Derrida: Deconstruction, Difference and Education
The purpose of this article, prepared within the support of an institutional research project (DGAPA-PAPIIT IN401218, National Autonomous University of Mexico), is to present some of the contributions of the work of Jacques Derrida derived from the notions of deconstruction and difference, and their application in the field of education. The core argument consists in demonstrating that, with the use of these notions as analytical tools, it is possible to dismantle the structures of signification where the knowledge produced in this field is sedimented and set in motion. Thus, based on a brief exercise drawn from deconstruction analysis, this work presents an application of the reading strategies followed in the review of discussions on two focal concepts in the field, pedagogy and educational sciences, by classical authors of western thought on education, with emphasis on the importance of their reflections on the scientific basis and prescriptive nature of pedagogy as an academic discipline.
Brief Notes on Derrida’s Work and Deconstruction
Born in El-Biar, Algiers, Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) was a renowned French intellectual, known among other things for his contributions on deconstruction as a strategy of applied analysis, mainly in literature, linguistics, philosophy, case law, and architecture. The influence of Nietzsche, Freud, Husserl, Heidegger, and Saussure is notable in the context of his production, which highlights various questions about western thinking. During the 1960s, Derrida broke into the scientific arena with his books Voice and Phenomenon (1967), Of Grammatology (1967), and Writing and Difference (1967), where he provided an extensive demonstration of deconstructive reading as a form of counterargument of a text, leading to the intellectual movement known as deconstruction which modified the way of thinking of many philosophers (Powell and Howel 1997).
With regard to the idea of deconstruction, Derrida used this form of intellection in reference to a reading that signals toward unmasking the controversial nature of every center, presenting it as follows: “…deconstruction is neither an analysis nor a critique, […]. It is not an analysis, in particular because the dismantling of a structure is not a regression to the simple element, to an undecomposable origin” (Derrida 2017).
To the author, deconstruction consisted in the total dismantling of the traditional system of western culture, and discovering that in all great cultural creations there are always previous and implicit options, dissimulated by the systems of thought or value judgments that are considered as most coherent. According to Derrida’s reading, all western thinking is based on the idea of a center; and the problem with centers is that they always search to exclude, by ignoring, repressing, marginalizing others, turning them into “the other.” Moreover, establishing a center for the organization of thought results in handling binary opposites, one with the term central and, the other, marginal. Therefore, for Derrida, deconstruction represented an approach to reading that would emphasize the peculiarity of the central component and would then try to subvert it so that the marginalized portion would become central, eventually eliminating hierarchy. In this way, the text would go on to signify the opposite of its apparent original meaning.
The most striking example is the speech/writing opposition addressed in Of Grammatology (1967). Through historical arguments, Derrida demonstrated that in western thinking, speech has been a central and natural element, while writing has been considered marginal and artificial. He later deconstructed this “natural assumption,” first by inverting the hierarchy in favor of speech as natural and central, and then by discovering that writing, previously considered as perverted, pathological, and derivative, could be central instead of marginal. To this subversion of terms, Derrida added that both were inadequate in describing the more general play on differences that is common to both; and given that they could not be rejected, he suggested using them crossed out, applying both concepts with the warning that they were not the most appropriate. Graphically they were crossed out as follows:
Related to this exercise of crossing them out, Derrida formulated a new argument demonstrating that speech and writing were nothing more than the oral and written forms of the interplay of difference: a non-existent form of writing that he called “archi-writing,” a notion that offered the possibility of unveiling the foundations of any argument.
The Game/Strategy of Difference
The Derridean exercise of deconstruction is based on the ambiguous interplay of “non-concepts,” as every word resists being reduced to a single and stable meaning. However, the most known and criticized “non-concept” in the work of Derrida was that of difference.
As a starting point, in order to appreciate that in various conceptual formulations, the form and content used to structure a text are presented by developing a central premise that the interplay between binary oppositions (such as science/art, theory/technology) then builds on, the indication would be to situate oneself at the center of this opposition.
As an exercise in observation and tracking, in order to situate the binary oppositions that guide the development of a premise, detecting how one of them is distinguished, while the other is merely mentioned, making a mark that separates them (an example is an argument in which attention is centered on the “theory,” and the “technology” is put aside).
