E. D. Hirsch, in his recent best-selling book, "Cultural Literacy," codifies 5,000 items one must know to be culturally literate. Jacques Derrida, one of the most important theoretical thinkers of the last two decades, should certainly figure on this list. But neither he, nor the philosophical position "deconstruction" associated with his name, are included. This absence, however, is not surprising, since deconstruction challenges the very assumptions that underlie Hirsch's or any other attempt to codify and universalize knowledge. Hirsch's list presupposes distinctions between the central and the marginal, the essential and the inessential. Deconstruction works to show that what had previously been thought marginal may be seen as central, when viewed from another position. But this reversal, attributing importance to the marginal, does not lead simply to the reconstitution of a new center, but to the subversion of such distinctions between essential and inessential, universal and particular. What is a center, if the marginal can become central?
The tremendous impact of Derrida's writing on contemporary thought began in France in 1967 with the simultaneous publication of three major philosophical works, all subsequently translated into English, "Speech and Phenomena," "Writing and Difference" and "Of Grammatology." In 1980, he wrote "The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond," which is now available in an excellent English translation. The titles seem odd at first, remote from the central concepts of traditional philosophical inquiry. Writing and grammar do not have the same ring as being and nothingness . And a book about the post card? A book about an artifact situated on the margins of the already marginalized epistolary arts? How dare one juxtapose such ephemera to the enduring weightiness of the philosophical and psychological traditions as represented by their most solid pillars, Socrates and Sigmund Freud? This unconventional marriage of the "marginal" and the "central" is typical of Derrida's deconstructive strategy.