1 Derrida: An Introduction




1. Derrida: An Introduction

Jacques Derrida, French philosopher, is the founding father of Deconstruction, a controversial system of analysis, which challenges the basis of traditional western thought. Derrida evolves Deconstruction as a strategy of critical questioning directed towards exposing unquestionable metaphysical assumptions and internal contradictions in philosophical and literary language. Deconstruction often involves a way of reading that concerns itself with decentering—with unmasking the problematic nature of all centers. In his celebrated work Of Grammatology, Derrida unravels in detail his main philosophical contention on deconstruction. Deconstruction as such is a critical practice which serves to interpret the western thought by reversing or displacing the hierarchical “binary opposition” that provides its foundation.

This series is a study on Derrida and his notion of Deconstruction. In the first part, I have brought in Postmodernism at the outset to place Derrida in the proper philosophical scenario. In the second part I have dealt with Derrida, his magnum opus Of Grammatology giving in detail the method of deconstruction, and thereby its application on some of the great masters of the age, namely, Saussure, Lavi-Strauss, Rousseau, Warburton, Vico and Condillac. In this section I have analyzed Derrida’s method of Deconstruction. I will also discuss reasons why philosophy as a discipline might exhibit such resistance to his assertion of its irreducible textuality: the kind of threat his work may pose for philosophical conventions and presumptions. Finally, I will attempt to assess his philosophy of deconstruction in the light of some of the objections and criticisms leveled against it.

2. Postmodernism

Postmodernism is a complicated term, or set of ideas, one that has only emerged as an area of academic study since the mid-1980s. In its broad usage, this is a family resemblance term deployed in a variety of contexts, namely, architecture, painting, music, poetry, fiction, etc, for things which seem to be related—if at all—by a laid back pluralism of styles and a vague desire to have done with the pretensions of high modernist culture. In philosophical terms postmodernism shares something with the critique of enlightenment values and truth claims given by thinkers of a liberal communitarian persuasion. It also shares with neo-pragmatists like Richard Rorty who welcomed the end of philosophy’s presumptive role as a privileged, truth telling discourse. There is another point of contact with post-modern fiction and art in the current preoccupation, among some philosophers, with themes of self-reflexivity, or the puzzles induced by allowing language to become the object of its own scrutiny in a kind of dizzying rhetorical regress. To this extent post-modernism might be seen as a lucid development of the so-called ‘linguistic turn’ that has characterized much philosophical thinking of late.[1]

Postmodernism specifically challenges the European culture that took its direction from the Renaissance, developed through the seventeenth century and the Enlightenment, and remains a common discourse for most citizens of Western democratic societies. In philosophy, in arts, in science, in political theory and in sociology, postmodernism challenges the entire culture of realism, representationism, humanism, and empiricism. Postmodern critique thus goes to the very foundation of personal, social and institutional definition.

The term “postmodernism” first entered the philosophical lexicon in 1979, with the publication of The Postmodern Condition by Jean-François Lyotard.[2] It is associated with the wave of thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Poland Barthes, Gilles Deluze, Felix Guattari and Michel Foucault. Postmodernism tends to see all knowledge—history, anthropology, literature, psychology, etc. as textual. This means that knowledge is not composed just of concepts, but of words. And words, such as “port”—which can mean either “wine” or “harbor” can suggest different meanings.[3] Postmodernism promised to provide philosophy, anthropology, literary criticism and other fields with a scientific basis.

Perhaps the easiest way to start thinking about postmodernism is by thinking about modernism, the movement from which postmodernism seems to grow or emerge. Modernism is a blanket term for an explosion of new styles and trends in arts and philosophy in the first half of 20th century, characterized as the Age of reason.[4] Modernity, which began intellectually with the Enlightenment, attempted to describe the world in rational, empirical and objective terms. It assumed that there was a truth to be uncovered, a way of obtaining answers to the question posed by the human condition, by rational means. Postmodernism does not exhibit this confidence, gone are the underlying certainties that reason promised. Reason itself is now seen as a particular historical form, as parochial in its own way. The postmodern subject has no rational way to evaluate a preference in relation to judgments of truth, morality, aesthetic experience or objectivity.

