Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Is Writing a Supplement to Speech?

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Francoise-Louise Warens was the benefactress of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Francoise-Louise Warens was the benefactress of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Artist Unknown.

Traditionally, Western thought has differentiated between “reality” and “appearance” – in other words, it distinguishes the “thing-in-itself” from the “representation” of the thing. Representations, or “signs,” are how we attempt to move towards reality, ideas and truth. It’s desirable that there should be as little as possible to create a gap between the representation of the truth and truth itself.

One could claim that speech is an immediate representation of thought, but writing, working as it does in the absence of the speaker, is artificial and possibly misleading.

Jacques Derrida Takes Issue with Rousseau

Controversial French founding father of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) countered a statement made by the French 18th century political philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778.) The statement to which Derrida objected was: “Languages are made to be spoken; writing serves only as a supplement to speech.”  

Derrida first addresses Rousseau’s remark by asking “What is a supplement?”  

A supplement, of course, is something added or something that completes. So, asks Derrida, is Rousseau suggesting that writing “completes” speech by supplying a missing part? Or does it add something; something, maybe, that isn’t even actually required?

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Open to Interpretation

For Rousseau, signs in writing can introduce misunderstanding because we read them in the absence of the writer, who cannot, therefore, explain or alter what s/he meant.

Jonathan Culler in his book Literary Theory, says: “Speech has qualities previously attributed to writing; like writing, it consists of signs that are not transparent, do not automatically convey the meaning intended by the speaker, but are open to interpretation.”

Contradictions Between Rousseau’s Inner and Outer Selves

Jonathan Culler explains: “But, although Rousseau calls writing an inessential extra, his works, in fact, treat it as what completes or makes up for something lacking in speech; writing is repeatedly brought in to compensate for the flaws in speech, such as the possibility of misunderstanding.”

For instance, Rousseau writes in his Confessions that he wants to hide himself from society because in society he would show himself “…not just at a disadvantage but as completely different from what I am. If I were present people would never have known what I was worth.”

Jonathan Culler concludes, “Rousseau’s inner self is different from his external self and he draws on writing to “supplement” the misleading signs in his speech.”  

It appears that Rousseau regards writing as essential because, for him, speech does not always convey the meaning he intended, and is, therefore, left open to interpretation.

In Derrida’s view, Rousseau needs signs because the things-in-themselves fail to satisfy him.

The Romantic Movement and Emotion

The Romantic Movement in the latter part of the 18th century held emotion and sensibility in high esteem, Rousseau’s ideas had considerable influence, both politically and aesthetically. He held that emotion should be “direct and violent and quite uninformed by thought,” says Bertrand Russell in History of Western Philosophy. The following example aptly demonstrates this aspect of Rousseau’s character.

The house where Rousseau lived with Francois-Louise. Author: Chris Bertram. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

The house where Rousseau lived with Francois-Louise. Image by Chris Bertram.

A Stomach-Churning Anecdote

In Rousseau’s Confessions, the adolescent falls for a lady, Madame de Warens, whom he calls Maman and in whose house he lodges. He describes how he kisses the bed where she has slept, and the items and furnishings in the room that belong to her. He prostrates himself on the floor where she has walked.

Rousseau does not stop there, because even in her presence he commits a stomach-turning obeisance to his lady-love. “One day at table, just as she had put a piece of food into her mouth, I exclaimed that I saw a hair on it. She put the morsel back on her plate; I eagerly seized and swallowed it.”

This incident, described by Culler as “grotesque” proves that Rousseau is not fulfilled by the presence of Maman, (the thing itself) and the need for supplements remains. Maman is, of course, a substitute for Rousseau’s own absent mother – but Culler claims, “…a mother who would not have sufficed but who would, like all mothers, have failed to satisfy and have required supplements.”

Presence or Absence – a Matter of Degree?

In Derrida’s view, Rousseau’s texts are similar to many other writers, in that they view signs and texts as added to represent life. “We should not do this,” he says.

Writing may claim that reality is prior to signification, but in fact, Derrida says: “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte” – “There is no outside-of-text: when you think you are getting outside signs and text to “reality itself”, what you find is more text, more signs, chains of supplements.”

Culler says that these examples don’t mean that there is no difference between the presence of Rousseau’s Maman or her absence – in other words, between a real and a fictional event. “It is simply that her presence is, in fact, also a kind of absence because it still seeks additions and supplements.”

Rousseau – A Man of Contradictions

Consideration of Rousseau’s contemporaries’ views on his character indicates the philosophe was no stranger to controversy and was openly hostile towards many of his contemporaries, for example, Voltaire and Hume.

His so-called “sensibility” sat at odds with anecdotes related about his life, for example, weeping for the poor, yet refusing to support schemes that would help help destitute families. It seems, from the strange Maman stories, that Rousseau, although described at that time as a philosophe, was a man of many contradictions.

“What we learn from these texts,” says Derrida, “is that the idea of the original is created by the copies, and that the original is always deferred – never to be grasped.”

Reality vs. Text

Reality as something present, and the original as something that was once present, is untenable because of how experience is always mediated by signs, “…and the “original” is produced as an effect of signs, of supplements… The more these texts want to tell us of the importance of the presence of the thing itself, the more they show the necessity of intermediaries,” says Jacques Derrida.


Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory. (1997). Oxford University Press.

Russell, Bertrand. “The Romantic Movement,” History of Western Philosophy. (1946, 2004). George Allen & Unwin, Routledge Classics.

Russell, Bertrand. “Rousseau,” History of Western Philosophy. (1946, 2004). George Allen & Unwin, Routledge Classics.

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