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A Skeptic’s Skeptic

A new biography takes a look at Derrida’s philosophy of disillusionment

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Derrida, at home in Ris-Orangis, near Paris, in 2001. (Joel Robine/AFP/Getty Images)

In Who Was Jacques Derrida?, David Mikics provides a lucid, polemical intellectual biography of the French philosopher. He is also settling accounts. In the 1970s and 1980s, Derrida, who died six years ago at 73, was the most important and most polarizing figure in the humanities in America. His brand of thought, deconstruction, dominated classrooms, conferences, articles, and books. Derridian deconstruction was a heady brew of high philosophical discussion and counterintuitive assertion, all spiced up by Derrida’s trademark labyrinthine style, which was easy to parody but hard to surpass.

Mikics was in the thick of it. Now a professor of English at the University of Houston, he earned his doctorate at Yale when it was the mother ship of literary theory in America. In the mid-’80s he was a follower of Derrida, drawn in by the Frenchman’s bracing skepticism. In many ways, Who Was Jacques Derrida? serves as an explanation of Mikics’s own rejection of skepticism, of his disillusionment with disillusion itself.

Philosophical skepticism aims to demonstrate that our attempts to make unequivocally valid claims about the world are ultimately misguided. To put it simply, Derrida’s writings from the 1960s to the 1980s sought to show that the history of Western thought tried and failed to nail down the essences of things because things do not have essences to speak of. A subtle dialectician, he argued that there was nothing as unstable as the notion of a stable identity and nothing less knowable than what appears directly before us.

For those who hated him, Derrida was a mountebank, a sloppy thinker and even sloppier writer whose antics did nothing but muddle what should be clear. To those who loved him—and his defenders were as ferocious as his detractors—he offered a whole new way of thinking. According to Mikics, both sides were wrong.

But in his own way, Mikics stands with Derrida’s detractors. Through a series of careful analyses, he maintains that Derrida was sometimes a brilliant misreader of the philosophical tradition and often an egregious one. Always attentive to the problems and the questions that Derrida avoided, he finds Derrida most instructive in his failure to move from doubt to any feasible ethics or politics. According to Mikics, Derrida was allergic to psychology, which Mikics calls “the most palpable sign of our existence, our inner life.” As a result, the philosopher was unable to think about motives and responsibilities. This was a major failing because in the end, Derrida was unable to theorize convincingly about ethics.

Mikics does not share Derrida’s unwillingness to talk about inner lives. Although he does not speculate often about Derrida’s motives, the biographical structure of the book shows just how central to his thought Derrida’s childhood as a lower-middle class French-speaking Jew in Algeria during the 1930s and 1940s actually was. During the period of French colonization, Algerian Jews aligned themselves with the colonizers and this meant that the Derridas were triply if not quadruply marginalized. They were Jews in a Muslim country run by foreign Catholics; they were outsiders in a country of Arabs ruled by Europeans and, during World War II they were pariahs to both the surrounding population and to the government.

This alienation was key to Derrida’s development. A few years before his death, Derrida said with his typical paradoxical vigor that “nothing for me matters as much as my Jewishness, which, however, in so many ways, matters so little in my life.” Derrida was never a practicing Jew. Nevertheless, as Mikics shows, he strongly identified with Jewish thinkers like the French-Lithuanian philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and with Jewish writers, like the French-Egyptian poet Edmond Jabès. However, the real force of his Jewishness might be best sought elsewhere, in his inability to take either yes or no for an answer.

Derrida constantly took contrarian, if not outright rebellious, stances. He did not like assuming the protective coloring of his surroundings. When he arrived in the early 1950s at the most elite of French universities, the École Normale Supérieure, he chafed against the Marxist orthodoxy of his professors and refused to join the cult of Jean-Paul Sartre—a philosopher whose influence he called “nefarious” and “catastrophic.” Derrida did not follow the path of political engagement favored by his colleagues. Rather, by close and often inventive readings of major texts from the philosophical and literary traditions, he sought to blow up philosophical certainty.

But there were limits to his subversion. Mikics locates one of the major fault lines in Derrida’s thought in the philosopher’s prophetic tones, his “fondness for apocalyptic drama,” which works against his reluctance to imagine the apocalypse itself. According to Mikics, Derrida might have aspired to the end of Western metaphysics and he might have adopted the language and some of the practices of the avant-garde, but he could not run full-out at the future. He wrote like a radical in favor of the moderate.

