Derrida Enunciates the Principles of Deconstruction

Jacques Derrida launched an assault on what he viewed as the untenable linguistic underpinnings of all Western thought, thereby unfolding a “deconstructive” critique of rationalism and humanism.

Summary of Event

With the publication of the English edition of De la grammatologie (1967; Of Grammatology, 1976), deconstruction catapulted into prominence on the highbrow American cultural scene, and by the 1980’s the term had spread into the lexicon of journalism and popular culture. The French philosophy professor who coined this neologism, Jacques Derrida, had grown up in Algeria along the margins of French culture. Deconstruction
Literary theory
Cultural criticism
Philosophy;continental philosophy
Of Grammatology (Derrida)
[kw]Derrida Enunciates the Principles of Deconstruction (1967)
[kw]Deconstruction, Derrida Enunciates the Principles of (1967)
Literary theory
Cultural criticism
Philosophy;continental philosophy
Of Grammatology (Derrida)
[g]Europe;1967: Derrida Enunciates the Principles of Deconstruction[09090]
[g]France;1967: Derrida Enunciates the Principles of Deconstruction[09090]
[c]Philosophy;1967: Derrida Enunciates the Principles of Deconstruction[09090]
[c]Literature;1967: Derrida Enunciates the Principles of Deconstruction[09090]
[c]Language, linguistics, and philology;1967: Derrida Enunciates the Principles of Deconstruction[09090]
Derrida, Jacques

A fascination with giving overlooked, or marginalized, phenomena their due continued to infuse Derrida’s prolific writings throughout his career. In particular, he repeatedly maintained that mainstream Western metaphysics must constantly be attacked, despite the fact that every such attack, including and especially a deconstructive one, is doomed to strengthen rather than harm those metaphysics. The salient features of Western metaphysics to which Derrida is opposed include the notion that writings have some connection with authorial intention and refer to things outside the world of discourse; that “man” is a meaningful and enduring concept; that such a thing as “presence” exists; and that spoken language is more authentically communicative than is written language.

Some two-thirds of Derrida’s Of Grammatology consists of examinations of the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in search of passages in which the older writer reinscribes Western metaphysics. Through punning and rhetorical wordplay, confident pronouncements, clever flights of speculation, and a style of argumentation marked by conceptual leaps that defy logic, Derrida attempts to reveal that all texts contain contradictory tensions that must be hidden in order for them to do the work of creating seemingly coherent or stable meanings.

Derrida typically dismissed scholarly attempts from outside his movement to define either deconstruction or its central tenets. Rather than accepting the confining limits of definition and evidential argument, Derrida spoke of deconstruction as an activity marked by the jeu, or “play,” of untrammeled and often audacious thought. Arguing that “rationality” is a word that “should be abandoned,” Derrida claimed to have forged a “meta-rationality” and a “meta-scientificity” that can “be no more shut up within a science of man than conform to the traditional idea of science.” “In one and the same gesture,” he adds, “they leave man, science, and the line [linearity] behind.”

Derrida insists that the human subject has no control over language. One of his favorite metaphors is that the dance dances the dancer, rather than the other way around. This ejection of human agency from Derrida’s model of language resonates with overtones of the works of other French antihumanist intellectuals such as Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, and Roland Barthes Barthes, Roland . Just as Barthes had dramatically proclaimed the “death of the author” within a brave new world of embodied literary texts (that is, a world in which the text itself was taken seriously as a material entity, rather than being seen as the disembodied truth emanating from the body of an author), Derrida insists that ordinary conversations as well as literary texts embody no intentionality on the part of an absent speaker. Rather, it is precisely the body of the text—that is, the physical words on the page or sounds emanating from a mouth—that prevents words from meaning exactly and only what their writer or speaker wanted them to mean. Using a Husserlian (after German philosopher Edmund Husserl) model to define “presence” in the narrow terms of a pure or absolute presence, Derrida claims that the inability to demonstrate the existence of absolute presence proves that presence itself is an untenable concept. “Logocentrism,” the wrongheaded attachment to presence and yearning for immediacy that Derrida condemns as something of an insidious conspiracy pervading all Western writing and metaphysics, functions as a sort of bugbear in deconstructionist thought.

