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Fifty years ago, in October 1966, a little-known 36-year-old philosophy teacher from the École normale supérieure (ENS) in Paris, Jacques Derrida, took to the stage at a conference on structuralism at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, entitled “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man”.

In doing so he was to inaugurate a dispute between two schools of philosophy that continues even now – between the analytic philosophers and rationalists on the one hand, and the continental philosophers on the other. Today, a popular strain of thought in the English-speaking world, often associated with the “New Atheist” movement, likes to dismiss all things Derrida or continental as “post-modern” nonsense. But the dispute is, I would argue, of great importance. With the “death of God” the search for meaning does not cease: arguably it becomes more urgent. How we produce and analyse meaning becomes crucial particularly when it is not outsourced to a deity.

The Baltimore colloquium itself was a huge intellectual event, bringing together over 100 philosophers, literary critics, ethnographers, anthropologists, psychoanalysts and cultural theorists from eight countries. They included Roland Barthes, Jean Hippolyte, Hans Georg Gadamer, Northrop Frye, Tzvetan Todorov and Jacques Lacan. It was meant to introduce America and the Anglophone world to structuralism, which was displacing the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus as the most important intellectual movement of the time. At the colloquium, it was planned that each guest would present their paper and follow it with a question-and-answer session with invited interlocutors who could respond with an intervention.

Derrida had not been on the original guestlist. He was barely known in his own country, and not at all in the rest of the world. He had at that point published little, and had only been invited when the Belgian anthropologist Luc de Heusch was unable to attend. Desperate for a guest to take de Heusch’s spot speaking on the final night of the conference, the organisers asked the Hegelian philosopher Jean Hippolyte for suggestions. He suggested his former student Derrida on the hardly enthusiastic recommendation that “I think he would be somebody who would come”.

So when Derrida walked to the front of the assembled guests to deliver his paper, the blandly titled “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”, no one could have guessed that he had come not to praise structuralism but to bury it, and, according to some, to bury with it the very foundations of philosophy.

Jacques Derrida, the third child of five, was born in Algeria, then still a French colony, to Sephardic Jewish parents. On what was to have been be his first day of high school, in 1942, the Vichy government of France imposed new Jewish quotas on school attendance in Algeria, and Derrida was expelled. This sense of exclusion, and of the assumptive authority of the law, was, he later said, to be a founding influence on his personality and thought.

He started to study philosophy immediately after the Second World War, and in 1949 moved to France to attend the ENS. Failing his first exam, he tried again in 1952 and was successful. It was a remarkable time to be an intellectual in Paris. As well as the thinkers mentioned above, notables such as Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Paul Ricoeur and Louis Althusser – whom Derrida met on his first day at ENS, and with whom he became firm friends – were engaged in a fierce battle over key questions across the intellectual disciplines.

Derrida completed a Master’s on the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, and then spent two years at Harvard University reading James Joyce. Back in France, he taught philosophy for four years at the Sorbonne before returning to teach at the ENS on the recommendation of Althusser and Hippolyte. He seemed set for a solid teaching career – distinguished, yet indistinguishable from that of any number of others.

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At that time, the dominant intellectual movement in France was structuralism. The scene had been set at the start of the 20th century by the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. De Saussure had made a distinction between parole – language as it is used – and langue – language in the abstract. As the relationship between a thing and what it is named is arbitrary, he argued, words can only gain meaning in relationship to other words – or phrases, or sentences – rather than from the thing to which they refer. Thinkers such as Lacan, Athusser and, crucially, Claude Lévi-Strauss (whose 1949 work The Elementary Structures of Kinship is seen as the foundation text of structuralism) then extended this idea into fields such as psychoanalysis, politics, sociology and anthropology, arguing that it is the interrelationship between phenomena, rather than a fundamental attribute of the thing, that produces meaning. These relations are a “structure”, at the foreground of which are local phenomena, and behind which lie constant laws.

For instance Lévi-Strauss, in his studies of mythology and kinship, sought to differentiate between “culture” and “nature”, seeing the former as localised phenomena and the latter those behaviours that are universally true. Lévi-Strauss argued that local systems of social organisation were permutations of a few simple, universal kinship structures that lay behind them. By analysing the former the latter could be uncovered, and these would, in some sense, identify “human nature”.

Derrida’s approach, which would become known as deconstruction, took claims like Lévi-Strauss’s universal kinship structures as its starting point – and then undermined them. “The structurality of structure”, argued Derrida in his 1966 paper – using a typical turn of phrase that was to inspire and infuriate a generation of philosophers – rests on the notion that there is a centre or an organising principle behind it. “Even today,” he continued, “the notion of a structure lacking any centre represents the unthinkable itself.”

