Profiles > Philosophy > Jacques Derrida
Jacques Derrida
Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) was a French philosopher, born in French-governed Algeria, whose critique of Western philosophy and analyses of the nature of language, writing, and meaning were highly controversial, yet highly influential in much of the intellectual world in the late 20th century. During his career, Derrida published more than 40 books, together with hundreds of essays and public presentations. He had a significant influence upon the humanities and social sciences, along with philosophy and literature, legal anthropology, historiography, linguistics, sociolinguistics, psychoanalysis, political theory, feminism, and sexual diversity studies. His work still has a major influence in Europe, South America, and all other regions where continental philosophy is predominant -- particularly in debates regarding ontology, epistemology (social sciences), ethics, aesthetics, hermeneutics, and the philosophy of language. Derrida's work also influenced architecture (in the form of deconstructivism), music and art. Derrida was said to have left behind a legacy as the originator of deconstruction.
Derrida is most celebrated as the principal exponent of deconstruction, a term he coined for the critical examination of the fundamental conceptual distinctions, or oppositions, inherent in Western philosophy since the time of the ancient Greeks. These oppositions are characteristically "binary" and "hierarchical" involving a pair of terms in which one member of the pair is assumed to be primary or fundamental, the other is secondary or derivative. Examples include nature and culture, speech and writing, mind and body, presence and absence, inside and outside, literal and metaphorical, intelligible and sensible, and form and meaning, among many others. To "deconstruct" an opposition is to explore the tensions and contradictions between the hierarchical ordering assumed or asserted in the text and other aspects of the text's meaning -- especially those that are indirect or implicit. Such an analysis shows that the opposition is not natural or necessary, but a product or construction of the text itself.
Born July 15, 1930
El-Biar, French Algeria
Died October 08, 2004 (aged 74)
Paris, France
Era 20th century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Continental philosophy
Notable ideas Deconstruction, Différance, Phallogocentrism, Free Play, Archi-writing, Metaphysics of presence
Born to Sephardic Jewish parents in French-governed El-Biar (a suburb of Algiers), Algeria, Derrida was the third of five children. His elder brother Paul Moïse died at less than three months old, the year before Derrida was born. This led him to suspect throughout his life that he was a replacement of his deceased brother. He spent his childhood attending primary schools in El-Biar and Algiers until the beginning of Pétainisation (within the Algerian school system in 1940), at which point Derrida and other Jewish students began to experience forms of anti-Semitism in the classroom. By 1942, he was completely barred from attending class at the Lycée (high school) Ben Aknoum. Although the Germans never occupied Algeria, Derrida was not allowed to return to school until the spring of 1943. During the interim period, he attended the Lycée Emile-Maupas, which was run by Jewish teachers expelled from the public school system, but Derrida frequently avoided the classroom. Upon returning to the Lycée Ben Aknoum in 1943, Derrida completed his primary education and received his baccalauréat in 1948. Immediately after World War II, Derrida started to study philosophy. In 1949, he moved to Paris, where he prepared for
the entrance exam in philosophy for the prestigious École Normale Supérieure. Derrida failed his first attempt at this exam, but passed it the second time in 1952. On his first day at the École Normale Supérieure, Derrida met Louis Althusser, with whom he became friends. After visiting the Husserl Archive in Leuven, Belgium, he completed his master's degree in Philosophy (diplôme d'études supérieures) on Edmund Husserl. He then completed the highly competitive agrégation (civil service) exam. Derrida received a grant for studies at Harvard University, and spent the 1956-1957 academic year reading Joyce's Ulysses at the Widener Library. In June 1957, he married the psychoanalyst Marguerite Aucouturier in Boston. During the Algerian War of Independence, Derrida was asked to teach soldiers' children in lieu of military service; he taught French and English from 1957 to 1959.
Following the war, from 1960-1964, Derrida taught philosophy at Sorbonne, where he was an assistant to Suzanne Bachelard (daughter of Gaston), Canguilhem, Paul Ricoeur (who in those years coined the term School of Suspicion) and Jean Wahl. In 1964, on the recommendation of Althusser and Jean Hyppolite, Derrida was offered a permanent teaching position at the École Normale Supérieure, which he kept until 1984. In 1965 Derrida began an association with the Tel Quel group of literary and philosophical theorists, which lasted for seven years. Derrida's subsequent distance from the Tel Quel group, after 1971, has been attributed to his reservations about their embrace of Maoism and the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

In 1967, Derrida published his first three books -- L'Écriture et la Différence (Writing and Difference), De la Grammatologie (Grammatology), and La Voix et le Phénomène (Speech and Phenomena). Derrida explored the treatment of writing by several seminal figures in the history of Western thought, including the philosophers Edmund Husserl and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Other books, published in 1972, include analyses of writing and representation in the work of philosophers such as Plato (La Dissémination), and Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger – Marges (margins) de la Philosophie. Glas (1974) is an experimental book printed in two columns -- one containing an analysis of key concepts in the philosophy of Hegel and the other a suggestive discussion of the thief, novelist, and playwright Jean Genet.

