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Jacques Derrida

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Jacques Derrida (born July 15, 1930) is an Algerian-born French philosopher of Jewish descent considered the first to develop "deconstruction". As Derrida explains in his "Letter to a Japanese Friend" the word "deconstruction" is his attempt both to translate and re-appropriate for his own ends the Heideggerian terms 'Destruktion' and 'Abbau' via a word already existent in the French language whose varied senses seemed consistent with his requirements. Particularly through his long-time association with the literary critic Paul de Man, he has had a significant effect on literary theory, (though the reception of deconstruction in literary criticism is not universally agreed to be consonant with Derrida's work). Deconstruction is related to vast tracts of the Western philosophical tradition. His work is often associated with post-structuralism and postmodernism (though many believe the latter association to be mistaken, taking Jean-François Lyotard as the closet relation between deconstruction and postmodernism). Among his foremost influences are Sigmund Freud and Martin Heidegger.

By his activities in convening the Estates General of Philosophy and in furtherance of his activities as a founder of the Philosophical Pedagogy Research Group (French acronym: GREPH), he was active in organizing French philosophers against the so-called Haby reform proposed by the government of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. He is also a founder and was 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. In addition to de Man and Lyotard, his approximate contemporaries, many of whom were also friends (philosophically and personally), include Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Blanchot, Gilles Deleuze, Jean-Luc Nancy, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Sarah Kofman, Hélène Cixous, and Geoffrey Bennington (this list is not exhaustive).

Table of contents
1 Life
2 Politics
3 Work
4 References
5 See also
6 External Links


Derrida grew up in El-Biar, Algeria and did not leave there until moving to France in 1949 to advance his secondary education (he described himself as feeling on arrival "a little bit black, and a little bit Arab"). His family remained in France long thereafter, moving to Nice in 1962. At his request Derrida served as a teacher of soldiers' children in lieu of military service in Algeria from 1957-1959, teaching French and English.

Beginning in 1952 Derrida was a student at the elite École Normale Superieure, where he studied under Michel Foucault and Louis Althusser, among others. After studies at the Husserl Archive in Louvain, France, completion of his philosophy 'agrégation' (French secondary education examination, which grants one a permanent teaching post as a French civil servant), Derrida became a lecturer there. From 1960 to 1964, Derrida taught philosophy at the Sorbonne. From 1964 to 1984, he taught at the École Normale Superieure. 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 has traveled widely and held a series of visiting and permanent positions, particularly in American universities. He successfully defended his Thése d'État in 1980, subsequently published in English translation as "The Time of a Thesis: Punctuations". He is currently director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Science Sociales in Paris. Since 1986 he has been Professor of the Humanities at the University of California, Irvine, which has a major archive of his manuscripts. Derrida was awarded honorary doctorates by Cambridge University (see below), Columbia University, the New School for Social Research, University of Essex, University of Louvain, and Williams College. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and is the recipient of the 2001 Adorno-Preis. A film about him, made by Amy Ziering-Kofman and Kirby Dick with his participation, was released in 2002.

In 2003, Derrida was diagnosed with aggressive pancreatic cancer. This has greatly reduced both speaking and travelling engagements.


Derrida is not known to have participated in any conventional electoral political party and has expressed misgivings about such organizations going back to Communist organizational efforts while he was a student at ENS. He is not known to have any involvement in the French "events" of May 1968, unlike many of his colleagues. 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, charged with the "production and trafficking of drugs". He was released ("expelled", as the Czechoslovakia government would have 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 has protested the death penalty and been active in the campaign to free Mumia Abu-Jamal. While supportive of the American government in the wake of 9/11, he opposes the war in Iraq.


Derrida's earliest work was in phenomenology. His earliest academic manuscript for 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". At Johns Hopkins University in 1966, he met and subsequently befriended Paul de Man. Derrida's presentation at a Johns Hopkins conference on ?The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man? (the "human sciences" being a broad grouping of French academic studies including linguistics, anthropology, and psychoanalysis). The conference was billed as a consideration of structuralism but also functioned, some perceived, as an import-export of hot French goods in the aforementioned fields. It drew considerable French participation, including Jean Hyppolite, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Lacan, the latter of whom Derrida met for the first time. The presentations at the conference made clear that the labours of structuralism had moved on to a point where structuralism wasn't itself anymore, leading to the declaration that many of the same people who had contributed to structuralism were now rather producing "post-structuralism" (which some perceived again as a convenient new label rather than a detailed consideration of the work of the individuals associated with this new "school").

