Jacques Derrida, French philosopher - died this day (Oct 9) in 2004 from cancer…
“Monsters cannot be announced. One cannot say: ‘here are our monsters,’ without immediately turning the monsters into pets.”
Jacques Derrida (July 15, 1930 – October 9, 2004) was a French philosopher, born in French Algeria. He developed the critical theory known as deconstruction and his work has been labeled as post-structuralism and associated with postmodern philosophy. His output of more than 40 published books, together with essays and public speaking, has had a significant impact upon the humanities, particularly on literary theory and continental philosophy. Perhaps 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 nothing outside the text” (il n’y a pas de hors-texte), meaning that there is nothing outside context. Critics of Derrida have quoted it as a slogan to characterize and stigmatize deconstruction.
Deconstruction has become associated with the attempt to expose and undermine the oppositions and paradoxes on which particular texts, philosophical and otherwise, are founded. He frequently called such paradoxes “binary oppositions.” Derrida’s strategy involved explicating the historical roots of philosophical ideas, questioning the “metaphysics of presence” that he sees as having dominated philosophy since the ancient Greeks, careful textual analysis, and attempting to undermine and subvert the paradoxes themselves.
Derrida’s work has had implications across many fields, including literature, architecture (in the form of deconstructivism), sociology, and cultural studies. Particularly in his later writings, he frequently addressed ethical and political themes, and his work influenced various activist and other political movements. His widespread influence made him a well-known cultural figure, while his approach to philosophy and the purported difficulty of his work also made him a figure of some controversy. His work has been seen as a challenge to the unquestioned assumptions of the Western philosophical tradition and Western culture as a whole.Contrary to what some people believe or have an interest in making believe, I consider myself very much a historian, very historicist […] Deconstruction calls for a highly “historian’s” attitude (Of Grammatology, for example, is a history book through and through).
Derrida’s work centered on challenging unquestioned assumptions of the Western philosophical tradition and also more broadly to Western culture as a whole. By questioning the fundamental norms and premises of the dominant discourses, and trying to modify them, he attempted to democratize the university scene and to politicize it. During the American 1980s culture wars, this would attract the anger of politically conservative and right-wing intellectuals who were trying to defend the status quo.
At the very beginning of his philosophical career Derrida was concerned to elaborate a critique of 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. In 1962 he published Edmund Husserl’s Origin of Geometry: An Introduction, which contained his own translation of Husserl’s essay.
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 (and subsequently included in Writing and Difference). 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. Near the beginning of the essay, Derrida argued:
(…) the entire history of the concept of structure, before the rupture of which we are speaking, must be thought of as a series of substitutions of centre for centre, as a linked chain of determinations of the centre. Successively, and in a regulated fashion, the centre receives different forms or names. The history of metaphysics, like the history of the West, is the history of these metaphors and metonymies. Its matrix […] is the determination of Being as presence in all senses of this word. It could be shown that all the names related to fundamentals, to principles, or to the centre have always designated an invariable presence – eidos, archē, telos, energeia, ousia (essence, existence, substance, subject), alētheia, transcendentality, consciousness, God, man, and so forth.
— “Structure, Sign and Play” in Writing and Difference, p. 353.
The effect of 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.
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