Deconstruction is a term used in philosophy, literary criticism, and the social sciences, popularised through its usage by Jacques Derrida in the 1960s. The Oxford English Dictionary defines deconstruction as "A strategy of critical analysis [...] directed towards exposing unquestioned metaphysical assumptions and internal contradictions in philosophical and literary language. Derrida developed the term deconstruction in relation to his critical engagement with phenomenology, structural linguistics, and literature in the 1960s. The term is also related to the traditions of hermeneutics as it works with questions of how texts should be read and interpreted and immanent critique as a deconstruction demonstrates problems or contradictions that are already operating within the deconstructed text. Concerning deconstruction Derrida states that
[F]rom about 1963 to 1968, I tried to work out - in particular in the three works published in 1967 - what was in no way meant to be a system but rather a sort of strategic device, opening its own abyss, an unclosed, unenclosable, not wholly formalizable ensemble of rules for reading, interpretation and writing. This type of device may have enabled me to detect not only in the history of philosophy and in the related socio-historical totality, but also in what are alleged to be sciences and in so-called post-philosophical discourses that figure among the most modern (in linguistics, in anthropology, in psychoanalysis), to detect in these an evaluation of writing, or, to tell the truth, rather a devaluation of writing whose insistent, repetitive, even obscurely compulsive, character was the sign of a whole set of long-standing constraints. These constraints were practised at the price of contradictions, of denials, of dogmatic decrees

Derrida has on occasion tried to clarify some possible misunderstandings of deconstruction. He has stated, for example, that deconstruction is not a methodology. Today the term deconstruction is popular far beyond Derrida's own usage of it and is most closely associated with continental philosophy and literary criticism. Paul de Man is a prominent practitioner of his own interpretation of deconstruction and the most famous member of what came to be referred to as the Yale School of deconstruction.


Derrida first uses the term deconstruction in Of Grammatology in 1967 to describe the implications of understanding language as writing and how this leads to the impossibility of a straightforward theory of intentional meaning. Derrida states that when he first used the term deconstruction he "wished to translate and adapt to my own ends the Heideggerian word Destruktion or Abbau. Heidegger's philosophy developed in relation to Husserl's and Derrida's use of the term deconstruction is closely linked to Derrida's own appropriation of Husserl's understanding of the necessity and problems associated with structural description. Deconstruction has links to the tradition of immanent critique in which the problems already operating within a discourse are demonstrated. As deconstruction is based in the conclusion of Derrida's arguments against intentional meaning in Of Grammatology and Speech and Phenomena there is some crossover with hermeneutics in that a given example of deconstruction may appeal to older historical meanings of terminology in order to demonstrate a real layer of meaning that is present in the text but runs contrary to what the author wants to use that terminology to mean.


Deconstruction emerged from a clearly delineated philosophical context:

  • Derrida's earliest work is concerned with the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. Derrida's first publication and masters project was a book-length Introduction to his translation from German into French of Husserl's The Origin of Geometry. Husserl's understanding of the necessity and problems associated with the demands for both genetic and structural description is the topic of Derrida's very early essay "'Genesis and Structure' and Phenomenology" and key to understanding the development of deconstruction. Derrida's first book length deconstruction is Speech and Phenomena in which Derrida critically engages with Husserl's philosophy.
  • Martin Heidegger was one of the most significant influences on Derrida's thought: Derrida's Of Spirit deals directly with Heidegger, but Heidegger's influence on deconstruction is much broader than that one volume. Heidegger's crucial influence on deconstruction is that he "defines being itself as a question. Derrida states that deconstruction is the questioning of "the meaning of Being as presence and it therefore operates closely with Heidegger's thought by insisting on the questioning of being.
  • The psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan are important reference points in the development of deconstruction: The Post Card, important essays in Writing and Difference, Archive Fever, and many other deconstructive works deal primarily with Freud.
  • The work of Friedrich Nietzsche is alleged to be a forerunner of deconstruction in form and substance, as Derrida writes in Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles.
  • In Of Grammatology, Derrida makes clear that the work of André Leroi-Gourhan is important to the formulation of deconstruction and grammatology. Not only does Derrida refer the thought of grammè to Leroi-Gourhan's use of the concepts of "exteriorization" and "program," but he also makes use of Leroi-Gourhan's understanding of life and of human life to formulate his own concept of writing. Leroi-Gourhan, according to Derrida, makes it possible to think the history of life as the history of the grammè, and in this context Derrida states that life—in the sense of the great evolving movement of the inscription of difference in which the history of life consists—is "what I have called différance.
  • The structuralism of Ferdinand de Saussure, and other forms of post-structuralism that evolved contemporaneously with deconstruction (such as the work of Maurice Blanchot, Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, etc.), were the immediate intellectual climate for the formation of deconstruction. In many cases, these authors were close friends, colleagues, or correspondents of Derrida's.
  • Hegel's understanding of the absolute that also includes the negation of itself (because otherwise it would not be the all encompassing absolute) is a forerunner of the presence of non-presence within presence that a deconstruction must demonstrate to be in operation. Derrida also defines the term différance - the key theoretical basis of deconstruction - as "the limit, the interruption, the destruction of the Hegelian relève wherever it operates Meaning that différance is the frustration of the perfect operation of the Hegelian sublation that prevents it from overwriting the previous moment absolutely. Différance preserves a trace of that which went before.


