Thursday, October 26, 2006


I hear many people today use the word "deconstruct." In fact, since the '90s we are hearing many people use the term “deconstruct”, deconstructionism, or deconstructionist. The reason for this is that “deconstructionist” philosophy and methodology in interpretation of literature, history, laws, scientific postulates etc. has become an important part of the way people do interpretation.

One could define deconstructionism as:

“a method of critical analysis of philosophical and literary language that emphasizes the internal workings of language and conceptual systems, the relational quality of meaning, and the assumptions implicit in forms of expression.

Deconstruction focuses on a text as such, rather than as an expression of the author's intention, stressing the limitlessness (or impossibility) of interpretation and rejecting the Western philosophical tradition of seeking certainty through reasoning by privileging certain types of interpretation and repressing others. It was effectively named and popularized by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida from the late 1960s and taken up particularly by U.S. literary critics.” (Oxford American Dictionary)

Deconstructionism urges us to re-look at the text. In doing so it asks us to always go back and see what the text might be saying and it might be interpreted differently. It encourages us to examine the sources and see if there are more sources than were originally used in the interpretation of the text or event. As Christians, this is good since we always want to be going back to the text and let it speak to us.

Deconstructionistic thinking warns us that we must be careful how we “absolutize” or privilege certain interpretations over others. It is wrong to accept an interpretation simply because it is written by a ruling class, a powerful party, or a “savant” within a group. We must let the text speak and be careful how we use referential thinking.

These positive aspects are good, making deconstruction a valuable idea and method. There are several weaknesses and problems in the deconstructionist approach one must be aware of.

1. It denies the importance of the author’s intention because it is not knowable. In doing so it leaves interpretation completely open to the “limitless possibilities of the text” and the limitless possibilities of a “reader oriented” approach to the text. Umberto Eco addresses this is his book “The Limits of Interpretation.” He says that texts cannot be interpreted any old way since the text has structure and operates according to various rules. He hypothesizes that the text forms it own “ideal reader” which limits the person the “intention of the text.”

2. Many deconstructionists see a limitless number of possible interpretations and therefore make the text meanlingness. Since everything is relative to the reader, the text will always means something different. The problem with this is that this limitless relativism does not allow us read a text and arrive at some precision of meaning.

3. Many deconstructionists base their understanding of the text on the idea that since we are all fallible readers, or since we all come at a text from different perspective, we will never really know an intention of the text. This leaves the meaning of a text open to an eternal drift based the relative reading of whoever is reading it.

Some correctives that we might apply:

1. All texts have authors and who had an intention. While we might not have absolute certainly of their intention, we must still be reading a text realizing that the text has intention not only because of it’s linguistic structure, but because with was written for a reason.

2. There are not limitless possibilities for interpreting a text (unless of course that was the author’s intention eg. James Joyce,Ulyssess). Readers must be aware of what they are bringing to the text. The reader must know the difference between “reading into” the text (isogesis) and reading from the text (exegesis).

3. While we are all fallible readers, a study of a number of interpreters will limit the interpretation to “cultural” groups and therefore give us the ability to see how “isogeis happens” by giving us a range of interpretations. One can compare the relative merits of each an arrive and a more “accepted” reading. This will hopefully give us a majority opinion and a better understanding of the text.

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