Gone But Still with Us

A headline for an obituary in the October 10 New York Times said it all: "Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74." There is no denying the "abstruse" part. The French philosopher's work was not just difficult to understand; it was incomprehensible. Yet, for all of Derrida's murky and jargon-ridden prose, his impact on the world we live in was enormous. Derrida, you see, was the father of "deconstruction." That is the literary theory that says that "all writing [is] full of confusion and contradiction . . . the author's intent [can] not overcome the inherent contradictions of language itself." So, all texts, whether literary, historical, or philosophical, are devoid of "truthfulness, absolute meaning, and permanence." Now, Derrida may have just been having fun. I often thought that he put out these unfathomable statements just to watch the confusion. Intellectuals took him seriously and thought he was saying something so profound that their problem was that they did not understand it. So they held conferences to try to figure him out. All the while he was being entertained, however, he created huge mischief: People believed his intellectual nonsense. While his French contemporaries dismissed him, he soon found a receptive audience in America. A generation of American scholars has championed his theories, especially at Yale, where Paul de Man, Derrida's close friend, taught. If Derrida's maxim that "there is nothing outside the text" had been limited to literary theory, he might not have done much damage. However, deconstruction broke out of the literature department and was applied to almost every non-scientific discipline: history, "anthropology, political science, [and] even architecture." An example of this took place at Duke Law School. There, Stanley Fish, America's leading deconstructionist, although not a lawyer, taught courses in law, admitting that he knew nothing about law. Why would we he need to? If, like Fish and Derrida, you believe that "there is nothing outside the text" except what the reader brings to it, it doesn't matter what others have thought and written about the law. This subjectivity, however, only gives ammunition to lawyers and jurists who want to interpret constitutions and statutes in ways never imagined by their drafters. Or, some are creative enough, they just disregard the statutes. This has created a crisis in the law: using the courts as tools for social engineering. We will be living with the consequences for a long time. A generation of Americans has been taught to believe that there's no such thing as objective truth, only preferences, and one person's preference is as good as anyone else's. If students read books at all, they care less about what the author had to say than about their own opinions and feelings. The very day Derrida died, I was on an airplane. A couple recognized me and came over to talk. They told me the sad tale of how four years of college had turned their son from a solid Christian into a doubt-ridden skeptic. Now multiply that incident a million-fold, and you'll understand the real legacy of Jacques Derrida, who amused himself at our great expense. Who said ideas don't have consequences? For further reading and information: Jonathan Kandell, "Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies in Paris at 74," New York Times, 10 October 2004. (Archived article; costs $2.95 to retrieve.) Or read it here. Mark C. Taylor, "The real meaning of deconstruction," International Herald Tribune, 15 October 2004. Roger Kimball, "The Meaninglessness of Meaning," Wall Street Journal, 12 October 2004. Gregg Easterbrook, "True Value," New Republic, 18 October 2004. Richard Wolin, "The Death of the Author," New Republic, 13 October 2004. Patricia Sullivan, "Jacques Derrida Dies; Deconstructionist Philosopher," Washington Post, 10 October 2004, C11. James Heartfield, "Deconstructing Derrida," Spiked, 11 October 2004. John J. Miller and Mark Molesky, "Jacques Derrida, R.I.P.," National Review Online, 13 October 2004. Peter Ford, "Why France lionizes the man who challenged everything," Christian Science Monitor, 13 October 2004. Art Lindsley, True Truth: Defending Absolute Truth in a Relativistic World (InterVarsity Press, 2004).
  1. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity(HarperSanFrancisco, 2001 edition).


Chuck Colson


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