Derrida, Jacques

born July 15, 1930, El Biar, Alg.
died Oct. 8, 2004, Paris, France

Algerian-born French philosopher.

Derrida taught principally at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris (1964–84). His critique of Western philosophy encompasses literature, linguistics, and psychoanalysis. His thought is based on his disapproval of the search for an ultimate metaphysical certainty or source of meaning that has characterized most of Western philosophy. Instead, he offers deconstruction, which is in part a way of reading philosophic texts intended to make explicit the underlying metaphysical suppositions and assumptions through a close analysis of the language that attempts to convey them. His works on deconstructive theory and method include Speech and Phenomena (1967), Writing and Difference (1967), and Of Grammatology (1967). Among his other works are Psyche: Invention of the Other (1987) and Resistances of Psychoanalysis (1996).

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▪ 2005
Jackie Derrida 
      French philosopher (b. July 15, 1930, El Biar, Alg.—d. Oct. 8, 2004, Paris, France), played a leading role in popularizing the controversial method of reading philosophical texts known as deconstruction. Considered by its opponents a subversive instrument of relativism and nihilism, deconstruction was seen by its adherents as a tool for uncovering, by close reading, hidden blind spots and contradictions (aporia) in the texts that could serve as the starting point for going beyond conventional readings. Derrida adopted the notion from German philosopher Martin Heidegger's concept of Destruktion. He attempted to apply a radical deconstruction to the works of philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche, Edmund Husserl, Emmanuel Levinas, Heidegger, linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, psychologist Sigmund Freud, and others. Derrida argued that Western philosophy was characterized by a “metaphysics of presence” (privileging of being over appearance) and “logocentrism” (the idea that meanings exist independently of the language used to express them); that Western thought had wrongly privileged speech over writing, treating writing as a mere “supplement”; that what he called “différance” (a term combining the meanings of “difference” and “deferral”) was a requirement of all writing; that there was “no escaping from the text,” by which he meant that the meaning of a sentence could be given only in other sentences but which had been used as a basis for charges of relativism against him. In the United States, deconstruction was largely associated with literary and cultural criticism, in part because of Derrida's collaboration with critics Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller at Yale University. Derrida went to school in Algeria, where he faced discrimination because of his Jewishness. He attended the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris for two years before being admitted to the École Normale Supériure in Paris, where he studied under Michel Foucault and Louis Althusser and received his teaching license in 1956. He taught at a lycée in Le Mans, at the Sorbonne (from which he received his doctorate in 1980), and at the École Normale before becoming director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, in 1984. In 1992 the awarding of an honorary doctorate by the University of Cambridge provoked great opposition and criticism of Derrida by British academics, who maintained that his reputation was due to personal style rather than philosophical accomplishment and that his obscure mode of expression, which included puns and neologisms, was designed to hide philosophical shallowness. Derrida's first publication was a French translation of and introduction to Husserl's Origins of Geometry (Die Frage nach dem Ursprung der Geometrie als intentional-historisches Problem, 1939). He came to international prominence with three books published in 1967, De la grammatologie (Of Grammatology, 1976), La Voix et la phénomène (Speech and Phenomena, 1973), and L'Écriture et la différance (Writing and Difference, 1978). His later writings tended to be concerned with questions of ethics and politics.

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▪ French philosopher
Introduction
born July 15, 1930, El Biar, Algeria
died October 8, 2004, Paris, France
 French philosopher whose critique of Western philosophy and analyses of the nature of language, writing, and meaning were highly controversial yet immensely influential in much of the intellectual world in the late 20th century.

Life and work
      Derrida was born to Sephardic Jewish parents in French-governed Algeria. Educated in the French tradition, he went to France in 1949, studied at the elite École Normale Supérieure (ENS), and taught philosophy at the Sorbonne (1960–64), the ENS (1964–84), and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (1984–99), all in Paris. From the 1960s he published numerous books and essays on an immense range of topics and taught and lectured throughout the world, including at Yale University and the University of California, Irvine, attaining an international celebrity comparable only to that of Jean-Paul Sartre (Sartre, Jean-Paul) a generation earlier.