Labels aside, 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, and Renée Descartes, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, Sigmund Freud, and a handful of literary and theatrical writers. 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. Thereafter and continuing until his illness Derrida has produced on average more than a book per year. He has been sufficiently prolific that there is no current bibliography of his work which anyone is willing to bill as complete.

As with any philosopher and in keeping with Derrida's highly respecful relationship with the philosophical corpus, Derrida's work would be ill-served by condensing it into a small number of themes. We have already noted that the term deconstruction serves as a translation of the term Destruktion which Heidegger deploys extensively in Being and Time. Derrida notes that the relation to the Heideggerean term was taken over the Nietzschean term "demolition", as Derrida shares with Heidegger an interest in renovating philosophy to allow it to treat ever-more fundamental matters, which demands as well thorough-going efforts to reinterpret the tradition. Derrida's deployment of Freud is also crucial in respect of this interpretive initiative. Psychoanalysis is seminal for Derrida, particularly in connection with Heidegger. Whereas Heidegger passes through Nietzsche, Hegel, Kant, Descartes, Aquinas, Aristotle, Plato, and Parmenides and finds the fruit of their labour wanting insofar as the weight of the tradition as they've inherited it causes them not to ask the most "ancient" question of philosophy, the question of Being, Derrida marshals Freud to complicate this account, to mine the heterogeneities within their works, the distinctions made and dishonored in the attempts of philosophers to summarize and make sense of their own works as philosophy, the problems recognized but then set aside as non-philosophical or non-serious.

Deconstruction and literary criticism

Even as many have warned against condensing Derrida's work too quickly, a reader can recognize that the problems of inheritance, tradition, and invention occur throughout his work, which can be said to consist entirely of meticulous readings of work (philosophical and not) which finds philosophy anew. Derrida's practice of reading raises the question of the relationship between deconstruction and literary theory. Schematically put, the interest in deconstruction shown by many of its literary students takes decontruction to be a method, a hermeneutic for reading in general. Furthermore, deconstruction's sensitivities to philosophical efforts at border policing, 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, have been taken by some to imply a deconstructive agenda for the ultimate reversal of order, a privilege of the non-serious and the literary over a humbled philosophy. Some of Derrida's critics (among them Richard Wolin, Thomas Sheehan, and John Searle, the latter of which is discussed below) have opted for this characterization and have popularized an account of deconstruction as a radical and dangerous relativism.

System and aporia

Derrida received the 2001 Adorno Prize, named for 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 αωορια (from αωορ-ος) meaning "the impassable". The aporetic is a recurring structure for Derrida: Derrida strives 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 in the Derridean account and lead to a model of responsibility which strives to honor their singularity. This is not "boutique multicuturalism"; there is no safety rail of respect for others that provides any kind of guarantee against the staining imperfections which won't quite come out in the wash. This is also philosophy's hope, its chance, the opening onto the future. This matter is outlined with considerable concision in "Nietzsche and the Machine" (with Richard Beardsworth, in Negotiations, ed. Elizabeth Rottenberg). In his "Circumfession" he beholds the very philosophical fantasy of an easier way:

"From the invisible inside, where I could neither see nor want the very thing I have always been scared to have revealed on the scanner, by 'analysis' -- radiology, echography, endocrinology, hematology -- a crural vein expelled my blood outside that I thought beautiful once stored in that bottle under a label that I doubted could avoid confusion or misappropriation of the vintage, leaving me nothing more to do, the inside of my life exhibiting itself outside, 'expressing' itself before my eyes, absolved without a gesture, dare I say of writing if I compare the pen to the syringe, and I always dream of a pen that would be a syringe, a suction point rather than that very hard weapon with which one must inscribe, incise, choose, calculate, take ink before filtering the inscribable. playing the keyboard on the screen, whereas here, once the right vein has been found, no more toil, no responsibility, no risk of bad taste or violence, the blood delivers itself all alone, the inside gives itself up, and you can do as you like with it, it's me but I'm no longer there..." (Derrida, pp, 10-12)

