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an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

Volume 19, Spring 2022, ISSN 1552-5112



Poststructuralism and Transcendental Philosophy: Derrida’s Différance



James Cartlidge






Much of poststructuralism consists in an interrogation and subversion of philosophy’s longstanding concepts and methods. Identity, totality, foundation, universality (etc.) are questioned and, when found wanting, historically less-emphasized concepts (difference, specificity, unknowability, etc.) are emphasized. Poststructuralist philosophers in some way attempt to escape or reconceptualize the former kinds of concepts, enabling a new kind of philosophy that overcomes older (metaphysically-indebted) philosophy. What is not often emphasized are the occasions when poststructuralist philosophers end up relying on old methods in a way that incorporates them into their philosophy, finding worth in them and adapting them for their purposes. This paper concerns one such case, involving Jacques Derrida’s philosophy of différance and its reliance on ‘transcendental philosophy’.


In his 1968 essay Différance[1], Derrida articulates arguably his most central idea, along the way making characteristic post-structural claims about the impossibility of presence (or presence of meaning), the limitations of definition and structure, and so on. He engages explicitly with Nietzsche, Hegel, Heidegger, and others. Derrida doesn’t discuss Kant, which is interesting given that he conceives différance as a particularly fundamental enabling-or-possibility--condition - for language, experience, indeed anything (and I do mean anything), to be at all in the way that it is. Conditions for possibility are exactly what Kant sought in his philosophical system, indeed they are what Kant called ‘transcendental conditions’. This is more than a superficial similarity, but there are differences of opinion between Kant and Derrida on what these conditions amount to and what their implications are. Kant, in the Critique of Pure Reason[2] at least, sought the conditions for the possibility of human experience, whereas Derrida’s différance, as we shall see, is further-reaching, proposing to account for existence in general. Kant ends up positing a kind of unity as the ultimate transcendental condition for experience, but Derrida posits an originary, primordial double-movement of difference and deferral at the bedrock of reality. These differences may have been what lead Derrida to appropriate the term ‘transcendental’ late in his career, when he referred to himself as an ‘ultra-transcendentalist’ or ‘quasi-transcendentalist’. But his self-identification as a transcendentalist in any sense is telling: whether explicitly or not, différance represents a post-structuralist engagement with and development of transcendental philosophy. To demonstrate this, I will deal with two questions: ‘What is différance?’ and ‘What is a transcendental argument?’, beginning with the latter.


What is différance?

A considerable amount of the history of philosophy has concerned itself with things like absolute knowledge, objectivity, pure being or universal truth. Be it in the guise of Plato’s realm of the forms, Hegel’s absolute idea, Descartes’ cogito or Wittgenstein’s early search for the general form of the proposition, much philosophy has been done in the search for pure, absolute knowledge and identity, objectively true meaning that stands the test of truth for all time. Derrida’s différance, and much of his project as a whole, seeks to displace these notions. Différance has quite rightly been described by one commentator as “mind-boggling, whichever way we try to come or go at it.”[3] This is so because “it cannot be exhaustively defined, both because Derrida employs it in several different contexts and senses, and because it problematizes the very act of definition.”[4] With this caution that any account of différance will necessarily be incomplete in hand, I will now try and give a brief sketch as to what it is.


Derrida makes up the ‘word’ différance by a simple insertion of a letter ‘a’ into the French ‘différence’ and uses it on many different levels to make philosophical points. He speaks rather wonderfully about how brilliant the word is at doing its job:


Différance can refer to the whole complex of meanings at once, for it is immediately and irreducibly multivalent [...] It refers to this whole complex of meanings not only when it is supported by a language or interpretive context (like any signification), but it already does so somehow of itself. (D 137)


In asking what Derrida means by différance, perhaps the best place to start is with the grapheme itself, which as we shall see is technically speaking not a word or a concept.[5] It is based on a pun that is only understandable if you know at least one word of French. The French verb ‘différer’ has two meanings: ‘to differ’ and ‘to defer’ in English. Derrida coins the term différance in order to be able to simultaneously bring to mind both of these meanings. The French word for difference is différence, so Derrida’s insertion of the ‘a’ in différance means it can only be immediately recognised when written down. Since this essay was originally delivered as a lecture, the introduction of a différance that “is only written or read, but not heard” (D 132) invited its audience to consider the manner in which an understanding of what has been said arrives only with a lapse of time and, in this case, only when the written version becomes available, such that the acoustic ambiguity can be resolved.[6]


This serves to indicate a theme that Derrida returns to repeatedly: a critique of logocentrism, or the notion that the history of philosophy has taken speech to be somehow prior to writing because the spoken word is more immediately ‘present’ or somehow ‘purer’ than the written. More present, however, does not entail more truthful or more fundamental, and this critique results in a notion that Derrida calls the metaphysics of presence, which is the idea that all metaphysics has hitherto been too concerned with the present and what is immediately present and therefore is not necessarily mistaken in its efforts but at least fails to account for the whole truth of the matter. By creating a term that can only be immediately understood through the medium of writing and that cannot be talked without at least some reference to writing, Derrida highlights that “différance belongs neither to the voice nor to writing in the ordinary sense, and it takes place [...] between speech and writing and beyond that tranquil familiarity that binds us to one and to the other, reassuring us sometimes in the illusion that they are two separate things” (D 134).