Edmund Husserl is one of the major influences on the development of Derrida's philosophy . Derrida's first book length deconstruction is Speech and Phenomena in which Derrida critically engages with Husserl's philosophy. Husserl is therefore both mentor and foil to the development of deconstruction. In Derrida's first published paper titled "'Genesis and Structure' and Phenomenology" (1959) Derrida describes "two polemics which placed him [Husserl] in opposition to those philosophies of structure called Diltheyism and Gestaltism". These two polemics by Husserl are forerunners of Derrida's own deconstruction and Husserl demonstrates in them the philosophical movement of deconstruction that Derrida makes his own. Derrida derives his initial understanding of the necessity for structural thought and its inherent problems from Husserl, noting admiringly that Husserl "ceaselessly attempts to reconcile the structuralist demand (which leads to the comprehensive description of a totality, of a form or a function organized according to an internal legality in which elements have meaning only in the solidarity of their correlation or their opposition), with the genetic demand (that is the search for the origin and foundation of the structure)". Derrida refers to this tension between the incompatible but equally necessary demands of origin and structure as the "structural problematic and it is within this tension that deconstruction operates - raising questions of origin when confronted with structures and questions of structure when confronted with origins. Derrida explains that "the objectivity of a structure ... is tied to the concrete genesis which must make it possible" and that "Husserl refuses, and will always refuse, to accept the intelligibility and normativity of this universal structure as manna fallen from a "heavenly place" ... or as an eternal truth created by an infinite reason". This means that even the most sophisticated and convincing system of thought is vulnerable to questions of how this system of thought was constructed. Deconstruction therefore ambitiously challenges ways of thinking that are often considered most objective by asking how they came to be attributed the status of objectivity.


The eagerness to appropriate deconstruction to literary criticism has led to an emphasis on how Derrida's usage of the term deconstruction changes the understanding of language and how this affects the reading or interpretation of the text. Derrida's development of the term deconstruction in both Of Grammatology and Speech and Phenomena focuses on problematising the appeal to presence as it occurs in the historical privileging of speech over writing and in phenomenology. This appeal to presence takes the form of an appeal to the full self presence of meaning in the consciousness of the speaking or phenomenological subject. An implication of this argument challenging this form of the appeal to presence - if one is to assume its success (making this assumption without consideration of the actual arguments involved is the most common way that advocates of deconstruction get it wrong) - is that language users can no longer be considered fully in control of the meaning of the language they use. Language could therefore be said to have its own force and it should be possible to demonstrate how the language that is used resists the use to which it is put or, more simply, that the writer cannot neatly mean what they intend to mean. The empirical facticity of the text, the use of certain words or certain passages in the text, can be demonstrated to resist or contradict the meaning the author - or canonical interpretation - intends for the text as a whole. It is this emphasis on the hermeneutical implications of deconstruction that leads to its most common usage. A deconstruction therefore describes the failure of the appeal to presence within the text. In literary criticism this is taken as the failure of the text to mean what its author intended it to mean. For Derrida the description of this failure must be demonstrated with painstaking rigour in any particular text by paying close attention to the details of the text in relation to the intentions of the author in order for one to be able to say that the text has been deconstructed.


