jacques derridaOverview

Derrida was the best known of the Poststructuralists, a playfully knowledgeable writer who attacked 'logocentricism', the view that ideas exist outside the language we use to express them. Derrida believed that words refer only to other words, not to things or thoughts or feelings.

His 'deconstruction' is employed by radical critics to question or undermine the canon of western literature, but Derrida himself was a good deal more astute and learned than his followers.


Derrida took an hermetic view of language. Words refer to other words, not to things or thoughts. His quarrel was with 'logocentrism', that assumption (as he saw it) that we have an idea in our minds which our writing or speaking attempts to express. That is not at the case. No one possesses the full significance of their words. Texts in some sense write themselves: i.e. are independent of an author or his intentions.

Derrida was famous for deconstruction, the claim that texts subtly undermine their ostensible meanings. Texts (all discourse altogether, from a transient remark to the most pondered philosophy) are open to repeated interpretation. His first demolition job (L'Origine de la géometrie: 1962) was on Husserl, whose paper on the origin of geometry was shown by Derrida to compound more problems than it solved. In 1967 came the three books that made Derrida's name: Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference, Speech and Phenomena. Six years later he brought out three more controversial works (Marges de la philosophie, La Dissémination, Positions) which continued his attack on 'logocentrism', what Derrida called the western preconception with truth as a presence (essence, existence, substance, subject). {1}

Derrida is commonly explained by developing a concept of Saussure's. Just as phonemes derive their significance from their ability to contrast recognizably with other sounds, and to replace other phonemes in words, so our understanding of a word depends on other words — on an endless chain of signifiers, pointing to nothing beyond themselves and developing out a history of usage entirely lost to us. In short, language depends on nothing, no fundamental ground of logic, science or society. But though signifiers continually defer to each other (différance), they may leave a trace of their deferments (discernible through Derrida's deconstruction) where the author of the text in question has suppressed meaning by choosing one word in preference to another. Whence comes the author's authority to make this choice? Not from any conception of "what he meant", as this has no existence outside words. Nor from any unvoiced, inner intention, which is again without any final determinant of meaning, being just the product of repeated suppressions of other thoughts. The double bind is complete. There is no end to interpretation, and no escaping it, says Derrida. All we can do is point to its workings.

But Derrida's attack went deeper. Knowledge, identity, truth, meaning — all the great concepts of western thought — achieve their status by overlooking or repressing other elements in their derivation. Not only do they push themselves forward as self-sufficient, giving themselves a presence that doesn't exist outside philosophic discourse, but they replace other usages. Writing is often seen as less immediate and authentic than speech, but that is not necessarily the case. The early Christian Church made logos into the Word of God, i.e. fought the pagan classical world by borrowing the Greek word for wisdom and rationality. There is no end to such strategies, and no centre. Hence Derrida's style, a new Joycean farrago without the humour. His verbal acrobatics — puns, quibbles, equivocations, neologisms, subterfuges, conflations, allusions and playful digressions — masterful or tedious according to viewpoint — all focus attention on what Derrida claimed is everywhere important in language: its opacity to the world beyond itself and an astonishing fecundity in its own creation.

As to be expected from its approach, Derrida's terminology shifted over the years: new words were coined and old words given new meanings. Concepts don't have settled definitions, indeed can't have, but assume new shapes depending on what deconstruction is 'reading' at the time. That opens new possibilities as Derrida, for example, built on Kierkegaard's leap of faith, distinguishing decision from undecidability. Since the effect or significance of some decision is never wholly known, but refers to some future event (which is undeciderable in its turn), every decision must to some extent be an act of faith. This is the feature that makes it a decision, rather than a mechanical follow on from the facts. Responsibility comes in acknowledging the undecidability, which is often a decision between the particular and the universal, between this and the 'other' — between, for example, wishing to protect someone and the general need to be truthful. One side inevitably suffers. When that 'other' is religious injunctions — what Derrida called the 'wholly other' — the decision is even more indeterminable, becoming indeed a paradox or 'aporia' (religions have to be lived, with unforeseeable results). Among such 'aporia' for Derrida were 'gift' (how to be genuinely a gift without leading to some recompense), 'hospitality', 'forgiveness' and 'mourning' (successful bereavement would remove the loved one from consciousness: Derrida borrowed and undermined the Freudian concept of the introjection of the other).


Derrida has been called philosopher, anti-philosopher, literary theorist, literary subverter and intellectual joker. {2} But his central tenets are clear. Once we use language (speech or writing) to refer to reality, that reality is linguistically formulated and therefore indeterminate. Meaning is not something preexisting in the mind that we struggle to express. Like the main analytical schools of language philosophy from Hume onwards, and contrary to Saussure, Derrida does not regard words as the expression of ideas.

