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Jacques (Jackie) Derrida - biography

Jacques Derrida (French pronunciation: [ʒak dɛʁida]) (15 July 1930 – 8 October 2004) was a Jewish philosopher born in Algeria. He developed the critical technique known as deconstruction, and his work has been associated both with post-structuralism and postmodern philosophy. His prolific output of more than 40 published books, together with essays and public speaking, has had a significant impact upon the humanities, particularly on literary theory and continental philosophy. His best known assertion with regard to his methodology is that "there is no outside-the-text."

Derrida was always uncomfortable with the popularity of the term "deconstruction" and the corresponding tendency to reduce his philosophical work to that particular label. In spite of his reservations, deconstruction has become associated with the attempt to expose and undermine the oppositions and paradoxes on which particular texts, philosophical and otherwise, are founded. He frequently called such paradoxes "binary oppositions." Derrida's strategy involved explicating the historical roots of philosophical ideas, questioning the so-called "metaphysics of presence" that he sees as having dominated philosophy since the ancient Greeks, careful textual analysis, and attempting to undermine and subvert the paradoxes themselves.

Derrida's work has had implications across many fields, including literature, architecture (in the form of deconstructivism), sociology, and cultural studies. Particularly in his later writings, he frequently addressed ethical and political themes, and his work influenced various activist and other political movements. His widespread influence made him a well-known cultural figure, while his approach to philosophy and the purported difficulty of his work also made him a figure of some controversy. His work has been seen as a challenge to the unquestioned assumptions of the Western philosophical tradition and Western culture as a whole.



Early life and education

Derrida was born on 15 July 1930, in El Biar (Algiers), then French Algeria, into a Sephardic Jewish family that became French in 1870 when the Crémieux Decree granted full French citizenship (Pied-Noir) to the indigenous Jews of French colonial Algeria. He was the third of five children. His parents, Aimé Derrida and Georgette Sultana Esther Safar, named him Jackie, though he would later adopt a more "correct" version of his first name when he moved to Paris. His youth was spent in El-Biar, Algeria.

On the first day of the school year in 1942, Derrida was expelled from his lycée by French administrators implementing anti-Semitic quotas set by the Vichy government. He secretly skipped school for a year rather than attend the Jewish lycée formed by displaced teachers and students, and also took part in numerous football competitions (he dreamed of becoming a professional player). In this period as an adolescent he found in literature, of philosophers and writers such as Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Gide, an instrument of revolt against the family and society:

“It is true that my interest in literature, diaries, journals in general, also signified a typical, stereotypical revolt against the family. My passion for Nietzche, Rousseau, and also Gide, whom I read a lot at that time, meant among other things: "Families, I hate you." I thought of literature as the end of the family, and of the society it represented.”

His readings also included Camus and Sartre. He began to think seriously about philosophy around 1948 and 1949. He became a boarding student at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris, which he did not enjoy. Derrida failed his entrance examination twice before finally being admitted to the École Normale Supérieure at the end of the 1951–52 school year.

On his first day at the École Normale Supérieure, Derrida met Louis Althusser, with whom he became friends. After visiting the Husserl Archive in Leuven, Belgium, he completed his philosophy agrégation on Edmund Husserl. Derrida received a grant for studies at Harvard University, and he spent the 1956-7 academic year reading Joyce's Ulysses at the Widener Library. In June 1957 married the psychoanalyst Marguerite Aucouturier in Boston. During the Algerian War of Independence, Derrida asked to teach soldiers' children in lieu of military service, teaching French and English from 1957 to 1959.


Following the war Derrida began a long association with the Tel Quel group of literary and philosophical theorists. At the same time, from 1960 to 1964, Derrida taught philosophy at the Sorbonne, and from 1964 to 1984 at the École Normale Supérieure. His wife Marguerite gave birth to their first child, Pierre, in 1963. Beginning with his 1966 lecture at Johns Hopkins University, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences", his work assumed international prominence. A second son, Jean, was born in 1967. In the same year, Derrida published his first three books—Writing and Difference, Speech and Phenomena, and Of Grammatology—which would make his name.

He completed his Thèse d'État in 1980; the work was subsequently published in English translation as "The Time of a Thesis: Punctuations." In 1983 Derrida collaborated with Ken McMullen on the film Ghost Dance. Derrida appears in the film as himself and also contributed to the script.

Derrida travelled widely and held a series of visiting and permanent positions. His visiting positions in the United States were not in Philosophy departments, despite Derrida's efforts to affiliate with Philosophy departments. Derrida was director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. With François Châtelet and others he in 1983 co-founded the Collège international de philosophie (CIPH), an institution intended to provide a location for philosophical research which could not be carried out elsewhere in the academy. He was elected as its first president.

In 1986 Derrida became Professor of the Humanities at the University of California, Irvine. UCI and the Derrida family are currently involved in a legal dispute regarding exactly what materials constitute his archive, part of which was informally bequeathed to the university. He was a regular visiting professor at several other major American and European universities, including Johns Hopkins University, Yale University, New York University, Stony Brook University, The New School for Social Research, and European Graduate School.

In 2002, Derrida appeared in a documentary about himself and his work, entitled Derrida.

Recognition and criticism

He was awarded honorary doctorates by Cambridge University, Columbia University, The New School for Social Research, the University of Essex, University of Leuven, Williams College and University of Silesia.

Derrida has often been criticized by academics, such as the analytic philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine. In 1992, a number of analytical philosophers from Cambridge University tried to stop the granting of the degree, but were outnumbered when it was put to a vote. Derrida suggested in an interview that part of the reason for the violent attacks on his work, was that it questioned and modified "the rules of the dominant discourse, it tries to politicize and democratize education and the university scene."

Derrida was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Although his membership in Class IV, Section 1 (Philosophy and Religious Studies) was rejected; he was subsequently elected to Class IV, Section 3 (Literary Criticism, including Philology.) He received the 2001 Adorno-Preis from the University of Frankfurt.


In 2003, Derrida was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which reduced his speaking and travelling engagements. He died in a hospital in Paris on the evening of 8 October 2004.

Article author: Zipora Galitski
Article tags: Biography
The article is about these people:   Jacques (Jackie) Derrida

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