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."