Saturday, October 09, 2004

Jacques Derrida


Jacques Derrida passed away this Friday in Paris. Derrida was an important influence in my intellectual life. I began my academic career exploring the connections between deconstruction and legal theory, and although I have since moved on to other topics, his work remains a powerful source of insight.

Derrida frustrated many scholars because his work did not fit easily into any distinct category or discipline. It is probably appropriate that he defied categorization because his work is very much about the limits of categories. He thought of himself as a philosopher, but in the United States his work was taken up mostly by literary critics. His own writings unapologetically mingled philosophy and literature. He loved the play of language and was fascinated by the uncontrollability of rhetoric. Derrida had a reputation as a difficult and even incomprehensible philosopher, but he could also write beautifully and playfully when he wanted to. Although accused of being a nihilist he was actually a humanist. Although accused of undermining liberal and Enlightenment values he was actually deeply devoted to them. He was at heart a critical thinker, one who sees inherent value in picking apart his own preconceptions and those of others. In this respect he was fully a child of the Enlightenment.

Perhaps the most important thing to say about Derrida is that he was not a Derridean. Other people made use of his work in ways that would probably have horrified him. He was what Richard Rorty once called an edifying philosopher-- not a system builder, or a great fashioner of airtight arguments, but one whose work incited and inspired others. The task of such a philosopher is not to reach closure but to pry apart, explore, upset, and stimulate. I have always regarded him as a disciple of Heraclitus, who believed that all things were in flux and that things that the mind regards as opposites are always connected to each other in interesting and unexpected ways.


Derrida was a kind and gracious person. I met him while a senior at Yale, in an interview arranged by my senior thesis advisor. While I had many questions for him, he was genuinely interested in me and in what I thought. I shall always remember him for how polite and charming he was, dressed in his impeccable charcoal grey suits.

Your assessment of him as a critical humanist I think is quite right. To play, the game, le jeu, was an idea he came back to repeatedly, but as you suggest in the model of Socrates, who sought by the game of questions to bring his listeners to self-knowledge.

David Joslin

Nicely done. I too spent intellectual time with Derrida -- did my master's thesis on him. It was the man's fate to be stuck to one of his words -- deconstruction -- when he invented many. As many as he needed to do whatever piece of work he was doing. Somehow, econo-mimesis isn't as quotable.

I saw him lecture once, at NYU. This was in the nineties. I was not into Derrida's move into auto-biography, so I wasn't thrilled by the lecture, but I liked it, and I liked that it was in French, and the auditorium was filled with students who had obviously not been told it was going to be in French.

Goodbye J.D.

"Derrida had a reputation as a difficult and even incomprehensible philosopher, but he could also write beautifully and playfully when he wanted to."

So does that mean that he was intentionally "incomprehensible"? Of what purpose is that? In a world naturally incomprehensible.

Your post was skillfully done and it reinforces my sense that with Derrida there was no there, there.

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