Jacques Derrida (1930 – 2004) is, much like Foucault, famous for his Poststructuralist take on the work of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Saussure, Levi-Strauss and many others we have studied, his philosophy known as Deconstruction.  Like Foucault, Derrida takes systems apart to show the complex workings of pieces that are not set in stone but maintained through binary divisions that are always somewhat arbitrary, but like Barthes, Derrida was more concerned with texts than with institutions.  Derrida grew up Jewish in French Algeria, an adolescence that helped him recognize marginalized perspectives, and he was expelled from high school on his first day for being Jewish while France was occupied by the Nazis.  Derrida decided not to attend the segregated Jewish high school and enjoyed reading Nietzsche, Rousseau, Camus and Sartre instead.  He completed his thesis on Husserl and came to America to study at Harvard.  He taught in France until 1986, when he came to California to teach at UC Irvine until his death.

johns hopkins university
cops guard the capital

In 1966, Derrida gained a following after giving a lecture at a conference on Structuralism at Johns Hopkins, where Peirce taught Dewey, with Lacan and many other prominent scholars in attendance.  In his lecture, called Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences, Derrida argued that systems must center and organize themselves to be coherent and limit “free-play”, but there is also freedom for substitution and exchange within the system itself.  The center of the structure is within yet also outside the structure, governing what is permissible within the structure but ungoverned by the structure itself.  The center is, paradoxically, the coherence of the structure, but the center is free to be incoherent.  We desire coherence and demand this of structures, but just like Wittgenstein’s child at the blackboard, we cannot center the center, cannot make the coherence itself coherent, as this results in an infinite regress.


We are desirous and anxious, as Heidegger argued, and so we play social games within systems seeking stability and coherence, placing ourselves at stake within the game and making the game a presence for ourselves.    Derrida argues that games and structures are constantly being re-centered, like a football game, re-centered sequentially at a series of locations.  The center is constantly being re-centered, the focus of activity always shifting to something else that was not the focus.  Just as a word or concept is substituted for the thing it signifies and metaphors substitute one thing for another, a new center and focus is always being substituted for the old.  Derrida claims that the history of metaphysics, science, structuralist anthropology and the West is a progression of substituting one metaphor for another, much like Kuhn’s paradigm shift.  For example, “the West” is identified and re-identified with reason, freedom and science to center its identity.

derrida with pipe

To ask about the center of the center, the structure of the structure, is to throw things into question and face anxiety, as the center is not permanently centered, the structure not permanently structured.  The structure is also paradoxically a rupture, a free-play of substitution that cannot limit its activity of limitation.  We cannot make the system a permanence, can never bring it fully into presence, as there is always absence, always the infinite regress of the horizon without end.  There is no focus that brings an end to our refocusing as we move along with the game in which our faith is at stake.  The meaning of a system of meaning is never absolute, as there is no sameness without difference and no presence without absence.  No structure, not even Structuralism, can fully be structured, as structures are systems of substitution and play.


Derrida names Nietzsche as the one who called metaphysics and morality into question, causing a great rupture and shift for those who seek the structure of structures, the thinking underneath thought.  Derrida also calls attention to the work of Freud, in which the self is not the self, and Heidegger, for whom being-there is both being-here and being-elsewhere, the presence that is life determined by the absence that is death.  These critical thinkers must circle themselves, using thought to criticize thought, using concepts to criticize conceptions, fashioning new systems to criticize system-building.  Similarly, Saussure and Semiology had to use the word and concept ‘sign’ to signify signs and signification.  Levi-Strauss’ Structuralism was thus an impossible task to complete, even though its work was significant and worth the effort.  As soon as we question human systems, we are engaging in systematization that can itself be questioned, but only when not engaging in it.  Each great thinker questions the last, as Heidegger did of Nietzsche and Derrida does of Heidegger.

Levi-Strauss with books

Derrida argues that the current questioning of metaphysics and meaning is bound up with the critique of ethnocentrism, of Europe establishing itself as the West and the questioning of this identity.  Levi-Strauss’ anthropology, which called all ethnic differences into question by seeking the underlying similarity, is a branch of philosophy and science, which call all differences into question by seeking the underlying universal patterns.

