Jacques Derrida

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Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida (July 15, 1930October 8, 2004) was an Algerian-born French literary critic and philosopher of Jewish descent, most often referenced as the founder of "deconstruction". His work had a significant impact on continental philosophy and on literary theory, particularly through his long-time association with the literary critic Paul de Man; though the reception of deconstruction in literary criticism is not universally agreed to be consonant with Derrida's work. Derrida also referenced analytic philosophy in his work, particularly the work of J. L. Austin.

More broadly, his work is often associated with post-structuralism and postmodernism, although Derrida never used the latter term, and other scholars within deconstruction such as Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe have characterized themselves as modernist rather than postmodern in tendency.


Derrida grew up in El-Biar, Algeria. As a young student, he was expelled from his lycée by Algerian administrators zealous to implement antisemitic quotas set by the Vichy government. He skipped school for a year rather than attend the Jewish lycée formed by displaced teachers and students. Following this, his family moved to France in 1949 to advance his secondary education, remaining until 1962 when they moved to Nice.

Beginning in 1952, Derrida was a student at the elite École Normale Superieure (ENS), where he studied under Michel Foucault and Louis Althusser, among others. After studies at the Husserl Archive in Leuven, Belgium, completion of his philosophy agrégation, Derrida became a lecturer there. During the Algerian War of Independence, Derrida asked to teach soldiers' children in lieu of military service, teaching French and English from 1957 to 1959. Following the war, from 1960 to 1964, Derrida taught philosophy at the Sorbonne, and from 1964 to 1984 he taught at the École Normale Superieure. He completed his Thése d'État (roughly the equivalent of a doctoratal thesis) in 1980; the work was subsequently published in English translation as "The Time of a Thesis: Punctuations". Until his death he was director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He was also a founder and the first president of the International College of Philosophy (French acronym: CIPH), a research institution intended to give a place to philosophical researches which could not be carried out elsewhere in the academy.

Beginning with his 1966 lecture at Johns Hopkins University, at which he presented his essay "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" (see below), he travelled widely and held a series of visiting and permanent positions, particularly in American universities. From 1986 on he was Professor of the Humanities at the University of California, Irvine, which has a major archive of his manuscripts.

Derrida was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and received the 2001 Adorno-Preis. He was awarded honorary doctorates by Cambridge University, Columbia University, the New School for Social Research, University of Essex, University of Leuven, and Williams College.

In 2003, Derrida was diagnosed with aggressive pancreatic cancer, which reduced his speaking and travelling engagements. He died in a Parisian hospital on the evening of Friday, October 8, 2004 (BBC story).


Early works

Derrida's earliest work was in phenomenology. His earliest academic manuscript for a degree was a work on Edmund Husserl and "genesis", submitted in 1954 and much later published as The Problem of Genesis in Husserl's Phenomenology. In 1962 he published a translation of Husserl's Foundations of Geometry, for which he wrote a lengthy introduction entitled "The Origin of Geometry".

Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences

Derrida's first major contribution to the international academic community came with his paper "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," delivered at a conference at Johns Hopkins University in 1966. The conference was billed as a consideration of structuralism, then at the peak of its influence in France but only then becoming familiar to academic audiences in the United States, particularly departments of French and Comparative Literature, where faculty were least dependent on the lengthy process of translating monographs. Derrida was remarkable among invitees in that he never had orthodox commitments to structuralism and had offered papers critical of structuralist scholarship as early as 1963.

Derrida's lecture was written with words of praise for structuralist accomplishment and reservations about its internal limitations. This contributed to a sense that the labours of structuralism had moved on to a point where structuralism wasn't itself anymore, supporting subsequent declarations that many of the same people who had contributed to structuralism were now rather producing "post-structuralism". The fallout from Derrida's paper was such that by the time the conference proceedings were published in 1970, the title of the collection had become The Structuralist Controversy.

The conference was also of personal note to Derrida, being where he met Paul de Man, who would be a close friend and source of great controversy, as well as where he first met the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.


