From New World Encyclopedia

Deconstruction is a term in contemporary philosophy, literary criticism, and the social sciences, denoting a process by which the texts and languages of Western philosophy (in particular) appear to shift and complicate in meaning when read in light of the assumptions and absences they reveal within themselves. Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) coined the term in the 1960s, and proved more forthcoming with negative, rather than pined-for positive, analyses of the school. Derrida's deconstruction was drawn mainly from the work of Heidegger and his notion of Destruktion but also from Husserl and his method of Abbau (dismantling or unbuilding).

Subjects relevant to deconstruction include the philosophy of meaning in Western thought, and the ways that meaning is constructed by Western writers, texts, and readers and understood by readers. Although Derrida himself denied that deconstruction was a method or school of philosophy, or indeed anything outside of reading the text itself, the term has been used by others to describe his particular methods of textual criticism, which involved discovering, recognizing, and understanding the underlying—and unspoken and implicit—assumptions, ideas, and frameworks that form the basis for thought and belief.

There are a wide range of appraisals of deconstruction, from a radically progressive view which praises it as a revolt against the unjust hegemony of the logocentrism in Western culture, to a very conservative standpoint which regards it as a threat to the received ethical and cultural norms. But, some philosophers of religion such as John D. Caputo believe deconstruction to be a very powerful mode of iconoclasm, which can help us to go to a profound realization of God behind all idols, as long as deconstruction is open to the "other"[1]—a notion Derrida borrowed from Emmanuel Levinas.

Derrida's Deconstruction in a Historical Context

Precursors of deconstruction

Although the term "deconstruction" was coined by Derrida (déconstruction in French), it had significant ties with much of fairly recent Western philosophy; even considering only Derrida's work can show that deconstruction is related to the works of many important philosophers. It emerged from a clearly delineated philosophical context:

  • Derrida's earliest work, including the texts that introduced the term "deconstruction," dealt with the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938): Derrida's earliest publications dealing with Husserl are a book-length "Introduction" (1962) to Husserl's The Origin of Geometry and a collection of his essays on Husserl, entitled Speech and Phenomena (La Voix et le phénomène, 1967).
  • A student and prior interpreter of Husserl's, Martin Heidegger (1989-1976), was one of the most significant influences on Derrida's thought: Derrida's Of Spirit (De l'esprit, 1987) deals directly with Heidegger, but Heidegger's influence on deconstruction is much broader than that one volume.
  • The psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) is an important reference for much of deconstruction: The Postcard (La Carte Postale de Socrate à Freud et au-dela, 1980), important essays in Writing and Difference (L'Ecriture et la différence, 1967), Archive Fever (Mal D'archive: Une impression freudienne, 1995), and many other deconstructive works deal primarily with Freud.
  • The work of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is alleged to be a forerunner of deconstruction in form and substance, as Derrida writes in Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles (Eperons: Les styles de Nietzsche, 1978).
  • In Of Grammatology (De la grammatologie, 1967), Derrida makes clear that the work of André Leroi-Gourhan (1911-1986) is important to the formulation of deconstruction and grammatology. Not only does Derrida refer the thought of grammè to Leroi-Gourhan's use of the concepts of "exteriorization" and "program," but he also makes use of Leroi-Gourhan's understanding of life and of human life to formulate his own concept of writing. Leroi-Gourhan, according to Derrida, makes it possible to think the history of life as the history of the grammè (mark), and in this context Derrida states that life—in the sense of the great evolving movement of the inscription of difference in which the history of life consists—is "what I have called différance."[2]
  • The structuralism of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), and forms of post-structuralism that evolved contemporaneously with deconstruction (such as the work of Maurice Blanchot, Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, etc.), were the immediate intellectual climate for the formation of deconstruction. In many cases, these authors were close friends, colleagues, or correspondents of Derrida's.

Deconstruction in relation to structuralism

Derrida's "Letter to a Japanese Friend" explains well about the relationship of deconstruction with structuralism.[3] Deconstruction developed with a milieu of structuralism. According to Derrida, his use of the word deconstruction first took place in a context in which "structuralism was dominant." He states that deconstruction is an "antistructuralist gesture" because "Structures were to be undone, decomposed, desedimented." But for him, deconstruction is nonetheless also a "structuralist gesture" because it is concerned with the structure of texts. Derrida writes that deconstruction involves "a certain attention to structures" and tries to "understand how an 'ensemble' was constituted." He states that the "use value" of deconstruction "had been determined by the discourse that was then being attempted around and on the basis of Of Grammatology," and that "this word [i.e., deconstruction], at least on its own, has never appeared satisfactory to me (but what word is), and must always be girded by an entire discourse." This determination of the use value of deconstruction by the discourse in which it occurs, and Derrida's refusal to consider deconstruction separately from this discourse, indicates that his understanding of the term is embedded in a structuralist discourse. It is structural because what the word means is determined by its relationship to other words. It is for this reason that deconstruction was not originally intended by Derrida to be associated with post-structuralism. This is clear from Derrida's note that "especially in the United States, the motif of deconstruction has been associated with 'poststructuralism' (a word unknown in France until its 'return' from the United States)." Deconstruction is for Derrida tied up with what he identifies as the "structural problematic."

