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Derrida states that deconstruction is not a critique in the Kantian sense.[1]: 3  This is because Kant defines the term critique as the opposite of dogmatism. For Derrida, it is not possible to escape the dogmatic baggage of the language we use in order to perform a pure critique in the Kantian sense. Language is dogmatic because it is inescapably metaphysical. Derrida argues that language is inescapably metaphysical because it is made up of signifiers that only refer to that which transcends them—the signified.[citation needed] In addition, Derrida asks rhetorically "Is not the idea of knowledge and of the acquisition of knowledge in itself metaphysical?"[2]: 5  By this, Derrida means that all claims to know something necessarily involve an assertion of the metaphysical type that something is the case somewhere. For Derrida the concept of neutrality is suspect and dogmatism is therefore involved in everything to a certain degree. Deconstruction can challenge a particular dogmatism and hence de-sediment dogmatism in general, but it cannot escape all dogmatism all at once.

Not an analysis

Derrida states that deconstruction is not an analysis in the traditional sense.[1]: 3  This is because the possibility of analysis is predicated on the possibility of breaking up the text being analysed into elemental component parts. Derrida argues that there are no self-sufficient units of meaning in a text, because individual words or sentences in a text can only be properly understood in terms of how they fit into the larger structure of the text and language itself. For more on Derrida's theory of meaning see the article on différance.

Not post-structuralist

Derrida states that his use of the word deconstruction first took place in a context in which "structuralism was dominant" and deconstruction's meaning is within this context. Derrida states that deconstruction is an "antistructuralist gesture" because "[s]tructures were to be undone, decomposed, desedimented". At the same time, deconstruction is also a "structuralist gesture" because it is concerned with the structure of texts. So, deconstruction involves "a certain attention to structures"[1]: 2  and tries to "understand how an 'ensemble' was constituted".[1]: 3  As both a structuralist and an antistructuralist gesture, deconstruction is tied up with what Derrida calls the "structural problematic".[1]: 2  The structural problematic for Derrida is the tension between genesis, that which is "in the essential mode of creation or movement", and structure: "systems, or complexes, or static configurations".[3]: 194  An example of genesis would be the sensory ideas from which knowledge is then derived in the empirical epistemology. An example of structure would be a binary opposition such as good and evil where the meaning of each element is established, at least partly, through its relationship to the other element.

It is for this reason that Derrida distances his use of the term deconstruction from post-structuralism, a term that would suggest that philosophy could simply go beyond structuralism. Derrida states that "the motif of deconstruction has been associated with 'post-structuralismTemplate:' ", but that this term was "a word unknown in France until its 'return' from the United States".[1]: 3  In his deconstruction of Edmund Husserl, Derrida actually argues for the contamination of pure origins by the structures of language and temporality. Manfred Frank has even referred to Derrida's work as "neostructuralism", identifying a "distaste for the metaphysical concepts of domination and system".[4][5]

Alternative definitions

The popularity of the term deconstruction, combined with the technical difficulty of Derrida's primary material on deconstruction and his reluctance to elaborate his understanding of the term, has meant that many secondary sources have attempted to give a more straightforward explanation than Derrida himself ever attempted. Secondary definitions are therefore an interpretation of deconstruction by the person offering them rather than a summary of Derrida's actual position.

  • Paul de Man was a member of the Yale School and a prominent practitioner of deconstruction as he understood it. His definition of deconstruction is that, "[i]t'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]
  • Richard Rorty was a prominent interpreter of Derrida's philosophy. His definition of deconstruction is 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]
  • According to John D. Caputo, the very meaning and mission of deconstruction is:

    "to show that things-texts, institutions, traditions, societies, beliefs, and practices of whatever size and sort you need - do not have definable meanings and determinable missions, that they are always more than any mission would impose, that they exceed the boundaries they currently occupy"[8]

  • Niall Lucy points to the impossibility of defining the term at all, stating:

    "While in a sense it is impossibly difficult to define, the impossibility has less to do with the adoption of a position or the assertion of a choice on deconstruction's part than with the impossibility of every 'is' as such. Deconstruction begins, as it were, from a refusal of the authority or determining power of every 'is', or simply from a refusal of authority in general. While such refusal may indeed count as a position, it is not the case that deconstruction holds this as a sort of 'preference' ".[9][page needed]

  • David B. Allison, an early translator of Derrida, states in the introduction to his translation of Speech and Phenomena:

    [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.