Derrida's work consistently demonstrated an interest in all the disciplines under discussion at the Baltimore conference, as was evidenced by the subject matter of the three collections of work published in 1967, Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference, and Speech and Phenomena, which contained essay-length studies of philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ferdinand de Saussure, Husserl, Levinas, Heidegger, Hegel, Foucault, Georges Bataille and Descartes, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, Sigmund Freud, and writers such as Edmond Jabes and Antonin Artaud. The next five years of lectures and essay-length work were gathered into two 1972 collections, Dissemination and Margins of Philosophy, at which time a collection of interviews titled Positions was also released.

On Spirit

On March 14th, 1987, Derrida first presented at CIPH the lecture, initially titled "Heidegger: Open Questions," published with revisions as Of Spirit (the French title Heidegger et la Question: De l'esprit et autres essais makes very pointed reference to the burned book De l'esprit by Helvétius and mockery of Heidegger's reference to "French rationalism" in his famous Spiegel interview "Only a God can save us now"). Of Spirit demonstrates, in response to the controversy over Heidegger's Nazism, the transformation of Derrida's active philosophical inheritance. The work is headlined by Derrida's tracing of the shifting role of Geist (spirit) through Heidegger's work. Reconnecting in a number of respects with previous work on Heidegger (such as "The Ends of Man" in Margins of Philosophy) Derrida reconsiders three other fundamental and recurring elements of Heideggerian philosophy which span the corpus: the distinction between man and animal, technology, and the privilege of questioning as the essential mode of philosophy.

Other Works

Starting in 1972, Derrida produced on average more than a book per year. He was said to have released more work in 2003 than in any other year. He was so prolific that there is no current bibliography of his work that might be firmly described as complete.


Main Article: Deconstruction

The 1966 paper, in addition to establishing Derrida's international reputation, marked the starting point of what is both Derrida's most significant and least-understood concept, deconstruction. Much of the mystique and confusion surrounding deconstruction stems from Derrida's insistence on not allowing the concept to be immune to its own critiques. Which is to say that Derrida took pains to make deconstruction as impossible to essentialize as deconstruction made everything else.

At its core, if it can be said to have one, deconstruction is an attempt to open a text (literary, philosophical, or otherwise) to a range of meanings and interpretations. Its method is usually to take what Derrida calls binary oppositions within a text - rigidly defined pairs of opposites like good/evil or male/female - and show that they are not as rigidly defined as it first seems, that the two opposed concepts are in fact fluid, then to use this newfound ambiguity to show that the text's meaning is similarly fluid. The result is to find often strikingly new interpretations of texts, both philosophical and literary - to the point where Derrida's supporters claim his work consists entirely of meticulous readings that find philosophy anew.

Derrida's practice of reading raises the question of the relationship between deconstruction and literary theory. Within literary studies, deconstruction is often treated as a particular method of reading - in explicit contrast to Derrida's claims that deconstruction is an "event" within a text, not a method of reading the text. Despite this apparent contradiction, the literary sensibilities of Derrida cannot be ignored, as many of his own deconstructions were of poems and literary texts.

Further, deconstruction's sensitivities to philosophical efforts at defining limits have been taken by some to imply a deconstructive agenda for the ultimate reversal of order. This agenda would cover: philosophy's claim to be the first of all academic disciplines; holding out hopes of uniting all; delineating what is proper to each as they remain apart; and expelling from itself non-philosophy (via judgements which irreducibly take part in violence and hinge on matters of interpretation made through language). This has been seen as the privilege of the non-serious and the literary over a humbled philosophy.

Although its influence on literary studies is probably the most well known and well-reported effect of deconstruction, its roots are more philosophical than literary, although it is also tied to distinct but abutting academic disciplines such as linguistics and anthropology (called the "human sciences" in France). Derrida's examination of the latter's philosophical foundations, both conceptual and historical, and their continued reliance on philosophical argument (whether consciously or not), was an important aspect of his thought. Among his foremost influences are Edmund Husserl, Sigmund Freud, and Martin Heidegger. Heidegger in particular was a major influence on Derrida - he claims in his "Letter to a Japanese Friend" (Derrida and Differance, eds. Robert Bernasconi and David Wood) that the word "déconstruction" was his attempt both to translate and re-appropriate for his own ends the Heideggerian terms 'Destruktion' and 'Abbau' via a word from the French language, the varied senses of which seemed consistent with his requirements.