      Derrida is most celebrated as the principal exponent of deconstruction, a term he coined for the critical examination of the fundamental conceptual distinctions, or “oppositions,” inherent in Western philosophy since the time of the ancient Greeks. These oppositions are characteristically “binary” and “hierarchical,” involving a pair of terms in which one member of the pair is assumed to be primary or fundamental, the other secondary or derivative. Examples include nature and culture, speech and writing, mind and body, presence and absence, inside and outside, literal and metaphorical, intelligible and sensible, and form and meaning, among many others. To “deconstruct” an opposition is to explore the tensions and contradictions between the hierarchical ordering assumed or asserted in the text and other aspects of the text's meaning, especially those that are indirect or implicit. Such an analysis shows that the opposition is not natural or necessary but a product, or “construction,” of the text itself.

      The speech/writing opposition, for example, is manifested in texts that treat speech as a more authentic form of language than writing. These texts assume that the speaker's ideas and intentions are directly expressed and immediately “present” in speech, whereas in writing they are comparatively remote or “absent” and thus more easily misunderstood. As Derrida points out, however, speech functions as language only to the extent that it shares characteristics traditionally assigned to writing, such as absence, “difference,” and the possibility of misunderstanding. This fact is indicated by philosophical texts themselves, which invariably describe speech in terms of examples and metaphors drawn from writing, even in cases where writing is explicitly claimed to be secondary to speech. Significantly, Derrida does not wish simply to invert the speech/writing opposition—i.e., to show that writing is really prior to speech. As with any deconstructive analysis, the point is to restructure, or “displace,” the opposition so as to show that neither term is primary.

      The speech/writing opposition derives from a pervasive picture of meaning that equates linguistic meaning with the ideas and intentions in the mind of the speaker or author. Building on theories of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (Saussure, Ferdinand de), Derrida coined the term différance, meaning both a difference and an act of deferring, to characterize the way in which linguistic meaning is created rather than given. For Derrida as for Saussure, the meaning of a word is a function of the distinctive contrasts it displays with other, related meanings. Because each word depends for its meaning on the meanings of other words, it follows that the meaning of a word is never fully “present” to us, as it would be if meanings were the same as ideas or intentions; instead it is endlessly “deferred” in an infinitely long chain of meanings. Derrida expresses this idea by saying that meaning is created by the “play” of differences between words—a play that is “limitless,” “infinite,” and “indefinite.”

      In the 1960s Derrida's work was welcomed in France and elsewhere by thinkers interested in the broad interdisciplinary movement known as structuralism. The structuralists analyzed various cultural phenomena—such as myths, religious rituals, literary narratives, and fashions in dress and adornment—as general systems of signs analogous to natural languages, with their own vocabularies and their own underlying rules and structures, and attempted to develop a metalanguage of terms and concepts in which the various sign systems could be described. Some of Derrida's early work was a critique of major structuralist thinkers such as Saussure, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (Lévi-Strauss, Claude), and the intellectual historian and philosopher Michel Foucault (Foucault, Michel). Derrida was thus seen, especially in the United States, as leading a movement beyond structuralism to “poststructuralism,” which was skeptical about the possibility of a general science of meaning.

      In other work, particularly three books published in 1967— L'Écriture et la différence (Writing and Difference), De la grammatologie (Of Grammatology), and La Voix et le phénomène (Speech and Phenomena)—Derrida explored the treatment of writing by several seminal figures in the history of Western thought, including the philosophers Edmund Husserl (Husserl, Edmund) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Rousseau, Jean-Jacques) and the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (Freud, Sigmund). Other books, published in 1972, include analyses of writing and representation in the work of philosophers such as Plato (La Dissémination [Dissemination]) and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich), Husserl, and Martin Heidegger (Heidegger, Martin) (Marges de la philosophie [Margins of Philosophy]). Glas (1974) is an experimental book printed in two columns—one containing an analysis of key concepts in the philosophy of Hegel, the other a suggestive discussion of the thief, novelist, and playwright Jean Genet (Genet, Jean). Although Derrida's writing had always been marked by a keen interest in what words can do, here he produced a work that plays with juxtaposition to explore how language can incite thought.

      One might distinguish in Derrida's work a period of philosophical deconstruction from a later period focusing on literature and emphasizing the singularity of the literary work and the play of meaning in avant-garde writers such as Genet, Stéphane Mallarmé, Francis Ponge (Ponge, Francis), and James Joyce. His later work also took up a host of other issues, notably the legacy of Marxism (Spectres de Marx: l'état de la dette, le travail du deuil et la nouvelle Internationale [1993; Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International]) and psychoanalysis (La Carte postale: de Socrate à Freud et au-delà [1980; The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond]). Other essays considered political, legal, and ethical issues, as well as topics in aesthetics and literature. He also addressed the question of Jewishness and the Jewish tradition in Shibboleth and the autobiographical "Circumfession" (1991).

