The Philosophy of Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida (1930–2004), a leading figure in French post-structuralist philosophy, is renowned for having developed deconstruction. His prolific writings treat both philosophical and literary works, and do so in various ways, of which deconstruction is the most philosophically significant. The following account will explicate what deconstruction involves by sketching some of its strategies and discussing its import for philosophy.


Derrida’s early (1967–72) writings deconstruct the philosophy of presence, which includes the metaphysics of presence and logocentric philosophy. The philosophy of presence assumes that there are beings or meanings that are self-identical unities that can, actually or in principle, be presented fully; examples of such unities are Plato’s ideas and Frege’s and Husserl’s senses. To deconstruct a philosophy of presence involves demonstrating that its theory is developed (and its text is composed) out of terms and distinctions which, though taken by the theory as given or fundamental, are themselves constructs open to interrogation, and which are demonstrably unstable and lack ultimate grounds. Such ultimate grounds have traditionally been sought in the metaphysics of presence.

The metaphysics of presence comprises a kind of ontology where being (or truth) has been understood in terms of some presence, whether the presence is, e.g. some sort of self-identical being or a meaning, and whether the presence is taken to be immediately given (e.g. a sensedatum), or what is given in principle (e.g. an underlying principle of unity) or teleologically (the ultimate end that is to be realized). Grasping such alleged presences is to apprehend what is and is not the truth. For example, Descartes both asserts the fully transparent selfpresence of one’s own mental states and derives a privileged epistemic access for the individual knowing subject, and he alleges that there are a priori, given, self-identical innate ideas.

Logocentric philosophy constitutes itself as exemplary of the logos, a Greek word whose meanings include reason, speech, rational discourse, and rational accounts (e.g. philosophical and scientific theories). In general, logocentric philosophies assume paradigms of what is rational, reasonable, etc., and correlatively they exclude or marginalize what does not fit their paradigm. For example, logocentric philosophies have often excluded or marginalized figurative language in favor of a purely literal philosophical language, whether actual or idealized. Deconstructions can serve to show how such philosophies, despite their strictures, operate with the very figurative language they profess to exclude or marginalize. Even when not overtly a metaphysics of presence (though often it is), logocentric philosophy nonetheless models itself, its methods, and its standard of rationality on presences, whether these are essences, paradigms, ideas or idealizations, or what it takes as its givens. Methodologically if not ontologically, logocentric philosophy installs categorical distinctions which are often hierarchic binary oppositions, e.g. the “literal/figurative” distinction in logocentric philosophy privileges the former to the exclusion or marginalization of the latter term. Especially in earlier writings, Derrida interrogates (in a manner to be discussed later) the opposition “speech/writing” (with the first term privileged); but other oppositions are no less important, such as “presence/ absence,” “identity/difference,” “paradigm/instance,” “form/matter,” and “intelligible/sensible.” The privileged term of such distinctions is taken, by philosophers holding the distinction, to be the dominant one and to allocate the proper place or role of the subordinate term. Which distinction is challenged depends on the position being deconstructed; the deconstruction of such distinctions involves a scrupulously close reading of the sort exemplified in Derrida’s writings.

In logocentric philosophies assuming the speech/writing distinction, speech, whether interpersonal or in silent soliloquy, has been understood as the primary medium or milieu of thought. It has been taken to be exemplary of language because of its presumed immediacy – one’s thoughts are voiced, one’s intended meaning can be simultaneously fully expressed and presented to oneself or to one’s interlocutor in a present determinate context. Writing has traditionally been accorded the role of a mere but necessary instrumental supplement to speech: writing is a step removed from speech and merely represents it, though preserving by recording it. Moreover, writing has potentially deleterious effects, e.g. a reliance on written records can degrade living memory (see “Plato’s Pharmacy,” discussing Plato’s Phaedrus, in Dissemination). Also, a text can potentially be removed from its “original” thought and context of utterance, set into other contexts, and thereby may signify at variance with intended meaning. Because of such potentially deleterious effects on both the thinking/speaking subject and meaning, philosophies of presence have relegated writing to a subordinate place and role.