The Difficulty with Defining Deconstruction

The problems of definition

Within Western philosophy, it is difficult to establish a formal definition of "deconstruction." Martin Heidegger was perhaps the first to use the term (in contrast to Nietzschean "demolition"). Heidegger's central concern was the deconstruction of the Western philosophical tradition. The English word "deconstruction" is an element in a translation series from Husserl's Abbau to Heidegger's Destruktion to Derrida's déconstruction, and has been explored by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Paul de Man, Jonathan Culler, Barbara Johnson, J. Hillis Miller, Jean-François Lyotard, and Geoffrey Bennington.

These authors have resisted establishing a succinct definition of the word. When asked, "What is deconstruction?," Derrida stated, "I have no simple and formalisable response to this question. All my essays are attempts to have it out with this formidable question."[4] There is much confusion as to what is deconstruction and in determining what authority to accord to a given delimitation: a school of thought (not so in the singular), a method of reading (often so reduced by attempts at formal definition), or "textual event" (Derrida's implied characterization in the above quotation).

Part of the difficulty in defining deconstruction arises from the fact that it cannot escape itself. The word is subject to the linguistic limitations and effects which it purports in its own definition. Followers of Derrida do not view deconstruction as a concept standing outside of text, which can act upon all text without itself being affected. The act of definition, in this view, is an attempt to "finish" or "complete" deconstruction, yet deconstruction is never viewed as complete, but a continuous process; "a living philosophy" constantly open to adjustment.

What deconstruction is not

It is better to explain what deconstruction is not than what it is. According to Derrida, deconstruction is not an analysis, a critique, or a method.[5] Derrida does not want deconstruction to be misunderstood as an analysis, a critique, or a method in the traditional sense in which philosophy understands these terms. In these negative descriptions of deconstruction, Derrida is seeking to "multiply the cautionary indicators and put aside all the traditional philosophical concepts." This does not mean that deconstruction has absolutely nothing in common with an analysis, a critique, or a method because while Derrida distances deconstruction from these terms, he reaffirms "the necessity of returning to them, at least under erasure." Derrida's necessity of returning to a term under erasure means that even though these terms are problematic we must use them until they can be effectively reformulated or replaced. Derrida's thought developed in relation to Husserl's, and this return to something under erasure has a similarity to Husserl's phenomenological reduction or epoché. Derrida acknowledges that his preference for negative description "has been called… a type of negative theology."

The relevance of the tradition of negative theology to Derrida's preference for negative descriptions of deconstruction is the notion that a positive description of deconstruction would over-determine the idea of deconstruction and that this would be a mistake because it would close off the openness that Derrida wishes to preserve for deconstruction. This means that if Derrida were to positively define deconstruction as, for example, a critique, then this would put the concept of critique for ever outside the possibility of deconstruction. Some new philosophy beyond deconstruction would then be required in order to surpass the notion of critique. By refusing to define deconstruction positively, Derrida preserves the infinite possibility of deconstruction, the possibility for the deconstruction of everything.

Approaching a definition of deconstruction

In spite of the difficulty with defining construction, however, writers have provided a number of rough definitions. One of the most popular definitions was given by Paul de Man, who explained, "It's possible, within text, to frame a question or undo assertions made in the text, by means of elements which are in the text, which frequently would be precisely structures that play off the rhetorical against grammatical elements."[6] Viewed in this way, Richard Rorty stated that "the term 'deconstruction' refers in the first instance to the way in which the 'accidental' features of a text can be seen as betraying, subverting, its purportedly 'essential' message."[7]

A more whimsical definition is by John D. Caputo, who defines deconstruction thus:

Whenever deconstruction finds a nutshell—a secure axiom or a pithy maxim—the very idea is to crack it open and disturb this tranquility. Indeed, that is a good rule of thumb in deconstruction. That is what deconstruction is all about, its very meaning and mission, if it has any. One might even say that cracking nutshells is what deconstruction is. In a nutshell. ... Have we not run up against a paradox and an aporia [something impassable]?...the paralysis and impossibility of an aporia is just what impels deconstruction, what rouses it out of bed in the morning.[8]