He completed his Doctorate in 1980, submitting his previously published books in conjunction with a defense of his intellectual project; the text of Derrida's defense was subsequently published in English translation as The Time of a Thesis: Punctuations. In 1983, Derrida collaborated with Ken McMullen on the film Ghost Dance – Derrida appeared in the film as himself (and also contributed to the script). Derrida was a professor (directeur d'études) at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. With François Châtelet and others, in 1983, he co-founded the Collège international de Philosophie (CIPH), an institution intended to provide a location for philosophical research, which could not be carried out elsewhere. He was elected as its first president.

In 1986, Derrida became Professor of the Humanities at the University of California (at Irvine), where he taught until shortly before his death in 2004. His papers were filed in the university archives. After Derrida's death, his widow and sons said they wanted copies of UCI's archives shared with the Institute of Contemporary Publishing Archives in France. The university had sued Derrida's widow and children in an attempt to get manuscripts and correspondence from them that it believed the philosopher had promised to UC Irvine's collection, although the suit was dropped in 2007.

He was a regular visiting professor at several other major American and European universities, including Johns Hopkins University, Yale University, New York University, Stony Brook University, The New School for Social Research, and the European Graduate School. He was awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Cambridge, Columbia University, The New School for Social Research, the University of Essex, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium), University of Silesia (Poland), and many others around the world. Derrida was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He received the 2001 Adorno-Preis from the University of Frankfurt. Late in his life, Derrida participated in two biographical documentaries, D'ailleurs, Derrida(Derrida's Elsewhere) by Saafa Fathy (1999) and Derrida by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman (2002).

In 2003, Derrida was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which reduced his speaking and travelling engagements. He died in a hospital in Paris in the early hours of October 9, 2004. Derrida's philosophical friends, allies, and students included Paul de Man, Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Blanchot, Gilles Deleuze, Jean-Luc Nancy, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Sarah Kofman, Hélène Cixous, Bernard Stiegler, Alexander García Düttmann, Joseph Cohen, Geoffrey Bennington, Jean-Luc Marion, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Raphael Zagury-Orly, Jacques Ehrmann, Avital Ronell, Judith Butler, Samuel Weber, and Catherine Malabou.

Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe were among Derrida's first students in France, who went on to become well-known and important philosophers in their own right. Despite their considerable differences of subject, and often also of method, they continued to closely interact with each other and with Derrida from the early 1970s. Derrida's most prominent friendship in intellectual life was with Paul de Man, which began with their meeting at Johns Hopkins University and continued until Paul de Man's death in 1983.

Criticism – Although a critical examination of the fundamental concepts is a standard part of philosophical practice in the Western tradition, it has seldom been carried out as rigorously as in the work of Derrida. His writing is known for its extreme subtlety, its meticulous attention to detail, and its tenacious pursuit of the logical implications of supposedly "marginal" features of texts. Nevertheless, his work was met with considerable opposition among some philosophers, especially those in the Anglo-American tradition. In 1992, the proposal by the University of Cambridge to award Derrida an honorary doctorate generated so much controversy that the university took the unusual step of putting the issue to a vote of the dons (and Derrida won). Nineteen philosophers from around the globe published a letter of protest in which they claimed that Derrida's writing was incomprehensible and his major claims either trivial or false. Despite such criticism, Derrida's ideas remain a powerful force in philosophy and other fields.
Geoffrey Bennington, Avital Ronell, and Samuel Weber belong to a group of Derrida translators. Many of them are esteemed thinkers in their own right with whom Derrida worked in a collaboration, allowing his prolific output to be translated into English in a timely fashion. Of the 24 philosophers featured on this website, Derrida has one of the longest lists of credits. Some of the selected translations of work by Derrida are as follows:
  • Speech and Phenomena and other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs (David B. Allison)
  • Grammatology (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak)
  • Writing and Difference (Alan Bass)
  • Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles (Barbara Harlow)
  • The Truth in Painting (Geoffrey Bennington & Ian McLeod)
  • Memoires for Paul de Man (Columbia University Press, 1986)
  • Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question (Geoffrey Bennington & Rachel Bowlby)
  • Resistances of Psychoanalysis (Peggy Kamuf, Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas)
  • The Secret Art of Antonin Artaud, with Paule Thévenin (Mary Ann Caws)
  • Rights of Inspection, translated by David Wills (Monacelli, 1999)
  • Demeure: Fiction and Testimony, with Maurice Blanchot (Elizabeth Rottenberg)
  • Hospitality, translated by Rachel Bowlby (Stanford University Press, 2000)
  • Deconstruction Engaged: The Sydney Seminars (Power Publications, 2001)
  • Echographies of Television: Filmed Interviews, with Bernard Stiegler, translated by Jennifer Bajorek
  • The Beast and the Sovereign, Volume II, translated by Geoffrey Bennington (University of Chicago Press)
  • Signature Derrida (University of Chicago Press)
  • The Death Penalty, Volume I (University of Chicago Press)