Derrida questions the distinction between what is internal to and belongs to the thinking/speaking subject (e.g. one’s own thinking to oneself in silent soliloquy) and what is external to this subject (e.g. the inscription of one thoughts). According to Derrida, the “immediacy” of speech, even in silent soliloquy, is a kind of verbal illusion or a mere idealization, sustaining the myth of a full self-presence of meaning. Instead of being a use of language that wholly and purely expresses or signifies units of meaning, even speech is not wholly self-present. Rather, like writing as traditionally conceived, the meaning of the spoken word depends on reference to other signifiers (significant spoken sounds or written marks), whose meanings in turn are not wholly self-present. Of Grammatology and other works interrogate, and explore the implications of abandoning, the idealization of speech. Derrida’s discussion in Speech and Phenomena of Husserl’s phenomenology exemplifies the deconstructive criticism of this idealization and of the philosophy of presence.

Deconstructive criticism includes the strategies of (a) challenging the categorical distinctions of philosophies of presence, by effecting a reversal of the heirarchy in a binary opposition, and then ultimately questioning the basis of the distinction, usually by (b) emphasizing what such philosophies suppress. According to Derrida, Husserlian phenomenology, while allegedly eschewing metaphysical assumptions, nonetheless remains a logocentric metaphysics of presence, for Husserl believes both in the transparency and self-presence of intentional acts and objects and in meaning-essences that are given. In particular, Derrida disputes Husserl’s categorical distinction between expressive and indicative signs. According to Husserl, expressive signs alone are meaningful, for they express, and in speech give voice to, meaningful self-present acts of conscious lived experience which are in turn available to pure reflection and description. By contrast, indicative signs, such as written signs (e.g. a reminder note), are only meaningless marks unless ultimately referred back to expressive meaning (e.g. the meaningful act of remembering). Although Husserl admits that expression and indication are de facto intertwined in actual communication, he nonetheless retains the distinction de jure and buttresses it by alleging that pure expression can occur in silent soliloquy in solitary mental life. Derrida disputes this distinction by arguing, contra Husserl, that the entanglement of expression with indication is there from the outset, and that ultimately pure expression remains a mere idealization. For to avoid being merely momentary and evanescent, verbal or pre-linguistically experiential expressive meanings must, as Husserl’s own philosophy requires even for silent soliloquy, be reiterable, identifiable, and recallable over time as having the same meaning – and hence must be articulated indicatively. Even in silent soliloquy, thinking and speaking are like writing and revising on the fly; overlooking this fact creates the illusion of presence. Hence, exemplifying the deconstructive phase of reversal (see Positions, p. 41), this necessity of reiterability implies that expressive meaning must involve indicative signs from the outset (otherwise, if there were no reiterability, each act of meaning would be utterly singular, and hence would fall short of meaningfulness), and Husserl’s distinction founders. This claim is further reinforced by Derrida’s critique of Husserl’s theory of temporality.

Derrida pursues the deconstruction of Husserl’s philosophy by deploying the second strategy of deconstruction, that of stressing what the philosopher suppresses. According to Husserl’s own theory of temporality, the living present moment involves traces of both the retained past present and anticipated future. If so, and since according to Husserl the retained past present is continuous with the recollected past, then the “living” present moment is never purely present, but is constituted with traces of a “dead” past. The ideality of a fully present self-identical expressive meaning, and of a pure reflection on and description of present meaningful lived experience, amounts to a mere idealization. The expressive sign and even ideal non-linguistic meaningful experience can no longer maintain a pure self-identity of meaning, but, like indicative signs, are invested with meaning by reference to other signs from which they are differentiated. The distinction between expression and indication is ultimately replaced and displaced by the notion of the “trace” (to be discussed later in more detail).


