Perhaps no philosopher of the 20th century caused more of an uproar in the U.S. than Jacques Derrida. Though he was not religious in any standard sense, he understood a great deal about what it means to be religious. Though he was often described in the English-speaking press as arrogant, he was in fact quiet and kind. I will miss him. For me to call him a friend would be to stretch the truth far too far. But we were acquaintances, and I was always impressed not only by his great intelligence, but also by his civility. Some years ago I founded a journal for the history of philosophy. Given who I was not, there was no need for him to take notice of it, much less to be involved with it. But he agreed to be on its board of editors and several times gave helpful suggestions in addition to the use of his name. And he never failed to recognize me when we met, a small thing but something very pleasing to me. In the end, philosophically I am not a Derridean. I remain in the camp of Heidegger and Gadamer. Nevertheless, I owe and respect Jacques Derrida a great deal. I will miss his “presance.”
Oddly, in spite of my experience with Derrida and what I find in his writings, he has often been vilified in the United States as a nihilist and a relativist. Neither was true, but both his adherents and his detractors often agree that he was both. As is often the case when philosophers from other contexts are adopted by someone outside that context, Derrida was profoundly misunderstood by most American academics who talked about his work. (See my “Deconstruction” for a brief discussion of why I think that is so. The essay has been around for a while, so I would revise it were I offering it for publication today. But it does a reasonable job of saying what I want to say, so I leave it as it has been for a while.)
Among other things, Derrida helped me understand for the first time why negative theology is so important to theology. And he showed me not only why Levinas is an important thinker, but where to look for the problems in Levinas.
You can find Derrida’s obituary in Le Monde. Here is a rough translation:
Le Monde, 9 October 2004
The philosopher Jacques Derrida is dead
Jacques Derrida was the French philosopher best known to foreigners, especially those in the United States, for his concept of â€œdeconstruction.â€?
Derrida, the French philosopher most commented on and most translated in the world in recent years, particularly in the United States, died Friday night at the age of 74. He was celebrated for his concept of â€œdeconstruction.â€?
According to those close to him, Derrida, author of some 80 works, died â€œwithout sufferingâ€? in a Paris hospital where he had been for about three weeks following a bout with pancreatic cancer.
He was the last survivor of the thinkers of the 60s, known as â€œthe thinkers of 68″ (Althusser, Lacan, Foucault, Barthes, Deleuze, etc.), adversaries of the notion of the â€œsubject.â€?
Born 15 July 1930 in El Bar (Algeria) into a generally leftist transplanted Jewish colonial family, in 1950 he entered the Ecole Normale Superieur. He then became an assistant at Harvard (United States) and afterward taught at the Sorbonne. In 1965 he became a professor of philosopher at the Ecole Normale, where he served as â€œcaymanâ€? (director of studies). Later he split his work between Paris and several of the most prestigious American universities.
In 1982, he was imprisoned for several days in a Czech prison for his support of the dissident intellectuals of Charter 77.
The inventor of â€œdeconstructionâ€?
Derrida took on a vast critical reflection on the institution of philosophy and its teaching. In 1983, he was a creator of the International College of Philosophy, over which he presided until 1985. In 1988, with Jacques Bouveresse and at the initiative of the Minister of Education, he directed the commission on philosophy, part of a team reviewing the content of secondary education instruction.
Following this, he taught again in the United States, then at the Ecole des hautes Ã©tudes in sciences sociales in Paris.
â€œI have never stayed long in the United States; my clearest intellectual time has not been spent there. That said, however, the reception of my work there was more generous and more attentive, and I encountered less censure, obstruction, and conflict than in Franceâ€? he declared recently to the newspaper â€œlâ€™HumanitÃ©.â€?
Among his numerous books, which constitute a dialogue without concession with western metaphysics, are Writing and Difference, Margins of Philosophy, Glas, The Truth in Painting, For Paul Celan, Spirit, Heidegger and the Question, Inventions of the Other, Law and Philosophy, Specters of Marx, Aporias and Resistances of Psychoanalysis.
Derrida, with a thick head of white hair, proposed to begin with the classic texts of philosophy and to deconstruct them to reveal the presuppositions of language as a way of undoing a dominant system of thought in their interior.
â€œDeconstruction is to take an idea, an institution, or a value and to understand its mechanisms by peeling away the cement that constitutes it. Beside thatâ€”which may intrigue some and make others run awayâ€”it is a philosophy that can help us understand societyâ€? said Franz-Olivier Glesbert when he introduced Derrida on television in 2002. That appearance on television was, in itself, an event for this reserved but open person, who was not well-acquainted with the small screen and who had, for a long time, refused to be photographed.
Derrida was a member of the committee that sustained Lionel Jospin in 1995. A grandfather and the husband of a psychoanalyst, he had a son with [his first wife,] Sylviane Agacinski, [presently] the wife of Jospin.
He did not vote on the 21st of April 2001, a sign of his â€œill will toward all of the candidates.â€? â€œIf, after a long time, my texts have been considered to be politically neutralâ€”though my participation on the left has been well-knownâ€”that is because, always attentive to political matters, I do not find myself [. . .] in the dominant political systemâ€? he confided at the beginning of 2004. [One need not be on the political left to understand that sentiment.]