Already we can see that différance is a multifaceted instrument that functions on various levels. So far we have really only examined the grapheme of différance itself, but we have found already that it highlights the two meanings of the French word on which it is based (and we shall see exactly why it does this as we go on) and also serves to illustrate Derrida’s career-long preoccupation with logocentrism (and by illustrating this also connotes the metaphysics of presence) by only being able to be immediately understood through (or at least with some reference to) the medium of writing. This displaces the idea that the spoken word is somehow purer than, prior to or more present than the written and reminds us that the only way to coherently understand speech and writing is to conceive of them as co-originary, interdependent and inseparable from one another.


Speaking of différance through any kind of language at all is difficult because in a sense for Derrida it is outside language, being described as “neither a word or a concept” (D 130) because it is what sets up and makes possible both of those things and thus cannot belong to either category of words or concepts. If it is not a word or a concept, how could it be part of a language? The only thing we really ‘see’ of différance in language are its after-effects, the trace of it, it is never present in itself. Given that différance does not ‘exist’ in any sense of the word we would normally use either, i.e. in the sense of being present, even the use of the word ‘is’ when speaking about différance is technically unsuitable.[7] Furthermore, as we shall see, différance is used to indicate the essential instability of meaning and the impossibility of a once-and-for-all definition of any word for all time. Thus, any attempt at defining it definitively undermines its own point. Différance can only be gestured towards (as opposed to captured or definitively articulated once and for all) in language, as language is necessarily not fit for this purpose but which we nonetheless necessarily have to adopt when discussing it. Though différance itself does not belong to language and is neither a word or a concept, one of its functions has very much to do with language in that it refers to the double movement of the differing and deferring of signs, without which signs and language would be impossible. Let us turn to this double movement now.



Différance brings together the double movement of the differing and deferring of signs. Much as it tries to show that speech and writing are co-originary, différance tries to show that difference and deferral are co-originary and provide the joint condition for the possibility of anything like signification or language. Différance draws half of its ‘conceptual’ content from the work of Saussure, who we are told reminded us “that the play of difference was the functional condition, the condition of possibility, for every sign; and it is itself silent.” (D 133) Signs only mean by their being different to other signs: difference is thus the condition for the possibility for signs and meaning. The word ‘table’ signifies table because it is not the word ‘chair’, or ‘pen’, or ‘bag’, and so on. The word ‘table’ brings to mind (makes present to me) the idea of a table because of the uniqueness of the word in its linguistic system and the uniqueness of the idea it signifies. Signs thus, essentially, differ from one another and must in order to mean anything at all. Since all signs and what they make present to us essentially differ, they just as essentially bear a trace of what they do not mean, otherwise they would not mean what they mean. The concept of table, again, bears a trace of everything it does not mean, it means only in light of what it does not mean, which is to say that it is different from all other signs. The trace is an idea also used by Derrida to show that différance is never directly observed and cannot adequately be captured, we can only see the trace it has left which can be observed in “the systematic play of differences” (D 140), the playing-out in language of every sign’s unstable meaning and different relations to every other sign in the linguistic system. As a consequence of their essential differing, signs are said to be ‘arbitrary’ by Saussure, which means that they bear no necessary relation to what they signify and no one word ever signifies just one specific thing for all time. In a thousand years’ time, possibly in a different language, the word ‘table’ may mean something quite different to what it once did - even now, for instance, in the phrase ‘table of contents’. For Derrida this essential differing is but halfway there in accounting for something like the transcendental condition for language, hence the necessity of introducing a new term that captures the other half of what signs essentially do at the same time as their differing: defer meaning.



The ‘defer’ aspect of différance (with respect to signs) refers to the deferral of meaning, or how the sign is “a deferred presence.” (D 138) If I had witnessed a crime and had to give testimony at a trial, I would have to take the stand and describe what I had seen. If I had direct physical evidence in the form of an object that proved the crime had taken place and been perpetrated by the person accused, I could simply show it to the jury. They could then look at it, have a direct intuition of it and see beyond doubt with their own eyes that the crime was committed in the way it was said to have been. However, I do not have such an object and thus must use my words. Effectively, this is what signs have been classically held to do:


a sign is put in place of the thing itself [...] Signs represent the present in its absence [...] When we cannot take hold of or show the thing, let us say the present, the being-present, when the present does not present itself, then we signify, we go through the detour of signs. (Ibid.)


Signs, be they verbal or written, are our most efficient way of expressing our thoughts, or designating objects, or anything you care to mention that is expressible in signs.[8] We put signs in place of our thoughts because they cannot be expressed without going through this medium: “the movement of signs defers the moment of encountering the thing itself.” (Ibid.) I think a thought I choose to express in language using the medium of signs. This thought is what is immediately present to me, and this particular thought of mine could not possibly be so present to you in the same way it is to me. If I want to make it present to you I can use my words, but even if I do (and even if I am very eloquent in doing so) I will never be able to fully capture the thought in its totality, I can never give you the thought itself as initially thought by me: “the signified concept is never present in itself” (D140). A sign can never fully bring forth its ‘meaning’, but must appeal not only to other people’s reactions to the use of the signifier, but other words within a linguistic system that all differ from the word in question. Thus,

the meaning of a text is never punctually present, never perfectly captured by the author’s intention to convey some particular idea, experience, memory, semantic nuance, or whatever. That meaning is endlessly deferred, subject to the chances and vicissitudes of the text’s unpredictable reception-history. (UD 20)


