For some, he is one of the great philosophers of the 20th century, whose brilliant analyses of the text of philosophy and literature overturned many of the fundamental assumptions of each. To others, he is a charlatan: his honorary doctorate from the University of Cambridge in 1992 was opposed in a letter to The Times that accused him of not meeting accepted standards of clarity and rigour.
In 1967, Derrida introduced a new method to philosophy, which he called deconstruction. Put simply – and it rarely is, especially by Derrida – this is the idea that if something is constructed, it can be de-constructed. That applies to objects in the world, such as chairs, cars and houses, but it also applies to the concepts we use, such as truth, justice and God. These ‘things’, which we tend to assume are natural, are in fact culturally constructed. There might or might not be an actual God – deconstruction has no opinion on this – but the only ‘God’ we can encounter is a culturally constructed one. As that other controversial philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, put it, if you want to know the meaning of the word God, look at how it is used.
Importantly, deconstruction is not destruction. The concept or object is still there at the end. In fact, for Derrida, what was fascinating was not just the multiple factors that went into constructing a concept, but the actual final act of construction itself; the faith or belief we have that any concept is coherent and enduring. One of the tricks of thinking is to convince us that a word, or a concept, or a text, has a single, fixed meaning. And that this meaning is true, pure, unconstructed – natural, rather than cultural. Derrida called this the ‘metaphysics of presence’: the belief that coherence is a measure of truth.
Thinking like Derrida is a form of close reading, not just of texts, such as those of philosophy and literature, but of everything – art, religion, politics, even ourselves.