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Derrida, Jacques

Derrida, Jacques 1931-2004

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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

BIBLIOGRAPHY

PRIMARY WORKS

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.

SECONDARY WORKS

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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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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Derrida, Jacques

DERRIDA, JACQUES

DERRIDA, JACQUES (1930–2004), French philosopher and literary critic. Derrida was born and raised in El-Biar, near Algiers. In 1942, he was expelled from school as result of antisemitic measures. In 1949 he moved to France and beginning in 1952 he studied at the École Normale Superieure, under Michel Foucault and Louis Althusser. He served in the French army in Algeria from 1957 until 1959 as a teacher of French and English. Until 1962 he hoped for the coexistence of the French of Algeria within an independent Algeria. In the same year Derrida resettled in Nice.

From 1960 to 1964, Derrida taught at the Sorbonne. From 1964 to 1984 he taught at the École Normale Superieure. In 1983, he founded the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris. In 1967 he published the first of a long series of books. He was not only a prolific writer, he also traveled extensively, lecturing and teaching. He was celebrated in the academic world, mostly in a number of American universities (e.g., Johns Hopkins, Yale, Cornell, City University of New York), but was almost excluded from the French university world. Nevertheless, his work was appreciated by many French academicians, among them Ph. Lacoue-Labarthe and J.L. Nancy, E. Levinas, and S. Kofman.

Derrida was an outspoken leftist intellectual. When visiting Israel, he had talks with Palestinian intellectuals. In 1981, he traveled to Prague for a clandestine seminar in support of the anti-totalitarian movement and was arrested by the police on the false accusation of drug possession. He was allowed to leave Czechoslovakia thanks to the intervention of François Mitterand and the French government. He also protested against apartheid in South Africa.

Among his many awards and honors he received the Nietzsche prize in 1988 and the Adorno Prize in 2001. His oeuvre has been translated into English, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, and other languages.

Derrida's Hermeneutics

Derrida developed a method, known as "deconstruction." Deconstructionism is neither nihilism nor destruction; it is affirmative openness towards the other. Derrida maintained that the written word is characterized by the absence of the original voice which gave it meaning. It is impossible, therefore, to know the intention behind the written word. Consequently, when one reads what is written, multiple meanings are possible: nobody has a monopoly on the "right" meaning. Letters and documents, from which the writer is absent, are open to endless interpretations, since there is no presence of the speaker who – face to face with the one who receives his words – eventually corrects his words or explains them. Texts are polyvalent and function as letters that did not reach their destination and are now read by whoever happens to read them.

Derrida studied at the Leuven Husserl Archive, and was long occupied with Husserl, whose phenomenology he deconstructed. Protesting against a metaphysics of presence and origin, where everything is transparent, Derrida showed the multiple fissures in texts and the indecidability that is implied in any text. He initiated a new hermeneutic. In a Heraclitian and anti-essentialist way, he showed how the meaning of a text changes all the time. The text is capable of infinite signification, and receives meaning not by reconstructing the intention of its writer, but through its autonomous function. The same book or letter can be read by different readers in different ways, and a second or third reading is not equal to the first. By limiting the text to one meaning, one excludes all other possible meanings. Meanings are produced through the different contexts of the reader and through the context in which a written document is placed.

A word also possesses several meanings. This is clear when one takes into account misunderstandings. One phonetic phenomenon can result in a proliferation of meanings, as is the case in the French homophone words l'est, l'é, lait, legs, or ontologie-hauntologie. The same word can also denote something completely different in another language, as in the case of the German "Gift," poison, that is the homophone of the English "gift," present.

Derrida and Postmodernism

Derrida is one of the most provocative thinkers of our time, and his thought is part of postmodern philosophy, which does not recognize universal truth and resists the imperialism of the sciences. In postmodernism, each text is a pretext for a multitude of interpretations and is open to the fantasy of the reader. The entire world is one big text and there is no limit to its explanations. Just as in medieval paintings cathedrals are carefully placed in biblical landscapes, the modern reader places his own point of view in every text. There is no absolute, objective truth, and the only truth that is recognized is that of the interpreting person. This does not mean that everyone has his own truth. It would be inaccurate to say that Derrida was a relativist. What he strove for is the advent of the wholly other outside the horizon of the same. In his numerous writings, there is a plenitude of associations, and in his books and articles he placed different texts next to each other, so that they began "speaking."

Derrida's Judaism as Refusal of Totality

Derrida admitted that he did not know Jewish culture. This non-knowledge was then elevated to a fundamental "not belonging." In this way, he thought of himself as "the last Jew" (le dernier des juifs): more Jewish than the Jews in his exemplary non-belonging. To be Jewish for Derrida is coterminous with the refusal of the same and the openness towards the wholly other. This non-identification is also what comes into the fore in his deconstructive method.

