Derrida’s criticism of structuralism

Derrida’s criticism of structuralism is a very remarkable issue in the field of theory as it opens space for deconstructive theories later. He studies structuralism in his essay entitled “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences” which he presented at a conference at John Hopkins University in 1966. In this essay, he, for the first time, introduced the idea of rupture in Western metaphysics. He does it by criticising the universal idea offered by structuralism. The idea of fixity and rigidity offered by structuralism is challenged by him in his essay. Here, I would like to analyse his essay to show how he criticises structuralism.

Derrida vs structuralism

Structuralism shows two aspects of any system. The first one is the signs or the atoms of a system and the second one is the strategy of the functioning of these atoms. To Derrida, every system posits a centre that is responsible for creating and maintaining everything in the system. In his analysis of structuralism, he explores the availability of centre and binary opposite. With these new ideas, he becomes very distinctive as the critique of structuralism.

Centre in structuralism 

The idea of the centre is not a new phenomenon in the field of philosophy. It is usually attributed with different other names. Mary Klages, in her Introduction to Critical Theory, defines them as being, essence, substance, truth, form, consciousness, human beings, God, unconscious etc. According to Derrida, the centre does two things. The first one is that it is responsible for creating the system and maintaining it while the second one is that the centre maintains its own structure beyond the structure of the system itself. Moreover, it is not substitutable. No entity can consider itself similarly powerful to the centre. It is irreplaceable and unique. It can be compared to the Puritan God who is omnipotent, irreplaceable, the referent for all entities.

Derrida’s idea of the centre and play

Derrida furthers the idea of the centre adding that it keeps every unit in a system in order to confirm due relationship among them. He explores the idea that there is motion in every system and it is the centre that controls the agitation in it. He calls this motion ‘play’. He is very concerned about the play in any system. He believes that excessive play can create a catastrophe for the system. For this reason, the centre plays the role to control the movement in a system so that it can function properly without having any visible breach in it. He introduces the analogy of a kindergarten classroom to refer to the play. A classroom full of kids goes violent when the teacher is absent but it becomes ordered with the presence of the teacher. So, in absence of the teacher, there is ‘play’ in the classroom.

Derrida’s idea of the absence  of play in the Western metaphysics

Derrida further shows that Western metaphysics does not believe in the presence of the ‘play’ in any system as it believes in the rigid and stable system. The thinkers of this school believe that there is always a particular signifier for a particular signified which offer meaning through the determined signification. Though according to him, Western metaphysics believes in absolute fixity, the world of poetry enjoys a particular brand of flexibility (play) in offering multiple meanings. It is possible because of the ‘play’.

An example of centre and play

Derrida offers another analogy to clarify the idea of ‘play’. He talks about the construction of a building which is attributed to the flexibility of getting bent down to a particular degree in time of earthquake or any natural disaster. The mechanism is installed in the building in such a way that it allows the building to bend down while experiencing an earthquake. Derrida affirms that the centre allows this kind of controlled violation of the structure of the building.

 Centre and transcendental signified

Derrida argues that the centre is the ultimate source of meaning. It controls excessive movement in any system. Moreover, it confirms the full presence of the units of any system. It, furthermore, confirms the connectivity between the signifier and the signified through proper signification. As the centre is referred back for everything, it is called transcendental signified.

Centre as contradictorily coherent

Derrida shows that the centre maintains a structure of its own but it escapes the structurality of its own creations. It is responsible for creating and maintaining all the structures or systems but it is not a part of these systems or structures. In this way, it exists both within the systems and beyond them. The centre is the totality but, paradoxically, it is not part of the totality. So, Derrida sums up by saying that the idea of the centred structure is contradictorily coherent.


In his criticism of structuralism, thus, Derrida introduces the idea of the centre, play, absence of play in Western metaphysics, play and bending of the building during an earthquake, and centre as a transcendental signified.


Abdur Rahim
Abdur Rahim

Assistant Professor, and Member of the Proctorial Body
Department of English Language and Literature (DELL), Premier University, Chattogram,
& Doctoral Fellow, English Department, Jahangirnagar University, Savar, Dhaka.

Phone: +8801715638298


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