Study Guide

Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida Biography

Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida (dayr-ee-dah) is the founder of the theory of deconstruction, the main philosophical tenet of poststructuralism, an intellectual movement that from the late 1960’s through the 1990’s had a tremendous influence on the development of literary studies. Derrida was born in 1930 in El Biar, Algeria, of assimilated Sephardic-Jewish parents. He received his baccalaureate in 1948 in Algeria and in 1950 began studies in France, working at the École Normale Supérieure with the Hegel scholar Jean Hyppolite. In 1957 he temporarily abandoned his doctoral thesis, “The Ideality of the Literary Object,” and moved toward the deconstructive questioning presented in his “Speech and Phenomena.” Derrida’s reservations about the very idea of thesis presentation and the tradition of positional/oppositional logic indefinitely impeded his dissertation. Beginning in 1960 he taught at the Sorbonne in Paris for four years, continuing his work on the interface of literary theory and philosophy, particularly the phenomenology of G. W. F. Hegel, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Georges Bataille, and Maurice Blanchot. In 1966 Derrida presented his paper “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” at the now-famous structuralism conference at The Johns Hopkins University, and in 1967, the single most significant year in his publishing history, he published three major works, Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference, and “Speech and Phenomena,” and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs.

After 1972 Derrida divided his time between teaching in Paris at the École Normale Supérieure and in the United States at universities such as Johns Hopkins, Yale, and the University of California, Irvine. Also in 1972 Derrida published his second set of major publications (Dissemination, Margins of Philosophy, and Positions), in which he further develops his theory of deconstruction, always within the context of sociohistorical issues. The term “deconstruction” cannot be unequivocally...

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Jacques Derrida Bibliography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Johnson, Christopher. Derrida. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented and requiring no special background. Bibliography.

Lamont, Michele. “How to Become a Dominant French Philosopher: The Case of Jacques Derrida.” American Journal of Sociology 93, no. 3 (1987). Serves as a brief synopsis of the life of Jacques Derrida and his importance to French and North American philosophy. Contains an appendix that includes a list of secondary sources.

Lucy, Niall. A Derrida Dictionary. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2004. An entertaining and informative reference, including thoroughly readable discussions of terms and concepts.

Morag, Patrick. Derrida, Responsibility and Politics. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1997. Morag’s examination is directed toward the foundations of legal, moral, and political authority and at the questioning of form itself as it relates to the ethico-political significance of deconstruction.

Norris, Christopher. Derrida. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988. This text introduces Derrida in a post-Kantian light without delving too far into technical detail. Norris covers a broad spectrum of ideas while focusing on the subtle logic that surrounds Derrida’s reasoning. Its emphasis on the philosophical importance of ontology presents the reader with a solid foundation for further inquiry.

Powell, Jason. Jacques Derrida: A Biography. New York: Continuum, 2006. This biography provides an enlightening overview of Derrida’s work and writing.

Powell, Jim. Derrida for Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers, 1996. Powell offers a superb introduction to the thought and life of Derrida. Recommended for readers who are approaching Derrida’s ideas for the first time.

Roden, David, and Christopher Norris, eds. Jacques Derrida. 4 vols. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2002. A comprehensive survey of key secondary literature on Derrida, organized thematically. Provides a core conceptual vocabulary of deconstructive terminology.

Sallis, John. Deconstruction and Philosophy: The Texts of Jacques Derrida. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. This text represents the first attempt to compare Derrida’s deconstruction to Western philosophy up to and including Heidegger. Includes a work by Derrida previously unavailable in English.

Salusinszky, Imre. “Jacques Derrida.” In Criticism in Society. New York: Methuen, 1987. Focuses on the application of Derrida’s deconstruction to education. Includes an introduction to the main ideas of grammatology and deconstruction.

Whitford, Margaret. “Jacques Derrida.” In Makers of Modern Culture, edited by Justin Wintle. New York: Facts on File, 1981. Summarizes the life, work, and philosophical significance of Derrida.

Jacques Derrida Biography (Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Derrida was the author and principal exponent of grammatology, a writing-centered theory of language, and of the associated critical practice known as deconstruction. As one of the leading figures in poststructuralism and postmodernism, he argued forcefully against philosophical, scientific, and religious efforts to institutionalize some preferred system of meanings as “truth.”