On Derrida's view, the system-dream of philosophy is a promise on which it cannot deliver, causing it to resort to a structure of inheritance with which it has entirely reckoned. 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. Heidegger speaks of a return to the most ancient origins of thought, to the first questions before the divisions of thought into logic and ethics as the future of philosophy, as a matter of giving philosophy a future, but we might expect this philosophy to be brief, Heidegger's Rapture before all is resolved (again, the interview with Beardsworth gives a reasonably concise overview of the distinction between the future as variously accounted for Derrida and Heidegger).

Relationship to Heidegger's thought

The return to Heidegger here is far from coincidental but helps us understand the manner in which Derrida's critics as well as a number of would-be friendly explicators miss the mark. Derrida's engagement with Heidegger has resulted in a great deal of guilt by association yet bears fruit for its strivings. The same can be said of the relationship between Heidegger's thought (particularly 'Being and Time' and Heidegger's attempt to fashion of it what he tried to sell as a refined spiritual renewal of the German people (refined from "base" Nazism).

The publication of Victor Farías's 1987 book on Heidegger caused many to declare the new controversy of a "Heidegger affair" and demand political explanations from Heideggerian thinkers. In response Derrida produced '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 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. Geoffrey Bennington asks, without an answer,"Where does commentary on Heidegger stop and assertion by Derrida begin?" ("Spirit's Spirit Spirits Spirit", in Legislations). 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. Heidegger's meditations on these subject draws heavily on Greek, Latin, and German resources, which in the much later Spiegel interview Heidegger insisted resist translation, perhaps absolutely, indicating explicitly that neither American English nor French can receive the lexical networks which his thought must transit. Heidegger here stumbles, in many readers' view, failing to account for influences on his thought. Even as Derrida is willing to exploit such lexical networks himself, he is careful to account for their operation not only in translation between stunningly obvious cases, such as that from German to French, but even within "a" language, the unity of which Derrida frequently calls into question, defining "deconstruction" in the Memoires for Paul de Man as plus d'un langue, which translates as both more than and less than one language.

Of Spirit was not without controversy, even among Derrida's philosophical friends, the accounts of which are not entirely settled. Derrida said of Gilles Deleuze that he "never felt the slightest objection well up in me, not even virtually" (p. 193 "I'm Going to Have to Wander All Alone", in The Work of Mourning, ed. Pascale-Anne Brault). In the film documentary Derrida, Derrida commented that he had never had a disagreement with his sister, only to be reminded that he had tried to set her on fire when they were children, so even a sympathetic viewer may ask whether this fond memory given in eulogy virtualizes the "never". The differences have been more open, even intractable. Derrida's much earlier 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. Harsh words imputed to Foucault were brandished against Derrida after his death by critics who said little of his work. Lyotard's essay Heidegger and "the jews" and Philippe Lacoute-Labarthe's Heidegger, Art, and Politics are key primary texts on this question, as is Avital Ronell's "The Differends of Man" in her Finitude's Score. Ronell takes these two books together with two Cerisy colloquia, ("The Ends of Man", dedicated to Derrida's work, and "The Faculty of Judgement", dedicated to Lyotard's) to triangulate sharp debates about Heideggerian "piety" and the connection between a mode of forgetting reiterated by Heidegger and a nexus of remembering and non-representation foundational to Judaic monotheism in Lyotard's reckoning. As Ronell remarks at one point, "while the stakes are very high indeed, the complaint is so curious that it is difficult not to wonder whether Lyotard is proposing that we adopt some sort of disrespectful nihilism to overcome the respect that still inundates deconstruction. The choice of idiom seems very odd for a Kantian." (p. 264)

Whatever the outcome of these discussion may be, Derrida has been left in the unappealing position of having an opportunity for the last word in too many. Death and mourning are foundational to the analysis which lead Derrida to his understanding of inheritance, interpretation, and responsibility. Much of the groundwork for this is laid in works such as "Fors: the Anglish words of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok", as well as "Signature Event Context" and "Limited Inc a b c..." (from Limited Inc). Beginning with the "The Deaths of Roland Barthes" in 1981, Derrida has 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", a reading of the full archive of de Man's writings for the papers Le Soir and Het Vlaamsche Land, controlled by the German Occupation government of Belgium. Ultimately fourteen essays were collected into The Work of Mourning.

