Part: 1 Jacques Derrida and his conceptual Relevance for Postmodern Psychotherapies

Jacques Derrida and his conceptual Relevance for Postmodern Psychotherapies 


It always brings a challenging task to a student of theology and counselling to attempt for a scholarly paper on ‘Jacques Derrida and his conceptual Relevance for Postmodern Psychotherapies’. Derrida was one of the annoying geniuses made a half a dozen books of which all of them are argument against his contemporaries or presentation of his own new theories and terminologies. He never sticks to any particular terminology for long enough yet even the translators find it difficult to present him in a reasonable manner. Here an humble attempt is made to present the following aspects such as what is postmodernism, Jacques Derrida’s brief biography, philosophical context (such as phenomenology, Structuralism, Psycho analysis), beliefs, tools and terminologies (Deconstruction, Deferance, Grammatology and Logocentricism) and the different streams of psychotherapies (such as psychoanalytical or psychodynamic, Cognitive and Behavioural and Existential and Humanistic) along with its relevance for postmodernism. We also try to make an attempt to critically evaluate Derrida’s theoretical basis. 


Postmodernism is not just a philosophical movement: it is found also, for example, in architecture, the graphic arts, dance, music, literature, and literary theory.[1] As a general cultural phenomenon, it has such features as the challenging of convention, the mixing of styles, tolerance of ambiguity, emphasis on diversity, acceptance (indeed celebration) of innovation and change, and stress on the constructedness of reality. Philosophical postmodernism, in turn, does not represent a single point of view. There are progressive postmodernists and conservative ones,[2] postmodernists of “resistance” and postmodernists of “reaction,”[3] strongly reform-minded postmodernists and others who concentrate on pricking bubbles. The names most often associated with postmodernism are those of Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Richard Rorty. Theoretical approaches most commonly seen as postmodernist are deconstruction(ism), poststructuralism, and neopragmatism.[4] However, a case could be made for adding other names, e.g., Nietzsche, the later Wittgenstein, Winch, Heidegger, Gadamer, and Kuhn; and other theoretical approaches, e.g., perspectivalism, postanalytic philosophy, and hermeneutics. Even the critical theory of Jurgen Habermas, with its affinity with hermeneutics and its communicative ethics, has clear postmodern elements, despite Habermas’s insistence that he is furthering the project of modernity rather than rejecting it.
Perhaps the most prevalent philosophical movement in the west today is what has been termed “Postmodernism.” Since its rise to the center stage of philosophical discourse in the west over the past thirty years, many essays, books and critiques have been written in an effort to define and analyze postmodern thought. This task has proven to be very daunting. Because postmodernism is trans-disciplinary,[5] and lacks a core “logos” that defines itself singularly,[6] postmodern thought expresses itself in many different forms, given its broad base of intellectual interests. Postmodernism is an idea that has been extremely controversial and difficult to define among scholars, intellectuals, and historians, because the term implies to many that the modern historical period has passed. Nevertheless, most agree that postmodern ideas have influenced philosophy, art, critical theory, literature, architecture, design, marketing/business, interpretation of history, and culture since the late 20th century. The term postmodernism means several or indeed many different things. The very notion of defining it; ‘limits it’, or imprisons it; which is against the basic notions. By stating postmodernism as ‘this is it’, we enclose it within boundaries which enslaves it, an attempt which contradicts.  
"Modernism is often pictured as pursuing truth, absolutism, linear thinking, rationalism, certainty, the cerebral as opposed to the effective -- which in turn breeds arrogance, and inflexibility, the lust to be right, the desire to control.  Postmodernism, by contrast, recognizes how much of what we 'know' is shaped by the culture in which we live, is controlled by emotions and aesthetics and heritage, and in fact can only be intelligently held as part of a common tradition, without overbearing claims to be true or right."[7] Modernism elevated human reason, human progress, and human authority. Postmodernism, then, is not necessarily a rebellion against modernism (though some postmodernists see it that way), but a movement "after" it, a movement that builds upon it but, more or less, rejects modernism's strict rationalism.  In contrast to this, postmodernism upholds a subjectivity regarding morality, social constructions, political movements, arts, religion, and truth statements.  In other words, to perhaps oversimplify what postmodernism is, it is relativism, the belief that truth is relative, that objective truth may not be knowable.
The term ‘postmodern’ first came into use in the 1930s as the designation for certain developments in the arts. Later it denoted a new style of architecture. But not until the 1970s did postmodernism gain widespread attention, first as the label for theories expounded in university English and philosophy departments and eventually as the description for a broader cultural phenomenon. Whatever else it might be, as the name suggests, postmodernism is the quest to move beyond modernism. Specifically, it is a rejection of the modern mindset but under the conditions of modernity.[8]
According to Stanley J. Grenz “Modernity has been under attack since Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) who lobbed the first volley in the late nineteenth century. But the full-scale frontal assault did not begin until the 1970s. The immediate impulse for the dismantling of the Enlightenment project came from the rise of deconstruction as a literary theory, which influenced a new movement in philosophy.”[9]
The deconstructionists (or post-structuralists) rejected the tenets of structuralism. Meaning is not inherent in a text itself, they argued, but emerges only as the interpreter enters into dialogue with the text. Consequently, the meaning of a text is dependent on the perspective of the one who enters into dialogue with it, so that there are as many interpretations of a text as readers (or readings).[10]
Postmodern philosophers applied the theories of the literary deconstructionists to the world as a whole. Just as the meaning of a text is dependent on the reader, so also reality can be ‘read’ differently depending on the perspectives of the knowing selves that encounter it. This means that there is no one meaning of the world, no transcendent centre to reality as a whole.  On the basis of ideas such as these, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida  called for the destruction of ‘onto-theology’ (the attempt to set forth ontological descriptions of reality) as well as the ‘metaphysics of presence’ (the idea that a transcendent something is present in reality). Michel Foucault added a moral twist to Derrida’s call. Every interpretation is put forward by those in power, he theorized. Because ‘knowledge’ is always the result of the use of power, to name something is to exercise power and hence to do violence to what is named. Richard Rorty, in turn, jettisoned the classic conception of truth as either the mind of language mirroring nature.  The works of Derrida, Foucault, and Rorty reflect what seems to have become the central dictum of postmodern philosophy: ‘All is difference.’ This view sweeps away the ‘uni’ of the ‘universe’ sought by the Enlightenment project, the quest for a unified grasp of objective reality. The world has no centre, only differing viewpoints and perspectives. [11]   One of the important streams of thought that has rose from the postmodern thought perspective is Postmodern Postcolonization.


1.    Brief Biography
Jacques Derrida was a son of Aime and Georgette Derrida, was born in a Jewish family in El- Biar, Algiers on July 15, 1930 and died on October 8, 2004 (aged 74). His main interest was on the philosophy of language, literary theory, ethics and Ontology.[12] Jacques Derrida is first and foremost a reader, a reader who constantly reflects on and transforms the very nature of the act of reading. He in his readings of the literary texts typically juxtaposed them with other texts, other writings from different contexts. His writings gave a unique character to the development of postmodern thought. He provided a whole new set of strategies for reading texts, for thinking the role and significance of texts and for establishing how texts constitute the textures of the contemporary critical and theoretical scene. He was not much known in the French scene prior to 1967, the year in which he published his three major works – Speech & PhenomenaWriting & Difference, and of Grammatology.[13] Other major writings are Dissemination (1972)Margins of Philosophy (1972)The Postcard: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond (1980) and Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the work of Mourning, and the New International (1993).[14]
If Derrida has managed to turn much of Western thought on its head, he has done so only by standing on the shoulders of Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger and Saussure.[15] Derrida’s philosophy emerged as a reaction-both positive and negative- to the different intellectual traditions of his times. Hugh Silverman traces – Phenomenology, Structuralism and Psychoanalysis as the traditions reacting to which Derrida developed his philosophy. Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher, classical scholar and poet. Derrida shares with him skepticism about philosophy in general, but especially its style, and its truth clams. Derrida like Nietzsche is aware that we are prisoners of our perspective, and so both pay attention to the subversive practice of reversing one’s perspective.[16] The word “Deconstruction” comes from the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s concept of ‘Destrucktion’, he calls for losing up the old tradition of ontology- the study of ultimate Rock Bottom Reality – through an exposure of its internal development.[17]
It’s a school of philosophy that arose at the turn of the 20th century with the work of Edmund Husserl.[18] Its primary objective has been to take a fresh approach to concretely experienced phenomena through the direct investigation of the data of consciousness—without theories about their causal explanation and as free as possible from unexamined presuppositions—and to attempt to describe them as faithfully as possible. By carefully exploring examples, one can thus fathom the essential structures and relationships of phenomena.[19] The goal is to understand experience by comprehending and describing its genesis, the process of its emergence from an origin or event.
Derrida in his works: The Problem of Genesis in Husserl’s Philosophy (1953-4), Introduction to Husserl’s origin of Geometry (1962) and Speech & Phenomena (1967) takes up Husserl’s philosophy. In his first work (1953-4), Derrida observes a split between the two notions of genesis i.e. between origin[20] & the multiple sites[21] or nodes of specificity. This observation plays an important role in the postmodern discourse. In the second work (1962) he raises concern about relationship between ‘historicity’ (beginning moments) and its ‘origins.’ This dissemination of beginnings and origins is one of the principal formulations of the postmodern. In Speech & Phenomena he focuses on the question of meaning & the sign in Husserlian phenomenology. Here also he observes a split between sign and meaning. This split is crucial to the postmodern, for ultimately postmodern meaning is neither core content nor adventitious (eternal) expression. [22]
It is rooted in the Semiology[23] of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure.[24] Classical structuralism held out the hope of achieving a ‘scientific’ account of culture by identifying the system that underlies the infinite manifestations of any form of cultural production. All such analyses imply that they are based on some secure ground, a ‘centre’ or ‘transcendental signified’, that is outside the system under investigation and guarantees its intelligibility.[25] However Derrida refutes[26] this argument and states that, there is no centered self or subject located within or behind any of the structures. Structures repeat, recur in multiple contexts, but they have no centered transcendental subject. This notion of self-decentering is a fundamental tenet of Derridean deconstruction.[27]
Phenomenology claims an explanation based on the genesis while Structuralism, in contrast to it claims to provide an explanation based on structures. Derrida on the other hand questions that: must not structure have a genesis, and must not the origin, the point of genesis, be already structured, in order to be the genesis of something? In other words, every structural or "synchronic" phenomenon has a history, and the structure cannot be understood without understanding its genesis. At the same time, in order that there be movement, or potential, the origin cannot be some pure unity or simplicity, but must already be articulated—complex—such that from it a "diachronic" process can emerge. This ‘originary complexity’ must not be understood as an original positing, but more like a default of origin, which Derrida refers to as inscription, or textuality. It is this thought of originary complexity, rather than original purity, which destabilizes the thought of both genesis and structure, that sets Derrida's work in motion, and from which derive all of its terms, including deconstruction. [28]
2.3.       Psycho Analysis
With Sigmund Freud the originator of psychoanalysis, Derrida questions the unity of the human psyche, which, always haunted by subconscious traces of past experiences, always marked by differences.[29] Sigmund Freud raises the question of the subject in terms of the psychic realm of id, ego, and superego. [30] Here the centered subject is always split by the ever present reality of repression and the inaccessibility of the unconscious to conscious life. However it’s through readings of Lacan[31]- who himself was heavily dependent on Freud- that Derrida’s interest arouse in Freud. Lacan’s famous statement that ‘the unconscious is structured like a language’ allowed him to develop the idea that whatever can be called the unconscious is proliferated and disseminated through the chain of signifiers, making Sense of the Whole.[32]

The interpreters of Jacques Derrida in the course of their readings of Derrida, popularized certain beliefs, tools and terminologies which in due time emerged as the hallmark of postmodern readings.  For Derrida, ‘there is nothing outside the text.’ Everything is linguistic construct. Also there is nothing outside a specific context. It makes no sense to inquire into the meaning or truth of a sentence or text outside of a specific context. Derrida defines the text so broadly as to encompass not just written words but the entire spectrum of ‘symbols’ and ‘phenomena’ within Western thought. To give expression to his unusual thoughts, he was involved in the process of neologism.[33] His translators often had a tough time, in coining the exact translations, so some of the French terms have been retained as such. We will make an attempt to understand these tools & terms.

Deconstruction is a tactic of decentering, a way of reading, which first makes us aware of the centrality of the central term. Then it attempt to subvert the central term so that the marginalized term temporarily overthrows the hierarchy.[34] Defining deconstruction is an activity that goes against the whole thrust of Derrida’s thought. Actually, deconstruction often involves a way of reading that concerns itself with decentering with unmasking the problematic nature of all centers.[35] According to Derrida, all Western thought is based on the idea of center – an Origin, a Truth and ideal from, a fixed point, an immovable mover, an Essence, a God, a Presence, which is usually capitalized and guarantees all meaning.[36]  The problem with centers, for Derrida, is that they attempt to exclude. In doing so they ignore, repress or marginalize others. In a male-dominated societies, man is central (and women is the marginalized Others, repressed, ignored, pushed to the margins).[37] If you have a culture which has Christ in the center of its icons, then Christians will be central to the culture, and Buddhists, Muslims, Jews-anybody different- will be in the margins- marginalized- pushed to the outside.[38]  So the longing for a center spawns binary opposites, with one term of the opposition central and the other marginal.
Furthermore, centers want to fix, or freeze the play of binary[39] opposites.[40] Derrida in ‘Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences’ asserted that the ‘language bears within itself the necessity of its own critique.’ Deconstructive criticism aims to show that any text inevitably undermines its own claim to have a determinate meaning, and licences the reader to produce his own meanings out of it by an activity of semantic ‘free play’.[41] A deconstruction is meant to undermine the frame of reference and assumptions that underpin the text or the artifact. A deconstruction is created when the "deeper" substance of text opposes the text's more "superficial" form. Derrida's argument is that deconstruction proves that texts have multiple meanings and the "violence" between the different meanings of text may be elucidated by close textual analysis. [42] Derrida ventured to interrogate the text with an attempt to locate the epicentre of the text and then overturned that, making the text to tremble and in the process letting the text release those aspects which were ignored or even intentionally pushed to margins.
According to Juilan Wolfreys, Derrida has maintained reservations regarding the way in which Deconstruction was popularized as a methodology by his American counterparts. For Derrida every act of reading was absolutely singular in its approaches and mode of comprehension, hence he distanced himself from the idea of generalizable readings.[43] According to Spivak, Derrida was not willing to cling on to any single master word very long.[44] However ‘deconstruction’ has in a way deconstructed ‘Derrida’ by becoming a master concept in the postmodern scenario.[45]
Meaning is never simply located in a self identical element. Derrida rejects the Sassurean view that signifier is indivisibly wedded to the signified like two sides of a piece of paper. He argues that no element can function as a sign without referring to another element which itself is not simply present. Every element is constituted on the basis of the trace within it of the other elements of the chain or system. In effect each concept or signified is inseparably a signifier which relays elsewhere. [46]As Derrida’s text is constructed as a moving chain or network, it constantly frustrates the desire to ‘get to the point.’ One can not escape successfully from the web of text and reach that which is ‘signified’ which was traditionally imagined to exist ‘just beyond’ the text.[47] Derrida’s trace is the mark of the absence of a presence, an always already absent present, of the lack at the origin that is the condition of thought and experience.[48] For him, a text is always a differential network, a fabric of trace, referring endlessly to something other than itself, to other differential traces.[49]

The term ‘Difference’ refers to radically other, always different or non-identical. The term ‘Deferment’ refers to postponement. The two together- ‘difference’ and ‘deferment’- both senses present in the French verb ‘différer,’ and both ‘properties’ of the sign under erasure- Derrida calls ‘différance.’[50] When spoken (in a certain way) one cannot hear the difference between différence and différance, but the difference is clear in writing. One of the reasons for its coinage is to critique structuralism & Saussrean linguistics which always privileged voice over writing in the study of structural production of meaning.[51]The difference between différence (the usual word) and différance (the neologism) lies neither in the ‘a’ nor in the ‘e’; it is actively produced in the constant shuttling process – over time and across space – between the two words.[52] Différance is the spatialisation and temporalisation which precedes all centres, all concepts and all of reality, and it provides the basis for deconstruction.
Derrida refuses to view language as essentially unified and unifying forces. Contrary to it, in his view language and rationality operate on the basis of discontinuity. It’s the breaks or gaps which makes a language. Derrida maintained that meaning is differential, but is produced by the interaction of a potentially limitless number of terms, not just by the difference between two as Saussure proposed. As soon as there is meaning, there is difference.[53] Differance is not a ‘concept’ or ‘idea’ that is ‘truer’ than presence. It can only be a process of textual work, a strategy of writing.[54]
Derrida’s interviews in ‘Positions’ reiterate the deconstructive strategy. Find the opposition, go to the less privileged side, reaffirm the less privileged side and name the difference with the less privileged side in order to mark the place of difference, margin, trace, text.  The text would have no status without the question of the border, margin, edge of the text, which has no status without the opposition between the inside and outside.[55] After finding the less privileged side, overturn the hierarchy inherent in the text. Hence the margins become the centre and centre the margin. The invisible becomes visible and visible becomes invisible. A total reversal should take place. It is in the process of first identifying the binary oppositions (e.g. good/bad, man/woman, speech/writing, truth/falsehood etc.) and then inverting them in order to reveal how a text is structured through the privileging of certain metaphors over others, that the Deconstruction takes place.[56]

Logocentrism comes from ‘Logos’, the Greek word, truth, reason and law. Jacques Derrida offered a strong critique of the Western metaphysics on its privileging of spoken word over the written word. [57] Speech in the western tradition is assigned the values of spontaneity, immediacy, authenticity, originality & self-presence. Derrida terms this belief in the self presentation of meaning as ‘Logocentrism’ or ‘Phallogocentrism’. He marked it as patriarchal, masculinist, & discriminatory. Writing in contrast is considered secondary, derivative, impersonal, the product of technique etc. Logocentric system considers writing merely as a representation of speech.[58] According to Wolfreys, in general the privileging & substitution of the first of the binary oppositions[59]  as equivalent to each other (e.g. good ~ man ~ speech) by the western philosophy is what Derrida terms as ‘Logo-centrism.’[60]

Derrida argues that the notion of opposing the two terms (speech & writing) on the basis of presence vs. absence or immediacy vs. representation is an illusion, since speech is already structured by difference and distance as much as writing is. ‘Writing’ is the name of structure always already inhabited by the trace. The sign must be studied ‘under erasure’, always already inhabited by the trace of another sign which never appears as such.[61] To retrieve ‘writing’ its due status, he argues that Writing is ‘supplement’ to Speech, where the word ‘supplement’ may mean ‘that which is added/addition’ and also ‘that which makes up for a lack/substitution’. Writing may add to something that is already present, in which case they are superfluous, AND/OR they may replace something that is not present, in which case they are necessary.[62] Hence writing becomes an indispensable part of the speech, even in a way preceding it. Some of his other influential writings are Grammatology,[63] dissemination,[64]  and Politics of Friendship[65]

Continue Part 2 

Dr. Binu Peniel

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