Many definitions portray deconstruction as a method, project, or school of thought. For example, the philosopher David B. Allison (an early translator of Derrida) states:

[Deconstruction] signifies a project of critical thought whose task is to locate and 'take apart' those concepts which serve as the axioms or rules for a period of thought, those concepts which command the unfolding of an entire epoch of metaphysics. 'Deconstruction' is somewhat less negative than the Heideggerian or Nietzschean terms 'destruction' or 'reversal'; it suggests that certain foundational concepts of metaphysics will never be entirely eliminated...There is no simple 'overcoming' of metaphysics or the language of metaphysics.[9]

Similarly, in the context of religious studies Paul Ricoeur reportedly defined deconstruction as a way of uncovering the questions behind the answers of a text or tradition.[10]

How Deconstruction Works

Logocentrism and the critique of binary oppositions

Deconstruction's central concern is a radical critique of the Enlightenment project and of metaphysics, including in particular the founding texts by such philosophers as Plato, Rousseau, and Husserl, but also other sorts of texts, including literature. Deconstruction identifies in the Western philosophical tradition a "logocentrism" or "metaphysics of presence" (sometimes known as "phallogocentrism") which holds that speech-thought (the logos) is a privileged, ideal, and self-present entity, through which all discourse and meaning are derived. This logocentrism is the primary target of deconstruction.

One typical form of deconstructive reading is the critique of binary oppositions, or the criticism of dichotomous thought. A central deconstructive argument holds that, in all the classic dualities of Western thought, one term is privileged or "central" over the other. The privileged, central term is the one most associated with the phallus and the logos. Examples include:

  • speech over writing
  • presence over absence
  • identity over difference
  • fullness over emptiness
  • meaning over meaninglessness
  • mastery over submission
  • life over death

Derrida argues in Of Grammatology that, in each such case, the first term is classically conceived as original, authentic, and superior, while the second is thought of as secondary, derivative, or even "parasitic." These binary oppositions, or "violent hierarchies," and others of their form, he argues, must be deconstructed.

This deconstruction is effected in two ways ("La Double Séance," i.e., "The Double Session"). He argues that these oppositions cannot be simply transcended; given the thousands of years of philosophical history behind them, it would be disingenuous to attempt to move directly to a domain of thought beyond these distinctions. So, construction first attempts to compensate for these historical power imbalances, undertaking the difficult project of thinking through the philosophical implications of questioning and presenting complications to show the contingency of such divisions.

The second way involves the emergence or eruption of a new conception. One can begin to conceive a conceptual terrain away from these oppositions: the next project of deconstruction would be to develop concepts which fall under neither one term of these oppositions nor the other. Much of the philosophical work of deconstruction has been devoted to developing such ideas and their implications, of which différance may be the prototype (as it denotes neither simple identity nor simple difference). Derrida spoke in an interview (first published in French in 1967) about such "concepts," which he called merely "marks" in order to distinguish them from proper philosophical concepts:

[I]t has been necessary to analyze, to set to work, within the text of the history of philosophy, as well as within the so-called literary text, …, certain marks, shall we say, … that by analogy (I underline) I have called undecidables, that is, unities of simulacrum, "false" verbal properties (nominal or semantic) that can no longer be included within philosophical (binary) opposition, resisting and disorganizing it, without ever constituting a third term, without ever leaving room for a solution in the form of speculative dialectics.[11]

As can be seen in this discussion of its terms' undecidable, unresolvable complexity, deconstruction requires a high level of comfort with suspended, deferred decision; a deconstructive thinker must be willing to work with terms whose precise meaning has not been, and perhaps cannot be, established. (This is often given as a major reason for the difficult writing style of deconstructive texts.) Critics of deconstruction find this unacceptable as philosophy; many feel that, by working in this manner with unspecified terms, deconstruction ignores the primary task of philosophy, which they say is the creation and elucidation of concepts. This deep criticism is a result of a fundamental difference of opinion about the nature of philosophy, and is unlikely to be resolved simply.

Text and deconstruction

According to deconstructive readers, one of the phallogocentrisms of modernism is the distinction between speech (logos) and writing, with writing historically being thought of as derivative to logos. As part of subverting the presumed dominance of logos over text, Derrida argued that the idea of a speech-writing dichotomy contains within it the idea of a very expansive view of textuality that subsumes both speech and writing. According to Derrida, "There is nothing outside of the text."[12] That is, text is thought of not merely as linear writing derived from speech, but any form of depiction, marking, or storage, including the marking of the human brain by the process of cognition or by the senses.

