Plato’s Pharmacy: Derrida on Speaking, Writing, and Plato (4 ideas)

In Jacques Derrida’s early essay, ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’, he unpicks and critiques Plato’s attack on writing. Derrida celebrates the multiple meanings latent in the written text.

Feb 15, 2023By Moses May-Hobbs, BA Art History w/ Philosophy Concentration

platos pharmacy jacques derrida


Plato’s dialogue the Phaedrus is about speeches and speaking, as well as other topics. In this dialogue, Socrates walks out into the countryside with Phaedrus, who carries a copy of a speech on love by Lysias that he had just heard in Athens. Derrida’s 1972 essay on the Phaedrus, ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’, discusses the ambivalence of the Greek word ‘pharmakon’ as an exemplary instance of polysemy: the existence of multiple meanings in a single word. Derrida opposes the polysemy of the written word – dismissed in the dialogue as a misleading echo of speech – to the logocentric philosophical tradition instantiated by Plato, which treats the spoken word (or logos) as the proper substrate of philosophy and meaning.


Derrida’s essay turns many of Plato’s criticisms back on themselves, relishing the ambivalence and semiotic ripeness of the untranslated ‘pharmakon’, and accusing the logos, rather than writing, of sophistry and deceit.


1. What Are Sophistry and Dialectic According to Derrida?

jacques derrida photograph
A photograph of Jacques Derrida


For Plato, the logos (meaning roughly “word”, “reason”, “discourse”) is a living thing, something responsive and present for questioning. The logos is contrasted with sophistry, which he deems to work much like writing. That is, writing and sophistry both are words without anything beneath them, without the living idea that anchors them to Truth.


Truth, for Plato, lurks beneath the logos, insofar as it is thought and knowledge in the human mind that lies behind the utterance, and which can be clarified and interrogated in and through the speaker. Sophistry, however, as is shown in the Gorgias, crumbles under questioning, sometimes evading and contradicting itself, but most often just repeating its own speech again, refusing to show the same thing from a different angle (because there is no thing, only a view, a sort of static painting).

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In the same way, when one interrogates a written text, the result is a restatement of itself. The text can give us nothing to clarify what is already there, no resolution to our questions beyond what can be found in its single speech.


Salvator Rosa Democrite Protagoras
Salvator Rosa, Democrito e Protagora, c.1663, via the Hermitage Museum.


Derrida, however, twists the comparison the other way. After all, the sophists in the dialogues are speechmakers (we know that Lysias of the Phaedrus is), and the life of the logos is also what allows it to evade and pander, distract and change tack. In other words, the adaptability that lets the spoken word answer questions of it is also the adaptability that lets it mislead and pretend most effectively, Derrida writes:


“In describing logos as a zōon (animal), Plato is following certain rhetors and sophists before him who, as a contrast to the cadaverous rigidity of writing, had held up the living spoken word, which infallibly conforms to the necessities of the situation at hand, to the expectations and demands of the interlocutors present, and which sniffs out the spots where it ought to produce itself, feigning to bend and adapt at the moment it is actually achieving maximum persuasiveness and control.”
Derrida, ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’, 1972


Thus, though Socrates would have the spoken word be ‘present, unveiled, naked, offered up in person in its truth’, it can perhaps as readily be slippery, evasive, resistant and tricky. The presence of the author behind the speech, his or her availability for questioning, is essential to the Socratic dialectic – contradiction, redaction, revision all presume an interlocutor who is interactive, rather than one who has left his or her written text and run away. Derrida’s twist suggests the underside to this, and to the Socratic role itself.


2. The Word as Animal

plato bust
Bust of Plato from the Vatican Museums, via Wikimedia Commons.


The simultaneity of writing is also a perversion of the “animal” logos, insofar as it takes from the logos its proper composition of animal parts: its beginning and end, its head and tail. It makes speech something not only half-dead but mutilated. Writing, therefore, affronts the structure of the speech in its lack of linearity and proper order.


In short, Derrida notes, Plato places logos on one side, with a whole cluster of other halves-of-oppositions (life, father, master, first, soul, good, sun) and writing on the other side (with death, son, servant, second, body, evil, and the moon); writing begins and remains, for Plato, as a deficient reflection of the logos. Always secondary, and bereft of the reason that animates philosophy in its course towards the good, writing drifts fatherless and deformed away from life. Thoth’s art fails in all it sets out to provide in Plato’s assessment, in contrast to the virtues of the living speech – the Socratic conversation.


The pharmakon, even in the sense of a drug to cure sickness, has a deadening effect, and is opposed to life (the inanimate drug kills the living disease, as Plato puts it in the Timaeus). By the same token, writing, and the arts in general, are deadening through producing their mere representations, and as such to be distrusted. Worse than the drugs of doctors, writing and painting alike pretend to be the living thing they are in fact killing, reducing it to only its appearance.


school of athens raffael
Raphael, The School of Athens, 1511, via Musei Vaticani.