As a consequence of this deferral, a text may be interpreted differently depending on the socio-historical-psychological-cultural situation of anyone that reads it. Meaning is thus unstable and the same text could potentially mean very different things to or be read very differently by different people at different points in history. Since meaning is produced by (amongst other things no doubt) socio-historical-political-cultural situations and since language is used for such a wide variety of things in different ways, we have no overarching meta-discourse or meta-language that would adjudicate once and for all which readings or meanings are legitimate and which are not. Derrida concludes that “the substitution of the sign for the thing itself is both secondary and provisional” (Ibid.). It is secondary because it comes after the thing itself to be signified (it is “after an original and lost presence” (Ibid.)) and provisional because it makes present the thing itself but never quite completely, and the way in which the thing itself is currently signified (as well as how this signification is understood) in language may change in the future. Signs necessarily defer meaning in this way. Thus we can see that différance “in the one case [...] signifies nonidentity; in the other case it signifies an order of the same.” (D 129) One sense of differing is the one with which we are most familiar and the other represents deferral, a putting off until a later place in time. This other sense of différance, as we shall later see in more detail, “expresses an interposition of delay, the interval of a spacing and temporalizing” (Ibid.), showing that the two movements of spacing and temporalizing, and hence space and time, are in fact inseparable from one another and linked by a common primordial root.


We now have an introductory sketch of what différance is and some of the functions it is used for by Derrida. During the course of Différance, which contains interactions with some of the history of philosophy’s key figures, most extensively Heidegger and Hegel, one of the figures that Derrida never mentions, curiously, is Kant. I say curiously because even though Derrida does engage with him on other occasions, he is particularly relevant in the context of différance, especially when one of the functions of différance is to problematize traditional notions of space and time. Space and time, it seems, are irreducible to anything else: we cannot imagine anything as being excluded from them, they provide a framework in which experience can take place and be meaningful to us. Many attempts have been made by philosophers to account for their nature, one of the most famous and influential being by Kant himself. Kant employed his method of transcendental idealism which enquires not into experience itself but into the necessary conditions required for the possibility of experience. He concluded that the mind is not simply a receptive vessel (as Locke’s tabula rasa, for example), but rather has an active role in structuring the world in order that we can experience it. Two pieces of the transcendental apparatus the mind provides us with for this purpose, are space and time. Space and time are a priori intuitions of the mind and two of the transcendental conditions for the possibility of experience. Let us now turn to what this means.


Kant on Space and Time

One of the aims of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason was to present a new way of thinking about experience which rather than enquiring into the essence of experience, proposed to seek after the conditions required for its possibility. This was, to say the least, a massive and influential moment in the history of philosophy. Kant called his system transcendental idealism and transcendental arguments and knowledge were key parts of it. Transcendental knowledge was said to be synthetic a priori, which is knowledge that is not true by definition (as in analytic truths, which amount to tautologies) such as 'all cats are feline', but knowledge that still maintains the level of incontrovertible truth and certainty that those statements possess. Kant argued that there are two conditions required for there to be any experience at all: space and time. He argued further, however, that we do not derive space and time from experience, rather they are a priori intuitions, the forms of our sensibility, a transcendental apparatus the mind provides us with in order that experience is made possible. As Heidegger notes in his 1927-28 lecture course on the Critique, Kant’s aim in the Aesthetic is to show that “space and time are [...] pure intuitions [...] [and] demonstrate that as these pure intuitions space and time first make possible certain kinds of knowledge a priori.”[9] This section aims to clarify how Kant does this and what exactly he means by an a priori intuition.


I will clarify at the beginning of our considerations of Kant's account of space and time that the way he makes his case for them being a priori intuitions is through a series of transcendental arguments, ones that seek to prove that experience is possible only if space and time are always already immediately presupposed, not derived from experience but provided to us underlying them a priori, prior to experience. I do not think it necessary to cover all of them since some of the arguments for space are identical to their counterparts for time and since our objective is to get an understanding of Kant and Derrida's accounts in order that we can compare them; what is important is that we clarify Kant's method and what his account actually says about space and time. To that end, I will examine Kant's 'Transcendental Exposition of the Concept of Time' in detail, using it to explain what a transcendental argument is before moving onto the notion of an a priori intuition.


