Deconstruction is a term introduced by French philosopher Jacques Derrida in his 1967 book Of Grammatology. Although he carefully avoided defining the term directly, he sought to apply Martin Heidegger's concept of Destruktion or Abbau, to textual reading.[1] Heidegger's term referred to a process of exploring the categories and concepts that tradition has imposed on a word, and the history behind them.[2] Derrida opted for deconstruction over the literal translation destruction to suggest precision rather than violence.[1]

In describing deconstruction, Derrida famously observed that "there is nothing outside the text." That is to say, all of the references used to interpret a text are themselves texts, even the "text" of reality as a reader knows it. There is no truly objective, non-textual reference from which interpretation can begin. Deconstruction, then, can be described as an effort to understand a text through its relationships to various contexts.[3]

The term "deconstructionism" is sometimes applied as a title for Derrida's school of thought, but Derrida is more often classified as a post-structuralist.[4]


Schematic descriptions

The first book in which Derrida talks about deconstruction is Of Grammatology (1967). The first passage ever mentioning it says another word for it is "de-sedimentation," particularly in an historical sense. It reads:[5]

The "rationality" [...] which governs a writing thus enlarged and radicalized, [defining writing as all that gives rise to an inscription in general, including pictorial, musical, sculptural "writing"] no longer issues from a logos. Further, it inaugurates the destruction, not the demolition but the de-sedimentation, the de-construction, of all the significations that have their source in that of the logos. Particularly the signification of truth. All the metaphysical determinations of truth, and even the one beyond metaphysical onto-theology that Heidegger reminds us of, are more or less immediately inseparable from the instance of the logos, or of a reason thought within the lineage of the logos, in whatever sense it is understood: in the pre-Socratic or the philosophical sense, in the sense of God's infinite understanding or in the anthropological sense, in the pre-Hegelian or the post-Hegelian sense.

In 1972 he remarked the historical aspect of deconstruction:[6]

To "deconstruct" philosophy [...] would be to think – in the most faithful, interior way – the structured genealogy of philosophy's concepts, but at the same time to determine – from a certain exterior [...] – what this history has been able to dissimulate or forbid [...] By means of this simultaneously faithful and violent circulation between the inside and the outside of philosophy [...a] putting into question the meaning of Being as presence.

In 1980 Derrida spoke of deconstruction as an "ensemble of rules for reading, interpretation and writing:"[7]

From about 1963 to 1968, I tried to work out - in particular in the three works published in 1967 - what was in no way meant to be a system but rather a sort of strategic device, opening its own abyss, an unclosed, unenclosable, not wholly formalizable ensemble of rules for reading, interpretation and writing.

In the application of this ensemble of rules and historical perspective, one observation about the "devaluation of writing," proved crucial for all of Derrida works: the devaluation of writing is an ancestral bias that was born with Western civilization itself, and remains crucial in modern culture, including science.[7] In fact, the unmasking of the "devaluation of writing" (and the way in which it has "sedimented" in our culture in the course of history), was a key topic in Derrida's work, that proved fruitful not only in the deconstruction of classics of philosophy and the "socio-historical totality" of our civilization, but also for the deconstruction of texts of the most modern social sciences (linguistics, anthropology, psychoanalysis), and even contemporary texts alleged to be scientific.[7] Everywhere in these texts, the devaluation of writing showed to be "insistent, repetitive, even obscurely compulsive," and "the sign of a whole set of long-standing constraints. These constraints were practised at the price of contradictions, of denials, of dogmatic decrees."[7]

In 1988, while discussing the reception his famous assertion that "There is nothing outside the text," Derrida gave the following description of deconstruction:[8]

One of the definitions of what is called deconstruction would be the effort to take this limitless context into account, to pay the sharpest and broadest attention possible to context, and thus to an incessant movement of recontextualization.


Deconstruction emerged from the influence of several thinkers upon Derrida, including:

