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.”
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.
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...