Signs can either travel outside of the system of signs and lose its form and content in an abyss of indefinable “other,” or signs defer meaning between units in an inescapable, totalitarian system, that is, a homogeny of “self.” Both options reduce meaning to homogeny: a nihilistic abyss of Other where meaning has no basis or no place of rest or a tyrannical Self where signs circularly share meaning through constant deferral. Again, meaning either has no place of rest, no actual space on which it can base itself (meaning cannot stand on nothing) or meaning never rests by cycling through a limited number of bases.
To conclude this section, abstraction – the art of finding meaning and its associated sign – yet remains ambivalent. It certainly is necessary but becomes less a “subjective” philosophy than a metaphysically violent, imposed societal institution. Can abstraction be rescued from tyranny? From the nihilistic abyss? From circularity? Who says? And Why? The subsequent and final post on abstraction will negate the necessity of a violent, totalitarian system of socially imposed language and examine the possibility of meaning rooted in Other, not of abyssal nihilism but of the Infinitely Determinate Divinity – the Holy Trinity.