Derrida’s split persona—revolutionary and ultimately conservative at the same time—goes a long way toward explaining his influence in the American academy. His insistence on close reading made him congenial for literature departments, and his pronouncements made close readings appear consequential. What is more, Derrida’s timing was perfect. His reputation in the United States grew at that point when being a hippie was not a political statement but a “lifestyle choice” and when many of the energies of the late ’60s had become merchandised or bogged down in economic stagnation. At a time of retrenchment, Derrida promised a kind of liberation that did not depend on ethnic or gender identity, a freeing of thought that was intellectually disruptive and could, if need be, serve politically progressive ends.

Then, there is also the matter of his prose. Derrida at his best was an excellent writer. His sentences are Proustian in their length and in their subtle ironies. Like Joyce, he piled pun on pun and paradox on paradox in a serious defense of the mobility of thought. Derrida was Baroque in a way that makes many English-speaking readers nervous because it is too French, too witty, and not sufficiently down-to-earth. Even so, complication has its pleasures.

As it turned out, American deconstruction had a good run, but by the early ’90s it had begun to falter. The discovery that Derrida’s friend Paul de Man had been an intellectual collaborator with Nazis caught Derrida flat-footed. And then the Berlin Wall fell and the map changed. Derrida tried to catch up and turn his thought toward politics and ethics. His thinking drew closer and closer to Levinas, who had developed a brilliant way of showing how religion (particularly Judaism) and philosophy could justify each other without doing themselves an injustice. At the heart of Levinas’s brilliant, spooky work stands the notion of an ethics beyond calculation, a fundamental responsibility for suffering that annihilates self-interest. Although Levinas was able to give flesh to his abstruser musings in the course of his famous lectures on the Talmud, the English philosopher Gillian Rose had a point when she called his theory a form of Jewish Buddhism.

Mikics will have none of it. An informed and sympathetic reader of Levinas (as he is of all the Jewish texts he discusses), he is particularly critical of this period in Derrida’s life. He dismisses Derrida for not reaching beyond an airy language of sacrifice to discuss concrete ethical choice. He will not forgive Derrida for what he sees as the philosopher’s unwillingness to engage in moral judgment, for “scanting the life we live with others in favor of textual abstraction.”

Harsh stuff. Mikics is fierce in his convictions and to be sure he could be more generous to Derrida. Nevertheless, he might be right. In the end, Who Was Jacques Derrida? will not close the account on Derrida. Through his clarity and commitments, Mikics has opened the books once again.

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I am glad to see that, apart from my comment, the subject of this article has received exactly the number of comments he deserves: Zero.

jeremiah says:

Derridean digressions are often just philosophical poetry, meant to be evocative rather than a logical proof. Same thing applies to Foucault. Both create tapestries of ideas which add up to more than the sum of their parts.

Charlie says:

Nahh … they create tapestries of ideas which add up to less than the sum of their parts.

yes, jeremiah, you get all the sum and we get none of the parts.

Perhaps Kaufmann would like to explain what “unequivocally valid” is. Can an argument be equivocally valid?

isildur says:

Derrida was of Althusser ´s school and the last of the school that sought to mantain the political program of the school. Deconstruction is the philological application of dialectical materialism in the field of the battle of ideas.

Richard Albarino says:

Fashionable nonsense. Dazzling emptiness. A mountebank. Very French. Chanel had more depth. Correction: maybe St. Laurent for true genius. Beyond that, nothing. Being and nothingness, the latter wins. Philosophy without rigor is perversion. Manna for professors. Philosophical coprophilia. Yes, dialectical materialism, philosophical error of the first order. This one was a true killer.

“Gillian Rose had a point when she called his theory a form of Jewish Buddhism.”

A very tiny and irrelevant point.

Haribol Acharya says:

I have read his essays on deconstruction and it did not help me and it simply muddled my mind and I winded up with more confusion and fatigue. He was in praise of Ulysses by James Joyce and this is the book I always distaste and have tried ten times to read the book but to no avail and his commendation and recommendation to read the book is something untenable to me at all. While I may respect the depth of his depth of knowledge and his amazing analytical skills I am very reproachful about vagueness and elusiveness. Of course such writers will simply befuddle us in point of fact.

one writes to communicate ,not confuse.derrida’s skepticism is cannot makmake what derrida is driving at.verbal sophistry is futile.i wish phiosophers and intellectuas take a leaf out of GB SHAW /BERTRAND RUSSEL and such other literary craftsmen.

