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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


(1930 — 2004)



Algerian born, Jacques Derrida studied phenomenology in Paris under Ricoeur. He has taught at the École Normale Supérieure and in America at Johns Hopkins and Yale Universities. In recent years he has also been active politically. He has been regarded by many as the enfant terrible of late twentieth century philosophy.



[1] Derrida's concern is with what he calls the 'logocentrism' of Western philosophy. By this he means a 'realist' view that through philosophy, conceptual analysis, system-building, the philosopher can gain access to, grasp, intuit a 'reality' which is signified, pointed to, described by language as signifier. This reality has been referred to in a multitude of ways by different philosophers: Plato's Forms or Ideas, substances [Aristotle and others], Husserl's essences, truth, the self, Being, God. Derrida calls this the 'metaphysics of presence' [On Grammatology, ch. 2]. A corollary of this realism is a set of characteristic polarizations or oppositions which, in his view, have brought about paradoxes and contradictions. Such oppositions include appearance-reality, logos-mythos, intelligible-sensible, nature-culture, mind-body, self-other, intuition-signification, and even speech as against writing. Derrida sees it as his task to expose the sterility of this whole enterprise which, until the twentieth century, has seemed to be an unquestioned assumption of the western philosophical tradition. Western philosophy, he says, has to be 'deconstructed' [a]. This term has something in common with Heidegger's Destruktion but Derrida is more radical, and he also regards Heidegger himself as having fallen under the spell of the metaphysics of presence. By means of deconstruction Derrida questions and sees himself as undermining these traditional assumptions and categories, and thereby, if not actually bringing philosophy to an end, at least showing it to be a futile activity, though one to which those of us who are prepared to think at all are perhaps condemned to engage in.

By 'deconstruction' Derrida means an activity — it would be inconsistent with Derrida's general tenets to call it a method — which is grounded in a distinction he makes between the 'essential' and the 'inessential', and it applies to every opposition. The inessential (for example, mythos, the sensible, and writing) is what appears to be marginal, that is, excluded by the essential pole of a binary opposition (logos, the intelligible, and speech). However, inessential characteristics turn out paradoxically also to be features of the essential. He calls this the 'logic of the supplement'. This can be seen clearly in the opposition between writing and speech. Derrida argues that the intellectual tradition of the west has been characterized not only by logocentrism but also by 'phonocentrism', that is, the subordination of the written word to living speech. This was, he points out, emphasized particularly by Plato [Phaedrus] who regarded writing as a kind of alienation from speech and prey to abuse and misunderstanding, in that meaning has been distanced from its original living source. Paradoxically, Derrida adds, writing is needed to preserve meaning in absence of speech and the 'presence' in it. He claims that these opposing good and bad aspects are articulated in the double meaning of the word Pharmakon used by Plato: 'poison' as well as 'cure'. Derrida argues that if we examine a text with this in mind we shall discover this and similar oppositions, as well as other problems and tensions. These will become apparent if we attend to the seemingly inessential features of the text — metaphors, footnotes, rhetorical devices, and the like. In so far as these inessentials are the means whereby these inherent tensions and contradictions can be identified and resolution achieved they become essential; and it is this that constitutes the logic of the supplement.

Derrida is strongly influenced by structuralism. Arguably, the structuralists may not have denied that language as a whole has in some sense or other the characteristic of being 'about' a world. But this view of language is rejected by Derrida. He agrees with structuralism that signs are used in an arbitrary way to mark differences and thereby to carry meanings. However, he maintains that it (1) has succumbed to the logocentrist prejudice, and (2) has preserved the primacy of speech over writing — which Saussure, like Plato, regarded as potentially dangerous. To deal with these errors and to develop his own radical position Derrida argues that there is a fundamental ambiguity in the term 'difference'. In French 'to differ' is différer but it can also mean 'to defer'; and this notion of deferring becomes central to Derrida's deconstructionalist thesis. Meaning for Saussure and the structuralists lies in the 'differential' structures not in the putative 'presences'. But Derrida goes further. In so far as words carry meaning only in relation to other words, for its meaning to be manifested each word has to be connected to another. This must of course therefore be a never-ending process. A meaning is forever beyond capture, as it were, for we always need another word to articulate a given word's meaning. Alternatively we can say that to understand the meaning of a given word we need to grasp or apprehend the linguistic system or network in its totality — a task which is clearly impossible from within. It is in this respect that Derrida says the text defers the meaning, puts it off [b]. He therefore introduces the term différance (spelt with an 'a' rather than an 'e') to designate this concept of deferral. He argues further that these supplementary features of writing are essential characteristics of speech as well as of writing — speech also being inseparable from context. But it does not follow that speech should now be seen as subordinate to writing, that is, the reverse of the Platonic view. Rather, according to Derrida, implicit in both speech and writing there is what he terms arché-écriture ('arche-writing'). This cannot be defined in any objective sense. He means by it that which does not allow itself to be reduced to presence; and that by means of which the difference is manifested through language signifies a difference which lies neither in a subjective self-presence nor in a transcendental objective presence. Put differently (no pun is intended here — though Derrida would welcome it as such), it is itself a kind of transcendental condition for the functioning of the differentiating system of signs in such a way that meaning is always deferred. We might think of it as the core concept of his new non-logocentric linguistics — which he calls 'grammatology'. This is not an objective scientific linguistics. (Such objectivity would drag us back into oppositions and contradictions because objectivity implies 'presence', yet science requires repetition and hence temporal differentiation and deferral, which would undermine the notion of presence). Rather, grammatology — which is in effect Derrida's own, and for him the only possible philosophy — is manifested or realized in the deconstruction process: this is its proper role.

