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The Library of Living Philosophers

Jacques Derrida

by Matt Williams

In the Spring of 2001, I had the good fortune to attend a lecture given by philosopher Jacques Derrida at the University of Florida. Wait! What am I talking about! Let’s take a closer look at this sentence. In the Spring of 2001 – what does that really mean? Was the lecture actually held in a spring? Hopefully it was a hot spring. Of course we all know Spring refers to a time period. Don’t we? I did capitilize it. And what about good fortune? Can anyone please tell me what I mean when I write good fortune? Maybe I know, but does the reader? Is the reader to assume or know inherently that good fortune means that attending the lecture made me happy? Maybe it didn’t make me happy; maybe my name was drawn out of a plastic sweepstakes barrel and, thus I had the good fortune of being able to attend. Or maybe not. Finally, what about the word philosopher? Here’s a real kick in the pants. Philosophers can’t decide among themselves if Derrida is a philosopher!

Confused? Welcome to the world of radical deconstruction. Founded by Jacques Derrida, deconstruction has been and remains a controversial issue, not only in philosophy, but stretching into many other areas of academics as well. Simply put, deconstruction is a method of textual analysis designed to question the stability of meaning. As in the above example, if we draw the words individually out of the sentence, we see that the meanings of the words become ambiguous, or so Derrida would claim. We have no way of knowing what the author meant by his words, what meanings he sought to imply. Hence, the author becomes unimportant, and language itself assumes that prestigious role – a language that is open to countless interpretations. Derrida’s critics, and those in the school of thought known as Structuralism, would claim that the meaning of individual words can be tied down, solidified, by the other words in a given sentence, so that the specific meaning the author gives the text can be known or seen within the body of writing..

Why all the controversy? Well, if Derrida is correct in saying that there is no stability in meaning, then all of Western Philosophy from Plato to the present would be, if not completely discredited, certainly shaken. If meaning rests solely with the individual, not within individual words or even language, then Western philosophy, which is based in the structured meaning of language, becomes nothing more than an ever-evolving myth.

Much dispute has arisen over Derrida’s volatile claims. At Oxford, for instance, a row ensued when the decision was made to give Derrida an honorary degree. Supporters of deconstrucition and its opponents are almost violently polarized against one another – a situation, however, that may serve as a testament to the importance of such ideas.

As controversial as Derrida’s theories are, they have been highly successful in penetrating into other disciplines beyond philosophy, especially those of cultural studies and literature. One needs not look any further than the explosion of cultural theory, queer theory, gender theory, and countless other theories in literature departments around the world to grasp what influence deconstruction has had in academics in the past decade. And the popular media and the field of advertising have been quick to pick up on deconstructionist themes as well.

While Derrida’s ideas have caught on more in America than in Britain, his influence is growing and can be felt around the world. But what does that mean?

© Matt Williams 2002

Matt Williams is working toward a degree in journalism at the University of Florida, and is currently an editorial assistant at Philosophy Now.

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