It seems that words today change meanings every day. For instance, the words “man” and “woman” are now taken to mean a variety of mutually exclusive realities. What was clear and simple is now conflicting and confusing. How did we arrive here, why does it matter, and who is responsible?
Enter French philosopher Jacques Derrida.
Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) was born in French-governed Algeria. He received a French education there before attending in Paris the elite philosophical school École Normale Supérieure, after which he taught philosophy at a number of institutions in France and America.
He was a prolific writer on a wide range of topics, particularly in the realm of literary theory and linguistics. And in addition to literary studies, Derrida’s ideas have impacted legal studies, history, political theory, and virtually every other area of the humanities.
What Is Deconstruction?
Derrida is most famous for founding, in the late 1960s, the philosophical school of “deconstruction,” which is a method of criticizing texts, art, and political institutions. It finds in any piece of language many double-meanings and contradictions, to the point that the text “deconstructs” itself.
According to Robert Dale Parker’s How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies, “Deconstructionists believe in multiple meanings. … To a deconstructionist, everything is multiple, unstable, and without unity … we cannot tie language down.”
One important influence on Derrida’s work is Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure proposed that words don’t really correspond to things, only to other words within the system of language. The deconstructionists took this idea and pushed it much further. As Parker states, “seemingly singular or stable meanings give way to a ceaseless play of language that multiplies meanings.” In this scenario, authorial intention is ultimately unknowable and certainly cannot stabilize the meaning of a text, which has its own subversive life.
Derrida demonstrates his deconstructive theory in his own writing. Many modern philosophers and literary critics write inscrutable prose, but Derrida is the master. He has a habit of placing key terms in quotation marks to imply the instability of the word’s meaning. When you read a Derrida essay, you get the sense that he is winking at you—perhaps even mocking you—as he subverts the meaning of his own writing in real-time. The experience leaves you with one primary reaction: disorientation. And I think that’s his point.
Of course, the system of deconstruction falls apart with a little rational analysis. Its appeal depends on what I would call “intellectual parlor tricks.” For if deconstruction is true, and every utterance is really a contradiction generating a multiplicity of meanings, then communication is simply impossible. Yet, somehow, we continue to communicate.
What is more, if deconstruction is true, Derrida’s own essays are quite literally meaningless. They both prove deconstruction and disprove it at the same time. They both explain it and obscure it at the same time. Thus, following the man’s own principles, I can, if I wish, just as easily say that Derrida was the person who put an end to the philosophy of “deconstruction,” rather than the one who founded it.
Further, if deconstructionists really believed their own ideas, they would stop speaking and writing. If we cannot really know an author’s intention, and if words are too slippery to have any reliable meaning, then communication is pointless.
Influences and Aims of Deconstruction
What Derrida and his followers are actually concerned with deconstructing, then, is not all of thought or all of language (which would put them out of a job). Instead, deconstruction “seeks to ‘deconstruct’ the … traditional assumptions that infect all histories, as well as philosophical and religious ‘truths,’” as the Counterbalance Foundation explains.
The followers of Derrida revert to the idea that all human philosophy is a mask for various types of power-grabs. “Deconstructionism is based on the premise that much of human history, in trying to understand, and then define, reality has led to various forms of domination—of nature, of people of color, of the poor, of homosexuals, etc.,” according to the Counterbalance Foundation.
Derrida mentions Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche as influences on deconstruction, as seen, for example, in his book Specters of Marx. And while Derrida does not brand deconstruction as a derivation of Marxism exactly, he doesn’t fully deny the genealogy, either, saying deconstruction “has remained faithful to a certain spirit of Marxism.”
What is this spirit of Marxism that Derrida incorporates? It is, in his own terms, a “messianic” spirit of critique and attack, that is, the perpetual criticism of any form of dogmatism or objective truth.
In the end, many modern intellectuals always give themselves away like this. Their final beef is with the notion of truth itself, at least of any absolute truth, particularly religious truth. To them, this truth is tyrannical and a target for their non serviam.
Why do they hate truth? Truth is limiting, and it demands humility from us all. The notion of truth means that we must conform our minds to the world, rather than conforming the world to our minds.
And truth has moral and personal implications, too.
The nihilism of Derrida’s philosophy leads down some alarming moral roads: If nothing is, everything goes.
To a certain extent, we have a chicken or the egg scenario here. Does the philosopher create a metaphysical (or anti-metaphysical) system in order to justify certain immoral behavior, or does the system so corrupt the mind and soul that immorality naturally follows? Probably, it’s a bit of both.
At any rate, in Derrida’s case, I am speaking about the question of pedophilia. For it is a historical fact that he was among a group of intellectuals who signed a petition for the legalization of sex with children (not surprisingly, Michel Foucault and Jean-Paul Sartre were also signatories).
I do not claim, of course, that Derrida was a pedophile. But what is evident is that advocating for the decriminalization of evils like pedophilia was a necessary part of the revolutionary philosopher’s attempt to break down all distinctions and boundaries. As in language, so in life. These intellectuals wished to deconstruct all that they had inherited in Western Civilization, particularly the structures of morality, and they began with words.
As philosopher Josef Pieper states in Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, “Word and language form the medium that sustains the common existence of the human spirit as such. … If the word becomes corrupted, human existence itself will not remain unaffected and untainted.”
We are now witnessing the results of that corruption of language.