Derrida, Jacques (Vol. 87)
Jacques Derrida 1930–
Algerian-born French philosopher, critic, and educator.
The following entry presents an overview of Derrida's career through 1994. See also Jacques Derrida Criticism (Volume 24).
Since 1967, when he simultaneously published three of his most important works, Derrida has been an extraordinarily influential and controversial voice in contemporary philosophy and critical theory. While his theories deal primarily with philosophical issues, his critique of traditional Western philosophy as a "metaphysics of presence" has had an equally profound impact on contemporary literary theory, where critics have appropriated his theories on language into the movement known as "deconstructionism."
Derrida was born to middle-class Jewish parents in El Biar, Algeria. During his childhood, he was traumatized by the anti-Semitism of Algeria's Christian majority. In 1940, Jewish children were expelled from Algeria's schools, and violence against Jews became officially sanctioned. Derrida remarked later that these experiences left him feeling profoundly alienated and hinted that they were formative influences on the central themes of his philosophy. When he was eighteen years old, Derrida moved to France, having earned his baccalaureate degree in Algeria. After hearing a radio broadcast about the French novelist and philosopher Albert Camus, Derrida decided to enroll in philosophy classes at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. While a university student, Derrida was influenced by the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, although he later repudiated Sartrean existentialism. By 1957 Derrida was planning his doctoral dissertation, to be titled "The Ideality of the Literary Object." However, at this time he became immersed in the phenomenological writings of the German philosopher Edmund Husserl and shifted his attention to formulating a critique of metaphysics, the central branch of traditional philosophy, which consists of the search for the ultimate foundations of reality. Since 1960 Derrida has been a professor of philosophy at universities in Paris and the director of the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, also in Paris.
Derrida first introduced his ideas about language and philosophy in his Traduction et introduction à l'origine de la géométrie d'Edmund Husserl (1962; Edmund Husserl's "Origin of Geometry: An Introduction"), which contains a lengthy introduction and a translation of Husserl's 1939 essay "Die Frage nach dem Ursprung der Geometrie." However, Derrida did not attract widespread notice until 1967, when he published La voix et le phénomène (Speech and Phenomena, and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs), De la grammatologie (Of Grammatology), and L'écriture et la différence (Writing and Difference). Of Grammatology is Derrida's most extensive and conventionally argued presentation of his central theme, that Western philosophy systematically portrays writing as the debased "supplement" of the voice, which is assumed to have a more privileged access to philosophical truth because of its supposedly more intimate correspondence with thought itself. Utilizing the method known as "deconstruction," a form of close textual interpretation which analyzes the internal contradictions of philosophical discourse, Derrida demonstrates that Western philosophy's arguments against writing consist of metaphors and figures of speech—the very elements of rhetoric which philosophers since Plato have denigrated as unphilosophical. For Derrida, the metaphysical philosopher's inherently rhetorical argumentation betrays his desire for a transcendental truth beyond the imperfections of language—a perception which Derrida expresses very succinctly in his famous statement, "There is nothing outside the text." Applying these insights in Speech and Phenomena, Derrida contends that Husserl's phenomenology—a branch of philosophy which seeks to establish the absolute foundations of human perception—relies on metaphors or allegories of the metaphysical belief that language (in particular, written language) is too contradictory and concrete a medium to embody absolute truth. Writing and Difference is a collection of essays on various seminal figures in the history of philosophy which further illustrates Derrida's method of deconstruction. In 1972, Derrida again published three books nearly simultaneously. The most important of these, La dissémination (Dissemination), signalled a new direction in Derrida's work. While a large section of the book presents a critique of Plato's doctrine of truth, it begins and ends with a practical demonstration of Derrida's ideas on writing. Focusing on the concept of "dissemination," which refers to the inherent indeterminacy of meaning in language (due to the arbitrary relationship between words and the objects they signify), Derrida invents unusual words and sentence structures to demonstrate the fundamental instability and contradictoriness of philosophical discourse. The complexity of this "playful" mode of deconstruction reached its zenith in Derrida's following work, Glas (1974; Glas), which presents his discussion of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and the French dramatist, novelist, and poet, Jean Genet. The commentary is arranged in parallel columns—Hegel on the left, Genet on the right, with an occasional third in the middle—which modify and reflect upon one another. The typographical and etymological wordplay of Glas has led to comparisons with James Joyce's Finnegans Wake (1939), which was written in a blend of different languages. Critics generally have not regarded Glas as a work of philosophical significance, beyond the fact that its format puts into practice Derrida's thesis that literary and philosophical texts are distinguished only by the structure of their metaphors and rhetoric. Derrida's subsequent works, while not as extreme in their experimentation as Glas, continue to display his concern with conflating literary and philosophical modes of discourse. In La carte postale (1980; The Post Card) Derrida utilizes metaphors of postal communication to interpret psychoanalysis as a series of transmissions between a sender and a receiver in which meaning is mediated, detoured, and deferred by language. Moreover, Derrida composes the first section of The Post Card as a series of fictitious letters which parody epistolary literature and flout the conventions of "serious" philosophy. Two of Derrida's works, Éperons (1976; Spurs) and De l'esprit (1987; Of Spirit) are considered important because they present Derrida's commentary on the German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, whom Derrida and many of his interpreters have cited as his primary philosophical influences. He derived the word and the concept of deconstruction from Heidegger's use of the German word destruktion; and Heidegger's definitive four-volume study of Nietzsche, in which he argues that his philosophy is both the culmination and "overturning" of traditional metaphysics, provided a model for Derrida's deconstructive readings of philosophers.
