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Abstract

When details of the literary critic Paul de Man's anti-Semitic wartime journalism surfaced in the 1980s, enemies of deconstruction in the academy claimed that the always-controversial style of thought tended inherently towards nihilism in its tight focus on the paradoxes of language and in its relative indifference to truth claims. More recently, ‘speculative realists’ in philosophy have lambasted deconstruction and critical theory more generally with neglecting the reality of the physical world as it exists outside language and human comprehension. But what if Paul de Man's own engagements with Kant and the European philosophical tradition in the latter years of his life reveal a side of deconstruction that was as concerned with the intransigence of the material world as it was with the paradoxes of language? In this article, I take the measure of recent debates in Continental philosophy around realism and language, with the aim of bringing to light a less visible side of de Man's philosophical poetics, one that has nonetheless been pursued by scholars critically concerned with the precisely philosophical resonances of de Man's bracing theories of language and materiality.