  • Paul Ricœur defines deconstruction as a way of uncovering the questions behind the answers of a text or tradition.[10][page needed]

A survey of the secondary literature reveals a wide range of heterogeneous arguments. Particularly problematic are the attempts to give neat introductions to deconstruction by people trained in literary criticism who sometimes have little or no expertise in the relevant areas of philosophy in which Derrida is working. These secondary works (e.g. Deconstruction for Beginners[11][page needed] and Deconstructions: A User's Guide)[12][page needed] have attempted to explain deconstruction while being academically criticized for being too far removed from the original texts and Derrida's actual position.[citation needed]


Derrida's observations have greatly influenced literary criticism and post-structuralism.

Literary criticism

Derrida's method consisted of demonstrating all the forms and varieties of the originary complexity of semiotics, and their multiple consequences in many fields. His way of achieving this was by conducting thorough, careful, sensitive, and yet transformational readings of philosophical and literary texts, with an ear to what in those texts runs counter to their apparent systematicity (structural unity) or intended sense (authorial genesis). By demonstrating the aporias and ellipses of thought, Derrida hoped to show the infinitely subtle ways that this originary complexity, which by definition cannot ever be completely known, works its structuring and destructuring effects.[13]

Deconstruction denotes the pursuing of the meaning of a text to the point of exposing the supposed contradictions and internal oppositions upon which it is founded—supposedly showing that those foundations are irreducibly complex, unstable, or impossible. It is an approach that may be deployed in philosophy, in literary analysis, and even in the analysis of scientific writings.[14] Deconstruction generally tries to demonstrate that any text is not a discrete whole but contains several irreconcilable and contradictory meanings; that any text therefore has more than one interpretation; that the text itself links these interpretations inextricably; that the incompatibility of these interpretations is irreducible; and thus that an interpretative reading cannot go beyond a certain point. Derrida refers to this point as an "aporia" in the text; thus, deconstructive reading is termed "aporetic".[15] He insists that meaning is made possible by the relations of a word to other words within the network of structures that language is.[16]

Derrida initially resisted granting to his approach the overarching name "deconstruction", on the grounds that it was a precise technical term that could not be used to characterize his work generally. Nevertheless, he eventually accepted that the term had come into common use to refer to his textual approach, and Derrida himself increasingly began to use the term in this more general way.

Derrida's deconstruction strategy is also used by postmodernists to locate meaning in a text rather than discover meaning due to the position that it has multiple readings. There is a focus on the deconstruction that denotes the tearing apart of a text to find arbitrary hierarchies and presuppositions for the purpose of tracing contradictions that shadow a text's coherence.[17] Here, the meaning of a text does not reside with the author or the author's intentions because it is dependent on the interaction between reader and text.[17] Even the process of translation is also seen as transformative since it "modifies the original even as it modifies the translating language".[18]

Critique of structuralism

Derrida's lecture at Johns Hopkins University, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Human Sciences", often appears in collections as a manifesto against structuralism. Derrida's essay was one of the earliest to propose some theoretical limitations to structuralism, and to attempt to theorize on terms that were clearly no longer structuralist. Structuralism viewed language as a number of signs, composed of a signified (the meaning) and a signifier (the word itself). Derrida proposed that signs always referred to other signs, existing only in relation to each other, and there was therefore no ultimate foundation or centre. This is the basis of différance.[19]

Development after Derrida

The Yale School

Between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, many thinkers were influenced by deconstruction, including Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, and J. Hillis Miller. This group came to be known as the Yale school and was especially influential in literary criticism. Derrida and Hillis Miller were subsequently affiliated with the University of California, Irvine.[20]

Miller has described deconstruction this way: "Deconstruction is not a dismantling of the structure of a text, but a demonstration that it has already dismantled itself. Its apparently solid ground is no rock, but thin air."[21]

Critical legal studies movement

Arguing that law and politics cannot be separated, the founders of the "Critical Legal Studies Movement" found it necessary to criticize the absence of the recognition of this inseparability at the level of theory. To demonstrate the indeterminacy of legal doctrine, these scholars often adopt a method, such as structuralism in linguistics, or deconstruction in Continental philosophy, to make explicit the deep structure of categories and tensions at work in legal texts and talk. The aim was to deconstruct the tensions and procedures by which they are constructed, expressed, and deployed.