Considered more technically, deconstruction refers for Derrida to the problematisation of the metaphysical appeal to presence through différance. Derrida states that:

To "deconstruct" philosophy [...] would be to think - in the most faithful, interior way - the structured genealogy of philosophy's concepts, but at the same time to determine - from a certain exterior [...] - what this history has been able to dissimulate or forbid [...] By means of this simultaneously faithful and violent circulation between the inside and the outside of philosophy [...a] putting into question the meaning of Being as presence
To deconstruct philosophy is therefore to think carefully within philosophy about philosophical concepts in terms of their structure and genesis. Deconstruction tries to understand the implications of this history of philosophy as if we could reflect upon it from the outside. Especially the implications of the history of philosophy that have been least obvious because they have controlled the operation of all philosophical thought. Deconstruction operates both faithfully within philosophy and violently tries to escape it to some degree in order to understand it better. Deconstruction does this in order to challenge the basic controlling operation of all philosophical thought: the meaning of being as presence. For Derrida all philosophy is metaphysics - a philosophy of being. Derrida argues that all theories of knowledge are metaphysical appeals to the full presence of truth in a given situation. This is regardless of how the criteria advocated by different epistemologies is constructed. Deconstruction questions this appeal to presence by arguing that there is always an irreducible aspect of non-presence in operation. Derrida terms this aspect of non-presence différance. Différance is therefore the key theoretical basis of deconstruction. Deconstruction questions the basic operation of all philosophy through the appeal to presence and différance therefore pervades all philosophy. Derrida argues that différance pervades all philosophy because "What defers presence [...] is the very basis on which presence is announced or desired in what represents it, its sign, its trace. Différance therefore pervades all philosophy because all philosophy is constructed as a system through language. Différance is essential to language because it produces "what metaphysics calls the sign (signified/signifier). In one sense, a sign must point to something beyond itself that is its meaning so the sign is never fully present in itself but a deferral to something else, to something different. In another sense the structural relationship between the signified and signifier, as two related but separate aspects of the sign, is produced through differentiation. Derrida states that différance "is the economical concept", meaning that it is the concept of all systems and structures, because "there is no economy without différance [...] the movement of différance, as that which produces different things, that which differentiates, is the common root of all the oppositional concepts that mark our language [...] différance is also the production [...] of these differences. Différance is therefore the condition of possibility for all complex systems and hence all philosophy. Operating through différance, deconstruction is the description of how non-presence problematises the operation of the appeal to presence within a particular philosophical system. Différance is an a-priori condition of possibility that is always already in effect but a deconstruction must be a careful description of how this différance is actually in effect in a given text. A deconstruction is achieved through recreating the full force of Derrida's deconstruction of Husserl in Speech and Phenomena and cannot simply derive its legitimacy from an appeal to Derrida's work and then be applied as a methodology. The effectiveness of Derrida's general strategy must be creatively reworked in response to the object text under consideration. All deconstructions are different and cannot be assumed before the deconstruction has actually been demonstrated - but, somewhat paradoxically, all deconstructions must describe problems that once made clear can be said to have always have been in effect in an unrecognised manner. Deconstruction therefore describes problems in the text rather than creating them (which would be trivial). Derrida considers the illustration of aporia in this way to be productive because it shows the failure of earlier philosophical systems and the necessity of continuing to philosophise through them with deconstruction.

Of Grammatology

Derrida first employs the term deconstruction in Of Grammatology in 1967 when discussing the implications of understanding language as writing rather than speech. Derrida states that:

[w]riting thus enlarged and radicalized, no longer issues from a logos. Further, it inaugurates the destruction, not the demolition but the de-sedimentation, the de-construction, of all the significations that have their source in that of the logos.

In this quotation Derrida states that deconstruction is what happens to meaning when language is understood as writing. For Derrida, when language is understood as writing it is realised that meaning does not originate in the logos or thought of the language user. Instead individual language users are understood to be using an external system of signs, a system that exists separately to them because these signs are written down. The meaning of language does not originate in the thoughts of the individual language user because those thoughts are already taking place in a language that does not originate with them. Individual language users operate within a system of meaning that is given to them from outside. Meaning is therefore not fully under the control of the individual language user. The meaning of a text is not neatly determined by authorial intention and cannot be unproblematically recreated by a reader. Meaning necessarily involves some degree of interpretation, negotiation, or translation. This necessity for the active interpretation of meaning by readers when language is understood as writing is why deconstruction takes place.

