Derrida takes to risky venture

January 25, 2002

Deconstruction is the postmodern theory that has enabled philosophers to extract hidden meanings from works of literature. Now a Newcastle University computer scientist wants to take the theory out of the Parisian salon and apply it to risk assessment of power stations, jet liners and military hardware.

Jim Armstrong, senior research associate at the Centre for Software Reliability, has won a £73,000 grant to use ideas pioneered by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida to improve risk-assessment procedures.

Deconstruction could reveal inconsistencies and hidden motivations behind arguments in the text of reports. These could prove significant in weighing up safety culture.

Dr Armstrong admitted that this would involve adapting a form of textual analysis that had been attacked for calling into question the possibility of rational inquiry into a practical tool for experts.

"Safety is more than just the application of standards to the letter. But this aspect of expert judgement is a very elusive thing," he said. "It can be made slightly less elusive by some of the theories put forward by Derrida."

The project has attracted backing from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council under the Realising Our Potential Awards scheme.

It focuses on those engineering schemes that include a strong computer element.

Dr Armstrong conceded the two-year project might not lead to a useful end result but he said that it should help lay the basis for a recognised discipline of safety philosophy.

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