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Derrida, Jacques

Derrida, Jacques 1931-2004


Jacques Derrida was one of the most original and influential French philosophers in the contemporary world. He was born in Algeria on July 15, 1931, to a Sephardic Jewish family. He moved to France in 1949 and studied in Paris at the École Normale Supérieure, where he wrote his dissertation on Edmund Husserls genetic phenomenology (Le Problème de la genèse dans la philosophie de Husserl [The Problem of Genesis in Husserls Philosophy], 1953-1954). In the 1960s Derrida published major works concerned with the limitations of phenomenological and structuralist thought in the human sciences. Prior to his death, he was the director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Socialies in Paris and professor of humanities at the University of California, Irvine. Derrida died on October 8, 2004.

Derrida is today universally recognized as the leading figure in the field of poststructuralist thought designated by the term deconstruction. He is typically referred to as the most prominent critic of Western metaphysics (understood as a universal discourse that is foundational, subject-oriented, and logocentric); he is also frequently described as an antihumanist, a postphenomenologist, and the founding father of the discipline of grammatology. His early writings are best represented by three key texts: La Voix et le phénoméne (Speech and Phenomena), De la Grammatologie (Of Grammatology), and LÉcriture et la différence (Writing and Difference), all published in 1967. These works were the first to circulate the poststructuralist themes of the role of différance, textuality, and writing in all systems of meaning (and thereby to set into play wider currents of research in disciplines concerned with the dynamic characteristics of texts, writing, and cultural dissemination).

Derrida is particularly noted for questioning the unity, direction, and stability of traditional philosophical discourse. Yet thematically his major writings have all been concerned to advance careful readings and interpretations of the texts of major figures in both ancient and modern philosophy, including Plato (427347 BCE), Immanuel Kant (17241804), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778), G. W. F. Hegel (17701831), Edmund Husserl (18591938), Martin Heidegger (18891976), and Sigmund Freud (18561939). These writings are supplemented by analyses of such nonphilosophers as Samuel Beckett (19061989), Maurice Blanchot (19072003), George Bataille (18971962), and Jean Genet (19101986), among other important literary figures. Derrida reads all of these texts as complex intertextual objects saturated with indeterminate meanings, ambivalent oppositions, and undecideable interpretations.

For many readers in the analytic or Anglophone tradition of philosophical thought, Derrida is a subversive relativist, a nihilist word-player who has largely abandoned the pursuit of rational criticism to embrace a form of negative and playful experiment with words and their indefinite allusions and meanings. Derridas pantextualism was notoriously symbolized by his claim Il ny a pas de hors-texte, usually translated as There is nothing outside of the text, but perhaps more literally expressed as There is nothing outside of text (a declaration that Derrida later reformulated to Il ny a pas de hors contexte, or There is nothing outside of context). On this reading, Derrida is frequently grouped with other enemies of reason as an irrationalist or even a nihilist. In this interpretation, the terms deconstruction and deconstructionist have been used as derogatory expressions designed to define deconstruction as a method of literary criticism rather than serious philosophy (an approach that remains oblivious to the fact that Derrida spent a lifetime of painstaking reading and commentary with the objective of questioning and deconstructing this type of binary opposition).

Despite such one-sided interpretations, what has come to be called deconstructive studies has had a major impact upon contemporary philosophy, literary theory and criticism, sociology, educational practices, media, and cultural studies. One of the first intellectual traditions to assimilate Derridas work was the Yale school of literary criticism, struggling to elaborate forms of reading and interpretation richer than the available models of new criticism. In this context, we can mention the work of Paul de Man (19191983), Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, and J. Hillis Miller. Following Derridas lead, these critics have radically questioned the nature of literary meaning, authorship, and authorial intentionality by uncovering the metaphysical presuppositions and binary oppositions that have structured the methods of traditional textual analysis and interpretation. In generalizing deconstruction from texts narrowly conceived in literary-critical terms to the general text of social life, we have come to see that all theory and research in the human sciences is inextricably involved in complex questions of language and interpretation.

In his later work, Derrida turned to a range of problems linked with contemporary social and political life. His writings became increasingly preoccupied with urgent ethical and political problems of European integration, immigration and the treatment of asylum seekers, and questions of friendship and otherness in an increasingly borderless, cosmopolitan world order. His books Of Hospitality (2000), On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (2001), and The Work of Mourning (2001) are indicative of these themes.

While Derridas work has profoundly changed the practice of philosophical analysis, literary theory, and other textual sciences, perhaps his most long-lasting impact lies in the turn toward ethical and political issues that has transformed the intellectual landscape of what passes for the theory and practice of the human sciences, the arts, and philosophy.

