Derrida is the founder and leader of the poststructuralist movement. Poststructuralists believe that the structuralist idea that language is an attempt to express some original, unique idea that humans hold is incorrect and incomplete.

The basic assertion of poststructuralism is that everything is already reproduction. Language is not an attempt to express original ideas or to represent some true, primary reality. Rather, what we consider to be original, basic ideas or perceptions not derived from anything previous are actually still derived, still reproductions. Language is not a reproduction of concepts; language is reproduction of history, of culture.

The analysis of the construction of a text from its source writings – what Derrida calls “archi-writings” or “archi-traces” – is called deconstruction. Derrida coined this term and popularized the practice. In the 1970s and 1980s, Derrida and deconstruction were the most current, most studied – cynics would say the most fashionable – figures in literary theory and contemporary philosophy.

He was a key member of the Parisian School of poststructuralists. Along with Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, and Paul de Man, he enjoyed notoriety bordering on worship in academia from the late 1960s until today.

This writeup is pretty good as an intro to Derrida's earlier stuff, but not so good for his later stuff at all.... Tell me what I'm wrong about, I'm not a Derrida expert by any means.

Most people consider deconstruction to be some sort of technique, or system that you can put texts through and come out with a particular kind of reading. (Notorious for this are the Yale critics, and other North American ‘Derrideans’…). Derrida, however, argues against this sort of systematization vehemently and constantly. So, for this writeup I’d like to ask the questions:

  • Why is Derrida's deconstructive 'critique' (for lack of a better term) not simply a method, or another philosophical/epistemological system?
  • What makes deconstruction not just another arbitrary position, one which will inevitably be consumed/defined by its opposite?
  • Why is it able to be on both sides of every question, without being defined or limited by either side?

The fact that there is no unity (no stable system, ideology or position) in Derrida’s work means that it can have no stable ‘other’ or opposite. There are no deconstructive opposites other than those that can be found within the deconstructive critique itself. Thus, it seems that Derrida’s work is able to contain its own opposite; it is able to entertain contradictory positions without deciding or favouring either one. To put it rather simplistically, deconstruction can be seen as its own ‘other’. It can equally encompass and reject all standpoints. There is no real content or position which deconstruction proposes; nothing to which it clings to very steadfastly. Instead, it is the very fluctuation between opposing positions; deconstruction is found on both sides of opposing systems, and in the interval between emerging and declining systems. There is no way to ‘reject’ the deconstructionist position, because it is, fundamentally, not a position, and it proposes nothing that can be simply rejected. It, in fact, swallows up contradictions, and can make any position dissolve into its apparent opposite. Derrida describes the double-action (…the interplay and reversion of opposed sequences) in his work, and deconstruction in general, early on (1969 I think, I’ll edit this if I find out for sure…) in an interview with Henri Ronse:

[I]t is solely a question of a unique and differentiated textual “operation,” if you will, whose unfinished movement assigns itself no absolute beginning, and which, although it is entirely consumed by the reading of other texts, in a certain fashion refers only to its own writing (Derrida 3).

That is, his work refers entirely to other texts (those of Hegel, Husserl, Plato, etc.) and it refers only to itself. His re-readings of the philosophical texts of the western tradition, (and his radical reinterpretations of them) are caught up inside the systems that he is critiquing, but they are also texts in their own right. He deconstructs these canonical texts from the inside, according to their own rules. But he does not simply reinterpret them from the inside. His work is also something by itself, something self-referential (that is, his work exists outside of what it deconstructs) though it is also caught up within the frame of another text. There is a novel and original textual interplay, the works are not simply addenda to other philosophical texts, they are also an “exterior that is unqualifiable or unnameable by philosophy” (Derrida 6). Derrida’s work must itself be understood in the way that he attempts to understand other texts, from within, though the meaning garnered from such an interpretation may be beyond what Derrida himself intends with his work, more on this later.

This interior/exterior simultaneity of deconstruction is evident in Derrida’s statement that Heidegger (much like Derrida himself) had to “borrow the syntaxic and lexical resources of the language of metaphysics…at the very moment that [he] deconstruct[ed] this language [of metaphysics]” (Derrida 10). That is, in order to get outside of (to transgress/explode/surpass) the language of metaphysics, one must first utilise the very language of metaphysics, and not in a superficial way, but from within the system of metaphysics itself. Before one can vibrate (oscillate) between the interior and exterior of a system, one must understand that system upon its own terms. To truly deconstruct a text, one must apply the ‘rules’ or functions of it to itself, and to their absolute limit. Derrida’s deconstruction enables and aims for the “slide [of epistemes/philosophemes] – without mistreating them - to the point of their non-pertinence, their exhaustion, their closure” (Derrida 6). He applies systems to themselves until their meaning becomes exhausted, until they slide indistinctly into what they define themselves over and against. A typical (if ‘typical’ can be applied here) deconstructive reversion of this kind would be in seeing a feminist (someone who would define themselves upon their femininity) as obsessed with the masculine, or even as a misogynist, or in seeing a moralist like Kant as intimately bound up in immorality.