Derrida was French and Jewish. He thought that he was more French than the French people, because he is not a real Frenchman. In a parallel manner, he thought that he was more Jewish than every Jew, because he lacked a concrete engagement towards Judaism. In his view, he is and is not, at the same time.

Like Edmond Jabès, Derrida regarded the basic characterisitic of Judaism as a fundamental non-belonging to an all-absorbing totality. Jabès' oeuvre can be read as a poetic commentary on Derrida. Much has been written on the Jewish elements in the writings of such "non-Jewish Jews" (the term is from Deutscher) as Kafka, Marx, and Freud. This is also the case with Derrida, who saw his Jewishness as something contingent and denied that he belonged to any concrete Judaism, but conceived of this refusal as fundamentally Jewish.

Metaphoric Judaism: Deconstruction as Judaism

Derrida's Judaism is devoid of any concrete link to history, land, or law. It is at the same time a Judaism that believes because of its openness to the unabsorbable other, and is atheistic, without concrete content. Transcending his merely ethnic Jewishness, Derrida discussed Judaism, touching on many subjects: circumcision, bar mitzvah, the law, messianism, memory, and resurrection. Yet, again, the Judaism that Derrida encircles is without nation or religion. There is a link between Judaism and deconstruction: both are searching. Judaism becomes the example par excellence of his deconstructive method.

Derrida does not desert faith, nor does he exclude it. His deconstructionism affirms what is beyond the possible; it affirms the impossible, the coming of the wholly other (tout autre). It is an engagement, a certain faith, and a-theological hope for what is coming. Derrida alters religious sources by referring them to his expectation of what should come. Writing on religious notions like circumcision, confession, eschatology, or messianism, he divests these terms of their concrete, particular meaning and transcends them by translating them into something which is not present and which is hoped for. By reinventing these terms, he escapes the foreseeable and keeps the future (l'à-venir) open ended. In this sense, his method is not far from that of negative theology that refuses to define the wholly other.

Derrida's openness to the gift (le don) of justice and of the democracy to come lends to his work a touch of hope, in what was for him the best of Jewish tradition.

Derrida's works include L'Ecriture et la différence (1967), La Voix et le phénomène (1967), De la Grammatologie (1967), La Dissémination (1972), Marge – de la philosophie (1972), Glas (1974), and Schibboleth (1986). Later writings are collected in Jacques Derrida and the Humanities: A Critical Reader, ed. T. Cohen (2002).

bibliography:

J.D. Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion (1997); L. Finas et al., Ecarts: quatre essais à propos de Jacques Derrida (1973); N. Garver and S.C. Lee, Derrida & Wittgenstein (1994); S. Handelman, The Slayers of Moses:The Emergence of Rabbinic Interpretation in Modern Literary Theory (1982); I.H. Harvey, Derrida and the Economy of Différance (1986); C. Johnson, System and Writing in the Philosophy of Jacques Derrida (Cambridge Studies in French 40), (1993); P. Lacoue-Labarthe and JL. Nancy (eds.), Les fins de l'homme – Colloque de Cérisy (1981); J. Llewelyn, Derrida on the Threshold of Sense (1986); G.B. Madison (ed.), Working through Derrida (1993); M.C. Taylor, Deconstructing Theology (1982); Idem, Erring(s): A Postmodern(ist) a/theolog, (1984); E. Weber (ed.), Questions au judaïsme, entretiens avec Elisabeth Weber (1996); D. Wood and R. Bernasconi, Derrida and Différance (1988).

[Ephraim Meir (2nd ed.)]

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Derrida, Jacques

Jacques Derrida

Born July 15, 1930, in El-Biar, Algeria; died of pancreatic cancer, October 8, 2004, in Paris, France. Philosopher. Algerian-born French philosopher Jacques Derrida upended the intellectual community in the 1960s when he began promoting his own school of philosophy dubbed deconstructionism, a study of the meaninglessness of meaning. Deconstructionists seek to unravel the meaning of a text by searching for ambiguities and contradictions in hopes that they will reveal hidden meanings. Once the text is "deconstructed," the meaning becomes elusive. The philosophy provoked controversy as it spread through college campuses in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, earning Derrida both reverence and contempt for the remainder of his life.

Derrida (pronounced deh-ree-DAH) was born into a middle-class Jewish family on July 15, 1930, in El-Biar, Algeria. His father worked as a salesman. Derrida's childhood was rife with misfortune. Two brothers died young causing his mother to become overprotective. In addition, Derrida was expelled from school around the age of 12 as a result of French Algeria's newly passed anti-Semitic laws that restricted the number of Jewish children allowed in its schools. At the time Derrida was the top student at his academy. Derrida's family, which had lived in Algeria for five generations, lost its citizenship and Derrida began to think of himself as an outsider.