SEE ALSO Critical Theory; Ethics; Literature; Narratives; Philosophy; Postmodernism; Poststructuralism



Derrida, Jacques. 1962. LOrigine de la géométrie. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. English trans.: 1978. Edmund Husserls Origin of Geometry: An Introduction. Trans. John P. Leavey. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1967. De la Grammatologie. Paris: Minuit. English trans.: 1974. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1967. La Voix et le phénomène: Introduction au problème du signe dans la phénoménologie de Husserl. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. English trans.: [1973] 1979. Speech and Phenomena, and Other Essays on Husserls Theory of Signs. Trans. David B. Allinson and Newton Garver. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1967. LÉcriture et la différence. Paris: Seuil. English. trans.: 1978. Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1969. The Politics of Friendship. Trans. George Collins. London: Verso.

Derrida, Jacques. [1972] 1982. Marges de la philosophie. Paris: Minuit. English trans.: 1982. Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Brighton, U.K.: Harvester.

Derrida, Jacques. 1987. The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1987. The Truth in Painting. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1989. Mémoires: For Paul de Man. Trans. Eduardo Cadava, Jonathan Culler, and Cecile Lindsay. New York: Columbia University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1992. Acts of Literature, ed. Derek Attridge. New York: Routledge.

Derrida, Jacques. 1992. The Other Heading: Reflections on Todays Europe. Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1994. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge.

Derrida, Jacques. 1998. Monolingualism of the Other, or, The Prosthesis of Origin. Trans. Patrick Mensah. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 2000. Of Hospitality: Anne Dufourmantelle Invites Jacques Derrida to Respond. Trans. Rachel Bowlby. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 2001. On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. Trans. Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes. New York: Routledge.

Derrida, Jacques. 2001. The Work of Mourning, ed. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Llewelyn, John. 1986. Derrida on the Threshold of Sense. London: Macmillan.

Norris, Christopher. 1987. Derrida. London: Fontana.

Sallis, John, ed. 1987. Deconstruction and Philosophy: The Texts of Jacques Derrida. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Wood, D., and R. Bernasconi, eds. 1988. Derrida and Difference. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press.

Barry Sandywell

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"Derrida, Jacques." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 26 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Derrida, Jacques." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (April 26, 2017).

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Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida (born 1930), by developing a strategy of reading called "deconstruction," challenged assumptions about metaphysics and the character of language and written texts.

Jacques Derrida was born in El Biar, Algiers, in 1930. He went to France for his military service and stayed on to study at the Ecole Normale with the eminent Hegel scholar Jean Hyppolite. Derrida taught at the Sorbonne (1960-1964) and after 1965 he taught the history of philosophy at the Ecole Normale Superieure. He was also a visiting professor in the United States at Johns Hopkins University and at Yale. His scholarly contribution included work with GREPH (Groupe de recherches sur l'enseignement philosophique), an association concerned about the teaching of philosophy in France.

Derrida gained recognition for his first book, a translation with lengthy introduction of Husserl's Origin of Geometry (1962), which won him the Prix Cavailles. His analysis of Husserl's phenomenology became the starting point for the criticism of Western philosophy developed in his numerous other works. Derrida was suspicious of all systematic metaphysical thought and sought to illuminate the assumptions and riddles found in language.

'Metaphysics of Presence'

Derrida depicted Western thought, from Plato onward, as a "metaphysics of presence." By this he meant the desire to guarantee the certainty of thought claims by finding an ultimate foundation or source of meaning and truth. This quest was seen in the Western preoccupation with such concepts as substance, essence, origin, identity, truth, and, of course, "Being." Moreover, he explored the way metaphysics is linked to a specific view of language. The assumption, Derrida contended, is that the spoken word is free of the paradoxes and possibilities of multiple meanings characteristic of written texts. He called this assumed primacy of the spoken word over text "logocentrism," seeing it closely linked to the desire for certainty. His task was to undo metaphysics and its logocentrism. Yet Derrida was also clear that we cannot easily escape metaphysical thought, since to think outside it is to be determined by it, and so he did not affirm or oppose metaphysics, but sought to resist it.

Derrida developed a strategy of reading texts called "deconstruction." The term does not mean "destruction" but "analysis" in the etymological sense of "to undo." Deconstructive reading attempts to uncover and undo tensions within a text showing how basic ideas and concepts fail to ever express only one meaning. Derrida's point was that language always defers any single reference to the world because it is a system of signs that are intelligible only because of their differences. He called this dual character of language "difference" linking deferral and difference. Traditional metaphysics, as the quest for a unequivocal mystery of meaning, is deconstructed by exposing the "difference" internal to metaphysical discourse.

'Nothing Outside the Text'

Derrida's famous phrase, stated in Of Grammatology (1976), that "there is nothing outside the text" sums up his approach. What texts refer to, what is "outside" them, is nothing but another text. "Textuality" means that reference is not to external reality, the assumption of much Western thought, but to other texts, to "intertextuality." Thus Derrida's criticism of logocentrism also entails an attack on the assumption that words refer to or represent the world. If texts do not refer to the world then it is impossible to secure through language a foundation for meaning and truth. This requires a revision of what we mean by philosophical thinking. It can no longer be seen as the search for foundations, but as the critical play with texts to resist any metaphysical drive of thought.