  • Edmund Husserl. The greatest focus of Derrida's early work was on Husserl, from his dissertation (eventually published as The Problem of Genesis in Husserl's Philosophy), to his "Introduction" to Husserl's "Essay on the Origin of Geometry," to his first published paper, "'Genesis and Structure' and Phenomenology" (in Writing and Difference), and lastly to his important early work, Speech and Phenomena.
  • Martin Heidegger. Heidegger's thought was a crucial influence on Derrida, and he conducted numerous readings of Heidegger, including the important early essay, "Ousia and Gramme: Note on a Note from Being and Time" (in Margins of Philosophy), to his study of Heidegger and Nazism entitled Of Spirit, to a series of papers entitled "Geschlecht." Heidegger was keen to meet Derrida but the meeting between the two was not materialised.[9] Martin Heidegger's philosophy developed in relation to Edmund Husserl's, and Derrida's use of the term deconstruction is closely linked to his own (Derrida's) appropriation of the latter's understanding of the problems of structural description.[citation needed]
  • Sigmund Freud. Derrida has written extensively on Freud, beginning with the paper, "Freud and the Scene of Writing" (in Writing and Difference), and a long reading of Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle in his book, The Post Card. In Archive Fever, Derrida offers a critical analysis of Freud's Delusion and Dream in Wilhelm Jensen's Gradiva. Jacques Lacan has also been read by Derrida, although the two writers to some extent avoided commenting on each other's work.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche's singular philosophical approach was an important forerunner of deconstruction, and Derrida devoted attention to his texts in Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles and The Ear of the Other.
  • André Leroi-Gourhan. Of Grammatology makes clear the importance of Leroi-Gourhan for the formulation of deconstruction and especially of the concept of différance, relating this to the history of the evolution of systems for coding difference, from DNA to electronic data storage.
  • Ferdinand de Saussure. Derrida's deconstruction in Of Grammatology of Saussure's structural linguistics was critical to his formulation of deconstruction, and his insertion of linguistic concerns into the heart of philosophy - Saussure's concept of linguistics also is an important aspect in the entire theory of deconstruction. His theories, and its crucial contradiction, like of sign, signifier, and signified, paved way to the new interpretation of semiotics in the intellectual framework of Jacques Derrida.
  • Claude Levi Strauss. In his "Structure Sign and Play..." Derrida critically analyzed Claude Levi Strauss and introduced deconstruction as a pathbreaking concept of the century. This is cardinal as from the broken base of Strauss' theory the concept of deconstruction entered not only the world of philosophy but also the world of anthropology and many other sciences as well.


According to Rodolphe Gasché, Derrida's method consisted in demonstrating all the forms and varieties of this originary complexity, 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.[10]

Deconstruction denotes the pursuing 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 (Li and Chang, 1.1). It is an approach that may be deployed in philosophy, literary analysis, or other fields.[citation needed] 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.{Li and Chang, 1.1} Derrida refers to this point as an aporia in the text, and terms deconstructive reading "aporetic."

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.

Related works by Derrida

Antecedent example: the Phenomenology vs Structuralism debate

Before coining the term Deconstruction, Derrida began speaking and writing publicly at a time when the French intellectual scene was experiencing an increasing rift between what could broadly be called "phenomenological" and "structural" approaches to understanding individual and collective life. For those with a more phenomenological bent the goal was to understand experience by comprehending and describing its genesis, the process of its emergence from an origin or event. For the structuralists, this was a problematic and misleading avenue of interrogation, and the "depth" and originality of experience could in fact only be an effect of structures which are not themselves experiential. It is in this context that in 1959 Derrida asks the question: Must not structure have a genesis, and must not the origin, the point of genesis, be already structured in order to be the genesis of something?[11]

In other words, every structural or "synchronic" phenomenon has a history, and the structure cannot be understood without understanding its genesis.[12] At the same time, in order that there be movement, or potential, the origin cannot be some pure unity or simplicity, but must already be articulated—complex—such that from it a "diachronic" process can emerge. This originary complexity must not be understood as an original positing, but more like a default of origin, which Derrida refers to as iterability, inscription, or textuality.[13] It is this thought of originary complexity, rather than original purity, which destabilises the thought of both genesis and structure, that sets Derrida's work in motion, and from which derive all of its terms, including deconstruction.[14]


Crucial to Derrida's work is the concept of différance, a complex term which refers to the process of the production of difference and deferral. According to Derrida, all difference and all presence arise from the operation of différance.[6]

To deconstruct philosophy is therefore to think carefully within philosophy about philosophical concepts in terms of their structure and genesis. Deconstruction questions the appeal to presence by arguing that there is always an irreducible aspect of non-presence in operation. Derrida terms this aspect of non-presence différance. Différance is therefore the key theoretical basis of deconstruction. Deconstruction questions the basic operation of all philosophy through the appeal to presence and différance. Derrida argues that différance pervades all philosophy because "What defers presence [...] is the very basis on which presence is announced or desired in what represents it, its sign, its trace".[15] Différance therefore pervades all philosophy because all philosophy is constructed as a system through language. Différance is essential to language because it produces "what metaphysics calls the sign (signified/signifier)".[16]

In one sense, a sign must point to something beyond itself that is its meaning so the sign is never fully present in itself but a deferral to something else, to something different. In another sense the structural relationship between the signified and signifier, as two related but separate aspects of the sign, is produced through differentiation. Derrida states that différance "is the economical concept", meaning that it is the concept of all systems and structures, because "there is no economy without différance [...] the movement of différance, as that which produces different things, that which differentiates, is the common root of all the oppositional concepts that mark our language [...] différance is also the production [...] of these differences."[15] Différance is therefore the condition of possibility for all complex systems and hence all philosophy.

Operating through différance, deconstruction is the description of how non-presence problematises the operation of the appeal to presence within a particular philosophical system. Différance is an a-priori condition of possibility that is always already in effect but a deconstruction must be a careful description of how this différance is actually in effect in a given text. Deconstruction therefore describes problems in the text rather than creating them (which would be trivial). Derrida considers the illustration of aporia in this way to be productive because it shows the failure of earlier philosophical systems and the necessity of continuing to philosophise through them with deconstruction.

