Use the Tool that Works Best

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From Jacques Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”:

“...the other choice—which I feel corresponds more nearly to the way chosen by Lévi-Strauss—consists in conserving in the field of empirical discovery all these old concepts, while at the time exposing here and there their limits, treating them as tools which can still be of use.  No longer is any truth-value attributed to them; there is a readiness to abandon them if necessary if other instruments should appear more useful” (357). 

I liked Derrida’s willingness to accept different ways of thinking, yet at the same time his critique of them.  In a sense what he is doing is the same thing we are doing.  We are to read about, apply, and consider the usefulness of the different schools of criticism.  Once we have tried them out ourselves, we are free to decide: which schools works better than another, which ones work well combined together, and which ones just don’t seem very effective.  Derrida does add the additional layer that “no longer is any truth-value attributed to them,” but nonetheless, Derrida does not simply garbage anything as useless.  He considers their positioning in relation to the whole and if they do not work, then he will “abandon them,” but he still views them “as tools which can still be of use,” even if in one situation they did not work. 

Read more on Derrida’s article. 


Greta, I think you've made a great point when you say that "Derrida does not simply garbage anything as useless." You've hit the nail on the head here, in terms of staying optimistic about Derrida's practices. While he does have the ability to tear down a text in a sense, I agree with you that he does so in a very gentle manner when discussing Levi-Strauss's text. While I was reading the essay, actually, I started to wonder if Derrida was, in fact, supporting Levi-Strauss's methods rather than deconstructing them. Derrida starts by referencing a passage that is "remarkable" in his opinion, and, indeed, the passage (on pg. 359, column one) seems to me to support post-structuralist theory, particularly when Levi-Strauss writes, "There is no veritable end or term to mythical analysis, no secret unity which could be grasped at the end of the word of decomposition..." In fact, Derrida's initial support of Levi-Strauss is so strong that I had to ask Dr. Jerz to help me locate the shift in the text where Derrida begins his criticism. Thanks to his help, I've now realized that while Derrida may have supported Levi-Strauss's recognition that our current system of symbols and their analysis is faulted, ultimately, he criticized Levi-Strauss for replacing this faulted system with another faulted system and presenting the latter as truth. In the deconstructivist mindset, we know, of course there is no truth...or if there is, we, as humans dependent upon a shifting language, do not have the tools to prove such a truth's existence. We can only postulate.

This leads me back to my statement about viewing Derrida with an optimistic mind. While it's true that we can never prove something 100% correct, and that every argument can be deconstructed, I don't think Derrida is trying to say that these arguments do not matter. His initial support of Levi-Strauss seems to support this. Thus, the common argument that post-structuralists have created a world in which nothing matters because nothing can be proven may be a misconception of Derrida's work. Personally, (and again, Dr. Jerz and I discussed this earlier) I believe that Derrida is not trying to tell us to stop searching for the truth, for such a search is a part of our human nature, but, rather, he might simply wish us to be aware of the faults that will inevitably be inherent within any argument we might make.

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