Is it just me, or do the conceptions of logocentrism outlined in my Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory seem logocentric?

Logocentrism – The Greek logos has a wide range of meanings, and designates both a rational or intelligible principle and a structure or order that provides phenomena with an origin, or that explains their nature. Hence the common use of the suffix ‘ology’ to designate a branch of study or knowledge, as in ‘psychology’, literally meaning ‘the study of the soul’. The related verb legein means ‘say’, ‘tell’ or ‘count’. Aristotle uses logos to mean the rational principle or element of the soul, as opposed to the irrational principle of DESIRE (Nicomachean Ethics I.13). In Christian theology, the logos becomes the Word that was with God and that was made flesh when it was incarnated in Christ. The opening verse of the fourth Gospel provides the most sublime example of logocentrism: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John ii.1).

The critique of logocentrism is a central feature of DERRIDA’s DECONSTRUCTION. According to Derrida (1967a), Western philosophy from Plato onwards has always been logocentric in that it makes speech, or the logos, the origin and site of truth, and privileges the phonic aspect of language at the expense of the graphic aspect of WRITING. Speech, that is, is assumed to be the spontaneous and complete means of expression available to a SUBJECT who is self-present in the sense of being self-transparent, self-conscious and self-sufficiently rational. Logocentrism assumes that spoken language is an adequate expression of preexisting ideas and that writing is merely a secondary or even parasitic SUPPLEMENT to speech. The Saussurean theology of the SIGN (see also SAUSSURE) is a classic instance of logocentrism which locates meaning in the perfect coincidence between a sound (signifier) and an idea or image (signified). Ultimately, such a theory is a return to the biblical thesis that ‘In the beginning was the Word’, and it implies the existence of a primal or transcendental signifier which is the origin of all meaning. According to Derrida, logocentrism, and the related PHONOCENTRISM, is a form of ETHNOCENTRISM, or even the original and most powerful form of ethnocentrism, because it privileges westem phonetic alphabets over all other forms of writing and makes Western reason (logos) the sole criterion for knowledge.

This seems to me to the words of men privileged to dedicate themselves to lives of letters and discourse, and thereby sentencing themselves to lives of letters and discourse about letters and discourse with others who live similar lives.

Or maybe I am just trying to find privilege in my bondage to everyday practical concern.

In my life — a designerly life — reason, language, and argumentation result not in publications and citations, but rather in the shape a medical device will take, the arrangement of elements on a screen, or rooms in a building, how a database is structured, how business will be conducted, the stories people will tell one another or unconsciously perform, whether each of us is able to do work in a way that makes sense to us or if some of us are forced to proceed in a way that is unnatural and awkward, whether time or money runs out, and a project fails (or more often, embezzles resources from private lives).

In my designerly life logic matters some of the time and not that much. More than anything, it is the confident tone of sound logic, the essence of truthiness in truth, that lends force to logic. Arguments are decided by other forces — money, charisma, will, determination, composure.

Philosophically what matters most is the phronetic grokking of some semi-alien form of life and working through its implications, not with written ethnographic reports but with concrete artifacts that will change lives of those who accept them into their lives. This line of thought always leads me to a beautiful passage from Clifford Gerrtz, which I like to extend:

From Clifford Geertz’s “From the Native’s Point of View”:

“…Accounts of other peoples’ subjectivities can be built up without recourse to pretensions to more-than-normal capacities for ego effacement and fellow feeling. Normal capacities in these respects are, of course, essential, as is their cultivation, if we expect people to tolerate our intrusions into their lives at all and accept us as persons worth talking to. I am certainly not arguing for insensitivity here, and hope I have not demonstrated it. But whatever accurate or half-accurate sense one gets of what one’s informants are, as the phrase goes, really like does not come from the experience of that acceptance as such, which is part of one’s own biography, not of theirs. It comes from the ability to construe their modes of expression, what I would call their symbol systems, which such an acceptance allows one to work toward developing. Understanding the form and pressure of, to use the dangerous word one more time, natives’ inner lives is more like grasping a proverb, catching an allusion, seeing a joke — or, as I have suggested, reading a poem — than it is like achieving communion.”

[To which I add: “Understanding the form and pressure of, to use the dangerous word one more time, natives’ inner lives is more like grasping a proverb, catching an allusion, seeing a joke — or, as I have suggested, reading a poem…” or knowing how to design for them. A design that makes sense, which is easy to interact with and which is a valuable and welcome addition to a person’s life is proof that this person is understood, that the designer cared enough to develop an understanding and to apply that understanding to that person’s benefit.]

Leave a Reply