To understand this more fully, consider the difference for Derrida between understanding language as speech and as writing. Derrida argues that people have historically understood speech as the primary mode of language and understood writing as an inferior derivative of speech. Derrida argues that speech is historically equated with logos, meaning thought, and associated with the presence of the speaker to the listener. It is as if the speaker thinks out loud and the listener hears what the speaker is thinking and if there is any confusion then the speaker's presence allows them to qualify the meaning of a previous statement. Derrida argues that by understanding speech as thought language "efaces itself. Language itself is forgotten. The signified meaning of speech is so immediately understood that it is easy to forget that there are linguistic signifiers involved - but these signifiers are the spoken sounds (phonemes) and written marks (graphemes) that actually comprise language. Derrida therefore associates speech with a very straightforward and unproblematic theory of meaning and with the forgetting of the signifier and hence language itself.

Derrida contrasts the understanding of language as speech with an understanding of language as writing. Unlike a speaker a writer is usually absent (even dead) and the reader cannot rely on the writer to clarify any problems that there might be with the meaning of the text. The consideration of language as writing leads inescapably to the insight that language is a system of signs. As a system of signs the signifiers are present but the signification can only be inferred. There is effectively an act of translation involved in extracting a significaton from the signifiers of language. This act of translation is so habitual to language users that they must step back from their experience of using language in order to fully realise its operation. The significance of understanding language as writing rather than speech is that signifiers are present in language but significations are absent. To decide what words mean is therefore an act of interpretation. The insight that language is a system of signs, most obvious in the consideration of language as writing, leads Derrida to state that "everything [...] gathered under the name of language is beginning to let itself be transferred to [...] the name of writing. This means that there is no room for the naive theory of meaning and forgetting of the signifier that previously existed when language was understood as speech.

Much later in his career Derrida retrospectively confirms the importance of this distinction between speech and writing in the development of deconstruction when he states that:

[F]rom about 1963 to 1968, I tried to work out - in particular in the three works published in 1967 - what was in no way meant to be a system but rather a sort of strategic device, opening its own abyss, an unclosed, unenclosable, not wholly formalizable ensemble of rules for reading, interpretation and writing. This type of device may have enabled me to detect not only in the history of philosophy and in the related socio-historical totality, but also in what are alleged to be sciences and in so-called post-philosophical discourses that figure among the most modern (in linguistics, in anthropology, in psychoanalysis), to detect in these an evaluation of writing, or, to tell the truth, rather a devaluation of writing whose insistent, repetitive, even obscurely compulsive, character was the sign of a whole set of long-standing constraints. These constraints were practised at the price of contradictions, of denials, of dogmatic decrees
Here Derrida states that deconstruction exposes historical constraints within the whole history of philosophy that have been practised at the price of contradictions, denials, and dogmatic decrees. The description of how contradictions, denials, and dogmatic decrees are at work in a given text is closely associated with deconstruction. The careful illustration of how such problems are inescapable in a given text can lead someone to describe that text as deconstructed.

Speech and Phenomena

Derrida's first book length deconstruction is his critical engagement with Husserl's phenomenology in Speech and Phenomena published in 1967. Derrida states that Speech and Phenomena is the "essay I value the most and it is therefore a very important example of deconstruction. Husserl's philosophy is grounded in conscious experience as the ultimate origin of validity for all philosophy and science. Derrida's deconstruction operates by illustrating how the originary status of consciousness is compromised by the operation of structures within conscious experience that prevent it from being "the original self-giving evidence, the present or presence of sense to a full and primordial intuition. Derrida argues that Husserl's "phenomenology seems to us tormented, if not contested from within, by its own descriptions of the movement of temporalization and language. Derrida argues that the involvement of language and temporalisation within the "living present of conscious experience means that instead of consciousness being the pure unitary origin of validity that Husserl wishes it be, it is compromised by the operation of différance in the structures of language and temporalisation. Derrida argues that language is a structured system of signs and that the meaning of individual signs is produced by the différance between that sign and other signs. This means that words are not self sufficiently meaningful but only meaningful as part of a larger structure that makes meaning possible. Derrida therefore argues that the meaning of language is dependent on the larger structures of language and cannot originate in the unity of conscious experience. Derrida therefore argues that linguistic meaning does not originate in the intentional meaning of the speaking subject. This conclusion is very important for deconstruction and explains the importance of Speech and Phenomena for Derrida. Informed by this conclusion the deconstruction of a text will typically demonstrate the inability of the author to achieve their stated intentions within a text by demonstrating how the meaning of the language they use is, at least partially, beyond the ability of their intentions to control. Similarly, Derrida argues that Husserl's description of temporal of consciousness - where he describes the retension of past conscious experience and protension of future conscious experience - introduces the structural différance of temporal deferral, temporal non-presence, into consciousness. This means that the past and future are not in the living present of conscious experience but they taint the presence of the living present with their conscious absence through retension and protension. Husserl's description of temporal consciousness therefore compromises the total self presence of conscious experience required by Husserl's philosophy once again.

