Derrida, Jacques (1930–2004)

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Although he was not altogether happy with the fact, Jacques Derrida's name has become synonymous with deconstruction. Derrida was born in El-Biar, near Algiers, in 1930. In 1949 he left for Paris and in 1952 began to study at the École Normale Supérieure, where he taught from 1964 to 1984. Beginning in 1975, Derrida spent a few weeks each year teaching in the United States. While at Yale University Derrida collaborated with Paul de Man (19191983), leading to the extraordinary impact that deconstruction has had on the study of literature in the United States, an impact that quickly spread to other disciplines and countries.

Derrida's record of publications is remarkable. In 1962 he wrote an introduction to a translation of Husserl's Origin of Geometry that in many respects anticipates the later works. In 1967 he published a further study of Edmund Husserl, Speech and Phenomena ; a collection of essays, Writing and Difference ; and a reading of Ferdinand de Saussure, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Of Grammatology. A rapid succesion of publications ensued, among the most important of which are Dissemination (1972), Glas (1974), The Post Card (1980), Psyché (1987), Given Time (1991), and The Politics of Friendship (1994). Derrida also published extensively on an increasingly broad range of subjects from literature and politics to art and architecture.

Styles of Deconstruction

Deconstruction is neither a method nor a negative critique. It is better understood as a strategy for reading texts under the influence of Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Emmanuel Levinas, and Saussure. In the early years of deconstruction many of the most important readings were devoted to these thinkers, all of whom, except for Husserl, were treated in Derrida's 1968 lecture "Différance." Derrida justified this cross-fertilization of disparate authors by saying that their names served to define contemporary thought. This practice came to be generalized as intertextuality and came to be further enhanced as Derrida, in each new text, drew heavily on his previous readings. Because Derrida's language is both cumulative and parasitic on the texts that he is reading, attempts to formulate Derridean doctrines are often misleading. Hence it is more appropriate to focus on his strategies.

Most of Derrida's writings operate by close reading, and their impact depends on the capacity of this reading to account for details that more conventional readings either ignore or explain away. In clear contrast, not only with most modern trends in philosophy, but also with a widespread image of him, Derrida was immersed in the history of philosophy. For Derrida this was the only way to avoid unwittingly repeating the most classic gestures of philosophy, a danger that threatens every attempt to ignore that history and begin philosophy anew. Deconstruction locates itself within traditional conceptuality in order to find the radical fissures that it believes can be traced in every work of philosophy. Derrida was drawn to the apparent contradictions of the tradition and made them the starting point of his readings, whereas a more conventional treatment tends to stop short as soon as a contradiction is identified. Much that is strange, and to some even offensive, about Derrida's analyses arises because he attempted to uncover the structures that organize and so transcend or exceed conventional reason.

Particularly in his early writings, Derrida presented his deconstructive readings of individual works in the history of Western philosophy as directed against a certain understanding of that history as one in which presence had been privileged. The priority of presence was reflected throughout the binary oppositions that structured Western thought: presence over absence, speech over writing, inside over outside, and so on. Derrida's strategy was to show that those texts that were supposed to have exhibited this privilege of presence also reflected a certain counter-tendency. So, for example, texts that on the surface appear to privilege speech over writing also have moments in which the hierarchy was reversed. Following this reversal, Derrida sought to pass beyond the opposition to that which exceeds it: Hence, in the example given, he identifies what he calls a proto-writing, which is neither speech nor writing in the conventional sense, but that which is the condition of all forms of language.

Derrida drew his account of history of Western metaphysics in terms of presence from Heidegger, but in so far as Heidegger's account was directed toward the overcoming of metaphysics, Derrida located within that project an opposition between what was inside and outside metaphysics. He thus identified within the project of leaving metaphysics behind, a hierarchical opposition that was itself still metaphysical. By contrast, Derrida's own position was that one cannot stand unequivocally either within or outside metaphysics. This was reflected in his strategy of double reading. To any text that was conventionally conceived of as belonging to Western metaphysics, he added a new reading that showed how that same text could be understood as exceeding Western metaphysics, and to texts, such as those by Heidegger and Levinas, that presented themselves as passing beyond Western metaphysics, Derrida added a reading that drew them back into the conceptuality of Western metaphysics. The deconstruction lay not in the new reading alone, but in its juxtaposition with previous readings, which were not thereby supplanted so much as understood as belonging to the history of the text. This means that Derrida does not so much oppose the dominant reading, as that he adds another reading to it, so that the so-called double reading combats any attempt to locate the text in question either within or outside Western metaphysics.

