Jacques Derrida, who died in 2004, is among the most influential authors of the latter half of the twentieth century. His works are routinely studied and cited in a variety of scholarly disciplines within the social sciences and humanities, especially in departments of literature, languages, philosophy, fine arts, cultural studies, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and political science. The term deconstruction, moreover, which he popularized, has migrated from academic halls to descriptions of salads on menus and point guards’ styles in basketball. For all of his influence, however, Derrida’s thought is often misunderstood; “deconstruction” is sometimes lumped together with any complex postmodern scholarly discourse or with any virtuosic critical reading of a work of literature or philosophy.
There are some good reasons for these misunderstandings. The first is that Derrida’s writings employ an extremely dense, allusive, and even obscure rhetorical style, which makes them difficult to comprehend. The second is that Derrida’s work was first received by scholars in literature, anthropology, and cultural studies who were more concerned with applying some version of his insights to their own efforts than with understanding his work on its own terms.
Beyond the difficulties associated with Derrida’s American reception, “deconstruction” is little understood because the very meaning of the term is a central concern of Derrida’s own writing. Though Derrida never directly answers the question “What is deconstruction?” his many essays and books articulate a number of interrelated coinages and neologisms—différance, the trace, the supplement, the sovereign operation, the pharmakon—which, taken together, furnish a workable basic understanding. The terms la déconstruction (deconstruction) and déconstruire (to deconstruct) translate the twentieth-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s call for a systematic Destruktion of the history of Western philosophy—a reading of basic works that seeks to find the ground of their concepts in an understanding of man and Being that the authors of these works have covered over or misunderstood. Deconstruction can thus be understood as both a certain type of critical reading of texts (and other cultural productions) and as the insights into being that are unveiled in this reading. Derrida is concerned with extending and fleshing out Heidegger’s deconstructive efforts and in particular with thinking through Heidegger’s writings on language.
Derrida shares Heidegger’s view that Western thought has heretofore failed to appreciate fully the connection between language and being. Derrida’s early investigations follow French linguistic theorist Ferdinand Saussure, who argues that there is no necessary relation between a “signifier” (such as a word) and the thing “signified” (the meaning or “being” to which the word refers.) This point is easily observable when we realize that the same thing signified as “house” in English is maison in French, domus in Latin, and oikos in Greek. Because the word “house” has a large array of additional metaphorical and verbal meanings, its sense is finally only determined by its linguistic and semantic context. From this observation Derrida generalizes that all meaning is subsequently generated from other words, or from historical and linguistic contexts, which are themselves in a state of constant flux. The contextual character of every thought and utterance is that to which Derrida refers in his notion that “there is no outside-the-text.” Everything, therefore, can be “read” and deconstructed. Moreover, because we can experience the world only through language, and think only with words, there can be no “pre-linguistic” truth that stands behind our words and thoughts, guaranteeing them.
Derrida further suggests that when I assert something to be a certain way, I am also asserting that it is not other things. If I say that the sky is blue, I assert that it is not every other color. Any linguistic description is built upon a logical “system of difference.” Every assertion carries within itself not only itself, but also its opposites or negations. There is no presence without absence Still, when I call the sky “blue” I may not grasp that I am excluding all other colors, although I may see this in thinking about it later on. The meanings of words and concepts are, consequently, at once differentiated and deferred, a logical and temporal situation that Derrida describes as “différance.” For Derrida, différance suggests that even basic logical and ontological concepts lack certainty and stability. For this reason he is suspicious of any claims to “final” or “ultimate” truth. All such claims will ultimately be challenged by the endless deferrals of différance. Différance thus undermines the integrity of the notion of an absolute truth, or God, as the ultimate foundational presence, the “transcendental signified” guaranteeing the meaning of all signs.
In a similar vein, Derrida is notable for his criticism of what he claims to be Western philosophy’s reliance upon “binary oppositions” to express important truths. Derrida wonders what the word “presence” signifies other than the very absence of absence. And what is absence but the presence of absence? If we can define presence and absence only in terms of one another, then perhaps they are not truly distinct. Derrida suggests that this co-dependence of presence and absence is problematic for Western philosophy. According to Derrida, all Western philosophy believes there to be an underlying “presence” that underwrites all our symbols and lesser truths—the Socratic Good, the Thomistic God, the Cartesian ego, or the Nietzschean will to power. One might well question, however, whether the significance of negation has in fact been overlooked by previous thinkers. Indeed, Derrida’s understanding of absence, difference, negation, otherness, and the like is not on its face as searching and articulate as the discussions of Aristotle, Plato in his Sophist, Hegel, or Heidegger.