Derrida's second tenet was that words rest on nothing — not on speech (Austin) or intention (Grice) or naming (Frege) or deep grammar (Chomsky) or metalanguages (Davidson) or social usage (Wittgenstein). We cannot define a word except in relation to other words, and these in turn call on other words, and so on. Analytical philosophers are much exercised by meaning, truth and belief, and Derrida studied some of them. {3} But analytical philosophy he saw as much too narrow and self-centred. Derrida's mission was to show that texts, institutions, traditions, societies, beliefs and practices do not have definable meanings, and will always exceed the boundaries they currently occupy. He took it as self-evident that language is a closed system of signs, without a centre, that logic, perception or social behaviour cannot provide the grounds for language, which is the primary reality. No arguments can counter this assertion. Derrida didn't construct any philosophic system, was opposed to such systems, and indeed disliked the inbred world of academia. In his celebrated exchange with John Searle over Austin's book How to do Things with Words, he was more concerned to score debating points to illustrate that narrowness than to seriously discuss the issues on academic grounds. {5}

Derrida asked some important questions, and no doubt widened the remit of academia, probably for the better. But his central assertion is false. Words don't write themselves. Our understanding of brain functioning allows words and ideas have an existence independent of their author, but that existence is not beyond the control of other parts of the author's mind, or society at large.

Derrida's Style of Argumentation

As practised by his many disciples, deconstruction has become method of reading a text: interpreting it (or misinterpreting it, as critics would say). Reading should be a free, joyous, creative performance, and literary deconstruction does just that — encourages texts to undermine themselves, subvert any settled or sensible meaning. The strategies are simple. First comes the all or nothing demand for clarity. If, as is generally the case, given enough ingenuity, some shade of uncertainty or ambiguity can be teased out of a passage, then the meaning is declared to be undetermined. Second is equivocation, the double meaning of words exemplified in: "The trouble with political jokes is that they so frequently get elected." The critic burrows through, subtly evading argument or coming to perverse conclusions by continually shifting the senses in which words or phrases are being employed. Third is the strategy of artificially isolating a word, removing it entirely from the context of its deployment, and then declaring the word ambiguous by showing it now capable of being used variously. Fourth is opacity, constructing arguments that peter out because constructed at key points with words whose meaning is left entirely obscure. Coupled with this — a fifth strategy — is a pretentious use of word or phrase which the struggling reader can only ascribe to profundity. Sixth is the use of abstraction, strategies that replace the "who, how, when" with impersonal, intercultural forces. Seventh, and finally, is extended reflexiveness, entangling meaning in words which need further analysis in words which also call for further analysis, and so on. {6} Most find this detestable, a grotesque parody of the academic style, wildly unreadable and all too easy to mimic, hopefully not seriously. {7}

Wider Philosophic Perspective

Yet Derrida was serious, and not entirely as literary critics interpret him. Certainly he did not sharply distinguish between literature and philosophy. Nor did he like the specialization of ivory-tower philosophy. Like Foucault and Lacan, Derrida belonged to the intelligentsia, and would have been failing in his social responsibilities not to have demonstrated how words are used for political ends, often to intimidate and repress the less-advantaged communities.

The matter needs to be seen in wider context. The analytical schools base their case on closely reasoned argument and evidence. The continental schools do not. Following Nietzsche, they distrust reason, retorting that the clever lawyer can prove anything. The grounds of their approaches are linguistics, sociology, psychiatry, politics — grounds shadowy and secondary to the analytical schools, but to the continentals vital and basic. There the debate ends. If, to the satisfaction of the analytical schools, the grounds for the continental's case are shown to be without foundation, to be only myths, the response comes that all fields of intellectual activity are ultimately myths. The correspondence theory of truth does not apply, so much as the consistency and completeness of the coherence theory. It is in the fields of linguistics, sociology, psychoanalysis and politics that the battle needs to be fought.

But these are old arguments. {8} At best, reality can only partially circumscribed by words, and what we know of brain functioning would make it highly unlikely than anything as complicated as consciousness could be governed by the small areas responsible for linguistic skills. Only the weak form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is generally accepted: i.e. that language influences but does not control perception. Mostly we learn by seeing and doing, and there are many types of knowledge — riding a bicycle, developing a taste in painting, social interaction — where words take us only so far. We remember places and faces without preserving them in words, obviously so, or identity parades would not be successful. But what of more abstract concepts like truth, honesty, kindness: how do these have existence outside words? Because we need them in our everyday lives. Societies have codes of conduct, and that means we privilege (to use Derrida's term) good over evil, truth over falsehood. Language is mysterious in its operations, but we don't have to deny the existence of what we cannot yet explain. Many philosophers do indeed believe that meaning precedes expression, and that we can to some extent think without possessing a language. Idiot savants, for example, have amazing mathematical abilities, but often have only a few words at their command. Even Derrida rewrote his paragraphs, and in doing so acknowledged that the first drafts did not fully express what he meant. That meaning need not have final or complete expression, and probably never can have. Philosophers are always finding exceptions, qualifications, further considerations. Language is constantly modifying and being modified by our need for a consistent understanding of ourselves and our place in the scheme of things. Perhaps what Derrida attacked is the common pursuit of philosophy. He knew very well that language cannot escape social customs, linguistic codes, tacit assumptions, etc., all of which shift in time and between communities. He knew too that even at its most stringently analytical, in the Anglo-Saxon schools, philosophy is not opposed to drawing closer to the arts or to embracing social issues. But what can this bare, abstract, context-less generality really lay claim to? Too often it is merely word spinning, and by being a good deal more learned, subtle and inventive, Derrida outrageously sent up the whole process.