Of Grammatology

Derrida first employs the term deconstruction in Of Grammatology in 1967 when discussing the implications of understanding language as writing rather than speech.[Need quotation to verify] Here Derrida introduces deconstruction to describe the manner that understanding language as “writing” (in general) renders infeasible a straightforward semantic theory.[citation needed] Derrida states that:

[w]riting thus enlarged and radicalized, no longer issues from a logos. Further, it inaugurates the destruction, not the demolition but the de-sedimentation, the de-construction, of all the significations that have their source in that of the logos.[5]

In this quotation Derrida states that deconstruction is what happens to meaning when language is understood as writing.[Need quotation to verify] For Derrida, when language is understood as writing it is realised that meaning does not originate in the logos or thought of the language user. Instead individual language users are understood to be using an external system of signs, a system that exists separately to them because these signs are written down. The meaning of language does not originate in the thoughts of the individual language user because those thoughts are already taking place in a language that does not originate with them. Individual language users operate within a system of meaning that is given to them from outside. Meaning is therefore not fully under the control of the individual language user. The meaning of a text is not neatly determined by authorial intention and cannot be recreated without problem by a reader. Meaning necessarily involves some degree of interpretation, negotiation, or translation. This necessity for the active interpretation of meaning by readers when language is understood as writing is why deconstruction takes place.[citation needed]

To understand this more fully, consider the difference for Derrida between understanding language as speech and as writing. Derrida argues that people have historically understood speech as the primary mode of language[17] and understood writing as an inferior derivative of speech.[18] Derrida argues that speech is historically equated with logos,[19] meaning thought, and associated with the presence of the speaker to the listener.[20] It is as if the speaker thinks out loud and the listener hears what the speaker is thinking and if there is any confusion then the speaker's presence allows them to qualify the meaning of a previous statement. Derrida argues that by understanding speech as thought language "effaces itself."[21] Language itself is forgotten. The signified meaning of speech is so immediately understood that it is easy to forget that there are linguistic signifiers involved - but these signifiers are the spoken sounds (phonemes) and written marks (graphemes) that actually comprise language. Derrida therefore associates speech with a very straightforward and unproblematic theory of meaning and with the forgetting of the signifier and hence language itself.

Derrida contrasts the understanding of language as speech with an understanding of language as writing. Unlike a speaker a writer is usually absent (even dead) and the reader cannot rely on the writer to clarify any problems that there might be with the meaning of the text. The consideration of language as writing leads inescapably to the insight that language is a system of signs. As a system of signs the signifiers are present but the signification can only be inferred. There is effectively an act of translation involved in extracting a significaton from the signifiers of language. This act of translation is so habitual to language users that they must step back from their experience of using language in order to fully realise its operation. The significance of understanding language as writing rather than speech is that signifiers are present in language but significations are absent. To decide what words mean is therefore an act of interpretation. The insight that language is a system of signs, most obvious in the consideration of language as writing, leads Derrida to state that "everything [...] gathered under the name of language is beginning to let itself be transferred to [...] the name of writing."[22] This means that there is no room for the naive theory of meaning and forgetting of the signifier that previously existed when language was understood as speech.

Later in his career, in 1980, Derrida retrospectively confirmed the importance of his observation on the devaluation of writing,[7] (some have called it Derrida's distinction between speech and writing)[citation needed] which proved valid not only for classics of philosophy and the "socio-historical totality" of our civilization, but also for the deconstruction of a variety of modern scientific texts in linguistics, in anthropology, in psychoanalysis.[7] Everywhere in these texts, such detection devaluation of writing showed to be "insistent, repetitive, even obscurely compulsive," and " the sign of a whole set of long-standing constraints. These constraints were practised at the price of contradictions, of denials, of dogmatic decrees."[7]

Here Derrida states that deconstruction exposes historical constraints within the whole history of philosophy that have been practised at the price of contradictions, denials, and dogmatic decrees. The unmasking of how contradictions, denials, and dogmatic decrees are at work in a given text is closely associated with deconstruction. The careful illustration of how such problems are inescapable in a given text can lead someone to describe that text as deconstructed.

Speech and Phenomena

Derrida's first book length deconstruction is his critical engagement with Husserl's phenomenology in Speech and Phenomena published in 1967. Derrida states that Speech and Phenomena is the "essay I value the most"[23] and it is therefore a very important example of deconstruction.

Husserl's philosophy is grounded in conscious experience as the ultimate origin of validity for all philosophy and science. Derrida's deconstruction operates by illustrating how the originary status of consciousness is compromised by the operation of structures within conscious experience that prevent it from being "the original self-giving evidence, the present or presence of sense to a full and primordial intuition."[24] Derrida argues that Husserl's "phenomenology seems to us tormented, if not contested from within, by its own descriptions of the movement of temporalization and language."[25] Derrida argues that the involvement of language and temporalisation within the "living present"[25] of conscious experience means that instead of consciousness being the pure unitary origin of validity that Husserl wishes it be, it is compromised by the operation of différance in the structures of language and temporalisation.

