Anti-Foundationalism, Non-Essentialism, and Deconstruction — a crisis of language, truth, structure, identity, and being

Jules Taylor
No Easy Answers
Published in
13 min readAug 23, 2020


Jaques Derrida

I am not a carpenter. I do not know how to operate heavy machinery. I am not a woodworker. I do not own a toolbelt and I have never had an interest in the trades. Though I am largely uninitiated to the world of construction, if you asked me to build a house, and I was somehow forced into this arrangement, I would no doubt begin with the establishment of a foundation. It seems a foundation is essential, in both physical and ideological constructions.

There is a concept of a foundation, which (in an ideological sense) suggests that it will support all other abstract thought(s) which stem from the base, just as a house or a building is rested upon (in a physical sense) a solid foundation. Before the commencing of a building project in the physical or ideological sense, there is a period of sorting-out materials, and all of those particulars and specifics that will (hopefully) make for the establishment of an organized foundation, that will ultimately support the completion and presentation of the physical build and support the coherence of philosophical ideas.

Within the scope of this conversation, which is vast and sweeping and will not do justice to any thinkers, concepts, eras, or movements, I wish to build you a house. I may, through the course of this conversation, in addition to building a house and showing you its construction, burn the place to the ground, but such is the nature of some of the assorted ideas we will be examining today. Not to be misconstrued, I will submit to you the purpose of building the house is not for the purposes of burning, but for the critical examination of the structural tenets that constitute the building itself with the intention of generating new, interesting, or useful ideas towards future physical and ideological constructs.

To set the foundation, so that we may bring to bear the greater conceptual inquiries, we shall begin by introducing the Swiss philosopher, Ferdinand de Saussure. Born in 1857, his ideas laid a foundation for developments in linguistics and the founding of semiology/semiotics in the early 1900s. 20th century linguistic study would be so influenced by Saussure that modern linguists and their theories have been positioned by reference to him. They are known as pre-Saussurean, Saussurean, anti-Saussurean, post-Saussurean, or non-Saussure.

An oversimplified explanation of the conceptual works of Saussure is as follows. Consider the concept of a dog. It makes no difference the breed of the dog; a dog is only a dog because a dog is not a cat. A dog is not a cow. A dog is not a horse and dogs are not zebras. A dog that retains the identity of a dog is only a dog because of the context that it is not everything else. It is in this way that our linguistic labels (or signs), for all living things, create a structural context for a dog to be a dog, and for everything else to be everything else. A more academic way of stating this is that identity is composed of both negative and positive attributes, mediated by signs (both the signified and the signifier). For the purposes of the conversational house we are building (and the foundation we are setting), it is important to know that Saussurean linguistics would, in the late 1950s and 1960s, lead to an intellectual movement more broadly referred to as Structuralism.

Structural linguists, anthropologists, and sociologists would define structuralism as the methodology that implies that elements of human culture may be understood by way of their relationships to a broader system, and the broader context of the system gives legitimacy to the individual sets of categories and distinctions. To Saussure, language was a system of contrasts and equivalents. Words and signs (used to represent concepts) were not self-justifying. The concept of warm could not exist without its contrast, cold, just as the concept of cold could not exist without warmth. The formation of sentences and communication are strings of linguistic objects, be they nouns, adjectives, actions, etc. Each of these objects are only defined by way of their contrast with other objects in the language system.

The French Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss would take the idea of Saussurean linguistics (structural linguistics) and applied it towards mythology. He argued that a basic paradox of myths is the way the stories are fantastic and unpredictable, with content that seems completely arbitrary, but on the other hand, myths of different cultures are surprisingly similar. Lévi-Strauss proposed that universal laws must govern mythical thought, producing similar myths in different cultures. Each myth may seem unique, but Levi-Strauss proposed they were just one particular instance of a universal law of human thought. A structuralist might examine a common myth by understanding there are multiple versions of a myth and conclude that all versions of the myth are relevant to the myth as a whole. This leads to what Lévi-Strauss calls a ‘spiral growth’ of the myth that is continuous while the structure itself is not. The growth of the myth only ends when the “intellectual impulse which produced it is exhausted”.

