Published Humanitas, Volume XIV, No. 2, 2001

Academic conversations are now frequently sprinkled with the word ‘deconstruction.’ Like other novel neologisms—Kierkegaard’s ‘leap of faith,’ Haeckel’s ‘ecology,’ Kuhn’s ‘paradigm shift,’ or Rawls’s ‘veil of ignorance’—the use of deconstruction more often than not strays far and wide of its original, intended meaning.

In part, this equivocation is due to historical accident: the North American intelligentsia was introduced to Jacques Derrida’s thinking more through  departments of English and Literature than departments of Philosophy. As a result, the philosophical foundations of deconstruction have been blurred and seemingly forgotten. ‘Deconstruction,’ a term appropriated by Derrida from Martin Heidegger, is now taken to be a vaguely defined relativistic method of literary  criticism which holds that any interpretation of a text is as good as another, rather than a rigorous metaphysics and epistemology. For example, the following definition of deconstruction recently appeared in the program of a highly reputable acting company: “Deconstruction—a theory about language and literature that developed in the 1970s, and is characterized by the notions of textuality and intertext. Briefly, deconstruction says that all the world is text…

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