Derrida, Jacques 1930-2004

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DERRIDA, Jacques 1930-2004

OBITUARY NOTICE— See index for CA sketch: Born July 15, 1930, in El Biar, Algeria; died of pancreatic cancer October 8, 2004, in Paris, France. Philosopher, educator, and author. Derrida was the founder of deconstructionism, a philosophy especially popular in the 1970s and 1980s that was originally applied to literature but later spread to a wide variety of artistic disciplines. Born in Algeria, he attended schools in France, but was a surprisingly weak student for someone who would later be hailed as one of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century. He failed entrance exams to the École Normale Supérior twice, but finally was admitted in 1952. He later attended the Sorbonne, receiving his Licence des Lettres and Licence de Philosophie in 1953, a Diplome d'Études Supérieures and Certificat d'Ethnologie in 1954, an Agregation de Philosophie in 1956, and a doctorate in 1967. Years later, after defending his dissertation, he received a Doctorat d'État des Lettres in 1980. Derrida taught for a year at the Lycée du Mans and then was a philosophy professor at the Sorbonne for four years before joining the École Normale Supérior faculty in 1964. He taught there for the next twenty years, during the height of his philosophy's popularity. Derrida's concept of deconstructionism is difficult to understand, and many critics still feel that the philosopher never adequately explained his beliefs. The essential idea behind it, however, is that the limitation of language and the biases of writers or other artists make their writings—or other creations to which deconstructionism was later applied, such as art, film, and architecture—unreliable representations of reality. By breaking down, for example, a novel or a book of philosophy, into smaller parts, one can examine and discover its inherent contradictions. Deconstruction gained many adherents, especially in the United States, and from the late 1960s through the 1980s it was a popular form of literary criticism and intellectual dialogue. However, in 1987 deconstructionism suffered a major setback when one of its main champions, the late Yale University professor Paul de Man, was discovered to have been a supporter of the Nazis who had written a series of anti-Semitic articles during World War II. Matters were made worse when Derrida, a Jew himself, defended de Man, using deconstructionism to argue that de Man was not actually supporting the Nazis. His defense was widely criticized by those who argued deconstructionism could be used as a tool to pardon virtually any immoral behavior. Another blow came that same year when the philosopher Martin Heidegger, whom Derrida greatly admired, was found to have been a former member of the Nazi Party. This information severely crushed Derrida's reputation, but he eventually recovered somewhat from the setback. Part of this recovery was due to a change of heart that made him more willing to grant interviews and promote himself in the media, whereas before he had generally shunned such publicity. This opening up made the philosopher seem more accessible to the public; in 2002 he even agreed to have a documentary filmed about him, which was released as Derrida that year. Having left the École Normale Supérior in 1984, Derrida's last post was as director of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. During his lifetime, Derrida published over forty books. Among these are Of Grammatology (1976), The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond (1987), Acts of Literature (1992), Deconstruction and Pragmatism (1996), and The Instant of My Death (2000). For his contributions to philosophical thought, the French government named him a commandeur des Arts et des Lettres in 1983 and a chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur in 1995, and in 1988 he received the Prix Nietzsche from the Association Internationale de Philosophie.



Los Angeles Times, October 10, 2004, p. B16.

New York Times, October 11, 2004, p. A26.

Times (London, England), October 11, 2004, p. 48.

Washington Post, October 10, 2004, p. C11.