Introduction to Derrida's Works

Derrida began speaking and writing publicly at a time when the French intellectual scene was experiencing an increasing rift between what could broadly speaking be called "phenomenological" and "structural" approaches to understanding individual and collective life. For those with a more phenomenological bent, the goal was to understand experience by comprehending and describing its genesis, the process of its emergence from an origin or event. For the structuralists, this was precisely the false problem, and the "depth" of experience could in fact only be an effect of structures which are not themselves experiential. It is in this context that in 1959 Derrida asks the question: 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?[3]

In other words, every structural or "synchronic" phenomenon has a history, and the structure cannot be understood without understanding its genesis.[4] At the same time, in order that there be movement, or potential, the origin cannot be some pure unity or simplicity, but must already be articulated—complex—such that from it a "diachronic" process can emerge. This originary complexity must not be understood as an original positing, but more like a default of origin, which Derrida refers to as iterability, inscription, or textuality.[5] It is this thought of originary complexity, rather than original purity, which destabilises the thought of both genesis and structure, that sets Derrida's work in motion, and from which derive all of its terms, including deconstruction.[6]

Derrida's method consisted in demonstrating all the forms and varieties of this originary complexity, and their multiple consequences in many fields. His way of achieving this was by conducting thorough, careful, sensitive, and yet transformational readings of philosophical and literary texts, with an ear to what in those texts runs counter to their apparent systematicity (structural unity) or intended sense (authorial genesis). By demonstrating the aporias and ellipses of thought, Derrida hoped to show the infinitely subtle ways that this originary complexity, which by definition cannot ever be completely known, works its structuring and destructuring effects.[7]

Early works

Derrida's earliest work was a critique of the limits of phenomenology. His earliest academic manuscript for a degree was a work on Edmund Husserl, submitted in 1954, and published much later as The Problem of Genesis in Husserl's Phenomenology. In 1962 he published Edmund Husserl's Origin of Geometry: An Introduction, which contained his own translation of Husserl's essay.

Derrida first received major attention outside France with his lecture, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," delivered at Johns Hopkins University in 1966 (and subsequently included in Writing and Difference). The conference at which this paper was delivered was concerned with structuralism, then at the peak of its influence in France, but only beginning to gain attention in the United States. Derrida differed from other participants by his lack of explicit commitment to structuralism, having already been critical of the movement. He praised the accomplishments of structuralism but also maintained reservations about its internal limitations, thus leading to the notion that his thought was a form of post-structuralism. Near the beginning of the essay, Derrida argued:

(...) the entire history of the concept of structure, before the rupture of which we are speaking, must be thought of as a series of substitutions of centre for centre, as a linked chain of determinations of the centre. Successively, and in a regulated fashion, the centre receives different forms or names. The history of metaphysics, like the history of the West, is the history of these metaphors and metonymies. Its matrix (...) is the determination of Being as presence in all senses of this word. It could be shown that all the names related to fundamentals, to principles, or to the centre have always designated an invariable presence – eidos, archē, telos, energeia, ousia (essence, existence, substance, subject) alētheia, transcendentality, consciousness, God, man, and so forth.

– "Structure, Sign and Play" in Writing and Difference, p. 353

The effect of Derrida's paper was such that by the time the conference proceedings were published in 1970, the title of the collection had become The Structuralist Controversy. The conference was also where he met Paul de Man, who would be a close friend and source of great controversy, as well as where he first met the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, with whose work Derrida enjoyed a mixed relationship.


Derrida's work demonstrated an interest in all the disciplines under discussion at the Baltimore conference, as was evinced by the subject of the three collections of work published in 1967: Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference, and Speech and Phenomena. These three books contained readings of the work of many philosophers and authors, including Husserl, linguist de Saussure, Heidegger, Rousseau, Levinas, Hegel, Foucault, Bataille, Descartes, anthropologist Lévi-Strauss, paleontologist Leroi-Gourhan, psychoanalyst Freud, and writers such as Edmond Jabès and Antonin Artaud. It was in this trinity of works that the "principles" of deconstruction were set out, not through theoretical explication but, rather, by demonstration, where he showed that the arguments promulgated by their subject-matter exceeded and contradicted the oppositional parameters in which they were situated. The next five years of lectures and essay-length work were gathered into two 1972 collections, Dissemination and Margins of Philosophy, at which time a collection of interviews (published as Positions in 1981) was also released.