Derrida argues that language is a structured system of signs and that the meanings of individual signs are produced by the différance between that sign and other signs. This means that words are not self-sufficiently meaningful but only meaningful as part of a larger structure that makes meaning possible. Derrida therefore argues that the meaning of language is dependent on the larger structures of language and cannot originate in the unity of conscious experience. Derrida therefore argues that linguistic meaning does not originate in the intentional meaning of the speaking subject. This conclusion is very important for deconstruction and explains the importance of Speech and Phenomena for Derrida. Informed by this conclusion the deconstruction of a text will typically demonstrate the inability of the author to achieve their stated intentions within a text by demonstrating how the meaning of the language they use is, at least partially, beyond the ability of their intentions to control. Similarly, Derrida argues that Husserl's description of temporal of consciousness - where he describes the retension of past conscious experience and protension of future conscious experience - introduces the structural différance of temporal deferral, temporal non-presence, into consciousness. This means that the past and future are not in the living present of conscious experience but they taint the presence of the living present with their conscious absence through retension and protension. Husserl's description of temporal consciousness therefore compromises the total self presence of conscious experience required by Husserl's philosophy once again.

Writing and Difference

Writing and Difference is a collection of essays published by Derrida in 1967. Each essay is a critical negotiation by Derrida of texts by philosophical or literary writers. These essays have come to be termed deconstructions even though some of them were written before Derrida's first use of the term in Of Grammatology. For example, the chapter "Cogito and the History of Madness," dating from 1963, has been referred to as a deconstruction of the work of Michel Foucault, yet the term "deconstruction" does not actually appear in the chapter.[26]

Derrida's later work

While Derrida's deconstructions in the 1960s and 1970s were frequently concerned with the major philosophical systems, in his later work he is often concerned to demonstrate the aporias of specific terms and concepts, including forgiveness, hospitality, friendship, the gift, responsibility and cosmopolitanism.

The difficulty of definition and Derrida's "negative" descriptions

When asked "What is deconstruction?" Derrida replied, "I have no simple and formalisable response to this question. All my essays are attempts to have it out with this formidable question".[27] Derrida believes that deconstruction is necessarily complicated and difficult to explain since it actively criticises the very language needed to explain it.

Derrida's defenders[citation needed] argue that in giving this reply, Derrida was simply being consistent: the word "deconstruction" is as slippery as any other word in the dictionary. Others criticize Derrida for being unable to define the discipline that he himself created, and for being evasive about it.

According to some,[who?] Derrida has been more forthcoming with negative than positive descriptions of deconstruction.[citation needed] When asked by Toshihiko Izutsu some preliminary considerations on how to translate "deconstruction" in Japanese, in order to at least prevent going contrary to its actual meaning, Derrida therefore began his response by saying that such question amounts to "what deconstruction is not, or rather ought not to be."[1]

Derrida states that deconstruction is not an analysis, a critique, or a method[28] in the traditional sense that 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."[28] 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."[28] 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.”[28] 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.[original research?]

Not a method

Derrida states that “Deconstruction is not a method and cannot be transformed into one.”[28] This is because deconstruction is not a mechanical operation. Derrida warns against considering deconstruction as a mechanical operation when he states that “It is true that in certain circles (university or cultural, especially in the United States) the technical and methodological “metaphor” that seems necessarily attached to the very word “deconstruction” has been able to seduce or lead astray.”[28] Commentator Richard Beardsworth explains that

Derrida is careful to avoid this term [method] because it carries connotations of a procedural form of judgement. A thinker with a method has already decided how to proceed, is unable to give him or herself up to the matter of thought in hand, is a functionary of the criteria which structure his or her conceptual gestures. For Derrida [...] this is irresponsibility itself. Thus, to talk of a method in relation to deconstruction, especially regarding its ethico-political implications, would appear to go directly against the current of Derrida's philosophical adventure.[29]

Beardsworth here explains that it would be irresponsible to undertake a deconstruction with a complete set of rules that need only be applied as a method to the object of deconstruction because this understanding would reduce deconstruction to a thesis of the reader that the text is then made to fit. This would be an irresponsible act of reading because it ignores the empirical facticity of the text itself - that is it becomes a prejudicial procedure that only finds what it sets out to find. To be responsible a deconstruction must carefully negotiate the empirical facticity of the text and hence respond to it. Deconstruction is not a method and this means that it is not a neat set of rules that can be applied to any text in the same way. Deconstruction is therefore not neatly transcendental because it cannot be considered separate from the contingent empirical facticity of the particular texts that any deconstruction must carefully negotiate. Each deconstruction is necessarily different (otherwise it achieves no work) and this is why Derrida states that “Deconstruction takes place, it is an event.”[30] On the other hand, deconstruction cannot be completely untranscendental because this would make it meaningless to, for example, speak of two different examples of deconstruction as both being examples of deconstruction. It is for this reason that Richard Rorty asks if Derrida should be considered a quasi-transcendental philosopher that operates in the tension between the demands of the empirical and the transcendental. Each example of deconstruction must be different, but it must also share something with other examples of deconstruction. Deconstruction is therefore not a method in the traditional sense but is what Derrida terms "an unclosed, unenclosable, not wholly formalizable ensemble of rules for reading, interpretation and writing."[7]