As a teenager Derrida took an interest in philosophy after hearing a talk about French author and philosopher Albert Camus, who promoted a philosophy known as absurdism, which held that attempts to find meaning in life were hopeless because the world was an irrational place. His curiosity piqued, Derrida began reading the works of French writer André Gide, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and French philosophers Jean Jacques Rousseau and Jean-Paul Sartre.

After being forced out of his Algerian academy, Derrida attended an informal school for Jewish children but did not take his studies seriously and was often absent. Derrida wanted to play professional soccer but finally realized he lacked the athletic prowess to succeed. He turned to academia and earned admittance to France's most prestigious college, the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. While there he met Marguerite Aucouturier, who was studying to become a psychoanalyst. They married in 1957 and had two sons.

Derrida earned his philosophy degree in 1956, then studied briefly at Harvard University before returning to Algeria to serve as a teacher in the French army. Around 1960 Derrida began teaching philosophy and logic at the Collège de Sorbonne in France. By 1965 he was teaching at the École Normale Supérieure and contributing to the leftist magazine Tel Quel.

In 1966 Derrida introduced his philosophy to the United States during a symposium at Johns Hopkins University. He gained more attention the following year when he published three groundbreaking works, Writing and Difference, Speech and Phenomena and Of Grammatology, which further defined his philosophy and method. Their publication touched off animated debates in intellectual circles around the globe, though Derrida's ideas were best received in the United States. The books served to further Derrida's argument that a text can never have a single, authoritative meaning in and of itself.

While this early trio of books attracted a large number of readers, his later works were read mostly by disciples of the discipline. For most people Derrida's books (some 50 in number) were hard to comprehend. At times sentences ran three pages and footnotes even longer. The language was intentionally dense. Critics charged that his books were uncomprehendable, while his followers argued they were brilliant, perfect examples of the elusiveness of meaning.

Young intellectuals—looking for a new philosophy to call their own—were drawn to deconstructionism and it flourished on college campuses into the early 1980s. Crowds gathered to hear Derrida speak. Highly charismatic and darkly Mediterranean with a crop of prematurely white hair and bristly eyebrows, Derrida commanded attention. His lectures included ingenious plays on words, rhymes, and puns. According to Jonathan Kandell in the New York Times, Derrida was known for making baffling proclamations, such as, "Thinking is what we already know that we have not yet begun," and "Oh my friends, there is no friend."

Derrida's deconstructionist theory took off quickly in the field of literature as scholars began deconstructing classic works of literature and philosophy, yielding revolutionary reinterpretations. In time architects hopped on board, too, and took a "deconstructionist" approach to design by disregarding such traditions as symmetry. The theory even trickled down into pop culture. In 1997, filmmaker Woody Allen released Deconstructing Harry, a movie that focused on breaking down and analyzing the main character's neurotic contradictions in an attempt to understand him.

By the 1970s Derrida was regularly lecturing at Yale University and in 1986 joined the staff of the University of California at Irvine. For the next 20 years he split his time between Irvine and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris.

In 1992 Britain's Cambridge University attempted to award Derrida an honorary degree, but many faculty members protested. According to the Washington Post, they denounced his writings as "denying the distinctions between fact and fiction, observation and imagination, evidence and prejudice." In the end Derrida won the award by a vote of 336 to 204.

Derrida's critics accused him of being a nihilist— someone who believed there was no meaning. Detractors believed the philosophy would destroy society by reducing it to a negative state of meaning. Derrida, however, charged that just because a text contained no single meaning did not mean it did not have any meaning. Derrida's detractors forever asked him to define his philosophy in straightforward terms. He most often declined and once told a New York Times reporter that attempting to offer a definition for deconstructionism would simply yield "something which will leave me unsatisfied."

By the early 1990s deconstructionism was no longer in vogue, though campuses continue to teach and be influenced by the theory. Derrida continued lecturing at Irvine until 2003 and continued his duties as director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris until 2004.

Derrida died of pancreatic cancer at a Paris hospital on October 8, 2004; he was 74. He was survived by his wife, Marguerite, and two sons, Pierre and Jean, as well as a son, Daniel, whom he had with philosophy teacher Sylviane Agacinski.Sources: Independent (London), October 11, 2004, p. 34; Los Angeles Times, October 10, 2004, p. B16; New York Times, October 10, 2004, p. A1; Washington Post, October 10, 2004, p. C11.

LisaFrick

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