French Philosopher Jacques Derrida Holding His Cat

As philosophy questions metaphysics and science questions biological ethnicity, they simultaneously and paradoxically establish and pronounce the identity of philosophy, science and the West, to separate the philosophical from the unphilosophical, the scientific from the unscientific, and the West from the rest.  Derrida argues that we cannot escape this paradox, just as neither Nietzsche nor Heidegger could fully escape metaphysics or closed conceptions of truth, but we can be careful and critical, responsible for the strategies we employ in the game.  Clearly, Derrida is calling ethnocentrism into question as a strategy.  Philosophy, science and the ethnocentric West are all centers of systematic coherent activity, but at the center they are free to be paradoxical and incoherent, establishing distinctions and identities while seeking the similar and universal.


Levi-Strauss had sought to find the underlying universal rules of culture, his central example being the prohibition of incest, sexual relationships within the family.  Derrida argues that as soon as this is provided as a universal rule, it calls itself into question.  If incest is universally wrong, then how can it be a scandal?  The rule can be and is violated, possibly in all human cultures, and so it cannot be said to be a universal human rule.  If it could not be violated, it would not be a rule at all, would have no meaning or direction for human activity.  The violation of a rule is a condition of its possibility, and thus there can be no universal rules, neither in metaphysics nor cultural practice.  Levi-Strauss could not separate unchanging universal nature from various particular cultures, just as Wittgenstein could not separate logic from various contingent games.  Derrida notes that, in the later work of Levi-Strauss, he questioned his own Structuralism as mythology, a mythology of all mythologies.  This doubling back and reversal does not result in nothing, but like any questioning produces answers and further questioning of its answers.  Thinking continues to shift, and requires no permanent center.

The works of Derrida that followed this lecture, as well as the work of many Deconstructionists following Derrida, put free-play of meaning on display, showing that it can always double back and displace itself, showing that dominant meanings can be questioned and marginalized.  While this has angered many scientists such as Alan Sokal and Analytic philosophers such as John Searle, who see Deconstruction as a worthless and unproductive activity, Derrida argued that like Nietzsche we should be free to turn from stabilizing to destabilizing truth and culture as we see fit to give birth to new truths and cultures.  Rorty argued that Derrida’s work is genuine philosophy against other American philosophers.

Limited INC Derrida

The best of this debate is captured in Derrida’s book Limited INC, a collection of several texts that document the heated exchange between Derrida and Searle.  In 1972, Derrida deconstructed and criticized the work of Austin’s Speech Act theory, showing inherent tensions and contradictions within the Analytic Positivist conception of literal and objective meaning.  Derrida asks whether ‘communication’ as a word can have a set meaning as the vehicle for all meaning, and whether there is literal and objective meaning in communication, devoid of all metaphor.  Meaning depends on context, and context is never entirely determined.  Part of the context of any communication is the absence of the receiver, who is always at some distance from the communicator or communication would not be required.  One would only write a text if its readers were not present and did not already share its understanding.  This absence and distance allows for variation and iterability, which Derrida suggests comes from the Sanskrit root ‘itara’, or other, like the Other of Hegel.  This allows for the “death of the author” of Barthes, as the receiver can use the communication in various ways in the absence of the communicator.


Derrida argues that every act of communication is an act of force that changes, disturbs and breaks the context in which it is framed or it is meaningless and without purpose.  While I am rebinding these words for you now, making them mean what they meant before, I am also telling you something new, and thus changing the context of language and its use, or this would not be meaningful.  Thus, while communication can be meaningful, it cannot be objective, cannot be given a stable context which fully situates its meaning.  Consider that if we repeat something again to someone, this has a different meaning as a reiteration, as a retelling that had to be retold, which changes the context just as the context was changed by the initial telling.


Derrida argues that Austin is right to say that every speech act is a performance, much like the gender identity of Judith Butler who was influenced by both Austin and Derrida.  Derrida argues that Nietzsche and Austin are right that communication is an act of force, but unlike Nietzsche, Austin believes that the meaning of a speech act can be literal and others can objectively understand its entire intentional meaning, as if we can call all of consciousness before ourselves and know all of the intention and meaning in an act of communication.


