The Father of Deconstructionism Passes OnDeconstructionism, an enemy of truth, obscures the true meanings of written texts by supposedly unearthing hidden meanings underlying their obvious messages.
I first encountered the consequences of Jacques Derrida's thought in 1989, an undergraduate in my first semester. There we were, 20-odd brand new university students, ready to learn about the intellectual history of Western civilization, when our rumpled history tutor declared, "What's history? It's His Story, dammit!"
… it is unlikely that any undergraduate literature, history or philosophy student today is not influenced by the deconstructionist method.
Jacques Derrida died on October 8th, 2004, and during the 1990s I would come to appreciate the immense influence he had on disciplines beyond his own field of philosophy. He was arguably the most famous philosopher in the world, on the faculty of universities in both France and the United States, and highly sought-after on the lecture circuit.
Derrida is most celebrated as the father of deconstructionism, a system of analysis that sought to "deconstruct" texts, especially the classic texts of philosophy, to uncover their hidden meanings. Transferred to literary theory, deconstructionism was massively influential, and it is unlikely that any undergraduate literature, history or philosophy student today is not influenced by the deconstructionist method.
The deconstructive approach argued that a text carries more meaning than just what the author intended. In fact, there are various degrees and layers of meaning that have to be interpreted and reinterpreted, yielding results often at odds with the common reading of the work. Derrida argued that to assume that the author gave expression to certain truths, which the reader was then charged with discovering was a tyranny of reason—"logocentrism"—that assumed that there was a truth there to be discovered in the first place. In fact, that there was a truth to be discovered was what Derrida called the "ruling illusion of Western metaphysics."
Derrida specialized in arcane, deliberately complicated writing which made it hard to understand what exactly he meant. His critics said the whole thing had a kind of emperor's–new-clothes quality to it—emptiness clothed with obscure jargon. Nonsense brilliantly disguised, but nonsense nonetheless.
… it was never clear from Derrida and his disciples what really was true …
He famously objected that it was "stupid and utterly wrong" to regard him as "a sceptical nihilist who doesn't believe in anything, who thinks nothing has meaning, and text has no meaning." Nevertheless, the criticism stuck, because it was never clear from Derrida and his disciples what really was true, and what was just in need of a little more deconstruction. He can't be blamed for everything done in his name, but my history tutor was floating in Derrida's wake. After you get through deconstructing His Story as a misogynist project from the get-go, it makes it rather difficult to replace it with something else.
Philosophy, Derrida's own discipline, was marked for most its history by arguments about the truth of things. If Philosopher A disagreed with Philosopher B, the challenge was to show how B was wrong, and A was right. deconstructionism and its attendant academic novelties pursued a different path.
First, it was not easily established what B was saying at all, with all the multiple layers of meaning needing to be peeled back. Like an onion, the peeling can only go on so long before there is nothing left. Second, given that Philosopher B was writing from a certain perspective, privileging certain viewpoints and discounting others, who was to say whether B was right or not? Being right, or truth itself, came to have a faintly oppressive ring to it. Derrida objected to critics who said this led straight to relativistic nihilism, in which nothing could be established to be objectively true. But it is hard to see where else it could lead.
Truth claims always involve an objective and subjective element. If I were to ask how long it would take me to get home to Kingston, the answer would depend on where I was and how I was travelling. Truth claims are thus often expressed relative to the author. But if I were simply to ask where Kingston is, there is a right and wrong answer, for there is an objective reality to be described and it can be described correctly or incorrectly.
Derrida's project so emphasized the relative aspect of truth claims that the objective aspect became less significant, or in some cases, irrelevant. It may well be interesting to know who is asking for directions to Kingston, and why, and whether he should be going there at all, but a focus on such questions to the exclusion of where Kingston is doesn't make for good directions, good maps or good philosophy.
Derrida was the most prominent recent philosopher shifting philosophy away from thinking about the truth of things to thinking about who is thinking about things, to how they are thinking about their thinking. The shift away from seeking the truth to debates about hidden meanings and hidden agendas has robbed philosophy, literature and history of their most noble aspirations. It was likely not Jacques Derrida's intent to impoverish his discipline. But it will be his legacy.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain of Newman House, the Roman Catholic chaplaincy at Queen's University in Kingston.
Originally published in the National Post, October 13, 2004.
Used with permission of the author. Copyright © 2004 Christianity.ca.