Derrida's works have tended to incite passionately divergent reactions from critics. Philosophers oriented toward the analytical and logical positivist schools, such as John Searle, refute Derrida by arguing that his championing of "indeterminacy" and linguistic freeplay leads to extreme forms of skepticism and nihilism. However, critic Christopher Norris defends Derrida by pointing out that deconstruction is actually an exceedingly rigorous form of analysis, and that Derrida's understanding of philosophy as a rhetorically structured form of writing indistinguishable in its essence from literature has been espoused by numerous other philosophers, notably Nietzsche. Derrida's reception among literary critics has been no less contentious. Part of the controversy may be attributed to the casual linkage of Derrida's name to the literary deconstructionists. As Rodolphe Gasché has pointed out, Derrida's philosophy does not concern itself directly with literary texts, and literary deconstruction is actually an independent movement which has for the most part only loosely applied Derrida's theories. Given that ideological and intellectual differences of opinion have made Derrida an extremely controversial figure, there can be no critical consensus as to the value of his work. However, his prominence in the history of philosophy seems assured. Philosopher Richard Rorty argues that the lasting value of Derrida's work is in its critical analysis of traditional Western philosophy. Rorty concludes: "Having done to Heidegger what Heidegger did to Nietzsche is the negative achievement which, after all the chatter about 'deconstruction' is over, will give Derrida a place in the history of philosophy."
∗Traduction et introduction à l'origine de la géométrie d'Edmund Husserl [translator] [Edmund Husserl's "Origin of Geometry: An Introduction"] (philosophy) 1962
De la grammatologie [Of Grammatology] (philosophy) 1967
L'écriture et la différence [Writing and Difference] (philosophy) 1967
Le voix et le phénomène: Introduction au problème du signe dans le phénoménologie de Husserl [Speech and Phenomena, and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs] (philosophy) 1967
La dissémination [Dissemination] (philosophy) 1972
Marges de la philosophie [Margins of Philosophy] (philosophy) 1972
Positions (interviews) 1972
Glas [Glas] (criticism) 1974
L'archéologie du frivole: Lire Condillac [The Archeology of the Frivolous: Reading Condillac] (criticism) 1976
Éperons: Les styles de Nietzsche [Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles] (philosophy) 1976
La vérité en peinture [The Truth in Painting] (criticism) 1978
La carte postale: De Socrate à Freud et au-delà [The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond] (philosophy) 1980
Signéponge [Signsponge] (criticism) 1984
Parages (criticism) 1986
De l'esprit: Heidegger et la question [Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question] (philosophy) 1987
Psyché: Inventions de l'autre [Psyche: Inventions of the Other] (philosophy) 1987
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SOURCE: A review of Of Grammatology, in The New Republic, Vol. 176, No. 16, April 16, 1977, pp. 32-4.
[Donoghue is an Irish critic and educator. In the following review, he asserts that Of Grammatology, in spite of its "excruciating" difficulties, is a work of great importance for students of philosophy and literature.]
In April 1970 a colloquium of French philosophers and critics was held at Cluny on certain major themes in contemporary thought. By all accounts the most voluble presence at the proceedings was a man who was not present at all: the Algerian-French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Most of the discussions turned, twisted and swirled upon his work, especially the three books he had published in 1967, La voix et le phénomène, a critique of Husserl's theory of signs, L'écriture et la différence and De la grammatologie. For all I know, there may have been some philosophers at Cluny who claimed to have felt the first tremor of recognition several years before Derrida became famous; perhaps when he published his first book, a translation of Husserl's The Origin of Geometry (1962) which included a long introductory analysis of the work. But I doubt it. Derrida's reputation in France in the years before 1967 was provoked mainly by the essays brought together in L'écriture et la différence. The books published in 1967 have now been extended in...
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SOURCE: "Jacques Derrida: Language against Itself," in Deconstruction: Theory and Practice, 1982. Reprint by Routledge, 1988, pp. 18-41.
[Norris is an English critic and educator who has authored numerous studies on Derrida and deconstruction. In the following excerpt, he offers a detailed summary of Derrida's theories on language, philosophy, and writing.]
