Deconstruction: Fad or Philosophy?

By Keller, David R. | Humanitas, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Deconstruction: Fad or Philosophy?


Keller, David R., Humanitas


Disseminate, v. [f. L. disseminat- ppl. stem of disseminare to spread abroad, disseminate, f. Dis- I+semen, semin- seed; cf. F. disseminer (14th c. in Littre).] 1. trans. lit. To scatter abroad, as in sowing seed; to spread here and there; to disperse (things) so as to deposit them in all parts. 2. fig. To spread abroad, diffuse, promulgate (opinions, statements, knowledge, etc.). 3. intr. (for refl.) To diffuse itself, spread.

Dissemination, n. The action of scattering or spreading abroad seed, or anything likened to it; the fact or condition of being diffused; dispersion, diffusion, promulgation. (1)

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Academic conversations are now frequently sprinkled with the word 'deconstruction.' Like other novel neologisms--Kierke--gaard's 'leap of faith,' (2) Haeckel's 'ecology,' (3) Kuhn's 'paradigm shift,' (4) or Rawls's 'veil of ignorance, (5)--the use of deconstruction more often than not strays far and wide of its original, intended meaning.

In part, this equivocation is due to historical accident: the North American intelligentsia was introduced to Jacques Derrida's thinking more through departments of English and Literature than departments of Philosophy. (6) As a result, the philosophical foundations of deconstruction have been blurred and seemingly forgotten. 'Deconstruction,' a term appropriated by Derrida from Martin Heidegger, (7) is now taken to be a vaguely defined relativistic method of literary criticism which holds that any interpretation of a text is as good as another, rather than a rigorous metaphysics and epistemology. For example, the following definition of deconstruction recently appeared in the program of a highly reputable acting company: "Deconstruction--a theory about language and literature that developed in the 1970s, and is characterized by the notions of textuality and intertext. Briefly, deconstruction says that all the world is text and that because of context, no text's content can really be read or interpreted." (8) As well-intentioned as this author may be, this amorphous type of definition of deconstruction--now prevalent--obscures the rigorous philosophical foundations of the theory.

My purpose is to make clear the philosophical foundations of Derrida's theory of deconstruction. Most precisely, deconstruction is Derrida's critique of Plato's metaphysics. To understand deconstruction, we first briefly recapitulate Platonic metaphysics. Second, using Derrida's meticulous reading of the Phaedrus, we examine the way Plato represents writing (grammata) as a drug (pharmakon). Third, we turn to Derrida's critique of Plato. Fourth and finally, we reassert the philosophical status of deconstruction and reassess the contribution of Derrida to Western Philosophy.

One caveat: many original theories carry with them a new vocabulary, and Derrida's deconstruction is no exception. For a basic Derridean glossary, see the Appendix.

1. An Ordered Cosmos: Platonic Metaphysics

Plato's ontological vision is perfectly teleological, rigidly hierarchical, and beautifully ordered. All that exists is oriented towards an ultimate, eternally unchanging telos which absolutely and ultimately entails the meaning for every existent thing's Being (in the verbal sense). This telos dictates why acorns grow up to be oaks, tadpoles grow into frogs, babies become adults. It explains why acorns, tadpoles, and adults that do not do this are perversions of nature, things that do not manifest what they are supposed to, beings that do not fit into the teleological structure of the cosmos.

This telos can be thought of as the Good, the Idea, the Eschaton or the Transcendental Signifier. It is the Sun in the Allegory of the Cave, (9) the realm of the Forms: "It is there that true being dwells, without color or shape, that cannot be touched; reason alone, the soul's pilot, can behold it, and all true knowledge is knowledge thereof," Socrates says. …

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