Derrida and his circle

Geoffrey Bennington and Avital Ronell belong to a group of translators, many of whom are esteemed thinkers in their own right, with whom Derrida has worked in a collaborative arrangement, allowing his prodigous 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 these aforementioned translators have produced essays and book-length manuscripts on Derrida's work which are recommended often to students searching for secondary literature.

Derrida and his critics

Outside this circle Derrida's work has often been at least as controversial as within; many analytic philosophers and scientists state their disagreement with his positions. Derrida and his supporters have argued that few of his critics take his work in its proper difficulty as philosophy, rather using it as a proxy or straw-man in the name of allegedly honorable causes, often giving various aliases for "Enlightenment values" ("Those who wish to simplify at all costs and who raise a great hue and cry about obscurity because they do not recognize the unclarity of their good old 'Aufklärung' are in my eyes dangerous dogmatists and tedious obscurantists", 'Limited, Inc', 119). No small number of these seem to have taken their cue from the controversy that arose with John Searle over Derrida's reading of John Austin in "Signature Event Context" (ISBN 0810107880). Many sympathetic readers feel that these attempts at criticism are written from ignorance of Derrida's work. In 1992 twenty philosophers including W. V. Quine and Ruth Barcan Marcus signed a letter to the University of Cambridge to protest its controversial award of an honorary doctorate to Derrida, maintaining that his 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 replies with some amusement that the letter embarasses itself by citing examples ("logical phallusies") which are not to be found in his work except suspended in quotation marks, as references to this letter.

Marcus has been at loggerheads with Derrida at least since his visiting professorship at Yale, where she held an endowed chair in the Philosophy faculty. Derrida strenusouly protested Marcus's use of Yale stationery and various of her positions in professional associations in a 12 March 1984 letter to the Ministry of Research and Technology, protesting "as a joke" Derrida's unanimous election as the first Director of CIPH and asking the minister to intervene to set aside the election, and raising "more seriously" that were the "appointment" not a "joke" the question of "intellectual fraud" by way of a citation imputed to Foucault by John Searle. Derrida discusses the Cambridge incident at length and with a view to his wider view of the institutional setting of philosophy in the interview "'Honoris causa': This is 'also' extremely funny" (in Points...) but consigns Marcus to footnotes to that interview and the "Afterword" of Limited Inc. The two have somehow managed to spend more than two decades working in some of the same institutions (Marcus joined the Philosophy faculty at Irvine in 1992).


Works by Derrida Referenced Above

Works on Derrida Referenced Above

Works by Others Referenced Above

Selected Other Major Works by Derrida

Selected Other Major Works on Derrida

See also

External Links

This article is part of The Contemporary Philosophers series
Analytic philosophers:
Simon Blackburn | Ned Block | David Chalmers | Patricia Churchland | Paul Churchland | Donald Davidson | Daniel Dennett | Jerry Fodor | Susan Haack | Jaegwon Kim | Saul Kripke | Thomas Samuel Kuhn | Bryan Magee | Ruth Barcan Marcus | Colin McGinn | Thomas Nagel | Robert Nozick | Alvin Plantinga | Karl Popper | Hilary Putnam | W. V. Quine | John Rawls | Richard Rorty | Roger Scruton | Peter Singer | John Searle | Charles Taylor
Continental philosophers:
Louis Althusser | Giorgio Agamben | Roland Barthes | Jean Baudrillard | Isaiah Berlin | Maurice Blanchot | Pierre Bourdieu | Hélène Cixous | Guy Debord | Gilles Deleuze | Jacques Derrida | Michel Foucault | Hans-Georg Gadamer | Jürgen Habermas | Werner Hamacher | Julia Kristeva | Henri Lefebvre | Claude Lévi-Strauss | Emmanuel Levinas | Jean-François Lyotard | Paul de Man | Jean-Luc Nancy | Antonio Negri | Paul Ricoeur | Michel Serres | Paul Virilio | Slavoj ÎiÞek