“Mick” said:”…Can an argument be equivocally valid?”

Yes. Of course it can.

Validity is not ‘binary’. A statement can have vailidity in the sense of containing information that is pertinent and useful and yet equivcal in the sense that uncertainty might surround the observational, definitional content of that observation and its meaning outside of the cultural-linguistic context within which it exists.

For instance, it might be valid to state that people want freedom, empirically, but that is only

Ramesh Raghuvanshi says:

I tried my best to read Derrida but I did not understand what he want to say.I can understand Spinoza,Kant,Nietzshe, and even Hidegger.I think that after post war philosophy was dead subject and chaos spread in philosophy any one can write anything.In chaos if you speak loudly and rebellious way people turn to you. Derrida did this kind of trick in whole life.

Colin Michael Bodayle says:

Mick, I read your comment and was like “wait, Kaufmann? Walter Kaufmann? Isn’t he dead?” I then realised that the name of the author was some other Kaufmann. Quite a popular name for philosophers, it seems.

Dr. Jeffry L Smith, PhD says:

My favorite quote from Derrida, that I think sums him up best is this:

“Deconstruction, which produces itself first of all as the deconstruction of these oppositions, therefore immediately concerns, just as much and just as radically, the institutional structures founded on such oppositions.” (Gutek, quoting Jacques Derrida, p. 138).

Can anyone pleas tell me what that means???

Joel Shapiro says:

Dr. Smith asks a very good question and the answer is quite simple. To save space, let me use this simplistic example of “oppositional thinking.” Many philosophies see the world in black & white. This is impoverished / bankrupt / superficial / over simplistic … insofar as we live in a world of color. Well, it is not only our philosophies that rest on this over-simplistic black & white view of the world; many of our institutions / organizations / cultural practices also set themselves up, operate, and justify themselves on the basis of this black & white view (no coincidence; they are part of the same tradition). Therefore, a critique of oppositional thinking will extend to all institutions (textual or brick & mortar) that are based on that oppositional thinking. Back in the day, we called oppositional thinking “metaphysical bankruptcy” and we see as much of it today as we did in the 1970s and 1980s, so it is not a dead issue. A nice intro to this issue (a baby intro; more existential than deconstructive) is Walter Kaufmann’s “Beyond Black & White.”

Joel Shapiro says:

I am always surprised by how many people say that Derrida’s work is not valuable or wrong or empty or mere chaos because it is difficult. Just because you can’t understand someone (yet) does not mean that they are wrong. Derrida is difficult for everyone to read not only because of his unique style, and the difficulty of what he is trying to do, but also because he draws on so many difficult thinkers, e.g., Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, Saussure, Freud, and Lacan (among others). Well, the reality is that very few people have ever achieved a high level of expertise in reading all of those thinkers. You might not think it is worth the effort, but if you want to understand Derrida, it will help to also spend time reading those other thinkers. But saying that he is wrong or that his work is meaningless chaos because you don’t understand him yet is, well, a pretty bankrupt position.

Rose McKinney says:

The article (and seemingly also the book it reviews) lacks any ‘philosophical rigor’. Implying that ‘Levinas’ is more worthwhile because he made that fundamental moral choice–but and how did Levinas play that old, medieval game of philosophy-religion reconciliation without doing injustice to both?!! Must be some feat. Perhaps elaboration is in Mikics book, though I expect it’ll elevate Levinas because of his concrete (and basically simplistic) ethical philosophy. So Levinas is a responsible Man of Choice and Derrida is a babbling autistic child with an islet of ability, who likes to masturbate in abstraction.

But Look! It’s Tablet Magazine: A New Read on Jewish Life. And there you find an aricle that reviews a book that at the end glorifies Levinas and points an angry patriarchal finger at the vague ‘Wandering Jew’ who just won’t pin it down…predictable, right?

Jon Monroe says:

Response to Mick’s question, above: “Unequivocal validity” is like mathematical validity: it holds firm within the constraints of the medium. It is like assuming there can be a perfect game that perfectly structures activity when you’re playing the game. Nothing untoward happens. But, since such a game must be established, and the establishment arises from a particular point of view, validity seems to be impossible. This is why Derrida’s skepticism leaves so little room for ethics: convention cannot meet stringent criteria of intersubjective validity. Back to square one.

