Psychology Wiki

Assessment | Biopsychology | Comparative | Cognitive | Developmental | Language | Individual differences | Personality | Philosophy | Social |
Methods | Statistics | Clinical | Educational | Industrial | Professional items | World psychology |

Philosophy Index: Aesthetics · Epistemology · Ethics · Logic · Metaphysics · Consciousness · Philosophy of Language · Philosophy of Mind · Philosophy of Science · Social and Political philosophy · Philosophies · Philosophers · List of lists

This article needs rewriting to enhance its relevance to psychologists..
Please help to improve this page yourself if you can..

Deconstruction is a term in contemporary philosophy, literary criticism, and the social sciences, denoting a process by which the texts and languages of Western philosophy (in particular) appear to shift and complicate in meaning when read in light of the assumptions and absences they reveal within themselves. Jacques Derrida coined the term in the 1960s, [1] and proved more forthcoming with negative, rather than pined-for positive, analyses of the school.

Subjects relevant to deconstruction include the philosophy of meaning in Western thought, and the ways that meaning is constructed by Western writers, texts, and readers and understood by readers. Though Derrida himself denied deconstruction was a method or school of philosophy, or indeed anything outside of reading the text itself, the term has been used by others to describe Derrida's particular methods of textual criticism, which involved discovering, recognizing, and understanding the underlying—and unspoken and implicit—assumptions, ideas, and frameworks that form the basis for thought and belief, for example, in complicating the ordinary division made between nature and culture. Derrida's deconstruction was drawn mainly from the work of Heidegger and his notion of destruktion but also from Levinas and his ideas upon the Other.

The Development of Derrida's Deconstruction in Relation to Husserl's Philosophy

Husserl is one of the major influences on the development of Derrida's thought[2] and Husserl is both mentor and foil to the development of deconstruction. In Derrida's first published paper titled "'Genesis and Structure' and Phenomenology"(1959) Derrida describes "two polemics which placed him [Husserl] in opposition to those philosophies of structure called Diltheyism and Gestaltism"[3]. These two polemics by Husserl are forerunners of Derrida's own deconstruction. Derrida notes admiringly that Husserl

ceaselessly attempts to reconcile the structuralist demand (which leads to the comprehensive description of a totality, of a form or a function organized according to an internal legality in which elements have meaning only in the solidarity of their correlation or their opposition), with the genetic demand (that is the search for the origin and foundation of the structure).[4]

Derrida argues that "the objectivity of a tied to the concrete genesis which must make it possible" and that "Husserl refuses, and will always refuse, to accept the intelligibility and normativity of this universal structure as manna fallen from a "heavenly place"...or as an eternal truth created by an infinite reason"[5]. As well as demonstrating the philosophical movement of deconstruction that Derrida would make his own, Husserl is also the thinker against which Derrida publishes his first book length deconstruction in the form of Speech and Phenomena(1967). Derrida's "major preoccupations" in Speech and Phenomena are with "the impossibility of maintaining the plenitude of the present, the purity of the origin, or the self-identity of the absolute in the face of 'delay', 'postponement' and 'originary Difference'"[6]. These early preoccupations indicate the critical engagement of deconstruction with metaphysics. For Derrida metaphysics is the appeal to originary self presence in philosophy. This appeal is typified for Derrida within Husserl's phenomenology by the alleged immediate self presence of the real in the phenomena of conscious experience.

The difficulty with defining deconstruction

The problems of definition

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

These authors have resisted establishing a succinct definition of the word. When asked "What is deconstruction?": Derrida stated, "I have no simple and formalisable response to this question. All my essays are attempts to have it out with this formidable question" (Derrida, 1985, p. 4). There is much confusion as to what deconstruction is and determining what authority to accord to a given delimitation: a school of thought (not so in the singular), a method of reading (often so reduced by attempts at formal definition), or "textual event" (Derrida's implied characterization in the above quotation).

