Study Guide

Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida Essay - Derrida, Jacques (Vol. 87)

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

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
Limited Inc (philosophy) 1988
Du droit à la philosophie (philosophy) 1990
Le problème de la genèse dans la philosophie de Husserl (philosophy) 1990

∗Derrida translated this work from the original German to French and wrote a lengthy introduction. The English translation is by John P. Leavey, Jr.

†This volume contains three essays, including "Limited Inc abc …" which originally appeared in the journal Glyph, No. 2, 1977.


Denis Donoghue (review date 16 April 1977)

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...

(The entire section is 2274 words.)

Christopher Norris (essay date 1982)

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...

(The entire section is 8335 words.)

Richard Rorty (review date 16 February 1984)

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...

(The entire section is 4061 words.)

Rodolphe Gasché (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Deconstructive Methodology," in The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection, Harvard University Press, 1986, pp. 121-76.

(The entire section is 7086 words.)

Alexander Nehamas (essay date 5 October 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 4904 words.)

Richard Rorty (essay date Spring 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 4808 words.)

James Arnt Aune (review date August 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 1166 words.)

Charles E. Winquist (review date January 1990)

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."...

(The entire section is 2770 words.)

John D. Caputo (review date January 1990)

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....

(The entire section is 4474 words.)

Charles E. Scott (essay date Fall-Winter 1991)

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....

(The entire section is 3872 words.)