Writing and Difference

Writing and Difference is a collection of essays published by Derrida in 1967. Each essay is a critical negotiation by Derrida of texts by philosophical or literary writers. These essays have come to be termed deconstructions even though some of them were written before Derrida's first use of the term in Of Grammatology. For example, Derrida's essay on Foucault "Cogito and the History of Madness" dating from 1963 has been retrospectively called a deconstruction of Foucault's text even though Derrida does not actually use the term in the paper. It is slightly problematic to refer to all of the essays as deconstructions because this could imply a false homogeneity that ignores the differences between the essays in terms of the individual treatment, particular argumentative strategy, and the topic considered in each.

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Late deconstruction

While Derrida's deconstructions in the sixties and early seventies is characterised by a close reading of texts by other philosophers or literary figures his later deconstructions often take the form of an investigation into the impossibility of terms when considered in their most pure and abstract form. During this late period Derrida performs deconstructions on a number of themes including: forgiveness, hospitality, friendship, the gift, and cosmopolitanism.

The difficulty of definition

When asked "What is deconstruction?" Derrida replied, "I have no simple and formalisable response to this question. All my essays are attempts to have it out with this formidable question" (Derrida, 1985, p. 4). Derrida believes that the term deconstruction is necessarily complicated and difficult to explain since it actively criticises the very language needed to explain it.

Secondary definitions

The incredible popularity of the term deconstruction combined with the technical difficulty of Derrida's primary material on deconstruction and his reluctance to compromise his complex understanding of the term has meant that many secondary sources have attempted to give a more straightforward explanation than Derrida himself ever risked. The value of secondary definitions are therefore a tradeoff between accuracy and simplicity (for the sake of easier communication). It is therefore safest to consider these secondary definitions to be the interpretation of deconstruction by the person offering them rather than an unproblematic summary of Derrida's actual position.

  • Paul de Man was a member of the Yale School and a prominent practitioner of deconstruction as he understood it. His definition of deconstruction is that,"It's possible, within text, to frame a question or undo assertions made in the text, by means of elements which are in the text, which frequently would be precisely structures that play off the rhetorical against grammatical elements." (de Man, in Moynihan 1986, at 156.)
  • Richard Rorty was a prominent supporter and interpreter of Derrida's philosophy. His definition of deconstruction is that, "the term 'deconstruction' refers in the first instance to the way in which the 'accidental' features of a text can be seen as betraying, subverting, its purportedly 'essential' message" (Rorty 1995). (The word accidental is used here in the sense of incidental.)
  • John D. Caputo undertakes the somewhat whimsical attempt to explain deconstruction in a nutshell by stating that:

"Whenever deconstruction finds a nutshell -- a secure axiom or a pithy maxim -- the very idea is to crack it open and disturb this tranquility. Indeed, that is a good rule of thumb in deconstruction. That is what deconstruction is all about, its very meaning and mission, if it has any. One might even say that cracking nutshells is what deconstruction is. In a nutshell. ...Have we not run up against a paradox and an aporia [something impassable]?...the paralysis and impossibility of an aporia is just what impels deconstruction, what rouses it out of bed in the morning..." (Caputo 1997, p.32)

  • David B. Allison is an early translator of Derrida and states in the introduction to his translation of Speech and Phenomena that :

[Deconstruction] signifies a project of critical thought whose task is to locate and 'take apart' those concepts which serve as the axioms or rules for a period of thought, those concepts which command the unfolding of an entire epoch of metaphysics. 'Deconstruction' is somewhat less negative than the Heideggerian or Nietzschean terms 'destruction' or 'reversal'; it suggests that certain foundational concepts of metaphysics will never be entirely eliminated...There is no simple 'overcoming' of metaphysics or the language of metaphysics.

  • Paul Ricoeur is another prominent supporter and interpreter of Derrida's philosophy. He defines deconstruction as a way of uncovering the questions behind the answers of a text or tradition (Klein 1995).

A survey of the secondary literature reveals a wide range of heterogeneous arguments. Particularly problematic are the attempts to give neat introductions to deconstruction by people trained in literary criticism who sometimes have little or no expertise in the relevant areas of philosophy that Derrida is working in relation to. These secondary works (e.g. Deconstruction for Beginners and Deconstructions: A User's Guide) have attempted to explain deconstruction while being academically criticized as too far removed from the original texts and Derrida's actual position. In an effort to clarify the rather muddled reception of the term deconstruction Derrida specifies what deconstruction is not through a number of negative definitions.

