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Everyone is stupid and confused on occasion. But to dedicate one's entire life to stupidity and confusion—that's a remarkable and dubious achievement. Yet that's what Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstructionism, did for several decades.

Born in 1930, the infamous French philosopher passed away this October. Accounts of his life sought to make sense of the thought and work of a man whose influence on Western thought has been, unfortunately, quite significant—even if many people have never heard of him.

His disciples are certain that Derrida had made an invaluable contribution to humanity, even while their explanations of the contribution were less than clear."He understood that official thought turns on rigorously exclusive oppositions: inside/outside, man/woman, good/evil," wrote Terry Eagleton, professor of cultural theory at Manchester University. "He loosened up such paranoid antitheses by the flair and brio of his writing, and in doing so spoke up for the voiceless, from whose ranks he had emerged."

I’m not certain who’s in charge of "official thought," but I suspect that Eagleton is referring to what most people might call ordinary, commonsense thinking. Even the venerable Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy struggles to define deconstructionism, writing, "[Derrida] tells us that deconstruction is neither an analytical nor a critical tool; neither a method, nor an operation, nor an act performed on a text by a subject; that it is, rather, a term that resists both definition and translation."

To cut to the chase, Derrida taught that language is meaningless, communication impossible, and life ultimately absurd. This is all the more amazing since Derrida dedicated most of his life writing and teaching about deconstructionism. In books and lectures he insisted that words, sentences, and books cannot really say anything—or, if they do, they cannot say what the author think they say.

Illogical? Yes. Popular? Yes. Sadly, far too many people in the world of academia do think that deconstructionism is a most marvelous thing. One reason is that it allows ideologues to interpret any given text to mean anything they want it to say. It's just another form of gnosticism, or secret knowledge: a few enlightened elite are able to really understand what Dante, Shakespeare, Joyce, or anyone else is actually saying.

Philosopher Roger Kimball, in an essay titled "The Meaninglessness of Meaning," denounced the "baneful ideas" of Derrida. "Even if deconstruction cannot be defined, it can be described," Kimball stated, "For one thing, deconstruction comes with a lifetime guarantee to render discussion of any subject completely unintelligible. It does this by linguistic subterfuge. One of the central slogans of deconstruction is ‘there is nothing outside the text.’ In other words, . . . the meanings of words are completely arbitrary and that, at bottom, reality is unknowable."

Set aside the big word and you’ll recognize that we’re surrounded by amateur deconstructionists who say, "We really can’t know if something is true or not" or "That statement means something different for everyone" or "That depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is." Deconstructionism is aptly named because it seeks to deconstruct—that is, destroy—the nature and meaning of language.

Kimball notes, "A blow against the legitimacy of language is at the same time a blow against the legitimacy of the tradition in which language lives and has meaning." When language is attacked, truth is attacked; when words are damaged, humanity is damaged. If words have no meaning, there is no meaning. Or, if there is, you cannot actually communicate it. Such thinking must culminate in nihilism and despair.

Derrida stated that we inhabit "a world of signs without fault, without truth and without origin". It’s not surprising that he was an atheist who had little patience for religion or the belief in the supernatural. Sadly, his ideas live on precisely because Derrida was wrong: words do mean something, even when they are misused.

This column originally appeared as "Only Words" in the November 14-20, 2004 edition of the National Catholic Register and is reprinted with permission.

Carl Olson is the editor of He is the co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author of Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"? He resides in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland, Oregon and Sacramento, California.

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