In a sense, deconstruction is simply a way to read text (as broadly defined); any deconstruction has a text as its object and subject. This accounts for deconstruction's broad cross-disciplinary scope. Deconstruction has been applied to literature, art, architecture, science, mathematics, philosophy, and psychology, and any other disciplines that can be thought of as involving the act of marking.

In deconstruction, text can be thought of as "dead," in the sense that once the markings are made, the markings remain in suspended animation and do not change in themselves. Thus, what an author says about his text doesn't revive it, and is just another text commenting on the original, along with the commentary of others. In this view, when an author says, "You have understood my work perfectly," this utterance constitutes an addition to the textual system, along with what the reader said was understood in and about the original text, and not a resuscitation of the original dead text. The reader has an opinion, the author has an opinion. Communication is possible not because the text has a transcendental signification, but because the brain tissue of the author contains similar "markings" as the brain tissue of the reader. These brain markings, however, are unstable and fragmentary.

An Illustration: Derrida's Reading of Lévi-Strauss

A more concrete example, drawn from one of Derrida's most famous works, may help to clarify the typical manner in which deconstruction works.

Structuralist analysis generally relies on the search for underlying binary oppositions as an explanatory device. The structuralist anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss argued that such oppositions are found in all cultures, not only in Western culture, and thus that the device of binary opposition was fundamental to meaning.

Deconstruction challenges the explanatory value of these oppositions but does not seek to abolish them.

There are three moments to deconstruction, which may be mixed and simultaneous:

  1. The revelation of an asymmetry in the binary opposition, suggesting an implied hierarchy.
  2. The failure of the hierarchy: the two terms are found to fail in a certain case.
  3. The third moment is the displacement of the terms of the opposition, often in the emergence of a neologism or new meaning.

In his book Of Grammatology, Derrida offers one example of deconstruction applied to a theory of Lévi-Strauss. Following many other Western thinkers, Lévi-Strauss distinguished between "savage" societies lacking writing and "civilized" societies that have writing. This distinction implies that human beings developed verbal communication (speech) before some human cultures developed writing, and that speech is thus conceptually as well as chronologically prior to writing (with the implication that speech would be more authentic, closer to truth and meaning, and more immediate than writing, as Plato suggests).

Although the development of writing is generally considered to be an advance, after an encounter with the Nambikwara Indians of Brazil, Lévi-Strauss suggested that societies without writing were also lacking violence and domination (in other words, savages are truly noble savages). He further argued that the primary function of writing is to facilitate slavery (or social inequality, exploitation, and domination in general). Thus, in Lévi-Strauss' syllogism, savage/speech=non-violent, while ironically "civilized"-writing=violence.

(This claim has been rejected by most later historians and anthropologists as incorrect. There is abundant historical evidence that many hunter-gatherer societies and later non-literate tribes had significant amounts of violence and warfare in their cultures, although it must be added that Derrida never denied that such societies were significantly violent. For that matter, hierarchical and highly unequal societies have flourished in the absence of writing.)

Derrida's interpretation begins with taking Lévi-Strauss's discussion of writing at its word: what is important in writing for Lévi-Strauss is not the use of markings on a piece of paper to communicate information, but rather their use in domination and violence. Derrida further observes that, based on Lévi-Strauss's own ethnography, the Nambikwara really do use language for domination and violence. Derrida thus concludes that writing, in fact, is prior to speech. That is, he reverses the opposition between speech and writing.

Derrida's purpose was to "deconstruct" the common conception in Western culture, dating back at least to Plato, that speech is prior to, more authentic than, and closer to "true meaning" than writing.

The Undeconstructibility of Justice

Deconstruction exists in the interval between constructions and undeconstructibility. The primary exemplar of this relationship is the relationship between the law, deconstruction, and justice. Derrida summarizes the relationship by saying that justice is the undeconstructible condition that makes deconstruction possible.[13] However, the justice referred to by Derrida is indeterminate and not a transcendent ideal. To quote Derrida, it is "a justice in itself, if such a thing exists, outside or beyond law."[14]

The law is made up of necessary human constructions while justice is the undeconstructible call to make laws. The law belongs to the realm of the present, possible, and calculable while justice belongs to the realm of the absent, impossible, and incalculable. Deconstruction bridges the gap between the law and justice as the experience of applying the law in a just manner. Justice demands that a singular occurrence be responded to with a new, uniquely tailored application of the law. Thus, a deconstructive reading of the law is a leap from calculability towards incalculability.

In deconstruction, justice takes on the structure of a promise that absence and impossibility can be made present and possible. Insofar as deconstruction is motivated by such a promise, it escapes the traditional presence/absence binary because a promise is neither present nor absent. Therefore, a deconstructive reading will never definitively achieve justice. Justice is always deferred.