This centre, in controlling the structure, in making it cohere, must both be part of the structure and lie outside it. A structure, therefore, is “contradictorily coherent” and relies on an “invariable presence” to determine its existence. That presence, Derrida argued, has been given many different names throughout history – essence, being, transcendentality, consciousness, God, man and so on – but all have relied on this idea of there being something unchanging beneath it all. While structuralism (and, indeed, analytic philosophy) was able to function without God, it retained a fundamental belief in this “invariable presence”, call it what they will. To quote Nietzsche, “I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.”

The whole history of the concept of structure, Derrida argued, is the history of replacing one metaphor for another. “The history of metaphysics, like the history of the West, is the history of these metaphors and metonymies.” This is now called into question – first by those great “decentrers” Nietzsche, Freud, Marx and Heidegger – but, crucially, by the very project of structuralism. If the structuralists were unable to find the organising principles they believed existed, then everything became “discourse”: things only had meaning in so far as they related to one another in “a system of differences”.

Derrida doesn’t use the term deconstruction. Instead he uses the words destruction and deconstitution. He even, at one point, apologises for not being more direct – “if you will pardon me for demonstrating so little, and for being so elliptical in order to come more quickly to my principal theme”. Despite this caution, his 1966 paper puts forward one very simple axiom: there is no transcendental signified. Things fall apart. There is no centre to hold them.

The paper drew an immediate response. Derrida had, as the New York Times put it later, “shocked his audience”. Here, at a symposium created to introduce structuralism to America, he had destroyed its very foundations. The Belgian literary critic Georges Poulet told J. Hillis Miller, the Professor Emeritus of English at Johns Hopkins, “I have just heard the most important lecture of the conference – it’s against everything that I do, but it was the most important lecture.” As Miller notes, “It was an extraordinary piece of prophetic insight ... I don’t think the historical importance of that conference has been exaggerated.”

By the end of 1967 Derrida had published the three foundation texts of deconstruction: Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference, and Speech and Phenomena. In these he introduced many of the key terms and concepts which would haunt his work from then on – difference, trace, supplement, the gift, the aporia, and the Other. Each book is an exploration of this new way of philosophising. Or as he put it during the question-and-answer session after he had delivered his paper, when Hippolyte asked where he was going with this: “I was wondering myself where I am going. So I would answer you by saying, first, that I am trying, precisely, to put myself at a point where I do not know any longer where I am going.”

* * *

While Derrida’s paper was aimed directly at structuralism, it was also a critique of “certain deeply hidden philosophical presuppositions and prejudices in Western Culture”, a tradition based on “a search for a transcendental being that serves as an origin or guarantor of meaning”.

Outside France, the dominant philosophical school was analytic philosophy. A broad church, its foundations had initially been articulated by, among others, Bertrand Russell, GE Moore and the early works of Wittgenstein. Founded on the notion of conceptual clarity, analytic philosophy (in its crudest form) regards philosophy as a branch of the sciences, often subservient to the natural sciences, or at best continuous with them. It proposes that through the logical analysis of philosophical propositions, the basic questions of existence can be clarified, and possibly solved.

As the analytic philosophers were already suspicious of structuralism for its proposition that meaning is contingent, Derrida’s emergence didn’t take long to cause a reaction. Philosophy, in most if not all of its forms, must rely on the possibility of truth. It is a search for meaning, which assumes meaning can be found, and that ideas and concepts have meanings in themselves in some sense, not simply as they relate to other ideas and concepts. Science and logic become the final arbiters in a search for meaning which holds that all can (and eventually will) be explained by a rational and scientific approach. That which lies outside of understanding, according to analytic philosophy, only does so because of our limits thus far – and will become explicable as our knowledge expands.

Leading the charge against Derrida was the American philosopher John Searle. In 1969 Searle, then 47, had published his first major work, Speech Acts. Building on the analysis of “speech acts” – in particular the work of John L Austin (his How to Do Things with Words from 1962 was key) – Searle placed particular emphasis on “intentionality” when analysing a particular speech event. Put crudely, meaning was based on the beliefs or intentions of the speaker, not relations outside of those intentions. For Derrida and the emerging school of deconstruction, this was a false construction, relying on notions such as a centred (knowing) self, a (fully) comprehensible set of speech structures, and the idea that a sentence had a particular meaning which inhered to it, regardless of context.

