Jacques Derrida: the man who thought upside down

Michael Lisinski


For this month's academic, I wanted to go with someone unique. And if you want to write about an academic who’s unique, Jacques Derrida is probably a safe bet.

Yet Derrida himself would probably question that, for the exact same reasons someone else might support it.

Okay, some background: Jacques Derrida was born in French-occupied Algeria in 1930. At 22, he moved to France to study philosophy and became a philosopher by trade, but since then his influence has been felt in fields seemingly far-removed from that discipline, such as English literature, architecture, and communication.

In 1967, at age 37, Derrida roared onto the academic scene by publishing three books at once: Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference, and Speech and Phenomena. They soon became (in)famous for their density, their critical readings of philosophers throughout history, and for radically rethinking some of our most basic questions. You can imagine that some of the people who took philosophy ultra-seriously didn’t like this very much. But others became enthralled by Derrida’s ideas.


(Drawing courtesy of Ontario Tech Communication student Cassy Goulding.)

Famously, Derrida didn’t reject the works he critiqued, but instead followed their ideas to their limits, showing how parts of the texts undermined what they were actually trying to say. This wasn’t necessarily the result of sloppy logic by the authors, he thought, but an unavoidable effect of language on philosophy. For anyone interested, this is all summed up nicely in a lecture by Rick Roderick.

In Communication, the program I'm in at Ontario Tech, we talk about marketing, society and pop culture more than philosophy, but Derrida fits into the program through this way in which he talks about language and writing. The best starting point here is the way he uses the word ‘writing’, which he says is different from the way we talk about it usually. His idea of writing (which he sometimes calls generalized writing) refers to the ability to cite that, according to Derrida, allows us to understand the meanings of things.

All throughout Western philosophy, he says, writing’s been devalued against speech, which is considered more trustworthy and closer to our thought process. But he thinks that it’s the very reasons why writing’s been criticized – like the ability to cite out of context – that allow speech to actually work; you can only understand something if you’re able to repeat it in a different place at a different time. So speech isn't that different from writing at all.

Why does this matter? Partly because Derrida uses this idea to challenge some very important guys (Plato and Rousseau, among others) but also because it all means more than you might think; Derrida links the speech/writing opposition to a bigger tradition he calls logocentrism – the yearning for immediate, singular truth and meaning.

Throughout his career, Derrida tried to show that everything repressed throughout history in the name of logocentrism is actually what allows everything privileged in comparison to exist; the supplement versus the ‘pure’ whole, writing versus speech, and so on. His work doesn’t advance our scientific knowledge or give us a way to run society, but it does give us an occasion to really question our value judgements – and that, potentially, could change everything.

I’ll admit that when you first discover Derrida, it’s easy to see him as a kind of linguistic trickster, especially when the controversy around his work is coupled with quotes like “To pretend, I actually do the thing: I have therefore only pretended to pretend.”

(Seriously, this man didn’t make it easy on himself. He also had a funny sense of humour.)

But hey, I never recommend shutting your mind against stuff that seems bizarre before you've given it a fair shake. Derrida himself said that many of his critics seemed to have carefully avoided actually reading his work.

So reading Derrida’s work is what I actually suggest for anyone interested by his ideas. I’ll even give you two places to start: the essay “White Mythology: Metaphor in Western Philosophy” and the much shorter “Signature, Event, Context,” both found in the collection Margins of Philosophy. I’ve found both of these essays to be pretty insightful and tightly argued, despite some peoples’ notions that Derrida wanted to get rid of coherence and logic altogether. If anything, they’re worth reading to experience the work of a guy who challenged our thinking and rocked the intellectual world before he was even out of his thirties. Indeed, Princeton University is marking the tenth anniversary of his death on October 9 with a symposium talking about his influence.

But please, don’t take my word for it! Venture onward! Take your time, think critically and don’t let the big words intimidate you!

Sources & Additional Reading

It takes a little bit of time to wrap your head around the stuff Derrida says, so I encourage you to explore information and opinions about his life and work. He also unexpectedly found himself in a lot of pop culture.

Introduction to his life and work from Stanford University

Profile at The European Graduate School

Song "Jacques Derrida" by 80s band Scritti Politti

Derrida in the movie Ghost Dance

Did you enjoy reading about Jacques Derrida? Feel free to check out my previous Academic of the Month: pioneer of computer science Alan Turing.

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