What Derrida Means When He Talks About Meaning

What the hell does this even mean???

“Meaning” is a multivalent term, which means that any attempt to discuss it meaningfully will be fraught with difficulty. Jacques Derrida makes a similar point when he asks, “Is it certain that to the word communication corresponds a concept that is unique, univocal, rigorously controllable, and transmittable: in a word, communicable?” Yet difficulty doesn’t entail impossibility. In the present paper, I wish to outline several distinctions that cut across the nebulous concept of “meaning” and which serve to alleviate some of its thorniness. First, we need to differentiate between (a) semantic meaning (often called “literal meaning”), (b) communicative meaning (which involves a speaker’s intentions) and (c) informative meaning (the non-semantic and non-communicative content expressed by an utterance). Second, we ought to distinguish between issues of epistemology (truth, certainty, etc.) and those of semiology proper.

In light of these distinctions, the Derridean account of meaning—insofar as it’s articulated in “Signature Event Context”—loses much of its initial unintelligibility. Specifically, it appears that the purported disjunction between meaning and a speaker’s intentions only holds with regards to semantic meaning. And even then, such a claim needs to be qualified. In what follows, I will first discuss the importance of separating semiology from epistemology. Next, I will delineate the notions of semantic, communicative and informative meaning. Finally, I will investigate the relationship between meaning and a speaker’s intentions.



and word itself
is an infanticide.
a self-defeating thought
both itself and its successor.

that which shapes the lips
into a crowning question
and yet with a simple sound
is stilled.

yet in spain
half-forgot beneath a tangle
of perplexing semantics
is a gate left gap-wide
onto that savage plain
of an a, and an a, and an a, and

Published in The Warren Undergraduate Review, Spring 2013.