This relationship with the Heideggerean term was chosen over the Nietzschean term "demolition", as Derrida shared with Heidegger an interest in renovating philosophy to allow it to treat increasingly fundamental matters. In this regard, he moves beyond Heidegger in a significant way. While Heidegger passes through Nietzsche, Hegel, Kant, Descartes, Aquinas, Aristotle, Plato, and Parmenides, and finds their work wanting where the question of Being is concerned, Derrida prefers to mine the heterogenous nature of their works - indeed, his reading of Plato in Dissemination is among his best-known and most important readings.


Derrida received the 2001 Adorno Prize, named after Theodor Adorno. In accepting this award, Derrida noted both differences and affinities with Adorno. Their treatment of aporia was noted as an affinity. Aporia comes from the Greek απορια (from α-πορος) meaning "the impassable". The aporetic was a recurring structure for Derrida: Derrida strived to render as determinate as possible an interpretation, finding a series of "undecidable" decisions between a series of determinate constructions of interpretations. These passages through impossible decisions are unavoidable, according to Derrida, and potentially lead to a model of responsibility. Derrida views this as the point to which philosophy should aspire. In Derrida's view, philosophy would like to deliver its complete system, here and now: its absolute work made manifest to its reader, the end of philosophy being the end of philosophy.

The idea of aporia is carried over in other deconstructive readings - particularly those of Paul de Man, whose readings of poems were known for concluding that the poems ended in an aporia.

Criticism of Derrida

Derrida is criticised heavily for his influences and associations. In particular, the involvement of Martin Heidegger (see above) and Paul de Man (see below) with National Socialism and its Belgian collaborators is frequently argued to be a series of morally reprehensible acts for which Derrida either fails to account or in fact apologises. Such criticisms are generally aligned with a broader charge that deconstruction is a form of nihilism that attempts to undermine ethical and intellectual norms vital to the academy, if not Western civilisation. Perhaps most prominent among these critics is Richard Wolin. Wolin ran afoul of Derrida by publishing what Derrida argued was a demonstrably "execrable" mistranslation of a Derrida interview on Heidegger "in a book [''The Heidegger Controversy''] that, as is my right, I judge to be weak, simplistic, and compulsively aggressive". As French law requires the consent of an author to translations and such permission was not given, Derrida insisted that the interview not appear in any subsequent editions or reprints. Columbia University Press subsequently refused to offer reprints or new editions, and the book was offered in later editions without the Derrida interview by the MIT Press. The matter achieved additional public exposure owing to a friendly review of Wolin's book by Thomas Sheehan, entitled "A Normal Nazi" and appearing in the New York Review of Books, in which Sheehan characterised Derrida's protests as an imposition of censorship. It was followed by an exchange of letters. [1],[2]

Analytic philosophers and scientists are prominent among his detractors, some of whom regard his work as non-philosophical or pseudophilosophy and a few dismissing it as charlatanism.

Supporters of Derrida suggest that the major substance of these critiques is circular — that they propose a system of evaluating philosophy that is antithetical to Derrida, and then criticize Derrida for not adhering to it. They are further criticized for being based on popular understandings of Derrida, rather than on Derrida's work. The reliance on received understanding of Derrida's work in such cases may be motivated in part by the difficulty of Derrida's texts, many of which are written in a style that does not resemble conventional philosophical prose, including polylogues and parallel texts presented in varied page layouts, which has itself drawn objection. Derrida remarked on this:

You also asked me, in a personal way, why people are angry at me. To a large extent, I don't know. It's up to them to answer. To a small extent I know; it is not usually because people are angry at me personally (well, it happens in private, perhaps); but rather they are angry at what I write. They are angry at my texts more than anything else, and I think it is because of the way I write — not the content, or the thesis. They say that I do not obey the usual rules of rhetoric, grammar, demonstration, and argumentation; but, of course, if they were simply not interested, they would not be angry. As it is, they start to get involved but feel that it's not that easy, that to read my texts they have to change the rules, to read differently, if only at another rhythm. ("Following Theory", p. 17, in life.after.theory, eds. Michael Payne and John Schad)

In 1992 the University of Cambridge awarded an honorary doctorate to Derrida, despite strenuous opposition from its Philosophy Faculty. Twenty philosophers from other institutions, including W. V. Quine and Ruth Barcan Marcus, signed a letter to protest the award, maintaining that Derrida's work "does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigor" and describing his philosophy as being composed of "tricks and gimmicks similar to those of the Dadaists." Derrida replied that the letter embarrasses itself immediately, transgressing banal standards of "clarity and rigor" by citing examples ("logical phallusies") which are not to be found in his work except suspended in quotation marks.

