Jacques Derrida
Jacques Derrida; drawing by David Levine


“Deconstruction” is the name of a currently influential movement in American literary criticism. The underlying theory was developed not by literary critics but by a French professor of philosophy, Jacques Derrida, and many of his ideas are in turn owing to Nietzsche and Heidegger. Culler writes as a disciple of Derrida and his primary aim is to expound his master’s philosophy and show how it “bears on the most important issues of literary theory” (p. 12).

What exactly is deconstruction, and why has it become so influential in American literary criticism while largely ignored by American philosophers? I think if you asked most practicing deconstructionists for a definition they would not only be unable to provide one, but would regard the very request as a manifestation of that “logocentrism” which it is one of the aims of deconstruction to, well, deconstruct. By “logocentrism” they mean roughly the concern with truth, rationality, logic, and “the word” that marks the Western philosophical tradition. I think the best way to get at it, which would be endorsed by many of its practitioners, is to see it, at least initially, as a set of methods for dealing with texts, a set of textual strategies aimed in large part at subverting logocentric tendencies. One of the several merits of Culler’s book is that he provides a catalog of these strategies and a characterization of their common aims:

To deconstruct a discourse is to show how it undermines the philosophy it asserts, or the hierarchical oppositions on which it relies, by identifying in the text the rhetorical operations that produce the supposed ground of argument, the key concept or premise [p. 86].

There are numerous such strategies but at least three stand out. First, and most important, the deconstructionist is on the lookout for any of the traditional binary oppositions in Western intellectual history, e.g., speech/writing, male/female, truth/fiction, literal/metaphorical, signified/signifier, reality/appearance. In such oppositions, the deconstructionist claims that the first or left-hand term is given a superior status over the right-hand term, which is regarded “as a complication, a negation, a manifestation, or a disruption of the first” (p. 93). These hierarchical oppositions allegedly lie at the very heart of logocentrism with its obsessive interest in rationality, logic, and the search for truth.

The deconstructionist wants to undermine these oppositions, and so undermine logocentrism, by first reversing the hierarchy, by trying to show that the right-hand term is really the prior term and that the left-hand term is just a special case of the right-hand term; the right-hand term is the condition of possibility of the left-hand term. This move gives some very curious results. It turns out that speech is really a form of writing, understanding a form of misunderstanding, and that what we think of as meaningful language is just a free play of signifiers or an endless process of grafting texts onto texts.

But this move is only a part of a two-step procedure (“un double geste, une double science, une double écriture“—Derrida, Marges, p. 392), and the aim of the second step is “a general displacement of the system” (p. 86); the aim is to resituate, undo, or displace the entire system of values expressed by the classical opposition. This also gives curious results since it now turns out that speech and writing are both forms of “archi-writing,” “man and woman are both variants of archi-woman” (p. 171), etc. “Archi-writing” reforms the “vulgar concept of writing” into a new concept which now includes both speech and writing. Whether or not there is a “vulgar concept of woman” needing similar reform is not explicitly stated, but one may reasonably assume that Culler thinks that such is the case.

A second strategy is to look for certain key words in the text that, so to speak, give the game away. Certain key words “figure in oppositions that are essential to a text’s argument, but they also function in ways that subvert those oppositions” (p. 213). The examples Culler gives are “parergon” in Kant, “pharmakon” in Plato, “supplement” in Rousseau, and “hymen” in Mallarmé:

These terms are the points at which the strains of an attempt to sustain or impose logocentric conclusions make themselves felt in a text, moments of uncanny opacity that can lead to rewarding commentary [p. 213].

One example of such rewarding commentary is Derrida’s discovery that Rousseau uses “supplement” in discussing both his sexual experience and his theory of writing: he says both that writing is a supplement (to speech) and that masturbation is a supplement (to sex). Derrida concludes, “within the chain of supplements, it was difficult to separate writing from onanism” (Of Grammatology, p. 165).