Most criticism of deconstruction is difficult to read and summarise. In contrast, there are many secondary texts attempting straightforward explanation of the philosophy of deconstruction, however, these works (e.g. Deconstruction for Beginners[7] and Deconstructions: A User's Guide[8]) have been academically criticized for being too removed from the original texts, and contradictory to the concepts of deconstruction. [How to reference and link to summary or text]

A survey of deconstruction texts and secondary literature reveals a wide range of heterogeneous arguments, including claims that deconstruction can entirely sort the Western tradition, by highlighting and discrediting unjustified privileges accorded to White males and other hegemonists. On the other hand, some critics claim that deconstruction is a dangerous form of nihilism, the destruction of Western scientific and ethical values. As a rule, the political Right Wing ridicules deconstruction.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Yet, the Left Wing's reception of deconstruction varied from hostility to co-optation:

  • Many of the principal French deconstructionists have been Leftist, but Martin Heidegger's place in the deconstructionist camp is complicated, as are Paul de Man's early adulthood politics. Heidegger was Rector of the University of Freiburg from 1933-34 while a Nazi Party member; de Man wrote questionably anti-Semitic articles for the right-wing newspaper Le Soir. (These articles were written between 1941 and 1943. This was well before de Man's critical maturity, much less his involvement with deconstructive theory; Derrida and de Man met in 1966.)
  • From the racial-religious perspective, deconstruction has no clear sectarian identity, e.g. Derrida's views are not sectarian. As a Jew raised in a walled Jewish community in colonial Algeria, Derrida rejected the counter-signature of anti-Semitism by Algerian Jewish institutions of the 1940s. He is atheist in terms of dogmatic theology, and has written about religion in terms precepts shared among the Abrahamic faiths. Because of the open nature of Derrida's engagement with religion, deconstruction-and-religion attraction is inter-disciplinary.
  • Writers sympathetic to deconstruction tend to use idiosyncratic, imitative styles; employing neologisms, irony, and inter-disciplinary allusions to and from the Western canon. Critics say that on deconstructing such writings they discovered it not worth the effort.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Derrida's Negative Descriptions of Deconstruction

Derrida has been more forthcoming with negative than positive descriptions of deconstruction. Derrida gives these negative descriptions of deconstruction in order to explain "what deconstruction is not, or rather ought not to be"[9] and therefore to prevent misunderstandings of the term. Derrida states that deconstruction is not an analysis[10], a critique[11], or a method[12]. This means that Derrida does not want deconstruction to be misunderstood as an analysis, a critique, or a method 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"[13]. 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"[14]. 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[15]. The relevance of the tradition of negative theology to Derrida's preference for negative descriptions of deconstruction is the notion that a positive description of deconstruction would over-determine the idea of deconstruction and that this would be a mistake because it would close off the openness that Derrida wishes to preserve for deconstruction. This means that if Derrida were to positively define deconstruction as, for example, a critique then this would put the concept of critique for ever outside the possibility of deconstruction. Some new philosophy beyond deconstruction would then be required in order to surpass the notion of critique. By refusing to define deconstruction positively Derrida preserves the infinite possibility of deconstruction, the possibility for the deconstruction of everything.

Approaching a definition of deconstruction

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

Nevertheless, writers have provided a number of rough definitions. One of the most popular definitions of deconstruction is by Paul de Man, who explained, "It's possible, within text, to frame a question or undo assertions made in the text, by means of elements which are in the text, which frequently would be precisely structures that play off the rhetorical against grammatical elements." (de Man, in Moynihan 1986, at 156.) Thus, viewed in this way, "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" (Rorty 1995). (The word accidental is usually interpreted here in the sense of incidental.)

A more whimsical definition is by John D. Caputo, who defines deconstruction thus: "Whenever deconstruction finds a nutshell -- a secure axiom or a pithy maxim -- the very idea is to crack it open and disturb this tranquility. Indeed, that is a good rule of thumb in deconstruction. That is what deconstruction is all about, its very meaning and mission, if it has any. One might even say that cracking nutshells is what deconstruction is. In a nutshell. ...Have we not run up against a paradox and an aporia [something impassable]?...the paralysis and impossibility of an aporia is just what impels deconstruction, what rouses it out of bed in the morning..." (Caputo 1997, p.32)

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

[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.