Quite obviously a major casualty of his attacks is any theory of interpretation which supposes there to be a 'truth' in a text, work of art, culture, and the like. For Derrida deconstruction must give rise to a multitude of textual interpretations, all of equal validity — or invalidity; for no criterion can be appealed to in terms of which they might be scaled other than perhaps unquantifiable pleasure or aesthetic satisfaction. There are also implications for ethics and politics. There can be no absolute values if by such we mean entities akin to metaphysical presences. Nor can "political codes and terminologies" be immune; and the consequences for such a position would seem to be either anarchy or a laisser-faire conservative acceptance of the status-quo, on the grounds that one can have no reason to choose between one ideological position and another. Derrida would seem to favour the former option, and this is consistent with his repudiation of anything that might be construed as 'essential' to his work and his denial that he holds any 'stance'.



Like Heidegger, Derrida has been revered by some acolytes but derided (one might say 'derridad') by most philosophical commentators. His central theses are: (1) that meaning lies not in 'real presences' — Being, the real, essence, for example, but in differential structures of speech; he rejects both 'self-presence' and 'transcendental objective presence'; (2) that meaning is 'deferred', words carrying meaning only in relation to other words (his term différance being coined to cover both 'difference' and 'deferral'); (3) the deconstruction of 'logocentrism' leading to the end of philosophy. Not surprisingly, these claims have stimulated much debate and criticism.

(1) It has been objected that Derrida's antirealism is undercut by his own deconstruction of the thesis itself. Derrida says there is no reference beyond or outside language. This implies that sense is subordinated to reference. At the same time his position seems to be that reference is confined to the inter-relationship of signs. Many critics would argue further that Derrida's claim to have abolished the 'subject-presence' is questionable, in that his whole philosophical standpoint seems egocentric, a liberated self being implicitly preserved through rejection of the 'other'. And it is held that while there may be areas of dispute, and different philosophical theories, there is a consensus about the real (as it appears to us), and that it is presupposed by writing and speech. There must be something for different structures to be 'about', to refer to. It is within this 'social dimension' that the concepts of both the self and the other function. Perhaps then Derrida does not really mean there is only language. A possible interpretation of his writings is that he does indeed accept the everyday view that language is about 'things' but that his concern is constantly to warn against the dangers of logocentrism — which is, as he says, inescapable; it must constantly be 'revisited'. In the last analysis his claim to have brought philosophy to an end seems highly improbable.

(2) It could be argued that Derrida's tacit rejection of objectivity or absolutism in ethics and politics is incompatible with his espousal of radical causes ranging from anti-apartheid movements to feminism. However, it is possible to see such positions — which seem to be grounded in some general concepts of liberality and individual autonomy — as being accommodated within a deconstructionist framework which by its nature demands a total openness, infinite deferring, and rejection of doctrinal rigidities: but this clearly is a matter for debate. The most important issue perhaps is still whether his whole enterprise is tenable.



Derrida: [of many works] La Voix et le phénomène (1967) (Speech and Phenomena, trans. D. Allison); De la grammatologie (1967) (Of Grammatology, trans. G. Spivak); L'Écriture et la différence (1967) (Writing and Difference, trans. A. Bass); Marges de la philosophie (1972) (Margins of Philosophy, trans. A. Bass). See also 'The Ends of Man' (1972) in After Philosophy, eds K Baynes et al A useful selection of his writings is contained in D. Wood (ed.), Derrida: A Critical Reader.


C. Norris, Derrida

See also R. Rorty, 'Is Derrida a Transcendental Philosopher?'


G. Madison, Working through Derrida

C. Norris, Deconstruction: Theory and Practice.

Collection of essays

D. Wood and R. Bernasconi (eds), Derrida and Difference.






Note: Given that underlying Derrida's philosophical position is a general rejection of the greater part of Western philosophy, the listing of Connections to the majority of Profiles would be a tedious and in any case arguably a redundant task. It is sufficient here that note be taken of some of the positive influences on his thesis, namely:


[1a] Rejection of 'logocentrism'; philosophy to be 'deconstructed'



   [Structuralism: see
   account in
   Merleau-Ponty [4c]






[1b] Signs mark differences & carry meaning; primacy of text over speech; text 'defers' meaning    Peirce [1a d]