For a “Transcendental Exposition of the Concept of Time” (CPR 76), Kant refers to his third metaphysical argument concerning time that he made on the previous page, “where […] [he] placed under the title of metaphysical that which is properly transcendental” (Ibid.), and adds a further caveat to reinforce the argument. Why he did not simply place the argument in the section on the next page over I suppose we'll never know, but the argument he refers to is this:


The possibility of apodeictic principles concerning the relations of time, or of axioms of time in general, is also grounded upon [the] a priori necessity [of time]. Time has only one dimension; different times are not simultaneous but successively […] these principles cannot be derived from experience, for experience would give neither strict universality nor apodeictic certainty. We should only be able to say that common experience teaches us that it is so; not that it must be so. (CPR 75)


And the added reinforcement, is this:


The concept of alteration, and with it the concept of motion, as alteration of place, is possible only through and in the representation of time; and […] if this representation were not an a priori (inner) intuition, no concept, no matter what it might be, could render comprehensible the possibility of an alteration […] only in time can two contradictorily opposed predicates meet in one and the same object, namely, one after the other. (CPR 76)


Transcendental arguments usually take the form of something like: here is indubitably experienced phenomenon A, which would not make sense or be possible without presupposing B, therefore B. In the case of the first argument, ‘A’ is that we have principles concerning time that seem axiomatic, or it is impossible that they are wrong. You have only experienced a limited amount of time, a number of years of (probably) two digits, but you worked out (or were taught) a long time ago the multitude of reasons that saying the world has only existed for a two-digit number of years is absurd. Such knowledge is independent of your sense experience since you have only had such an experience of a two-digit number of years. The statement ‘obviously the world has existed for longer than thirty-two years’ is synthetic, i.e. not simply true by definition - no analysis of all of the possible meanings of the words in that statement could ever yield its tautological truth. However, Kant argues, statements like this retain the level of truth of an a priori statement because they are grounded upon the presupposed a priori necessity of time. Since experience is necessarily non-universal, incomplete, and we cannot predict what things will be like in the future, any knowledge we gain only from experience is doomed to remain uncertain and subject to possible (however unlikely) change. Our principles concerning time are certain and thus cannot have been derived from experience. Such knowledge is only possible if grounded on an a priori concept of time that we must presuppose. This argument feels weak to me in comparison to the added reinforcement we mentioned before, simply because though it is a fact that we have principles concerning time that seem indubitable, universal and certain, it does not mean that they are and require an a priori presupposition. Furthermore, our scientific knowledge of time may change as well, calling into question principles concerning the nature of time that we already have. At least one of the axiomatic principles Kant cites (that different times are successive not simultaneous) is (arguably, in one sense at least) disputed by at least one current theory in quantum mechanics, namely the many-worlds or multiverse theory which, if true, means that our time is simultaneous with many other (possibly infinite) universes and their respective times.


The part that Kant adds on to this argument seems to me to be a better example of a transcendental argument in that it does not fall to either of these criticisms. It begins with the (what I think most people would admit is indubitable fact) that we can perceive, apprehend and understand alteration. Things go from being in one state or being one thing, to possibly being the same thing but to a lesser degree, to possibly being something else entirely or perhaps passing from existence completely. In each case (unless at the molecular, atomic or quantum level where changes can happen in an imperceptible instant) change happens in degrees and always happens over time, from one moment to the next. Alteration is thus un-understandable without a concept of time involved. This concept of time, Kant argues, is supplied to us by our minds a priori, structuring our experience rendering it possible for us since we could not ever derive a completely universal concept of time from our limited experience. This is what all of Kant's arguments concerning space and time seek to prove in (some cases very slightly) different ways and each of the arguments takes a similar transcendental form. Experience is impossible without space and time and since we cannot derive them from experience they are the conditions for its possibility and cannot belong to its category. They must be supplied to us independently of experience (a priori) by our minds, structuring our experience so it is possible. Now that we have examined Kant's arguments for space and time, the method of transcendental argument and its conclusion, we can turn to Kant's notion of space and time being a priori 'intuitions'. After that, we should have a good enough account of Kant to be able to proceed to Derrida.


Kant understands space and time to be ‘a priori intuitions’ and ‘the forms of our sensibility’. Sensibility simply means our capacity to receive sense impressions, and the form that those always take is that of being structured within space and time. We saw already that a priori means knowledge gained prior to or independently of sense experience. Intuition is commonly understood to be something like the ability to know something immediately without having seen all the evidence or had time to think about it, as the detective who ‘just knows’ instinctively that the person he has just interrogated is the killer. Intuitions in Kant carry that same sense of something done automatically, prior to or independently of thought, but it is not something ‘known’ necessarily in the sense as it is usually understood.  For Kant, “that representation which can be given prior to all thought is entitled intuition.” (CPR 153) Intuitions are representations (which, as the ‘idealism’ part of transcendental idealism reminds us, are all that we perceive, never the ‘things-in-themselves’ which do exist independently of the mind) given to us before any thought or experience takes place. We would not be able to have any experience at all if it were not structured within space and time, therefore they cannot be drawn from experience. If Kant is right in this, as well as his arguments, then space and time are a priori. If experience is not possible without them and yet cannot be derived from them, it must be presupposed in order that any experience at all or an understanding of concepts like alteration be possible, they must be given to us a priori. The mind, specifically the faculty of sensibility, ‘intuits’ prior to our experience of the world that we will need space and time and gives it to us in order to structure our experience. The big consequence of this view is that it implies that space and time are purely human constructs and cannot be definitively said to exist outside the human mind. What is clear from the arguments and what Kant says about them is that space and time jointly provide a dual transcendental condition for experience, each being inseparable from one another, just as fundamental or primordial as one another, irreducible one to the other and each impossible without the other.