Deconstruction occurs when we consider the implications of the non-existence of an ultimate and abiding presence. Furthermore, if the lines dividing binary oppositions are never “pure” or reliable, the meaning of one term will always be sliding over to the meaning of the other, and any attempt at rigorous distinctions is destined to fail. Derrida, here following Nietzsche, suggests that the “subordinate” term in such apparent oppositions as good and evil, or male and female, is forever returning from the margins to disrupt the possibility of a neatly ordered logical, or even ethical, whole.
Unlike some other contemporary philosophers, Derrida argues that we are not able simply to ignore foundational metaphysical ideas, nor oppositional logic; instead he thinks that we need to jettison our desire for purity, stability, and certainty in favor of a playful affirmation of uncertainty. What is more, Derrida challenges us to be attentive to the “margins” of arguments, texts, contexts, and history, as it is only there that we can begin to find evidence of the never-fully-successful attempts to valorize stability and rationality. This attention enables us to “pull the thread” that opens a deconstructive reading. Derrida thus understands deconstruction not as a novel way to interpret texts, but as a something that emerges from attentiveness to philosophical problems.
Toward the end of his life, Derrida’s writings turned almost exclusively to subjects relevant to ethics and politics. He argues that deconstruction is justice, insofar as justice is never fully actualized in any political order. Justice intervenes in particular cases, and thus “defers” the law’s usual operation while sometimes opening it up to différance. Justice, Derrida argues, functions in law in precisely the way that différance does in logic. Although Derrida self-identified as a “man of the left” his political thought defends neither socialism nor communism, but a form of democracy he calls “la démocratie à venir” or the “democracy to come.” Derrida argues that of all of the regimes we have known, democracy best aligns with deconstruction because it is a form of différance. Democracy attempts to combine the incommensurable principles of freedom and equality. Freedom is “infinite” in that it defies restriction, whereas equality has an almost necessarily quantifiable character, and is always counting and limiting. The two principles are thus always coming into conflict, yet both have legitimate claims to the adjective “democratic,” and democracy would cease to exist should one principle triumph over the other. Thus, democracy is always open to internal critique, and is always open to the future. In democracy to come Derrida thus believes he sees a way in which the largely critical approach of deconstruction can find meaningful political expression. No regime can logically or historically capture what it means to be democratic and is always cycling through various degrees of commitment to freedom and equality. By recognizing this, Derrida believes his political thought has found a way to be progressive without needing to posit an end to which one is progressing.
Derrida’s work has faced considerable criticism. Literary scholars accuse his readings of texts of being inventions that ignore historical context and twist authorial intention to suit his agenda, while analytic philosophers suspect that his writing is little more than an attempt to hide fuzzy thinking. Derrida’s critics also raise objections to his arguments on their own terms. If the meaning of our utterances is always subject to the play of différance, then how can such terms as “true” and “false” signify anything? But if Derrida is claiming that his understanding better describes being than do other interpretations, is he not himself employing a concept of what is better or more true? Is he not setting up différance as the absolute truth? If Derrida is “right,” how could anyone legitimately or non-arbitrarily prefer deconstruction to any of the positions he criticizes without falling into self-contradiction? Critics of deconstruction suggest that Derrida has no real answers to such questions. Scholars of political philosophy are especially pointed in this regard, noting that the “endless play” of différance would seem to undermine our potential to make consistently any moral, ethical, or political decisions, or to prefer one way of life over any others. Does this approach to politics not in fact encourage a reckless and dangerous vitalism or decisionism, and destroy the grounds for a skepticism that does not fall into nihilism?
Derrida attempts to answer such objections by suggesting that even though binaries such as good and evil or true and false are questionable, they are, in the last analysis, all we have. Any attempt to “move beyond” or “transcend” such concepts will only implicitly re-create or “reinscribe” them. We cannot avoid these concepts but should change our expectations of the certainty and stability they can provide.
One can only assess the persuasiveness of Derrida’s response to this criticism on the basis of a full and deep familiarity with the Western philosophical tradition, to which a study of Derrida ultimately should point. And Derrida himself believed that familiarity with the Western canon was a prerequisite for understanding his thought.
–Essays by Matthew Dinan.