The emerging observation based on Saussurean linguistics and Lévi-Strauss’ contributions would frame structuralism as the “search for underlying patters of thought in all forms of human activity.”

The structuralist mode of reasoning has been applied in a diverse range of fields, including those which we have already made mention of, anthropology, sociology, psychology, literary criticism, economics, and architecture. The most prominent thinkers associated with structuralism include Claude Lévi-Strauss, linguist Roman Jakobson, and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. At the height of the movement, structuralism seemed it was the intellectual thrust that would take the place of existentialism. By the late 1960s, many of the core ideas of structuralists came under attack from a new wave of thinkers.

A common criticism of structuralism was an interrogation of binary oppositions which act as pillars of structuralist thought. Philosophers pointed to the rigidity of structuralist approaches, calling it ahistorical, accusing structuralists of favoring deterministic structural forces over the ability of people to act. These arguments were forged as political struggle and power were centered in the conversations of the 1960s and 1970s. The broader arguments made against structuralism rejected structuralists thought in toto, rejected the self-sufficiency of structuralism,
and accused structuralist thinkers of overstepping the limits of validity of their approach.

For whatever remains of the carcass of structuralism, it is important to ascertain that structuralist thought was a continuation of Marxist and Freudian theoretic principles. Freud’s linking of the unconscious mind to fundamental parts of human character and Marx linking political economy to items and ideas produced by society provided the theoretical base for linguistics and anthropology to develop a pattern based (structural) approach.

Because the thinkers who followed structuralists were ruthless with their criticisms of structuralism and are known as post-structuralists in their positional reference does not mean they postulated from non-structuralist or anti-structuralist perspectives. Post-Structuralism both builds upon and rejects the ideas within structuralism, though some of the thinkers that can be referenced under the heading of post-structuralist reject the title, preferring the term deconstructionist.

At this stage of bringing together the foundation of our conversation, we could begin to delineate the impact of certain ideas brought forth by an array of post-structuralist and postmodern thinkers. However, just as we have brought some context to structuralism and post-structuralism by pointing to proto-structuralists Marx and Freud, we should also take care to provide adequate context for philosophy as a whole, and the questions philosophy attempts to answer.

The question that broadly emerges from the earliest philosophical works is how should one live? Plato encapsulates this inquiry and response within the form of the good. Of course, this cannot be clearly seen or explained, but ‘the good’ functions as a perfect, eternal, and changeless form, existing outside of space and time. Similarly put forth by Plato, his theory of forms suggests that the physical world is not as real or true as timeless, absolute, unchangeable ideas. Aristotle would expound upon Platonist ideas in his philosophy, shifting the idea of searching for the good to living into a purposeful life and existence. The inquiries of ancient philosophy presuppose there exists a cosmological order to which a good life must conform. Man, and his existence, are embedded within this cosmological order, and there is an order and stability that ought to be mirrored by the lives of human beings. Contemporary philosophers (within the realm of phenomenology) refer to this extrinsic authority as the ‘transcendent’.

Philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham would attempt to provide answers to a slightly modified version of the question how should one live, that could be construed as how should one act? Indeed, these thinkers contributed greatly to moral theory, ethics, transcendental idealism, social contract, and utilitarianism. For the purposes of our conversation, and that which is relevant to the critiques of structuralism, we are building this foreground to stage the question continental philosophy has sought to respond to, how might one live?

This question, in its surface value and impression, seems to lead us towards the existentialists. After all, they are the thinkers who constitute a school of thought that intends to give meaning to individuals by way of exploring the nature of existence by emphasizing the experience of the human subject. There is an argument to be made that a refutation of Platonist ideas (namely transcendental idealism) began during the Age of Enlightenment with Baruch de Spinoza. Though his work is regarded as an opposition to the mind-body dualism philosophy of Rene Descartes, the pantheism of Spinoza is also more broadly an assault on the subject-object paradigm and a forerunner of the post-structuralist interrogation of binary opposites.

