Ten years without Derrida

In his lifetime Jacques Derrida faced criticism of conservatives resisting change in philosophical thought.

The decision of the University of Cambridge to offer Jacques Derrida an honorary degree created controversy [Getty Images]

When Jacques Derrida died ten years ago, all the major newspapers of the world remembered the Algerian-born thinker as the most important French philosopher since Jean-Paul Sartre. On the day of his death President Jacques Chirac declared “that with Derrida France gave to the world one of the greatest contemporary philosophers, one of the major intellectual figures of our time.”

Ten years later it’s important to remember a thinker who fought all his life against metaphysical impositions, and who insisted that how every philosophical, religious, or political system, no matter how framed and secure it seems, is never fully complete and self-sufficient. Instead, as Derrida argued, every system depends on non-systematisable elements that produce and sustain the system’s very possibility.

The term for which the philosopher has become best known is deconstruction which he coined in the late sixties, and which has become an intellectual movement not only in France but also throughout the world, forever changing philosophical, religious, and political studies. For Derrida, however, deconstruction was not a doctrine but a way of analysing the genealogy of the history of philosophy – “its concepts, its presuppositions, its axiomatics and doing so not only theoretically but also by questioning its institutions, its social and political practices, in short the political culture of the West.”

The number of conferences, editorial events, and workshops that will take place this year must be considered not simply a commemoration of the philosopher but also an invitation to continue his deconstruction of occupying forces (theoretical and practical) in the name of the weak, powerless, and forgotten.

If Derrida, as he often said, was ‘at war with institutions’, it’s not because he wished to destroy them but rather because he wanted to recall how they could never be as authoritative as they seemed.

However, deconstruction did not influence only philosophical studies but also great architects such as Frank Gehry; literary critics such as J Hillis Miller and Jonathan Culler;  and musicians such as Ornette Coleman, with whom Derrida also collaborated. Although he was the author of dozens of books, a professor and visitor at prestigious institutions (Sorbonne, UC Irvine, Johns Hopkins University, EGS), recipient of innumerable honorary degrees, and probably the philosopher most quoted in journals and newspapers in the last forty years, he was also the subject of severe criticism by conservative philosophers afraid of change, progress, and innovation.

This is probably why in the documentary and biography dedicated to him, he is portrayed as someone who wished to overcome our self-sufficient certainties, beliefs, and, most of all, institutions so that our “differences”, that is, what constitute us as human beings, can emerge. But when and how did Derrida come up with deconstruction?

At the age of thirty-seven Derrida released three books at once (Writing and Difference, Speech and Phenomena, and Of Grammatology), and here he used for the first time the word “deconstruction” to describe his philosophical project. To his surprise, the word immediately caught on not only within the international philosophical community but also in the culture at large. While many philosophers (Richard Rorty, Gianni Vattimo) welcomed it as the first philosophical novelty since critical theory and structuralism, others (Willard Quine, John Searle) considered it mere “obscurantism” or “intellectual terrorism”.

These criticisms were directed against the postmodern twist of his postmetaphysical position but also against his style of writing, which many found too literary for philosophy’s traditional argumentative nature. Given Derrida’s success in the Anglo-Saxon universities, these accusations primarily came from analytic philosophers who were particularly uncomfortable with deconstruction’s revealing and undermining the speech/writing opposition that has been such an influential factor in Western thought. But what should be deconstructed?

As he explained several times, although deconstruction “is also a thinking of Being, of metaphysics, thus a discussion that has it out with, s’explique avec, the authority of Being,” it “is not a philosophy” and can be reduced “to neither a method nor an analysis”. When he developed it for the first time he had the feeling of translating two words from Martin Heidegger’s vocabulary: Abbau” and “Destruktion“.

But he still thought that deconstruction “is not demolition or destruction” because it is not about destroying ideas or concepts, but rather pointing out their limits, margins, and vulnerability. Deconstruction is “a way of reminding the other and reminding me, myself, of the limits of power, of mastery”. But why is this so important?

Among many reasons, and probably the one that most irritated analytical philosophers, was that deconstruction undermined the authority of educational institutions. If Derrida, as he often said, was “at war with institutions”, it’s not because he wished to destroy them but rather because he wanted to recall how they could never be as authoritative as they seemed.

This is why he was so interested in the “margins of philosophy” or “institutional edges”, that is, those places where “counter-institutions” could arise. “The irony,” as he once explained, “is that the institution par excellence, the state, convinced that there is no absolute exteriority which can make any objection or form any opposition to it, always ends up recognising counter-institutions.”

In 1990 a group of conservative philosophers attempted (without success) to convince Cambridge University to avoid honouring the French thinker with a doctorate. In order to persuade the university that honouring Derrida was a mistake, Barry Smith, John Searle, and other academics published a letter in the Times where they declared that the philosopher’s assertions are“either false or trivial” and that his “originality does not lend credenceto the idea that he is a suitable candidate for an honorary degree.”

As Terry Eagleton and many others pointed out, by submitting this letter, these professors demonstrated their unfamiliarity with Derrida’s writings and also provided a clear example ofthe “winner’s history”, that is, a desire to avoid disclosing different positions or traditionsof philosophy that might threaten the recognitionof their own theories or institutions. When asked about the whole event, Derrida replied by saying:

“If this work seems so threatening to them, this is because it isn’t simply eccentric or strange, incomprehensible or exotic (which would allow them to dispose of it easily), but as I myself hope, and as they believe more than they admit, competent, rigorously argued, and carrying conviction in its re-examination of the fundamental norms and premises of a number of dominant discourses, the principles underlying many of their evaluations, the structures of academic institutions, and the research that goes on within them. What this kind of questioning does is modify the rules of the dominant discourse, it tries to politicise and democratise the university scene.”

As we can see, deconstruction is not simply a theoretical affair, but rather a political matter that involves our social lives every time we are marginalised, ignored, or discredited. This is why Derrida in his last books (from a total of 60 volumes not including his unpublished seminars) became particularly interested in a wide range of subjects related to social discrimination: Nelson Mandela, the death penalty, as well as the consequences of 9/11. For those of us with similar concerns, deconstruction might be a risky philosophical choice given its opponents, but its pursuit is worthwhile. And Derrida will be remembered for many decades to come. 

Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Barcelona. His books include The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy (2008), The Remains of Being (2009), and Hermeneutic Communism (2011, coauthored with G. Vattimo), all published by Columbia University Press.