Derrida's negative descriptions

Derrida has been more forthcoming with negative than positive descriptions of deconstruction. Derrida gives these negative descriptions of deconstruction in order to explain "what deconstruction is not, or rather ought not to be and therefore to prevent misunderstandings of the term. Derrida states that deconstruction is not an analysis, a critique, or a method. This means that Derrida does not want deconstruction to be misunderstood as 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. Derrida's thought developed in relation to Husserl's and this return to something under erasure has a similarity to Husserl's phenomenological reduction or epoché. Derrida acknowledges that his preference for negative description “has been called...a type of negative theology”. 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 that this would be a mistake because it would close off the openness that Derrida wishes to preserve for deconstruction. This means that if Derrida were to positively define deconstruction as, for example, a critique then this would put the concept of critique for ever outside the possibility of deconstruction. Some new philosophy beyond deconstruction would then be required in order to surpass the notion of critique. By refusing to define deconstruction positively Derrida preserves the infinite possibility of deconstruction, the possibility for the deconstruction of everything.

Not a method

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 ignores the empirical facticity of the text itself - that is it becomes a prejudicial procedure that that only finds what it sets out to find. To be responsible a deconstruction must carefully negotiate the empirical facticity of the text and hence respond to it. Deconstruction is not a method and this means that it is not a neat set of rules that can be applied to any text in the same way. Deconstruction is therefore not neatly transcendental because it cannot be considered separate from the contingent empirical facticity of the particular texts that any deconstruction must carefully negotiate. Each deconstruction is necessarily different (otherwise it achieves no work) and this is why Derrida states that “Deconstruction takes place, it is an event”. On the other hand deconstruction cannot be completely untranscendental because this would make it meaningless to, for example, speak of two different examples of deconstruction as both being examples of deconstruction. It is for this reason that Richard Rorty asks if Derrida should be considered a quasi-transcendental philosopher that operates in the tension between the demands of the empirical and the transcendental. Each example of deconstruction must be different but it must also share something with other examples of deconstruction. Deconstruction is therefore not a method in the traditional sense but is what Derrida terms "an unclosed, unenclosable, not wholly formalizable ensemble of rules for reading, interpretation and writing.

Not a critique

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. For Derrida language is dogmatic because it is inescapably metaphysical. Derrida argues that language is inescapably metaphysical because it is comprised of signifiers that only refer to that which transcends them - the signified. This transcending of the empirical facticity of the signifier by an ideally conceived signified is metaphysical. It is metaphysical in the sense that it mimics the understanding in Aristotle's metaphysics of an ideally conceived being as that which transcends the existence of every individually existing thing. In a less formal version of the argument it might be noted that it is impossible to use language without asserting being, and hence metaphysics, constantly through the use of the various modifications of the verb "to be". In addition Derrida asks rhetorically "Is not the idea of knowledge and of the theory 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.

Not an analysis

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. This is 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 page on differance.

Not poststructuralist

Derrida states that his use of the word deconstruction first took place in a context in which "structuralism was dominant" and its use is related to this context. Derrida states that deconstruction is an "antistructuralist gesture" because "Structures were to be undone, decomposed, desedimented". At the same time for Derrida deconstruction is also a "structuralist gesture" because it is concerned with the structure of texts. So for Derrida deconstruction involves “a certain attention to structures" and tries to “understand how an 'ensemble' was constituted". As both a structuralist and an antistructuralist gesture deconstruction is tied up with what Derrida calls the "structural problematic". 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". 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. For Derrida, Genesis and Structure are both inescapable modes of description, there are some things that "must be described in terms of structure, and others which must be described in terms of genesis", but these two modes of description are difficult to reconcile and this is the tension of the structural problematic. In Derrida's own words the structural problematic is that "beneath the serene use of these concepts [genesis and structure] is to be found a debate that...makes new reductions and explications indefinitely necessary. The structural problematic is therefore what propels philosophy and hence deconstruction forward. Another significance of the structural problematic for Derrida is that while a critique of structuralism is a recurring theme of his philosophy this does not mean that philosophy can claim to be able to discard all structural aspects. It is for this reason that Derrida distances his use of the term deconstruction from poststructuralism, a term that would suggest philosophy could simply go beyond structuralism. Derrida states that “the motif of deconstruction has been associated with "poststructuralism"" but that this term was "a word unknown in France until its “return” from the United States". As mentioned above in section on Derrida's deconstruction of Husserl Derrida actually argues for the contamination of pure origins by the structures of language and temporality and Manfred Frank has even referred to Derrida's work as "Neostructuralism and this seems to capture Derrida's novel concern for how texts are structured.

