Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida
Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida (July 15, 1930October 8, 2004) was an Algerian-born French literary critic and philosopher of Jewish descent, considered the first to develop "deconstruction" after it emerged in the work of Martin Heidegger.


Positioning Derrida's thought

Derrida 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.

His work is often associated with post-structuralism and postmodernism, but the latter association cannot be fully credited. Jean-Franois Lyotard, rather, is the closest link between deconstruction and postmodernism, proposing philosophical senses of the latter, which Derrida used primarily in lengthy dialogues that admit no easy conjunction between their work -- see for example Derrida's "Writing Proofs" and Lyotard's "Translator's Notes", Pli vol. 6. Even "within" deconstruction, figures such as Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe have characterized themselves as modernist rather than postmodern in tendency.

Deconstruction according to Derrida

As Derrida explained in his "Letter to a Japanese Friend" (Derrida and Differance, eds. Robert Bernasconi and David Wood) the word "dconstruction" 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.

Deconstruction is related to vast tracts of the Western philosophical tradition, though 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 self-consciously or not), was an important aspect of his thought. Among his foremost influences are Edmund Husserl, Sigmund Freud, and Martin Heidegger.

Derrida as a French philosopher

In addition to de Man and Lyotard, his approximate contemporaries, many of whom were also friends (philosophically and personally), included Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Blanchot, Gilles Deleuze, Jean-Luc Nancy, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Sarah Kofman, Hlne Cixous, Bernard Stiegler, and Geoffrey Bennington, among others.

Derrida was active in organizing French philosophers against the so-called Haby reform proposed by the government of Valry Giscard d'Estaing, by helping to convene the Estates General of Philosophy and through his activities as a founder of the Philosophical Pedagogy Research Group (French acronym: GREPH). 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.


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"). He was expelled from his lyce by Algerian administrators zealous to implement antisemitic quotas set by the Vichy government and then skipped school for a year rather than attend the Jewish lyce formed by displaced teachers and students. His family remained in France long after, moving to Nice only in 1962. At his request, Derrida served as a teacher of soldiers' children in lieu of military service in Algeria (for the French side in the Algerian War of Independence) from 1957–1959, teaching French and English.

Beginning in 1952, Derrida was a student at the elite cole 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 agrgation, Derrida became a lecturer there. From 1960 to 1964, Derrida taught philosophy at the Sorbonne. From 1964 to 1984, he taught at the cole 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 travelled widely and held a series of visiting and permanent positions, particularly in American universities. He successfully defended his Thse d'tat (roughly, the equivalent of a doctorate) in 1980, subsequently published in English translation as "The Time of a Thesis: Punctuations". Until his death he was director of studies at the cole des Hautes tudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. 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 awarded honorary doctorates by Cambridge University (see below), Columbia University, the New School for Social Research, University of Essex, University of Leuven, and Williams College. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and received the 2001 Adorno-Preis. A film about him, made by Amy Ziering-Kofman and Kirby Dick with Derrida's participation, was released in 2002.

In 2003, Derrida was diagnosed with aggressive pancreatic cancer, which reduced his speaking and travelling engagements until his death in a Parisian hospital on the evening of Friday, October 8, 2004 (BBC story (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3729844.stm)). An obituary in The New York Times titled Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74 (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/10/obituaries/10derrida.html?ex=1255147200&en=bc84f1b2c5f092c5&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland) has drawn a letter of objection (http://www.humanities.uci.edu/remembering_jd/), signed online by several thousand persons. Some of the article's alleged defects are recounted here (http://buffyg.blogspot.com/2004/10/open-letter-to-new-york-times.html).


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.


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". 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 of French trends in the above 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" (perceived again as a convenient new label rather than a detailed consideration of the work of the individuals associated with this new "school" and their filiations).

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, Georges Bataille and Descartes, anthropologist Claude Lvi-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. Thereafter and continuing until his illness 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.

Apart from his interest in disciplines bordering philosophy, Derrida frequently commented on another set of borders mostly avoided by philosophy in the past century : nations, "national traditions", and national languages. 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 also discerned in the exceptional internationalism of the Hopkins conference (perceived as an exposition of French goods to new academic markets) "less a fact than a project" ("Ends of Man", p. 112) and took it up as such. His seminar was devoted to the subject of philosophical nationalism from 1984 to 1988. More needs to be said about this with respect to translation, polyvocality and polyglotism, and Heidegger.