Derrida works out his idea of justice in Specters of Marx and in his essay "Force of Law" in Acts of Religion; his idea of hospitality in Of Hospitality; his idea of democracy in Rogues: Two Essays on Reason; his idea of friendship in The Politics of Friendship; his idea of the other in The Gift of Death; and his idea of future in Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money.

The Terminology of Deconstruction

Deconstruction makes use of a number of terms, many of which are coined or repurposed, that illustrate or follow the process of deconstruction. Among these words are différance, trace, écriture, supplement, hymen, pharmakon, slippage, marge, entame, parergon, text, and same.


Against the metaphysics of presence, deconstruction brings a (non)concept called différance. Applied to the problem of meaning, the word suggests that meaning always differs from itself (is never stable or fixed) while also suggesting that meaning is always deferred. This French neologism is, on the deconstructive argument, properly neither a word nor a concept; it names the non-coincidence of meaning both synchronously (one French homonym means "differing") and diachronically (another French homonym means "deferring"). Because the resonance and conflict between these two French meanings is difficult to convey tersely in English, the word différance is usually left untranslated.


The idea of différance also brings with it the idea of trace. A trace is that from which a sign differs/defers. It is the absent part of the sign's presence. In other words, through the act of différance, a sign leaves behind a trace, which is whatever is left over after everything present has been accounted for. According to Derrida, "the trace itself does not exist"[15] because it is self-effacing. That is, "in presenting itself, it becomes effaced."[16] Because all signifiers viewed as present in Western thought will necessarily contain traces of other (absent) signifiers, the signifier can be neither wholly present nor wholly absent.


In deconstruction, the word écriture (usually translated as writing in English) is appropriated to refer not just to systems of graphic communication, but to all systems inhabited by différance. A related term, called archi-écriture, refers to the positive side of writing, or writing as an ultimate principle, rather than as a derivative of logos (speech). In other words, whereas the Western logos encompasses writing, it is equally valid to view archi-écriture as encompassing the logos, and therefore speech can be thought of as a form of writing: writing on air waves, or on the memory of the listener or recording device, but there is no fundamental dominance at work. This, as described above, is an element of Derrida's criticisms against phallogocentrism in general.

Supplement, originary lack, and invagination

The word supplement is taken from the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who defined it as "an inessential extra added to something complete in itself." According to Derrida, Western thinking is characterized by the "logic of supplementation," which is actually two apparently contradictory ideas. From one perspective, a supplement serves to enhance the presence of something which is already complete and self-sufficient. Thus, writing is the supplement of speech, Eve was the supplement of Adam, and masturbation is the supplement of "natural sex."

But simultaneously, according to Derrida, the Western idea of the supplement has within it the idea that a thing that has a supplement cannot be truly "complete in itself." If it were complete without the supplement, it shouldn't need, or long-for, the supplement. The fact that a thing can be added-to make it even more "present" or "whole" means that there is a hole (which Derrida called an originary lack) and the supplement can fill that hole. The metaphorical opening of this "hole" Derrida called "invagination." From this perspective, the supplement does not enhance something's presence, but rather underscores its absence.

Thus, what really happens during supplementation is that something appears from one perspective to be whole, complete, and self-sufficient, with the supplement acting as an external appendage. However, from another perspective, the supplement also fills a hole within the interior of the original "something." Thus, the supplement represents an indeterminacy between externality and interiority.


The word hymen comes from the Greek word for skin, membrane or the vaginal hymen.

In deconstruction it is used to refer to the interplay between, the normally considered mutually exclusive terms of, inside and outside. The hymen is the membrane of intersection where it becomes impossible to distinguish whether the membrane is on the inside or the outside. And in the absence of the complete hymen, the distinction between inside and outside disappears. Thus, in a way, the hymen defies formal logic and is neither outside nor inside, and after penetration, is both inside and outside.

Showing the problematics of a simple word like hymen questions what "is inside" and "is outside" mean, they cannot here be considered in the usual logic of mutual exclusion (sometimes called law of excluded middle). Thus we get a contrast to formal logic, and especially the ancient and revered principle of non-contradiction, which from Aristotle says "one cannot say of something that it is and that it is not in the same respect and at the same time." Yet, the hymen is inside and is not inside in the same respect and at the same time (i.e., using a formal logic translation of "inside" to "not outside").

Much in history of science and philosophy depended on the sanctity of this law of non-contradiction, for example see, Logical Positivism, Analytic Philosophy.