Not a critique

Derrida states that deconstruction is not a critique in the Kantian sense.[28] 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. For Derrida 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. This transcending of the empirical facticity of the signifier by an ideally conceived signified is metaphysical. It is metaphysical in the sense that it mimics the understanding in Aristotle's metaphysics of an ideally conceived being as that which transcends the existence of every individually existing thing. In a less formal version of the argument it might be noted that it is impossible to use language without asserting being, and hence metaphysics, constantly through the use of the various modifications of the verb "to be". In addition Derrida asks rhetorically "Is not the idea of knowledge and of the acquisition of knowledge in itself metaphysical?"[31] 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 desediment 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.[28] 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. This is 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 page on différance.

Not poststructuralist

Derrida states that his use of the word deconstruction first took place in a context in which "structuralism was dominant"[32] and its use is related to this context. Derrida states that deconstruction is an "antistructuralist gesture"[32] because "Structures were to be undone, decomposed, desedimented."[32] At the same time for Derrida deconstruction is also a "structuralist gesture"[32] because it is concerned with the structure of texts. So for Derrida deconstruction involves “a certain attention to structures"[32] and tries to “understand how an 'ensemble' was constituted."[28] As both a structuralist and an antistructuralist gesture deconstruction is tied up with what Derrida calls the "structural problematic."[32] The structural problematic for Derrida is the tension between genesis, that which is "in the essential mode of creation or movement,"[33] and structure, "systems, or complexes, or static configurations."[34] 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. For Derrida, Genesis and Structure are both inescapable modes of description, there are some things that "must be described in terms of structure, and others which must be described in terms of genesis,"[34] but these two modes of description are difficult to reconcile and this is the tension of the structural problematic. In Derrida's own words the structural problematic is that "beneath the serene use of these concepts [genesis and structure] is to be found a debate that...makes new reductions and explications indefinitely necessary."[35] The structural problematic is therefore what propels philosophy and hence deconstruction forward. Another significance of the structural problematic for Derrida is that while a critique of structuralism is a recurring theme of his philosophy this does not mean that philosophy can claim to be able to discard all structural aspects. It is for this reason that Derrida distances his use of the term deconstruction from poststructuralism, a term that would suggest philosophy could simply go beyond structuralism. Derrida states that “the motif of deconstruction has been associated with "poststructuralism"" but that this term was "a word unknown in France until its “return” from the United States."[28] As mentioned above in section on Derrida's deconstruction of Husserl Derrida actually argues for the contamination of pure origins by the structures of language and temporality and Manfred Frank has even referred to Derrida's work as "Neostructuralism"[36] and this seems to capture Derrida's novel concern for how texts are structured.

Definitions by other authors

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 direct 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,"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."[37]
  • 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."[38] (The word accidental is used here in the sense of incidental.)
  • John D. Caputo attempts to explain deconstruction in a nutshell by stating that:

    "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 contradictory]...the paralysis and impossibility of an aporia is just what impels deconstruction, what rouses it out of bed in the morning..." (Caputo 1997, p.32)

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

    "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’".[39]

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

    [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.[40]

  • Paul Ricoeur was another prominent supporter and interpreter of Derrida's philosophy. He defines deconstruction as a way of uncovering the questions behind the answers of a text or tradition.[41]
  • Richard Ellmann defines 'deconstruction' as the systematic undoing of understanding.

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 that Derrida is working in relation to. These secondary works (e.g. Deconstruction for Beginners[42] and Deconstructions: A User's Guide[43]) have attempted to explain deconstruction while being academically criticized as too far removed from the original texts and Derrida's actual position.[citation needed] In an effort to clarify the rather muddled reception of the term deconstruction Derrida specifies what deconstruction is not through a number of negative definitions.

Developments after Derrida

Authors other than Derrida have sometimes also used the term "deconstructionism."[44])

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. Several of these theorists were subsequently affiliated with the University of California Irvine.[citation needed]

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."[45]

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 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

Richard Beardsworth, developing on 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 choice (perhaps an undecidable choice) between a theological approach and a technological approach represented first of all by the work of Bernard Stiegler.


Derrida has been 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 and repeated elsewhere.