It seems like old hat after Heidegger and Nietzsche, but it isn’t trivial. If you accept this position on ethics, then the remaining philosophical alternative will look something like Badiou: enshrining mathematics as ontology to provide background justification for permanent revolution. Given the difficulty of founding an ethics on skepticism, and the stakes involved, it is hardly surprising that Derrida failed to arrive at anything definitive.

Like some others, I’m a bit puzzled by the importance accorded to Derrida’s relation Levinas here. Would be nice to get some clarification.

BTW: A lot of people seem to resent Derrida for creating befuddlement. But skepticism requires abandoning all of the illusions created by our enslavement to language — one needs a Guide to Becoming Perplexed, or else one goes through life confusing everything without becoming aware of one’s confusion. Deconstruction may have led the way down a few rabbit holes, but you have to give some credit for developing a method of thinking which deals with the confusion adn error conditioned by our dependence on language.

Fat Man says:

Derrida was a fraud, a clown, and a traitor to his people, his country, and Western Civilization. He aided and abetted the destruction of literary studies.

May his name be erased. May he be utterly forgotten.

Todd Jackson says:

I smell a political ideologue. It is not every modern philosopher’s responsibility to work within the margins (wink) of moral and ethical choice. Go ahead, call him “bourgeois.” You know you want to.

Personally I find Derrida unduly surprised that surrounding Being lies NonBeing, but his work delights nonetheless. And I am delighted to possess a Jacques Derrida autograph, right next to a baseball autographed by the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates.

If Derrida sins, his sin lies in pursuing a thought other than the thought that has to be thought. This sin leaves him a “major minor” among modern philosophers, and if two and a half decades took him to be something more than that, the fault lies more in the idolators than than the idol.

Jason Grey says:

In response to Jon Monroe’s comment: “A lot of people seem to resent Derrida for creating befuddlement. But skepticism requires abandoning all of the illusions created by our enslavement to language”–I moaned in agony at the stupidity of this statement. Either it’s stupidity or it’s plain dishonesty. The popular distaste with the piss of Derrida’s work has very little to do with a reluctance of abandoning illusions of language and society; “befuddlement” and abandoning illusions have nothing to do with each other. What is the almost universal reason people hate Derrida? Let’s all say it together: He is a bad writer. He writes BADLY. I’ve read him, and I’ve written on him. I grant that his ideas are neat. But they are nothing that warrant such purposefully obscure prose. He doesn’t require the labyrinths he forces his readers to wander through. I could summarize each essay at one tenth the length and ten times the clarity. Once you whittle past the bulky prose, the cheap paradoxes (very popular with shill philosophy) and repetition, you are left with Derrida. The rest, the part that any rational person is disgusted by, is just the smoke and mirrors of academia creating an alter for fools to worship at.

David Morris says:

“All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” Spinoza
Derrida takes a lot of work and a lot of time. And the work is worth it, although difficult.

Peter McCully says:

Philosophical skeptisism, as expressed by Derrida is very different from scientific skeptisism. One of the most frustrating things about Derrida is his complete disregard for the burden of proof. Assertions without evidence, clap trap that can’t be grabbed, verbal sleight of hand. “look folks, at no point does common sense leave my mouth. But wait, what’s this under the hat? Non-being!”

Wittgennietzschean says:

I haven’t decided if Derrida is 1/3rd the thinker the Wittgensteins were (all three: early, late or combined), or if he’s just .3333333… the thinker. I have no time for him, though I’m relieved he was hostile to Marxism. Imagine how venerated he would be, had he simply been a (simple) Marxist. No wonder he didn’t like Sartre. Despite his politics, Sartre is brilliant on psychological matters, though weaker on language.

It is a relief to see these comments. Derrida’s ideas reminded me of Werner Erhardt in the 70s. My reaction to both was, It’s a joke, right? Both men were just garden variety egomaniac hams.