Criticism
      Although critical examination of fundamental concepts is a standard part of philosophical practice in the Western tradition, it has seldom been carried out as rigorously as in the work of Derrida. His writing is known for its extreme subtlety, its meticulous attention to detail, and its tenacious pursuit of the logical implications of supposedly “marginal” features of texts. Nevertheless, his work has met with considerable opposition among some philosophers, especially those in the Anglo-American tradition. In 1992 the proposal by the University of Cambridge to award Derrida an honorary doctorate generated so much controversy that the university took the unusual step of putting the issue to a vote of the dons (Derrida won); meanwhile, 19 philosophers from around the globe published a letter of protest in which they claimed that Derrida's writing was incomprehensible and his major claims either trivial or false. In the same vein, other critics have portrayed Derrida as an antirational and nihilistic opponent of “serious” philosophical thinking. Despite such criticism, Derrida's ideas remain a powerful force in philosophy and myriad other fields.

Major Works
Most accessible to a general reader are the early interviews in Positions (1972; Positions, trans. by Alan Bass, 1981), and a later selection, including a letter and discussion concerning the Cambridge honorary degree, in Points de suspension, ed. by Elisabeth Weber (1992; Points …: Interviews, 1974–1994,1995). “Circonfession,” in Geoffrey Bennington and Jacques Derrida, Jacques Derrida (1991; Jacques Derrida, trans. by Geoffrey Bennington, 1993), combines theoretical discussion by Bennington with playfully disruptive autobiographical remarks by Derrida. Representative selections with introductory commentary can be found in A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds, ed. by Peggy Kamuf (1991). Derrida's classic critique of the treatment of speech and writing in Western philosophy appears in the more difficult essays of L'Écriture et la différence (1967; Writing and Difference, trans. by Alan Bass, 1978), and Marges de la philosophie (1972; Margins of Philosophy, 1982), as well as in the celebrated De la grammatologie (1967; Of Grammatology, 1976), which focuses on the work of Saussure and Rousseau. La Dissémination (1972; Dissemination, 1981) contains a crucial essay on Plato. Limited Inc (1988) is a polemical exchange with the American philosopher John Searle about the theory of speech acts; the volume includes an afterword, “Toward an Ethic of Discussion,” that clearly articulates Derrida's positions on many contemporary theoretical issues.Discussions of literature can be found in Acts of Literature, ed. by Derek Attridge (1992), which includes an important interview as well as key essays on Joyce, Franz Kafka (Kafka, Franz), Ponge, Paul Celan (Celan, Paul), and William Shakespeare (Shakespeare, William). Donner le temps (1991; Given Time, 1992) is an exemplary analysis of a prose poem by Charles Baudelaire (Baudelaire, Charles). Psychoanalysis is covered in essays on Freud and Jacques Lacan in La Carte postale: de Socrate à Freud et au-delà (1980; The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, 1987). Spectres de Marx: l'état de la dette, le travail du deuil et la nouvelle Internationale (1993; Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, 1994) treats the legacy of Marxism. La Vérité en peinture (1978; The Truth in Painting, 1987) is an advanced discussion of aesthetic theory and avant-garde artistic practice. L'Autre cap: suivi de la democratie ajournée (1991; The Other Heading: Reflections on Today's Europe, 1992) is a more straightforward reflection on issues confronting the new Europe. Politiques de l'amitié (1994; Politics of Friendship, 1997) explores philosophical reflections on friendship and the importance of friendship for a politics of the future.

Additional Reading
William R. Schultz and Lewis L.B. Fried, Jacques Derrida: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography (1992), is useful. The most accessible discussions of Derrida's work, in addition to Bennington's mentioned above, are Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism After Structuralism (1982, reissued 1994); and Christopher Norris, Derrida (1987). More specialized and philosophically oriented is Rodolphe Gasché, Inventions of Difference: On Jacques Derrida (1994). Gregory L. Ulmer, Applied Grammatology: Post(e)-Pedagogy from Jacques Derrida to Joseph Beuys (1985), treats Derrida's work as a modern artistic and pedagogical practice.

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Universalium. 2010.

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