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n Being and Time (1927; transl. 1962), Martin Heidegger argues that the concept of time prevalent in all Western thought has largely remained unchanged since the definition offered by Aristotle in the Physics. Heidegger says, “Aristotle’s essay on time is the first detailed Interpretation of this phenomenon [time] which has come down to us. Every subsequent account of time, including Henri Bergson’s, has been essentially determined by it.”[1] Aristotle defined time as “the number of movement in respect of before and after”.[2] By defining time in this way Aristotle privileges what is present-at-hand, namely the “presence” of time. Heidegger argues in response that “entities are grasped in their Being as ‘presence’; this means that they are understood with regard to a definite mode of time – the ‘Present'”.[1] Central to Heidegger’s own philosophical project is the attempt to gain a more authentic understanding of time. Heidegger considers time to be the unity of three ecstases: the past, the present, and the future.

Deconstructive thinkers, like Jacques Derrida, describe their task as the questioning or deconstruction of this metaphysical tendency in Western philosophy. Derrida writes,

“Without a doubt, Aristotle thinks of time on the basis of ousia as parousia, on the basis of the now, the point, etc. And yet an entire reading could be organized that would repeat in Aristotle’s text both this limitation and its opposite.”

This argument is largely based on the earlier work of Heidegger, who in Being and Time claimed that the theoretical attitude of pure presence is parasitical upon a more originary involvement with the world in concepts such as the ready-to-hand and being-with.

The presence to which Heidegger refers is both a presence as in a “now” and also a presence as in an eternal present, as one might associate with God or the “eternal” laws of science. This hypostatized (underlying) belief in presence is undermined by novel phenomenological ideas, such that presence itself does not subsist, but comes about primordially through the action of our futural projection, our realization of finitude and the reception or rejection of the traditions of our time.

In his short work Intuition of the Instant, Gaston Bachelard – in an attempt to navigate beyond, or parallel to, the Western concept of ‘time as duration’; that is, the Western concept of time as the imagined trajectorial space of movement – distinguishes between two foundations of time: time viewed as a duration, and time viewed as an instant. Bachelard then follows this second phenomena of time and concludes that time as a duration does not exist, but is created as a necessary mediation for increasingly complex beings to persist. The reality of time for existence, though, is in fact a reprisal of the instant, the gestation of all existence every instant, the eternal death that gives life.

Derrida contends that the opposition between speech and writing is a manifestation of the “logocentrism” of Western culture—i.e., the general assumption that there is a realm of “truth” existing prior to and independent of its representation by linguistic signs. Logocentrism encourages us to treat linguistic signs as distinct from and inessential to the phenomena they represent, rather than as inextricably bound up with them. The logocentric conception of truth and reality as existing outside language derives in turn from a deep-seated prejudice in Western philosophy, which Derrida characterizes as the “metaphysics of presence.” This is the tendency to conceive fundamental philosophical concepts such as truth, reality, and being in terms of ideas such as presence, essence, identity, and origin—and in the process to ignore the crucial role of absence and difference.

Originated by the philosopher Jacques Derrida, deconstruction is an approach to understanding the relationship between text and meaning. Derrida’s approach consisted of conducting readings of texts looking for things that run counter to the intended meaning or structural unity of a particular text. The purpose of deconstruction is to show that the usage of language in a given text, and language as a whole, are irreducibly complex, unstable, or impossible. Throughout his readings, Derrida hoped to show deconstruction at work.

Many debates in continental philosophy surrounding ontology, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, hermeneutics, and philosophy of language refer to Derrida’s observations. Since the 1980s, these observations inspired a range of theoretical enterprises in the humanities, including the disciplines of law, anthropology, historiography, linguistics, sociolinguistics, psychoanalysis, LGBT studies, and the feminist school of thought. Deconstruction also inspired deconstructivism in architecture and remains important within art, music, and literary criticism

Jacques Derrida’s 1967 book Of Grammatology introduced the majority of ideas influential within deconstruction. Derrida published a number of other works directly relevant to the concept of deconstruction. Books showing deconstruction in action or defining it more completely include Différance, Speech and Phenomena, and Writing and Difference.