The texts of Jacques Derrida defy classification according to any of the clear-cut boundaries that define modern academic discourse. They belong to 'philosophy' in so far as they raise certain familiar questions about thought, language, identity and other longstanding themes of philosophical debate. Moreover, they raise those questions through a form of critical dialogue with previous texts, many of which (from Plato to Husserl and Heidegger) are normally assigned to the history of philosophic thought. Derrida's professional training was as a student of philosophy (at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he now teaches), and his writings demand of the reader a considerable knowledge of the subject. Yet Derrida's texts are like nothing else in modern philosophy, and indeed represent a challenge to the whole tradition and self-understanding of that discipline.
One way of describing this challenge is to say that Derrida refuses to grant philosophy the kind of privileged status it has always claimed as the sovereign dispenser...
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SOURCE: "Signposts along the Way That Reason Went," in London Review of Books, Vol. 6, No. 3, February 16, 1984, pp. 5-6.
[An American philosopher, critic, and educator, Rorty is the most prominent contemporary advocate for the discipline known as pragmatism. In the following review of Margins of Philosophy, he examines the philosophical contexts relevant to Derrida's theories on language. While he argues that Derrida's position vis-à-vis the Western philosophical tendency to privilege reason over rhetoric is not original, he predicts that Derrida will be considered an important philosopher by future generations of scholars.]
If you want to know what the common sense of the bookish will be like fifty years from now, read the philosophers currently being attacked as 'irrationalist'. Then discount the constructive part of what they are saying. Concentrate on the negative things, the criticisms they make of the tradition. That dismissal of the common sense of the past will be the enduring achievement of the long-dead 'irrationalist'. His or her suggestions about what to do next will look merely quaint, but the criticisms of his or her predecessors will seem obvious.
For example, everybody has doubts about the superman and the Oedipus complex, but nobody wants to revive the moral psychology which Nietzsche and Freud found in place. Everybody has doubts that truth is just 'what...
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SOURCE: "Truth and Consequences," in The New Republic, Vol. 197, No. 14, October 5, 1987, pp. 31-6.
[Nehamas is a Greek-born American educator and critic whose philosophical study, Nietzsche: Life as Literature (1986), was widely praised as one of the most important book-length interpretations of Nietzsche. In the following essay, he outlines and critiques the main themes of Derrida's philosophy.]
Jacques Derrida has been the focus of furious controversy ever since he startled his audience, at a conference in 1966 intended to mark the coming of age of structuralism in America, by arguing that it was already too late, that structuralism was already effectively dead. In the years that followed, Derrida became an institution in his own right. His lectures attract huge crowds. At least 13 of his books have been published in English, including these newly translated, though not so recently written, works [Glas, The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, and The Truth in Painting]; and books about him are appearing wherever you look. Many of Derrida's terms—"grammatology," "logocentrism," "margin," "différance," and, of course, "deconstruction," after which a whole approach to literary criticism has been named—are now commonplace in many academic disciplines, and they are entering wider, even journalistic, usage as well.
The passions surrounding Derrida...
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SOURCE: "Is Derrida a Transcendental Philosopher?" in Yale Journal of Criticism, Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring, 1989, pp. 207-17.
[In the following essay, Rorty disputes the interpretations of Derrida's work put forth by such critics as Christopher Norris and Rodolphe Gasché, who argue that Derrida is a rigorous logician and a transcendental philosopher in the tradition of Hegel and Kant.]
For years a quarrel has been simmering among Derrida's American admirers. On the one side there are the people who admire Derrida for having invented a new, splendidly ironic way of writing about the philosophical tradition. On the other side are those who admire him for having given us rigorous arguments for surprising philosophical conclusions. The former emphasizes the playful, distancing, oblique way in which Derrida handles traditional philosophical figures and topics. The second emphasize what they take to be his results, his philosophical discoveries. Roughly speaking, the first are content to admire his manner, whereas the second want to say that the important thing is his matter—the truths that he has set forth.
Geoffrey Hartman's Saving the Text set the tone for the first way of appropriating Derrida. At the same time that I was picking up this tone from Hartman, and imitating it, Jonathan Culler was criticizing Hartman for light-mindedness. The term "Derridadaism," Culler said [in On...
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SOURCE: A review of Glas and Glassary, in The Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. LXXV, No. 3, August, 1989, pp. 355-57.
[In the following review of Glas, Aune remarks that its barriers to comprehension are even greater than in Derrida's earlier books, yet he praises it for its erudition and scholarly rigor.]
My first reaction upon receiving Glas in the mail was that it may have inaugurated a new literary genre: the coffeetable book for academics. Elegantly printed (in several different typefaces, which correspond to the multiple "voices" of the text) and 10 1/4 inches square, Glas looks like the sort of book one would display or read in, but never read.