The word pharmakon refers to the play between cure and poison. It derives from the ancient Greek word, used by Plato in Phaedrus and Phaedo, which had an undecidable meaning and could be translated to mean anything ranging from a drug, recipe, spell, medicine, or poison. Derrida notes that the meaning of pharmakon included both poison and medicine–problem and cure.

Deconstruction in Popular Culture

The term "deconstruction" is now used by many popular sources as a synonym for revisionism – for instance, the CBS mini-series, The Reagans, was presented as a "deconstruction" of the Reagan administration.

In popular parlance, "to deconstruct" is often used with the sense of dismantling the opinions, legitimacy, or value of other groups or individuals; by "deconstructing" your opponent, you lay bare their inferiority or their subconscious or ill motives. This sense of the term, however, was neither suggested nor endorsed by Derrida.

The term is used in pop-culture criticism to refer to a story (novel, film, etc.) which presents a well-known concept or plot in a way which intentionally reverses or subverts the common elements of the original, with the intention of laying bare the underlying assumptions in it. This can be done either as a criticism or parody of the original, or as an attempt to re-vitalize it by eliminating what the author sees as unnecessary accretions. (The latter is sometimes referred to as a "reconstruction" rather than "deconstruction"). For example, the animated film Shrek can be considered a deconstruction of popular fairy tales, while the graphic novel Watchmen is often described as a deconstruction of the super-heroic genre. The term is also used in this manner to describe much older parodies such as Don Quixote and Gulliver's Travels, which deconstruct the concepts of knightly honor and the genre of travelogues, respectively. This use of the term, which is only tangentially connected to Derrida's original, seems to be taking hold among various fandoms in recent years.

Deconstruction has influenced numerous literary texts, and has been the object of parody in others. Native American novelist Gerald Vizenor claims an extensive debt to deconstructionist ideas in attacking essentialist notions of race. Writer Percival Everett goes further in satire, actually incorporating fictional conversations between a number of leading deconstruct ionists within his fictions. Comic author David Lodge’s work contains a number of figures whose belief in the deconstructionist project is undermined by contact with non-academic figures (e.g., Nice Work). The difficult and verbose nature of many deconstructionist writings makes them a popular figure of fun in both campus novels and anti-intellectual fiction.

Appraisals of Deconstruction

Most appraisals of deconstruction are difficult to read and summarize. A survey of deconstruction texts and secondary literature reveals a wide range of heterogeneous arguments, including radically progressive claims that deconstruction can entirely sort the Western tradition, by highlighting and discrediting unjustified privileges accorded to White males and other hegemonists. On the other hand, some staunch conservatives claim that deconstruction is a dangerous form of nihilism or relativism, the destruction of Western scientific and ethical values. Here we shall review less radical appraisals, which however are still of a wide range.

John M. Ellis' criticism

To many, John M. Ellis' Against Deconstruction[17] is a definitive criticism of deconstruction. He complains that deconstruction has become a considerably attractive trend widespread in academia, by exempting itself from analysis and wrapping itself in mystical splendor. Although any credible theory "ought to employ analysis rather than rhetorical drama," through deconstruction "unthinking attitudes are clung to." Deconstruction cannot withstand a rigorous dissection of sophistication as long as it asserts that "logic, reason, and analysis are insufficient to discuss Derrida." Deconstruction is faulty because it only dismantles traditional theories vehemently without offering any viable and presumably better alternative which can withstand any vigorous analysis. Without any viable alternative, it is like the emperor without any clothes. So, it will perish soon. According to Ellis, Derrida's starting point was already questionable because Derrida misinterpreted and twisted the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure was only saying that meaning is not outside a language but arises from "contrasts" between terms in their immediate context, but Derrida replaced Saussure's idea of contrasts with the notion of "play," which stretches out to the future limitlessly, infinitely, and indefinitely. Many agree with Ellis that "play" is an empty obscurantism, lacking seriousness.


A common criticism of deconstruction is that it is inherently self-contradictory because while it asserts that all linguistic meaning is indeterminate or uncertain, this assertion is strongly believed to be determinate or certain.[18] Also, while it maintains that nothing is true, this relativist statement is treated like an absolutely true canon. This criticism, however, may be incorrect, since people who adhere to deconstruction are usually aware that it cannot escape itself.