What would it be to entirely understand what a speaker intends in an utterance?  Can the speaker herself entirely understand what they intend?  Freud and Nietzsche would say no.  Neither the intention of the speaker nor the context of the act can be exhaustively understood, nor need it be for the utterance to be meaningful as genuine communication.  Derrida criticizes Austin for insisting that when we use language “normally” and “seriously” we use it literally, and any abnormal use of language is “parasitic” on its normal use.  For Austin, puns and abstract poetry are abnormal uses of language that intend to use language as it is not normally intended.  Derrida argues that language and meaning are always abnormal, as is their context, writing,  “the intention animating the utterance will never be through and through present to itself and to its content.

william blake great architect demiurge gnostic

Derrida often compares the absence and presence of objectivity and absolute meaning to the absence and presence of God in Christian theology, accusing Analytic philosophers such as Austin and Searle of blind (and Sartre would say, bad) faith.  Just as Christian theologians argued that God teleologically created the world and established its true meaning with full knowledge, Austin argues that a speaker creates speech and thus fully knows its meaning as its author.  Derrida argues that Austin, like a theologian, has faith that the identity of the source is capable of omniscience.  Derrida, as could be expected, admires the skeptical visions of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic mysticism rather than the dogmatic teleology of orthodox theologians.


Searle, Austin’s student and a proponent of Speech Act theory, fired back at Derrida in 1977 with his essay Reiterating the Differences, criticizing Derrida’s criticism as superficial and irrational.  Searle argues that understanding an utterance is recognizing the intention of the author when the author says what the author means in standard and serious cases.  Searle writes, “the speaker and hearers are masters of the sets of rules we call the rules of language, and these rules…allow for for the repeated application of the same rule”.  Searle assumes that there are set rules, they can be fully mastered, and can be identically repeated such that they are fully recognized and understood.  You may sense Derrida’s response as an absent presence.

derrida points with glee

Derrida replied to Searle with his essay Limited Inc a b c…, and he asked Searle if he could publish their three pieces together as a discussion.  Searle refused, and Derrida included a summary of Reiterating the Differences between his own two pieces and published these as Limited INC in 1988.  Derrida begins by saying that he cannot be sure if Searle will read his reply, or whether he will but will not take it seriously.  Derrida also notes that it is impossible to fully recreate his debate with Searle as all of its pieces cannot be gathered into any text, and Searle is unwilling to have his piece published because he is well aware that he cannot fix its meaning and significance.  Because Derrida is the one who is gathering the text, Searle fears its placement in a text and context that is not of Searle’s own choosing.

Hubert Dreyfus

Derrida notes his friendship and correspondence with Hubert Dreyfus, a major interpreter of Heidegger and Searle’s fellow professor at Berkeley, and that Derrida himself cannot know how much of Dreyfus or his communication with Searle is contained in Searle’s piece.  I myself, while an undergraduate at Berkeley, witnessed a joint talk by Dreyfus and Searle about the connection between Searle’s concept of the background and Heidegger’s flow, and was appalled when Searle began by saying that he had never read Heidegger and was simply going to explain his own work.  Dreyfus is renowned as America’s greatest expert on Heidegger, and Searle could have talked with him about Heidegger at any number of times before giving the talk, which he did not feel it important to do.


Derrida accuses Searle of misunderstanding and possibly never reading the work of Husserl on intentionality, nor understanding Derrida’s own criticism of Austin.  While Searle’s understanding is impressively limited, even Searle cannot fully limit the meaning of his own utterances, as anyone can use Searle’s own previous speech against him.  Derrida argues that Searle cannot give a coherent account of the separation of “serious” and “not serious” cases, and then proceeds through the rest of his essay to repeat again and again, “But let’s be serious”, showing that the more it is said the less it is serious. Apparently, Searle does not consider the work of Heidegger, Derrida, or even his colleague Dreyfus to be serious.

sock puppet Sarl

Derrida says that he is going to argue with “Sarl“, his own understanding of Searle’s intention and position.  Sarl, a new mythical being, argues that Derrida misunderstands Austin, misreading and misstating Austin’s work.  Derrida says that this is evidence that even Austin can be misunderstood and variously understood, something that Sarl denies of serious communication while holding Austin’s work to be the serious truth.  Derrida is merely attempting to show Sarl the unlimited and various uses one can make with “serious” communication.  It is always possible to use language and understand meaning differently.  Apparently, Sarl is in fact arguing with Derridarl, another mythical creature.  While some have accused Derrida, like Nietzsche, of being a nihilist, Derrida argues, like Foucault, that the binary dichotomies of true/false, intentional/unintentional, serious/playful and others can and should be overturned often, not to banish all meaning but to encourage its growth and renewal.