A third strategy is to pay close attention to marginal features of the text such as the sort of metaphors that occur in it, because such marginal features “are clues to what is truly important” (p. 146).



Deconstruction, as Culler describes it, may not sound very promising, but the test of a method of textual analysis lies in its results, so let us now turn to some of the examples where Culler and Derrida show us how deconstruction is supposed to work. Culler’s paradigm example, the one he presents to show how the various characterizations and operations of deconstruction “might converge in practice” (p. 86), is what he describes as Nietzsche’s deconstruction of causality.

Suppose one feels a pain. This causes one to look for a cause and spying, perhaps, a pin, one posits a link and reverses the perceptual or phenomenal order, pain…pin, to produce a causal sequence, pin…pain. “The fragment of the outside world of which we become conscious comes after the effect that has been produced on us and is projected a posteriori as its ’cause”‘ [p. 86].

So far this does not sound very deconstructive of anything. Culler thinks otherwise, and to get an idea of the deconstructionist style of argument it is worth quoting his commentary at some length:

Let us be as explicit as possible about what this simple example implies…. The experience of pain, it is claimed, causes us to discover the pin [his italics] and thus causes the production of a cause [my italics]. To deconstruct causality one must operate with the notion of cause and apply it to causation itself [p. 87].

Thus one is “asserting the indispensability of causation while denying it any rigorous justification” (p. 88). Furthermore,

the deconstruction reverses the hierarchical opposition of the causal scheme. The distinction between cause and effect makes the cause an origin, logically and temporally prior. The effect is derived, secondary, dependent upon the cause. Without exploring the reasons for or the implications of this hierarchization, let us note that, working within the opposition, the deconstruction upsets the hierarchy by producing an exchange of properties. If the effect is what causes the cause to become a cause, then the effect, not the cause, should be treated as the origin. By showing that the argument which elevates cause can be used to favor effect, one uncovers and undoes the rhetorical operation responsible for the hierarchization and one produces a significant displacement [p. 88; my italics].

I believe that far from demonstrating the power of deconstruction, Culler’s discussion of this example is a tissue of confusions. Here are several of the most glaring mistakes.

  1. There is nothing whatever in the example to support the view that the effect “causes the production of a cause” or that the effect “causes the cause to become a cause.” The experience of pain causes us to look for its cause and thus indirectly causes the discovery of the cause. The idea that it produces the cause is exactly counter to what the example actually shows.
  2. The word “origin” is being used in two quite distinct senses. If “origin” means causal origin then the pin is the causal origin of the pain. If “origin” means epistemic origin, how we go about finding out, then the experience of pain is the origin of our discovery of its cause. But it is a simple confusion to conclude from this that there is some unitary sense of “origin” in which “the effect and not the cause should be treated as the origin.”
  3. There isn’t any logical hierarchy between cause and effect in the first place since the two are correlative terms: one is defined in terms of the other. The OED, for example, defines “cause” as “that which produces an effect” and it defines “effect” as “something caused or produced.”
  4. Contrary to what Culler claims, nothing in the example shows that causation lacks any “rigorous justification,” or that any “significant displacement” has come about. Our common sense prejudices about causation deserve careful scrutiny and criticism, but nothing in Culler’s discussion forces any change in our most naive views about causation.

It would no doubt be unfair to condemn deconstruction on the basis of this one example, even if it is Culler’s paradigm example of the virtues of the deconstructive method. So let us now turn our attention to Derrida’s favorite example of deconstruction, the deconstruction of the opposition between speech and writing to show that writing is really prior, that speech is really a form of writing. Now at first sight it seems that this is rather a side issue in philosophy; even in the philosophy of language, most authors do not devote much attention to the differences and similarities between written and spoken language. Derrida, however, thinks that the matter is of crucial importance. He thinks that the “privileging” of oral speech at the expense of writing, and the “repression” of writing, is nothing less than “the fundamental operation of the epoch,” the epoch that begins with Plato and runs right through to the logocentrism of contemporary philosophy. He thinks, in short, that logocentrism is founded on phonocentrism. A fairly typical passage, which I quote at some length to give a sense of Derrida’s prose, is the following:

The privilege of the phonè does not depend upon a choice that might have been avoided. It corresponds to a moment of the system (let us say, of the “life” of “history” or of “being-as-self-relationship”). The system of “hearing/understanding-oneself-speak,” [s’entendre parler] through the phonic substance—which presents itself as a non-exterior, non-worldly and therefore non-empirical or non-contingent signifier—has necessarily dominated the history of the world during an entire epoch [my italics], and has even produced the idea of the world, the idea of world-origin, arising from the difference between the worldly and the non-worldly, the outside and the inside, ideality and non-ideality, universal and non-universal, transcendental and empirical, etc. [Of Grammatology, quoted by Culler, p. 107].

On the face of it, this claim is bizarre. The distinction between speech and writing is simply not very important to Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, etc. And of these listed, the only one about whom Derrida offers any evidence for the privileging of the spoken is Plato, who, in Phaedrus, made a few remarks about the impossibility of subjecting written texts to interrogation. Plato points out, correctly, that you can ask questions of a speaking person in a way that you cannot of a written text.1 Notice that all these philosophers address themselves to issues such as universal and particular, transcendental and empirical, etc. For these philosophers these issues neither arise from the distinction between the oral and the written nor depend on the “privileged” status of the oral. Husserl, one of Derrida’s targets, is unusual, though not unique, in thinking that meaning is present in spoken language in a way that is vastly superior to written texts.


On Derrida’s account, however, it is essential not only to Husserl, but to philosophy, and indeed to “the history of the world during an entire epoch,” including the present, that speech should be mistakenly privileged over writing. If Derrida’s claim were to be taken at its face value, I believe that a contrary argument could be given equal or even greater plausibility. From the medieval development of Aristotle’s logic through Leibniz’s Characteristica Universalis through Frege and Russell and up to the present development of symbolic logic, it could be argued that exactly the reverse is the case; that by emphasizing logic and rationality, philosophers have tended to emphasize written language as the more perspicuous vehicle of logical relations. Indeed, as far as the present era in philosophy is concerned, it wasn’t until the 1950s that serious claims were made on behalf of the ordinary spoken vernacular languages, against the written ideal symbolic languages of mathematical logic. When Derrida makes sweeping claims about “the history of the world during an entire epoch,” the effect is not so much apocalyptic as simply misinformed.

However, the breathtaking implausibility of Derrida’s claim suggests that something much deeper is going on, and that we must now investigate. Derrida’s strategy in his effort to show that writing is really primary, that speech is really a form of writing, is to identify the features which “the classical concept of writing” attributes to writing and then show that these are features of speech as well. Thus for Derrida both written words and spoken words are repeatable or, as he prefers to say, “iterable”; both are institutional, both can be misunderstood, and perhaps most importantly, both rely on a system of differences.

This last feature is crucial to the argument. Derrida’s ideas are developed from the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who wrote, “Phonemes are characterized not, as one might think, by their own positive quality but simply by the fact that they are distinct. Phonemes are above all else opposing relative and negative entities” (Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, p. 119). Saussure summarizes this point by saying, “in language there are only differences” (p. 120). Thus, for example, the function of “b” in the English word “bat” depends not on its acoustic properties alone, but rather on the way in which they form part of a class which is different from the classes of acoustic properties of other elements; this difference enables us to distinguish “bat” from “pat,” “bed” from “red,” etc. Language consists of a system of elements whose essential functioning depends on the differences between the elements of the system.