Richard Rorty's criticism

A much more serious criticism along this line, however, has been presented by anti-essentialist philosophers such as Richard Rorty. Derrida's assertion that deconstruction is not a method, but something that is "already, all the time" occurring in texts, has been criticized. Anti-essentialists allege that Derrida's position is close to positing certain new protocols, gestures, and structures which are intrinsic to all texts, and thus close to positing an "essential" privileged reading of a text. Rorty specifically criticizes deconstruction's tendency to "treat every text as 'about' the same old philosophical oppositions, space and time, sensible and intelligible, subject and object, being and becoming"[19] According to Rorty, in making the tacit assumption that the traditional structures and metaphors in philosophy are always and already present within all cultural discourse, philosophy is re-elevated to a position at the center of culture, a notion which pragmatism seeks to eschew at all costs. This, Rorty says, is a "self-deceptive attempt to magnify the importance of an academic specialty."[20] In addition (and this is less a criticism of Derrida himself than of his followers in literary criticism), Rorty regards the de Manian attempts to privilege literary language over others, and to repeatedly prove the impossibility of reading[21] as another form of metaphysics, "another inversion of a traditional philosophical position..that nevertheless remains within the great range of alternatives specified by 'the discourse of philosophy."[22] In general, anti-essentialists may still accept the validity of deconstructive readings but view them as the result of subjective interaction with a text. Then each reading is one of many possible readings, rather than an excavation of something "within" the text. "The truth" of any single reading is not privileged in that case but open to critical analysis.

A more positive appraisal

Some people such as Christopher Norris and Kenneth Kierans disagree with Rorty. They see results of the dismantling project of deconstruction more positively, saying that "there is another and more interesting side to deconstruction, and this has to do with its continuing relation to traditional philosophical ideas of truth," and that "deconstruction in this sense amounts to a rediscovery of traditional philosophical ideas, and a reaffirmation of their truth, even if in one respect in a distorted way."[23] According to them, this is because deconstruction also negates its own standpoint in a Hegelian way, not just negating all other claims to truth.

A religious implication

Some religious philosophers appreciate deconstruction as a powerful way of iconoclasm. Although many have assumed that Derrida was a staunch atheist, Derrida himself only said that "I rightly pass for an atheist," and when asked why he just did not say that he was an atheist, he replied, "Because I don't know. Maybe I'm not an atheist."[24] By negating and even destroying what was conventionally thought to be God, Derrida may have possessed the potentiality of reaching a true God. That explains why he can be depicted as a champion against idolatry in the domain of religion.

John D. Caputo reports that Derrida actually likened himself to Saint Augustine because both were from the same homeland of Algeria (Numidia at the time of Augustine), that Derrida talked about "his 'religion (without religion)', about his 'prayers and tears', and about the Messiah," and that "Deconstruction is satisfied with nothing because it is waiting for the Messiah, which Derrida translated into the philosophical figure of the verb "to come" (à venir), the very figure of the future (l’avenir), of hope and expectation."[25]

Graham Ward finds that the iconoclastic stance of Derrida's deconstruction resembles Karl Barth's analogy of faith through which to go beyond our conventional knowledge of God to find a true God.[26] John D. Caputo even suggests to see deconstruction as Jesus' "hermeneutics of the kingdom of God," i.e., Jesus' "good news" that was shocking to the establishment:

[I]n the view I am advancing here, deconstruction is treated as the hermeneutics of the kingdom of God, as an interpretive style that helps get at the prophetic spirit of Jesus - who was a surprising and sometimes strident outsider, who took a stand with the "other." … In my view, a deconstruction is good news, because it delivers the shock of the other to the forces of the same, the shock of the good (the "ought") to the forces of being ("what is").[27]

The "other" referred to by Caputo here can be found in Derrida's statement: "Deconstruction is not an enclosure in nothingness, but an openness to the other."[28] Regarding the "other," Derrida further remarks that deconstruction is an attempt "to discover the non-place or non-lieu which would be the 'other' of philosophy."[29] Whether it is legitimate or not to take these remarks by Derrida in a religious context, one thing which is sure is that deconstruction is not the abandonment of all meaning but an attempt to find the "other" because Western thought has not satisfied its quest for a "transcendental signifier" that will give meaning to all other signs.

