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 on Jacques Derrida
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 Biography 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.