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Deconstructing Deconstructionism

Dr. Tom Snyder

By now, most American scholars have heard of deconstruction, the postmodern literary theory and philosophy popularized by French intellectual Jacques Derrida and others.

This theory is false for several reasons.

One of the major tenets of the postmodern literary theory called deconstruction is that all language systems are conventional. In fact, they are so dependent on social conventions, say the deconstructionists, that they are completely artificial and, therefore, all language systems must be false and/or deceptive.

This idea confuses the word “convention” with the word “artificial” and mixes them up with words like “false” and “deceptive.” Why isn’t it possible for human beings to objectively observe the universe and create useful conventions based on their accurate observation? More importantly, however, if all language systems are conventional, then so is the statement that all language systems are conventional. To claim that all language systems are conventional is a self-contradictory statement. Therefore, it is a false statement. This means that we can completely reject this particular belief of the Derrida gang.

Another major belief of these social critics is the idea that the relationship between the sounds or letters of a word and their meaning is arbitrary and that the relationship between the meaning of a word and what it refers to is also arbitrary. The Derrida gang derive this idea from Ferdinand de Saussure, a linguistic scholar who wrote in the early 1900s, but they draw false conclusions from it. First, they assume that, because these relationships are arbitrary, the meanings of words have nothing to do with reality. Second, they falsely conclude that a word “is simply a fact about language” and not a fact about the world.

Derrida draws another false conclusion from this theory of Saussure. He believes that the arbitrary quality of sounds, letters, and meanings makes all meaning indeterminate or uncertain. According to the back cover of a collection of essays by Derrida titles Limited Inc, Derrida’s “most controversial idea” is “linguistic meaning is fundamentally indeterminate.” Derrida’s conclusion here is self-contradictory and therefore false because, if linguistic meaning is fundamentally indeterminate, then so is the linguistic meaning of that statement. To say that meaning is indeterminable is like saying, “I cannot utter a word of English.” It is silly intellectual nonsense that should be rejected by all thoughtful people.

John M. Ellis in Against Deconstruction explains, “Saussure had argued that meaning is not a matter of sounds being linked to concepts existing outside a given language but instead arises from specific contrasts between terms that are differentiated in specific ways.” According to Ellis, Derrida takes Saussure’s idea of contrasts and substitutes the word “play.” “Play is no longer a matter of specific contrasts,” Ellis notes, “it is ‘limitless,’ ‘infinite,’ and ‘indefinite’; and thus meaning has become limitless, infinite, and indefinite.”

If what Ellis says is true, then Derrida has illogically switched categories by substituting these words for Saussure’s idea of contrasts. Switching categories in this manner is an informal logical fallacy and makes Derrida’s argument logically invalid. “The meaning of one word does indeed depend on the meaning of many others,” Ellis argues; “but to choose one word from a system is to employ all of the systematic contrasts with other words at that very moment — the process of contrasting does not stretch out into the future” as Derrida’s concept of play attempts to do. That is why the immediate context of a word in a sentence or paragraph, or the immediate context of a scene in a film or play, usually determines its meaning. This is a general rule of all interpretation that Derrida and his gang ignore. By ignoring this rule, they clearly show the inherent fallacies of their whole theory. Deconstruction is a theory that is beyond being intellectually bankrupt — it is intellectually meaningless and thus had no intellectual capital to begin with!

Deconstructionism is part of a movement called poststructuralism. Like deconstructionism, this movement has many problems with it. Poststructuralism builds on many ideas developed by structuralism, its precursor.

As Terence Hawkes points out in Structuralism and Semiotics and as John Sturrock notes in Structuralism and Since, many of the most noteworthy structuralists seem to have thought that reality is unknowable and, therefore, we should stop trying to seek some ultimate truth or meaning to all things. Instead, we should “delight in the plurality of meaning.”

I am skeptical of this extreme skepticism. If reality is unknowable, then how do we know it is unknowable? If there is no absolute truth, then is that an absolute truth and am I supposed to believe it absolutely? According to Sturrock, the structuralists and poststructuralists don’t like authoritarian interpretations, but their fuzzy-minded pluralism is just as authoritarian as any other system of interpretation. To say there is no one way to truth (or no one way to God) is to actually offer one way to truth. Such an absolute pluralism is inherently self-contradictory. Consequently, it is absolutely false.

Either reality is objectively knowable or reality is not objectively knowable. Either absolute truth exists or absolute truth does not exist. Either there is one way to truth or there is no one way to truth. Either there is one way to God or there is no one way to God. Since the second statements in each of these four sentences are clearly false, we must conclude, therefore, that reality is indeed objectively knowable, that absolute truth does indeed exist, that there is indeed one way to truth, and that there is indeed one way to God. I don’t reject everything that the structuralists and poststructuralists say, but I hold the preceding truths to be not only ontologically absolute but also epistemologically self-evident.


    • Derrida, Jacques. Limited Inc. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1988. —–. Positions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Ellis, John M. Against Deconstructionism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Hawkes, Terence. Structuralism and Semiotics. Berkeley: University of Califonria Press, 1977.

Sturrock, John, ed. Structuralism and Since: From Levi-Strauss to Derrida. NY: Oxford University Press, 1981.

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