For example, Duncan Kennedy, in explicit reference to semiotics and deconstruction procedures, maintains that various legal doctrines are constructed around the binary pairs of opposed concepts, each of which has a claim upon intuitive and formal forms of reasoning that must be made explicit in their meaning and relative value, and criticized. Self and other, private and public, subjective and objective, freedom and control are examples of such pairs demonstrating the influence of opposing concepts on the development of legal doctrines throughout history.[22]

Deconstructing History

Deconstructive readings of history and sources have changed the entire discipline of history. In Deconstructing History, Alun Munslow examines history in what he argues is a postmodern age. He provides an introduction to the debates and issues of postmodernist history. He also surveys the latest research into the relationship between the past, history, and historical practice, as well as articulating his own theoretical challenges.[23]

The Inoperative Community

Jean-Luc Nancy argues, in his 1982 book The Inoperative Community, for an understanding of community and society that is undeconstructable because it is prior to conceptualisation. Nancy's work is an important development of deconstruction because it takes the challenge of deconstruction seriously and attempts to develop an understanding of political terms that is undeconstructable and therefore suitable for a philosophy after Derrida.

The Ethics of Deconstruction

Simon Critchley argues, in his 1992 book The Ethics of Deconstruction,[24] that Derrida's deconstruction is an intrinsically ethical practice. Critchley argues that deconstruction involves an openness to the Other that makes it ethical in the Levinasian understanding of the term.

Derrida and the Political

Jacques Derrida has had a great influence on contemporary political theory and political philosophy. Derrida's thinking has inspired Slavoj Zizek, Richard Rorty, Ernesto Laclau, Judith Butler and many more contemporary theorists who have developed a deconstructive approach to politics. Because deconstruction examines the internal logic of any given text or discourse it has helped many authors to analyse the contradictions inherent in all schools of thought; and, as such, it has proved revolutionary in political analysis, particularly ideology critiques.[25][page needed]

Richard Beardsworth, developing from Critchley's Ethics of Deconstruction, argues, in his 1996 Derrida and the Political, that deconstruction is an intrinsically political practice. He further argues that the future of deconstruction faces a perhaps undecidable choice between a theological approach and a technological approach, represented first of all by the work of Bernard Stiegler.


Derrida was involved in a number of high-profile disagreements with prominent philosophers, including Michel Foucault, John Searle, Willard Van Orman Quine, Peter Kreeft, and Jürgen Habermas. Most of the criticism of deconstruction were first articulated by these philosophers then repeated elsewhere.

John Searle

In the early 1970s, Searle had a brief exchange with Jacques Derrida regarding speech-act theory. The exchange was characterized by a degree of mutual hostility between the philosophers, each of whom accused the other of having misunderstood his basic points.[26]: 29 [citation needed] Searle was particularly hostile to Derrida's deconstructionist framework and much later refused to let his response to Derrida be printed along with Derrida's papers in the 1988 collection Limited Inc. Searle did not consider Derrida's approach to be legitimate philosophy, or even intelligible writing, and argued that he did not want to legitimize the deconstructionist point of view by paying any attention to it. Consequently, some critics[who?][27] have considered the exchange to be a series of elaborate misunderstandings rather than a debate, while others[who?][28] have seen either Derrida or Searle gaining the upper hand. The level of hostility can be seen from Searle's statement that "It would be a mistake to regard Derrida's discussion of Austin as a confrontation between two prominent philosophical traditions", to which Derrida replied that that sentence was "the only sentence of the 'reply' to which I can subscribe".[29] Commentators have frequently interpreted the exchange as a prominent example of a confrontation between analytic and continental philosophies.

The debate began in 1972, when, in his paper "Signature Event Context", Derrida analyzed J. L. Austin's theory of the illocutionary act. While sympathetic to Austin's departure from a purely denotational account of language to one that includes "force", Derrida was sceptical of the framework of normativity employed by Austin. Derrida argued that Austin had missed the fact that any speech event is framed by a "structure of absence" (the words that are left unsaid due to contextual constraints) and by "iterability" (the constraints on what can be said, imposed by what has been said in the past). Derrida argued that the focus on intentionality in speech-act theory was misguided because intentionality is restricted to that which is already established as a possible intention. He also took issue with the way Austin had excluded the study of fiction, non-serious, or "parasitic" speech, wondering whether this exclusion was because Austin had considered these speech genres as governed by different structures of meaning, or hadn't considered them due to a lack of interest. In his brief reply to Derrida, "Reiterating the Differences: A Reply to Derrida", Searle argued that Derrida's critique was unwarranted because it assumed that Austin's theory attempted to give a full account of language and meaning when its aim was much narrower. Searle considered the omission of parasitic discourse forms to be justified by the narrow scope of Austin's inquiry.[30][31] Searle agreed with Derrida's proposal that intentionality presupposes iterability, but did not apply the same concept of intentionality used by Derrida, being unable or unwilling to engage with the continental conceptual apparatus.[28] This, in turn, caused Derrida to criticize Searle for not being sufficiently familiar with phenomenological perspectives on intentionality.[32] Some critics[who?][32] have suggested that Searle, by being so grounded in the analytical tradition that he was unable to engage with Derrida's continental phenomenological tradition, was at fault for the unsuccessful nature of the exchange, however Searle also argued that Derrida's disagreement with Austin turned on Derrida's having misunderstood Austin's type–token distinction and having failed to understand Austin's concept of failure in relation to performativity.