According to Derrida and taking inspiration from the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, language as a system of signs and words only has meaning because of the contrast between these signs. As Rorty contends, “words have meaning only because of contrast-effects with other words…no word can acquire meaning in the way in which philosophers from Aristotle to Bertrand Russell have hoped it might—by being the unmediated expression of something non-linguistic (e.g., an emotion, a sense-datum, a physical object, an idea, a Platonic Form)”. As a consequence, meaning is never present, but rather is deferred to other signs. Derrida refers to the—in this view, mistaken—belief that there is a self-sufficient, non-deferred meaning as metaphysics of presence. A concept, then, must be understood in the context of its opposite, such as being/nothingness, normal/abnormal, speech/writing, etc.

Further, Derrida contends that “in a classical philosophical opposition we are not dealing with the peaceful coexistence of a vis-a-vis, but rather with a violent hierarchy. One of the two terms governs the other (axiologically, logically, etc.), or has the upper hand”: signified over signifier; intelligible over sensible; speech over writing; activity over passivity, etc. The first task of deconstruction would be to find and overturn these oppositions inside a text or a corpus of texts; but the final objective of deconstruction is not to surpass all oppositions, because it is assumed they are structurally necessary to produce sense. The oppositions simply cannot be suspended once and for all. The hierarchy of dual oppositions always reestablishes itself. Deconstruction only points to the necessity of an unending analysis that can make explicit the decisions and arbitrary violence intrinsic to all texts.

Finally, Derrida argues that it is not enough to expose and deconstruct the way oppositions work and then stop there in a nihilistic or cynical position, “thereby preventing any means of intervening in the field effectively”.[17]:42 To be effective, deconstruction needs to create new terms, not to synthesize the concepts in opposition, but to mark their difference and eternal interplay. This explains why Derrida always proposes new terms in his deconstruction, not as a free play but as a pure necessity of analysis, to better mark the intervals. Derrida called undecidables—that is, unities of simulacrum—”false” verbal properties (nominal or semantic) that can no longer be included within philosophical (binary) opposition, but which, however, inhabit philosophical oppositions—resisting and organizing it—without ever constituting a third term, without ever leaving room for a solution in the form of Hegelian dialectics (e.g., différance, archi-writing, pharmakon, supplement, hymen, gram, spacing).

Derrida’s theories on deconstruction were themselves influenced by the work of linguists such as Ferdinand de Saussure (whose writings on semiotics also became a cornerstone of structuralist theory in the mid-20th century) and literary theorists such as Roland Barthes (whose works were an investigation of the logical ends of structuralist thought). Derrida’s views on deconstruction stood in opposition to the theories of structuralists such as psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan, and anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. However, Derrida resisted attempts to label his work as “post-structuralist”.

In order to understand Derrida’s motivation, one must refer to Nietzsche’s philosophy.

Nietzsche’s project began with Orpheus, the man underground. This foil to Platonic light was deliberately and self-consciously lauded in Daybreak, when Nietzsche announces, albeit retrospectively, “In this work you will discover a subterranean man at work”, and then goes on to map the project of unreason: “All things that live long are gradually so saturated with reason that their origin in unreason thereby becomes improbable. Does not almost every precise history of an origination impress our feelings as paradoxical and wantonly offensive? Does the good historian not, at bottom, constantly contradict?”.

Nietzsche’s point in Daybreak is that standing at the end of modern history, modern thinkers know too much to be deceived by the illusion of reason any more. Reason, logic, philosophy and science are no longer solely sufficient as the royal roads to truth. And so Nietzsche decides to throw it in our faces, and uncover the truth of Plato, that he—unlike Orpheus—just happened to discover his true love in the light instead of in the dark. This being merely one historical event amongst many, Nietzsche proposes that we revisualize the history of the West as the history of a series of political moves, that is, a manifestation of the will to power, that at bottom have no greater or lesser claim to truth in any noumenal (absolute) sense. By calling our attention to the fact that he has assumed the role of Orpheus, the man underground, in dialectical opposition to Plato, Nietzsche hopes to sensitize us to the political and cultural context, and the political influences that impact authorship. For example, the political influences that led one author to choose philosophy over poetry (or at least portray himself as having made such a choice), and another to make a different choice.

The problem with Nietzsche, as Derrida sees it, is that he did not go far enough. That he missed the fact that this will to power is itself but a manifestation of the operation of writing. Therefore Derrida wishes to help us step beyond Nietzsche’s penultimate revaluation of all western values, to the ultimate, which is the final appreciation of “the role of writing in the production of knowledge”.

