More on the nature/nurture dichotomy, read through Derrida’s “Structure, Sign and Play”

The socially constructed tension between the concepts of nature and of culture is a theme that runs throughout Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play.”  Simultaneously acknowledging these terms’ opposition and interdependence, Derrida shows that the notion of nature is, in fact, not natural, but tied together with the practice of language.  In its critique of metaphysics and the search for origins in the social sciences, “Structure, Sign, and Play” challenges the long-standing idea in philosophy of an independent natural world that can be articulated and understood without social intervention.  Derrida takes up several issues concerning the concept of the natural, revealing the inseparability of the nature-culture duality, the cultural basis of the word “nature” and its implications, and the paradox of inevitably perpetuating naturalized structures while critiquing them.

Derrida’s goal is to problematize a series of oppositions built around nature— including nature’s opposition “to the law, to education, to art, to technics . . . to liberty, to the arbitrary, to history, to society, to the mind” — that have operated as a center of philosophy for centuries (252).  This assumption of the existence of a human nature, untainted and unformed by social guidelines and restrictions, has come under scrutiny in light of Levi-Strauss’s research on the incest prohibition.  Derrida uses this cross-cultural ban on sexual relationships within families, both universal and systematically imposed, as an example of a phenomenon that “no longer tolerates the nature/culture opposition”. The axiom social scientists until then unabashedly used, that nature “is universal and spontaneous, not depending on any particular culture or on any determinate norm” while culture “depends on a system of norms regulating society and is therefore capable of varying from one social structure to another,” no longer applied (253).

This break in a seemingly continuous line between nature and nurture challenged a long-standing belief in the innate origin of that which is universal and the culturally specific origin of that which places limitations on human behavior.  By disrupting the clear separation between the natural and the societal, Levi-Strauss’s discovery shook the foundations of the idea of human desires preceding culture — leading Derrida to the conclusion that it is necessary “to renounce the episteme which absolutely requires, which is the absolute requirement that we go back to the source, to the center, to the founding basis, to the principle” (257).  Human nature, then, neither predates nor follows meaning, neither conditions nor adheres to it; the distinction is fictional.  Social significance is already embedded in all thought, and vice versa.  There is no origin.

Because every notion is always already infiltrated by a cultural system of signification, the supposedly centered structure’s “repetitions, the substitutions, the transformations, and the permutations are always taken from a history of meaning.”  Therefore, it could be said that the very concept of nature is a cultural construct, which has not been immune to a history “whose origin may always be revealed or whose end may always be anticipated in the form of presence” (248).  This origin Derrida speaks of, as is consistent with his philosophy, is not an actual origin but rather a conceptualized one, a mental representation.  According to Derrida, the centrality privileged in Western thought has been conceived of as a causal origin, or arche, and as an ultimate conclusion, or telos. Part of Derrida’s criticism of Levi-Strauss is his “ethic of nostalgia for origins, an ethic of archaic and natural innocence, of a purity of presence and self-presence in speech” (64).


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