(Introduction by Allison, in Derrida, 1973, p. xxxii, n. 1.)

Similarly, in the context of religious studies Paul Ricoeur (1983) defined deconstruction as a way of uncovering the questions behind the answers of a text or tradition (Klein 1995).

Deconstruction in Relation to Structuralism and Post-Structuralism

Derrida states that his use of the word deconstruction first took place in a context in which "structuralism was dominant"[16] and its use is related to this context. Derrida states that deconstruction is an "antistructuralist gesture"[17] because "Structures were to be undone, decomposed, desedimented"[18]. At the same time for Derrida deconstruction is also a "structuralist gesture"[19] because it is concerned with the structure of texts. So for Derrida deconstruction involves “a certain attention to structures"[20] and tries to “understand how an “ensemble” was constituted"[21]. As both a structuralist and an antistructuralist gesture deconstruction is tied up with what Derrida calls the "structural problematic"[22]. The structural problematic for Derrida is the tension between genesis, that which is "in the essential mode of creation or movement"[23], and structure, "systems, or complexes, or static configurations"[24]. 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"[25], 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"[26]. 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"[27].

Logocentrism and the critique of binary oppositions

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

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

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

Derrida argues in Of Grammatology (translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and published in English in 1976) that, in each such case, the first term is classically conceived as original, authentic, and superior, while the second is thought of as secondary, derivative, or even "parasitic." These binary oppositions, or "violent hierarchies", and others of their form, he argues, must be deconstructed.

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

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

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

(Positions, trans. Alan Bass, pp. 42-43)

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

Text and deconstruction

According to deconstructive readers, one of the phallogocentrisms of modernism is the distinction between speech (logos) and writing, with writing historically being thought of as derivative to logos. As part of subverting the presumed dominance of logos over text, Derrida argued that the idea of a speech-writing dichotomy contains within it the idea of a very expansive view of textuality that subsumes both speech and writing. According to Jacques Derrida, "There is nothing outside of the text" (Derrida, 1976, at 158). That is, text is thought of not merely as linear writing derived from speech, but any form of depiction, marking, or storage, including the marking of the human brain by the process of cognition or by the senses.

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

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


See also: deconstruction-and-religion

Deconstruction exists in the interval between constructions and undeconstructibility. The primary exemplar of this relationship is the relationship between the law, deconstruction, and justice. Derrida summarizes the relationship by saying that justice is the undeconstructible condition that makes deconstruction possible.[28] However, the justice referred to by Derrida is indeterminate and not a transcendent ideal. To quote Derrida, it is "a justice in itself, if such a thing exists, outside or beyond law".[29]

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

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

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

The terminology of deconstruction

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


Main article: Différance

Against the metaphysics of presence, deconstruction brings a (non)concept called différance. This French neologism is, on the deconstructive argument, properly neither a word nor a concept; it names the non-coincidence of meaning both synchronously (one French homonym means "differing") and diachronically (another French homonym means "deferring"). Because the resonance and conflict between these two French meanings is difficult to convey tersely in English, the word différance is usually left untranslated.


The idea of différance also brings with it the idea of trace. A trace is what a sign differs/defers from. It is the absent part of the sign's presence. In other words, through the act of différance, a sign leaves behind a trace, which is whatever is left over after everything present has been accounted for. According to Derrida, "the trace itself does not exist" (Derrida, 1976, p. 167) because it is self-effacing. That is, "[i]n presenting itself, it becomes effaced" (Ibid., p. 125). Because all signifiers viewed as present in Western thought will necessarily contain traces of other (absent) signifiers, the signifier can be neither wholly present nor wholly absent.


