deconstruction

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

deconstruction

deconstruction, in linguistics, philosophy, and literary theory, the exposure and undermining of the metaphysical assumptions involved in systematic attempts to ground knowledge, especially in academic disciplines such as structuralism and semiotics. The term "deconstruction" was coined by French philosopher Jacques Derrida in the 1960s. In general, deconstruction is a philosophy of meaning, which deals with the ways that meaning is constructed by writers, texts, and readers.

Extending the philosophical excursions of Nietzsche and Heidegger, Derrida criticized the entire tradition of Western philosophy's search to discover the essential structure of knowledge and reality, ultimately confronting the limits of human thought. As an extension of his theory of logocentrism, Derrida posited that all texts are based on hierarchical dualisms (e.g., being/nonbeing, reality/appearance, male/female), where the first element is regarded as stronger and thus essentially true and that all systems of thought have an assumed center, or Archimedean point, upon which they are based. In a deconstructionist reading, this unconscious and unarticulated point is revealed, and in this revelation the binary structure upon which the text rests is imploded. Thus what appears stable and logical is revealed to be illogical and paradoxical, and interpretation is by its very nature misinterpretation.

To a deconstructionist, meaning includes what is left out of the text or ignored or silenced by it. Because deconstruction is an attack on the very existence of theories and conceptual systems, its exposition by Derrida and others purposely resists logical definitions and explanations, opting instead for alinear presentations based on extensive wordplay and puns. Deconstructionists tend to concentrate on close readings of particular texts, focusing on how these texts refer to other texts. Certain scholars have severely criticized this movement on this basic point.

Nevertheless, deconstruction, especially as articulated in Derrida's writings and as promoted by Paul de Man and others, has had a profound effect on many fields of knowledge in American universities, particularly during the 1970s and 80s. In addition to philosophy and literary theory, the techniques and ideas of deconstruction have been employed by scholars in history, sociology, educational theory, linguistics, art, and architecture. While the theory has lost much of its intellectual currency, the general acceptance and popularity of interdisciplinary scholarship in the 1980s and 90s are regarded by many as an outgrowth of deconstruction.

See J. Culler, On Deconstruction (1982); R. Gasche, The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection (1986); P. Kamuf, A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds (1991).

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