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Jacques Derrida

(1930—2004) French philosopher and critic

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French philosopher of poststructuralism, who introduced the philosophical and literary method known as deconstruction.

Like his contemporary Althusser, Derrida was a native of Algiers who found his intellectual awakening among the philosophers of Paris and made the École Normale Supérieure his main base. Unlike Althusser, however, he also studied abroad – at Harvard – and taught at the Sorbonne, Johns Hopkins, and Yale. Derrida's first book, a prize-winning translation of Husserl's Origins of Geometry (1962), was followed by three interrelated texts published in 1967 that set out the essentials of his philosophical method – Speech and Phenomena, Writing and Difference, and Of Grammatology.

Derrida's overriding concern was to evolve what he termed a strategy of deconstruction to reveal and subvert the assumptions and rules of thought underlying any text. According to Derrida and his disciples, the idea that any text has a fixed and determinate meaning – indeed, the idea that there can even be such a thing as ‘meaning’ – is based on metaphysical assumptions that can never be substantiated. From the late 1960s onwards these radical, some would say nihilistic, ideas had a deeply unsettling impact on university departments of literature and philosophy alike – initially in France, later in the USA, and latterly in Britain. In 1992 the award of an honorary degree by Cambridge University prompted an unusually undecorous attack on both the decision and the recipient by academics who thought it ludicrous to acclaim a person whose major objective was to undermine the very idea that objective intellectual analysis was attainable.

Derrida's later publications include two books on Freud, a work on Heidegger, Of Spirit (1987), and a study of Marx, Spectres of Marx (1993).

Subjects: Literature

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