This is an important point. But notice how Derrida transforms it:

The play of differences supposes, in effect, syntheses and referrals which forbid at any moment, or in any sense, that a simple element be present in and of itself, referring only to itself. Whether in the order of spoken or written discourse, no element can function as a sign without referring to another element which itself is not simply present. This interweaving results in eachelement“—phoneme or graphemebeing constituted on the basis of the trace within it of the other elements of the chain or system [my italics]. This interweaving, this textile, is the text produced only in the transformation of another text. Nothing, neither among the elements nor within the system, is anywhere ever simply present or absent. There are only, everywhere, differences and traces of traces [Positions, p. 26].

But this involves an important shift from Saussure’s insight. The correct claim that the elements of the language only function as elements because of the differences they have from one another is converted into the false claim that the elements “consist of” (Culler) or are “constituted on” (Derrida) the traces of these other elements. “There are only, everywhere, differences and traces of traces.” But the second thesis is not equivalent to the first, nor does it follow from it. From the fact that the elements function the way that they do because of their relations to other elements, it simply does not follow that “nothing, neither among the elements nor within the system, is anywhere ever simply present or absent. There are only, everywhere, differences and traces of traces.”

Indeed, as with Culler’s “deconstruction” of causation, the argument shows exactly the reverse of what Derrida claims. Consider an example. I understand the sentence “the cat is on the mat” the way I do because I know how it would relate to an indefinite—indeed infinite—set of other sentences, “the dog is on the mat,” “the cat is on the couch,” etc. But I understand the differences between the two sentences “the cat is on the mat” and “the dog is on the mat” in precisely the way I do because the word “cat” is present in the first while absent from the second, and the word “dog” is present in the second, while absent from the first. The system of differences does nothing whatever to undermine the distinction between presence and absence; on the contrary the system of differences is precisely a system of presences and absences.

This obliteration of elements in favor of traces is one of the key moves, or perhaps the key move in Derrida’s philosophy of language and, arguably, in the whole metaphysics of deconstruction. For the next step is to claim that language is just such a set of “institutional traces.” And once this move is made, Derrida can conveniently redefine writing in such a way that all language, whether spoken or written, is writing: the instituted trace is “the possibility common to all systems of signification” (Of Grammatology, p. 46). The proof that speech is really writing then becomes trivially easy since writing has been redefined to encompass them both. This emerges in the following passage, which again I quote at some length as an illustration of the style as well as the “substance”:

Phonologism does not brook any objections as long as one conserves the colloquial concepts of speech and writing which form the solid fabric of its argumentation. Colloquial and quotidian conceptions, inhabited besides—uncontradictorily enough—by an old history, limited by frontiers that are hardly visible yet all the more rigorous by that very fact.

I would wish rather to suggest that the alleged derivativeness of writing, however real and massive, was possible only on one condition: that the “original,” “natural,” etc., language had never existed, never been intact and untouched by writing, that it had itself always been a writing [my italics]. An arche-writing whose necessity and new concept I wish to indicate and outline here; and which I continue to call writing only because it essentially communicates with the vulgar concept of writing. The latter could not have imposed itself historically except by the dissimulation of the arche-writing, by the desire for a speech displacing its other and its double and working to reduce its difference. If I persist in calling that difference writing, it is because, within the work of historical repression, writing was, by its situation, destined to signify the most formidable difference. It threatened the desire for the living speech from the closest proximity, it breached living speech from within and from the very beginning. And as we shall begin to see, difference cannot be thought without the trace [Of Grammatology, p. 56-57].

Furthermore, once the apparatus of talking about traces and differences has been treated as definitive of writing, of textuality, this apparatus is then applied pretty much all over—to experience, to the distinction between presence and absence, to the distinction between reality and representation. Once writing is defined in terms of difference and traces and these have been found to be pervasive, it is not a very startling discovery that everything is really writing: “there never has been anything but writing; there have never been anything but supplements, substitutive significations which could only come forth in a chain of differential references, the ‘real’ supervening, and being added only while taking on meaning from a trace and from an invocation of the supplement, etc.” (Of Grammatology, p. 159). And again: “il n’y a pas de hors texte” (p. 158).