The lifelessness and posterity of writing is stressed in the relation between Thoth and Thamus, which is not only that of sun to father but also of servile technician to guiding power. Thamus has no access to writing as an art, but has no use for it (like sophistry, the art of writing is really artless, and Socrates will go on to say dangerous), and has the power of speech – which will make decisions and speak truths, where writing would and could only mirror them on the page.


This secondary quality of writing, which is also its representative function, leaves it at a remove from the genuine creative moment. Writing for Plato, is at best a mere reflection of the living word, and at worst a dangerous and misleading substitute, but in any case, it is always secondary:


“In the Phaedrus, the god of writing is thus a subordinate character, a second, a technocrat without power of decision, an engineer, a clever, ingenious servant who has been granted an audience with the king of the gods. The king has been kind enough to admit him to his counsel. Theuth presents a tekhne and a pharmakon to the king, father, and god who speaks or commands with his sun-filled voice.”
Derrida, ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’, 1972


3. A Remedy for Memory

sigmund freud photograph
Max Halberstadt, Portrait of Sigmund Freud, c. 1921; Freud spoke of ‘kettle-logic’ in relation to the logic of dreams. Via Wikimedia Commons.


The king in turn flips the meaning of pharmakon from remedy to poison. Where Thoth presents his invention as an aid to fallible human memory, the king – wary of son and writing alike, for their imitative nature – instead explains that writing is a poisonous crutch to the memory, capable – like the sophist – of saying and repeating things without understanding them: without being able to support the appearance of the thing with the thing itself.


Understanding and memory, then, are at the heart of Derrida’s essay, and their relation to one another (opposition, collusion, detachment) determines both Derrida’s opposition to Plato, and the (non-)resolution of the essay’s titular ambiguity of translation: what does ‘pharmakon’ mean?


If Thoth’s speech in praise of writing proposes that ‘pharmakon’ means ‘remedy’, the king takes the same time and, exploiting its polysemy, turns it to ‘poison’. Where Thoth thinks writing will allow us to remember that which the mind would otherwise lose its grip on, Thamus suggests that instead the pharmakon will make us even more forgetful, and substitute nothing like memory in its stead.


memory daniel french
Memory by Daniel Chester French, 1886–87, via the Met Museum.


For Plato, the hypomnēsis (the art of memory) of writing is necessarily inferior to the anamnesis of thought and speech, which brings the truth back to life in the moment of its utterance. But Derrida counter-proposes on numerous grounds: first, that Plato is after all a writer (even if Socrates was not).


Second, that speech is already secondary to thought (where Plato really seems to place anamnesis) – this being proven by the sophists’ ability, in Plato’s own estimation, to cause the same harms as writing even when speaking aloud; in other words, the logos is already signification of truth, and not its immediate presence.


Third, that Plato’s objections to the pharmakon pile on top of one another incoherently (Derrida accuses Plato of ‘kettle-logic’, a term borrowed from Freud). In short, Derrida suggests, Plato’s hostility towards writing is not properly justified by the latter’s critique of the sophists and their boastful reliance on mnemonics, but rather indicates Plato’s terror of the monstrous half-living text: ambivalent in its meanings and unwilling to absent or resolve itself.


4. Derrida and Logocentrism

thoth egyptian god
Illustration Depicting Thoth, God of Writing, 1917 via Wikimedia Commons.


Derrida repeatedly highlights, but hesitates to directly criticize, the action by which translators overwrite the polysemy of Plato’s Greek with more determinate meanings. Where L. Robin (1933, French translation) translates ‘pharmakon’ as remedy, it crystalizes the Greek into just one of its possible, and simultaneous meanings, but this – Derrida suggests – is not so far from Plato’s own project.


After all, in choosing speech over writing, Plato affirms above all the virtue of dialectic: the interrogation of the spoken word – the uncovering of its meaning. Plato takes issue with writing precisely because of its moments of multivalence: the text’s refusal to resolve itself into this or that unambiguous sense.


Despite our best interrogations, the text remains ambivalent, pointing both ways at once – now remedy, now poison, always a little of both. Plato thus begins the very act which Derrida demonstrates for us as disfiguring the text and its meaning, the act by which the text is deadened (in a neat inversion of Plato’s claim that writing is a deadening disfiguration of speech).


Concluding the essay, Derrida celebrates the ambivalence of Thoth’s writerly speech: his refusal to clarify the sense of ‘pharmakon’. The supplement’s polysemy is precisely its meaning, there is not some underlying truth that cannot speak from the dead page, but only the pharmakon of writing: an irreducible excess of meaning.

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By Moses May-HobbsBA Art History w/ Philosophy ConcentrationMoses May-Hobbs is a recent graduate of Cambridge University. His writing focuses on aesthetics, the philosophy of art, and film criticism. He is currently working as a contributing writer and editor, while writing in his spare time on the philosophy of language, perception, and affect.