Early Life

Jacques Derrida was born in El Biar, Algeria, on July 15, 1930, of “assimilated” Sephardic Jewish parents. One of his earliest and most frightening memories was of the persecution directed against Jews in the period preceding the French-Algerian War. His anxiety in the face of mounting racial tension was heightened after the Allied victory in World War II, when “racial laws” were enacted in Algeria. In 1945, he was enrolled at the Jewish lycée but refused to attend classes for a year because of the growing racial and ethnic unrest. Despite the obstacles, he managed to complete his baccalauréat in 1948.

Near the completion of his studies at the lycée, Derrida became interested in French existential philosophy, particularly in the political engagement of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. After going to France for his military service, he stayed on in 1950 to do philosophical research on Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger, among others, at the École Normale Supérieure. His philosophical studies were distinguished enough to earn for him a one-year visiting scholarship at Harvard University in 1956, which marked the beginning of his fruitful association with the American intellectual community. At that time, he was already becoming disillusioned with structuralism and phenomenology, the two dominant contemporary philosophical alternatives in the continental tradition. While teaching at the Sorbonne between 1960 and 1964, he developed a critical vocabulary from his meditations on literary theory that he would later deploy against both of these theoretical positions.

Life’s Work

Beginning in the mid-1960’s, the main purpose of Derrida’s work was to dethrone the deeply entrenched philosophical tradition of logocentrism. Common to the epistemic paradigms of ancient, medieval, and modern philosophy, according to Derrida, is the belief that the rational subject is capable of discovering timeless, universal truths. With appropriate precautions against the influence of prejudice and presuppositions, the logocentric inquirer is purportedly in a position to discover the essential nature or meaning (the logos) of things.

The strategy that Derrida developed to combat logocentrism is known as deconstruction. To deconstruct a text is to undermine its foundation by revealing the suppressed weaknesses and uncertainties that, despite the suppression, are present in the “margins,” the meaningful interstices one finds “between the lines.” According to Derrida, the margins of a text are an integral part of the text itself, rich in unintended and unmanaged meaning. The margins of both structuralist and phenomenological writings, for example, reveal the hidden weaknesses of the respective theories.

In 1966, Derrida burst upon the American scene with his lecture “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” at The Johns Hopkins University. Previewed as a sympathetic introduction to Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structuralist anthropology, the lecture instead announced the defeat of structuralism. On the question of Lévi-Strauss’s theory, which fixes meaning by positing a stable structural framework, Derrida “decenters” the alleged fixity by revealing that the play of signifiers has led to the positing of the structure, thus inverting the hierarchical arrangement between structure and the play of signifiers. The published version of this lecture remains the clearest illustration of Derrida’s decentering strategy and one of the most incisive critiques of structuralism available. Along with Derrida’s Of Grammatology, which appeared the following year, the essay provided the impetus for the poststructuralist movement.

One key to understanding Derrida’s writings is to appreciate the subtlety of his objections to structuralism. His argument should not be seen as antistructuralist but rather as hyper-or super-structuralist. Derrida outdoes structuralism and undoes it at the same time by exposing implications that were “always already” present in its earliest theoretical formulations. Most significantly, he exploits the central tenet of Ferdinand de Saussure’s structural linguistics, according to which meaning is a function of the opposition or difference within a system of signifiers rather than a function of reference to something outside the system (to a “transcendental signified”). Whereas Saussure balked at admitting the ultimate implications of his thinking, Derrida recognized that Saussure’s semantic theory allows one to dispense with reference to extralinguistic entities.

The year 1967 was pivotal in Derrida’s career. In that year, he published three important philosophical works: “Speech and Phenomena,” and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs, Of Grammatology, and Writing and Difference. The first is a sustained attack on the “phonocentrism” at the heart of Husserl’s phenomenology. A phonocentric theory privileges speech, contending that the spoken word is unproblematically connected to mental representations or meanings. Deriving from Aristotle and finding support in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s writings on language, this theory holds that there is a natural unity of sound and sense because the meaning of speech is intimately bound...

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Jacques Derrida Biography (Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

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Derrida, known for theories of literary criticism as well as for statements concerning the nature of reality, was one of the most prominent and controversial philosophers of the second half of the twentieth century. Much of Derrida’s theory of philosophy and ethics is an attack on structuralism. Structuralism says that meaning is produced by applying systems of rules based on the relationships of things and concepts to one another. A 1966 conference at The Johns Hopkins University was intended to introduce structuralism to the United States; Derrida’s paper instead announced the demise of structuralism and the advent of what he called “deconstruction.”

Deconstruction suggests...

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