With this in mind, we can now give a general assessment of the deconstruction of the distinction between speech and writing.

  1. Derrida’s eccentric reading of the history of Western philosophy, a reading according to which philosophers are supposed to be roundly condemning writing, while privileging spoken language, is not grounded on an actual reading of the texts of the leading figures in the philosophical tradition. Derrida only discusses three major figures in any detail: Plato, Rousseau, and Husserl. Rather it seems motivated by his conviction that everything in logocentrism hinges on this issue. If he can treat the features of a suitably redefined notion of writing as definitive of the issues that philosophy has been concerned with—as definitive of truth, reality, etc.—then he thinks he can deconstruct these notions.
  2. The proof that speech is really writing, that writing is prior to speech, is based on a redefinition. By such methods one can prove anything. One can prove that the rich are really poor, the true is really false, etc. The only interest that such an effort might have is in the reasons given for the redefinition.
  3. Derrida’s redefinition of writing to “reform” the “vulgar concept” is not based on any actual empirical study of the similarities and differences of the two forms. Nothing of the sort. He makes nothing of the fact that speech is spoken and writing is written, for example, or of the fact that, in consequence, written texts tend to persist throughout time in a way that is not characteristic of spoken utterances. Rather, the redefinition is based on a misrepresentation of the way the system of differences functions, and the misrepresentation is not innocent. It is designed to enable the apparatus of writing, so characterized, to be applied quite generally—to experience, to reality, etc.

Michel Foucault once characterized Derrida’s prose style to me as “obscurantisme terroriste.” The text is written so obscurely that you can’t figure out exactly what the thesis is (hence “obscurantisme“) and then when one criticizes it, the author says, “Vous m’avez mal compris; vous êtes idiot” (hence “terroriste“).


What are the results of deconstruction supposed to be? Characteristically the deconstructionist does not attempt to prove or refute, to establish or confirm, and he is certainly not seeking the truth.2 On the contrary, this whole family of concepts is part of the logocentrism he wants to overcome; rather he seeks to undermine, or call in question, or overcome, or breach, or disclose complicities. And the target is not just a set of philosophical and literary texts, but the Western conception of rationality and the set of presuppositions that underlie our conceptions of language, science, and common sense, such as the distinction between reality and appearance, and between truth and fiction. According to Culler, “The effect of deconstructive analyses, as numerous readers can attest, is knowledge and feelings of mastery” (p. 225).

The trouble with this claim is that it requires us to have some way of distinguishing genuine knowledge from its counterfeits, and justified feelings of mastery from mere enthusiasms generated by a lot of pretentious verbosity. And the examples that Culler and Derrida provide are, to say the least, not very convincing. In Culler’s book, we get the following examples of knowledge and mastery: speech is a form of writing (passim), presence is a certain type of absence (p. 106), the marginal is in fact central (p. 140), the literal is metaphorical (p. 148), truth is a kind of fiction (p. 181), reading is a form of misreading (p. 176), understanding is a form of misunderstanding (p. 176), sanity is a kind of neurosis (p. 160), and man is a form of woman (p. 171). Some readers may feel that such a list generates not so much feelings of mastery as of monotony. There is in deconstructive writing a constant straining of the prose to attain something that sounds profound by giving it the air of a paradox, e.g., “truths are fictions whose fictionality has been forgotten” (p. 181).

And there is much much more. Anatomists will no doubt be interested to learn that “what we think of as the innermost spaces and places of the body—vagina, stomach, intestine—are in fact pockets of externality folded in” (p. 198). And logicians will no doubt be interested to learn that logocentrism is really the same as phallocentrism. According to Derrida, the term “phallogocentrism” asserts this complicity: “It is one and the same system: the erection of a paternal logos…and of the phallus as ‘privileged signifier”‘ (Derrida; quoted by Culler, p. 172).