Derrida essentially defines presence as the absence of absence (“the sign of the sign” or “the trace of the trace”), emphasizing its tenuous nature. He claims that since there is no pure presence in which a speaker might formulate a thought or intention to speak, the idea of intentionality itself dissolves as an illusion. In effect, the Derridean model of discourse portrays the speaker as a passive conduit for language, which itself stays in the driver’s seat from start to finish. People do not use language to achieve their aims; if only humans could “free” their view of language “from the concept of man,” they could perceive that language mechanistically uses humans to unfold its own dynamism. Similarly, flesh-and-blood human subjects do not desire things, for that would involve the impossibility of intentionality; instead, in the Derridean universe of passive humanoids and robust abstract forces, “Desire desires the exteriority of presence and nonpresence.”

Another deconstructionist tenet that underlines the absence of the human subject is a radical view of “intertextuality,” or the interchange of influences between various literary texts. Derrida makes a claim even more sweeping than Barthes’s proclamation of the author’s demise, insisting that “there is nothing outside the text.” This does not mean that a book, for example, has no reality beyond it. Rather, it means that the entire world as it is encountered by human subjects is textual. There is no experience of the world that is not filtered through language and other sign systems; it is all, therefore, text. Derrida emphasizes the conviction with which he holds on to this model of an echo-chamber universe of texts reverberating with one another by anointing it an “axial proposition” of Of Grammatology. Quite a few of his followers have taken him at his word and discussed wars and famines as “texts” having a historical footing no different from that of a poem or an advertisement.

Although the disciplines of history and anthropology give evidence of many cultures with spoken languages that lack written counterparts, Derrida insists that the privileging of spoken language over written language is one of the grandest misconceptions of Western thought. Here he attacks the traditional notion that because one can interrupt speakers to ask them for clarification of a given point, spoken language is closer to the truth of the speaker’s utterance than is written language, which cannot explain itself if it is misunderstood. Derrida’s resistance to this idea has many causes, but it clearly follows from his insistence that speakers are not in control of language to begin with and that they therefore always mean more than they intend to mean whenever they utter a word.

Derrida condemns the intransigence of the supposed Western “effacement” and “repression” of the written “signifier” by complaining that even after the West had become well aware of nonalphabet writing scripts in East Asia, the West stubbornly pressed on with its logocentric ways. In order to back up his linguistically naïve claim that Chinese and Japanese are “largely nonphonetic scripts” and thus free of logocentrism, Derrida earnestly cites the long-discredited views of Ernest Fenollosa and Ezra Pound about the purportedly “ideographic” nature of the Chinese script. By maintaining a tone of ebullient self-assuredness when discussing East Asian languages, an area about which he was almost totally ignorant, Derrida exposed a basic problem with his speculations—they are grounded on too thin a layer of sound scholarship to be very convincing.


Without doubt, Derrida’s ideas have exerted greater impact in the United States than in any other country. Indeed, Derrida’s entry into the American academy decisively altered its history when, at a 1966 conference at Johns Hopkins University designed to introduce structuralism to the United States, Derrida delivered a paper, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (Derrida)[Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences] that constituted a poststructuralist intervention. He thereby exposed the American academy to the poststructuralist school of thought before it had had time to encounter its structuralist predecessor, launching American poststructuralism before there ever was a significant school of American structuralism.

In many ways, the 1976 publication of Of Grammatology in English translation created a much larger and lengthier stir than did the appearance of the original French edition in 1967. Derrida’s subsequent publishing efforts in France were almost always made with an eye to getting the works out in English translation as rapidly as possible. Frequent lecture trips and visiting appointments to such U.S. universities as Yale, Cornell, and the University of California, Irvine, enabled Derrida to cast a larger shadow in U.S. academe than he had in France.

“Grammatology,” a term that Derrida had dug up from an obscure linguist named Gelb, never really caught on the way Derrida seems to have anticipated with the gushing proclamation in his preface that grammatology “shows signs of liberation all over the world.” It was Derrida’s coinage of “deconstruction” that would hit the jackpot for him within a cultural atmosphere as antinomian as America’s had become by the 1970’s and 1980’s. The radical skepticism of Derrida’s rhetoric appealed to the relativistic thought of large numbers of American academics in the humanities.

Young professors, in particular, found it useful to draw on deconstructionist approaches to dismantle the ideas and studies of their forebears and peers prior to embarking on new tangents of their own. Even academics who disdained Derrida’s general project or disapproved of his flamboyant and often Byzantine writing style often found the concept of deconstruction useful when overhauling or revamping a given conceptual framework. This insistence on the new and different is ironic, given that Derrida consistently claimed to be duplicating the work of others, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, and Emmanuel Levinas, among many others. Each of these thinkers, in Derrida’s view, both attacked and reinscribed Western metaphysics, as he himself did in his work.