There is, however, another style of deconstruction that has become increasingly widespread in Derrida's thought. It proceeds by the exploration of aporias, as will be illustrated later in a discussion of Derrida's conception of the gift. Because Derrida sometimes seems to give the aporias he investigates a universal status, deconstruction in this sense is no longer as attached to the conception of the history of philosophy as the history Western metaphysics, as was the case with his textual readings of philosophy. However, Derrida did not consider these two styles of deconstruction as independent of each other, so that it would be a mistake to suppose that he had abandoned the genealogical component of his work.

The Supplement

Supplement is one of the key terms of Derrida's challenge to Western metaphysics, understood as a unified body of thought that privileges presence. He used this term to problematize the philosophical quest for a simple origin as a self-sufficient source. He identified a "logic of supplementarity," which is said to be "inconceivable to reason," according to which the supplement, by delayed reaction, produces that onto which it is said to be added (Of Grammatology, pp. 179 and 259). The force of Derrida's analysis relies heavily on the close readings of philosophical texts in which he uncovered this logic, most notably his reading of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Of Grammatology.

The logic of supplementarity uncovers the rules that structure some of the apparent contradictions found in the texts of metaphysics. In the case of an author who courts paradox as readily as Rousseau, the task is particularly demanding. Derrida's diagnosis is that Rousseau wants to resist the conclusions he nevertheless cannot avoid. As a result, Rousseau's descriptions do not match with the declarations that reveal what he wants those descriptions to say. For example, Rousseau wants to identify the origin of language with speech and thereby make writing a "mere" supplement, but speech is itself a substitute for gesture, which is thereby, in a phrase whose apparent incoherence Derrida underlines, the primordial supplement. Derrida argued that instead of distinguishing Rousseau's use of "supplement" as addition from its use as "substitute," one should see the two senses as operating together (pp. 144165). So, to continue with the example, much of what appeared contradictory in Rousseau's account of the origin of languages is found to arise because Rousseau wanted to locate the origin of language in the languages of the south but found himself having to draw constantly on the supplementary principles that he had associated with the languages of the north. The languages of the north were, therefore, not simply an external addition, but an alterity that must have been lodged within the system from the outset.

Derrida has exhibited the logic of supplementarity in other metaphysical texts. For example, in Speech and Phenomena (1973), Derrida located this operation in Edmund Husserl's account of language. Derrida identified a double tendency in Husserl, like that found in Rousseau. On the one hand Husserl wants to separate indication from solitary life, the strata of expression. On the other hand there are suggestions in Husserl's text that indication is constitutive of expression. The deconstruction of Husserl performed by this double reading is not a critique any more than the reading of Rousseau is. Neither thinker is criticized for failing to recognize the logic of supplementarity as such, not least because this logic has to be understood in terms of what metaphysics represses. The effacement of the primordial supplement is the condition of metaphysics, which thus can no longer be seen as a unity, as it was for Heidegger.

The Trace

That trace is another notion that Derrida employed as part of his contestation of the tradition of Western metaphysics understood in terms of the priority of presence is clear from his use of the phrase "a past that has never been present" to explicate it. The phrase itself is already found in Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception, where it describes the unreflective fund of experience on which reflection draws. Derrida adopted the phrase in "Violence and Metaphysics" to explicate the notion of trace in the work of Levinas, who immediately introduced it into his own account.

Derrida employed various strategies to show that the trace challenges conventional thought. For example, in Of Grammatology (1976), when he introduced the concept of an originary trace or arche-trace, he underlined that it represents a contradiction because a trace, which is ordinarily possible only as an effect, is here posited as an origin. The point is to problematize the language and procedures of transcendental philosophy, especially transcendental phenomenology, on which the thought of the trace nevertheless depends for its articulation. This was already Levinas's aim when he appealed to the trace in his account of the possibility of ethics in terms of the face of the Other. The trace is more than a sign of remoteness; it is an irrecuperable absence. Levinas was serving notice that the face surpasses the limits of phenomenology and yet can be approached only through phenomenology. Similarly, even though Derrida makes Freud's failure to apply the effaceability of the trace to all traces a critical element of his reading, at the same time he explicitly recognizes Freud's unconscious as transcending transcendental phenomenology, just as the structure of delay in the sense of deferred effect (Nachträglichkeit ) cannot be construed as a variation on the present.

These examples show how in the 1960s Derrida developed his account of the trace by gathering together the thought of such thinkers as Levinas and Freud, but he subsequently moved away from this largely parasitic approach. Most notably in Cinders, Derrida took the impossible thought of the trace to a different level by explicating it as ashes, with clear reference to the Holocaust. In this way the trace comes to define our epoch even more definitively, than when he drew on the thinkers who, as he had put it earlier, had helped to define our epoch.