Derrida approaches all texts as constructed around elemental oppositions which all discourse has to articulate if it intends to make any sense whatsoever. This is so because identity is viewed in non-essentialist terms as a construct, and because constructs only produce meaning through the interplay of difference inside a “system of distinct signs”. This approach to text is influenced by the semiology of Ferdinand de Saussure.

Saussure is considered one of the fathers of structuralism when he explained that terms get their meaning in reciprocal determination with other terms inside language:

In language there are only differences. Even more important: a difference generally implies positive terms between which the difference is set up; but in language there are only differences without positive terms. Whether we take the signified or the signifier, language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system. The idea or phonic substance that a sign contains is of less importance than the other signs that surround it. […] A linguistic system is a series of differences of sound combined with a series of differences of ideas; but the pairing of a certain number of acoustical signs with as many cuts made from the mass thought engenders a system of values.

Saussure explicitly suggested that linguistics was only a branch of a more general semiology, a science of signs in general, human codes being only one part. Nevertheless, in the end, as Derrida pointed out, Saussure made linguistics “the regulatory model”, and “for essential, and essentially metaphysical, reasons had to privilege speech, and everything that links the sign to phone”. Derrida will prefer to follow the more “fruitful paths (formalization)” of a general semiotics without falling into what he considered “a hierarchizing teleology” privileging linguistics, and to speak of “mark” rather than of language, not as something restricted to mankind, but as prelinguistic, as the pure possibility of language, working everywhere there is a relation to something else.

Derrida’s original use of the word “deconstruction” was a translation of Destruktion, a concept from the work of Martin Heidegger that Derrida sought to apply to textual reading. 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.

Derrida’s concerns flow from a consideration of several issues:

  1. A desire to contribute to the re-evaluation of all Western values, a re-evaluation built on the 18th-century Kantian critique of pure reason, and carried forward to the 19th century, in its more radical implications, by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.
  2. An assertion that texts outlive their authors, and become part of a set of cultural habits equal to, if not surpassing, the importance of authorial intent.
  3. A re-valuation of certain classic western dialectics: poetry vs. philosophy, reason vs. revelation, structure vs. creativity, episteme vs. techne, etc.

To this end, Derrida follows a long line of modern philosophers, who look backwards to Plato and his influence on the Western metaphysical tradition. Like Nietzsche, Derrida suspects Plato of dissimulation in the service of a political project, namely the education, through critical reflections, of a class of citizens more strategically positioned to influence the polis. However, like Nietzsche, Derrida is not satisfied merely with such a political interpretation of Plato, because of the particular dilemma modern humans find themselves in. His Platonic reflections are inseparably part of his critique of modernity, hence the attempt to be something beyond the modern, because of this Nietzschian sense that the modern has lost its way and become mired in nihilism.

Différance is the observation that the meanings of words come from their synchrony with other words within the language and their diachrony between contemporary and historical definitions of a word. Understanding language, according to Derrida, requires an understanding of both viewpoints of linguistic analysis. The focus on diachrony has led to accusations against Derrida of engaging in the etymological fallacy.

There is one statement by Derrida—in an essay on Rousseau in Of Grammatology—which has been of great interest to his opponents. It is the assertion that “there is no outside-text” (il n’y a pas de hors-texte), which is often mistranslated as “there is nothing outside of the text”. The mistranslation is often used to suggest Derrida believes that nothing exists but words. Michel Foucault, for instance, famously misattributed to Derrida the very different phrase “Il n’y a rien en dehors du texte” for this purpose. According to Derrida, his statement simply refers to the unavoidability of context that is at the heart of différance.

For example, the word “house” derives its meaning more as a function of how it differs from “shed”, “mansion”, “hotel”, “building”, etc. (Form of Content, that Louis Hjelmslev distinguished from Form of Expression) than how the word “house” may be tied to a certain image of a traditional house (i.e., the relationship between signified and signifier), with each term being established in reciprocal determination with the other terms than by an ostensive description or definition: when can we talk about a “house” or a “mansion” or a “shed”? The same can be said about verbs, in all the languages in the world: when should we stop saying “walk” and start saying “run”? The same happens, of course, with adjectives: when must we stop saying “yellow” and start saying “orange”, or exchange “past” for “present”? Not only are the topological differences between the words relevant here, but the differentials between what is signified is also covered by différance.

