Jacques Derrida

Philosopher who was a virtuoso of the deconstructive method
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The Independent Online

Jacques Derrida, writer and philosopher: born El Biar, Algeria 15 July 1930; Professor of Philosophy, Ecole Normale Supérieure 1965-84; Director of Studies, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales 1984-2004; Professor of Philosophy, French and Comparative Literature, University of California, Irvine 1986-2003; married 1957 Marguerite Aucouturier (two sons), (one son by Sylvaine Agacinski); died Paris 8 October 2004.

Jacques Derrida was quite certainly the most arresting and intellectually provocative thinker to emerge in France in the generation following that of Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan. Where they had been closely associated with the movement that never quite was one, known as Structuralism, Derrida became celebrated as the high priest of post-structuralism, thanks originally to the powerful and persuasive arguments that he brought to bear against the suppositions underlying Structuralism as a method of intellectual enquiry.

Post-structuralism itself quickly evolved into the movement bearing the label of Deconstruction, an evolution that Derrida eventually had cause to regret, so closely was his own name linked with it, even though he disowned a lot of the work published by academic literary critics and others calling themselves Deconstructionists.

Derrida was born in 1930, into a long-established, middle-class Jewish family in Algeria. During the Second World War, he had to be taken out of school when restrictions were imposed by the collaborationist authorities on the numbers of Jewish children allowed to attend. He never, to my knowledge, wrote much about his native country, about his own problems there when he was a child - two of his siblings died in childhood - or about the dreadfully divisive and bloody war of Algerian independence that later followed the Second World War.

He did suggest on at least one occasion, however, that he had always suffered from "nostalgeria". Curiously, like the other French thinker and writer whose - in his case, working-class - Algerian background proved a very dubious blessing to him, Albert Camus, Derrida had adolescent ambitions to play professional football, but then realised he wasn't good enough.

Having eventually been educated as a philosopher at the Sorbonne, he began to teach philosophy at the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure in the Rue d'Ulm in Paris, where he remained on the faculty from 1964 to 1984; he later taught at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales.

He began publishing in 1962, when he translated the German philosopher Edmund Husserl's Origin of Geometry into French, with a long introduction by himself. He followed that dramatically up towards the end of the decade by managing to bring out no less than three major works in the same year, 1967: Of Grammatology, Speech and Phenomena and Writing and Difference. These are the books by which most of us will want to remember Derrida, bringing brilliantly out as they do as a group the deconstructive method that he practised with an incomparable virtuosity.

What he gave to the world in fact was not a philosophy as such, but a method of doing philosophy. What the true deconstructionist aims to do is read the arguments of earlier philosophers, all the way back to the subject's beginnings in Greece, with extreme closeness and in the foreknowledge that there will be key places in the arguments these thinkers have advanced where their authors have in fact lost control of them, to the point of lapsing into contradiction.

Derrida's prime contention is that in every philosophical text there are waiting to be found peculiarly revealing "blind spots", which are indicative of our human inability, when we use language, to contain its inbuilt facility for the generation of meanings. Whatever we say or write will mean more, and other, than we suppose.

Deconstruction may sound like an ideal way of keeping the subject of philosophy alive, by the dialectical method of calling established thought into question, but Derrida practised it with such flair and seeming ruthlessness that he ended up being written off in some quarters as no better than a nihilist, whose aim was to leave no philosophy at all standing. This was absurd; his commentaries on some of the great thinkers of the past - Plato, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger - are in effect hugely enlightening and invigorating in unpicking certain significant incoherences. As an exegete he was, at least in his earlier books, superb.

The philosophical traditions he knew best were the Greek and the German; the one he ignored was that which then dominated Anglo-American faculties of philosophy, the analytical. Given which, it was not so strange that when, during the 1970s, he was taken up in a big way outside France, principally in the United States, it was seldom philosophers who showed an interest in his work, which they were happy to dismiss out of hand as typical Continental word-spinning, meaning nothing - "Old Europe" writ large as it were - but faculties of literature, in which deconstructive methods could be put to work analysing classical texts, even if those were never making the same claims to coherence as the texts of philosophers.

Derrida's influence indeed was far greater outside France than ever it was within, where, ironically, in the same years as he was lording it intellectually in the United States and to a lesser extent the UK, French philosophers were belatedly discovering the virtues of the Anglo-Saxon analytical tradition.

Derrida himself, watchful of his reputation as a serious philosopher, tried hard to dissociate himself from a lot of what was written in the name of Deconstruction, though too late to prevent its unpopular and sometimes philistine excesses being traced back to him.

Yet he had only himself to blame for this, because more and more, as his career advanced, he turned explicitly away from philosophy proper and towards literature, as if hoping to have himself reclassified by posterity as a writer rather than as a thinker. His style of writing became increasingly mannered, prolix and, if frequently witty, also obscure, as he gave the French language its head and allowed it to dictate to him rather than he to it.

Like Nietzsche, Derrida thought no sustainable dividing-line could be drawn between philosophy and literature, when both were textual, or forms of discourse and language is by its nature figurative. There can be no thought, and no meaning, outside of language, but the "meaning" of a sentence can only be given in the form of another, different sentence; and so on, ad infinitum.

This was the principle behind a dictum of Derrida's which has been endlessly misquoted and endlessly used against him, to the effect that "there is no escaping from the text", words taken by ill-wishers to mean that words are all there is in the world, a peculiarly daft claim to try and saddle anyone with. Derrida's bugbear was the seemingly ineradicable, platonic belief that meanings exist independently of their expression, and that the realm of ultimate signification lies "beyond" language. This belief he sought to expose wherever he met with it, calling it "logocentrism" and seeing it as having perverted Western philosophy for more than 2,000 years.

Derrida believed in philosophy, and he campaigned for it to go on being taught in French sixth-forms when it came under threat there. He was not a destroyer but a reformer, anxious to show us that a human being's relation to language is, in harsh truth, not as intimate and certainly not as masterful as we might like it to be. He worked with tremendous ingenuity to undo the fundamental oppositions to be found in the categories philosophers use, between body and spirit, materialism and idealism, presence and absence, and others, which he saw as deriving from the fundamental illusion of "logocentrism". Such antinomies are too deep, too fixed and too important to us simply to go away once "deconstructed", but to follow Derrida's arguments with them is to see more fully than ever before how they are related and what they imply.

Some philosophers have it as their aim to simplify matters, to "let the fly out of the fly-bottle" as Wittgenstein put it. Not so Jacques Derrida, whose motto might well have been a phrase he used when writing about his friend Paul de Man, at the time when De Man's reputation was in tatters following the revelation that he had written one or two collaborationist pieces of journalism in Belgium during the war. "Compliquons les choses," urged Derrida, and how right he was on that particular occasion.

Those three words are a cue for a small personal recollection of him, glimpsed at a conference in Britain when he was trying to use a phone card. All I heard him say, as he struggled to make the card work, was a pained "C'est tres compliqué", which has I suppose to go down as a case of the biter bit.

John Sturrock