3. Jacques Derrida: Person (1930-2004)

Jacques Derrida, was born on July 15, 1930 into a Sephardic Jewish family living in El Biar, in French Algeria.[5] At the age of 10 he was expelled from school after being told by a teacher that “French culture is not made for little Jews”. He then attended a Jewish lycee.[6] At the age of 19 Derrida moved to Paris to study at the Ecole Normale Superieure under the great Hegelian scholar Jean Hyppolite. He met Sartre, but in the long run it was his early encounters not with Sartre but with Nietzsche and Heidegger which had the greatest impact upon him.

During the late 1950s he worked on a doctoral thesis on Husserl, but this project was never completed and in the meantime he was beginning to explore the ambiguous nature of all, even philosophical, writing. Derrida received a degree in philosophy from Ecole Normale Superieure, an elite university in Paris. He later taught in France at the Sorbonne University and the Ecole des Hautes Etude en Sciences Sociales. He also taught in the United States: at Yale, Johns Hopkins and the University of California at Irvine.

Like his near-contemporaries in the structuralist[7] and post-structuralist[8] movement to which he belonged—Barthes, Lacan, Althusser and Foucault— Derrida was the embodiment of the philosopher-rebel, admired for his explosive critique of the authoritarian values latent in orthodox approaches to literature and philosophy. To his critics, however, his work was frivolous, obscure, bogus and even invidiously subversive[9]

Derrida first came to the attention of a wider public at the end of 1965 when he published two long review articles on books on history and nature of writing, in the journal, Critique, and these review papers formed the basis of Derrida’s most important and possibly best-known book, Of Grammatology.[10] In 1967 this inspired him to set out his approach to reading texts in three works, Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference and Speech and Phenomena, which contained lengthy studies of such philosophers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ferdinand de Saussure, Edmund Husserl, Emmanuel Levinas, Martin Heidegger, W.F. G. Hegel, Michel Foucault and Rene Descartes as well as the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, Sigmund Freud and several literary and theatrical writers.

Derrida traveled widely and held a series of visiting and permanent positions. Derrida was director of studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. With Francois Chatelet and others he in 1983 co-founded the College International de Philosophie (CIPH), an institution intended to provide a location for philosophical research which could not be carried out elsewhere in the academy. He was elected as its first president. He died in 2004.

Derrida was a prolific writer, with more than 40 books to his credit. His writings include Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference, Speech and Phenomena, Margins of Philosophy, Dissemination and Positions. A number of important tendencies underlie Derrida’s approach to philosophy, and more specifically to the western tradition of thought. Through the approach called ‘Deconstruction’ Derrida has begun a fundamental investigation into the nature of the western metaphysical tradition.[11]

[1] Ted Honderich (Ed), The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 745

[2]Jean Francois Lyotard,, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Minnesota, University of Minnesota Press, 1984

[3] Jim Powell, Derrida for Begineers, Chennai, Orient Longman Private Ltd., 2000, p.20

[4] Jim Powell, Postmodernism for Begineers, Chennai, Orient Longman Private Ltd. 1998, p.8

[5] Jacques Derrida,; Of Grammatology, trans. by Spivak, Gayatri, Delhi, Motilal Banarasidas Publishers Private Ltd. (2002), p. ix

[6] The Telegraph, edition dated 11/10/2004

[7] Structuralism as a term refers to various theories across the humanities, social sciences and economics many of which share the assumption that structural relationships between concepts vary between different cultures/languages and that these relationships can be usefully exposed and explored.

[8] Post-structuralism refers to the intellectual developments in continental philosophy and critical theory which were outcomes of twentieth-century French philosophy. The prefix “post” refers to the fact that many contributors such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Julia Kristeva were former structuralists who, after abandoning structuralism, became quite critical of it. In direct contrast to structuralism’s claims of culturally independent meaning, post-structuralists typically view culture as inseparable from meaning

[9] The Telegraph, edition dated 11/10/2004

[10] John Lechte, Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers, London, Rutledge, 1995, p. 106

[11] John Lechte, Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers, London, Routledge, 1995, p. 106