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04/25/2018

Jacques Derrida: A Short Biography

Poststructuralism and Deconstruction are what Jacques Derrida is known for best but who was the man behind these pivotal ideas? The philosopher who is most familiar to scholars in the area of Literary Criticism and who, together with Baudrillard and Foucault, has had a significant effect on recent thinking was adept at failing examinations as a young man. This is nothing new in the arena of budding geniuses.

He is in good company with other such original thinkers as Albert Einstein, C. G. Jung, and Foucault. The creative seed must be so busy flourishing that regular school work and entrance exams appear more as painful necessities than academic enrichment. He also suffered from anti-Semitic laws coming from the French Vichy government in 1942. Nevertheless, even the greatest of minds need fellow scholars to bounce their ideas against in an intellectual exchange and after failing his baccalaureate in June 1947 he spent a year reading the philosophers, Henri Bergson and Jean-Paul Sartre, and passed the exam in 1948. He failed and passed several exams while developing his theories on language and writing.

At this time Derrida was still living in Algiers, the place of his birth in 1930 to Sephardic Jewish parents. In the 50’s he went to France where he continued his studies in philosophy and began teaching philosophy at the Sorbonne in the 60’s after a period of study at Harvard university. Tel Quel was a left-wing magazine for which he began writing as well as for the journal, Critiqe, focussing on reviews of work on the nature of writing. The Tel Quel group of avant-garde theorists included the giants of post-modernism, Baudrillard, Foucault, Lyotard, Kristeva, and Barthes to mention a few distinguished names. In 1966 he gave a lecture at John Hopkins University entitled ‘Structure, Sign, and Play’. This marked his entry into international appreciation of his work. Having married in Boston in 1957, his wife, Marguerite gave birth to two sons in 1963 and 1967. It was during the same year as the birth of his second son that three of his books were published and which established his name. Those three books were seminal: Writing and Difference; Speech and Phenomena; Of Grammatology.

Always a traveler Derrida taught in Paris, California, New York and at several American Universities. He gave numerous interviews and was awarded honorary doctorates. See the Wikipedia entry for a comprehensive list of his engagements and awards.

Derrida’s understanding of the text is not limited to the written word as usually understood but is widened to include all that is the locus of the word, the logos that claims central authority. The concept of the inscribed body gave impetus to the emergence of Postfeminist theory in the work of Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva, and in Postcolonial theory through Gayathri Chakravarty Spivak who also wrote an impressive foreword to Of Grammatology. It is arguably in these areas that Derrida’s influence has been greatest in US academia.

On October 8th, 2004 Derrida died of pancreatic cancer in Paris. His work had sometimes been criticized as not being sufficiently rigorous and at times being deliberately obscure. My personal thought on this is that since his theory of deconstruction, which he described as a textual event and not a method, involves dissolving dichotomies into each other it may be that some, more traditional philosophers, found the questioning of fixed meanings and a logos whose center was found to be wandering, too much of a challenge in the phallocentric system they firmly adhered to.

Derrida attempted to live his life in an integrated manner that spurned dichotomies and he was practically involved in contributing to work against many social and political injustices.

Jacques Derrida is one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century and his work continues to creatively influence the work of many other scholars.

For further information on the work of Jacques Derrida here is good site which contains a link to bibliographies of texts and interviews by Derrida plus a page of links to transcripts of his interviews and talks in English, French, and German, and excerpts of his work.

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