If Spinoza signaled the argumentative injuries and points of vulnerabilities in transcendental idealism, it must be Nietzsche who signaled the vanishing of the transcendent when he proclaimed ‘God is dead’ in 1882. For the human subject, without the presence of a transcendent, the question of how might one live is reopened, permitting us to enlarge our lives beyond the limits of history and previous architectures of thought. Likewise, one could infer that human experience, in a phenomenological and existential sense, is evaluated, after removal of the transcendent, as being withdrawn from the cosmological order. This withdraw not only frees the human subject from a transcendent that judges us, but it also relieves the burden of responsibility in being embedded within the cosmological order.

In his wake, Nietzsche leaves behind a crisis of being and identity for the human subject. Though the absence of a transcendent is framed by him in a way that (should) generate human empowerment and possibility, the human subject finds themself in an existence more alone than we possibly imagined. This compelled the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre to write “Man is condemned to be free; because once he is thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” To Sartre, there is no fixed design for how a human should be (anti-essentialism), and there is no God to give us a purpose. The onus for defining one’s self, and by extension the collective and all of humanity, falls on the shoulders of the human subject. This is what Sartre and the other existentialists mean by “existence precedes essence.” The incredible burden of defining oneself within the responsibility of freedom makes up Sartrean phenomenological ontology.

The crisis of structure which began with Spinoza, that ultimately led to a crisis of being through the works of Nietzsche, now comes full circle in post-structuralism to undermine identity, truth, and language.

Perhaps it was a response to the rigidity of structuralism that built the philosophy of contingencies that is post-structuralism, and to a degree, postmodernism. The operable word in the questioning of how might one live? is the word ‘might’. It carries with it as many questions as it does possibilities, allowing for exploration and discovery which is not subject to any validation or invalidation from a transcendent. The sole judgement that could be weighed is in the phenomenology of the subject. It is in this way that the experience of consciousness is held within the container of the human subject, singular and individual in its perspectives, deriving a single-use application of truth with every moment of sentience.

To a post-structuralist, there is no capital T version of the truth. Interpretations of text that would be canonized as Truth falsely assume the definitions of signs are valid and fixed. How could a consistent meaning be arrived at when the signs and signifiers and language itself are conditioned by history, society, and culture? Surely punctuation and written word is not up to the task of verbal inflection, enunciation, and emphasis, paired with tone and facial expressions. Still more, terms like truth and justice could be argued to be irreducibly complex, unstable, or even impossible to determine. This nihilistic perspective on Truth, as it relates to text and meaning, is a methodology called Deconstruction, conceived by Jacques Derrida.

The very nature of deconstruction is anti-foundationalist, refuting underlying beliefs or fundamentals that would serve as the basic grounds of inquiry and building of knowledge. In its most simple reduction, deconstruction is a criticism of Platonic essentialism, distinct from post-structuralism, which replaces Platonic essentialism with networked contingencies.

Derrida and his work are controversial in the sense that philosophy, in its many different variants, had always sought to arrive at certitudes. The rationalists regarded reason as the primary way of sourcing and testing knowledge. Empiricists felt knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience. Epistemologists studied the nature of knowledge, rationality of beliefs, along with truth and justification. It begs to question in what way did Philosophy, in any of its branches, and for that matter humanity, benefit from the destabilization of Truth?

To be clear, there have always been philosophical skeptics, but the suspension of judgement due to inadequacy of evidence, or denying the possibility of all knowledge, are conceptually distinct from subsuming the concept of Truth entirely into relativism. To understand why a philosopher would choose to work against the grain and take this approach, we’ll have to take into consideration all that was going on in or around the year of Grammatology was published, 1967, and the philosophers Derrida seemed to be engaging in his work.

Most philosophers in the 20th century, to some form or degree, are answering to or building from the works of Fredrich Nietzsche. While we have made mention of his infamous statement “God is Dead” once before in this conversation, it is worth going back to if to only understand the statement’s more literal meaning and intention. He used the phrase to express his idea that the enlightenment had eliminated the possibility of the existence of God. Philosophy and science were now the arbiters of morality, value, and order in the universe. Philosophers after him (existentialists, phenomenologists, etc.) would center the experience of the human subject as the focus in their work.