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

Supplement, originary lack, and invagination

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

An illustration: Derrida's reading of Lévi-Strauss

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

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

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

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

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

Take, for example, the nature/culture opposition. This binary opposition was prevalent in many discussions during the 20th century. However, consider something like incest. Incest is a taboo, a "cultural rule," that is found by anthropologists, universally. Being universal it is then also indistinguishable from what is called "natural." Incest disrupts the simplicity of this nature/culture division and shows that the opposition relies for its meaning upon something else. The emergence then of a neologism to highlight this "weakness" in the nature/culture division can be considered.

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

Although the development of writing is generally considered to be an advance, after an encounter with the Nambikwara Indians of Brazil, Lévi-Strauss suggested that societies without writing were also lacking violence and domination (in other words, savages are truly noble savages). He further argued that the primary function of writing is to facilitate slavery (or social inequality, exploitation, and domination in general). This claim has been rejected by most later historians and anthropologists as strictly incorrect. There is abundant historical evidence that many hunter-gatherer societies and later non-literate tribes had significant amounts of violence and warfare in their cultures, though it must be added that Derrida never denied that such societies were significantly violent. For that matter, hierarchical and highly unequal societies have flourished in the absence of writing.

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

Derrida was not making fun of Lévi-Strauss, nor did he mean to supersede, replace, or proclaim himself superior to Lévi-Strauss (a common theme of deconstruction is the desire to be critical without assuming a posture of superiority). He was using his deconstruction of Lévi-Strauss to question a common belief in Western culture, dating back at least to Plato: that speech is prior to, more authentic than, and closer to "true meaning" than writing.

Criticisms of deconstruction

Critics of deconstruction take issue with what they characterize as empty obscurantism and lack of seriousness in deconstructive writings. In addition, critics often equate deconstruction with nihilism or relativism and criticize deconstruction accordingly.

Anti-essentialist criticism

Neo-pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty has criticized Derrida's assertion that deconstruction is not a method, but something that is "already, all the time" [How to reference and link to summary or text] occurring in texts. Anti-essentialists allege that Derrida's position is close to positing certain protocols, gestures, and structures which are intrinsic to all texts, and thus close to positing an "essential" privileged reading of a text. Rorty specifically criticizes deconstruction's tendency to "treat every text as 'about' the same old philosophical oppositions, space and time, sensible and intelligible, subject and object, being and becoming..."[30] According to Rorty, in making the tacit assumption that the traditional structures and metaphors in philosophy are always and already present within all cultural discourse, philosophy is re-elevated to a position at the center of culture, a notion which pragmatism seeks to eschew at all costs. This, Rorty says, is a "self-deceptive attempt to magnify the importance of an academic specialty."[31] In addition (and this is less a criticism of Derrida himself than of his followers in literary criticism), Rorty regards the de Manian attempts to privilege literary language over others, and to repeatedly prove the impossibility of reading[32] as another form of metaphysics, "another inversion of a traditional philosophical position..that nevertheless remains within the great range of alternatives specified by 'the discourse of philosophy."[33] In general, anti-essentialists may still accept the validity of deconstructive readings but view them as the result of subjective interaction with a text. Then each reading is one of many possible readings, rather than an excavation of something "within" the text. "The truth" of any single reading is not privileged in that case but open to critical analysis.

History of deconstruction

During the period between the late 1960s and the early 1980s many thinkers influenced by deconstruction, including Derrida, Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, and J. Hillis Miller, worked at Yale University. This group came to be known as the Yale school and was especially influential in literary criticism, as de Man, Miller, and Hartman were all primarily literary critics. Several of these theorists were subsequently affiliated with the University of California Irvine. (At a faculty meeting of the Department of English, Professor Martin Price, the chairman, while observing the surfeit of deconstructionists flooding the University with more hires in sight, asked his colleagues, "I can understand hiring a few deconstructionists here and there. But do we really need to corner the market?")[How to reference and link to summary or text]