Criticism and Responses

If deconstruction's initial impact within the United States has been strongest in literature departments, this is in part because Derrida's conviction that absolute univocity is impossible is more readily welcomed by literary critics, who have always celebrated the multiplicity or meaning, than by philosophers, whose discipline has tended to encourage a reduction on controlling of equivocity. Whereas the dominant tendency in philosophy has been to mark different uses of a term in an effort to control the ambiguity, the deconstructive approach is to question the basis of any attempt to limit the associations of language. This approach has sometimes been confused with an invitation to so-called free play, in the sense of arbitrariness in interpretation, although Derrida has often rejected this way of reading his work. In exploring equivocity, Derrida is acknowledging and not ignoring the ambiguity of words. In the literary context the constraints of deconstruction are sometimes neglected for the freedom of literacy experimentation. This is less common in Derrida than in some of his followers, but it has given ammunition to the critics of deconstruction.

The most persistent criticism of Derrida arises from his claim in Of Grammatology that "there is nothing outside the text" (p. 158). This has sometimes been understood to mean that all reference to the social and historical context is ruled out, and even that the text has no referent. It is easy to show that Derrida has never practiced such an extreme aestheticization of the text. What he did mean is explained in "Living On," in which he sets out the concept of a text as a differential network that overruns all the limits assigned to it (p. 84). This, the so-called general text, is not conceived as a totality. It does not have an outside, anymore than it has an inside. As Derrida explained in the 1988 afterword to Limited Inc., there is nothing outside context, which is almost the opposite of what he is often accused of saying by many who do not share his philosophical background in phenomenology, psychoanalysis, or structural linguistics and yet fail to make allowance for that fact.

One of the most persistent criticisms raised against Derrida in the 1970s and 1980s was that his thought was ill-placed to address ethical and political issues. The understanding, widespread at that time, that Derrida's 1964 essay "Violence and Metaphysics," subsequently reprinted with revisions in the collection Writing and Difference, was critical of Levinas for his evocation of ethics after Nietzsche and after Heidegger's Letter on Humanism seemed to block him from making any such contribution. This interpretation has now been abandoned in the face of Derrida's repeated invocations of Levinas in the course of his own efforts to contribute to an understanding of ethics. It is here that a form of deconstruction as the exploration of certain aporias has come into his own. Derrida takes up the idea of a duty to go beyond one's duty. So, for example, in Given Time Derrida introduced the aporia of the gift whereby a gift is only a gift and not a form of exchange if there is no return on the gift. Derrida pursued these conditions to the point where even being aware that one is making a gift of something would constitute a form of return, thereby making the gift impossible. Parallel studies of hospitality and forgiveness followed. However, it should always be remembered that, for Derrida, the impossibility of the gift or of hospitality, for example, does not mean that giving and hospitality do not happen. It means rather that they are singular events that exceed, and so cannot be explained in terms of what precedes them.

See also Deconstruction; Freud, Sigmund; Heidegger, Martin; Husserl, Edmund; Language; Levinas, Emmanuel; Merleau-Ponty, Maurice; Metaphysics; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Phenomenology; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques.


A complete list of works by Derrida in French and English up to 1992, established by Albert Leventure and Thomas Keenan, is available in Derrida: A Critical Reader, edited by D. Wood (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992).

derrida's major philosophical works

De la grammatologie. Paris: Édtions de Minuit, 1967. Translated by G. Spivak as Of Grammatology Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1976.

La carte postale. Paris, 1980. Translated by A. Bass as The Post Card Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1987.

La dissémination. Paris, 1972. Translated by B. Johnson as Dissemination Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1981.

La voix et le phénomène. Paris, 1967. Translated by D. Allison as Speech and Phenomena Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973.

L'écriture et la différence. Paris, 1967. Translated by A. Bass as Writing and Difference Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1978.

Glas. Paris, 1974. Translated by J. Leavey, Jr., and R. Rand as Glas Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.

Introduction to L'origine de la géométrie by Edmund Husserl. Translated by J. Leavey, Jr., as Edmund Husserl's Origin of Geometry. Lincoln, NE: Nebraska University Press, 1989.

Limited Inc. Translated by Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988.

"Living On." In Deconstruction and Criticism. New York: Seabury Press, 1979, pp. 75176.

Marges de la philosophie. Paris, 1972. Translated by A. Bass as Margins of Philosophy Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1982.

Psyché: Inventions de l'autre. Paris: Galilée, 1987.

works on derrida

Bennington, G., and J. Derrida. Jacques Derrida. Paris: Seuil, 1991. Translated by Geoffrey Bennington as Jacques Derrida Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1993.

Direk, Z., and L. Lawlor, eds. Jacques Derrida: Critical Assessments of Leading Philosophers. 3 vols. London: Routledge, 2002.

Gasché, R. The Tain of the Mirror. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Lawlor, L. Derrida and Husserl: The Basic Problem of Phenomenology. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2002.

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

Robert Bernasconi (1996, 2005)