Joel Shapiro says:

Derrida’s work is not a form of scepticism. It never was. That label will completely lead you astray when reading Derrida. You will have far more success reading Derrida if you refer to him as a thinker of “affirmation” (still superficial but it at least corrects that other misunderstanding). If you have been told he is a sceptic then you need some new sources. One of the best new books on Derrida is: Michael Naas, “Derrida From Now On” (Fordham Press). Naas will cite the other top scholars — thinkers you may disagree with but who at least understand Derrida. The best source on Derrida & Levinas is the great Levinas scholar Robert Bernasconi (now at Penn State)–you can find his articles listed on Wiki-p. Bernasconi is also a top Heidegger and Hegel scholar. Whether you agree or disagree with Bernasconi & Naas — with their philosophical projects — you will nevertheless agree that their work is of the highest quality and integrity.

stuart munro says:

Derrida served to posion the study of literature for many people, but was no
towering literary figure. Put him in the company of his kind, philosophers, and he is shown to be a feeble specimen. Like Freud, this mountebank was so successful because he played to an audience that wanted to be able to assert that there is no objective truth.

There’s an easy test for truth. Take a coin, and flip it. The result, be it a head or a tail, is unequivocably objective, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either a postmodernist or a damned liar – but most probably both. Derrida adds nothing to our understanding of the human condition; like so many others, it is not so much that he should be banned as that he is a miserable waste of time.

debbieg says:

I’m writing my dissertation on “the early” Derrida–when he was supposedly in his most philosophically rigorous mode. Sometimes I really regret the choice. Sometimes I doubt that it’s worth it. His texts drive me crazy, i wonder if he has to write like that, if he couldn’t just limit himself a bit. If he could be clear goshdarnit. Aesthetically he and I just don’t get along. And philosophically my temperment runs closer to those philosophical projects he “deconstructs.” But something strange has happened, writing about Derrida has taught me to think, and to think about philosophy and just the plain use of concepts (in everyday discourse and in scientific discourse) in a way that I doubt anyone else could–except Plato perhaps. And, in the end, I believe, like others, that he has far more in common with that old curmudgeon Plato than anyone else he is compared with. It seems that Plato too was despised. And, just as with Plato it’s hard to know what to do with it.

Great going Kevin. When you say the subject of the article received the number of comments it deserved, I suppose you meant “Zero” in a non-denotational sense, a deconstructed kind of Zero – like 28 comments above Zero? Derrida hating only confirms one thing – you can only deny Derrida since taking away from him is much harder.

Sylvester says:

Hey guys, party at my place and yer all invited!!

Ovation says:

I’m not a scholar of Derrida, so I’m not in a position to critique his actual work. However, a good number of his “disciples” wrought havoc in my field (history) and I’ve never been inclined to sympathize with their “master”.

The commoditized version of “deconstruction” that I had the severe displeasure of enduring was a facile ego boost for the disciples who espoused it with near religious fervour. How convenient to be told that authors never actually mean what they write, that they are unaware of their ignorance and that it is only by “deconstructing” their texts (led, of course, by the professor who DOES know what these ignorant authors REALLY meant) that we can arrive at their “true” meaning. The implications for history were alarming if this particular “perspective” held any validity. Peter Novick in “That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession” provides a compelling illustration of the absurdities that resulted in some quarters when “deconstruction” was recklessly applied as an analytical tool.

Of course, it is not fair to hold Derrida accountable for all the excesses carried out in the name of the approach he championed, but, in my field, any benefits of a proper application of his approach were outweighed by the distortions inflicted by grosser applications. And frankly, attempts to defend Derrida and deconstruction by, essentially, claiming that critics simply lack sufficient intelligence to “understand the master and his methods” (said master and methods are so infallible, of course, that anyone who does understand them cannot help but see their infallibility) is risible.

(P.S. I hereby assert that I actually do both understand and mean exactly what I’ve written in this post)

Plutarch says:

If Derrida is read in the context of his biography, his approach to writing begins to make sense, and his critics may feel enjoined to be more empathetic to the form (not content) of his ideas.

That one would take Derrida at his word is not surprising: he was the Pied Piper of his generation.

George K. says:

The guy had a comfy life, was lionized, and infected lit studies; he gamed the system and was comfortable in the groves of academe. Did his work do anything to make literary criticism and teaching more than a silly game?
As a grad student in the ’70’s, I took a seminar from a dude from Johns Hopkins who honored us with his visit for a term. He was delivering to us midwesterners the wisdom of the East coast and the latest in french fashion. Junior professors sat in on the seminar and fawned. We were all supposed to be awestruck by this new game in town and “Derridean” readings which showed us how a work contradicted itself. I don’t recall that the poets we studied (Stevens, Hopkins, Wordsworth) became more moving for us; their works were just an excuse to play deconstructive games because the guys at Hopkins and Yale were the big guns and we were supposed to get in this same game if we wanted to make it in the lit biz.
Many of us went on to under and unemployment, while the trendy decons — happy in their seminars and upper level courses—simply ignored the deteriorating respect for “English” as a profession though they eagerly spouted “radical” ideas and flipped off any critic who was merely home grown in the provincial US. (Kenneth Burke? Who’s he?) You had to be from the continent, you see. Feed your head on the muddy prose of “Grammatology” and learn how to drop names without ever really thinking through the arguments being made or delving seriously into philosophical or linguistic works upon which so much decon thinking was based and, quite often, merely “derived.” As one quite bright student told me, her reasons for leaving literary study had something to do with her perception that her teachers didn’t, after all,really like literature.

