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Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) once wrote that an author can always be understood to be saying 'more, less, or something other than what he [or she] would mean'.1 Contexts are open and limitless. No writer can have total control over the way their texts might be read. Derrida would go on to stress this point throughout his career as a philosopher and academic.

The Algerian-born French philosopher Jacques Derrida is among the most cited philosophers in recent times, along with his peers Michel Foucault (1926–1984) and Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002). Derrida's ideas have influenced not only studies in humanities but also caused ripples in the world of science, sociology, and many other academic fields. Jacques Derrida's books and contributions to postmodern philosophy are immensely celebrated.

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Jacques Derrida: Biography

Derrida was born Jackie Derrida to a Sephardic Jewish family in 1930, in El-Biar near Algiers, during the French colonial rule. Although Derrida's family was well-off, Derrida faced discrimination in his childhood for being Jewish. During the Vichy regime in France (which had ties with Nazi Germany and persecuted French Jews), Derrida faced exclusion from high school, an incident that left a mark on his psyche and worldview.

Derrida completed his primary schooling with a budding interest in philosophy. From 1950, he attended Lycée Louis-le-Grand, a prestigious public school in France, in preparation to enter the grande école, a superior university in the French education system. In 1952, Derrida was admitted to the highly reputed École Normale Supérieure on his second try.

Jacques Derrida Biography StudySmarterFig. 1 Photo of Jacques Derrida, one of the most widely discussed philosophers of all time.

From 1953 to 1954, he studied the work of the philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) at the University of Louvain in Belgium. After finishing his education, he held several teaching positions at schools and universities like the Sorbonne (now also known as the University of Paris), his alma mater École Normale, and served as a director of philosophical studies at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (The School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences). In 1983, he became the founding director of the Collège international de philosophies (International College of Philosophy).

Derrida died in October 2004. His death was announced by the office of the President of the Republic of France, an act of recognition usually reserved for the highest of dignitaries.

Jacques Derrida: Contributions

Derrida was immensely celebrated and also scorned by many during his lifetime. Derrida was a controversial thinker because he challenged many assumptions behind mainstream philosophical ideas that dominate modern thinking.

Derrida is often labelled a poststructuralist thinker because he frequently engaged with structuralist concepts in his works. Not only was Derrida himself not keen on this label, but it is also not necessarily accurate or helpful in studying Derridean concepts. Especially so because Derrida critiqued the structuralist paradigm as limited and its presuppositions inadequate. While structuralism favours structure, for Derrida, meaning is fluid and cannot be found within the fixities of the structuralist view.

Derrida's work was inspired by different components of philosophical thought like metaphysics, phenomenology, and skepticism. As a student, Derrida was interested in the philosophy of Husserl, the founder of phenomenology. Derrida wrote a postgraduate thesis on Husserl's works, which was later published as The Problem of Genesis in Husserl's Philosophy (published in French in 1990).

Metaphysics: a branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of things, such as reality, knowledge, existence, and identity.

Phenomenology: a school of philosophy that investigates sense perceptions and consciousness as these are directly experienced rather than through intellectual assumptions and explanations.

Skepticism (also known as scepticism): in philosophy, skepticism is a view that questions knowledge and the possibility of knowing something with absolute certainty.

Derrida's concept of 'iterability' talks about the potential for repetition in language. In Derrida's view, the intentions of the speaker (intentionality) and linguistic systems (rules and structures of language) are not the only requisites for the generation of meaning. For a word to be meaningful, it must have the potential to be used repeatedly and, thus, acquire meaning. In other words, repeated use is also necessary for the generation of meaning.

In 1966 Derrida gave a lecture named 'Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences' at Johns Hopkins University, pointing out that it is inevitable for philosophers to rely on the ideas of their predecessors, as we have to work with the tools that are available to us. The lecture inaugurated Derrida's popularity and fame in the United States. It is also regarded as a key text in the theory of deconstruction, along with Derrida's book Of Grammatology (1967).

Jacques Derrida: Deconstruction

Derrida is most famous for the theory of deconstruction.

Jacques Derrida Deconstruction StudySmarterFig. 2 - Derrida's theory of deconstruction challenged many ideas about language and meaning.

In the true Derridean sense, there is no most accurate or adequate definition of the concept of deconstruction. Derrida himself was not a fan of the term 'deconstruction'. It is described by some scholars as a 'dislocation' or disruption of the existing order of things.

Deconstruction is applicable to everything, not just philosophy or literature and 'language'. That is what makes it popular among scholars and across many subjects. The deconstructionist approach focuses on the microscopic aspects of things instead of the broad and generalised picture.

Perhaps it makes more sense to try to understand deconstruction through the terms associated with the concept, such as différance. Derrida coined the term différance to describe the 'difference and deferral' of meaning.

Difference: the meaning of a word is dependent on its difference from other words.

Deferral: the process of creating meaning is a chain where something refers to something else, creating a series that goes on till infinity. Meaning, therefore, is infinitely postponed. As if it is almost there for us to catch hold of, but not quite, and then slips away to the next.

Harking back to the quote at the beginning of this article, meaning is more like an estimation rather than a definite conclusion.

Deconstruction aims to show that all concepts are dependent on context. Context is, therefore, central to this methodology. By engaging in close, detailed analyses of texts, deconstruction tries to unearth the underlying presuppositions that structures of meaning rely on. It pays attention to the overlooked parts of a text (like the footnotes) to find clues that give away alternate or contradictory meanings. Deconstruction, therefore, seeks to 'open up' a text.

While deconstruction questions the possibility of absolute truth or meaning, Derrida also warned against the total abandonment of belief in values and truth in the process.

