8. Do you agree with the deconstruction method of Jacques Derrida?

Indeed no. This matter of deconstruction is very controversial within academic ranks. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) is known as the founder of deconstruction, which is a method of interpreting texts. He gained ascendancy in the late 1960s, at a time when structuralism was becoming fashionable in Paris. Texts were viewed as structures in language, which became all-important. Derrida was dubbed a poststructuralist.

The poststructuralist trend is sometimes described as a reaction to structuralism, associated with the output of Claude Levi-Strauss, who had in turn been reacting to existentialism and phenomenology. The secession of Derrida from structuralism is associated with a paper dating to 1966, subsequently included in one of the early collections of his work (Writing and Difference, trans.1978). From that time dates his usage of the term deconstruction, which came to be generally employed as the description of his philosophy. His well known statement “there is nothing outside the text” has invited accusations of a poststructuralist nihilism. The negative interpretation is also associated with the more general trend of "postmodernism," decoding to a viewpoint that there are no objective truths but only local beliefs.

Jacques Derrida

Both literary and philosophical texts were deconstructed by Derrida. The method was frequently based upon “binary oppositions within a text,” to use an official and partisan description. These oppositions were said to be paradoxes needing to be exposed. A basic subject of contention was the metaphysical tendency in Western philosophy since the ancient Greeks. Derrida sought to undermine the language of metaphysics, though science also suffered. The reasoning involved became popular in French universities and on the media, though critics viewed it as anomalous and inadequate. Different descriptions have been given of what deconstruction involves.

One partisan theme is that texts have meanings acquired through diverse cultural processes, meanings which require to be deconstructed in view of generally unsuspected assumptions inherent in the text. Derrida is said to have revealed how a “structure” is based upon contradictions which are repressed. The language of structures, oppositions, and meanings has been considered a mystification by opponents. Some have seen in this form of exegesis at least the partial influence of the Nietzschean theme of “beyond good and evil.” Yet many of the deconstructions applied to literary texts, not philosophical ones.

Derrida frequently acknowledged Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) as inspirations, though it was obviously Heidegger who was the major influence upon him. Derrida actually traced the word “deconstruction” to German terms used by Heidegger. He also contributed a lecture dating to 1987 on Heidegger, relating to the thorny subject of the latter’s Nazi affinities from 1933 onwards (Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question, 1989). Derrida was awarded honorary doctorates by Columbia University, Cambridge University, the University of Leuven, and three other academic institutions.

Critics of Derrida voiced strong objections. He was considered by them to be superficial, nihilistic, and relativist. The situation was aggravated by the contributions of Michel Foucault (1926-1984), another French philosopher who opted for deconstruction and who is notorious in some directions for extremist views and activities. Foucault is associated with the opinion that all types of discourse or text are merely a symptom of the desire to manipulate others. In which case one may dismiss all academic texts, including those of the deconstructionists. Jacques Derrida was not extreme in his behaviour, but his exegesis nevertheless met strong resistance within academic circles.

The tension was highlighted when opposition arose in 1992 to the intended action of Cambridge University in conferring an honorary doctorate upon Derrida. On behalf of the analytical philosophy faculty, Professor Barry Smith wrote a letter of protest that was also signed by no less than seventeen Professors from other international universities. That open letter appeared in The Times (May 9th, 1992), and caused an academic sensation. The basic accusation was here one of obscurantism, referring to “a written style that defies comprehension,” and one which “does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigor.” The deconstruction exemplar was also described as expressing “elaborate jokes” and “tricks and gimmicks similar to those of the Dadaists.” The overall verdict here being that an honorary degree was not merited as a reward for “semi-intelligible attacks upon the values of reason, truth, and scholarship.” This relevant letter is accessible at Wikipedia Derrida (accessed 04/01/2011).

Cambridge University put this issue to the vote, in an atmosphere of intense debate amongst the dons. The result transpired to be 336-204 in favour of Derrida, and so the honorary doctorate was awarded. Nevertheless, the accompanying debate and divison of opinion was said to be unprecedented for nearly thirty years.