Once the binary oppositions have been located, relationships should be traced between the central and marginal, primordial, and secondary, searching to destructure the original composition of these premises. Once more, this deconstruction marks the positioning between one element and another designed to follow the movements and associations, as if tracing the clues needed to dismantle the structures of meaning.
As a provisional conclusion, it is positioned between what is shown as the original meaning of the formulation and the interplay with other possibilities of structuring different meanings in different orders also.
Possible Uses of Deconstruction and Difference in Education
The wealth and complexity of Derrida’s thinking opens up various possibilities for the application of reading strategies in education. For example, by combining strategies derived from the notions of deconstruction and difference, it is possible to place the premises of some authors in this field under a scenario of scrutiny with questions that differ from those that the text has usually yielded. It is important to emphasize that the use of these strategies allows us to observe the way in which the concepts, themes, and interrogations developed to describe and explain school and education processes acquire shape and consistency.
The following is an exercise in the application of Derrida’s deconstruction analysis to address the terms pedagogy and educational sciences in classical authors of western thought (eighteenth to twentieth centuries), in order to trace the importance of their reflections on the scientific basis and prescriptive nature of pedagogy as an academic discipline (Rojas-Moreno 2012). The observation point has been set with the indication “between pedagogy and educational sciences,” establishing the positioning of an intermediate location between two of the nodal terms in the demarcation of the educational field, considered as opposites in principle.
For example, according to Kant, Pestalozzi, and Herbart (eighteenth to twentieth centuries) and within the framework of the German tradition, pedagogy was the science of education par excellence. Likewise, with Dewey (twentieth century) and the Anglo-Saxon tradition, an educational theory was taking shape, the science of education; meanwhile, for Durkheim, Debesse, and Mialaret (twentieth century) in full French tradition, educational sciences represented a multidisciplinary space that apparently provided a more stable solution to the issues on the scientific status and constitution of a field of knowledge, through the advances in sociology and psychology, and the displacement of pedagogy and even philosophy, as well as normative and prescriptive knowledge, for a favorable positioning of theoretical and explanatory knowledge, the critical and proactive knowledge generated by the discourse production from other social disciplines.
Two questions arose from this positioning: Which of these protagonist concepts holds the truth? And, which of these opposite terms is most adequate in the attempt to situate the study of education? However, and adhering to Derridean uncertainty, selecting this pair of opposites as a guiding thread does not necessarily mean an answer to the above questions, given that the intention is rather to set a few reference coordinates for reflection on the epistemological statute of the field of education.
At this point, it is important to highlight some key distinctions; that is, in the analysis of the terms pedagogy and science of education in certain authors (classical or contemporary), the use of key distinctions becomes clear, such as science/technology, science/art, theory/technology, and theory/practice. All in all, this interplay of binary oppositions allows observation points to be set that – without exclusion – direct the glance toward specific movements, helping to demonstrate the logic involved in the formulation of the concepts of pedagogy and educational sciences in the given point of time, in order to understand within a concrete sociohistorical dimension, what has remained and what has changed at the discursive level.
Tracing “Between” Pedagogy and Educational Sciences in the Discourse of Classical Authors
It is of note that the debate on the scientific basis of pedagogy has a wide trajectory that began in the Renaissance, originated by the reactions against scholastic pedagogy and later as a result of the illuminist fracture between faith and reason, before reaching new levels of debate toward the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century. Some of the benchmarks that pave the debate on its scientific basis can be traced by the differences and interactions of the binary oppositions art/science and theory/practice, found in the arguments of classical authors such as Plato, Comenius, Kant, Dilthey, Durkheim and Dewey (Rojas-Moreno, 2012). With respect to the opposition art/science, the use of both terms was more consistent in their relation to teaching and education in the arguments of Plato and Comenius. The postulates of Kant and Herbart stand out in relation to resignifying education as art and pedagogy as science with the aim of perfecting the course of nature. Later, Dilthey gave rise to a focus on handling the idea of science by applying an analysis of education as a function of society and comparing the empirical facts and their causes.
In the debate on the scientific basis of pedagogy, Durkheim proposed the distinction of art as a pure practice exempt from theory but not reflection. For Dewey, and based mainly on the contributions of Herbart and Durkheim, the opposition art/science was applied to education as action (art) and reflection and explanation of theory (science), where the idea of science was absolute in that it emphasized that the use of systematic research methods would permit the study of a series of facts in a less random and mundane manner. Dewey offered more precise advances by including the category of scientific method.