Deconstruction has significant ties with much of Western philosophy; even considering only Derrida's work, there are existing deconstructive texts about the works of at least many dozens of important philosophers. However, deconstruction emerged from a clearly delineated philosophical context:

  • Derrida's earliest work, including the texts that introduced the term "deconstruction," dealt with the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl: Derrida's first publication was a book-length Introduction to Husserl's The Origin of Geometry, and Speech and Phenomena, an early work, dealt largely with phenomenology.
  • A student and prior interpreter of Husserl's, Martin Heidegger, was one of the most significant influences on Derrida's thought: Derrida's Of Spirit deals directly with Heidegger, but Heidegger's influence on deconstruction is much broader than that one volume.
  • The psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud is an important reference for much of deconstruction: The Post Card, important essays in Writing and Difference, Archive Fever, and many other deconstructive works deal primarily with Freud.
  • The work of Friedrich Nietzsche is alleged to be a forerunner of deconstruction in form and substance, as Derrida writes in Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles.
  • In Of Grammatology, Derrida makes clear that the work of André Leroi-Gourhan is important to the formulation of deconstruction and grammatology. Not only does Derrida refer the thought of grammè to Leroi-Gourhan's use of the concepts of "exteriorization" and "program," but he also makes use of Leroi-Gourhan's understanding of life and of human life to formulate his own concept of writing. Leroi-Gourhan, according to Derrida, makes it possible to think the history of life as the history of the grammè, and in this context Derrida states that life—in the sense of the great evolving movement of the inscription of difference in which the history of life consists—is "what I have called différance."[34]
  • The structuralism of Ferdinand de Saussure, and other forms of post-structuralism that evolved contemporaneously with deconstruction (such as the work of Maurice Blanchot, Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, etc.), were the immediate intellectual climate for the formation of deconstruction. In many cases, these authors were close friends, colleagues, or correspondents of Derrida's.

Deconstruction as literary trope

Deconstruction has been directly used and also parodied in a large number of literary texts. Native American novelist Gerald Vizenor claims an extensive debt to deconstructionist ideas in attacking essentialist notions of race. Writer Percival Everett goes further in satire, actually incorporating fictional conversations between a number of leading deconstructionists within his fictions. Comic author David Lodge’s work contains a number of figures whose belief in the deconstructionist project is undermined by contact with non-academic figures (cf Nice Work). The prolix, insular and highly specific nature of many deconstructionist writings makes them a popular figure of fun in both Campus novels and anti-intellectual fiction.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Deconstruction in popular media and culture

In popular media, deconstruction has been seized upon by conservative and libertarian writers as a central example of what is wrong with modern academia. Editorials and columns come out with some frequency pointing to deconstruction as a sign of how self-evidently absurd English departments have become, and of how traditional values are no longer being taught to students. Conservatives frequently treat deconstruction as being equivalent to Marxism. These criticisms became particularly prevalent when it was discovered that Paul de Man had written anti-Semitic articles during World War II, due to what was seen as the inadequate and offensive response of many deconstructionist thinkers, especially Derrida, to this revelation. Popular criticism of deconstruction also intensified following the Sokal affair, which many people took as an indicator of the quality of deconstructionism as a whole, despite Sokal's insistence that his hoax proved nothing of the sort.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

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

In popular parlance, "to deconstruct" is often used with the sense of dismantling the opinions, legitimacy, or value of other groups or individuals; by "deconstructing" your opponent, you lay bare their inferiority or their subconscious or ill motives. This sense of the term, however, was neither suggested nor endorsed by Derrida. In a related sense, the terms "deconstruction" and "deconstruct" have increasingly entered non-rigorous academic domains, popular discourse, and the media, and are used as being generally synonymous with analysis or close examination of any kind, and often with the analysis of culture; the use of the term in these contexts has little, if anything, to do with the Derridian notion of "deconstruction," and thus in such contexts may be misleading. This is especially evident when the term suggests understanding or, more plainly, "looking at or examining in a detailed way."