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault was the subject of Derrida's early paper "Cogito and the History of Madness" in which Derrida makes the controversial claim that:

In this 673-page book, Michel Foucault devotes three pages- and, moreover, in a kind of prologue to his second chapter- to a certain passage from the first of Descartes's Meditations. [... in] alleging- correctly or incorrectly, as will be determined- that the sense of Foucault's entire project can be pinpointed in these few allusive and somewhat enigmatic pages, and that the reading of Descartes and the Cartesian Cogito proposed to us engages in its problematic the totality of this History of Madness...[46]

The audacity of Derrida's claim to problematise the whole of the History of Madness by working with such a small section of the text outraged Foucault. Foucault responds in the new preface to the 1972 edition of the History of Madness by complaining that after the initial publication of the text "fragments of it pass into circulation and are passed off as the real thing."[47] This comment may form the basis of the allegation that deconstruction does not adhere to conventional academic standards by failing to deal substantially with the texts it appears to criticise (see how deconstruction uses empirical evidence to demonstrate the limits of the transcendental meaning of a text in the theory section). Foucault also states in the appendix to the 1972 edition titled "My Body, This Paper, This Fire" that Derrida's deconstruction is a:

[H]istorically well-determined little pedagogy, which manifests itself here in a very visible manner. A pedagogy which teaches the student that there is nothing outside the text, but that in it, in its interstices, in its blanks and silences, the reserve of the origin reigns; that it is never necessary to look beyond it, but that here, not in the words of course, but in words as crossings-outs [sic], in their lattice, what is said is "the meaning of being". A pedagogy that inversely gives to the voice of the masters that unlimited sovereignty that allows it indefinitely to re-say the text.[48]

This rebuke by Foucault caused a rift between the two thinkers and they did not speak to each other for ten years. Foucault refers in this passage to certain claims that Derrida makes in Of Grammatology, though without quotation or citation to indicate that he is doing so. Foucault's mention of "crossings-outs" refers to the return to problematic terms under erasure (see the section on Derrida's negative descriptions of deconstruction). Foucault also alludes critically to the problematisation of presence in deconstruction as a reading of what isn't there in the text. This aspect of Foucault's argument may have encouraged Derrida to strongly emphasise the importance of fidelity to the text being deconstructed. Foucault's reference to Derrida's assertion that "there is nothing outside the text" is undoubtedly the basis of much criticism of deconstruction as being nihilistic, relativistic, a-political, or confined to the ivory tower of academia. In fact, this infamous quote is subtly but essentially mistranslated (as Foucault well knew, and thus this acknowledgement does not necessarily confute his argument), and literally reads "there is no outside-text (il n'y a pas hors-texte)," or, as Derrida himself paraphrased it in Limited Inc., "there is nothing outside context." Thus, Derrida does not argue that only what is written in the text is relevant to it, but rather that no text can or should be interpreted without considering the various "external" factors (historical, biographical, material, ideological, etc.) that contributed to its production. At the same time, according to Derrida, these allegedly "external" phenomena (e.g. "humanism," "the age of enlightenment," "logic," and, perhaps most importantly, "human nature") need to be considered as historically contingent (i.e. as subject to contextualization and thus critical reading) rather than as immutable and inevitable facts of life.

John Searle

Derrida wrote "Signature Event Context", a paper in which he critically engages with Austin's analytic philosophy of language. John Searle is a prominent supporter of Austin's philosophy and objected to "the low level of philosophical argumentation, the deliberate obscurantism of the prose, the wildly exaggerated claims, and the constant striving to give the appearance of profundity by making claims that seem paradoxical, but under analysis often turn out to be silly or trivial."[49] Searle also reported that Michel Foucault criticized Derrida's writings as "terroristic obscurantism":

Michel Foucault once characterized Derrida's prose style to me as "obscurantisme terroriste." The text is written so obscurely that you can't figure out exactly what the thesis is (hence "obscurantisme") and then when one criticizes it, the author says, "Vous m'avez mal compris; vous êtes idiot" (you have misunderstood me; you are a fool) (hence "terroriste").[50]

Jürgen Habermas

Jürgen Habermas criticized what he considered Derrida's opposition to rational discourse.

Further, in an essay on religion and religious language, Habermas criticized Derrida's insistence on etymology and philology.

Criticisms in popular media

Popular criticism of deconstruction also 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.[51]

Deconstruction has been directly parodied in a large number of literary texts. Writer Percival Everett goes further in satire, actually incorporating fictional conversations between a number of leading deconstructionists within his works. The campus novels of David Lodge, such as his novel Nice Work, contains a number of figures whose belief in the deconstructionist project is undermined by contact with non-academic figures.


  1. ^ a b c Derrida [1983] p.1
  2. ^ Martin Heidegger (1927) Being and Time, Introduction, part II.5, § 21-23
  3. ^ Derrida [1988]
  4. ^ Rorty, Richard (1995). Deconstructionist Theory. Cambridge University Press. 
  5. ^ a b Derrida [1967] Of Grammatology pp.10-11
  6. ^ a b Derrida, J., 2002. Positions. Translated by A. Bass. 2nd ed. introduction by C. Norris. London & New York: Continuum. pp. 5–6.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Derrida [1980], p.40.
  8. ^ Derrida (1988) Afterword, p.136
  9. ^ "Heidegger Life and Philosophy," BBC
  10. ^ Cf., Rodolphe Gasché, "Infrastructures and Systematicity," in John Sallis (ed.), Deconstruction and Philosophy (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 3–4:

    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.