Developments after Derrida

The Yale School

Between the late 1960s and the early 1980s many thinkers were influenced by deconstruction, including Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, and J. Hillis Miller. This group came to be known as the Yale school and was especially influential in literary criticism. Several of these theorists were subsequently affiliated with the University of California Irvine.

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The Ethics of Deconstruction

Simon Critchley argues in his 1992 book The Ethics of Deconstruction that Derrida's deconstruction is an intrinsically ethical practice. Critchley argues that deconstruction involves an openess to the other that makes it ethical in the Levinasian understanding of the term.

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Derrida and the Political

Richard Beardsworth, developing on Critchley's Ethics of Deconstruction, argues in his 1996 Derrida and the Political that deconstruction in an intrinsically political practice.

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The Inoperative Community

Jean-Luc Nancy argues in his 1982 book The Inoperative Community for an understanding of community and society that is undeconstructable because it is prior to conceptualisation. Nancy's work is an important development of deconstruction because it takes the challenge of deconstruction seriously and attempts to develop an understanding of political terms that is undeconstructable and therefore suitable for a philosophy after Derrida.

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Derrida has been involved in a number of high profile disagreements with prominent philosophers including Michel Foucault, John Searle, Willard Van Orman Quine and Jurgen Habermas. Most of the criticism of deconstruction were first articulated by these philosophers and repeated elsewhere.

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault was the subject of Derrida's early paper "Cogito and the History of Madness" in which Derrida makes the controversial claim that:

In this 673-page book, Michel Foucault devotes three pages- and, moreover, in a kind of prologue to his second chapter- to a certain passage from the first of Descartes's Meditations. [... in] alleging- correctly or incorrectly, as will be determined- that the sense of Foucault's entire project can be pinpointed in these few allusive and somewhat enigmatic pages, and that the reading of Descartes and the Cartesian Cogito proposed to us engages in its problematic the totality of this History of Madness...
The audacity of Derrida's claim to problematise the whole of the History of Madness by working with such a small section of the text outraged Foucault. Foucault responds in the new preface to the 1972 edition of the History of Madness by complaining that after the initial publication of the text "fragments of it pass into circulation and are passed off as the real thing. This comment may form the basis of the allegation that deconstruction does not adhere to conventional academic standards by failing to deal substantially with the texts it appears to criticise (see how deconstruction uses empirical evidence to demonstrate the limits of the transcendental meaning of a text in the theory section). Foucault also states in the appendix to the 1972 edition titled "My Body, This Paper, This Fire" that Derrida's deconstruction is a:
[H]istorically well-determined little pedagogy, which manifests itself here in a very visible manner. A pedagogy which teaches the student that there is nothing outside the text, but that in it, in its interstices, in its blanks and silences, the reserve of the origin reigns; that it is never necessary to look beyond it, but that here, not in the words of course, but in words as crossings-outs [sic], in their lattice, what is said is "the meaning of being". A pedagogy that inversely gives to the voice of the masters that unlimited sovereignty that allows it indefinitely to re-say the text.
This stinging rebuke by Foucault caused a rift between the two thinkers and they did not speak to each other for ten years. Foucault refers in this passage to certain claims that Derrida makes in Of Grammatology, though without quotation or citation to indicate that he is doing so. Foucault's mention of "crossings-outs" refers to the return to problematic terms under erasure (see the section on Derrida's negative descriptions of deconstruction). Foucault also alludes critically to the problematisation of presence in deconstruction as a reading of what isn't there in the text. This aspect of Foucault's argument may have encouraged Derrida to strongly emphasise the importance of fidelity to the text being deconstructed. Foucault's reference to Derrida's assertion that "there is nothing outside the text" is undoubtedly the basis of much criticism of deconstruction as being nihilistic, relativistic, a-political, or confined to the ivory tower of academia. The model for Derrida's controversial assertion that there is nothing outside the text is the phenomenological assertion that there is nothing outside conscious experience. It could be argued that Derrida's claim has some validity in the sense that there is no philosophy outside the text - the written history of philosophy and its ongoing publication - but Derrida eventually distances himself from this claim because of the fiercely hostile criticism it generates after Foucault highlights it. Foucault would later describe Derrida as "obscurantisme terroriste" (terroristic obscurantism) to John Searle in private conversation. This comment becomes notorious when Searle publicly repeats it during the controversy surrounding Limited Inc.