Thus, complete meaning is always “differential” and postponed in language; there is never a moment when meaning is complete and total. A simple example would consist of looking up a given word in a dictionary, then proceeding to look up the words found in that word’s definition, etc., also comparing with older dictionaries. Such a process would never end.

Derrida describes the task of deconstruction as the identification of metaphysics of presence, or logocentrism in western philosophy. Metaphysics of presence is the desire for immediate access to meaning, the privileging of presence over absence. This means that there is an assumed bias in certain binary oppositions where one side is placed in a position over another, such as good over bad, speech over the written word, male over female. Derrida writes,

Without a doubt, Aristotle thinks of time on the basis of ousia as parousia, on the basis of the now, the point, etc. And yet an entire reading could be organized that would repeat in Aristotle’s text both this limitation and its opposite.

To Derrida, the central bias of logocentrism was the now being placed as more important than the future or past. This argument is largely based on the earlier work of Heidegger, who, in Being and Time, claimed that the theoretical attitude of pure presence is parasitical upon a more originary involvement with the world in concepts such as ready-to-hand and being-with.

In the deconstruction procedure, one of the main concerns of Derrida is to not collapse into Hegel’s dialectic, where these oppositions would be reduced to contradictions in a dialectic that has the purpose of resolving it into a synthesis. The presence of Hegelian dialectics was enormous in the intellectual life of France during the second half of the 20th century, with the influence of Kojève and Hyppolite, but also with the impact of dialectics based on contradiction developed by Marxists, and including the existentialism of Sartre, etc. This explains Derrida’s concern to always distinguish his procedure from Hegel’s, since Hegelianism believes binary oppositions would produce a synthesis, while Derrida saw binary oppositions as incapable of collapsing into a synthesis free from the original contradiction.

There have been problems defining deconstruction. Derrida claimed that all of his essays were attempts to define what deconstruction is, and that deconstruction is necessarily complicated and difficult to explain since it actively criticises the very language needed to explain it.

Derrida has been more forthcoming with negative (apophatic) than with positive descriptions of deconstruction. When asked by Toshihiko Izutsu some preliminary considerations on how to translate “deconstruction” in Japanese, in order to at least prevent using a Japanese term contrary to deconstruction’s actual meaning, Derrida began his response by saying that such a question amounts to “what deconstruction is not, or rather ought not to be”.

Derrida states that deconstruction is not 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”. 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”. 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. 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 would close off the openness that Derrida wishes to preserve for deconstruction. If Derrida were to positively define deconstruction—as, for example, a critique—then this would make the concept of critique immune to itself being deconstructed. Some new philosophy beyond deconstruction would then be required in order to encompass the notion of critique.

Derrida states that “Deconstruction is not a method, and cannot be transformed into one”. 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”. 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.

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 becomes a prejudicial procedure that only finds what it sets out to find.

Derrida states that deconstruction is not a critique in the Kantian sense. 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. 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. In addition, Derrida asks rhetorically “Is not the idea of knowledge and of the acquisition of knowledge in itself metaphysical?” 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.

Derrida states that deconstruction is not an analysis in the traditional sense. 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, 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 article on différance.

Derrida states that his use of the word deconstruction first took place in a context in which “structuralism was dominant” and deconstruction’s meaning is within this context. Derrida states that deconstruction is an “antistructuralist gesture” because “[s]tructures were to be undone, decomposed, desedimented”. At the same time, deconstruction is also a “structuralist gesture” because it is concerned with the structure of texts. So, deconstruction involves “a certain attention to structures”:2 and tries to “understand how an ‘ensemble’ was constituted”.:3 As both a structuralist and an antistructuralist gesture, deconstruction is tied up with what Derrida calls the “structural problematic”.:2 The structural problematic for Derrida is the tension between genesis, that which is “in the essential mode of creation or movement”, and structure: “systems, or complexes, or static configurations”.:194 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.

It is for this reason that Derrida distances his use of the term deconstruction from post-structuralism, a term that would suggest that philosophy could simply go beyond structuralism. Derrida states that “the motif of deconstruction has been associated with ‘post-structuralism'”, but that this term was “a word unknown in France until its ‘return’ from the United States”.:3 In his deconstruction of Husserl, Derrida actually argues for the contamination of pure origins by the structures of language and temporality. Manfred Frank has even referred to Derrida’s work as “Neostructuralism”, identifying a “distaste for the metaphysical concepts of domination and system”.


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