Critics continued to view deconstruction as rhetoric and mystification. The supporters of Derrida were also vocal, and one defence has been that the exemplar of fluid meaning used some words in a way that evaded understanding, this being an intentional device to escape metaphysics. A major escapist text is now Derrida, The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond (1987). Part of this work has been described as love letters. Another work that invited much criticism was Glas (1986), which featured a format of two columns juxtaposing Hegel and the French novelist Jean Genet.

Even some of Derrida’s fans have conceded that his style was so often literary rather than philosophical, and therefore open to accusations from logicians. However, they also insist upon other dimensions of his output, including criticism of political factors. This latter tendency was operative in the 1990s, as in his Spectres of Marx (1994). There is also mention of a discord between Derrida and Foucault dating to the early 1960s, when the former criticised the latter’s early philosophy, and especially the interpretation of Descartes. See further Leonard Lawlor, “Jacques Derrida” (2006) in Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. This web article states that "deconstruction works towards preventing the worst violence" and "attempts to render justice." There is also the observation that Derrida reversed the Platonist emphasis: "essence is more valuable than appearance."

The differing academic views about Derrida have been a source of confusion. It is undeniable that he supported a number of sociopolitical causes, including anti-apartheid and the rights of Algerian immigrants in France. Yet the problem is one of acute controversy about the method of analysis. An American Humanities and Social Science bibliographer informed a decade ago that more than 500 American, British, and Canadian doctoral dissertations treated Derrida and his writings as primary subjects. The same writer informed:

"Postmodernist theories and attitudes come in a variety of forms. In the realm of social and political theory, what unites them - from Foucault to Baudrillard, from Lyotard to Derrida and others - is a challenge to, and largely a rejection of, both the truth value and pragmatic capacity for achieving justice or peace of the modern system of political and economic institutions, as well as the very ways in which we know and act to explain and understand ourselves. Especially in the latter theoretical and explanatory domain, Derrida's deconstructionism is provocative, if not subversive, in questioning the self-evidence, logic and nonjudgmental character of dichotomies we live by, such as legitimate/illegitimate, rational/irrational. fact/fiction, or observation/imagination" (John Rawlings, Jacques Derrida, 1999).

I was still researching at Cambridge when the analytical philosophy of British and other academics opposed the honorary doctorate as recorded above. This episode has since fascinated me. French supporters of Derrida refer caustically to the Anglophone bias, though opponents maintain that the subversive factor is a tangent from philosophy. There are other supporters in America and elsewhere. What is a citizen philosopher to make of this notable rift in academic exegesis?

From personal experience, I do know that the “open society” does not always work in academe, despite Sir Karl Popper’s eloquent repudiation of intolerant parties (Shepherd, Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals, 2004, pp. 252ff.). However, there is also the rather obvious consideration that we do not need poststructuralist or neo-Heidegger “literary” hermeneutics to decipher Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, and many other philosophers of recent and more antique centuries. We do not need to escape from metaphysics, but merely require to analyse that phenomenon properly, which is very rarely done, whether by Anglophones or Francophones.

Did Derrida really need quite so many honorary doctorates? He claimed to be democratising philosophy. Some citizens say that true democracy has not emerged from deconstruction, which remains elitist, like other sectors of the academic world.

British analytical philosophy has not reached perfection, and perhaps more effort is needed to negotiate increasing “new spirituality” on the one hand and provocative deconstruction on the other. The latter has been considered obscurantist by critics. The allied obscurantism in the general postmodernist arguments is said to be visible in several academic disciplines, not just philosophy. See further my web article Philosophy, Richard Tarnas, and Postmodernism.

Some critics of Derrida and other deconstructionists have emphasised the tortuous nature of the literary style involved. Whereas earlier French philosophers like Henri Bergson (d.1941), Albert Camus (d.1960), and Jean-Paul Sartre (d.1980) managed to express themselves very clearly, to the point of gaining the Nobel Prize for Literature (Bryan Magee, The Story of Philosophy, 1998, p. 219). One may add that it is noticeable how British analytical philosophy does not always furnish the most readable documents, as any close analysis will surely confirm.

Copyright © 2011 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved. Page uploaded August 2008, last modified January 2011.