Derrida’s deconstructionism does not stop at this meaningful contradiction of seemingly opposed systems, it in fact goes beyond meaning, and fluctuates even between the meaningful and the meaningless. His texts (The Post Card in particular) shift restlessly between the philosophical and the literary, prose and poetry, possibly even art and ‘science’. In response to a comment of Henri Ronse that “it seems almost impossible to define the status of [his] discourse,” (Derrida 6) Derrida states that he in fact sees himself at “the limit of philosophical discourse” (Derrida 6). He speaks of the “‘thought-that-means-nothing’, the thought that exceeds meaning” which is for him “precisely… the thought for which there is no sure opposition between outside and inside” (Derrida 12).

It is precisely for these reasons (the transcendence of meaning and the meaningful) that deconstruction is often rejected as a merely arbitrary reinterpretation of traditional textual interpretations based upon nothing more than the whim of the critic. Derrida’s more ‘serious’ (serious in the sense that they fit more neatly into the style and limitations of a traditional philosophical work than his more ‘literary’ works seem to) however, seem to speak otherwise. His in depth analyses of Rousseau, Freud, Husserl and others, are not merely arbitrary and ‘exterior’ criticisms with no ‘philosophical merit’ (such as it is). They quite literally deconstruct the text from the inside out. Derrida applies a text toitself. He uses the arguments produced by a text, to produce the opposite meaning of what has traditionally been seen as the author’s intended meaning. That is: Derrida radically subverts, and often inverts traditional readings.

In this way he can illustrate that authorial intention is simply not sufficient to describe or define the meaning of a text. For Derrida, there is far more to be found in Plato, in Hegel, in Marx, in any work really, than the ‘author’ has intended. For him there is, in fact, nothing outside the text (certainly a catch phrase, but it helps explain…). There is a fundamental inability of intentionality to limit the possible meanings produced by a text. Hence, the exteriority of the author’s intention in writing a book (he rejects the notion of a limited, enclosed, and final ‘book’ as well…“In what you call my books, what is first of all put in question is the unity of the book and the unity “book” considered as a perfect totality…” (Derrida 3)) should not and cannot limit the text itself. The intention of the author is limited by itself, and its own place in time and space. The author cannot escape his own intention, but his work, his text, is not bound to him, and there is no real connection between an author and their supposed work for Derrida.

The question now seems to be: if an author’s intentions are not (terribly) important and we cannot (without absurdity) study any particular aspect of a text outside the text itself, how are we to deal with the vast number of texts that make up the western metaphysical tradition? And it is, for Derrida, obvious that we must deal with the tradition in order to escape or transgress it.

Both the philosophical limitation of interpretation and the rigid structure of ‘allowable’ meanings that the history of metaphysics has erected are things that Derrida warns of. The scientific/metaphysical insistence upon an ‘objective’ viewpoint that we can withdraw to and examine things (texts, terms, historical movements, empirical data, etc.) from is something that Derrida sees as both naïve and dangerous. It is naïve in that there is no real way to escape the necessity of contextual interpretation; there is no way to understand/deconstruct a text except in and through its own terms and its own structure. To truly understand the works of Plato, we must investigate and explore them from within themselves. The notion that one can describe and define textual terms (‘deconstruction’, or ‘will to power’ for instance) outside of the text to which they belong, and still expect them to function similarly out of that context is, to Derrida, absurd.

Derrida’s own works are no exception. On the Derridean term, différance, Christopher Norris states that, it

should function not as a concept, not as a word whose meaning could be finally ‘booked into the present’, but as one set of marks in a signifying chain which exceeds and disturbs the classical economy of language and representation. (Norris 15)

But, even going this far, to describe the term without reference to its context, is “already to lift it out of Derrida’s text – where it is given very specific work to do – and treat it as a species of key-word or master concept” (Norris 15). The key-word is a dangerous reduction. Derrida himself mentions this danger (that of trying to distil or reduce part of a text to a definition or succinct statement) in relation to the polysemic chain that différance belongs to (différance, dissemination, gram, pharmakon, hymen, etc.):

dissemination means nothing, and cannot be reassembled into a definition. I will not attempt to do so here, and I prefer to refer to the work of the texts. If dissemination, seminal différance, cannot be summarized into an exact conceptual tenor, it is because the force and form of its disruption explode the semantic horizon (Derrida 44-45).

And then again states, more forcefully, that

[d]issemination, … although producing a nonfinite number of semantic effects, can be led back neither to a present or a simple origin, nor to an eschatological presence. It marks an irreducible generative multiplicity. The supplement and the turbulence of a certain lack fracture the limit of the text, forbidding an exhaustive and closed formalization of it, or at least a saturating taxonomy of its themes, its signified, its meaning (Derrida 45).