Différance, Space and Time

We are now ready to turn to how exactly différance calls space and time and specifically Kant’s account of them into question. This is perhaps most evident in the Derrida’s notion of the temporalizing of différance as “space’s becoming-temporal and time’s becoming-spatial, [...] [the] “primordial constitution” of space and time” (D 136) or what has been called “the spacing of time”[10] by Martin Hagglund. In much the same way that différance highlights that the two movements of differing and deferral are inseparable with respect to language, différance also highlights “the interval of a spacing and temporalizing that puts off until “later” what is presently denied” (D 129), bringing to light not only the “irreducibility of temporalizing” (Ibid.) but also the fact that temporalizing is inseparable from spacing, and presents différance as their original, dual constitution and the condition for them both.


We will begin to grasp the notion of time’s becoming-spatial and space’s becoming-temporal by approaching it through a consideration of time. Derrida’s interpretation of time could be read as a response to Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit as well as Kant, as between it and what différance denotes about temporalizing is said by Derrida to be “a close, if not exhaustive and necessary, interconnection.” (D 139) One of the many objectives of Heidegger’s text was to rethink our ordinary conception of time in the context of Western thought’s ‘forgetting of the question of the meaning of Being’. This ordinary conception, namely of time being constituted as the three dimensions of past, present and future with our experience of it being a constant series of now-points, is said by Heidegger to have been instigated by Aristotle, and “every subsequent account of time, including Bergson’s, has been essentially determined”[11] by it. This conception of time must fall under what Derrida terms the metaphysics of presence because in each instance the past, present and future are all thought of in terms of presence. The present is what we presently experience, the now that is ‘present’ to us. The past is what has been present and the future is what will be present. The present moment will pass, becoming the past, and a future element will come to replace the previous present moment as the current present moment: “the presence of the present is thus the principle of identity from which all modifications of time are derived.”[12] This is exactly the notion of time that différance displaces because as we have seen with the différance of signs and meaning, there is never a presence in itself. As Hagglund notes, “for one moment to be succeeded by another it cannot first be present in itself and then cease to be. Rather, every temporal moment negates itself – it ceases to be as soon as it comes to be” (DRA 170). The present has previously been seen to be that which is constantly arriving from the future, being present for the most fleeting of moments before passing into non-existence, becoming the past.

This account, however, does not make sense because how can a ‘present moment’ really exist when it would have to stop existing as soon as it started? Even the slightest temporal moment must be divided in its becoming: separating before from after, past from future. Without the interval there would be no time, only a presence forever remaining the same (DTL 17). The present moment as commonly understood, as Derrida characterizes it, must constantly divide itself, separating itself from the past and the future in order to be what it is. There is thus no punctually ‘present’ moment ‘in itself’. So what is there, then?


In our preliminary sketch of différance we saw that it conjoins two meanings, one of which is explicitly temporal: deferral, or “resort[ing], consciously or unconsciously, to the temporal and temporalizing mediation of a detour that suspends” (D 136) something until a later place in time. Its other element is said to entail a necessary “spacing” (Ibid.), in that elements that are different from one another necessarily must take up some kind of a ‘distance’ from one another, occupy different ‘spaces’ that separate them from each other in order that they can be different to each other. Some kind of ‘space’ must separate different elements from each other in order that they can be recognised as different at all. Différance thus conjoins two meanings, one of which has explicit recourse to time and the other to space. One of the questions Derrida asks in his essay is how these two elements of spacing and temporalizing are conjoined and his answer is the movement of deferral:


Each element that is said to be “present” [...] is related to something other than itself but retains the mark of a past element and already lets itself be hollowed out by the mark of its relation to a future element. This trace relates no less to what is called the future than to what is called the past, and it constitutes the present by this very relation to what it is not, to what it absolutely is not; that is, not even to a past or a future considered as a modified present. (D 142-143)


We briefly touched on the notion of a trace in our earlier discussion of semiological difference as half of the ‘conceptual’ content of différance, i.e. that each word in a system bears a trace of everything it does not mean in order that it mean anything at all: concepts are contained and contain, in a sense, their opposites. We have just seen that the idea of a present moment in itself does not make sense because if the present moment were present in itself it would have to exist in isolation for a time but this cannot happen since the present moment is constantly fading into the past, ceasing to exist as soon as it begins. But since the present cannot exist in itself (as much as the signified concept never does, as well as the fact that meaning could not exist or be understood except by every sign’s relation to what it is not), it ‘is’ in virtue of its relation to everything that it is not, i.e. what we would ordinarily call the past and the future. We understand the present by virtue of what it is not:


In order for it to be, an interval must separate it from what it is not; but by the same token, divide the present in itself, thus dividing, along with the present, everything that can be conceived on its basis [...] Constituting itself, dynamically dividing itself, this interval is what could be called spacing; time’s becoming-spatial or space’s becoming-temporal (temporalizing). [...] it is this constitution of the present as a [...] nonprimordial synthesis of traces, retentions and protensions [...] that I propose to call [...] différance. The latter (is) (both) spacing (and) temporalizing. (D 143)


The ‘interval’ that allows the ‘present’ to be in virtue of what it is different from, the constantly dividing power that separates the present from the past and the future, is what Derrida calls the spacing of time, or time’s becoming-spatial and space’s becoming-temporal. In order for the present to ‘be’, it must be understandable as different from the past and the future, and separated by some kind of interval or intellectual distance from both of them. This interval that not only separates but constantly divides is the spacing of time, the two movements of spacing and temporalizing conjoined. The present moment never ‘is’ in itself, it must be by virtue of what it is not, by being a synthesis of what it is not, the traces of the past and future it is constantly coming from and going into. A coherent understanding of time is thus only possible on the presupposition of space’s being inscribed into time, since spatiality or spacing is not only what separates the present from what it is not, but is what persists while time passes: “The trace is necessarily spatial, since spatiality is characterized by the ability to persist in spite of temporal succession. The spatiality of the trace is thus the condition for the duration of time, since it enables the past to be retained for the future” (DRA 170).