As for students like debbieg who (wow) say the D. man really got them, you know, thinking: sip on Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and you’ll get some experience in thinking about language and meaning, and your prose style will be protected from Derridean infection. Better yet read more literature.

akita mata says:

Apparently you ALL need to go back and re-read Msr. Derrida’s work. The level of sophistication, NOT sophistry, is hard for shallow minds to grasp. Read his Politics of Friendship, Acts of Religion or Spectres of Marx and be left in the philosophical dust by his complete mastery and sensitivity toward the subject matter. Mikic is jealous and his supporters are clueless.

Derida’s work is rooted in self-hatred.

John Cullom says:

So Derrida is dismissed because he enjoyed Joyce’s Ulysses? That’s rather a matter of taste I would suppose. Maybe he spent the time on it to read it properly. Perhaps it was the personal instance that rewarded close reading enough to espouse it as a primary philosophical weapon. Personally, I believe it’s a book that rewards the attention required even though that requirement is vast. Not everyone that runs a marathon is a charlatan.

Mochi Fanta says:

I thank Derrida. If it weren’t for him, I would have wasted seven years of my life pursuing a Ph.D. in Literature. And after learning to hate literature, would now be working at our local community college teaching others to hate literature as well.

dj lane says:

Derrida: having any opinion about his is misguided. “A ship should not ride on a single anchor, nor life on a single hope,” as Epictetus would say. No one is going to care what Derrida said about anything in ten years time. Likely even less. It is, to use less elevated language, a non-issue, irrelevant. Because anybody who tries to use him in a “I’m smarter than you” game has already lost—either way she tries to use him. Praising him, slandering him: It. Just. Doesn’t. Matter. People that revile him are illiterate, people that worship him are blind—which is to say, also illiterate. Hey George K.: You’re the most sensible person to post here. Too bad that isn’t much of a prize.

Ovation says:

I see akita mata decided to provide me with an excellent case–textbook, really–of my “you’re too stupid to understand the brilliance of the master” example from above. Of course, sophistry is often mistaken for “sophistication” by smug devotees of intellectuals who presume a degree of superiority, owing to their devotion, without actually providing evidence of it (Derrida’s admirers are no exception, nor are they unique in this regard).

Again, it would be foolish to argue Derrida’s work has no value whatsoever. But even a passing acquaintance with it reveals that it is hardly flawlessly sublime.

My high school English teacher, during her close reading of my essays, also neglected to limn the human soul with her blue pencil. Nor did she predict the banking crisis. That’s why I dropped out.

akita mata says:

Ovation deserves such. I found Mikic’s critiques dubious because of his inability to see that Derrida’s notions of “truth” owe much to Sartrean descriptions of the human self as “for-itself”. The transcendental nature of human consciousness acts as the basis from which Derrida concludes the virtual impossibility of knowing anything “truthfully”, especially that which is present. Things do slip away from consciousness, they elude definitions and remain vital and “other”. Human consciousness is essentially transcendental and acceptance of such promotes an epistemology based generously on hermeneutics and the play of reason. Rigidity is hard to expect from a method that seeks to question and play with our most cherished philosophical concepts.
Political critiques also fall by the wayside, as Derrida followed Foucault in seeing relations as relations of power and knowledge. He surpassed Foucault in that he saw that only an individual can become free through committed skepticism and an ethic (what, he never wrote one?)of deconstruction. How these points are so easily missed my Mikic is beyond me. Perhaps he lived too close to see it through anything but his own ignominy.

a great thinker avoids convolution. derrida was scholarly, a workman, a reader, possibly helpful to a real philosopher but he was not a philosopher. or he is now a philosopher like all the other philosophers since Nietzsche went mad– simply an educated person repeating real philosophers ideas and making them their own.

