Consider this passage on Derrida and meaning (from here):

The search for an 'essential reality' or 'origin' or 'truth' is futile, because

"...language bears within itself the necessity of its own critique, deconstructive criticism aims to show that any text inevitably undermines its own claims to have a determinate meaning, and licences the reader to produce his own meanings out of it by an activity of semantic 'freeplay'" (Derrida, 1978, in Lodge, 1988, p. 108).

The written word, in Derrida's view, relies upon its meaning via the context in which it is embedded. Both signified and signifier, though, are related in such a way that

"...there is, with respect to the very structure of language, no proper context to provide proof of a final meaning' [there is a process of continual deferral]" (Lechte, 1994, p. 109).

therefore making any claim to 'truth' an impossibility; 'truth' is both relative and plural.

How can this statement that there is no "proper context" within which to assess a statement's "final meaning" accommodate the (seeming) fact of meaningful communication?

But, we seem to be able to use language to coordinate behavior. When we make plans with friends to go to a bar, for instance, and then the meeting time comes and everyone winds up at the appropriate bar, what explains this fact? It would seem that a natural explanation is that everyone understood what was said and understood it in the "correct" way. But, if there is no fact of the matter as to what was meant by the utterance which initiated this coordinated behavior, is it simply a miracle that the group was able to grasp what was expressed. Was there a single proposition expressed that they all grasped? If you index the statement to its initial context of utterance in a sufficiently precise manner does it possess this determinate meaning, at least relative to this specific context?

TL;DR: How does Derrida reconcile his views about (what seems to be) the essential relativity and indeterminacy of linguistic communication with the phenomenon of linguistic coordination? Can this be done without appeal to a univocal notion of "truth" and determinate meaning (at least determinate meaning relative to a specific context of utterance)?

3 Answers 3


The question is based on a common misunderstanding of Derrida's work-- one he addresses repeatedly.

For example, in "Toward an Ethics of Discussion", he writes:

"[L]et it be said in passing how surprised I have often been, how amused or discouraged, depending on my humor, by the user or abuse of the following argument: Since the deconstructionist (which is to say, isn't it, the skeptical-relativist-nihilist!) is supposed to not believe in truth, stability, or the unity of meaning, in intention or "meaning-to-say," how can he demand of us now that we read him with pertinence, precision, rigor? How can he demand that his own text be interpreted correctly? How can he accuse anyone else of having misunderstood, simplified, deformed it, etc.? In other words, how can he discuss, and discuss the reading of what he writes? The answer is simple enough: This definition of the deconstructionist is false (that's right: false, not true) and feeble; it supposes a bad (that's right: bad, not good) and feeble reading of numerous texts, first of all mine, which therefore must finally be read or reread. Then perhaps it wil be understood that the value of truth (and all those values associated with it) is never contested or destroyed in my writings, but only reinscribed in more powerful, larger, more stratified contexts. And that within interpretive contexts (that is, within relations of force that are always differential-- for example, socio-political-institutional--but even beyond those determinations) that are relatively stable, sometimes apparently almost unshakeable, it should be possible to invoke rules of competence, criteria of discussion and of consensus, good faith, lucidity, rigor, criticism, and pedagogy."

Or, in this extract from an interview:

Q: It might be argued that deconstruction inevitably leads to pluralist interpretation and ultimately to the view that any interpretation is as good as any other. Do you believe this and how do you select some interpretations as being better than others?

JD: I am not a pluralist and I would never say that every interpretation is equal but I do not select. The interpretations select themselves. I am a Nietzschean in that sense. You know that Nietzsche insisted on the fact that the principle of differentiation was in itself selective. The eternal return of the same was not repetition, it was a selection of more powerful forces. So I would not say that some interpretations are truer than others. I would say that some are more powerful than others. The hierarchy is between forces and not between true and false. There are interpretations which account for more meaning and this is the criterion.

Q: You would reject, then, the view that meaning is any response whatever to a sign? That meaning is determined by the person who reads the sign?

JD: Yes, of course. Meaning is determined by a system of forces which is not personal. It does not depend on the subjective identity but on the field of different forces, the conflict of forces, which produce interpretations.

Q: You would, therefore, reject the theory of authorial intention as determinate of meaning?

JD: Yes. I would not say that there is no interest in referring to the intentional purpose. There are authors, there are intentionalities, there are conscious purposes. We must analyse them, take them seriously. But the effects of what we caul author's intentions are dependent on something which is not the individual intention, which is not intentional.

Q:There is a pragmatic aspect to this question of intentionality. It has been suggested that it is only in the field of literary theory that reader-based theories of interpretation are taken seriously, that all other fields of discourse accept author-based intention. Reader-based theories of interpretation tend, therefore, according to this view to partition off literary speculation from the rest of experience and thus to trivialise literary speculation. What are your views on this?

JD: I do not accept this opposition between reader-based and author-based meaning. It comes from a misunderstanding of deconstruction, one which sees deconstruction as free interpretation based only on the fantasies of the reader. No one is free to read as he or she wants. The reader does not interpret freely, taking into account only his own reading, excluding the author, the historical period in which the text appeared and so on.