I have so far been writing as if we could take Culler’s account as an adequate reflection of Derrida’s views, but in fact I think Culler makes Derrida look both better and worse than he really is, better in that a lot of the more dreadful aspects of Derrida’s philosophy are left out or simply glossed over. Culler, for example, says little about Derrida’s deconstruction of the idea that texts represent, at least sometimes, the real world, that is, about Derrida’s claim that there is nothing outside the text (il n’y a pas de hors texte), an idea that, as I have noted, is connected to his idea that speech is really writing.

But Derrida also emerges as much more superficial than he is. He emerges as the instigator of various gimmicks for dealing with texts, and Culler doesn’t seem to understand the really deep problems that led Derrida into this. Culler seems unaware that Derrida is responding to certain specific theses in Husserl and is using weapons derived in large part from Heidegger to do it (Culler’s bibliography contains no references to Husserl and only one to Heidegger). I believe that Derrida’s work, at least those portions I have read, is not just a series of muddles and gimmicks. There is in fact a large issue being addressed and a large mistake being made. The philosophical tradition that goes from Descartes to Husserl, and indeed a large part of the philosophical tradition that goes back to Plato, involves a search for foundations: metaphysically certain foundations of knowledge, foundations of language and meaning, foundations of mathematics, foundations of morality, etc. Husserl, for example, sought such foundations by examining the content of his conscious experiences while suspending or “bracketing” the assumption that they referred to an external world. By doing so he hoped to isolate and describe pure and indubitable structures of experience.

Now, in the twentieth century, mostly under the influence of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, we have come to believe that this general search for these sorts of foundations is misguided. There aren’t in the way classical metaphysicians supposed any foundations for ethics or knowledge. For example, we can’t in the traditional sense found language and knowledge on “sense data” because our sense data are already infused with our linguistic and social practices. Derrida correctly sees that there aren’t any such foundations, but he then makes the mistake that marks him as a classical metaphysician. The real mistake of the classical metaphysician was not the belief that there were metaphysical foundations, but rather the belief that somehow or other such foundations were necessary, the belief that unless there are foundations something is lost or threatened or undermined or put in question.

It is this belief that Derrida shares with the tradition he seeks to deconstruct. Derrida sees that the Husserlian project of a transcendental grounding for science, language, and common sense is a failure. But what he fails to see is that this doesn’t threaten science, language, or common sense in the least. As Wittgenstein says, it leaves everything exactly as it is. The only “foundation,” for example, that language has or needs is that people are biologically, psychologically, and socially constituted so that they succeed in using it to state truths, to give and obey orders, to express their feelings and attitudes, to thank, apologize, warn, congratulate, etc.

One sometimes gets the impression that deconstruction is a kind of game that anyone can play. One could, for example, invent a deconstruction of deconstructionism as follows: In the hierarchical opposition, deconstruction/logocentrism (phono-phallo-logocentrism), the privileged term “deconstruction” is in fact subordinate to the devalued term “logocentrism,” for, in order to establish the hierarchical superiority of deconstruction, the deconstructionist is forced to attempt to represent its superiority, its axiological primacy, by argument and persuasion, by appealing to the logocentric values he tries to devalue. But his efforts to do this are doomed to failure because of the internal inconsistency in the concept of deconstructionism itself, because of its very self-referential dependence on the authority of a prior logic. By an aporetical Aufhebung, deconstruction deconstructs itself.


One last question: granted that deconstruction has rather obvious and manifest intellectual weaknesses, granted that it should be fairly obvious to the careful reader that the emperor has no clothes, why has it proved so influential among literary theorists? Let us make the question sharper: we live in something of a golden age in the philosophy of language.3 It is not only the age of the great dead giants, Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein, but also the age of Chomsky and Quine, of Austin, Tarski, Grice, Dummett, Davidson, Putnam, Kripke, Strawson, Montague, and a dozen other first-rate writers. It is the age of generative grammar and speech act theory, of truth-conditional semantics and possible-world semantics.