And, alas, Glas probably will remain unread by most readers…. Conversation between American-style rhetoricians and deconstructionists seems impossible, and the recent de Man case may well serve as a convenient excuse for evading such a conversation indefinitely. Thus far, David Cratis Williams, Dilip Gaonkar, and Martha Solomon are the only rhetoricians who have expressed sympathy with deconstruction, and I suspect Glas will send even them screaming into the night.
Derrida, of course, never was terribly accessible—with the possible exception of his early work on Husserl, Speech and Phenomena, and the essay, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of...
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SOURCE: "Derrida and the Study of Religion," in Religious Studies Review, Vol. 16, No. 1, January, 1990, pp. 19-21.
[In the following review of Glas, The Truth in Painting, and The Post Card, Winquist summarizes Derrida's philosophy and considers its relation to theology.]
Deconstruction is always deeply concerned with the "other" of language. I never cease to be surprised by critics who see my work as a declaration that there is nothing beyond language, that we are imprisoned in language; it is, in fact, saying the exact opposite. The critique of logocentrism is above all else the search for the "other" and the "other of language." [Derrida, in an interview with Richard Kearney in Kearney's Dialogues with Contemporary Continental Thinkers, 1984]
Western theology and the study of religion are both deeply implicated in the logocentric framework of the Western philosophical tradition that has become the object of a radical deconstructionist critique. In particular, it has been the work of Jacques Derrida that has most recently "problematized" any easy alliance of theology and the study of religion with unquestioned logocentric assumptions and trajectories in their discursive practices. Derrida has made conscious the often unthought syntax of philosophical thinking that is itself the often unthought context for the study of...
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SOURCE: "Derrida and the Study of Religion," in Religious Studies Review, Vol. 16, No. 1, January, 1990, pp. 21-5.
[In the following review of The Post Card, The Truth in Painting, and Glas, Caputo discusses Derrida's use of psychoanalytic and theological ideas in his critique of traditional philosophy.]
On the cover of The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond there is a reproduction of a drawing taken from a thirteenth-century fortune telling book by Matthew of Paris that portrays Socrates seated at a writing desk, diligently at work on a manuscript, while behind him stands a rather more diminutive Plato who appears to be dictating to him. Upon this "catastrophic" reversal of roles Derrida comments:
Be aware that everything in our bildopedic culture,… in our telecommunications of all genres, in our telematicometaphysical archives,… everything is constructed on the protocolary charter of an axiom, that could be demonstrated, displayed on a large carte,… [that] Socrates comes before Plato, there is between them—and in general—an order of generations, an irreversible sequence of inheritance.
Our tradition has always assumed that Socrates did not write and that Plato, who did, regarded his writings as a written copy, a mimesis, of the living dialogue of Socrates; in other words we...
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SOURCE: "Beginning with Belonging and Nonbelonging in Derrida's Thought: A Therapeutic Reflection," in Soundings, Vol. LXXIV, Nos. 3-4, Fall-Winter, 1991, pp. 399-409.
[In the following essay, Scott links Derrida's notion of différance with Freud's theories of the unconscious, and speculates on the possible therapeutic uses of deconstruction.]
I do not know how to speak of Derrida's writing. That much, at least, I can say about his writing. My difficulty is two fold: to speak properly about his writing I need to put in question the words and concepts that I use as I use them so that a sense of simple, continuing presence and meaning is not communicated. Otherwise I mislead by the seeming clarity with which I place and define his thought. And second, if I speak that way I will not be understood by those who are not careful readers of Derrida.
Why do I face such a difficulty when I speak about Derrida's writing? Primarily because of the way in which he responds to the following descriptive claims about language. First, vocalized speech dominates the western experience of communication and provides a deep illusion of unbroken meaning. Second, vocalized speech is quite different to writing which belongs to something unspeakable. And third, language in all of its parts is constructed by strife among multiple lineages of expression and meaning, and by both meaning and no meaning at...
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Schultz, William R., and Fried, Lewis L. B. Jacques Derrida: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, 1992, 882 p.
Comprehensive primary and secondary bibliography, including sources in English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and other languages.
Behler, Ernst. Confrontations: Derrida/Heidegger/Nietzsche. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991, 180 p.
Analyzes the complex interrelations between the works of Derrida, Martin Heidegger, and Friedrich Nietzsche.
Brunette, Peter, and Wills, David. Screen/Play: Derrida and Film Theory. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989, 210 p.
Applies Derridean concepts to such aspects of film theory as frame-analysis and genre classifications.
Coward, Harold. Derrida and Indian Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990, 200 p.
Comparative study of Derrida and various classical Indian philosophers which asserts that Derrida's work "provides a challenging and creative bridge between traditional Indian and modern Western philosophy."
―――――――, and Foshay,...
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