Derrida’s effects on literary study and philosophy have been profound, as well as controversial. He is dismissed, vilified, admired, and lauded, but he is rarely ignored. There are those who believe that he has contaminated the plain study of literature with his jargon, while others believe that he revealed the unmanageable nature of meaning that those in the academy traditionally chose to ignore. The question of his politics is also controversial: Some see him as a radical voice of political reform and social justice, some see him as a reactionary with connections (through fellow poststructuralist Paul de Man) to Nazi ideology, and yet others assert that deconstruction is fundamentally and dangerously apolitical, because it ignores the “real world” and focuses solely on the world of signs and symbols. The vitality of the debate, however, demonstrates that Derrida’s place within the history of Western thought is assured. Deconstruction
Literary theory
Cultural criticism
Philosophy;continental philosophy
Of Grammatology (Derrida)

Further Reading

  • Abrams, M. H. Doing Things with Texts: Essays in Criticism and Critical Theory. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989. Expert interpretations of Derrida and some other deconstructionist “Newreaders,” as Abrams refers to them.
  • Defrancis, John. The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1984. Explains how and why every written language, even those with a nonalphabetic script, such as Chinese, must be mainly phonetic in nature in order for the memory of speakers to be able to handle the requisite linguistic processing. Counters Derrida.
  • Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Derrida’s classic work, first published in English in 1976, in a “corrected” edition. The translation benefited from its attentiveness to Derrida’s suggestions made in correspondence between Derrida and the translator, Spivak.
  • Dews, Peter. Logics of Disintegration: Post-Structuralist Thought and the Claims of Critical Theory. New York: Verso Books, 1987. Discusses the theoretical disintegration of the unified subject in Derrida’s work as compared with that of Foucault and Lacan, and contrasts all three approaches with Theodor Adorno’s relatively cogent emphasis on intersubjectivity.
  • Ellis, John M. Against Deconstruction. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. This succinct and lucid critique by a veteran literary theorist guides readers through the main threads of argument in Of Grammatology. Provides a strong case for doubting both the logical tenability and practical significance of Derrida’s valorization of writing over speech.
  • Lehman, David. Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man. New York: Poseidon Press, 1991. Explores the rise and fall in the scholarly standing of Paul de Man, the second leading deconstructionist after Derrida. Draws a compelling connection between de Man’s cunning concealment of his wartime Hitlerite polemics and his deconstructionist credo that every theoretical position is unstable and is bound to contradict itself at some level.
  • Norris, Christopher. Derrida. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987. Unlike most books on deconstruction from a partisan perspective, this treatise does not simply dismiss Derrida’s critics as too hidebound to be worth refuting but instead attempts to rebut critiques such as those by the speech-act theorist John Searle. Though Norris’s arguments often fail to convince, his prose is much more readable than the norm for advocates of deconstruction.
  • Norris, Christopher, and David Roden, eds. Jacques Derrida. 4 vols. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2003. Part of the Sage Masters of Modern Thought series. Volumes are thematically organized and provide “a systematic overview of the core conceptual vocabulary informing Deconstruction,” and identify “published works that most clearly and significantly discuss Derrida’s thought.” Highly recommended.
  • Powell, Jason. Jacques Derrida: A Biography. New York: Continuum, 2006. An account of Derrida’s life and work, the first complete overview in a biographical format.
  • Soper, Kate. Humanism and Anti-Humanism. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1986. Explains how and why humanism and Western rationalism have come under such heavy fire from Derrida and other French poststructuralists such as Althusser and Foucault.
  • Stocker, Barry. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Derrida on Deconstruction. New York: Routledge, 2006. An excellent resource for studies of deconstruction. Outlines and discusses key themes in his more popular works and “the continuing importance of Derrida’s work to philosophy.” Part of a Routledge series on other philosophers and philosophies.

New Criticism Arises in American Universities

Kuhn Explores Paradigm Shifts in Scientific Thought

Lévi-Strauss Identifies Common Structures in World Myths

Marcuse Publishes Foundational New Left Works

Celan Introduces the Concept of Poetic “Breath-Measure”