An Animated Introduction to French Philosopher Jacques Derrida

Since the bold arrival of his book Of Gram­ma­tol­ogy in 1967, French philoso­pher Jacques Der­ri­da has been understood—or misunderstood—as many things: a rad­i­cal rel­a­tivist who ”rejects all of meta­phys­i­cal his­to­ry,” a fash­ion­able intel­lec­tu­al play­ing lan­guage games, a bril­liant phe­nom­e­nol­o­gist of lan­guage…. One asso­ci­a­tion he vehe­ment­ly reject­ed was with the kind of iron­ic, lais­sez faire post­mod­ernism rep­re­sent­ed by Sein­feld. But when it came to clar­i­fy­ing his work for puz­zled read­ers and onlook­ers, Der­ri­da could seem as will­ful­ly, frus­trat­ing­ly eva­sive in per­son as he was on the page. His work, writes Williams Col­lege pro­fes­sor Mark C. Tay­lor, can “seem hope­less­ly obscure… to peo­ple addict­ed to sound bites and overnight polls.”

Most peo­ple famil­iar with some of Derrida’s work know a few key terms of his thought: dif­férance, trace, apo­r­ia, phar­makon. Those who’ve only heard the name prob­a­bly know only one: Decon­struc­tion, a “way of doing phi­los­o­phy,” says Alain de Bot­ton in his video intro­duc­tion to Der­ri­da above, that “fun­da­men­tal­ly altered our under­stand­ing of many aca­d­e­m­ic fields, espe­cial­ly lit­er­ary stud­ies.” But what exact­ly is “Decon­struc­tion”? Rather than a method, Der­ri­da him­self described it as a process already occur­ring with­in a writ­ten work, one we can observe when we “do not assume that what is con­di­tioned by his­to­ry, insti­tu­tions, or soci­ety is nat­ur­al.” 

Derrida’s med­i­ta­tions on the inabil­i­ty of lan­guage to con­tain or com­mu­ni­cate nat­ur­al or meta­phys­i­cal truth devel­oped in unique life cir­cum­stances. Born into a Jew­ish fam­i­ly in French colo­nial Alge­ria in 1930, the philoso­pher grew up very con­scious of “hav­ing been in an infe­ri­or posi­tion at the nexus of three dif­fer­ent reli­gions, Judaism, Chris­tian­i­ty, and Islam, all of which claimed to speak the truth,” says de Bot­ton. Upon arriv­ing in Paris to study in 1949, Der­ri­da found him­self even fur­ther on the social mar­gins. “Though Der­ri­da was not an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal writer, it’s hard not to read his work as a response to big­otry and exclu­sion.”

The claim that the philosopher—whose name has almost become syn­ony­mous with post-mod­ernism, for good or ill—was not an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal writer may seem strange to some. One of his most-read books in col­lege cours­es, Mono­lin­gual­ism of the Oth­er, pro­ceeds from an inves­ti­ga­tion into his fraught rela­tion­ship with the French lan­guage because of his upbring­ing as a reli­gious minor­i­ty in a Euro­pean colony. Lat­er, Der­ri­da deliv­ered a ten-hour address to a con­fer­ence called The Auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal Ani­mal, pub­lished posthu­mous­ly (and excerpt­ed here).

Nonethe­less, Der­ri­da would not have made much of his place as the author, this being only a rhetor­i­cal occa­sion for analy­sis. Der­ri­da, writes Nazenin Ruso at Phi­los­o­phy Now, argued that “once the text is writ­ten, the author’s input los­es its sig­nif­i­cance.” The per­son of the author—his or her phys­i­cal pres­ence, bio­graph­i­cal expe­ri­ences, emo­tions, desires, and intentions—becomes irre­triev­able for read­ers, one of many absences in the text that we mis­take for pres­ence.

It’s hard to see, then, how we can speak of what Derrida’s “hope” was for his read­ers’ self-improve­ment, as de Bot­ton says in his video intro­duc­tion. This being the School of Life, we are treat­ed to a rather util­i­tar­i­an read­ing of the philoso­pher, one he would per­haps reject. But Der­ri­da bris­tled at the idea that lan­guage could suf­fice to tell us how and who to be in the world. His sus­pi­cion of logo­cen­trism, “an over-hasty, naïve devo­tion to rea­son, log­ic, and clear def­i­n­i­tion,” says de Bot­ton, means he felt that “many of the most impor­tant things we feel can nev­er be expressed in words.” To hear Der­ri­da talk about the prob­lem of priv­i­leg­ing lan­guage over oth­er means of expres­sion with an artist who unique­ly agreed with his posi­tion, read his inter­view with jazz great Ornette Cole­man.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

140 Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

Phi­los­o­phy with a South­ern Drawl: Rick Rod­er­ick Teach­es Der­ri­da, Fou­cault, Sartre and Oth­ers

Jacques Der­ri­da on Sein­feld: “Decon­struc­tion Doesn’t Pro­duce Any Sit­com”

Philoso­pher Jacques Der­ri­da Inter­views Jazz Leg­end Ornette Cole­man: Talk Impro­vi­sa­tion, Lan­guage & Racism (1997)

Teacher Calls Jacques Derrida’s Col­lege Admis­sion Essay on Shake­speare “Quite Incom­pre­hen­si­ble” (1951)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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