  11. ^ Jacques Derrida, "'Genesis' and 'Structure' and Phenomenology," in Writing and Difference (London: Routledge, 1978), paper originally delivered in 1959 at Cerisy-la-Salle, and originally published in Gandillac, Goldmann & Piaget (eds.), Genèse et structure (The Hague: Morton, 1964), p. 167:

    All these formulations have been possible thanks to the initial distinction between different irreducible types of genesis and structure: worldly genesis and transcendental genesis, empirical structure, eidetic structure, and transcendental structure. To ask oneself the following historico-semantic question: "What does the notion of genesis in general, on whose basis the Husserlian diffraction could come forth and be understood, mean, and what has it always meant? What does the notion of structure in general, on whose basis Husserl operates and operates distinctions between empirical, eidetic, and transcendental dimensions mean, and what has it always meant throughout its displacements? And what is the historico-semantic relationship between genesis and structure in general?" is not only simply to ask a prior linguistic question. It is to ask the question about the unity of the historical ground on whose basis a transcendental reduction is possible and is motivated by itself. It is to ask the question about the unity of the world from which transcendental freedom releases itself, in order to make the origin of this unity appear.

  12. ^ If in 1959 Derrida was addressing this question of genesis and structure to Husserl, that is, to phenomenology, then in "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" (also in Writing and Difference, and see below), he addresses these same questions to Lévi-Strauss and the structuralists. This is clear from the very first line of the paper (p. 278):

    Perhaps something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could be called an "event," if this loaded word did not entail a meaning which it is precisely the function of structural—or structuralist—thought to reduce or to suspect.

    Between the two papers is staked Derrida's philosophical ground, if not indeed his step beyond or outside philosophy.
  13. ^ Cf., Derrida, Positions (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 95–6:

    If the alterity of the other is posed, that is, only posed, does it not amount to the same, for example in the form of the "constituted object" or of the "informed product" invested with meaning, etc.? From this point of view, I would even say that the alterity of the other inscribes in this relationship that which in no case can be "posed." Inscription, as I would define it in this respect, is not a simple position: it is rather that by means of which every position is of itself confounded (différance): inscription, mark, text and not only thesis or theme-inscription of the thesis.

    On the phrase "default of origin" as applied to Derrida's work, cf., Bernard Stiegler, "Derrida and Technology: Fidelity at the Limits of Deconstruction and the Prosthesis of Faith," in Tom Cohen (ed.) Jacques Derrida and the Humanities (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001). Stiegler understands Derrida's thinking of textuality and inscription in terms of a thinking of originary technicity, and in this context speaks of "the originary default of origin that arche-writing constitutes" (p. 239). See also Stiegler, Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).
  14. ^ On this destabilisation of both "genesis" and "structure," cf., Rodolphe Gasché, The Tain of the Mirror (Cambridge, Massachusetts, & London: Harvard University Press, 1986), p. 146:

    It is an opening that is structural, or the structurality of an opening. Yet each of these concepts excludes the other. It is thus as little a structure as it is an opening; it is as little static as it is genetic, as little structural as it is historical. It can be understood neither from a genetic nor from a structuralist and taxonomic point of view, nor from a combination of both points of view.

