What is Deconstruction?


Deconstruction (or sometimes just Deconstructionism) was initiated by Jacques Derrida in the 1960s as a theoretical approach in Epistemology and Philosophy of Language and philosophy more broadly. Though notoriously misunderstood, mainly due to its initial reception, it is at the core an approach to literary criticism. With this approach, Derrida aimed to put to test traditional assumptions about certainty, identity, and truth more generally. Influenced by the early 20th century French linguists, Derrida asserted that words can only refer to other words, and thus not always or even at all to objects in the world (which was the dominant view popularised by John Stuart Mill in the 19th century). The aim of deconstruction is to show how any given philosophical (or literary) text undermines its own structure and therefore also its own meaning, precisely because language is so complex that it cannot be assigned an object in the world.

To be sure, Derrida denied that deconstruction was a doctrine or method of approaching philosophy. Nevertheless, the term deconstruction has been used by philosophers to assign to Derrida a particular method of doing philosophy. Derrida’s method consisted of identifying the implicit assumptions of a text, and aim to understand these assumptions by uncovering the framework upon which the philosophical text in question is grounded. In other words, Derrida aimed to bring to light that which constituted the shape or form of a text – the underlying thoughts and beliefs on which the text relies.

Given Derrida’s resistance to view deconstruction as a method or doctrine, it has become a notoriously difficult term for philosopher to come to terms with, or even to give some form of definition. One of the better definitions is that of Richard Rorty, who thought that deconstructing a text is by looking at where accidental features of a text start betraying the actual message that the text puts forward. Not surprisingly, the academic community has viciously criticised almost all attempts that give a layman’s explanation as either insufficiently clear, or as a misunderstanding – going as far as to claim that most definitions are contrary to Derrida’s intentions.

Critics of deconstruction have claimed that deconstruction as an approach or method is nihilistic. Indeed, that deconstruction is a way to destabilise the achievements of the Western scholarly tradition, its ethics and scientific method. Particularly conservative and libertarian writers, including philosophers, have attacked Derrida’s philosophical concept.

Influences on Deconstruction

Major influences on Derrida‘s thinking were Ferdinad de Sassure and Friedrich Nietzsche. In fact, Derrida himself claimed that the latter was an early adopter of deconstruction at least in form. Nietzsche’s work too is often mistakenly criticised for being nihilistic. Furthermore, Derrida was heavily influenced by early 20th century phenomenologists, especially Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger.

Derrida developed deconstruction at Yale University, where research focus at the time was dominated by Structuralism and Post-Structuralism.

Further Reading

Caputo, J. D. (1996). Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida, New York: Fordham University Press.

McQuillan, M. (2000). Deconstruction: A Reader, New York: Routledge.

Norris, C. (2002). Deconstruction: Theory and Practice, London: Routledge.

Taylor, M. C. (1986). Deconstruction in Context: Literature and Philosophy, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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