The present, then, is nothing but the constant synthesis of the traces it bears of what is said to be the past and the future. It is this synthesis that allows time to pass without being an infinitely long present, allowing the past to be kept for the future and for the future to come toward us. So what does this tell us about space and time?


If we are to have any coherent experience of time, the later and the prior must be different from one another and though there cannot be a present moment in itself as we saw earlier, differing entails spacing (as opposed to temporalizing), that is using a process that relates to, has recourse to or implies the spatial. This means that whilst space is not temporal, we must have recourse to space in order to be able to think about the difference between before and after and thus about time. Reciprocally, we must have recourse to the temporal when thinking about space since space is what subsists and endures over time though different objects may inhabit it. The other half of différance, deferral, is a spacing and temporalizing since to put off something until later the later must be different to (and separate from) before. The non-literal gap (an idea that relies on space) that separates them is the spacing of time. Therefore, space and time (in the form of the processes that reckon with them and imply them) are inextricably linked, each co-implying the other. This is the becoming-time of space and the becoming-space of time (or the spacing of time) and is the 'primordial constitution' of space and time, the condition required in order to think about them both.[13] More than that, the spacing of time is the condition for thinking basically anything in general, since everything we interact with and perceive falls under both of their categories.


A further thing différance tells us is that, just as with language there is no 'present in itself' meaning, there is no present moment in itself. If the present moment were in itself we would apprehend it as an infinitely long single moment of presence, whereas what we actually experience is time, where there are past and future dimensions. But if there is no present in itself and we still experience past and future dimensions, what is it that we experience 'now'? The gap that separates them made possible by différance, the traces of past and future that hollow out the constantly dividing 'present' that do not exist 'in themselves'. This allows us to have a time that is constantly 'flowing' and changing, differing from its earlier instances but lets us retain something from its past to carry on into the future, allowing for time-consciousness; a repetition with a difference.


Comparison: On One Condition

Kant's account of space and time sought to show that they are both transcendental conditions for experience and must be presupposed in order that certain forms of a priori knowledge are possible and we can have experience in general. Space and time themselves function as the form our sensibility takes, given a priori as a transcendental apparatus by the mind in order to structure our experience of the world. They are described as each being important to the other and each un-understandable without the other, however they remain separate entities providing a joint transcendental condition for human experience. Derrida's account made via différance resonates with Kant's to an extent but there are some significant differences.


Firstly, though différance may sound like a transcendental condition of sorts, Derrida is not necessarily seeking to provide transcendental truths, or at the very least not in the same sense Kant is. At some points in the text Derrida makes clear that transcendental language is “inadequate” (D 130) and to be displaced, and Kant's method of argument (systematic and rigorous as it is) differs much from Derrida's playful, complicated, often very literary and metaphorical style of philosophical reflection. Kant's arguments proceed from premises with clearly defined terms to conclusions, the next sections of his text building on and expanding those conclusions and insights gained whereas Derrida often uses wordplay, neologism and metaphor to appeal to us and get his point across in a non-linear fashion, his arguments and ideas becoming clearer gradually the further you read.


Secondly, Kant's first Critique and all of the arguments in it relate only to human experience and nothing else. Kant is only enquiring into the conditions for the possibility of human experience, whereas Derrida “describes […] différance as [a] condition for life in general” (DTL 18-19). Différance, denoting the double movement of differing and deferring and including in its definition the spacing of time, provides the condition for not only language and human experience, but (in its accounting for the interval that first separates past and future) time, life and existence in general.[14] A similarity between Kant and Derrida's accounts is that, true, différance is said to provide the condition for the possibility of human experience, however its range reaches much further and it is the condition for much more than that.


Furthermore, différance is not 'given' in the same way space and time are in Kant. For Kant, they are provided by the mind prior to experience so that it is made possible for us. Différance is not given to us so we can structure our experiences, but it makes those experiences possible. Furthermore, nothing in Derrida’s account suggests that space and time are only the properties of the human mind. True, they ‘would not exist’ if it were not for us turning up and naming them, but Kant’s account does not say that, it says that space and time exist only in the mind and are only brought to the world by the mind. Derrida’s account leaves room for space and time being independent in a sense from the human mind, which has to be an improvement. If space and time only existed in the mind, then what is there out there? Such a view must necessarily lead to a kind of solipsism. Différance, however, is not something we can ever observe that exists either in us or in the world, but we can see its after-effects and the trace it has left, for instance in language and the spontaneous playing-out of the plurality of unstable, changing meanings across history.