Here there is a necessity of reference, of endlessly deferring and referring everything to its context, no matter how broad. The concept of the mark is mentioned here as well: that a term (like différance) cannot truly be defined because it is a mark or representation of a multiplicitous field of meanings.

How do these notions of the multiple/referential meaning, the mark, the necessarily contextual interpretation of texts, and the inversion/subversion of authorial intention apply to my original question (of how ‘deconstruction’ manages to escape definition and the simplistically contradictory nature of a ‘system’)? If a term or a text has not one meaning, but a multiplicity of productive meanings (meanings which constantly produce further meanings, which then produce ever more meanings, ad infinitum) then it can not truly be defined. It cannot be interpreted in a simple/systematised/formalised/scientific manner. There is no point at which deconstruction can be crystallised Which leads us to the second point: that a term or text (because of this infinite chain of meanings) can not be interpreted outside itself. It must be thought of and deconstructed within its context. The term Being cannot truly be deconstructed or understood except within the body of work that was the Heideggerian context.

This context includes not only the limited ‘book’ or body of work within which a term may be localised, but the entire chain of meanings and interpretations that led to the production of that term. My necessarily temporal wording (such as, ‘led to’) is here misleading, as Derrida rejects a teleological or simply linear chain of meaning. We never absolutely overcome anything that contributes to the ‘present’. Hegel has not been overcome in Marx, anymore than Heidegger or Derrida have overcome Nietzsche. Deconstruction is concerned with the endless renewal of that which leads us to our current ‘position,’ and, obviously, any reinterpretation is further subject to an inversion or subversion. This constant movement is what enables deconstruction to avoid systemisation. It has no real structure (any temporary structure it appropriates is overturned or reinterpreted and deferred to something else). It has no position, it posits nothing, and it accepts nothing. It stands nowhere, but everywhere moves in between the margins.

Works cited above:

Positions, Jacques Derrida. Translated by Alan Bass. (University of Chicago Press, 1981: Chicago) This is three separate interviews with Derrida in the late 60's and early 70's... (when he started becoming famous).

Derrida, Christopher Norris. (Harvard University Press, 1987: Cambridge).

I've also noded (or am in the process of noding)writeups for some of Derrida's books. Here are links to the ones I've done so far:

Limited Inc is a hilarious polemic against Searle and Speech Act Theory

Of Grammatology, an earlier book (1967) where he discusses the historical dominance of speech over writing (phonocentrism), among other things.

Cinders, a work where he uses (as he does in most of his work) puns, metaphors and homonymy to illustrate 'philosophical' points. Centers around the phrase: "Cinders there are".

Here is a selected bibliography of the English translations some of Derrida's more important (in my mind anyway...) books:

  • Speech and Phenomena, and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs. Trans. David B. Allison. Preface by Newton Garver. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973.
  • 'Edmund Husserl's Origin of Geometry: An Introduction.' Leavey, Jr., tr. New York: Harvester Press, 1978. (Repr.: Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.) Includes the text of 'The Origin of Geometry' Trans. by David Carr.
  • Margins of Philosophy. Translation and Annotation by Alan Bass. Brighton: Harvester Press; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
  • Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles / Eperons: Les styles de Nietzsche. Trans. Barbara Harlow. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1979. English and French on facing pages.
  • Dissemination. Translation, Annotation, and Introduction by Barbara Johnson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; London: Athlone Press, 1981.
  • Margins of Philosophy. Translation and Annotation by Alan Bass. Brighton: Harvester Press; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
  • Positions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982; transl. and annotation by Alan Bass.
  • Glas. Trans. John P. Leavey, Jr., and Richard Rand. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.
  • Cinders. Trans. Ned Lukacher. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.
  • The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. Translation, Annotation and Introduction by Alan Bass. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
  • The Truth in Painting. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1987.
  • Given Time: The Time of the King. Vol. I: Counterfeit Money. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
  • Jacques Derrida (w/ G. Bennington); University of Chicago Press 1993.
  • Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. London: Routledge, 1994.
  • The Gift of Death. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
  • The Politics of Friendship, trans. George Collins, London: Verso Books, 1997.
  • Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.
  • Limited Inc. Trans. Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988.

For an indepth and well organised bibliography of Derrida's work (as well as a few online texts by Derrida) I suggest you check out:

The purpose of this write-up is to provide some biographical details about Derrida's life, and a quick-and-dirty introduction to his work. Others can do a much better job of explaining his difficult and interesting work than I.