An obituary of Derrida by Jonathan Kandell in The New York Times titled "Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74" (10-Oct-2004) was criticized by many academics as being excessively critical, and a letter of objection was signed online by several thousand persons. (The same paper also published two much more sympathetic assessments of Derrida's work: "The Man Who Showed Us How to Take the World Apart" (11-Oct-2004) by Edward Rothstein and "What Derrida Really Meant" (14-Oct-2004) by Mark C. Taylor.)

Finally, Derrida is a popular scapegoat of the American conservative movement in their critiques of a perceived leftist bias in universities. These critiques are, in many ways, less critiques of Derrida than of universities — he is generally invoked as someone so self-evidently absurd that no further argument need be made — the mere fact that English departments rely on Derrida is taken as clear proof of their flaws. Needless to say, most within the academy find these critiques excessively reductive.


Derrida was not known to have participated in any conventional electoral political party until 1995, when he joined a committee in support of Lionel Jospin's (by then the stepfather of Daniel, his son with Sylviane Agacinski) Socialist candidacy, although he expressed misgivings about such organizations going back to Communist organizational efforts while he was a student at ENS. In the last presidential election he refused to vote in the run-off between Jean-Marie Le Pen and Jacques Chirac, citing a lack of acceptable choices. He was initially supportive of Parisian student protesters in May 1968 but later withdrew. He registered his objections to the Vietnam War in delivering "The Ends of Man" in the United States. In 1981 he was arrested by the Czechoslovakian government on leaving a conference in Prague that lacked government authorization, falsely charged with the "production and trafficking of drugs" he claimed were planted as he visited Kafka's grave. He was released (or "expelled" as the Czechoslovakian government put it) after the interventions of the Mitterrand government, returning to Paris on 2 January 1982. He was active in cultural activities against the Apartheid government of South Africa and on behalf of Nelson Mandela beginning in 1983. He met with Palestinian intellectuals during a 1988 visit to Jerusalem. He was active in the collective "89 for equality", which campaigned for the right of immigrants to vote in local elections. He protested the death penalty, dedicating his seminar in his last years to the production of a non-utilitarian argument for its abolition, and was active in the campaign to free Mumia Abu-Jamal. While supportive of the American government in the wake of 9/11, he opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Beyond these explicit political interventions, however, the political, particularly the idea of the nation - was continually central to his philosophy. Derrida noted in the "Ends of Man" that his ability to remark freely on the Vietnam War was a prerequisite to his attendance at American colloquia -- an exception underscoring the national rule. Not out of diplomatic concerns about offending the American "delegation", but because the democratic form (Derrida's emphasis and choice of words) of the event assumed an instability of these national identities, or rather non-identities, and it is with those Americans opposed to the war that Derrida wanted to state his solidarity, to assert that these so-called identities, frequently assumed, do not exist in fact. (The events of April and May 1968: commencement of the Paris peace talks, the 1968 American election, the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the later events of May 1968, particularly in Paris, led Derrida to mark off "democratic form", a certain obtuseness of governments to these phenomena.)

Derrida and his peers

In addition to de Man and Lyotard, his approximate contemporaries, many of whom were philosophic allies and friends, included Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Blanchot, Gilles Deleuze, Jean-Luc Nancy, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Sarah Kofman, Hélène Cixous, Bernard Stiegler, and Geoffrey Bennington.

Paul de Man

Main article: Paul de Man

Perhaps the most known friendship of Derrida's intellectual life was his friendship with Paul de Man. This friendship became the source of one of Derrida's most criticized essays, "Like the Sound of the Sea Deep Within a Shell: Paul de Man's War," published in the journal Critical Inquiry following de Man's death. The occasion of the essay was a controversy that erupted when it was discovered that de Man had written essays in a pro-Nazi newspaper during the German occupation of France, including several that were explicitly anti-Semetic.

