Paul de Man (1919-1983) was a Belgian-born philosopher and literary critic who immigrated to United States after World War II, where he taught at various universities, most notably Yale. De Man was a leading proponent of the school of literary criticism known as deconstruction. Following his death, he became the subject of controversy owing to revelations about his contribution to a collaborationist newspaper during the war.
Paul de Man was born to a Flemish-speaking bourgeois family in Antwerp. His father manufactured X-ray equipment. His brother was killed in an accident in 1936, and on the anniversary of the death a year later, his mother committed suicide. De Man became a student of engineering, later switching to chemistry, though he also had a strong interest in literature and philosophy.
During World War II, he worked as a literary journalist for the German-controlled Belgian newspaper, Le Soir. Following the war, de Man ran a publishing business, but apparently he fled to the United States in 1948 owing to accusations of financial impropriety. Upon his arrival in New York, de Man worked in a bookstore, obtained his Ph.D., and later held positions at Harvard University, Cornell University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Zurich. At Yale University, he was on the faculty in the French and Comparative Literature departments, and at the time of his death in 1983, he was the Sterling Professor of Humanities and chair of the Department of Comparative Literature.
Scholars themselves note that it is difficult to define "deconstruction," a school of literary criticism of which de Man became a prominent exponent. French philosopher Jacques Derrida coined the term in the 1960s. A general definition that some scholars put forward is that deconstruction looks at the nexus between a piece of writing and the rhetorical system which controls it; various ways of understanding the writing are thereby generated. Derrida argued that it is commonly thought that systems of thought have an assumed center, but in fact there is an unconscious element that can be revealed.
Therefore, a deconstructionist approach takes the unconscious element and incorporates it into an understanding of the meaning of the text. Deconstructionists will take a text and contrast and compare it to other texts. De Man played a significant role in advancing the deconstructionist approach, which by the 1980s was applied by scholars to other fields such as history, sociology, education, linguistics, art and architecture. The growth of interdisciplinary scholarship in the 1980s and 1990s is often seen as an outgrowth of deconstruction.
De Man's groundbreaking book on the subject, Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, was published in 1971. As a result of the book and its success in academic circles, de Man's faculty at Yale University became the center of deconstructionist literary criticism in the United States.
De Man died of cancer on December 21, 1983. In 1987, a researcher discovered that, during World War II, de Man had published almost 100 articles in collaborationist, pro-Nazi Belgian newspapers, particularly Le Soir, and a few of his articles had espoused anti-Semitism. In one article from 1941, for example, de Man argued that civilization's health had been assured by resisting "the Semitic infiltration of all aspects of European life."
Scholars and supporters of de Man were shocked by the revelations, and the extent to which de Man supported the Nazis has become the subject of intense debate. In addition, de Man's attempts to cover up his pro-Nazi leanings following his arrival in the United States in 1947 has also been discussed among his devotees and detractors. For example, in 1953, de Man apparently told the School of Fellows at Harvard University that he had been a member of the Belgian resistance during the war. On another occasion in the 1960s, he told a friend that he had worked as a translator in England.
Scholars have also sought to determine whether, and to what extent, de Man's anti-Semitism and collaborationist leanings influenced his contribution to the field of deconstruction. Others have questioned whether de Man's deconstruction was merely a tool to rehabilitate Nazism or to conceal the wartime work of its apologists.