* * *

In 1972 Derrida presented a paper entitled “Signature Event Context” in which he argued that speech acts are also given meaning by what is left unsaid due to constraints – psychological, contextual, political – on the language and on “iterability”, which was the capacity of a speech act to be repeated in different contexts. Replying in his paper “Reiterating the Differences”, Searle accuses Derrida of having misunderstood and misrepresented Austin’s (and, by implication, his own) work. Regarding intentionality, Searle argues that when we read the words of a dead author and without the presence of the speaker, the intended receiver or even the context, such as “On the twentieth of September 1793 I set out on a journey from London to Oxford” we can still say, “The author intended to make a statement to the effect that on the twentieth of September 1973, he set out on a journey from London to Oxford.”

For the “follower” of Derrida, this sentence is ripe for deconstruction. In this novel, who is speaking? The author? The character? What assumptions are contained in the sentence? To take it further, Searle immediately assumes it is a “he” (the author, the character). Why does Searle assume that? What are his assumptions related to the context in which he reads it, in which he repeats it, and related to his own cultural history? To take another example, why “London to Oxford”? What does that tell us about the putative author, the possible character or, if the sentence has been made up by Searle as an example, his own cultural positioning, or that of the assumed reader? London to Oxford carries with it a whole different set of cultural assumptions than, say, “Hull to Dagenham”.

The dispute continued for a number of years. Derrida accused Searle of failing to understand or incorporate structural and post-structural critiques of language. Searle accused Derrida of failing to understand or incorporate recent analytical work on performativity and the distinction between “type” and “token” in language, which separates the use of a word to refer to an abstract concept – hat, for example – and the use of the same word to refer to a specific instance – my hat. The distinction is important across disciplines, from logic and philosophy to typography and computer programming. The dispute culminated with Searle’s 1983 article in the New York Review of Books, “The World Turned Upside Down”, in which he accused Derrida and his followers of obscurantism, obfuscation, banality, philosophical sloppiness and a wilful ignorance of concepts basic to analytical philosophy.

While the Searle–Derrida dispute focused on a specific area of the philosophy of language, it was of course based on a fundamental difference in method and meaning. It is a dispute that continues to divide the intellectual community – a division between so-called “analytic” and “continental” philosophy. Academies tend to cluster around one or the other, regarding the other school as being established on false premises.

For the analytic school, the idea that meaning is “created” and contingent is anathema. If “everything is discourse”, then there is no truth, and the whole moral, rational and scientific project falls. A continental philosopher might argue that the “rationalism” closely associated with the analytic school is simply another discourse; one that may have greater explanatory power in some areas, but which cannot account for the whole field of existence in the way that Christians, for instance, believe God to. It is a narrative, as are other versions of the “truth” – albeit, you could argue, one of astonishing power and critical insight.

But is this explanatory power enough to answer that fundamental question, “what is truth?”? Are there not other admissible ways of describing existence? Science may be the best way of describing how the universe works, but is it the best way of describing what it is like to be alive? Might not, for instance, literature, or even religion, make a better stab at that?

To land a rocket on the moon, one would do well to rely on science in creating the vehicle and explaining the physics behind the event. But how does the experience feel: subjectively, poetically? What does it mean for “humanity” − and who counts as humanity? Why (politically, culturally) three men? And who – to nod to Gil Scott Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” – is paying for it? While the project of deconstruction, in its radical critique of unspoken cultural assumptions, is not wholly responsible for extending the field of questions to be asked of a given event, it has made it impossible – unless by choice – to not be aware of the contingency and power relations built into any description.

In much of intellectual culture, of course, deconstruction has – like Schoenberg’s serialism in music, with which it shares a similarly contested legacy – been incorporated as yet another tool in the philosopher’s kit. But this should not lead to its taming. The New Atheist project, for instance, displays a seemingly unshakeable faith in the progress of history and culture, where the light of science and reason is shone into the darkness, and all human experience that does not concur with this “way of seeing” is viewed as at best suspect, at worst superstition. It is less willing to examine the ways in which it seems to fit comfortably with existing power relations, from capitalism to male privilege. Deconstruction can provide a radical critique of such ways of thinking.

Fifty years after its inauguration, deconstruction still retains – and must retain – the power to disturb. A spectre, if you will, haunting philosophical thought: what if there are limits to our search for knowledge? What if, when we think we are being objective and rational, we are actually behaving in ways that exclude or demean swathes of humanity? Or should a belief that the world out there is measurable, describable and tameable be tempered by an awareness of our own limitations? As Derrida wrote in 1980, regarding the 1966 colloquium:

For not only am I not sure, as I never am, of being right in taking this step, I am not sure in all clarity what led me to do so. Perhaps because I was beginning to know all too well not indeed where I was going, but where I had not so much arrived as simply stopped.