Q: So you would not consider yourself an anti-historicist?

JD: Not at all. I think that one cannot read without trying to reconstruct the historical context but history is not the last word, the final key, of reading. Without being anti-historicist, I am suspicious of the traditional concepts of history, the Hegelian and Marxist concepts.

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    Is there supposed to be an answer somewhere in here? Or is it just pointing out the flaw in Derrida interpretation that is commonly made? What is Derrida's stance on linguistic coordination?
    – Dennis
    Apr 14, 2013 at 15:28
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    There is indeed an answer there; the quotes I offered go directly to the problem you speak of. The flaw is thinking that the lack of a univocal, definitive meaning somehow makes the process of linguistic coordination problematic. You can read a more thorough account of this in Derrida's "Signature Event Context", but I thought the quotations above would be sufficient, especially the latter one. Apr 14, 2013 at 17:06
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    I see how the quotations could bear, and I see the claim that there is a flaw in the supposition that lack of a univocal, definite meaning is something that he would push. But my question was how can he account for coordination given that he can't fall back on grasp of the same meaning. The answer to that--- how does Derrida account for linguistic coordination without this determinacy ---is what I'm not finding in the above quotes. Saying that it doesn't require determinacy isn't saying what it does require. Is his claim that it is determinate enough (though not fully determinate)?
    – Dennis
    Apr 15, 2013 at 7:40
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    In short: yes, his claim is that it is "determinate enough" for communication to be possible, and yet not so determinate that misunderstanding isn't always a necessary possibility. As I said, the key text for understanding his thoughts on this matter is the essay "Signature Event Context" (which is available in a large number of books and anthologies). Apr 15, 2013 at 8:18
  • Besides, I bet there was at least one person who got the time wrong or went to the wrong place...when does everyone get it right?...at least without having to call/text to confirm the details....maybe your friends are better listeners than mine. The coordination is approximate at best...and chaos at worst....try getting your child to school on time on a regular basis...yikes! Maybe you live in a different world than I do. Oct 25, 2018 at 3:54

The question is a powerful one. You might consider the possibility that Derrida never achieves what you suggest he should, and that he is in fact most of the time playing the sort of intra-disciplinary game described in Chip Morningstar's classic How To Deconstruct Anything.

Morningstar argues that because some academics do not need to communicate or test their ideas with regard to the world outside academia, they can evolve in directions that are in some senses untethered from reality. As he puts it:

What you have is rather like birds on the Galapagos islands -- an isolated population with unique selective pressures resulting in evolutionary divergence from the mainland population. There's no reason you should be able to understand what these academics are saying because, for several generations, comprehensibility to outsiders has not been one of the selective criteria to which they've been subjected. What's more, it's not particularly important that they even be terribly comprehensible to each other, since the quality of academic work, particularly in the humanities, is judged primarily on the basis of politics and cleverness. In fact, one of the beliefs that seems to be characteristic of the postmodernist mind set is the idea that politics and cleverness are the basis for all judgments about quality or truth, regardless of the subject matter or who is making the judgment. A work need not be right, clear, original, or connected to anything outside the group.

I've gone through a similar search to the one I suspect you may have gone through, and I now think it's quite possible (though far from certain) that Morningstar's analysis is correct.

If Derrida was in fact part of the closed-world academic discussion that Morningstar describes, then he would have faced a classic problem once he became prominent enough: figures from the outside world, such as yourself, asking him to justify how his theory deals with everyday realities.

It's possible to see the quotes from Michael Dorfman as a particular response of postmodern philosophers to this problem. It is called the motte-and-bailey technique, and was originally described by the philosopher Nicholas Shackel.

Essentially it's this: you make a bold, controversial statement such as "any text inevitably undermines its own claims to have a determinate meaning". When somebody suggests it doesn't stand up, you claim you were just making an obvious, uncontroversial statement like "we can't find the absolute truth in a text" and any objection to that statement is foolish.

After the argument, you return to making your original controversial statement.

In the quotes from Dorfmann, Derrida is saying: "there's no final absolute meaning in a text, but there are more and less powerful interpretations to be evaluated". This is mainstream epistemology and someone like Karl Popper would probably agree with it, but it's also obvious and uncontroversial. "Any text inevitably undermines its own claims to have a determinate meaning" is much more controversial.

In reading the Dorfman quotes, it's also important to remember John Searle's recollection of Michel Foucault's critique of Derrida:

“He writes so obscurely you can’t tell what he’s saying, that’s the obscurantism part, and then when you criticize him, he can always say, ‘You didn’t understand me; you’re an idiot.’"

The "you're an idiot" part certainly seems to be happening in both quotes.


When a speech act or a text reveals a plurality of meanings this does not mean that that they cannot be placed in some system of significance from which the context may select one. Plurality does not mean relativity where each significance has the same weight.

Your example, of arranging a meeting, when conventionally understood is straightforward. But supposing it was taken from a drama or a thriller then the context of that act may be to heighten dramatic tension or colour our understanding of a character.

In conventional reality we cannot step out of the text. There are many texts interwoven in the present.

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