Derrida applied deconstructive reading to a variety of texts, literary and philosophical. In Dissemination (1972) he offered subtle and complex readings of Plato and Mallarme. In works such as Margins of Philosophy (1972) and Writing and Difference (1978) he wrote on topics ranging from metaphor to theater. He refused, in a way similar to Nietzsche, to accept simple distinctions between philosophical and literary uses of language. Interestingly, his challenge to philosophy and his affirmation of the ambiguity of texts meant that his own work called for deconstruction.

Derrida's deconstructive strategy has implications for the study of literature. His contention was that the search for meaning, ideas, the author's intention, or truth in a text are misguided. What must be explored is the meanings that words have because of linguistic relations in the text. This opens up an infinite play of meaning possible with any text. Put differently, there is no one meaning to a text, its meaning is always open and strictly undecideable. Deconstruction requires the close readings of texts that highlight linguistic relations, particularly etymological ones, and relations between a text and other texts found in our culture without seeking to determine "the" meaning of the work. In short, it requires taking seriously "difference" and intertextuality.

Not Without Detractors

Derrida's work provoked the reconsideration of traditional problems and texts and suggested a strategy for reading. However, he did not offer a positive position but debunked metaphysic strains of thought found throughout Western philosophy and literature. His work had significant impact on philosophical and literary circles, particularly in France and the United States. Derrida and his ideas were not always accepted. Critics argued his philosophy undermines the rational dialogue essential to academic pursuits. Indeed, in 1992 a proposal to give Derrida an honorary degree from Cambridge University met with opposition.

Derrida's 1996 book Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, explored the relationship between technologies of inscription and psychic processes. "Derrida offers for the first time a major statement on the pervasive impact of electronic media, particularly e-mail, which threaten to transform the entire public and private space of humanity," wrote one reviewer. Because of the complexity of his writing, the need to deconstruct his texts, and the limitless potential of deconstructive reading, the influence and importance of his work is still in question.

Further Reading

Derrida is listed in Contemporary Literary Criticism (Vol. 24), which includes critical reviews by philosophers and literary critics. For a helpful study of Derrida's work see Geoffrey Hartman, Saving the Text: Literature/Derrida/Philosophy (1981). To see Derrida's relation to other contemporary philosophers and critics see David Couzen Hoy's The Critical Circle: Literature and History in Contemporary Hermeneutics (1978).

Additional Sources

David Wood, Of Derrida, Heidegger, and Spirit, Northwestern University Press, 1993.

Newton Garver, Derrida & Wittgenstein, Temple University Press, 1995.

Richard Beardsworth, Derrida & the Political, Routledge, 1996.

Robert Smith, Derrida and Autobiography, Cambridge University Press, 1995

Ellen K. Feder; Mary C. Rawlinson; Emily Zaki; Derrida and Feminism: Recasting the Question of Woman, Routledge, 1997.

Mark Wigley,The Architecture of Deconstruction: Derrida's Haunt, Mit Pr, 1993.

James Powell, Derrida for Beginners, Writers & Readers, 1996.

Nancy J. Holland, Feminist Interpretations of Jacques Derrida (Re-Reading the Canon), Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997. □

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Derrida, Jacques

Jacques Derrida (zhäk´ dĕr´rēdä´), 1930–2004, French philosopher, b. El Biar, Algeria. A graduate of the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, he taught there and at the Sorbonne, the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, and a number of American universities. In his famously dense and complex writings he refuted the theory of structuralism and attempted to take apart, or "deconstruct," the edifice of Western metaphysics and reveal what he deemed its incompatible foundations. In Of Grammatology (1967, tr. 1976), for example, Derrida contended that Western metaphysics (e.g., the work of Saussure, whose theories he rejected) had judged writing to be inferior to speech, not comprehending that the features of writing that supposedly render it inferior to speech are actually essential features of both. He argued that language only refers to other language, thereby negating the idea of a single, valid "meaning" of a text as intended by the author. Rather, the author's intentions are subverted by the free play of language, giving rise to many meanings the author never intended.

Derrida had a major influence on literary critics, particularly in American universities and especially on those of the "Yale school," including Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, and J. Hillis Miller. These deconstructionists, along with Derrida, dominated the field of literary criticism in the 1970s and early 1980s. Influential in other fields as well, the philosophy and methodology of deconstruction was subsequently expanded to apply to a variety of arts and social sciences including such disciplines as linguistics, anthropology, and political science. Derrida's writings include Writing and Difference (1967, tr. 1978), Margins of Philosophy (1972, tr. 1982), Limited Inc. (1977), The Post Card (1980, tr. 1987), Aporias (tr. 1993), and The Gift of Death (tr. 1995).

See biography by B. Peeters (2012); study by C. Norris (1987); A. Z. Kofman, dir., Derrida (documentary, 2002).

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