See also


  1. Richard Kearney, ed., Dialogues with Contemporary Continental Thinkers: The Phenomenological Heritage. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), 124
  2. Jacques Derrida. Of Grammatology, corrected edition. (Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 84–85.
  3. Jacques Derrida, "Letter to a Japanese Friend," in Derrida and Différance, ed. David Wood and Robert Bernasconi (Warwick: Parousia Press, 1985).
  4. Derrida, "Letter to a Japanese Friend," 4.
  5. Derrida, "Letter to a Japanese Friend," 3.
  6. Robert Moynihan, A Recent Imagining: Interviews with Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, J. Hillis Miller, and Paul De Man (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1986), 156.
  7. Richard Rorty, "Deconstruction," in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, vol. 8: From Formalism to Poststructuralism, ed. George A. Kennedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
  8. John D. Caputo, ed., Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida (New York: Fordham University Press, 1996), 32.
  9. David B. Allison, "Introduction," in Jacques Derrida's Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston: Northwestern University press, 1973), xxxii, n. 1.
  10. Anne Carolyn Klein, Meeting the Great Bliss Queen: Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self (Boston: Beacon, 1995), 8.
  11. Jacques Derrida. Positions, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 42-43.
  12. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), 158.
  13. Jacques Derrida, Acts of Religion, ed. Gil Anidjar (New York: Routledge, 2002), 243.
  14. Jacques Derrida, "Force of Law," in Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, ed. Drucilla Cornell, Michel Rosenfeld, and David Gray Carlson (New York: Routledge, 1992).
  15. Jacques Derrida. Of Grammatology, tr. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), 167.
  16. Derrida, Of Grammatology, 1976, 125.
  17. John M. Ellis. Against Deconstruction. (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1989).
  18. Tom Snyder, "Deconstructing Deconstructionism." Retrieved February 27, 2008.
  19. Richard Rorty. Essays on Heidegger and Others. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 104.
  20. Rorty, 1991, 87.
  21. See Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983)
  22. Rorty, 1991, 117.
  23. Kenneth Kierans, "Beyond Deconstruction." Retrieved February 28, 2007.
  24. Scott McLemee, "Jacques Derrida, Thinker Who Influenced and Infuriated a Range of Humanistic Fields, Dies at 74," The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 11, 2004. Retrieved February 28, 2008.
  25. John D. Caputo, "Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)." Retrieved February 28, 2008.
  26. Graham Ward. Barth, Derrida and the Language of Theology. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
  27. John D. Caputo. What Would Jesus Deconstruct?: The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 26-27.
  28. Kearney, 1984, 124.
  29. Kearney, 1984, 112.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Caputo, John D., ed. Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida. New York: Fordham University Press, 1996. ISBN 0823217558
  • Caputo, John D. What Would Jesus Deconstruct?: The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007. ISBN 0801031362
  • Cohen, Tom, ed. Jacques Derrida and the Humanities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. ISBN 0521625653
  • Culler, Jonathan. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. Cornell University Press, 1983. ISBN 978-0801413223
  • De Man, Paul. Blindness and Insight, 2nd ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.
  • Derrida, Jacques. Acts of Religion, edited by Gil Anidjar. New York: Routledge, 2002. ISBN 0415924014
  • Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, translated by Eric Prenowitz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. ISBN 0226143678
  • Derrida, Jacques. Edmund Husserl's "Origin of Geometry": An Introduction, Translated by John P. Leavey. University of Nebraska Press, 1989. ISBN 0803265808
  • Derrida, Jacques. "Force of Law." In Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, edited by Drucilla Cornell, Michel Rosenfeld, and David Gray Carlson, 3-67. New York: Routledge, 1992. ISBN 0415903041
  • Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology, Corrected ed. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. ISBN 978-0801858307
  • Derrida, Jacques. Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question, Translated by Rachel Bowlby. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.
  • Derrida, Jacques. Positions, translated by Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981. ISBN 978-0226143316
  • Derrida, Jacques. The Postcard from Socrates to Freud and Beyond, translated by Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
  • Derrida, Jacques. Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs, Translated by David B. Allison. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973. ISBN 978-0810105904
  • Derrida, Jacques. Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles/Eperons: Les Styles de Nietzsche, New ed. Translated by Barbara Harlow. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981. ISBN 0226143333
  • Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference, Translated by Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1978.
  • Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction, 2nd ed. University of Minnesota Press, 1996. ISBN 978-0816612512
  • Ellis, John M. Against Deconstruction. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0691067544
  • Johnson, Barbara. The Critical Difference. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981. ISBN 978-0801824586
  • Kearney, Richard, ed. Dialogues with Contemporary Continental Thinkers: The Phenomenological Heritage. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984. ISBN 071901087X
  • Klein, Anne Carolyn. Meeting the Great Bliss Queen: Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self. Boston: Beacon, 1995. ISBN 978-0807073063
  • Moynihan, Robert. A Recent Imagining: Interviews with Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, J. Hillis Miller, and Paul de Man. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1986. ISBN 978-0208021205
  • Rorty, Richard. "Deconstruction." In The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, vol. 8: From Formalism to Poststructuralism, edited by George A. Kennedy, 166-196. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. ISBN 052131724X
  • Rorty, Richard. Essays on Heidegger and Others. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. ISBN 0521358787
  • Stiegler, Bernard, Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus, Translated by Richard Beardsworth & George Collins. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. ISBN 0804730415
  • Ward, Graham. Barth, Derrida and the Language of Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. ISBN 0521657083

External links

All links retrieved January 28, 2024.


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