On the other hand, the opposition theory/practice became more notably and consistently used with the work of Kant. On his part, Dilthey recovered this Kantian approach, giving it new nuances by associating theory with the abstraction of pedagogy (theorization that incorporates objectives and values of general validity to human nature) and practice as the set of educational experiences.
In the case of Durkheim, although the binary opposition of theory/practice was signified by pedagogy-education, the scientific vision that this author conferred onto sociology led him to situate the theory of pedagogy as the way or ways of understanding education speculatively and not explicatively, as would occur with a scientific theory. Lastly, Dewey recovered the concept of habit, which he related to practice or experience base. According to his idea of education as a shaping and habit-forming activity, the opposition theory/practice was represented in the duality of educational science/educational practice.
That said, and based on the arguments presented above, the following considerations are proposed regarding the issue of the scientific basis and the kind of knowledge characterized by pedagogy. In terms of an incipient pedagogical theorization (i.e., Comenius), and from an approach in which the systematization and method approximate the idea of a scientific basis, pedagogy includes a comprehensive, founding, and universal knowledge. Moreover, the cross interaction between the oppositions art/science and theory/practice that can be observed in Kant can be situated as the moment of constitution of pedagogy as a science. In Kant’s work, pedagogical knowledge was formulated as an analytical corpus, passing from a treaty on teaching to a more consistent development of the aims and principles of education, including more precise categorizations for the philosophical referrals (aims) and branches of the discipline.
Furthermore, it can be seen that previous advances influence the work of Herbart, given the explicit nature of his discussions on the scientific basis of pedagogy. For this author, the scientific character of pedagogy was validated by its connection with practical philosophy (ethics) and psychology. Dilthey’s arguments about the identification of the connections between philosophy, psychology and history opened up other possibilities for the perspective of a multidisciplinary outlook.
In the twentieth century, the problem of the scientific basis of pedagogy and the prescriptive nature of its discourse was confronted by the explicative formulations of the social sciences (psychology, sociology). By this time, the works of Durkheim and Dewey had given an account of the treatment of the scientific status and constitution of pedagogy, and since then, it has been inscribed in the field of educational sciences.
In conclusion, and referring back to Derrida, it is argued that western tradition defines by excluding. Thus, the opposition pedagogy/educational sciences as a sorting criterion in the field of education reveal that the definition of “truth” and “central” are a product of a historical construction of meaning. Although in a particular moment in history, pedagogy represented the center; at another time it became not only marginal but also excluded-exclusive, compared with more inclusive denominations such as educational sciences, for example. However, by conserving the term pedagogy, and following Derrida’s recommendation of crossing it out, hereafter, and for schematic purposes, its archi-writing could be one of the following:
Furthermore, deconstructive reading permits the understanding of why disciplinary identity is built from a series of conventional exclusions; i.e., if it is not art, it is science, if it is not theory, it is technology, etc. These are epistemic devices produced by academic and research decisions, always historical and, even political, that center and marginalize the aspects that are most convenient in order to obtain stabilizing certainty, over a period of time and for a determined space.
Once again, the exercise of deconstruction and differentiation makes it possible to envisage the hypothesis that all denominations result from a historical and finite agreement. In this case, Pedagogy was a concept of articulation that marked what was internal and external in the disciplinary field of education for a little over 300 years, representing the conventional name attributed to the center. This concept was displaced in the twentieth century with a rupture that received the denomination educational sciences. At present, both concepts have been overstepped, because of the wide range of subjects and interrogations represented under the category of educational research. Therefore, the transfer from one textuality to another can be observed, occurring through the confrontation of academic-disciplinary traditions, institutions, and even different territories.
Once again, according to Derrida (1989), “…It is a question of putting expressly and systematically the problem of the status of a discourse which borrows from a heritage the resources necessary for the deconstruction of that heritage itself. A problem of economy and strategy.” The aforesaid enables the understanding that it is the context that will always influence the presentation of a supposed universal and eternal truth to aspire to, in the case of the field of education, the duality pedagogy/educational sciences. Even so, it is right to insist that in the historical construction of meaning, one cannot lose sight of the fact that this concerns a necessary relationship of opposites; pedagogy/educational sciences have been the name assigned to the center (be it called the basis or principle) to refer to the invariable component of a set of events under the name of “education.”
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