Another difference worth noting is that in Kant space and time provide a dual condition of a kind whilst always remaining separate things whereas in Derrida it is shown that space and time are different things but inscribed into each other's nature and unthinkable without some reference to the other. Kant does speak of space as being necessary in order to represent time (CPR 77, 167, 168) and this does seem to chime with Derrida's notion that space and time are each unthinkable without the other, however in Derrida space and time are hinted at not being the same thing necessarily, but as being impossible to separate and each relying on the other in order to be thought. Space and time are not said to be joint conditions of human experience, but différance (which includes under its signification the spacing of time and everything needed to explain it) is said to be the single condition for that and much more.


What I think we can see from a comparison of Derrida and Kant's accounts of space and time and their methods and reasons for pursuing them is that Derrida takes some aspects of Kant's method (specifically the idea of transcendental conditions of possibility) and expands on it, 'out-transcendentalizing' Kant. In his philosophy of difference, Derrida provides the transcendental condition for (amongst much else) Kant's transcendental conditions. Derrida's arguments and thus différance itself cannot properly be understood as a transcendental truth in Kant's sense because it differs so much from them and because if it is a transcendental truth, it is one of a higher, more inclusive kind. Perhaps this is why at one point in his career Derrida was moved to clarify “I am not a transcendentalist: I am an ultra-transcendentalist or a quasi-transcendentalist.”[15]


To summarise: we have seen that différance is a neologism coined by Derrida, used to make several philosophical points on various levels that bring together the signification of 'to differ' and 'to defer'.

In bringing together these significations, Derrida highlights what he takes to be the double movement of the differing and deferring of signs, resulting in a critique of logocentrism and the metaphysics of presence, the disruption of our ordinary conceptions about the relationship between speech and writing and the conclusion of the essential instability of meaning.

Following this, we examined Kant's account of space and time, covering the notion of a transcendental argument and then examining one of Kant's examples of concerning time. We found that Kant considered space and time to be a priori intuitions: transcendental conditions for the possibility of experience. A transcendental condition was found to be an apparatus that the mind provides us a priori since we cannot derive what it gives us from experience. We then turned to what difference could tell us about space and time, finding that in its signification as well as in the movement of deferral can be found the spacing of time, or time's becoming spatial and space's becoming-temporal, which tells us that space and time are co-originary in that they are inseparable from and rely on each other in order to be thought successfully at all.

In our comparison, we found that Derrida and Kant's accounts may resonate with each other in certain ways, but there are very pronounced differences. Derrida cannot be said to be offering the same kind of transcendental arguments or truths that Kant purports to, if they are still transcendental truths he is offering. Though difference may sound like a transcendental condition of a kind from descriptions of it, it is not one in the same sense Kant imagined. The arguments in Kant's text also differ wildly in method, rigour and style, being far more systematic and rigorous than anything Derrida wrote, which might have something to do with the fact that Derrida wanted to criticise and displace transcendental language for being inadequate. Though différance may perform the same function as Kant's a priori intuitions, it includes far more under itself as a transcendental condition, accounting for not just human experience, but time, life and existence in general, since no time or experience of time is possible without the assumption of differing, deferral and the spacing of time. We further observed that difference is also not given in the same sense Kant says space and time are, as well as that Derrida’s account does not say that space and time are solely properties of the human mind as Kant does which is certainly an improvement on the subject. We concluded that even though différance should not necessarily be understood as a transcendental condition, it seems to provide something like (what) a transcendental condition (would be to experience) for Kant's transcendental conditions, possibly providing an ultra-transcendental condition that covers more ground than Kant, improving on some aspects of his project in a nuanced way.


To close, I would like to briefly raise some issues about Derrida’s account of différance, and what its relationship to Kant’s philosophy might tell us about poststructuralist thought. I began by noting that much of poststructuralism consists in interrogating and subverting philosophy’s longstanding concepts, methods and metaphysical frameworks that often go along with them. Poststructuralism could be well understood as an attempt to overcome these methods and initiate a transition to new, better ways of philosophizing. One might wonder whether Derrida’s arguments are too indebted to Kantian philosophy to be said to achieve this, since the fundamental idea and method of argument is similar, with its scope broadened. One might also wonder whether positing a dual differing and deferral instead of one ‘unity of apperception’ as a transcendental condition really makes so much of a step forward, especially considering the further claim that differing and deferral are conjoined/unified somehow, and so still somehow make recourse to an idea of unity.


But I think it is not such a small thing that Derrida appropriates the Kantian argument and places difference and deferral at the centre, rather than unity or presence – this is a fundamentally different conception of reality, even though it relies on a transcendental argument. Perhaps there is something useful in the transcendental framework that needed pushing in the right direction. The question we have to ask is whether Derrida’s contention is right:  that reality has more to do with differences and deferred presence, rather than the classic philosophical notions of presence-in-itself, unity, identity and totality. The poststructuralist philosophy I have encountered leads me to think that perhaps this is indeed the case. But even if the move towards difference and deferral is an admirable one, the question remains as to what extent this kind of philosophy can be said to overcome the classical methods of the tradition. This is a criticism that Derrida took seriously, sometimes indicating that it may not be possible to fully escape these previous ways of thinking and the language that goes along with them. But the question of whether the transcendental framework should be overcome is also left open. To this, I think Derrida answers in the negative: there is something valuable in that kind of argument, but the totalizing, absolutely systematic, God-indebted metaphysical frameworks that so often go along with transcendental philosophy, are to be rejected.