As with any philosopher, and in keeping with Derrida's cautious, highly respectful relationship with the philosophical corpus, Derrida's work would be ill-served by condensing it into a small number of themes. As mentioned above, the term deconstruction serves as a translation of the term Destruktion which Heidegger deploys extensively in Being and Time. Derrida noted that the relation to 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, an interest that demands perseverant efforts to reinterpret the tradition. Derrida's deployment of Freud was also crucial in respect of this interpretive initiative. Psychoanalysis was seminal for Derrida, particularly in connection with Heidegger. 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, applying Freud to the distinctions made and dishonored in the attempts of philosophers (including Heidegger) 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

Though Derrida's work cannot be condensed too quickly, a reader can recognize that the problems of inheritance, tradition, and invention occur throughout. Derrida's uvre is said by its champions to consist entirely of meticulous readings (of texts, whether apparently philosophical or not), which find 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 deconstruction to be a method, a hermeneutic for reading in general.

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.

Some of Derrida's critics (among them Richard Wolin, Thomas Sheehan, and John Searle, the last of whom is discussed below) have opted for this characterization. They have popularized an account of deconstruction as a radical and dangerous relativism.

A more nuanced view emerges in Derrida's readings of Kant, particularly "Conflict of the Faculties" and his essays on the "program" (though this word is unsatisfactory) of CIPH ("Titles" and "Sendoffs").

Derrida, on the other hand, maintained a practise of literary criticism that is almost certainly indispensable to deconstruction.

System and aporia

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. This is not "boutique multiculturalism"; there is no safety rail of respect for others that provides any kind of guarantee. This is also philosophy's hope, its chance, the opening onto the future. This matter is outlined in "Nietzsche and the Machine" (with Richard Beardsworth, in Negotiations, ed. Elizabeth Rottenberg). In his "Circumfession" he beholds a 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)

In Derrida's view, the system-dream of philosophy is a promise on which it cannot deliver. 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 a brief, Heidegger's Rapture before all is resolved.

Relationship to Heidegger's thought

Although Derrida is oftened regarded as the progenitor of deconstruction, he has insisted at times that the term came to him through Heidegger. Heidegger's thought is in some sense indispensable to Derrida's, but this should not be taken to mean that the two are coterminous in any simple fashion. Derrida has offered transformative criticisms of Heidegger since his earliest work. Beginning in 1984, Derrida made philosophical nationalism the subject of his seminar and devoted attention to Heidegger in this context. Notes from the archives of his work at the University of California, Irvine, indicate that the work that became Of Spirit matured over a period of some years, probably fermenting at an increased pace during the seminar. The publication of Victor Faras's 1987 book on Heidegger caused many to declare the new controversy of a "Heidegger affair" and demand political explanations from Heideggerian thinkers. 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 Helvtius 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. 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 was willing to exploit such lexical networks himself, he was 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 the former's death, by critics who said little of his work. Lyotard's essay Heidegger and "the jews" and Philippe Lacoue-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 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. 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 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", a reading of Ortwin de Graef's initial selection 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, 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 Grard Granel and Maurice Blanchot.

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 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.

Derrida and his critics

Outside this circle Derrida's work has often been at least as controversial as within; many analytic philosophers and scientists, some going so far as to regard it as pseudophilosophy, even engaging in ad hominem attacks against him, calling him a "charlatan". The philosophical substance of these claims is itself debatable, beginning with its validity vis-a-vis self-reflexive application against the form of its argument. 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" (Derrida: "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 'Aufklrung' 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). Derrida was the first to argue that Searle's criticism is written from ignorance of his work. (He has applied criticisms of this sort to a number of harshly dismissive critics of his work.)

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.

Marcus had been at loggerheads with Derrida at least since his visiting professorship at Yale, where she held an endowed chair in the Philosophy faculty. Derrida strenuously 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" the question of "intellectual fraud" by way of a citation imputed to Foucault by Searle, were the "appointment" not a "joke." Again one can reasonably question the scholarly character of charges laid in such fashion, just as Derrida questioned the validity and integrity of employing so many scholarly credentials to insist upon a political intervention to set aside the result of an academic process whose integrity qua process provided no basis for objection. 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 somehow managed to spend more than two decades working in the same institutions in succession (Marcus joined the Philosophy Department at Irvine in 1992).

Online texts

Essays, excerpts



The most complete bibliography available online can be found at this site (http://www.hydra.umn.edu/derrida/jdind.html). The compilation, copyrighted by Peter Krapp, is still in progress, but all major works are listed, sorted by title (http://www.hydra.umn.edu/derrida/jdalf.html) or by year of publication (http://www.hydra.umn.edu/derrida/jdyr.html).

Selected works by Derrida

(see Jacques Derrida Bibliography)

Works on Derrida

*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

da:Jacques Derrida de:Jacques Derrida es:Jacques Derrida fr:Jacques Derrida ko:자크 데리다 id:Jacques Derrida he:ז'אק דרידה minnan:Jacques Derrida nl:Jacques Derrida ja:ジャック・デリダ no:Jacques Derrida pl:Jacques Derrida pt:Jacques Derrida sk:Jacques Derrida fi:Jacques Derrida sv:Jacques Derrida zh:雅克·德里达


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