Derrida's essay is a defense of de Man, with its main claim being that one cannot simply define all of de Man's work in light of some newspaper articles from his 20s, arguing that any claims about de Man as a whole must take de Man's work as a whole into account. The essay becomes controversial, however, for a short section - about five pages in length, out of over 40 in the article - in which Derrida applies deconstruction to de Man's essays. This section, read by many as attempting to argue that de Man's essays did not contain the anti-Semetic sentiments that they were generally seen as obviously containing, was widely criticized, leading to a subsequent issue of Critical Inquiry being filled almost entirely by responses to Derrida, and his subsequent response to them.

Derrida's Translators

Geoffrey Bennington, Avital Ronell and Samuel Weber belong to a group of translators, many of whom are esteemed thinkers in their own right, with whom Derrida worked in a collaborative arrangement, allowing his prodigious output to be translated in a timely fashion. Having started as a student of de Man, Gayatri Spivak took on the translation of Of Grammatology early in her career and has since revised it into a second edition. Alan Bass was responsible for several early translations; Bennington and Peggy Kamuf have continued to produce translations of his work for nearly twenty years. With Bennington, Derrida undertook the challenge published as Derrida, an arrangement in which Bennington attempted to provide a systematic explication of Derrida's work (called the Derridabase) using the top two-thirds of every page, while Derrida was given the finished copy of every Bennington chapter and the bottom third of every page in which to show how deconstruction exceeded Bennington's account (this was called the Circumfession). Virtually all of the aforementioned translators have produced essays and book-length manuscripts on Derrida's work which are recommended often to students searching for secondary literature.

Controversies and mourning

Derrida's relationship with many of his contemporaries was marked by disagreements and rifts. For example, Derrida's criticism of Foucault in the essay "Cogito and the History of Madness" (from Writing and Difference), first given as a lecture which Foucault attended, caused a rift between the two men that was never fully mended.

Whatever the outcome of these discussions, Derrida was often left in the unappealing position of having an opportunity for the last word in too many, as he outlived many of his peers. Death and mourning are foundational to the analysis which lead Derrida to his understanding of inheritance, interpretation, and responsibility. Beginning with "The Deaths of Roland Barthes" in 1981, Derrida produced a series of texts on mourning and memory occasioned by the loss of his friends and colleagues, many of them new engagements with their work. Memoires for Paul de Man, a book-length lecture series presented first at Yale and then at Irvine as Derrida's Wellek Lecture, followed in 1986, with a revision in 1989 that included "Like the Sound of the Sea Deep Within a Shell: Paul de Man's War". Ultimately fourteen essays were collected into The Work of Mourning, which was expanded in the French edition Chaque fois unique, la fin du monde (literally, The end of the world, unique each time) to include essays dedicated to Gérard Granel and Maurice Blanchot.

Online texts

Essays, excerpts



The most complete bibliography available online can be found at this site. The compilation, copyrighted by Peter Krapp, is still in progress, but all major works are listed, sorted by title or by year of publication.

Selected works by Derrida

(see Jacques Derrida Bibliography)

  • "Letter to a Japanese Friend," in Derrida and Differance, (ISBN 0810107864) eds. Robert Bernasconi and David Wood, 1988*
  • "Nietzsche and the Machine," w/ Richard Beardsworth, in Negotiations, (ISBN 0804738920) ed. Elizabeth Rottenberg, 2002*
  • "Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides", w/ Giovanna Borradori, in Philosophy in a Time of Terror, (ISBN 0226066649) ed. Giovanna Borradori 2003

Works on Derrida

  • "Spirit's Spirit Spirits Spirit," Geoffrey Bennington, in Legislations (ISBN 0860916685)*
  • "The Differends of Man", Avital Ronnell, in Finitude's Score (ISBN 0803239114)*
  • Interrupting Derrida, (ISBN 0415224276) Geoffrey Bennington
  • Later Derrida, (ISBN 0415942691) Herman Rapaport
  • Derrida and the Political, (ISBN 0415109671) Richard Beardsworth
  • Jacques Derrida and the Humanities: a Critical Reader, (ISBN 0521625653) ed. Tom Cohen

*referenced above

Works by others referenced above

  • Being and Time, Martin Heidegger
  • "Only a God Can Save Us" (Der Spiegel interview), in Philosophical and Political Writings, Martin Heidegger, ed. Manfred Stassen

See also

External links


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