During this period, Derrida was often interpreted as a "post-structuralist", and the basis of his intellectual influence was broadly seen as Husserlian, Saussurean, Heideggerian, and Nietzschean. This "basis" would later shift somewhat.


Starting in 1972, Derrida produced on average more than a book per year. He was said to have released more work in 2003 than in any other year. He was so prolific that there is no bibliography of his work that is complete. A good start is the bibliography included in Jack Reynolds' and Jonathan Roffe's (eds.) Understanding Derrida (London and New York: Continuum, 2004).

During the 1970s, his work was arguably at its most playful and most radical: his crucial works Glas, and The Post-Card: from Socrates to Freud and Beyond set the tone for his deconstructive project, particularly by emphasizing his form of close reading, his playful treatment of words, and his effort to demonstrate the potential of deconstruction.

A further crucial set of texts from this period is collected in Limited, Inc. Derrida had written "Signature Event Context", an essay on J. L. Austin in the early 1970s; following an aggressive critique of this text by John Searle, Derrida wrote a long (and no less aggressive) defense of his earlier argument, which remains crucial to any understanding of deconstruction's involvement with language and its commonly perceived limitations.

Of Spirit

On March 14, 1987, Derrida presented at the CIPH conference titled "Heidegger: Open Questions" a lecture which was published in October 1987 as Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question. It follows the shifting role of Geist (spirit) through Heidegger's work, noting that in 1927, Spirit was one of the philosophical terms that Heidegger set his sights on dismantling. But with his Nazi political engagement in 1933, Heidegger came out as a champion of the "German Spirit," and only withdrew from an exalting interpretation of the term in 1952. Derrida's book reconnects in a number of respects with his long engagement of Heidegger (such as "The Ends of Man" in Margins of Philosophy and the essays marked under the heading Geschlecht). Derrida reconsiders three other fundamental and recurring elements of Heideggerian philosophy: the distinction between human and animal, technology, and the privilege of questioning as the essence of philosophy.

Of Spirit is a crucial contribution to the long debate on Heidegger's Nazism and appeared at the same time as the French publication of a book by an unknown Chilean writer, Victor Farias, who charged that Heidegger's philosophy amounted to a wholehearted endorsement of the Nazi Sturmabteilung (SA) faction. Derrida responded to Farias in an interview, "Heidegger, the Philosopher's Hell" and a subsequent article, "Comment donner raison? How to Concede, with Reasons?" He noted that Farias was a weak reader of Heidegger's thought, adding that much of the evidence Farias and his supporters touted as new had long been known within the philosophical community.

But Of Spirit was also one of Derrida's first publications on the relationship between philosophy and nationalism, on which he had been teaching in the mid-1980s. This strand of questions would become increasingly important in his later work.

Political and ethical "turns"

Two further points deserve mention: Derrida's "political turn," heralded by Specters of Marx and Politics of Friendship in 1994, saw him divert his attention to politics. Derrida and many of his supporters have argued that much of the philosophical work done in his "political turn" can be dated to earlier essays, though the change of tone and the effort granted to political issues rose.

His "ethical turn," in works such as The Gift of Death, saw Derrida applying deconstruction to the relationship between ethics and religion. In this work, Derrida reads Søren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling and claims a leap of faith is required in many aspects of life, not just religion. But much more massive in importance and influence were Derrida's contemporary readings of Emmanuel Levinas, Walter Benjamin, Carl Schmitt, Jan Patočka, which came to provide a broad corpus on questions of law, responsibility, friendship, etc. Derrida also influenced the field of anthropology.[8]

This is not to say that Derrida moved altogether away from his readings of literature; indeed, he continued to write extensively on Maurice Blanchot, Paul Celan, and others.


Main article: Deconstruction

The 1966 paper, in addition to establishing Derrida's international reputation, marked the start of Derrida's use of the concept of deconstruction. Although Derrida did not completely object to the characterization of his entire project with this one term, it was a development about which he remained ambivalent.

