Philosophy 243 - 12.5.2 Deconstruction

Closely related to post-structuralism is deconstruction. Accredited to Algerian-born French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930–2004), deconstruction aims to analyze a text to discover that which made it what it was. Derrida rejected the structuralist approach to textual analysis. In the structuralist framework, there was a focus on how a text fits into a larger framework of linguistic meaning and signifying (Barry 2002, 40). Derrida, among others, held that these structures were as arbitrary as other facets of language, such as the arbitrary decision to use “tree” to refer to a large plant with a bark, trunk, and leaves when we could have called it a “cell phone” and have procured the same symbolic use (Thiselton 2009). Derrida asserted that texts do not have a definitive meaning but rather that there are several possible and plausible interpretations. His argument was based on the assertion that interpretation could not occur in isolation. While Derrida did not assert that all meanings were acceptable, he did question why certain interpretations were held as more correct than others (Thiselton 2009).

Painting of Jacques Derrida on a building, along with other graffiti art.
Figure 12.11 This painting of Jacques Derrida on a building in France speaks to his continued importance to contemporary thinkers. (credit: “Jacques Derrida, Painted Portrait _DDC3327” by thierry ehrmann/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Think Like a Philosopher

Watch “Philosophy: Jacques Derrida” from the series The School of Life.

Deconstruction is defined in the video (at the 2:54 mark) as “the dismantling [of] our excessive loyalty to any idea and learning to see the aspects of the truth that might be buried in its opposite.” At the 3:47 mark, the narrator notes that one of the most important ideas forwarded by Derrida was “once we begin to examine it closely, almost all of our thinking is riddled with a false, that is, unjustified and unhelpful, privileging of one thing over another.” The narrator offers several examples: speech over writing, reason over passion, men over women, etc. According to Derrida, this unquestioned privileging prevents us from seeing the supposedly lesser part of the equation.


  • Can you deconstruct an idea that, to this point, you have simply accepted as correct?
  • What are the merits of what Derrida called the opposing or underprivileged counterparts of this idea?
  • Why do you think the underprivileged meanings have been overlooked?

Deconstruction is Auto-deconstruction

Derrida observed that social relations, which have come about through centuries of human evolution, assign meanings to things and our experience of things (Derrida 1997). Deconstruction hinged on what Derrida called “différance,” the separation between the ways a thing can be conceptualized and the ways a thing can be experienced. For example, the experience that we name the “human” is not fully containable through our attempts to define the concept. However, in our reference to the many competing notions of “human,” we have (perhaps unknowingly) artificially demarcated the experience, creating the appearance of the “human” as something with an essential identity.

To deconstruct a concept is to strip meaning from its supporting layers in order to make clear its complexity and instability. Derrida’s idea of différance is an integral part of “auto-deconstruction,” or the process by which deconstruction happens automatically (without intentional philosophical reflection). Auto-deconstruction is always present, but the human is not always attuned to see how things we see as definitive are deconstructing right before us. Auto-deconstruction could be thought of in terms of something as simple as the elements that constitute a chair. If we think about how the chair is made up, we might begin to lose sight of the idea of “chair” and begin to see it in terms of color, material, height, length, width, contrast to other objects in the room in which it resides, etc. Whether or not we focus on the confluence of things that make up the event of the chair, this tension of différance is what provides the perception of “chair” (Derrida 1997).

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax