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On the Deconstruction of Language
By Cecilia Huckestein

May 2015

Cecilia Huckestein received a master's degree in English literature and a doctorate in educational psychology from the University of Southern California. She has taught in several universities, including the University of Puerto Rico, Hawaii Pacific University, California State University Los Angeles, California Lutheran University, and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. She is currently Adjunct Professor of Psychology at California State University Channel Islands. Her writing has appeared in the Jesuit quarterly Human Development and the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly.

When we look at our world today, we see a massive amount of moral chaos, and we sense that something is drastically
off. In some cases, we see the substitution of what we thought was evil for what we thought was good. Recent political campaigns boasted of “change” as an antidote to our immediate needs or desires. This change is being forced upon us by those in positions of rhetorical authority, in the media and political realms, in academia and technology. These rhetorical authorities are the current-day sophists, and they have manipulated language to shape their own versions of reality, and have altered the traditional meanings of words to suit their own agendas. The original Sophists, as far back as the fifth century, proposed that the truth was not to be found in transcendent sources, such as Plato’s universal forms. Rather, they believed that the truth emerged from a clash of arguments. Even more radically, they believed that “the world could always be recreated linguistically and that reality itself is a linguistic construction” (Advent and Christmas, Wisdom from St. Thomas Aquinas, Andrew Carl Wisdom O.P., ed., 2009).

We who are rooted in
the Word — Jesus Christ, the Son of God — recognize the beauty and power of the truth, which is the Word itself, that the truth is unchanging and unchangeable, and that our own words can and must reflect the truth. Why then have we become so timid in expressing our moral claims with a vocabulary that used to prevail? Why have great numbers of people replaced erudition rooted in wisdom and holiness with secular solvents that admit a linguistic equivalence between good and evil? The answer lies in part in the powerful influence of the academic world, where postmodern skepticism about moral truth has assumed the mantle of authority. This influence has its origin in the thought of an illustrious professor of philosophy named Jacques Derrida.

Derrida is the author of a fashionable dialectical theory of language known as
deconstructionism, which had more influence on literary, philosophical, sociological, anthropological, historical, and psychological studies than perhaps any other force in the second half of the twentieth century. A student at Harvard in the 1950s, Derrida is the subject of an astonishingly large volume of scholarly work across a vast array of academic disciplines, and although he died in 2004 he remains one of the most controversial academicians of our time.

Parents of college-bound children need to take note: Due largely to Derrida’s theory of language, colleges and universities across the country have embraced new methods of reading texts, which has led to the emergence of novel and bizarre academic areas of study, including “Gay and Lesbian Studies,” “Queer Theory,” “Feminist Studies,” “Black Studies,” “The Rhetoric of Karl Marx,” “Power Discourse,” “Excluded Discourse,” “Post-Structuralism,” and so on. Over the past thirty years, it is likely that most college students have been exposed to Derrida’s theories, either overtly or subtly through some professor’s deviationist “take” on a subject at hand.

Derrida believed that language is not a neutral instrument that refers to or describes objective reality but that it is “circular,” referring back to itself. This means that any piece of writing (which he called a “text”) is autonomous, floating around by itself, waiting for someone to give it meaning. In fact, more often than not, each different reader gives it a different meaning. The intentions of the author have no bearing on a text’s meaning since language does not “refer” to anything in any objective way. From this came the insufferable divisions in academia, and the massive increases in curriculum courses, each one a peculiar twist on its traditional source.

Prior to the twentieth century, the principle concern of philosophical studies in most universities across the Western world had been Aristotelian metaphysics. Its object was to throw light on the nature of the universe as a whole. The purpose of philosophic inquiry was to reflect upon the results of the various sciences, add to them the results of the religious and ethical experiences of mankind, and then try to analyze the whole. The hope was that, by these means, we would be able to reach some general conclusions concerning the nature of the universe and our place and prospects in it.

A new group of philosophers, called logical positivists, felt that this quest was doomed to disappoint. In their view, these traditional aims were mistaken, or at least unrealizable. The primary object of philosophy, they thought, was to analyze and clarify the meaning of commonsense statements, not in the way grammar clarifies or analyzes them, but with a view to making clear precisely what our words
mean when we use them significantly. It was still possible, but by no means certain, that, with this clarification of meaning, we might obtain some information about the structure of facts. In short, the logical positivists wanted to find out what we are asserting when we say we know certain things to be true. They thought that without this investigation, metaphysics would be engaging in nothing more than a kind of sophisticated myth-making.

The philosophical pendulum thus swung in the direction of
language — but not language as commonly understood. The logical positivists rejected language as an organized system of auditory-visual symbols by which we refer to concepts in firm, precise forms. And so, language as reference to something objective came under assault, at first in France, and then throughout the world.

In Germany and Austria, in the meantime, the ponderous works of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel were achieving increasing notice. Hegel laid the groundwork in Germany, in terms of the concept of “reality,” for what Derrida would do to the concept of “language” in France. Hegel’s dialectical method produced the most elephantine metaphysical system ever known to man. To attempt a brief synopsis of it here is not possible, but what is most important to remember is that, for Hegel, reality is contradictory: “It is a systematic progression of colliding contradictions organized in triads of thesis, antithesis, synthesis,” writes the noted constitutional and civil liberties attorney John W. Whitehead (
The Stealing of America, 1983). It means that we should not feel “limited by the Aristotelian view that everything that exists has a specific identity, that things are what they are, that A is A.”

When Hegel applied his triad to existence, here is what happened: The opposite of
being is nonbeing. Contradiction develops a conflict between these two concepts, which produces synthesis. The resulting synthesis is becoming, which places everything in perpetual motion or process. This dialectic logic obliterates the ideas of an objective God, objective truth, and moral absolutes. Everything becomes relative; everything, everywhere is in a constant state of change. And because there is no objective truth, the idea of truth itself becomes situational. Those versed in the political history of the twentieth century will recognize that Hegel laid the foundation for the dialectical materialism of Karl Marx, for whose ideology millions upon millions were executed throughout Europe and Asia. These Hegelian principles led to the marginalization of the Judeo-Christian concept of God as a transcendent Being to whom we have direct access, since human origin and life itself can only be interpreted in light of process.

The second critical point is this: If the transcendent referential element, who for many is God, is removed, the stability of the real, as well as the psychic depth of each of us to discover the real, is no longer valid. What achieves exclusive validity is language. If reality is no longer viewed as a pre-existent formation to which language is a response, if reality is no longer a concept independent of language, then language itself becomes transcendent and inaccessible to our own independent acts of will and intelligence. Language becomes the indissoluble element of human self-creation. Words, signs, and signifiers are no longer vehicles for ideas, no longer means to an end, but are the end itself. They are the “synthesis” of ever-active “processes.”

What Hegel could not know is that, a century after his death, one of his most prodigious students, Jacques Derrida, would be born in France. Whereas in Hegelian thought a concept achieved definition through its opposite, for Derrida meaning is always “deferred” to the creative activity of the interpreter. There can be no objective meaning, but only processes of interpretation. For Derrida the relationship between a word and the formal element and meaning which this element is, is not fixed. The “creative” ability of the interpreter to refer to all the other elements to which a written or spoken word does
not refer asphyxiates objective meaning.

At this point, you might be thinking,
This is all crazy! And I would say that you are not incorrect. In light of these propositions, the question posed by Eric Shopler and Gary B. Mesibov in their book Communication Problems in Autism (1985) is profoundly significant: “How can a person be expected to appropriately use words for which he does not have an objective meaning base?” For Shopler and Mesibov, as well as for many other specialists in the field of autism, objective reference, context, and communicative intents are the very ramparts of healthy psychological construction; the autistic person is missing, on some level, all three requirements. This, too, is a topic too large and complex to address here. Suffice it to say that Derrida’s thesis appears to be a macabre facsimile of the autistic syndrome.

What Derrida’s thesis also leaves us with is
relativism. Aldous Huxley in Brave New World (1932) predicted that a false reality with a false sense of truth would eventually comprise the modern world. Today, it seems that he was correct, in that truth is seen as an entirely subjective notion and that any distinctions between truth and falsity should be abolished. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke on numerous occasions about a “dictatorship of relativism” that threatens to obscure the unchanging truths concerning man’s destiny, his ultimate good, and his very nature. This relativism hides beneath a word, and that word is tolerance. In fact, this word disguises, with quintessential irony, a totalitarian intolerance to all things established according to a Christian worldview. Its agenda is for the state to be the new moral arbiter for all mankind. The ultimate result, however, would be no different from the results achieved by all nefarious atheistic ideologies of the twentieth century: enslavement and death. Elsewhere, Huxley reminds us of the importance of words and language in our discussions of man’s nature, the moral life, the common good, and our political systems:

A great deal of attention has been paid…to the technical languages in which men of science do their specialized thinking…. But the colloquial usages of everyday speech, the literary and philosophical dialects in which men do their thinking about the problems of morals, politics, religion and psychology — these have been strangely neglected. We talk about “mere matter of words” in a tone which implies that we regard words as things beneath the notice of a serious-minded person. This is a most unfortunate attitude. For the fact is that words play an enormous part in our lives and are therefore deserving of the closest study. The old idea that words possess magical powers is false; but its falsity is the distortion of a very important truth. Words do have a magical effect — but not in the way that magicians supposed, and not the way they affect the minds of those who use them. “A mere matter of words” we say contemptuously, forgetting that words have power to mold men’s thinking, to banalize their feeling, to direct their willing and acting. Conduct and character are largely determined by the nature of the words we currently use to discuss ourselves and the world around us. (quoted in The Use and Misuse of Language, S.I. Hayakawa, 1978)

All of our institutions — marriage, family, school, government, military, even the Church — have been infested with this dark and obfuscating force of deconstructionism, this malevolent corruption of language, whose impetus is to tear down all present realities and replace them with those of our vain and avaricious desires. Edmund Burke, the acclaimed eighteenth-century thinker, said that we all have one intellectual choice in this life, and the choice is between two paradoxical ideas: Either we conform our minds to reality, or we shape reality to conform to our thinking. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that we must choose the first.

So, where does this leave us as far as gaining a better understanding of the current cultural morass? For one, we must reflect more deeply on what we
do know. And we know more than Hegel, who believed that God was a “process” of differentiating spirit and love, or Derrida, who called the notion of God “wholly other” and “indeterminable.” Indeed, ancient philosophy as far back as the second century viewed language in light of a detailed structure of all things, and as a manifestation of divine reason. We know that language refers; it involves a meaningful association between signs or symbols — either spoken words, written symbols, gestures, or the play-work sequences of a child. We also know that we are “transcended,” and we know by whom; we know, too, who our “transcendent” is, and that He had a Son, the Word, who died for us so that the “truth” of eternal life could be ours, forever, without changing. We know, from Aristotle and Aquinas and many, many other illustrious scholars and saints, that reality is objective and does not depend on the human mind’s knowledge of it for its existence. Gaudium et Spes, Vatican II’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” reminds us that we have been, from the beginning of time and until the last day, in a monumental battle against the powers of darkness, and if we are to remain in Him, we must wrestle valiantly, “struggle constantly,” and the grace of God will be with us (no. 37). This we also know.

G.K. Chesterton asserted that if we sever our link with God, the result is a state of madness: “If Man is not a divinity, then Man is a disease. Either he is the image of God, or else he is the one animal which has gone mad.” If in the beginning were words, as deconstructionism sees it, then it is marked out by indeterminacies. But if John’s Gospel is correct, and “the Word is God,” then we are spared the abyss of psychopathy, and we can retrieve our selfhood as an enduring existence and meaning
beyond as well as through our individual selves. And then the dynamic and vital process of experience mirrors the novel in literature, a sublime “text” in which the pattern of life contains not only an abundance of characters but reflects the transcendent Author as well.

I am grateful to
The New Oxford Review for permission to reproduce the above article which first appeared in the May 2015 issue of this publication.

Copyright © 2015 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved. May 2015, Volume LXXXII, Number 4.

Version: 18th June 2015

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