At its core, if it can be said to have one, deconstruction is an attempt to open a text (literary, philosophical, or otherwise) to several meanings and interpretations. Its method is usually based on binary oppositions within a text — for example inside and outside or subject and object, or male and female. 'Deconstruction' then argues that such oppositions are culturally and historically defined, even reliant upon one another, and seeks to demonstrate that they are not as clear-cut or as stable as it would at first seem. On the basis that the two opposed concepts are fluid, this ambiguity is used to show that the text's meaning is fluid as well.

This fluidity stands against a legacy of traditional metaphysics (that is, Platonist thought) founded on oppositions, that seeks to establish a stability of meaning through conceptual absolutes where one term, for example "good," is elevated to a status that designates its opposite, in this case "evil," as its perversion, lack or inferior. These "violent hierarchies," as Derrida termed them, are taken as structurally unstable within the texts themselves, where the meaning strictly depends on this contradiction or antinomy.

Derrida insisted that deconstruction was never performed or executed but "took place" through "memory work": in this way, the task of the "deconstructor" was to show where this oppositional or dialectical stability was ultimately subverted by the text's internal logic. Meticulous readings find philosophy anew. The result of this renewal is often to find striking interpretations of texts. No "meaning" is stable: Derrida called the "metaphysics of presence" the thing that keeps the sense of unity within a text; where presence was granted the privilege of truth.

To understand this argument, one may need to explore Derrida's deconstruction of the speech/writing opposition, of which Of Grammatology is perhaps the clearest study. Derrida's critique of oppositions may be partly inspired by Nietzsche's genealogical reconsideration of "good" and "evil" (see, in particular, Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morals).

Derrida's practice of reading raises the question of the relationship between deconstruction and literary theory. Within literary studies, deconstruction is often treated as a particular method of reading — in contrast to Derrida's claims that deconstruction is an "event" within a text, not a method of reading it. Despite this apparent contradiction, the literary sensibilities of Derrida cannot be ignored, as many of his deconstructions were of poems and literary texts.

Further, deconstruction's sensitivities to philosophical efforts at defining limits have been taken by some to imply a deconstructive agenda for the ultimate reversal of order. This agenda would cover: philosophy's claim to be the first of all academic disciplines; holding out hopes of uniting all; delineating what is proper to each as they remain apart; and expelling from itself non-philosophy (via judgements which irreducibly take part in violence and hinge on matters of interpretation made through language). This has been seen as the privilege of the non-serious and the literary over a humbled philosophy.

Although its influence on literary studies is probably the most well-known and well-reported effect of deconstruction, its roots are more philosophical than literary, although it is also tied to distinct but abutting academic disciplines such as linguistics, women's studies, and anthropology (called the "human sciences" in France). Derrida's examination of the latter's philosophical foundations, both conceptual and historical, and their continued reliance on philosophical argument (whether consciously or not), was an important aspect of his thought. Among his foremost influences are Edmund Husserl, Sigmund Freud, and Martin Heidegger. Heidegger in particular was a major influence on Derrida — he claims in his "Letter to a Japanese Friend" (Derrida and différance, eds. Robert Bernasconi and David Wood) that the word "déconstruction" was his attempt both to translate and re-appropriate for his own ends the Heideggerian terms Destruktion and Abbau via a word from the French language, the varied senses of which seemed consistent with his requirements.

This relationship with the Heideggerean term was chosen over the Nietzschean term "demolition", as Derrida shared with Heidegger an interest in renovating philosophy to allow it to treat increasingly fundamental matters. In this regard, he moves beyond Heidegger in a significant way. While Heidegger passes through Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Kant, Descartes, Aquinas, Aristotle, Plato, and Parmenides, and finds their work wanting where the question of Being is concerned, Derrida prefers to mine the heterogeneous nature of their works — indeed, his reading of Plato in Dissemination is among his best-known and most important readings, in which Plato's khôra is treated.

Criticisms of Derrida's work

Lack of philosophical rigour

Though Derrida has addressed the American Philosophical Association on repeated occasions[citation needed] and is highly regarded by contemporary philosophers like Richard Rorty, Alexander Nehamas,[9] and Stanley Cavell, his work has been regarded by others, such as René Thom and W. V. Quine, as pseudophilosophy or sophistry. John Searle, a frequent critic of Derrida dating back to their exchange on speech act theory in Limited Inc (where Derrida strongly accused Searle of intentionally misreading and misrepresenting him), exemplified this view in his comments on deconstruction in the New York Review of Books, February 2, 1994 [2], for example:

...anyone who reads deconstructive texts with an open mind is likely to be struck by the same phenomena that initially surprised me: the low level of philosophical argumentation, the deliberate obscurantism of the prose, the wildly exaggerated claims, and the constant striving to give the appearance of profundity by making claims that seem paradoxical, but under analysis often turn out to be silly or trivial.

