Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction: Part 3a: What is Deconstruction?

Deconstruction has roots in Martin Heidegger’s concept of Destruktion. Destruktion is not an ordinary German word. It was borrowed from Latin in order to express a concept that Heidegger believed to be relatively new to the philosophical domain. However, the concept become confused with the more common word when translated into French or English. The more common German word for “destruction” is “Zerstörung,” but Heidegger’s concept of Destruktion is also closely related to “Abbau” or dismantling.
Heidegger states that Destruktion is to “arrive at those primordial experiences in which we achieved our first ways of determining the nature of Being—the ways which have guided us ever since” in his book, Being and Time. Destruktion is different from deconstruction because deconstruction has no set goal. Deconstruction must be a continuing process due to the constantly changing nature of language, which makes it impossible for there to be a final meaning or interpretation of a text. Deconstruction can only reveal truths that are temporary or adequate. Heidegger, however, believed that the “primordial experiences” of Being that are revealed through Destruktion have a single interpretation or truth. Heidegger also believed that time was both a category of experience and the very core of our existence. Since people, and all living creatures, in any present moment are defined in terms of their past, it is possible to create opportunities for ourselves, and even a future where we project them. Destruktion of the traditions in a social world was expected to be able to lead people back into the past to be re-interpreted in order to reveal the deeper understanding of Being, which is hidden in the earliest texts of the European tradition.
However, while Destruktion does have some elements of destroying within it, Deconstruction does not mean to destroy. Deconstruction is meant to be a double movement of simultaneous affirmation and undoing. To begin with, it was a way of reading the history of metaphysics. However, it was eventually used to interpret literary, religious, and legal texts, as well as philosophical ones. Deconstruction was also adopted by many French feminist theorists as a way to make the deep male bias clearer. To deconstruct is to take apart a text along it’s structural “fault lines,” which are created by a texts ambiguities in one or more of its key concepts, in order to reveal the deeper meanings, or the contradictions that exist, which make the text possible. This is actually a very important part of academia. Historians are constantly trying to figure out what the author of any given text meant. It’s very easy to misinterpret someone’s meaning if one does not look closely at the words used. Linguists do much the same thing, as does anyone who closely studies the written word. Derrida focused mostly on the works of philosophers, but it can easily be applied to various fields.
Destruktion lacked the sense that the text being deconstructed is a part of how European thought has somehow gone wrong and needs correction. This is actually an important flaw in acadamia: we look at European works with a sense of awe. We are less critical of it because we still see European works as the standard, and non-European works as less civilized or less concrete. Many fields today are trying to get rid of this perception. Deconstruction rejects the belief that there is a fixed series of eras in European history, as well as the idea that there is some determinate that that path might be reversed. Derrida claimed that he deconstructed the texts that he loved, and he argued that those same texts are vital parts of our intellectual world. Derrida didn’t want to undo Kant’s work, or even interpret Kant’s works in ways that matched Derrida’s own vision of what philosophy should be. Instead he was interested in finding the ways that Kant changed throughout his own lifetime, and the ways that Kant’s texts manage to undo themselves along the same “fault lines” that have undermined his tradition throughout history.
The European tradition, according to Derrida, created hierarchies that were meant to exclude both the non-dominant member of the pair, for example, the body in the mind vs. body hierarchies, as well as anything outside of the opposition, for example, anything that fell between the two catagories, from the philosophical realm which in turn formed the basis for political hierarchy and social domination, for example, male vs. female, freeman vs. slave, propertied vs. landless, Christian vs. non-Christian, and citizen vs. immigrant. These are the power differentials that encourage the repression that Derrida was concerned with.
Deconstruction revealed that the repression, which is necessary for creating a history of philosophy, is a repression of what philosophy itself cannot control. The “fault lines” that deconstruction follows are left inside the written works as trails meant to define what philosophy is and what it cannot be. Derrida shows in his early works our inability to control the meaning that can or will be given to our words. Which is why, to Derrida’s mind, any text can be deconstructed. However, he believed that texts we take to be canonical offer the most productive grounds for deconstruction.


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