sure, he had interesting things to say, but he thought everything he said was profound. maybe he gave academia a new toy to play with, but the collective emitted a deep sigh.

you can’t argue with his acceptance, but you can make moot his entire “philosophy” quite easily.

dustin_slade_davis says:

I am truley sad now after reading so many of these comments. I myself have studyed philosophy for about seven years now and only started reading Derrida about three years ago and I will say that I found the man to be brilliant. I can believe more in a man who doesn’t posit an ethics than a man who condems and can believe more in a man unsure than a man who fires a gun at another man. I am not trying to say that those against him are warring so much as I am trying to say that he took time only to break things into smaller and smaller pieces so that we could start there instead of philosophies that run on superstitions (both religious and metaphysical) and philosophers who make ten thousand claims all with different ‘logical’ and ‘reasonable’ axioms and priciples. He was dissolusioned with the world of voice and tired of so much hate and shouting of truth and knowing. All i know about this man is that he taught me through his books to be more independent in mind and less trusting of authority’s control of knowledge and for that I myself am grateful and I hope this could sway a few people.

Achyut Chetan says:

Many literature ppl are disillusioned with Derrida after they exploited its brilliance to the best of their capacities.That tells a lot about them rather than about deconsruction.Close reading of philosophical texts which claim to contain TRUTH is quite a responsible and ethical act, and i think Derrida has been sufficiently responsible thus.For those who think Derrida had an aversion towards Marxism the Spectres of Marx would be an eye-opener.And in these days of violent identity politics to show,polemically and logically, that identity is unstable is a act of courage,responsibilty and subversion.
His last dialogues with habermas also reveals his political commitment.Folks who have found him difficult to read and hence dismissed him are surely not his readers.Marx read the obscure Hegel and showed what responsibility is.

Achyut Chetan says:

I discovered there were a few grammatical mistakes in my last comment.Contrary to what many Derrida detractors would believe,Derrida would have hated them.

M. Souders says:

It is said how much of the comments on this article amount to pathetic propaganda. The association of postmodernism with “lying,” the hatred of the Sophists, (the “threat” of sophistry), the intellectual reductionism (I see, the flip of coin is sufficient answer). Despite his and his disciples “damage” to the precious, inviolate, and sacred “disciplines” Derrida at worst served to challenge modernist to more rigorous analyze the roots of their own work. At his best, Derrida’s prose was difficult, sometimes arcanely so, but also had a poetic and softly jesting tone. His ideas are challenging and breakthrough to the other side of what is probably so–i.e., the unthought minor side, the version that does not hold probability but still exists in possibility–this is particularly so in his analysis of language. Despite what everyone says here, Derrida RARELY made light of the Western tradition, honored it’s accomplishments, and in many ways considered himself acting in its extension. Derrida did not see himself, as far as I’ve ever known, as out to destroy what anyone has done in their fields but to add something new to it.

I also am ashamed to see the comparative scales of philosophers applied. Not as great as Wittgenstein? What does that mean? Do we know that? And what if he isn’t? Are YOU as “great” as Derrida, much less Wittgenstein? For those of us tilling in the academic soil and not issuing orders from the manor house, we should be careful scoffing at a very significant figure for not being as “great” as another figure.

Waxwing says:

Where there is veneration, even a dog’s tooth emits light.

There is no need to place anyone who isn’t a philosopher in the hierarchy to determine their rank. So unless someone here has made such a claim– a claim that should elicit skepticism–, there is no need to compare oneself to Derrida. The first question that needs to be addressed is, what is philosophy? Most people are willing and able to answer this question. Then we must use our respective definitions to determine if the “philosopher” in question is actually writing philosophical text. I don’t accept the fact that brilliantly constructed sentences dressed in flowers, and written to impress colleagues, erases the skittering and simple central idea. You can’t make me chase an idea so simple, for so long and expect that the journey over mountains of wind will enhance the idea.

