Derrida, Jacques (1930–2004)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DE010-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2006
Retrieved May 19, 2024, from

3. Deconstruction as an institutional practice

As Derrida conceived it, deconstruction was never just a way of interpreting texts; it was a way of changing existing institutions and inventing new ones. In calling attention to the role played by speech acts in the founding (and maintenance) of institutions such as states and universities, he underscored both their fragility and their violence. In contrast to Austin (see Austin, J. L. §3), who drew a relatively sharp distinction between constative utterances that ‘merely interpret the world’ and performative acts that ‘change the world’ (to put the point in Marxist terms), Derrida believed, like Foucault, that an effect of power was to be found in all locutions of whatever type. He was especially attentive to the ways in which founding acts conjure the very subject whose enunciative position they adopt, as when the American Declaration of Independence begins by invoking ‘We the people’.

In 1974, Derrida and other French teachers and students of philosophy formed the Groupe de Recherches sur l’Enseignement Philosophique (Greph). One early effort of the group was to militate against a government recommendation that the teaching of philosophy be scaled back in the French lycées. Greph gave itself the task of studying all aspects of the teaching of philosophy. Through its initiative, an independent Estates General of Philosophy (Etats généraux de la philosophie) was convened in Paris in June 1979. The Estates General made a number of policy recommendations, including the idea of extending (rather than scaling back) the teaching of philosophy in the lycées. Derrida was an active participant in this event. When François Mitterand was elected president of France in 1981, he invited Derrida and several other participants in the Estates General to found a new government-sponsored institution devoted to the teaching and research of philosophy. In 1983, Derrida became the first director of the Collège International de Philosophie, and in 1990, he published Du droit à la philosophie, a collection of various pieces written about the teaching of philosophy and about the activities surrounding Greph, the Estates General, and the founding of the Collège. Published in two volumes in English as Who’s Afraid of Philosophy? and Eyes of the University, these lectures, essays, and reports include numerous discussions of Kant’s Der Streit der Fakultäten (The Conflict of the Faculties) and other philosophical writings about the role of philosophy in the modern university. As usual, Derrida takes nothing for granted about the teaching of philosophy, while at the same time taking a clear stand in favour of institutions that will extend the teaching of philosophy as broadly and internationally as possible.

Unlike Kant, who in his Der Streit der Fakultäten (The Conflict of the Faculties) (1798) sought to specify the legitimate role of philosophers in a philosophically legitimated university – and state – setting, Derrida repeatedly insists on the need to challenge all claims to philosophical legitimacy. This is the basic difference between critique and deconstruction. For Kant, to engage in critique is to institute a tribunal capable of resolving all of the conflicts that reason can enter into with itself. Chief among these conflicts are the ‘antinomies’ of pure reason, which Kant settles either by dismissing both of the contesting parties or by circumscribing their legitimate domains so as to make their competing claims compatible with each other. Derrida’s approach to the founding of the philosophical is very different. In his 1993 book Apories (Aporias) (1993) he explains why he prefers the concept of an ‘aporia’ to that of an antinomy. As its etymology indicates, the word ‘antinomy’ (anti-nomos) refers to a conflict between two laws each of which can already claim prima facie legitimacy. By contrast, the Greek word aporia refers to an impasse of some sort. Aristotle claimed that the aim of philosophy was to find a way out of aporias, that is, to extricate thought from apparent dead-ends. For Derrida, to engage in deconstruction is to attend to this very operation of philosophical extrication – the reduction of aporias to resolvable paradoxes or antinomies – in order to show that it is never accomplished without an act of violence that we can liken to the cutting of a Gordian knot that cannot be untangled. In this respect, deconstruction is a way of lingering with aporias, not out of a vain hope of returning to some pure, pre-philosophical experience of wonder, but out of a sense of duty to bear witness to acts of violence.

To say that the vigilance of deconstruction is rooted in a sense of duty is to note an important affinity between it and Kantian critique, for, according to Kant, all of the interests of speculative reason are ultimately dependent on the interests of practical reason. Without simply rejecting this claim, Derrida worries that by defining critique as a juridical interrogation of the claims of philosophical discourse, Kant falls short of a more radical questioning of founding philosophical acts. When summoned before the tribunal of reason, aporias inevitably reduce to legally resolvable antinomies precisely because the aporetic character of the founding of the Kantian tribunal itself has been systematically ignored. This can be seen in Kant’s refusal to acknowledge the inevitable contamination of critique with the state power that it purports to stand against. Likewise, to speak of the categorical imperative as a pure moral law commanding autonomy of the will is to operate within the confines of a juridical space whose fictional (i.e. founded) character Kant never seriously calls into question.

If, in the end, Derrida is still willing to base deconstruction on something like a sense of duty, it is because, like Kant, he regards the condition of being called to responsibility as inescapable. Kant characterized this condition as a ‘fact of reason’. For Derrida, it is more like a ‘fact of différance‘, for it originates in the experience of being constitutively haunted by others. In contrast to the obedience commanded by the Kantian moral law, the experience of being haunted takes place as a call for hospitality. Kant claimed that all human beings, as citizens of the world, had a right to hospitality everywhere on the earth’s surface, but in the name of the principle of state sovereignty, he limited this to a ‘right of visitation’ rather than a ‘right of residence’. In Cosmopolites de tous les pays, encore un effort! (‘On Cosmopolitanism‘) (1997), Derrida emphasizes the urgency of going beyond the modern state form to deal with the plight of displaced peoples. Similar issues concerning the possibility of post-national cosmopolitan democracies are addressed in L’autre cap (The Other Heading) (1991), ‘Hostipitality’ (1997), and Voyous (2003), the last book that he published before his death.

Citing this article:
Cutrofello, Andrew. Deconstruction as an institutional practice. Derrida, Jacques (1930–2004), 2006, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DE010-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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