Here I think a quote from Heidegger, a philosopher undoubtedly concerned with the overcoming of metaphysics, is soberly illustrative of the situation. I would say that Derrida’s philosophy, and its engagement with transcendental philosophy, “springs from a thinking that has already entered into an overcoming of metaphysics. It belongs to the essence of such transitions that, within certain limits, must continue to speak the language of that which they help overcome.”[16]


No matter how creative our language, or innovative our thinking, we cannot hope to immediately escape the fact that we are situated at a point in history; nor may we escape the shoulders of the giants on which we stand. We are indebted, indeed bound, to the philosophical tradition and its history, and we must, in attempting to initiate any kind of transition between ways of thinking, speak the language of what has come before in our attempt to overcome it. This, I would suggest, is how we should view Derrida’s project in its relation to Kant, and these transitions do not happen overnight - but in this area I am an optimist.





an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 19, Spring 2022, ISSN 1552-5112



[1] Différance (D in text), Jacques Derrida trans. David B. Allison and Newton Garver, collected in Speech and Phenomena, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1973

[2] Critique of Pure Reason (CPR in text), Immanuel Kant trans. Norman Kemp Smith, Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire, 2007

[3] Jacques Derrida, Nicholas Royle, Routledge, London, 2003

[4] Understanding Derrida (UD in text), ed. Jack Reynolds and Jonathan Roffe, Continuum, London, 2004, p. 19

[5] Because this is something that Derrida takes great care in reminding us, and because it is vitally important in understanding différance, at times in this essay I may refer to what one might ordinarily refer to as the ‘word’ différance as the grapheme différance. A grapheme is usually taken to mean the smallest possible meaningful unit within a written system, but for the sake of simplicity and precision, I simply use it to mean the written or spoken ‘word’ différance.

[6] On Time, and Temporisation; On Temporalisation and History, Joanna Hodge, collected in Jacques Derrida: Key Concepts, Routledge, Abingdon, 2015, p. 108

[7] This is why (for the same reason Heidegger crossed out the word ‘Being’ in The Question of Being) at numerous points in the text Derrida either crosses out or brackets words he uses when referring to différance to highlight this, words such as ‘is’, ‘both’, ‘and’, etc. because they are technically unsuitable or inadequate but their use is unavoidable if we are to try and articulate this at all.

[8] I use ‘sign’ here in a broad sense, since it is possible to express oneself clearly without the necessity of a clear or well-formed sign - a facial twitch or a particularly abrasive grunt, for instance, can sometimes express just as much as a spoken or written phrase consisting of actual signs.

[9] Phenomenological Interpretation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Martin Heidegger trans. Parvis Emad and Kenneth May, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1997, p. 96

[10] Derrida’s Radical Atheism (DRA in text), Martin Hagglund, collected in A Companion To Derrida, ed. Zeynep Direk and Leonard Lawlor, John Wiley and Sons, Ltd., West Sussex, 2014, p. 166

[11] Being and Time, Martin Heidegger trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Blackwell, Oxford, 1962, p. 49

[12] Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life (DTL in text), Martin Hagglund, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2008, p. 15

[13] Différance thus needs it's 'a' (it cannot just signify deferral) because without incorporating its other signification it would not be able to explain the spacing of time without referring to something outside of itself.

[14] This leads him at one point in the lecture to clarify that différance is not the God of negative theology (D 134) or indeed any God at all, though the language one has to adopt when describing it often may resemble language of such discourses.

[15] Arguing With Derrida, Jacques Derrida ed. T. Baldwin, Oxford, 2001, p. 107

[16] Postscript to ‘What is Metaphysics?’, Martin Heidegger trans. William McNeill, Pathmarks, ed. William McNeill, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998, p. 231







-         Différance (D in text), Jacques Derrida trans. David B. Allison and Newton Garver, collected in Speech and Phenomena, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1973

-         Writing and Difference, Jacques Derrida trans. Alan Bass, Routledge, London, 1978

-         Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, Jacques Derrida trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 2005

-         Critique of Pure Reason (CPR in text), Immanuel Kant trans. Norman Kemp Smith, Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire, 2007

-         Being and Time, Martin Heidegger trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Blackwell, Oxford, 1962

-         Jacques Derrida, Nicholas Royle, Routledge, London, 2003

-         Understanding Derrida (UD in text), ed. Jack Reynolds and Jonathan Roffe, Continuum, London, 2004

-         Derrida on Time, Joanna Hodge, Routledge, Abingdon, 2007

-         Kant and the Claims of Knowledge, Paul Guyer, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987

-         Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Kant and the Critique of Pure Reason, Sebastian Gardner, Routledge, London, 1999

-         Phenomenological Interpretation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Martin Heidegger trans. Parvis Emad and Kenneth Maly, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1997

-         On Time, and Temporisation; On Temporalisation and History, Joanna Hodge, collected in Jacques Derrida: Key Concepts, Routledge, Abingdon, 2015

-         Derrida’s Radical Atheism (DRA in text), Martin Hagglund, collected in A Companion To Derrida, ed. Zeynep Direk and Leonard Lawlor, John Wiley and Sons, Ltd., West Sussex, 2014

-         Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life (DAT in text), Martin Hagglund, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2008