Jacques Derrida

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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.


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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

(This entire section contains 857 words.)

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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 defined; it is not a method nor merely a theory, but it is most appropriately understood as a strategy of reading that is acutely responsive to the conditions of a text’s production. Through deconstructive readings Derrida calls into question what he designates as the “logocentric” tradition of Western metaphysics. In Of Grammatology, Derrida neologistically creates the term “logocentrism” to characterize the Western metaphysical view that essences are sustained by transcendental signifieds, or some assumed “center” external to signifiers whose meaning, truth, and validation they convey. Derrida argues that logocentric thinking, which is phonocentric and ethnocentric as well, presupposes universal truths that may be critiqued as cultural constructs or comforting linguistic fictions.

For Derrida the rigidity and conservatism of the French Academy and intellectual life in the 1950’s and 1960’s represented the embodiment of logocentrism, particularly evident in the notion of a single, authoritative, traditional interpretation of a literary text. Although a central purpose of deconstruction is to examine, destabilize, and reinscribe received opinions, Derrida has been criticized for undermining or exposing so-called traditional ideas without providing any real alternative. In opposition to logocentrism, however, Derrida’s theory of deconstruction constitutes what he calls a “grammatology,” a theory of writing that proposes that the graphic distribution of signs has the effect of infinitely postponing meaning, or the transcendental signified. Meaning is never completely present to itself or a matter of intuitive evidence; it is divided from itself through the “play” of difference.

To explain the theory of writing as “dissemination,” or “play,” Derrida invented the term différance, derived from the French verb différer, which combines the verb “to differ” and the verb “to defer.” Derrida expands upon the semiology (study of sign systems) of Ferdinand de Saussure, who held that the sign is divided from its object, by showing that the signifier (sound image) and signified (concept) that make up the sign are also divided between themselves. Because the signifier invokes or disseminates other signifiers rather than delineating a single signified, the sign always means more than the author intended. Thus the process of interpretation is infinite, and no single meaning of a text exists. Meaning is determined by context, which in turn is infinitely variable. Moreover, meaning is not experienced as a presence but as a “trace” of multiple and differential intertextual relations. Derrida’s literary theories bear a close relationship to the psychological theories of Jacques Lacan, who also proceeds from Saussure.

Although deconstruction has been criticized as ahistorical, Derrida’s involvement in social issues is evident in his concern about the role of the university in society and the need to continue teaching philosophy in the high schools in France. In 1975 Derrida and some friends and colleagues founded the Groupe de Recherches sur l’Enseignement Philosophique, intended to examine philosophy education and to resist the French government’s proposal to eliminate philosophy for the final-year lycée course. Further, in 1983 Derrida helped to found the International College of Philosophy in Paris, an institution established for all foreign scholars whose research is not accepted at existing institutions.

Jacques Derrida initiates a rethinking of philosophy, literature, and critical theory by challenging such privileged humanistic principles as presence, essence, referent, transcendentality, consciousness, and God. His “general strategy of deconstruction,” which critiques itself in a rigorously self-reflective manner as it proceeds, requires a studious commitment to interdisciplinary issues and questions.