The brilliant and original French philosopher and father of deconstruction Jacques Derrida was born in 1930 in El-Biar, Algeria. Growing up in Algeria, he saw racism around him and experienced anti-semitism first hand, at one point being expelled from school because he was Jewish. Though Derrida has always struck me as the consummate intellectual brainiac, as a young man he was apparently rather good at competitive sports and not so good at academics. He wanted to be a professional soccer player, but says he wasn't good enough to succeed at this. He failed his baccalaureat (the French equivalent of a high school diploma) the first time he attempted it, in 1947, though he passed the next year. In 1949 he went to Paris as a boarding student; he failed the entrance exam to the École Normale Supérieure twice before passing and being admitted in 1952. He then studied psychology and ethnology and dabbled, apparently, in far-left non-communist militancy. Ah, youth!

In 1955 he attempted the philosophy agregation, which would qualify him for tenure at a state school, but failed the oral portion of the exam; he passed it the following year. In 1956 he went to Harvard for a year, translating Edmund Husserl's Origin of Geometry into French; his introduction to this book, which was published in 1962, won him the Jean Cavailles Prize in modern epistemology. From 1957 to 1959 he engaged in that popular profession for the young and rootless, language teacher - in his case, French and English - to children of soldiers in Algeria; this was apparently how he filled his military service.

Derrida began teaching university in the 1960s: at the Sorbonne from 1960 to 1964, at the École Normale Supérieure from 1965 to 1984, and since the early 70s also in the United States, lecturing at American universities such as Johns Hopkins, Yale, and the University of California at Irvine, where he has been on faculty. While in the States he prefers to spend his time in New York, and apparently often lectures at universities in or near the city. Currently he is director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences in Paris.

Derrida is a quirky character and an iconoclast. For a long time after he became famous through his lectures and writings he apparently refused to defend his doctoral thesis - he finally did so in 1980, when he was 50. He also refused to have his photograph published, though he's since loosened up on that, and photos of him are rather common now; he's a vital, intense-looking man.

And the writings, of course. In the early 60s he published articles in the journals Tel Quel and Critique, and in a fell swoop in 1967 came out with three landmark texts: Writing and Difference, Of Grammatology, and Speech and Phenomena (about Husserl). These texts introduced deconstruction, an approach or strategy for analysis of texts which challenges dominant western assumptions of truth, identity, and meaning. Instead of reading a text (a word which Derrida takes to have a very broad meaning, from a book to a painting to a TV show, or even, I suppose, a node) for clear, direct communication from the author to the reader - for a "truth" - Derrida uncovers multiple layers of meaning at work, showing that language and meaning are constantly shifting and that language confounds the author's desire to present ideas unequivocally. Derrida questions the philosophical assumption of logocentrism, that is, the idea that the meanings of words refer to something in the structure of reality itself. Logocentrism is intextricably linked with phonocentrism, the idea that speech is a more direct way to communicate than writing; this too rests on the assumption that there is something "real" to which a speaker's words refer. Derrida argues instead that an author's intentions in speaking cannot be unconditionally accepted, thus further multiplying interpretations. Deconstruction thus challenges the belief that the wor(l)d is simple and can be known with certainty; deconstruction takes place as the experience of the impossible, says Derrida.

I have never heard Derrida speak, but I understand it is quite an experience. He's a well-dressed, elegant man with a mane of white hair, and is said to be an interesting and, for many, exasperating speaker. (Yes, he does talk like that, and even more so.) He uses pun, poetry, metaphor and allusion to illustrate his philosophy, making each lecture something of a public performance. He revels in contradiction and ambiguity, which many find extremely unsettling. On top of all this, he is extremely erudite, drawing from the works of a host of thinkers with intimidating ease.

In 1973 he published three more powerhouses: Dissemination, Margins of Philosophy (essays), and Positions (interviews). These were followed by other books, including Memoires, for Paul de Man in 1986 and Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question in 1987, each of which unleashed a storm of controversy as many felt that Derrida did not adequately criticize de Man and Heidegger for their Nazi sympathies. Indeed, critics charge that Derrida's ideas subvert any search for meaning and politics and thus lead to moral and ethical relativism.

Derrida does not agree with this assessment, and in fact has devoted considerable time to social justice issues, speaking out against apartheid and for dissident Czechoslovakian intellectuals. He argues that we must each take responsibility for our own truth-making at every moment of our lives. Truth is not preordained or "given" to us by a higher power; rather, what we take as true involves a decision on our part for which we alone are responsible.

Derrida holds honorary doctorates from Columbia University, the University of Essex, the New School for Social Research, Williams College, and Cambridge University. (This latter award caused a great controversy, and the dons ended up voting on whether or not he should get the degree: 336 yay, 204 nay was the final tally.) He lives in a suburb of Paris with his wife of 36 years, Marguerite; they have two sons.

Love him or hate him, Derrida's work has had an indelible impact on 20th and 21st century thought. There are several extensive webliographies on Derrida. See, for example,,_Jacques/

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