But philosophy is still philosophy, employing different approaches and providing different insights. Philosophy uses language certainly — a more logical and scientific language in the analytical schools, and more imaginative in the continental ones — but to see philosophy as simply another literary activity is not to understand its problems or achievements. Literary theorists may well need some grounding for their speculations, but concepts cannot simply be borrowed with no thought of underlying differences in procedure and assumption. Literature students very much need to understand the differences, perhaps even submit to a short undergraduate course in logic and European thought. Derrida's strategy was not new (is indeed all too familiar from the Sophists' days) and this spinning and unspinning of dense textural webs may prepare students for nothing more useful than climbing their own academic ladder. Derrida didn't want that. {9} Philosophy requires arduous training, he asserted, and he did not believe that "anything goes". {10} Why was he so popular? Because his views, incompletely understood, furnish grounds for rewriting the canon of western literature. If everything is merely interpretation — individual, shifting, groundless — there are no reasons for preferring Jane Austin to a slush romance. But Derrida is then being misinterpreted. Certainly he understood the irony, if not absurdity, of employing as weapons the very words he criticized. But Derrida's was guerrilla warfare, attack and retreat, with no ground held. {11} Awareness of the fundamental problems is what he aimed at — problems which persist even if we ground understanding in brain processes and regard words as articulations of behaviour which is largely instinctive and unconscious. Derrida's revelations were not revelations at all, only late and perhaps sensible reactions to the overblown claims of philosophy. So he is read with amusement by pragmatists like Rorty and Margolis. {12} Flight from all-embracing reason, moreover, is not without its precedents. Nineteenth-century figures like Fichte rejected the rationalism of the Enlightenment, and the certainty of discourse has been doubted by philosophers of science impeccably part of the empiricist tradition. {13}.

This and other pages in the theory section have been collected into a free pdf ebook entitled 'A Background to Literary Theory'. Click here for the download page.


1. Christopher Norris's Deconstruction: Theory and Practice. (1982), J. Sturrock's Structuralism and Since: From Lévi - Straus to Derrida. (1984), Jonathan Culler's On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (1983), Chapter 8 of Bernard Bergonzi's Exploding English (1990), Chapter 11 of George Watson's The Literary Critics (1986), J.G. Merquior's From Prague to Paris (1986), pp. 29-33 of John Passmore's Recent Philosophers (1985), Roger Scruton's Modern Philosophy (1996), Raman Seldon's A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory (1985), and the works listed on page 65 of Wendell Harris's Literary Meaning (1996). A larger bibliography, and details of Derrida's own publications are to be found on pp. 140-41 in Passmore 1985.
2. Chapter 8 of Bergonzi 1990.
3. He translated Quine. See p. 39 in John D. Caputo's Deconstruction in a Nutshell: Conversations with Derrida (1997).
4. p. 31 in Caputo 1997.
5. Note 11 on p. 141 of Passmore 1985 for the complicated publishing history of the exchange.
6. Chapter 3 of Harris 1996, and Raymond Tallis's Not Saussure: A Critique of Post-Saussurean Literary Theory (1988, 1995).
7. Chapter 6 of Harris 1996.
6. p. 140 of Passmore 1985.
8. Stephen Priest's French Philosophy and Nicholas Rescher's Pseudo-Philosophy entries in Ted Honderich's The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995). Both have short bibliographies.
9. Chapter 7 of Raman Selden's (Ed.) The Cambridge History of Literary Theory (1995).
10. pp. 146-7 in Joseph Margolis's The Truth About Relativism (1991).
11. Robert Solomon's A History of Western Philosophy 7: Continental Philosophy since 1750 (1988).
12. Alan Malachowski's (Ed.) Reading Rorty (1990).
13. Chapter 7 of Patrick Suppes's Probabilistic Metaphysics (1984).

Internet Resources

1. Jacques Derrida. Jack Reynolds. 2002. http://www.iep.utm.edu/d/derrida.htm. Detailed Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, thorough if somewhat technical.
2. Interviews with Jacques Derrida. 1995. http://prelectur.stanford.edu/lecturers/derrida/
. Introduction to Derrida's outlook and ideas.
3. Of Grammatology. Jacques Derrida. 1974. http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/
. Most of chapter two of the book.
4. Jacques Derrida. Alan Liu. http://vos.ucsb.edu/. Extensive Voice of the Shuttle listings.
5. Austin's Ditch: The Political Necessity and Impossibility of "Non-Serious" Speech. James Hersh. http://www.bu.edu/wcp/Papers/Poli/PoliHers.htm. Short paper on political implications of Derrida's idea.
6. Jacques Derrida. Alan Liu. http://vos.ucsb.edu/. Extensive Voice of the Shuttle listings.