Jacques Derrida: Quotes

Before you read Derrida, keep in mind that Derrida's writing style is considered one of the most challenging and complex, perhaps in all of history. Don't worry if you don't take it all in one go. It might take a few re-reads!

Derrida argued that Western philosophy could be boiled down to three fundamental ways of thinking: logocentrism, phallocentrism, and metaphysics. Logocentrism criticised the structuralist model of binary oppositions as a system where one concept or term is privileged over the other. While metaphysics examines the nature of reality, knowledge, and being, phallocentrism is a term that refers to the use of the symbols of the male reproductive organ as a way of privileging masculinity in the social order.

Light/dark, white/black, good/evil, and man/woman are commonly considered opposites. In structuralist thought, these are called binary oppositions.

Derrida argued that these are not merely neutral opposites. Instead, one becomes superior to the other. Deconstruction seeks to dismantle such power hierarchies.

All metaphysicians, from Plato to Rousseau, Descartes to Husserl, have proceeded in this way, conceiving good to be before evil, the positive before the negative, the pure before the impure, the simple before the complex, the essential before the accidental, the imitated before the imitation.

Limited Inc (1988)

Derrida's term différance primarily expresses the unreliability of 'meaning' or the lack of a fixed or absolute meaning in any word, sentence, or text.

Is not the concept of pure solitude – of the monad in the phenomenological sense – undetermined by its own origin, by the very condition of self-presence that is, by 'time', to be conceived anew on the basis now of différance within auto-affection, on the basis of identifying identity and non-identity within the 'sameness'.

Speech and Phenomena (1973)

The role of metaphor in language was also important to Derrida.

The metaphor consists in a substitution of proper names having a fixed meaning and referent, especially when we are dealing with the sun whose referent has the originality of always being original, unique and irreplaceable, at least in the representation we give of it.

Margins of Philosophy (1972)

According to Derrida, Western philosophy privileges literal language as superior to metaphorical language. When 'literal' is equated to the truth, metaphor automatically takes a secondary place.

Metaphor: a figure of speech where a word or phrase is used symbolically to represent something else.

Jacques Derrida: Books

Derrida had a prodigious list of published works on a range of topics. Derrida's works Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference (1972), and Speech and Phenomena were pivotal in securing his fame and reputation in the West.

Of Grammatology is arguably Derrida's most famous book. As a theory and critical approach, deconstruction has now found its way to Anglo-American and postcolonial contexts and influenced areas like literary criticism, cultural studies, and postcolonial studies. Derrida has inspired a new generation of theorists who continue to develop the theory and methodology of deconstruction. Derrida's translators include academics like Samuel Weber and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.

Here is a short list of other works by Jacques Derrida:

  • Acts of Religion, 2002
  • The Archeology of the Frivolous: Reading Condillac, 1980
  • Edmund Husserl's Origin of Geometry: An Introduction, 1989
  • Heidegger: The Question of Being and History, 2013
  • Monolingualism of the Other, 1998
  • The Postcard from Socrates to Freud and Beyond, 1987
  • The Problem of Genesis in Husserl's Philosophy, 2003
  • Specters of Marx, 1994
  • Voice and Phenomenon, 2011
  • Religion, 1998
  • Rogues, 2005
  • Sovereignties in Question: The Poetics of Paul Celan, 2005

Jacques Derrida - Key takeaways

  • Jacques Derrida is an Algerian-born French philosopher.
  • He was born in 1930 and attended prestigious schools in France.
  • After obtaining a degree from the École Normale in Paris, Derrida taught philosophy at several educational institutions.
  • Derrida is most renowned for the theory of deconstruction.
  • His books include Of Grammatology (1967), Speech and Phenomena (1973), and Margins of Philosophy (1972)
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  1. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, 1967
  2. Fig. 1 Auto-épreuve, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Frequently Asked Questions about Jacques Derrida

Derrida was an Algerian-born French philosopher who revolutionised modern thinking through his theories.

Derrida has written about a variety of topics regarding society, culture, and the Self. However, Derrida's theory of deconstruction is the most widely discussed among his ideas.

Derrida argued that Western philosophy was based on fundamental assumptions such as logocentrism, phallocentrism, and binary oppositions that rely on fixed structures for meaning.

Most notable among Derrida's ideas is the theory of deconstruction.

Deconstruction is a method of critical engagement that tries to find meaning in a text through close and detailed analysis, often in aspects of a text that are overlooked. As a critical approach, deconstruction aims to dismantle presuppositions and binary oppositions.

Final Jacques Derrida Quiz


Who was Jacques Derrida?

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Jacques Derrida was an Algerian-born French philosopher and theorist.

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When was Jacques Derrida born?

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Derrida was born in 1930 in Algiers, which was then a French colony.

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Where did Derrida go to school?

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Derrida went to prestigious French institutions like the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and École Normale Supérieure.

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Derrida faced anti-semitic discrimination in his childhood: True/False?

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True. Derrida was from a Jewish background and attended public school at the time the Vichy government in Algeria had introduced antisemitic policies.

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What is Derrida famous for?

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The theory of deconstruction

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Who influenced Derrida's works?

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Derrida was influenced by Western philosophers like Husserl and Heidegger, as well as the principles of structuralism. 

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When was Derrida's work first published?

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In 1967, L'écriture et la différence was published in French, which was later published in English as Writing and Difference (1978).

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What are Derrida's most influential works?

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Of Grammatology (1967)

Speech and Phenomena (1967)

Writing and Difference (1967)

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Why did Derrida criticise structuralism?

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Derrida argued that the structuralist paradigm was inadequate and made up of power hierarchies. 

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Who were Derrida's contemporaries?

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Philosophers and theorists like Michel Foucault, Paul de Man, and Gilles Deleuze were among Derrida's famous contemporaries.

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