Derrida, in his response to Searle ("a b c ..." in Limited Inc), ridiculed Searle's positions. Claiming that a clear sender of Searle's message could not be established, Derrida suggested that Searle had formed with Austin a société à responsabilité limitée (a "limited liability company") due to the ways in which the ambiguities of authorship within Searle's reply circumvented the very speech act of his reply. Searle did not reply. Later in 1988, Derrida tried to review his position and his critiques of Austin and Searle, reiterating that he found the constant appeal to "normality" in the analytical tradition to be problematic.[26]: 133 [28][33][34][35][36][37][38]

In 1995, Searle gave a brief reply to Derrida in The Construction of Social Reality. He called Derrida's conclusion "preposterous" and stated that "Derrida, as far as I can tell, does not have an argument. He simply declares that there is nothing outside of texts..."[39] Searle's reference here is not to anything forwarded in the debate, but to a mistranslation of the phrase "il n'y a pas dehors du texte," ("There is no outside-text") which appears in Derrida's Of Grammatology.[40]: 158–159 

Jürgen Habermas

In The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, Jürgen Habermas criticized what he considered Derrida's opposition to rational discourse.[41] Further, in an essay on religion and religious language, Habermas criticized Derrida's emphasis on etymology and philology[41] (see Etymological fallacy).

Walter A. Davis

The American philosopher Walter A. Davis, in Inwardness and Existence: Subjectivity in/and Hegel, Heidegger, Marx and Freud, argues that both deconstruction and structuralism are prematurely arrested moments of a dialectical movement that issues from Hegelian "unhappy consciousness".[42][page needed]

In popular media

Popular criticism of deconstruction intensified following the Sokal affair, which many people took as an indicator of the quality of deconstruction as a whole, despite the absence of Derrida from Sokal's follow-up book Impostures Intellectuelles.[43]

