A colleague and I were discussing literary deconsructionism, to which he was very much opposed on the grounds that the author had not freely given their work to the public and so what they intended it to mean is something we should be invested in. It gave rise to the question of whether this had ever been applied to philosophical texts where, one might argue, the exact opposite was the case (i.e. the idea is what we're invested in, not the person), but on asking around we could not come up with a single example of this approach. A brief search of this site found nothing, but on the other side of the argument found dozens of questions of the form "What did X mean by ..."

I'm not here referring to the deconstructionism of the likes of Derrida, where the subtext is a truth even if unintended, but specifically of the literary kind, where the possible interpretations of the text are as valid as the author's actual intent.

To clarify some terminology in the light of comments, from "A Glossary of Literary Terms"

New critical explications of texts had undertaken to show that a great literary work, in the tight internal relations of its figurative and paradoxical meanings, constitutes a freestanding, bounded and organic entity of multiplex yet determinate meanings. On the contrary, a radically deconstructive close reading undertakes to show that a literary text lacks a "totalized" boundary that makes it an entity, much less an organic unity; also that the text, by a play of internal counter-forces, disseminates into an indefinite range of self-conflicting significations.

and Atkins writes in his literary deconstruction of Shakespeare;

there is no single deconstructive "party line" represented.

Hopefully that will serve to clarify the two lines of confusion - How deconstructionism differs from New Criticism and how later literary uses differ from the analysis of Derrida.

So what I'm asking about is any interpretations of philosophical texts which (in the same way deconstructionist literary criticism might derive new metaphors), derive new philosophical statements from the conflicting or contradictory themes the authors themselves do not necessarily intend to be there, but which are not themselves intended to be truths, merely alternatives.

  • You can see U.Eco, Interpretation and Overinterpretation (1992). Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 12:32
  • Obviously Kripke is not a deconstructionist but if you are focusing on the idea of "possible interpretations being as valid as actual interpretations" then his comments on Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations comes to mind. The rule following paradox that Kripke outlines is agreed upon that neither Kripke nor Wittgenstein believe it themselves and is often attributed to a third, fake person called "Kripenstein." I don't think I would truly call this literary deconstructionism, but it does fit your definition.
    – Not_Here
    Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 12:40
  • isn't Derrida the godfather of pretty much all deconstructionisms?
    – user20153
    Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 17:18
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    @Not_Here Yes, that's exactly it, I'd not thought of that. Your comment would make a perfectly satisfactory answer.
    – user22791
    Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 6:48
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    @idiotan He's a professor of English Literature, whilst that doesn't preclude pretension, I think it more likely he used the term "deconstructionism" because it's a term he uses accurately and appropriately on a day-to-day basis.
    – user22791
    Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 7:43

1 Answer 1


Putting aside the issues that have arisen in the comments about the terminology in your question, if we focus on "where the possible interpretations of the text are as valid as the author's actual intent" then a common example would be Kripke's analysis of the rule following paradox present in Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations.

In Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, Kripke presents a paradox that arises out of Wittgenstein's arguments that the language games played by interacting people are governed by a family (as opposed to a rigidly defined class) of rules. Why this is an example of "the possible interpretation being as valid as the author's actual intent" is because it is generally agreed upon that Wittgenstein himself would not have believed all of the opinions that are necessary to formulate the paradox, while neither does Kripke. Instead, it has become common to attribute the belief in this rule following paradox to a third philosopher called Kripkenstein. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's article "Private Language":

Kripke (p. 5) denies commitment to the identity of this sceptical figure with its historical source, and, appropriately, his account has spawned a literature of its own in which discussion often proceeds largely independently of the original private language argument: Kripke's Wittgenstein, real or fictional, has become a philosopher in his own right, and for many people, it is not an issue whether the historical Wittgenstein's original ideas about private language are faithfully captured in this version.

Finally, here is a quote from G.W. Fitch's Saul Kripke:

First of all, Kripke explicitly states that the arguments and positions that he presents in this book are not to be taken as his views. He says "It deserves emphasis that I do not in this piece of writing attempt to speak for myself, or, except in occasional and minor asides, to say anything about my own views on the substantive issues" (WRPL: ix). Because Kripke explicitly denies offering his own views in this essay, it would be natural to assume that his foal is to provide a correct historical account of Wittgenstein's views. It is not clear, however, that Kripke is claiming to provide us with a piece of Wittgensteinian Scholarship:

In the following, I am largely trying to present Wittgenstein's argument, or more accurately, that set of problems and arguments which I personally have gotten out of reading Wittgenstein... So the present paper should be thought of as expounding neither 'Wittgenstein's argument nor Kripke's': rather Wittgenstein's argument as it struck Kripke, as it presented a problem for him. (WRPL: 5)

Thus, the primary goal is not historical exegesis but, as Krikpe says in the preface, "The primary purpose of this work is the presentation of a problem and an argument, not its critical evaluation" (WRPL: ix).

  • Evidently people are still confused by my use of the term literary deconstructionism post Derrida, I've edited my question a bit to elucidate, but this is a good example, in that it contains a paradox which itself enlightens the critic but which is not solved by the author in any convincing way, but I'm concerned about the last quote in which Kripke seems to imply that it is a single problem which has a solution, it's difficult to determine from that whether Kripke thought he was offering a new interpretation of Wittgenstein, or a solution to a flaw
    – user22791
    Commented Jul 12, 2017 at 7:28

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