I will assume that Steven Pinker is not critiquing Jacques Derrida’s theory of deconstruction, but his remark resonates within the debate over whether speech or writing should be the baseline or paradigm for communication.
To be brief, Derrida promoted the notion that Western civilization had been contaminated by a cult to speech, a cult to the Logos, a cult to presence. He believed that it had done so in order to repress “writing,” because writing was more primal and gave access the dangerous instinctual energies.
In simpler terms, Derrida seems to see Western civilization as a vast conspiracy to repress the truth… of desire or instinct or whatever. And you thought that the right wing conspiracy was vast!!
In the most obvious sense, when you speak to someone you are involved in a conversation with someone who is, in principle, present. Even if he is not present, his voice is.
Thus, you will tailor your words as a function of the verbal and nonverbal cues that your interlocutor sends to you in the course of the conversation.
When you write, your interlocutor is absent. It’s just you and the paper or the screen. One might say that writing is lesser than speech or that writing is a derivative of speech, but, for Derrida speech distorts and contorts thought because we are trying to connect with another person who is present.
Writing, the theory suggests, allows a purer expression of whatever we are trying to express.
Obviously, this is debatable. There is no particular reason to believe that we do not express something that is even more important in conversational speech. Surely, we are more likely to forge a meaningful connection with another individual through speech, or else, through an exchange of writings that feels like a conversation.
As a sidelight, one day in the distant past I had an in person conversation with Jacques Derrida. Both of us were more-or-less present. I do not recall the substance of the conversation but I still remember vividly my impression. I felt like I was listening to someone who was reciting written texts. The conversation was not really a conversation; it was like listening to a lecturer who could do no better than to read his text verbatim.
For reasons of decorum I did not raise the question with him, but surely the exercise gives you the sense that you are not there, that it doesn’t much matter that you are there. It is a singularly unpleasant experience. If you believe that Derrida wanted me to get in touch with whatever it was that speech was repressing, be my guest. I took him to be rude.
Funnily enough, the current mania over texting, decried by many serious thinkers as an impediment to conversation, would be, by Derrida’s thought a blow against the Empire.
Take those remarks as a brief background for Steven Pinker’s comment in a recent interview:
Writing is cognitively unnatural. In ordinary conversation, we've got another person across from us. We can monitor the other person's facial expressions: Do they furrow their brow, or widen their eyes? We can respond when they break in and interrupt us. And unless you're addressing a stranger you know the hearer's background: whether they're an adult or child, whether they're an expert in your field or not. When you're writing you have none of those advantages. You're casting your bread onto the waters, hoping that this invisible and unknowable audience will catch your drift.
Doubtless, Derrida would denounce Pinker’s idea as proof of the need for even more deconstruction. He would call upon his minions to deconstruct the notions of natural and unnatural. He would say that they reveal a bias toward speech and against writing, and thus, cannot be allowed to stand.
Unless you are infatuated with everything unnatural, you should value what Pinker is saying. In truth, writing is more unnatural than speech. So much so that the best writing, writing that connects with and touches an audience should resemble speech. When you read good writing you should feel like you are involved in a conversation.
Of course, there are other ways to fulfill the deconstructionist project and to make speech more like writing.
Think psychoanalysis. When the patient is lying on the couch positioned so that he cannot see his analyst, he will not, in principle, be tailoring his language to the cues he receives from his interlocutor. He will be addressing an absence, rather than a presence.
And, psychoanalytic couch talk is not designed to discover facts. It aims at discovering repressed desires.
Moreover, despite Derrida’s suggestion that words do not refer to objects in the world, but gain their meaning through an interplay with other words, Pinker is closer to the truth.
Moreover, if theorists like Derrida really mean it when they say that nothing ever means what it says or says what it means, they have simply created another paradox.
Does the statement that nothing ever means what it says or say what it means… mean what is says or say what it means? If it does, it does not. If it does not, the theory implodes.
You will recognize this as a modernized version of the liar paradox. In its original form a man from Crete declared that: “All Cretans are always liars.” Other versions are “This sentence is false,” or, more simply “I am lying.”
To take a point from my new book, The Last Psychoanalyst, when you speak or write you need to find common ground with your interlocutor or readers. You write about something, not nothing. You need to be doing more than expressing your brilliant thoughts or showing off your verbal skills.
Just as an artist uses a model, so a writer observes something that he sees in the world and communicates something about it to his readers. He is not just playing with words. He is directing his reader’s attention out of himself and into the world.
As Pinker says:
When you write you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that's interesting, that you are directing the attention of your reader to that thing in the world, and that you are doing so by means of conversation.