Pop music musician Green Gartside (of Scritti Politti) regularly utilized the theories associated with deconstructionism, particularly those associated with his favorite philosopher Jacques Derrida (who eventually befriended Gartside), when constructing his lyrics. His love songs were not so much straightforward love songs as they were songs about the process of falling in love, and other songs -- such as "The Word Girl" -- played around with and took apart the meaning of words that were/are commonly the central focus of most pop songs (in this case, literally the word "girl"). This added a degree of complexity that the casual listener often did not catch at the time Scritti Politti was at its commercial peak, but was eventually understood and appreciated. Also, it must be noted that Gartside's avowed commitment to deconstruction, particularly the Derrida model of same, has resulted in a notable degree of awareness of deconstructionism amongst Scritti Politti/'80s synthpop fans.

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

See also

Template:Human geography2

External links

Look up this page on
Wiktionary: Deconstruction


  • Culler, Jonathan. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. ISBN 978-0-8014-1322-3.
  • Derrida, Jacques, "Letter to A Japanese Friend," Derrida and Différance, ed. David Wood and Robert Bernasconi, Warwick: Parousia, 1985, p. 1.
  • Derrida, Jacques, Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. ISBN 978-0-8018-5830-7
  • Derrida, Jacques, Positions. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981. ISBN 978-0-226-14331-6
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Klein, Anne Carolyn. Meeting the Great Bliss Queen: Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self. Boston: Beacon, 1995. ISBN 978-0-8070-7306-3.
  • John W McGinley, " 'The Written' as the Vocation of Conceiving Jewishly". ISBN 978-0-595-40488-9.
  • Moynihan, Robert, Recent Imagining: Interviews with Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, Paul DeMan, J. Hillis Miller. Shoe String, 1986. ISBN 978-0-208-02120-5.
  • 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.)
  • Rorty, Richard, "From Formalism to Poststructuralism". The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, vol. 8. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995.
  • Stiegler, Bernard, Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus. Trans. Richard Beardsworth & George Collins. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. ISBN 0804730415
  • Stiegler, Bernard, "Derrida and Technology: Fidelity at the Limits of Deconstruction and the Prosthesis of Faith," in Tom Cohen (ed.), Jacques Derrida and the Humanities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. ISBN 0521625653


