Jacques Derrida (1930 – 2004) was a 20th Century Algerian-born French philosopher, best known as the founder of the Deconstructionism movement in the 1960s, and for his profound impact on Continental Philosophy and literary theory in general. He deliberately distanced himself from the other philosophical movements on the French intellectual scene (e.g. Phenomenology, Existentialism, Structuralism), and denied that Deconstructionism was a method or school or doctrine of philosophy of any sort.
He was a prolific author and became one of the most well known philosophers of contemporary times. His work was always highly cerebral and “difficult”, and he has often been accused of pseudo-philosophy, sophistry and deliberate obscurantism.
Jacques Derrida (pronounced de-ri-DAH) was born on 15 July 1930 in the small town of El-Biar (now a suburb of Algiers) in Algeria, into a Sephardic Jewish family, the third of five children. He spent his early years in El-Biar, but at the age of 12 he was dismissed from his lycée by French administrators implementing anti-Semitic quotas set by the Vichy government, and he chose to skip school rather than attend the Jewish lycée which arose.
For a while, he dreamed of becoming a professional soccer player, and took part in numerous competitions, but in his later teens he also started to read philosophers and writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus(1913 – 1960) and André Gide (1869 – 1951) and began to think seriously about philosophy.
He became a boarding student at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris and, after failing his entrance examination twice, he was admitted to the prestigious École Normale Supérieure (where Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and many other French intellectuals and academics began their careers) in 1952. There, he became friends with the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser (1918 – 1990) and with the philosopher and critic Michel Foucault, whose lectures he attended. He also studied Hegel under Jean Hyppolite (1907 – 1968).
He completed his philosophy dissertation on Edmund Husserl and was offered a place at Harvard University and moved to the United States. In June 1957, he married Marguerite Aucouturier in Boston, and they were to have two sons, Pierre (1963) and Jean (1967). He was called up for military service during the Algerian War of Independence in 1957, but elected to teach soldiers’ children for two years in lieu.
In the early 1960s, Derrida began a long association with “Tel Quel”, a Paris-based leftist avant-garde journal for literature and philosophy, strongly influenced by Nietzsche. He taught philosophy at the Sorbonne from 1960 to 1964, and at the École Normale Superieure from 1964 to 1984. In 1967, Derrida published his first three books, which would make his name: “Writing and Difference”, “Speech and Phenomena” and “Of Grammatology” (the latter remains his most famous work). Starting in 1972, Derrida produced on average more than a book per year, sometimes experimenting with non-traditional styles of writing. He carried on a sequence of encounters with proponents of Analytic Philosophy such as J. L. Austin (1911 – 1960) and John Searle (1932 – ).
He travelled widely and held a series of visiting and permanent positions, including as director of studies at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris (he had a third son, Daniel, in 1984 by Sylviane Agacinski, a professor at the EHESS) and as the first president of the Collège international de philosophie, which he co-founded in 1983 with François Châtelet (1925 – 1985) and others. He became Professor of the Humanities at the University of California, Irvine in 1986, and was a regular visiting professor at several other major American universities, including Johns Hopkins University, Yale University, New York University and the New School for Social Research. He was awarded honorary doctorates by various American, British and European universities, and appeared in a self-title biographical documentary in 2002.
Derrida had always been involved in various (generally leftist) political causes, including support for the Parisian student protesters in 1968, denouncement of the Vietnam War, cultural activities against the apartheid government of South Africa and on behalf of Nelson Mandela in the 1980s, support for Palestinian liberation, protests against the death penalty and opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
In 2003, Derrida was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and he reduced his workload significantly. He died in a Parisian hospital on 8 October 2004.
Derrida’s initial work in philosophy was largely phenomenological, and his early training as a philosopher was done largely through the lens of Edmund Husserl. Other important inspirations on his early thought include Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 – 1913), the Lithuanian-French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas (1906 – 1995) and the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939).
He soon started to express a dissatisfaction with both Phenomenology and Structuralism (the other main movement of the period), finding them limiting and overly simplistic. After his 1966 lecture, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Science”, Derrida found himself identified as a key figure in the early Post-Structuralist movement, and was one of the first to propose some theoretical limitations to Structuralism, He pointed to an apparent de-stabilizing or de-centring in intellectual life (referring to the displacement of the author of a text as having greatest effect on a text itself, in favour of the various readers of the text), which came to be known as Post-Structuralism.
A preoccupation with language is apparent in much of Derrida’s early work, especially in his ground-breaking “Of Grammatology” of 1967, and he especially asked the questions “What is ‘meaning’?” and “Where does ‘meaning’ come from?” He argued that the whole philosophical tradition rests on arbitrary dichotomous categories (e.g. sacred/profane, sign/signifier, mind/body, etc), and he referred to his procedure for uncovering and unsettling these dichotomies as “deconstruction”.
In very simplistic terms, Deconstructionism (or sometimes just Deconstruction) is a theory of literary criticism that questions traditional assumptions about certainty, identity, and truth. It asserts that words can only refer to other words, and attempts to demonstrate how statements about any text subvert their own meanings. Derrida’s particular methods of textual criticism involved discovering, recognizing and understanding the underlying assumptions (unspoken and implicit), ideas and frameworks that form the basis for thought and belief. Derrida himself denied that it was a method or school or doctrine of philosophy (or indeed anything outside of reading the text itself).
In the mid-1980s, Derrida began teaching on the relationship between philosophy and Nationalism, and published “Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question” on Heidegger’s Nationalism in 1987. His work took an even more “political turn”around 1994, heralded by the publication of “Spectres of Marx” (professing his faith in a deconstructed Marxism), and arguably an “ethical turn” with works such as “The Gift of Death” of 1995.
Derrida’s work was always highly cerebral and “difficult”. Proponents of Analytic philosophy, such as W. V. O. Quine, J. L. Austin (1911 – 1960) and John Searle(1932 – ), repeatedly accused Derrida of pseudophilosophy and sophistry, and even his French contemporary Michel Foucault accused him of “obscurantisme terroriste” (“terrorist obscurantism”). No less an intellectual and linguist than Noam Chomsky (1928 – ) admitted to not understanding Derrida’s work, and denounced his “pretentious rhetoric” and “intentional obfuscation”. Other accusations are of an extreme Skepticism and Solipsism, verging on Nihilism, that effectively denies the possibility of knowledge and meaning.