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Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

by Lisa Sangoi

“In him, France gave the world one of the major figures of the intellectual life of our times,” announced the French president Jacques Chirac, on the day after Jacques Derrida's death. Derrida was born to a Jewish family in El-Biar, Algeria, where he experienced an environment that was rather hostile towards Jews. He was expelled from one school because there was a 7% limit on the Jewish population, and he later withdrew from another school due to anti-semitism. In 1952 he began his study of philosophy at the prestigious École Normale Supèrieure in Paris (where Sartre, Simon de Beavoir, and the majority of French intellectuals and academics began their careers). He later taught there for almost twenty years. He taught at the Sorbonne in Paris from 1960 to 1964, and since the early 1970s, had divided much of his time between Paris and the United States where he taught at universities such as John Hopkins, Yale, and the University of California at Irvine. Derrida's influence in American academic circles is enormous. Derrida campaigned for the rights of immigrants in France, against apartheid in South Africa, and in support of dissidents in communist Czechoslovakia. Last year a biographical documentary was made about Derrida. Derrida has also been a rather controversial figure in philosophical intellectual circles. In 1992, the proposal to award him an honorary doctorate at Cambridge University caused such a ruckus that the University was forced to put the matter to ballot. The degree was awarded in the end. His survivors include his wife, Marguerite Aucouturier, a psychoanalyst; and two sons, Pierre and Jean.

Derrida rose to global philosophical fame in the late 1960s. He published three crucial texts, Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference, and Speech and Phenomena. Of Grammatology remains his most famous work. In it, Derrida uncovers and then undermines the speech-writing oppositions that he argues have been such an influential factor in Western thought. His obsession with language in this text is common in much of his earlier work, and since the publication of this and other texts, deconstructionism has slowly yet surely moved from occupying an important role in continental European philosophy to also occupying a key role in American philosophy. This has been particularly noticeable in areas such as literary criticism and cultural studies.

For the most part, Derrida is the creator and chief proponent of deconstructionism, a school of philosophy that originated in France in the late 1960's. It presents a complex response to a variety of movements of the 20th century, most notably Husserlian phenomenology, Saussrean and French structuralism, and Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis. Within his deconstructive strategy, Derrida, not unlike many other contemporary European theorists, is preoccupied with undermining oppositional tendencies that pervade the Western philosophical tradition. Rather than espousing narrative text or theory about the nature of things, Deconstructionism restricts itself to disrupting already existing narratives and theories by revealing the dualistic hierarchies they conceal. Derrida's philosophical concerns are not phenomenological or ontological, and his deconstructionism is, somewhat infamously, the philosophy that says nothing. Deconstructionism functions by engaging in a sustained, rigorous analysis of the literal meaning of a text and finding within the text internal problems that actually point to alternative meanings. Deconstruction famously borrows from Martin Heidegger's conception of a ‘deconstructive retrieve' and seeks to open texts up to alternative and usually hidden meanings that partially reside outside the metaphysical tradition. Derrida's exhortation to “invent your own language if you can or want to hear mine; invent if you can or want to give my language to be understood” demonstrates this more violent strategy of deconstructionism. Derrida was prone to making enigmatic suggestions such as “go there where you can not go, to the impossible, it is indeed the only way of coming or going.” Ultimately the value of deconstructive reading consists in this creative contact with the text that can not be characterized as faithfulness to the text or transgression of it. Rather, a deconstructive reading oscillates between these two demands.

© Lisa Sangoi 2004

Lisa Sangoi studies philosophy in New York, and is Philosophy Now’s U.S. News Editor.

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