    And note that this complexity of the origin is thus not only spatial but temporal, which is why différance is a matter not only of difference but of delay or deferral. One way in which this question is raised in relation to Husserl is thus the question of the possibility of a phenomenology of history, which Derrida raises in Edmund Husserl's Origin of Geometry: An Introduction (1962).
  15. ^ a b Derrida, J., 2002. Positions. Translated by A. Bass. 2nd ed. introduction by C. Norris. London & New York: Continuum. p. 7.
  16. ^ Derrida, J., 2002. Positions. Translated by A. Bass. 2nd ed. introduction by C. Norris. London & New York: Continuum. p. 6.
  17. ^ Derrida [1967] Of Grammatology pp.7–11, quote: On the historical understanding of language as speech Derrida writes that "These disguises are not historical contingencies that one might admire or regret. Their movement was absolutely necessary" and that "Within this logos [i.e. the western tradition of philosophical thought], the original and essential link to the phonè has never been broken. It would be easy to demonstrate this and I shall attempt such a demonstration later."
  18. ^ Derrida [1967] Of Grammatology, at p.7 Derrida argues that writing has been considered "a particular, derivative, auxiliary form of language in general"
  19. ^ Derrida [1967] Of Grammatology, at p.7 Derrida considers the understanding of language as speech "The system of 'hearing (understanding)-oneself-speak' through the phonic substance"
  20. ^ Derrida [1967] Of Grammatology, quote: "the co-presence of the other and of the self" p.12.
  21. ^ Derrida [1967] Of Grammatology, p.11
  22. ^ Derrida [1967] Of Grammatology, p.6
  23. ^ Derrida, J., 1981. Positions. Trans. A. Bass. Chicago: Chicago UP, p. 13.
  24. ^ Derrida, J. 1973. Speech and Phenomena. Trans. D.B. Allison. Evanston: Northwestern UP. p. 5.
  25. ^ a b Derrida, J. 1973. Speech and Phenomena. Trans. D.B. Allison. Evanston: Northwestern UP. p. 6.
  26. ^ Gayatri Spivak in her introduction to her translation of Derrida's Of Grammatology refers to "Cogito and the History of Madness" as a deconstruction.
  27. ^ Derrida, 1985, p. 4
  28. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Derrida [1983] p.3
  29. ^ Beardsworth, R. 1996. Derrida and the Political. London and New York: Routledge. p.4.
  30. ^ Derrida [1983] p.4
  31. ^ Derrida, J., 1973. Speech and Phenomena. Trans. D.B. Allison. Evanston: Northwestern UP. p. 5.
  32. ^ a b c d e f Derrida [1983] p. 2.
  33. ^ Derrida, J., 1978. "'Genesis and Structure' and Phenomenology" from Writing and Difference trans. Alan Bass. London & New York: Routledge. p. 194
  34. ^ a b Derrida, J., 1978. "'Genesis and Structure' and Phenomenology" from Writing and Difference trans. Alan Bass. London & New York: Routledge. p. 194.
  35. ^ Derrida, J., 1978. "'Genesis and Structure' and Phenomenology" from Writing and Difference trans. Alan Bass. London & New York: Routledge. p. 196.
  36. ^ Frank, M., 1989. What is Neostructuralism? Trans. S. Wilke & R. Gray. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  37. ^ de Man, in Moynihan 1986, at 156
  38. ^ Rorty 1995
  39. ^ Niall Lucy, A Derrida Dictionary (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).
  40. ^ Introduction by Allison, in Derrida, 1973, p. xxxii, n. 1.
  41. ^ Klein 1995
  42. ^ Powell, James and Lee, Joe, Deconstruction for Beginners (Writers & Readers Publishing, 2005)
  43. ^ Royle, Nicholas, Deconstructions: A User's Guide (Palgrave Macmillan, 2000)
  44. ^ "Glossary Definition: Deconstructionism." PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. Web. 05 Dec. 2010. <>.
  45. ^ J. Hillis Miller, "Stevens’ Rock and Criticism as Cure," Georgia Review 30 (1976), p. 34.
  46. ^ Derrida, J., 1978. Cogito and the History of Madness. In Writing and Difference. Translated by A. Bass. London and New York: Routledge. p. 37.
  47. ^ Foucault, M., 2006. History of Madness. Trans. J. Murphy and J. Khalfa, edited by J. Khalfa. London and New York: Routledge. p. xxxvii.
  48. ^ Foucault, M., 2006. History of Madness. Trans. J. Murphy and J. Khalfa, edited by J. Khalfa. London and New York: Routledge. p. 573.
  49. ^ "An Exchange on Deconstructionism", The New York Review of Books, Vol. 1 #34, February 2, 1984.
  50. ^ The Word Turned Upside Down, John Searle
  51. ^ Sokal, Alan (May 1996). "A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies". Lingua Franca. Retrieved April 3, 2007. 

References (Works cited)

  • Derrida, J. [1967] (1978) Of Grammatology, trans. by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 978-0-8018-5830-7
  • Derrida, Jacques. Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs. Trans. David B. Allison. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1973. ISBN 978-0-8101-0590-4.
  • Derrida, Jacques, Positions. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981. ISBN 978-0-226-14331-6
  • Derrida [1980] The time of a thesis: punctuations, first published in:
  • Montefiore, Alan (ed., 1983) Philosophy in France Today Cambridge: Cambridge UP, pp. 34–50
  • Derrida [1988] Limited Inc
  • Derrida [1990] Eyes of the University: Right to Philosophy 2, pp. 113–128
  • Derrida, Jacques [1983] Letter to A Japanese Friend, in Wood, David and Bernasconi, Robert (eds., 1988) Derrida and Différance, Warwick: Parousia, 1985
  • Klein, Anne Carolyn (1995) Meeting the Great Bliss Queen: Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self. Boston: Beacon, 1995. ISBN 978-0-8070-7306-3.
  • Moynihan, Robert (1986) Recent Imagining: Interviews with Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, Paul DeMan, J. Hillis Miller. Shoe String, 1986. ISBN 978-0-208-02120-5.
  • Rorty, Richard, "From Formalism to Poststructuralism". The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, vol. 8. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995.

Further reading

  • Breckman, Warren, “Times of Theory: On Writing the History of French Theory,” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 71, no. 3 (July 2010), 339-361.[1]
  • Culler, Jonathan. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. ISBN 978-0-8014-1322-3.
  • Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. ISBN 978-0-8166-1251-2
  • Ellis, John M. Against Deconstruction Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989. ISBN 978-0-691-06754-4.
  • Johnson, Barbara. The Critical Difference. 1981.
  • McGinley, John W, " 'The Written' as the Vocation of Conceiving Jewishly". ISBN 978-0-595-40488-9.
  • Reynolds, Simon, Rip It Up and Start Again. New York: Penguin, 2006, p316. ISBN 978-0-143-03672-2. (Source for the information about Green Gartside, Scritti Politti, and deconstructionism.)

External links

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