Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction: Part 2: A Basic Overview of Derrida’s Philosophy


Derrida often referred to himself as a historian. He questioned the assumptions of Western culture. Personally, I don’t think Western culture gets questioned enough, so I like this aspect of Derrida’s philosophy. By modifying and questioning the accepted discourse, Derrida attempted to democratize the university. I honestly wouldn’t mind seeing universities more democratized. I think universities are run too much like businesses. Education should not be a business. As a result, he managed to attract the anger of right-wing intellectuals. Derrida also apparently referred to deconstruction as a “radicalization of a certain spirit of Marxism.” As a result of readings from Plato, Rousseau, and Heidegger, as well as many other philosophers, Derrida frequently argued that Western philosophy had allowed models to govern its conception of language and consciousness without properly analyzing those models. As a result, Deconstruction was an attempt to expose and undermine such metaphysics.

Derrida was concerned with creating an elaborate critique on the limits of phenomenology in the earliest part of his philosophical career. His first lengthy academic manuscript was on the work of Edmund Husserl. He published Edmund Husserl’s Origin of Geometry: An Introduction in 1962, in which he translated Husserl’s essay himself. It wasn’t until 1966 when Derrida first gained major attention outside France. He gave a lecture titled “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” at Johns Hopkins University. The talk was focused around Structuralism, but it was given at a time when Derrida was becoming critical of Structuralism. The paper Derrida presented had such an impact that by the time they were published along with the other conference proceedings in 1970 the collection had been titled The Structuralist Controversy.

Derrida began speaking and writing publicly in the 1960’s. He addressed the most prominent debates at the time, including Structuralism. Structuralism at the time was widely considered to be the successor of phenomenology. Phenomenology rejects the rationalist bias that has dominated Western thought since Plato in favour of reflective attentiveness, which focuses the individual’s “lived experience.” Structuralists believed that this was a false problem. They believed that the depth of experience could only be an effect of structures, which are not experiential in themselves. In 1959, Derrida asked a question which is considered an important aspect of his work. That question is “Must not structure have a genesis, and must not the origin, the point of genesis, be already structured, in order to be the genesis of something?” Derrida is saying that every structural phenomenon has a history, and the structure cannot be understood without understanding that history.
Derrida published his work in three collections in 1967. They are Speech and Phenomena, Of Grammatology, and Writing and Difference. Derrida asked “What is ‘meaning’, what are its historical relationships to what is purportedly identified under the rubric ‘voice’ as a value of presence, presence of the object, presence of meaning to consciousness, self-presence in so called living speech and in self-consciousness?” in these three works. In an essay in Writing and Difference entitled “Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas,” Derrida offers another major theme in his thoughts: the Other as opposed to the Same. This collection elaborated Derrida’s theoretical framework. Derrida attempted to approach the very heart of the Western intellectual tradition, labeling the tradition as “a search for a transcendental being that serves as the origin or guarantor of meaning.” Derrida described the logocentrism of Western Intellectual tradition as phallocratic, patriarchal, and masculinist. Suddenly I like Derrida a lot more. But that’s neither here nor there. Derrida contributed to “the understanding of certain deeply hidden philosophical presuppositions and prejudices in Western culture,” arguing that the philosophical tradition rested on arbitrary dichotomous categories. He also argued that all texts contain implicit hierarchies, “by which an order is imposed on reality and by which a subtle repression is exercised, as these hierarchies exclude, subordinate, and hide the various potential meanings.” Deconstruction was Derrida’s method for uncovering these hierarchies.

After 1972, Derrida received increasing attention in the United States. He became a regular visiting professor and lecturer at several major American universities. It was in the 1980’s when American conservatives began to attack Derrida’s work. It has been claimed that he influenced more American literary critics and theorists than academic philosophers.

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4 responses to “Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction: Part 2: A Basic Overview of Derrida’s Philosophy

  • Luvbeingadyke

    I ask the question but why? why did Derida follow this particular philosophical path. NS makes a good point “But it doesn’t say anything about what Derrida actually believed – other than that the entire edifice of modern thought was constrained and polluted by its reliance on certain assumptions and modes of analysis”. Using a human rights framework also opens up new understandings of why Derida thinks the way he does. Hessianwithteeth I look forward to reading more of your interpretation of Derida.

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    • hessianwithteeth

      I have been trying to decide if I should write a post about his political views, but I think I will have to. I’ve been focusing more on what he believed than why he believed it, but giving an insight into his political views might answer some of the why’s. Though, lacking resurrection and mind reading abilities, it may be difficult to give much insight into the why’s to any great extent.

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  • NS

    It’s hard for me to understand what out of this is actually Derrida’s philosophy. You describe deconstruction as a method, and talk about how Derrida used it to identify or expose underlying assumptions and constraints in Western intellectual thought, including some specific points which have in recent times been more broadly acknowledged as significant problems in Western (or all) society and that you personally agree with. But it doesn’t say anything about what Derrida actually believed – other than that the entire edifice of modern thought was constrained and polluted by its reliance on certain assumptions and modes of analysis.

    Probably around the same time that Derrida was doing this stuff, the great French mathematician Grothendieck wrote (http://www.thebigquestions.com/2014/11/13/the-rising-sea/):

    “Most mathematicians take refuge within a specific conceptual framework, in a “Universe” which seemingly has been fixed for all time – basically the one they encountered “ready-made” at the time when they did their studies. They may be compared to the heirs of a beautiful and capacious mansion in which all the installations and interior decorating have already been done, with its living-rooms , its kitchens, its studios, its cookery and cutlery, with everything in short, one needs to make or cook whatever one wishes. How this mansion has been constructed, laboriously over generations, and how and why this or that tool has been invented (as opposed to others which were not), why the rooms are disposed in just this fashion and not another – these are the kinds of questions which the heirs don’t dream of asking . It’s their “Universe”, it’s been given once and for all! It impresses one by virtue of its greatness, (even though one rarely makes the tour of all the rooms) yet at the same time by its familiarity, and, above all, with its immutability…..

    I consider myself to be in the distinguished line of mathematicians whose spontaneous and joyful vocation it has been to be ceaseless building new mansions.”

    Following this imagery, can we say that Derrida contributed to philosophy in the same way that Grothendieck did to mathematics? Or can we say that Derrida, having realized everyone was bumbling about in their little mansion, just threw off his clothes and frolicked on the lawn? Even if it’s the latter, that doesn’t really impugn the significance of his contribution; after all, the very idea that one SHOULD be “building new mansions” requires some significant assumptions about value and purpose.

    This is also interesting to me and sort of related: http://divus.cc/london/en/article/nick-land-ein-experiment-im-inhumanismus

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    • hessianwithteeth

      There aren’t really clear definitions in philosophy. I’m going to talk about Deconstruction more in the next few posts, but to give any cut and dry answers at this point I’d say would be irresponsible.
      I don’t actually know how relevant he actually was, because he was popular at different times in different areas. He also seems to have lost relevance. Either that, or the relevance he had in the US never translated to Canada, where I am.
      Hopefully you will get a better understanding of his philosophy as I go on.

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