I appreciate scholars like Derrida. They have very little else to do with their time– resulting (if anything can result, let’s say they are somehow convinced of the following) from social ineptitude, or lack of beauty, or childhood trauma, or etc.– and, in turn, they perform the academic dirt work of accumulating various good ideas (usually not a single original among them) of more original men and women and attempt to distill. However, more often than not they are misinterpreting the original idea– for self-serving reasons, or in an attempt to delude the people, or more often themselves, that this misinterpretation makes the idea original. You can top a house with sand instead of a roof, no doubt, but let’s hope the weather cooperates and that the structure will hold. A house is not built to be topped with sand, you can build one that is but you need to either
a) find someone willing or someone who has
b) do it yourself

Attempting to reconcile whether Derrida was anti-west and holding this against him is foolish. If he was not anti-west, then the man was the master’s poodle. Any scholar who is pro-west likes their paycheck and lives in lala-land. Have some intellectual responsibility and integrity, please!

Gordon Campbell says:

Derrida: got to be good-looking ’cause he’s so hard to see. That’s the whole shtick — and he played it for all it was worth. Believed it himself even. Much more useful than digging over the dung heap of his ‘ideas’, we should be trying to work out what went so wrong in academia that so many were taken in by this intellectual dwarf for so long.

Tom Martin says:

In his deconstructionism, Derrida cleverly played to the unsuspecting an ancient paradox, Zeno’s paradox of plurality. For him, as well as for a number of poststructuralist thinkers, unity always gives way to more fundamental multiplicities, as those supposed multiplicities give way to further multiplicities still. As he said, “There are only, everywhere, differences and traces of traces.” Derrida got a lot of mileage playing this paradox to the very hilt (see my book Poiesis and Possible Worlds). Of course, he tried to pass off what he was doing as revolutionary and radically new, and upped the odds that no one would notice by smothering it a prose style famously called “obscurantisme terroriste.” Throughout the 70s and 80s so few saw what he was up to, but it is refreshing to hear some voices here that were much more wary.

Hey, what could be more natural than critical criticism? Yet that is exactly what all the third rate minds lacked as they blindly aped his methodology through these decades and gave us “deconstructive readings” of everything from Donne’s poetry to the Statue of Liberty, being critical of course of everything in the world except the methodology. By the way, for all those still star-struck by Derrida and his pseudo philosophy, deconstruction is NOT a synonym for analysis, though if the uncritical critics have anything to say, it will be before the next dictionary is issued.

Speaking of uncritical critics, who was it that wanted to canonize Derrida as a saint? I remember reading that someone seriously had some intention of doing this. Or did they lose interest as they chased the next figure in the endless parade of fashionable intellectual nonsense that has become the humanities since the 1960s? And, as that parade is still going through town, did anyone ever notice what happened to rigor?

Leslie says:

T.S. Eliot says: “Great poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Poetry = Philosophy. When you understand this point, then you may be able to communicate with Derrida.

But poetry does not equal philosophy. Homer was not Plato.

rebecca says:

Although both poetry and philosophy can be beautiful and moving, they are really not the same thing.

jacques Derrida is a difficult criticism but praising amd admiring every body

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jack loach says:

Sods —– Law.
March.—- 2014.

For almost two decades we have strived to get justice for the injustice we have suffered at the hands of a world renowned bank— PICTET & CIE. BANK.

Two yorkshiremen both running their own small family businesses trying to resolve the problem by taking all the correct legal procedures to recover their monies.

The matter was raised in Parliament – twice– the FSA investigated the matter concluding that PICTET had rogues operating in their London Bank — but the rogues had left —saying no one left to prosecute.??? —– so there.

We then approached the Financial Ombudsman Service. (FOS) — our case was dealt with by seven different people —- then our numerous E-Mails were ignored — nobody would speak to us ——-so there.

We then asked the SFO ( Serious Fraud Office.) to investigate our case —- the criteria of our case ticked all their boxes. — we were instructed not to send them
any documents/evidence.—— in fact they wrote to us advising us to go to the Citizen’s Advice Bureau.(CAB.)
Richard Alderman the SFO boss —- who responded to our letter was the same man who would not investigate the “ Madoff” scandal or the “Libor” fiasco.
The MP’s committee —- said he was sloppy— and the SFO was run like “ Fred Karno’s Circus” —– it was an office of fraud.—– so there.

Our M.P. approached our local Chief Constable to investigate—– he was called—- Sir Norman Bettison— Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police —- a force that made “ Dad’s Army” look like the S.A.S. They were inept – corrupt —malicious — from top to bottom. We were criminally dealt with by the Forces Solicitor—- the Head of the Economic Crime Unit —-and the Chief Constable —– so there.

We were then advised to pass our complaint against West Yorkshire Police to the I.P.C.C. – which we did — they advised us to make our


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