John Searle

Derrida wrote "Signature Event Context", a paper in which he critically engages with Austin's analytic philosophy of language. John Searle is a prominent supporter of Austin's philosophy and objected to "the low level of philosophical argumentation, the deliberate obscurantism of the prose, the wildly exaggerated claims, and the constant striving to give the appearance of profundity by making claims that seem paradoxical, but under analysis often turn out to be silly or trivial. In the original review, Searle stated that Derrida "gives bullshit a bad name." Searle also reported that Michel Foucault criticized Derrida's writings as "terroristic obscurantism":

Michel Foucault once characterized Derrida's prose style to me as "obscurantisme terroriste." The text is written so obscurely that you can't figure out exactly what the thesis is (hence "obscurantisme") and then when one criticizes it, the author says, "Vous m'avez mal compris; vous êtes idiot" (you have misunderstood me; you are a fool) (hence "terroriste").
In perspective, Foucault himself admitted being obscure in being a french philosopher:
John Searle once told me about a conversation he had with the late Michel Foucault: "Michel, you're so clear in conversation; why is your written work so obscure?" To which Michel replied, "That's because, in order to be taken seriously by French philosophers, twenty-five percent of what you write has to be impenetrable nonsense.

Jurgen Habermas

Jurgen Habermas criticised what he considered Derrida's opposition to rational discourse.

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Criticisms in popular media

In popular media, deconstruction has been seized upon by conservative and libertarian writers as a central example of what is wrong with modern academia. Editorials and columns come out with some frequency pointing to deconstruction as a sign of how self-evidently absurd English departments have become, and of how traditional values are no longer being taught to students. Conservatives frequently treat deconstruction as being equivalent to Marxism. These criticisms became particularly prevalent when it was discovered that Paul de Man had written anti-Semitic articles during World War II, due to what was seen as the inadequate and offensive response of many deconstructionist thinkers, especially Derrida, to this revelation. Popular criticism of deconstruction also intensified following the Sokal affair, which many people took as an indicator of the quality of deconstructionism as a whole.

Deconstruction has been directly used and also parodied in a large number of literary texts. Native American novelist Gerald Vizenor claims an extensive debt to deconstructionist ideas in attacking essentialist notions of race. Writer Percival Everett goes further in satire, actually incorporating fictional conversations between a number of leading deconstructionists within his fictions. Comic author David Lodge’s work, such as his novel Nice Work, contains a number of figures whose belief in the deconstructionist project is undermined by contact with non-academic figures. The webcomic xkcd refers to deconstruction in strip number 451 where it is humorously alleged that an impostor could pose as an expert in the field indefinitely.


  • Culler, Jonathan. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. ISBN 978-0-8014-1322-3.
  • Derrida, Jacques, "Letter to A Japanese Friend," Derrida and Différance, ed. David Wood and Robert Bernasconi, Warwick: Parousia, 1985, p. 1.
  • Derrida, Jacques, Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. ISBN 978-0-8018-5830-7
  • Derrida, Jacques, Positions. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981. ISBN 978-0-226-14331-6
  • Derrida, Jacques. Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs. Trans. David B. Allison. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1973. ISBN 978-0-8101-0590-4.
  • Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. ISBN 978-0-8166-1251-2
  • Ellis, John M. Against Deconstruction Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989. ISBN 978-0-691-06754-4.
  • Johnson, Barbara. The Critical Difference. 1981.
  • Klein, Anne Carolyn. Meeting the Great Bliss Queen: Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self. Boston: Beacon, 1995. ISBN 978-0-8070-7306-3.
  • John W McGinley, " 'The Written' as the Vocation of Conceiving Jewishly". ISBN 978-0-595-40488-9.
  • Moynihan, Robert, Recent Imagining: Interviews with Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, Paul DeMan, J. Hillis Miller. Shoe String, 1986. ISBN 978-0-208-02120-5.
  • Reynolds, Simon, Rip It Up and Start Again. New York: Penguin, 2006, p316. ISBN 978-0-143-03672-2. (Source for the information about Green Gartside, Scritti Politti, and deconstructionism.)
  • Rorty, Richard, "From Formalism to Poststructuralism". The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, vol. 8. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995.


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