Part of the crisis of being given to us by Nietzsche has to do with the void left behind in the absence of God, religion, the transcendent, etc. In mankind’s efforts to better understand the world, western thought had become increasingly secular, and thus man began and derive meaning and value from ideologies. The rise of Communism, Nationalism, and Nazism, along with other ideologies, swept through Europe following the end of World War I. By the time Derrida’s of Grammatology was published, the two major ideologies which prevailed following World War II were facing off in a proxy war in Vietnam. The world had witnessed the use of atomic bombs in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, followed by an arms race and cold war standoff. The Cuban Missile Crisis had almost gone terribly wrong, and the world seemed to be on a razor’s edge.

Derrida’s destabilization of the truth was not formulated in a nihilistic intention but was created in a way that would (hopefully) encourage opposing ideologies to recognize the relativism of truth and facilitate understandings. Consider this quote from of Grammatology:

“The idea behind deconstruction is to deconstruct the workings of strong nation-states with powerful immigration policies, to deconstruct the rhetoric of nationalism, the politics of place, the metaphysics of native land and native tongue… the idea is to disarm the bombs… of identity that nation-states build to defend themselves against the stranger, against Jews and Arabs and immigrants.”

To Derrida, the great mistake of all western intellectual traditions is the absolute faith that reality can described with words, language, and logic. He claims that in philosophy, academia, science and writing, there has been an overemphasis of language, what he called ‘logocentrism’. Derrida asserts that all western thought seeks to find a center, seeks to establish a foundation, and seeks to establish objectivity and normativity, and ultimately create a meta-narrative, which is fancy way of referring to a large overarching big-picture understanding of any particular topic or field. He wanted to call attention to the constructivist bias and agenda of western intellectual traditions. To Derrida, there is no foundation to meanings, concepts, or language. They may seem to be aspects of Truth in any concept, but only because there is a loose consensus around these ideas.

Deconstruction seeks to break apart the categories, dichotomies, hierarchies, and binary oppositions which act as pillars for meta-narratives, since all of them are used to establish a ground which does not actually exist there. In truth, there are no foundations to concepts, meanings, or language. There are no canonical definitions. The reality of the matter is that Truth is complicated and messy. Truth is relative.

Opponents of Derrida see Deconstruction as an affront to the knowledge and progress outlined by philosophers and scholars throughout human history. Many academics have dismissed his work entirely, especially the hard sciences. Some have gone as far as to label Deconstruction wholly toxic towards intellectual traditions. However, Derrida’s work is not entirely dissimilar to the way philosophy has functioned since the time of ancient philosophers.

Consider this quote from Stephen West: “[Philosophy functions by]… shining a light on the grand narratives of the past, deconstructing or unraveling them and show what they really are, at which point the ideology or dogma associated with them will collapse out of the bottom, and we’ll take whatever lessons we can learn from the process, and the goal at that point will be to find a new way we can proceed with philosophy without falling into the same traps we have in the past, if that’s possible at all.”

The philosophy of Derrida is that there are no concrete answers, and there are no fixed positions. Though Derrida may have been answering to philosophers before him, his intention was not to replace a house of cards with a house of stone, as many philosophers tend to posture in their retorts. Derrida wanted to show that everything, including language, truth, structure, identity and being are all houses of cards, all without foundations, and all without a transcendent. When you break down all conceptual structures, you are left floating unanchored. There is infinite freedom in anti-foundationalism and non-essentialism.

If Derrida were alive today, I believe he would warn us not to create a new ideology to follow dogmatically, as that would be the same trap Derrida warned us about. Instead, we should hold our concepts and truths lightly, and not cling to them as if it is a matter of life and death. He might also warn us to be skeptical of any concept or truth which offers a foundation, since the only Truth of the matter is that there is no truth of the matter. There is no foundation, and there is no essentialist standard to match. Maybe what happened to Truth is that Truth has always been irreducibly complex, which is what Derrida might have been trying to say all along.