An instance of controversy surrounding Derrida's work and its legitimacy arose when the University of Cambridge awarded him an honorary doctorate, despite opposition from members of its philosophy faculty and a letter of protest signed by eighteen professors from other institutions, including W. V. Quine, David Armstrong, Ruth Barcan Marcus, and René Thom. In their letter they claimed that Derrida's work "does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigor" and described Derrida's philosophy as being composed of "tricks and gimmicks similar to those of the Dadaists." The letter also stated that "Academic status based on what seems to us to be little more than semi-intelligible attacks upon the values of reason, truth, and scholarship is not, we submit, sufficient grounds for the awarding of an honorary degree in a distinguished university."[10]

Intentional obfuscation

Noam Chomsky has expressed the view that Derrida uses "pretentious rhetoric" to obscure the simplicity of his ideas.[citation needed] He groups Derrida within a broader category of the Parisian intellectual community which he has criticized for, on his view, acting as an elite power structure for the well educated through "difficult writing" and obscurantism.[citation needed] Chomsky has indicated that he may simply be incapable of understanding Derrida, but he is suspicious of this possibility.[citation needed] Chomsky's opposition to Derrida could arguably be connected with opposition to the linguistic and semiotic theories on which Derrida has partly relied throughout his work, or to an opposition to the greater part of modern French thought and as another example of the broader tension between analytic and Continental philosophy.

Critical obituaries of Derrida were published in The New York Times ("Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74") and The Economist[3]. Both of these obituaries were criticised by academics supportive of Derrida; other obituaries were less critical.

In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Richard Rorty argues that Derrida (especially in his book, The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond) purposefully uses words that cannot be defined (e.g. Différance), and uses previously definable words in contexts diverse enough to make understanding impossible, so that the reader will never be able to contextualize Derrida's literary self. Rorty, however, argues that this intentional obfuscation is philosophically grounded. According to Rorty, this technique precludes any metaphysical accounts of Derrida's work. And since his work itself ostensibly contains no metaphysics, Derrida has consequently escaped metaphysics altogether. [11]

Promulgation of nihilism

Some critics charge that the deconstructive project is "nihilistic". They claim Derrida's writing attempts to undermine the ethical and intellectual norms vital to the academy, if not Western civilization itself. Derrida is accused of creating a blend of extreme skepticism and solipsism that effectively denies the possibility of knowledge and meaning, which these critics believe is harmful.

Derrida, however, felt that deconstruction was enlivening, productive, and affirmative, and that it does not "undermine" norms but rather places them within contexts that reveal their developmental and effective features.

Perhaps most persistent among these critics is Richard Wolin, who has argued that Derrida's work, as well as that of Derrida's major inspirations (e.g., Bataille, Blanchot, Lévinas, Heidegger, Nietzsche), leads to a corrosive nihilism. For example, Wolin argues that the "deconstructive gesture of overturning and reinscription ends up by threatening to efface many of the essential differences between Nazism and non-Nazism" [12]. When Wolin published a Derrida interview on Heidegger in the first edition of The Heidegger Controversy, Derrida argued that the interview was an intentionally malicious mistranslation, which was "demonstrably execrable" and "weak, simplistic, and compulsively aggressive". As French law requires the consent of an author to translations and this consent was not given, Derrida insisted that the interview not appear in any subsequent editions or reprints. Columbia University Press subsequently refused to offer reprints or new editions. Later editions of The Heidegger Controversy by MIT Press also omitted the Derrida interview. The matter achieved public exposure owing to a friendly review of Wolin's book by Thomas Sheehan that appeared in the New York Review of Books, in which Sheehan characterised Derrida's protests as an imposition of censorship. It was followed by an exchange of letters. [4], [5]. Derrida in turn responded, in somewhat acerbic fashion, to Sheehan and Wolin, in "The Work of Intellectuals and the Press (The Bad Example: How the New York Review of Books and Company do Business)," which was published in the book Points....