  1. One of the first times Derrida uses the term can be found here: Derrida, J., 1976. Of Grammatology. Translated with an introduction by Gayatri C. Spivak. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press. p.10. This book is a translation from the original French edition first published in 1967.
  2. "Sartre, Levinas, Lyotard and Derrida himself all started their publishing careers with a critique/ exposition of a certain aspect of phenomenology. Their works cannot be properly understood without some knowledge of what they are criticizing or refining...He [Derrida] considers Husserl to have been one of the major influences on his philosophical formation." from Howells, C., 1999. Derrida: Deconstruction from Phenomenology to Ethics. Oxford: Polity Press. pp. 6-7.
  3. Derrida, J., 1978. "'Genesis and Structure' and Phenomenology" from Writing and Difference trans. Alan Bass. London & New York: Routeledge. p. 197.
  4. Derrida, J., 1978. "'Genesis and Structure' and Phenomenology" from Writing and Difference trans. Alan Bass. London & New York: Routeledge. p. 197.
  5. Derrida, J., 1978. "'Genesis and Structure' and Phenomenology" from Writing and Difference trans. Alan Bass. London & New York: Routeledge. p. 197.
  6. Howells, C., 1999. Derrida: Deconstruction from Phenomenology to Ethics. Oxford: Polity Press. p. 17.
  7. Powell, James and Lee, Joe, Deconstruction for Beginners (Writers & Readers Publishing, 2005)
  8. Royle, Nicholas, Deconstructions: A User's Guide (Palgrave Macmillan, 2000)
  9. Derrida, Jacques, "Letter to A Japanese Friend," Derrida and Différance, ed. David Wood and Robert Bernasconi, Warwick: Parousia, 1985, p. 1.
  10. Derrida, Jacques, "Letter to A Japanese Friend," Derrida and Différance, ed. David Wood and Robert Bernasconi, Warwick: Parousia, 1985, p. 3.
  11. Derrida, Jacques, "Letter to A Japanese Friend," Derrida and Différance, ed. David Wood and Robert Bernasconi, Warwick: Parousia, 1985, p. 3.
  12. Derrida, Jacques, "Letter to A Japanese Friend," Derrida and Différance, ed. David Wood and Robert Bernasconi, Warwick: Parousia, 1985, p. 3.
  13. Derrida, Jacques, "Letter to A Japanese Friend," Derrida and Différance, ed. David Wood and Robert Bernasconi, Warwick: Parousia, 1985, p. 3.
  14. Derrida, Jacques, "Letter to A Japanese Friend," Derrida and Différance, ed. David Wood and Robert Bernasconi, Warwick: Parousia, 1985, p. 3.
  15. Derrida, J., 1985. "Letter to A Japanese Friend," Derrida and Différance, ed. David Wood and Robert Bernasconi, Warwick: Parousia. p. 3.
  16. Derrida, Jacques, "Letter to A Japanese Friend," Derrida and Différance, ed. David Wood and Robert Bernasconi, Warwick: Parousia, 1985, p. 2.
  17. Derrida, Jacques, "Letter to A Japanese Friend," Derrida and Différance, ed. David Wood and Robert Bernasconi, Warwick: Parousia, 1985, p. 2.
  18. Derrida, Jacques, "Letter to A Japanese Friend," Derrida and Différance, ed. David Wood and Robert Bernasconi, Warwick: Parousia, 1985, p. 2.
  19. Derrida, Jacques, "Letter to A Japanese Friend," Derrida and Différance, ed. David Wood and Robert Bernasconi, Warwick: Parousia, 1985, p. 2.
  20. Derrida, Jacques, "Letter to A Japanese Friend," Derrida and Différance, ed. David Wood and Robert Bernasconi, Warwick: Parousia, 1985, p. 2.
  21. Derrida, Jacques, "Letter to A Japanese Friend," Derrida and Différance, ed. David Wood and Robert Bernasconi, Warwick: Parousia, 1985, p. 3.
  22. Derrida, Jacques, "Letter to A Japanese Friend," Derrida and Différance, ed. David Wood and Robert Bernasconi, Warwick: Parousia, 1985, p. 2.
  23. Derrida, J., 1978. "'Genesis and Structure' and Phenomenology" from Writing and Difference trans. Alan Bass. London & New York: Routeledge. p. 194
  24. Derrida, J., 1978. "'Genesis and Structure' and Phenomenology" from Writing and Difference trans. Alan Bass. London & New York: Routeledge. p. 194.
  25. Derrida, J., 1978. "'Genesis and Structure' and Phenomenology" from Writing and Difference trans. Alan Bass. London & New York: Routeledge. p. 194.
  26. Derrida, J., 1978. "'Genesis and Structure' and Phenomenology" from Writing and Difference trans. Alan Bass. London & New York: Routeledge. p. 196.
  27. Derrida, Jacques, "Letter to A Japanese Friend," Derrida and Différance, ed. David Wood and Robert Bernasconi, Warwick: Parousia, 1985, p. 3.
  28. Derrida, Jacques Acts of Religion, p. 243.
  29. Derrida, Jacques "Force of Law" in Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, 1992, ed. Cornell, et al.
  30. Rorty, Richard, "Deconstruction and Circumvention" Essays on Heidegger and Others (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 104.
  31. "Deconstruction and Circumvention", Essays on Heidegger and Others, p. 87.
  32. See De Man, Paul, Blindness and Insight, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983)
  33. Rorty, Richard, "Two Meaning of Logocentrism" Essays on Heidegger and Others (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 117.
  34. Derrida, Jacques, Of Grammatology (Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), pp. 84–5, and cf. subsection above, "Bernard Stiegler on deconstruction."
This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).