Sociology Index

Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida (1930 – 2004), born in Algeria, was a French philosopher best known for developing a form of semiotic analysis known as deconstruction, which he analyzed in numerous texts, and developed in the context of phenomenology. Jacques Derrida is a leading figure associated with post-structuralism and postmodern philosophy. During his career Derrida published more than 40 books, together with hundreds of essays and public presentations. Jacques Derrida had a significant influence on the humanities and social sciences, including philosophy, literature, law, anthropology, historiography, applied linguistics, sociolinguistics, psychoanalysis and political theory.

Jacques Derrida addressed ethical and political themes in his work. Some critics consider Speech and Phenomena (1967) to be his most important work. Of Grammatology (1967), Writing and Difference (1967), and Margins of Philosophy (1972) are also very important. Jacques Derrida's writings influenced various activists and political movements. He became a well-known and influential public figure, while his approach to philosophy and the notorious abstruseness of his work made him controversial.

From 1960 to 1964, Derrida taught philosophy at the Sorbonne, where he was an assistant of Suzanne Bachelard, Georges Canguilhem, Paul Ricoeur (who coined the term hermeneutics of suspicion) and Jean Wahl. In 1964, on the recommendation of Louis Pierre Althusser and Jean Hyppolite, Jacques Derrida got a permanent teaching position at the ENS, which he kept until 1984. In 1965 Derrida began an association with the Tel Quel group of literary and philosophical theorists. Jacques Derrida's distance from the Tel Quel group, after 1971, has been attributed to his reservations about their embrace of Maoism and of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

With "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences", his contribution to a 1966 colloquium on structuralism at Johns Hopkins University, his work began to gain international prominence. At the same colloquium Jacques Derrida would meet Jacques Lacan and Paul de Man, the latter an important interlocutor in the years to come. Jacques Derrida published his first three books—Writing and Difference, Speech and Phenomena, and Of Grammatology.

In 1980, Jacques Derrida received his first honorary doctorate (from Columbia University) and was awarded his State doctorate (doctorat d'État) by submitting to the University of Paris ten of his previously published books in conjunction with a defense of his intellectual project under the title "L'inscription de la philosophie: Recherches sur l'interprétation de l'écriture" ("Inscription in Philosophy: Research on the Interpretation of Writing").

The text of Jacques Derrida's defense was based on an abandoned draft thesis he had prepared in 1957 under the direction of Jean Hyppolite at the ENS entitled "The Ideality of the Literary Object" ("L'idéalité de l’objet littéraire"); his 1980 dissertation 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 appears in the film as himself and also contributed to the script.

Derrida traveled widely and held a series of visiting and permanent positions. Derrida became full professor (directeur d'études) at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris from 1984. With François Châtelet and others he in 1983 co-founded the Collège international de philosophie, an institution intended to provide a location for philosophical research which could not be carried out elsewhere in the academia. He was elected as its first president. In 1985 Sylviane Agacinski gave birth to Derrida's third child, Daniel.

In 1986 Jacques Derrida became Professor of the Humanities at the University of California, Irvine, where he taught until shortly before his death in 2004. Jacques Derrida's 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 in an attempt to get manuscripts and correspondence from Derrida's widow and children that it believed the philosopher had promised to UC Irvine's collection, although it dropped the suit in 2007.

Jacques Derrida 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, and The New School for Social Research. He was awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Cambridge (1992), Columbia University, The New School for Social Research, the University of Essex, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, the University of Silesia, the University of Coimbra, the University of Athens, and many others around the world. In 2001, he received the Adorno-Preis from the University of Frankfurt.

At the time of his death, Jacques Derrida had agreed to go for the summer to Heidelberg as holder of the Gadamer professorship, whose invitation was expressed by the hermeneutic philosopher himself before his death. Peter Hommelhoff, Rector at Heidelberg by that time, would summarize Derrida's place as: "Beyond the boundaries of philosophy as an academic discipline he was a leading intellectual figure not only for the humanities but for the cultural perception of a whole age."

With his detailed readings of works from Plato to Rousseau to Heidegger, Derrida frequently argues that Western philosophy has uncritically allowed metaphorical depth models to govern its conception of language and consciousness. He sees these often unacknowledged assumptions as part of a "metaphysics of presence" to which philosophy has bound itself. This "logocentrism," Derrida argues, creates "marked" or hierarchized binary oppositions that have an effect on everything from our conception of speech's relation to writing to our understanding of racial difference. Deconstruction is an attempt to expose and undermine such metaphysics.

Derrida approaches texts as constructed around binary oppositions which all speech has to articulate if it intends to make any sense whatsoever. This approach to text is, in a broad sense, influenced by the semiology of Ferdinand de Saussure, considered to be one of the fathers of structuralism, and who posited that terms get their meaning in reciprocal determination with other terms inside language.

Jacques Derrida's most quoted and famous assertion, which appears in an essay on Rousseau in his book Of Grammatology (1967), is the statement that "there is no out-of-context" (il n'y a pas de hors-texte).

Jacques Derrida began his career examining the limits of phenomenology. His first lengthy academic manuscript, written as a dissertation for his diplôme d'études supérieures and submitted in 1954, concerned the work of Edmund Husserl. Gary Banham has said that the dissertation is "in many respects the most ambitious of Derrida's interpretations with Husserl, not merely in terms of the number of works addressed but also in terms of the extraordinarily focused nature of its investigation." In 1962 he published Edmund Husserl's Origin of Geometry: An Introduction, which contained his own translation of Husserl's essay. Many elements of Derrida's thought were already present in this work.

In the interviews collected in Positions (1972), Jacques Derrida said: "In this essay the problematic of writing was already in place as such, bound to the irreducible structure of 'deferral' in its relationships to consciousness, presence, science, history and the history of science, the disappearance or delay of the origin, etc. [...] this essay can be read as the other side (recto or verso, as you wish) of Speech and Phenomena."

Jacques Derrida first received major attention outside France with his lecture, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," delivered at Johns Hopkins University in 1966. The conference at which this paper was delivered was concerned with structuralism, then at the peak of its influence in France, but only beginning to gain attention in the United States. Derrida differed from other participants by his lack of explicit commitment to structuralism, having already been critical of the movement. He praised the accomplishments of structuralism but also maintained reservations about its internal limitations; this has led US academics to label his thought as a form of post-structuralism.

The effect of Jacques Derrida's paper was such that by the time the conference proceedings were published in 1970, the title of the collection had become The Structuralist Controversy. The conference was also where he met Paul de Man, who would be a close friend and source of great controversy, as well as where he first met the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, with whose work Derrida enjoyed a mixed relationship.

Phenomenology vs Structuralism Debate (1959): In the early 1960s, Derrida began speaking and writing publicly, addressing the most topical debates at the time. One of these was the new and increasingly fashionable movement of structuralism, which was being widely favoured as the successor to the phenomenology approach, the latter having been started by Husserl sixty years earlier. Derrida's countercurrent take on the issue, at a prominent international conference, was so influential that it reframed the discussion from a celebration of the triumph of structuralism to a "phenomenology vs structuralism debate."

Phenomenology, as envisioned by Husserl, is a method of philosophical inquiry that rejects the rationalist bias that has dominated Western thought since Plato in favor of a method of reflective attentiveness that discloses the individual's "lived experience;" for those with a more phenomenological bent, the goal was to understand experience by comprehending and describing its genesis, the process of its emergence from an origin or event. For the structuralists, this was a false problem, and the "depth" of experience could in fact only be an effect of structures which are not themselves experiential.