Derrida’s deconstruction of Husserl is one of his most philosophically cogent accomplishments, for its “classical philosophical architecture” (Positions, p. 5) constitutes a philosophical critique involving internal criticism which radically questions Husserlian and other phenomenologies that allege to be able to achieve pure reflection and offer fully adequate descriptions of meaningful lived experience. Not all of Derrida’s deconstructions have the full force of a standard philosophical critique: in some cases (such as his reading, in Disseminations, of Hegel’s Prefaces with a view to challenging Hegel’s speculative philosophy), they explicate complications that the philosophy deconstructed overlooks or represses, but that in principle, on its own terms, it would have to take into account.

Derrida’s ultimate alternative to the philosophy of presence can be compared to Rorty’s anti-essentialist semantic holism. Rorty maintains that the milieu of meaning, and the model of the mind, is that of a continually rewoven web of sentential attitudes (e.g. I believe (or desire) that p, where “p” is a place-holder for a sentence). This web is not tethered to some given present reality; even the sentential attitudes in it are contextually individuated (identified and explicated). But context itself is not given and determinate; instead “it is contexts all the way down,” inducing a “hall of mirrors” effect, wherein it is always possible to redescribe by recontextualizing a term of a relation by dissolving it into relations among other things, or vice versa (Rorty 1991, p. 100). In this “hall-of-mirrors,” a mise en abîme of contexts, sentences can be dissolved into patterns of words, but words have meaning only in the context of a sentence. Instead of a web of sentential attitudes, Derrida’s semantic system is that of a web of traces. The notion of a “trace” is that of a signifier (a significant sound or mark) whose meaning is never present as such but instead depends on its being interwoven with other signifiers in a web of differentiated and changing relations. Since neither this web nor meaning is ever complete or fully present, and since neither intention nor context nor any semantic atom (a given unit of meaning) fixes meaning, the result is a theoretical indeterminacy, a hall-of-mirrors or mise en abîme of meaning and context, allowing for interminable recontextualization. Deconstruction can even be defined (Limited Inc., p. 136) as “the effort to take this limitless context into account” by attending to “an incessant movement of recontextualization,” such that “there is nothing outside context.” For example (see “White Mythology” in Margins), putatively literal terms can be recontextualized and redescribed as metaphorical, and vice versa, thereby calling into question the privilege traditionally accorded to the literal over the metaphorical; likewise, the distinction between text and context is itself open to recontextualization.

In later writings Derrida offers reflections on justice and law (“The Force of Law”), the gift (Given Time), friendship (The Politics of Friendship), democracy (The Other Heading), and hospitality (Of Hospitality) that give an ethical point to deconstruction. All of these ethical notions are set in a paradoxical relation to their ordinary and traditional philosophical counterparts. For example, hospitality ideally involves welcoming, making a hospitable place for and genuinely sharing with others such that, unlike in ordinary hospitality, no one would any longer be master of the house who sets house rules. Justice, though requiring the force of law for effectuation, surpasses and holds all positive laws, and also putative rules or principles of justice, open to ongoing interrogation as to their justice.

Further reading

Deconstruction Theory

Key Theories of Jacques Derrida


Jacques Derrida: Transcendental Signified

Derrida’s Notion of the Centre

Jacques Derrida’s Structure, Sign and Play

Kamuf, P. (ed.): A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991).
Howells, Christina: Derrida (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999).
Rorty, Richard: Objectivity, Relativism, Truth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

Writings Of Grammatology (1967), trans. G. Spivak (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).
Speech and Phenomena (1967), trans. D. Allison (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973).
Writing and Difference (1967), trans. A. Bass (London: Routledge, 1978).
Margins of Philosophy (1972), trans. A. Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982). Dissemination (1972), trans. B. Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).
Positions (1972), trans. A. Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).
Limited Inc., trans. S. Weber and J. Mehiman, ed. G. Graff (Evanston, IL.: Northwestern University Press, 1988).
Of Hospitality, trans. R. Bowlby (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000).

Arrington, Robert L. The World’S Great Philosophers. 1st ed. USA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2003. Print.


Categories: Deconstruction, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Philosophy

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