No doubt all of these theories are, in their various ways, mistaken, defective, and provisional, but for clarity, rigor, precision, theoretical comprehensiveness, and above all, intellectual content, they are written at a level that is vastly superior to that at which deconstructive philosophy is written. How then are we to account for the popularity and influence of deconstructionism among literary theorists? Why indeed do its very intellectual weaknesses seem to be a source of popularity? To understand the phenomenon fully, one would have to know much more than I do about the culture of English departments and other modern language departments in American universities. But I have observed that there are certain features of the deconstructionist ideology that fit in very well with the presuppositions behind much current literary theorizing.

When I have lectured to audiences of literary critics, I have found two pervasive philosophical presuppositions in the discussions of literary theory, both oddly enough derived from logical positivism. First there is the assumption that unless a distinction can be made rigorous and precise it isn’t really a distinction at all. Many literary theorists fail to see, for example, that it is not an objection to a theory of fiction that it does not sharply divide fiction from nonfiction, or an objection to a theory of metaphor that it does not sharply divide the metaphorical from the nonmetaphorical. On the contrary, it is a condition of the adequacy of a precise theory of an indeterminate phenomenon that it should precisely characterize that phenomenon as indeterminate; and a distinction is no less a distinction for allowing for a family of related, marginal, diverging cases.

People who try to hold the assumption that genuine distinctions must be made rigid are ripe for Derrida’s attempt to undermine all such distinctions. Culler, by the way, shares this assumption. For example, he claims that the fact that an expression can be both used and mentioned in the same sentence somehow weakens the distinction that philosophers and logicians make between the use and mention of expressions (pp. 119-120). In the same vein, he supposes that the fact that a single utterance might express a conscious speech act of one type and an unconscious one of another type is a serious problem for the theory of speech acts (p. 124). He also mistakenly supposes that the theory of speech acts seeks some sort of precise dividing line between what is and what is not a promise (p. 135). But in fact it is a consequence of the theory that in real life there can be all sorts of marginal cases within each family of speech acts.

Second, and equally positivistic, is the insistence that concepts that apply to language and literature, if they are to be truly valid, must admit of some mechanical procedure of verification. Thus, for example, if one attempts to characterize the role of intention in language, many literary critics immediately demand some mechanical criterion for ascertaining the presence and content of intentions. But, of course, there are no such criteria. How do we tell what a person’s intentions are? The answer is, in all sorts of ways, and we may even get it wrong in the apparently most favorable cases. But such facts as these—that there is no mechanical decision procedure for identifying an author’s intentions, or for determining whether or not a work is a work of fiction or whether an expression is used metaphorically—in no way undermines the concepts of intention, fiction, and metaphor. Our use of these concepts and our distinctions between the intentional and the unintentional, the literal and the metaphorical, and between fictional and nonfictional discourse is grounded in a complex network of linguistic and social practices. In general these practices neither require nor admit of rigorous internal boundary lines and simple mechanical methods of ascertaining the presence or absence of a phenomenon. Again, the crude positivism of these assumptions I am criticizing is of a piece with Derrida’s assumption that without foundations we are left with nothing but the free play of signifiers.

And there are even cruder appeals of the deconstructivist philosophy. It is apparently very congenial for some people who are professionally concerned with fictional texts to be told that all texts are really fictional anyway, and that claims that fiction differs significantly from science and philosophy can be deconstructed as a logocentric prejudice, and it seems positively exhilarating to be told that what we call “reality” is just more textuality. Furthermore, the lives of such people are made much easier than they had previously supposed, because now they don’t have to worry about an author’s intentions, about precisely what a text means, or about distinctions within a text between the metaphorical and the literal, or about the distinction between texts and the world because everything is just a free play of signifiers. The upper limit, and I believe the reductio ad absurdum, of this “sense of mastery” conveyed by deconstruction, is in Geoffrey Hartman’s claim that the prime creative task has now passed from the literary artist to the critic.

This Issue

October 27, 1983