Chip Morningstar holds a view critical of deconstruction, believing it to be "epistemologically challenged". He claims the humanities are subject to isolation and genetic drift due to their unaccountability to the world outside academia. During the Second International Conference on Cyberspace (Santa Cruz, California, 1991), he reportedly heckled deconstructionists off the stage.[44] He subsequently presented his views in the article "How to Deconstruct Almost Anything", where he stated, "Contrary to the report given in the 'Hype List' column of issue #1 of Wired ('Po-Mo Gets Tek-No', page 87), we did not shout down the postmodernists. We made fun of them."[45]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Wood
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  3. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Writing
  4. Frank, Manfred (1989). What is Neostructuralism?. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-0816616022.
  5. Buchanan, Ian. A dictionary of critical theory. OUP Oxford, 2010. Entry: Neostructuralism.
  6. Moynihan, Robert (1986). A Recent imagining: interviews with Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, J. Hillis Miller, Paul De Man (1st ed.). Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books. p. 156. ISBN 9780208021205.
  7. Brooks, Peter (1995). The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism: From Formalism to Poststructuralism (1st ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 171. ISBN 9780521300131.
  8. Caputo, John D. (1997). Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida (3rd ed.). New York: Fordham University Press. p. 31. ISBN 9780823217557.
  9. Lucy, Niall (2004). A Derrida Dictionary. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 978-1405137515.
  10. Klein, Anne Carolyn (1994). Meeting the Great Bliss Queen: Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self. Boston: Beacon Press. ISBN 9780807073063.
  11. Powell, Jim (2005). Deconstruction for Beginners. Danbury, Connecticut: Writers and Readers Publishing. ISBN 978-0863169984.
  12. Royle, Nicholas (2000). Deconstructions: A User's Guide. New York: Palgrave. ISBN 978-0333717615.
  13. Sallis, John (1988). Deconstruction and Philosophy: The Texts of Jacques Derrida (Paperback ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 3–4. ISBN 978-0226734392. One of the more persistent misunderstandings that has thus far forestalled a productive debate with Derrida's philosophical thought is the assumption, shared by many philosophers as well as literary critics, that within that thought just anything is possible. Derrida's philosophy is more often than not construed as a license for arbitrary free play in flagrant disregard of all established rules of argumentation, traditional requirements of thought, and ethical standards binding upon the interpretative community. Undoubtedly, some of the works of Derrida may not have been entirely innocent in this respect, and may have contributed, however obliquely, to fostering to some extent that very misconception. But deconstruction which for many has come to designate the content and style of Derrida's thinking, reveals to even a superficial examination, a well-ordered procedure, a step-by-step type of argumentation based on an acute awareness of level-distinctions, a marked thoroughness and regularity. [...] Deconstruction must be understood, we contend, as the attempt to "account," in a certain manner, for a heterogeneous variety or manifold of nonlogical contradictions and discursive equalities of all sorts that continues to haunt and fissure even the successful development of philosophical arguments and their systematic exposition
  14. Hobson, Marian (2012). Jacques Derrida: Opening Lines. Routledge. p. 51. ISBN 9781134774449. Retrieved 8 September 2017.
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  18. Davis, Kathleen (2014). Deconstruction and Translation. New York: Routledge. p. 41. ISBN 9781900650281.
  19. Derrida, "Structure, Sign, and Play" (1966), as printed/translated by Macksey & Donato (1970)
  20. Tisch, Maude. "A critical distance". The Yale Herald. Retrieved 2017-01-27.
  21. Miller, J. Hillis (1976). "STEVENS' ROCK AND CRITICISM AS CURE: In Memory of William K. Wimsatt (1907-1975)". The Georgia Review. 30 (1): 5–31. ISSN 0016-8386. JSTOR 41399571.
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  25. McQuillan, Martin (2007). The Politics of Deconstruction: Jacques Derrida and the Other of Philosophy (1st ed.). London: Pluto Press. ISBN 978-0745326740.
  26. 26.0 26.1 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Limited
  27. Maclachlan, Ian (2004). Jacques Derrida: Critical Thought. Aldershot: Ashgate. ISBN 978-0754608066.
  28. 28.0 28.1 28.2 Alfino, Mark (1991). "Another Look at the Derrida-Searle Debate". Philosophy & Rhetoric. 24 (2): 143–152. JSTOR 40237667.
  29. Simon Glendinning. 2001. Arguing with Derrida. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 18
  30. Gregor Campbell. 1993. "John R. Searle" in Irene Rima Makaryk (ed). Encyclopedia of contemporary literary theory: approaches, scholars, terms. University of Toronto Press, 1993
  31. John Searle, "Reiterating the Différences: A Reply to Derrida", Glyph 2 (Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977).
  32. 32.0 32.1 Marian Hobson. 1998. Jacques Derrida: opening lines. Psychology Press. pp. 95-97
  33. Farrell, Frank B. (1 January 1988). "Iterability and Meaning: The Searle-Derrida Debate". Metaphilosophy. 19 (1): 53–64. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9973.1988.tb00701.x. ISSN 1467-9973.
  34. Fish, Stanley E. (1982). "With the Compliments of the Author: Reflections on Austin and Derrida". Critical Inquiry. 8 (4): 693–721. doi:10.1086/448177. JSTOR 1343193. S2CID 161086152.
  35. Wright, Edmond (1982). "Derrida, Searle, Contexts, Games, Riddles". New Literary History. 13 (3): 463–477. doi:10.2307/468793. JSTOR 468793.
  36. Culler, Jonathan (1981). "Convention and Meaning: Derrida and Austin". New Literary History. 13 (1): 15–30. doi:10.2307/468640. JSTOR 468640.
  37. Kenaan, Hagi (2002). "Language, philosophy and the risk of failure: rereading the debate between Searle and Derrida". Continental Philosophy Review. 35 (2): 117–133. doi:10.1023/A:1016583115826. S2CID 140898191.
  38. Raffel, Stanley (28 July 2011). "Understanding Each Other: The Case of the Derrida-Searle Debate". Human Studies. 34 (3): 277–292. doi:10.1007/s10746-011-9189-6. S2CID 145210811.
  39. Searle, John R. (1995). The Construction of Social Reality (3rd ed.). New York: Free Press. pp. 157–160. ISBN 978-0029280454.
  40. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Derrida
  41. 41.0 41.1 Habermas, Jürgen; Lawrence, Frederick (2005). The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures (Reprinted ed.). Cambridge: Polity Press. pp. 185–210. ISBN 978-0745608303.
  42. Davis, Walter A. (1989). Inwardness and Existence: Subjectivity In/and Hegel, Heidegger, Marx, and Freud (1st ed.). Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 978-0299120146.
  43. Sokal, Alan D. (May 1996). "A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies". Retrieved 3 April 2007.
  44. Steinberg, Steve (1 January 1993). "Hype List". WIRED. Retrieved 19 May 2017.
  45. Morningstar, Chip (1993-07-05). "How To Deconstruct Almost Anything: My Postmodern Adventure". Retrieved 2017-05-19.

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